The times of Elijah and Elisha were incredibly dangerous and difficult times for those who served Yahweh.

Ahab and his incorrigible Zidonian wife, Jezebel, ruled the northern kingdom of Israel with an iron fist. Jezebel herself had introduced the licentious worship of Baal and had ruthlessly hunted down and murdered any who openly professed allegiance to Yahweh, the God of Israel. This harassment was the first state organised persecution of God’s servants and, using her personal bevy of 850 prophets of Baal and of the groves, she relentlessly pursued one of the vilest forms of Canaanite idolatry the nation had ever seen. We catch a glimpse of her malevolence when she ordered the murder of righteous Naboth and his family (1 Kings 21:8-10) – a sin God would not forgive.

Divine retribution was to come swiftly, and soon afterwards, both Ahab and Jezebel suffered grisly deaths along with their children, who were later massacred in Jehu’s violent rebellion. The nation could not climb out of the evil pit created by Ahab and Jezebel and this endemic wickedness would be visited by God’s righteous judgments in the terrifying form of the Assyrians. God said he would cut Israel short because of Ahab and Jezebel and He certainly did!

Elijah’s Siege Mentality

It wasn’t as though God stood idly by in these days of evil. Elijah was sent by God to give Ahab one last chance to stop the nation from halting between Yahweh and Baal. Courageously he marched into Ahab’s court and pronounced drought and famine and 31⁄2 years later he forced a showdown between God and the people in the dramatic test on Mount Carmel. Can we imagine how isolated the prophet felt when he stood alone against the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of the groves? As the messenger of the covenant he called down fire from heaven to vindicate God’s majesty and then ordered the death of Jezebel’s evil priesthood. He fervently believed that the corner of national revival had turned and in hope and expectation ran before Ahab’s chariot buoyed with the prospect of spiritual regeneration newly kindled in the heart of the nation. But Jezebel was not cowed into submission by miracles. Elijah quickly became disillusioned when he heard that Ahab (who knew better) had crumpled before the withering gaze of his wife, and so he fled; shattered by the reality that not even an irrefutable divine demonstration like fire from heaven could change the wickedness of Jezebel’s heart. His hopes were dashed and he collapsed into a classic state of depression.

Where could he go? He decided that it was appropriate to confront God at Mount Horeb, plead against Israel and, by implication, criticize God (1 Kings 19). His protest speech evidences a deep sense of hurt and feeling of being very alone. But he was not right in his sweeping assessment of others. Although he prayed that he alone was left, God had something greater to teach him.

In between his protests, God gave him the dramatic lesson of the mighty wind that broke the rocks, the frightening earthquake and raging fire, followed by the eerie contrast of the still small voice.

Elijah was naturally a dynamic, powerful personality that thundered, shook the nation and called down fire on his opponents. He was by nature that kind of person and everything he did to uphold the justice of God he did with his whole heart.

Sometimes that spirit and directness is necessary when God’s clear morality and principles are openly challenged. Few have the courage of Elijah to take the lead and to stand up (cp. Psa 94:16 NASB, “who will stand up for me against evildoers”?). Levi and Phinehas are exceptions to the rule. But God’s lasting work is best achieved by the still small voice and not by force. The quiet, patient, solid teaching of the mind and principles of God is more the effective than the dramatic calling down of fire and the shaking of the earth. It is interesting to note that the coming Kingdom will see a short burst of needful, forceful changes, followed by centuries of patient teaching to really convert the heart of mankind.

A Faithful Yet Disparate Remnant

What a revelation to the prophet that God had incredibly reserved 7000 in the corrupt Northern Kingdom who had not bowed to Baal. What a tragedy that Elijah did not know them well, or if he did – he did not value them enough. His communications with most people were sullen, gruff and dismissive. Even Elisha and Obadiah got the brush off when they first met!

To Elijah, their lack of public demonstrations of absolute loyalty to God, like his own, meant to him that they were not really on God’s side – but he was wrong about them. We can all make the mistake of judging others in the Truth when we compare their particular way or style of living the Truth with ours. It is easy to condemn those who fail to meet our expectations. It’s important for us to realize that we are not all Elijahs and that we all have different roles to play in the work of God. The Apostle Paul stressed the need for the disparate parts of the body of Christ to interact in a spirit of humble cooperation (Rom 12:3-6; 2 Cor 10:12). Not everybody can be a ground-breaking prophet like Elijah. Not all of us have the public sense of fire nor the individuality to do what he did. Of the 7000 God had reserved for Himself, there would have been many who were content with just being able to preserve their families from evil.

Elijah had to learn that God works in many people’s lives in vastly different ways. Each has different circumstances to cope with. They have different challenges and different abilities, yet in God’s eyes are equally valued and loved. Ecclesially, we do value and seek to preserve the good things that we have in our own environment but let’s appreciate that our God is bigger than ourselves and does work in all cultures and circumstances. Sometimes His greatest work is to be active in the day of small things, working mightily in places where people face greater pressures than we do.

The Unnamed Woman (2 Kings 4)

We can illustrate the wonderful work of God in the smallest of human circumstances. There is an unnamed woman who lived at the time Elisha resumed the work of prophetic instruction. No doubt she was one of the 7000 faithful Elijah had previously discounted. 2 Kings 4 has no background, no name, no location – just the desperate cry of a widow whose husband once belonged to the school of the prophets. She cried and God heard (cp Exod 22:22-24).

He executes the judgment of the fatherless and widow.

God has made many comments about widows, particularly warning against injustice and oppression against them. Deuteronomy 10 is just one such example, where, in the context of the most complete combination of the Name and titles, the great God looks down upon the small people as His focus (v17). He “executes the judgment of the fatherless and widow”(v18).Look how God blessed Ruth and Naomi, the widow of Zarephath, the widow of Nain and made provision for the many widows in the first century ecclesial world (1 Tim 5:5). Likewise, in Psalm 68:5, God calls himself a father of the fatherless and a judge of the widows.

We note too how Christ observed and valued the widow’s mite, how he felt deeply the heartless injustice practiced against widows by the Jewish upper classes. We also note how, in his parable of the unjust judge, Jesus used the picture of a desperate but determined widow to teach us about having a persistent faith. Being left alone (with no pension or insurance in those days) widows were very vulnerable. Even in our society, widows still have many social needs and we need to pause and consider this in our family orientated environment.

A Widow Indeed

The “sons of the prophets” belonged to a number of communities which supported Bible students in ancient times. They were first set up by Samuel to preserve and teach the Word of God in Israel. They seemed to have belonged mainly to the towns associated with Samuel’s circuit of ministration and, as such, became a testimony to the wonderful influence of this great man. Many years later these communities were still viable and it would appear that both Elijah and Elisha revitalized their work and witness. Jezebel had not been able to eliminate them despite her vicious efforts! No doubt they are those of whom the world was not worthy (Heb 11:38). One had died (2 Kings 4:1 – perhaps he had been slain by Jezebel) and this left a widow in desperate financial circumstances. She was still living among the prophets – but was in trouble. The years of drought had taken their toll and she was in a desperate plight.

The presence of an unfeeling creditor demanding his due is testimony to the fact that so many of God’s laws had been ignored. God had forbidden usury (note the word for creditor is nahash, applied to the biting of the serpent). It is often used of steep interest rates and, by implication, the oppression of widows. But to the worldly mind ‘business is business’ and to them there was no room for compassion. This poor woman faced losing her two sons to virtual slavery to pay off her debt. For “the creditor is come” (v1) the Hebrew has ‘at the door’. Picture the scene! He was waiting with the bailiff to take her sons away to slavery!

The story of the miracle that rescued her fortunes is simple. Her solitary pot of oil was wonderfully multiplied, enough for her to pay off her debt with the proceeds of the sale. The miracle has such interesting detail in it that we cannot afford to miss the spiritual lessons God has embedded there.

A Parable of Salvation

We are all left in great need by our mortality, suffering the misfortune of being born mortal and sin-prone. Sin and death wait at the door, eager to enslave us. We are in desperate need of redemption because our sin-prone nature leaves us as inevitable sinners. We have a ‘debt’ we can never pay off in our own strength.

The only way is for us to come confidently to the feet of “Elisha” (a name meaning ‘God’s salvation’) and to beg for help. The prophet, who knew her thoughts (cp 2 Kings 6:12), drew out a confession of her great need. So too, confession and expression of our condition is needful on our part: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Our debts can and will be wiped away when we seek forgiveness. When we pray, “forgive us our debts,” we understand that this is completely conditional upon us forgiving others. While God’s grace is freely given, and we can’t earn it, we must respond by doing what we can do.

The question the prophet asked is the question we are all asked: What do you have in the house? What we have may seem very insignificant to us, but God can use it far beyond our expectations. It is like Moses being asked, “What is that in thine hand?” (Exod 4:2) or like when Jesus asked the disciples, “How many loaves have ye?” (Matt 15:34). We have to commit all that we have to the process of salvation. It may seem like the widow’s two mites (Mark 12:41-44) but let us remember that Christ valued this contribution of faith above all others. Her example has inspired all generations of believers to do what we can and to know that God values every contribution we can make even if it seems so little.

Oil was used for light, cooking and medicine. It represents the word of God that gives light to the house and this was what the prophet gave to her.

He gave her hope and taught her the importance of the Word of God in her family and as she sold it to others, many more would have been impressed with the need to provide light for their families too. The same oil that lit each house in this miracle was shared with others.

Some Very Commendable Qualities of This Woman

We note that she was not afraid of openly talking of her husband’s allegiance to Yahweh (2 Kings 4:1). She confessed her humility, calling herself, “thine handmaid” (v2). She obeyed Elisha implicitly (v5) and without objection (a great contrast to Naaman’s reaction when asked to wash himself). This woman believed the humanly impossible solution could actually happen! In addition, her children cooperated willingly to borrow vessels. We can imagine them going around the neighbourhood with a very strange request, fully believing the words of Elisha. That is the quality of faith we must have. We don’t always understand the path God has mapped out for us but we implicitly obey His directions in faith. We do what God requires of us even if it is often counter-intuitive to human wisdom.

Having been saved from tragedy, the widow returned to her ‘saviour’ for further direction and, no doubt, with much thankfulness (v7). It is a lesson we all need to learn – to always be thankful! God provided for her future (v7) as He also provides for us with ongoing forgiveness, and finally life everlasting.

Some Questions Arising

Why had God let her get to such a point of desperation? We are apt to think that because we do the ‘right thing’ God will make life easy. Actually, the reverse is usually the case. Every vine that brings forth fruit is pruned hard by God to bring forth more fruit. Sometimes God, in His wisdom, lets us stew for a while in our problems till we have nowhere to go except to plea desperately before His throne of grace.

Elisha instructed the widow to borrow lots of vessels. That seems unusual – why not just create a pile of shekels? God (who soon would make an axe head float) could have done anything, even removing the harsh creditor by force! But He chose to allow the woman to show faith in the provision of the oil – a symbol of something that we all have – His Word. We all have a little oil in our earthen vessels (see 2 Cor 4:6-7) and all He asks of us is to fetch and bring in vessels from outside into the ecclesial house so that God may fill them with His glory. God can do anything, but He prefers to bless our efforts and make our oil grow and multiply. It is only limited by our low ‘horizons’! She was instructed to collect a lot of vessels. We must never take shortcuts in God’s work.

The miracle was performed in private – perhaps this was to avoid creating a sensation. Christ often took this approach when instructing healed individuals and it teaches us to take time to reflect on the lessons of the miracles. We should realise that there are no real solutions outside the ecclesial house. We must shut out the world and let the Word grow and increase in all of the vessels that are called into God’s house – the ecclesia.

In Summary

  1. God works in many different ways and situations.
  2. With God, nothing is impossible. We need to ‘go on believing’ that God can do miracles today.
  3. We must obey God’s words and principles implicitly – even against our natural wisdom and instinctive human responses.
  4. Never let us think that God has deserted us – even in situations that seem impossible. God acted and the threat of hopeless slavery was removed.
  5. Let us all resolve to commit wholeheartedly whatever oil or talents we have in our hands and let God multiply them mightily. The still small voice is powerful to save, even today.
  6. God still asks today: What do you have in your house?