The Widow of Zarephath: Chosen by Glorious Grace

Elijah is introduced to us in 1 Kings 17. He stands in the midst of Ahab’s wicked rule of Northern Israel with this word of judgment: “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1). With this, both Elijah and the rain escape the scene for three and a half long years (James 5:17 and Luke 4:24).

When the LORD uses you to bring famine to your nation, you automatically become a fugitive. Outlawed Elijah retreats to the brook Cherith, east of the Jordan River, to hide. He drinks from the water there and the LORD instructs the ravens to feed him bread and meat twice daily (1 Kings 17:3-6). This continues until the brook is emptied by the drought. At this point, God directs Elijah to journey to Zarephath. He had commanded a widow there to feed him (1 Kings 17:7-9).

Please allow me to pause here and wonder at God’s choice of a rescuer. How amazing that the LORD would use a widow to deliver his prophet from starvation. You might remember that, even in times of plenty, widows were among the poorest in the society. Indeed, God Himself had made provision for widows in His Law and it was they who were to be provided for by others (Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21).

But we’ve learned that God’s means of a savior is often unexpected. A reminder of the ultimate Savior who came as a poor and despised Jewish carpenter—a sinner’s only hope of salvation!  Surely, God chooses what is weak in the world to shame the strong; we are left to wonder at His wisdom and boast in His strength alone (1 Corinthians 1:27-31)!

As we return to our story, Elijah’s feet have just hit the gates of Zarephath. His first encounter is with a widow gathering sticks. Elijah makes a request for water and a small piece of bread and is met by this response: “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die” (1 Kings 17:12). There is nothing shocking about a widow having little in famine. It seems, however, that this woman is literally down to her last handful of flour and drizzle of oil. And from this, the LORD asks her to give. The ravens had obeyed God perfectly, would the widow?

This story is a particular challenge to me. I’m a planner by nature. I organize meals for my family weeks in advance and dislike unforeseen changes. While this tendency can be helpful in reducing stress, it also hints at my desire for control and security. This woman was in the very act of planning her last meal when God interrupts her with the command to feed another. Was this hard for her to do? Did she struggle to share her son’s meager meal with another?

There must have been some fear for the prophet offers words of comfort. He tells her: “Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth’” (1 Kings 17:13-14).

Praise God for His precious promises that encourage us to trust Him when we would rather fend for ourselves (2 Peter 1:3-4)! The prophet’s assurance prevails over the woman’s fears and she feeds him. She presents Elijah food from her scanty jars. In the end, we marvel at God’s means of provision, not only for his prophet but, for this woman and her household. Unlike the brook Cherith, her jar of flour and jug of oil never empty until the rains come (1 Kings 17:16).

The celebration doesn’t last long however. We leave the thrill of 1 Kings 17:16 for an immediate shock in 17:17. After this miracle, “the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.” Why would God preserve his woman and her son only to allow for the sudden death of the child? The widow must have pondered this very question, for she offers an answer. Surely, the prophet came to reveal her sins and bring the death of her son  as payment (1 Kings 17:18).

On hearing this, Elijah, filled with compassion, asks for the boy. And in the same way the woman opens her jars to the prophet, she now places her son in his arms. Her empty vessels had responded with new abundance; now her lifeless boy would also be revived in the hands of the LORD (1 Kings 17:19-23). Her response is belief in God’s Word (1 Kings 17:24).

It seems both miracles were used to save a widow, not just from famine but, from unbelief. The widow too is made alive in this story (Ephesians 2:1-5). God elects to reveal Himself to her for salvation. He returns her son to her, placing her sins on His own Son. Jesus speaks of this woman in Luke 4:25-26. He states: “But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.”

Why is Elijah sent to this widow? There is no indication of her earning God’s election and favor. She was not among the people of Israel and she herself testifies of her sins. Clearly, she doesn’t choose God but He chooses her (John 15:16). He saves her just as He has and will redeem all those He has predestined for adoption as children through Jesus Christ; this is according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His own glorious grace (Ephesians 1:5-11)! Sisters, salvation is of the LORD. I will sing of the glorious grace that saves sinners like me!

*Thanks for reading! This post is part of my Mothers in the Bible Series; we are looking for glimpses of the gospel in the lives of biblical women--from Eve to Mary, the mother of Christ. Click here to see other writings. And please let me know your thoughts!