Prayer and the Fellowship of Believers- Lessons from a Widow and Her Oil

Our study today brings us to 2 Kings 4:1-37. We find that Elijah, who we met last time, has left the scene. He, along with Enoch are the only two people to enter eternity without the instrument of death; both are simply “taken by God” (Genesis 5:18-24; Hebrews 11:5-6).

Before his departure, Elijah’s disciple, Elisha, asks for a double portion of his spirit (2 Kings 2:9-12). The Reformation Study Bible explains this as "a bold request to be the ‘firstborn’ heir of Elijah’s ministry; a sort of elder son who succeeds a father and receives a double measure of his inheritance."[1] The LORD graciously grants the request and we soon see Elisha ministering with the same bold authority as seen in his predecessor.

The two prophets are used of the LORD in very similar ways. For one, Elijah’s multiplication of oil and resuscitation of a widow’s son in 1 Kings 17:7-24 closely mirrors the story of Elisha’s miraculous increase of a widow’s oil and revival of a mother’s dead son in 2 Kings 4:1-37. What differs in these accounts is that in Elisha’s case, there are two women as opposed to one. Our study today will deal with the first woman, an impoverished and desperate widow with a single jar of oil.

Her story begins with these words: “Now the wife of one of the sons of the prophets cried to Elisha, ‘Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves’” (2 Kings 4:1). A woman, perhaps widowed only a matter of days, approaches Elisha in distress. Her husband, a prophet under the leadership of Elisha, was dead.

Few griefs, I’m certain, can compare with the loss of a godly spouse. I can only imagine the dizzying shock it may bring. I wonder however how long this woman had to sit with her despair before the reality of her poverty shook her into action. While widows in this culture were generally poor—the Law itself called for the care of these women (Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21)—this widow, and her sons, were not only poor but also in serious debt.

Apparently her husband had borrowed money while living and the creditor came to settle the account after his death. Not finding the funds to cover what was owed, the man looked to enslave the widow’s sons to work off the loan. It sounds unforgiving yet the family had borrowed the money and thus had to repay. The Mosaic Law permitted the taking of indebted Israelites as bond servants for a limited period of time. They were to be treated as hired workers, never as slaves (Leviticus 25:39-42). Yet our widow uses the word “slave” here, perhaps implying a misuse of this law. Unfortunately, such abuse was not uncommon in ancient Israel (Nehemiah 5:5; Jeremiah 34:8-22; Amos 2:6; 8:6).

So a despondent mother, having lost her husband, is now threatened with the forced servitude of her sons—sorrow upon sorrow! My question however is this: how did a faithful prophet of the LORD became so indebted to a seemingly questionable creditor? Had he approached the LORD with the need? Had he confided in Elisha, God’s chief prophet, before seeking the services of a creditor?

These questions bring to mind a bold statement made by Pastor John Piper concerning prayer. Referencing the latter portion of James 4:2 Piper explains: “God the Sovereign Ruler of the universe has ordained that prayer [should] cause things to happen that would not [otherwise] happen if you didn’t pray.”[2] For this reason, James tells his readers: “You do not have, because you do not ask.”

Prayer is a gracious and glorious privilege for the believer! It makes us participants in the work of the God who sovereignly governs all things according to the counsel of His own will (Ephesians 1:11). No wonder then that God calls us to pray without ceasing; we are to be active and faithful laborers in His work (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). We should bring everything to our God in prayer (Philippians 4:6)!

And if prayer is a means of grace for the believer, then fellowship within the believing community is also God’s grace to us. Whether this couple seeks God concerning their need or not, we do not know. What might be more apparent however is their hesitancy to share the matter with others. Elisha himself seems uninformed until the death of the man and the approach of the creditor. If this is the case, then I can certainly relate; it’s never easy for me to disclose and seek assistance from others—even those within my covenant community. Yet Proverbs 27:10 encourages us to request support from our neighbors in times of need. And interestingly, God’s answer to this woman involves just that.   

The widow had nothing but a single jar of oil. Elisha tells her to borrow many vessels from her neighbors. Her jar of oil would miraculously multiply as she poured it into each vessel. God’s means of provision for this woman sends her to many doors on that day—the more she knocked on, the more vessels she would receive. The more vessels she borrowed, the more oil she would have for her son’s freedom and for their livelihood (2 Kings 4: 2-7). God indeed answers prayer. And often, He makes His people participants in His answer.  Prayer and fellowship are means of grace to us in times of suffering—and in times of joy.

*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!


[1] The Reformation Study Bible, (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015) 547.