According to the Word of the Lord
Scripture: 1 Kings 17
Synopsis: In this message, According to the Word of the Lord, we embark on a series of messages from the life and times of Elijah, the great prophet of God. From 1 Kings 17 we discover clues about Elijah’s origins as well as his character. But above all, we find God establishing his own credentials and the credentials of his prophet in preparation for a great spiritual battle that was about to be fought for the minds and hearts of the people of Israel.
I grew up on Bible stories. From my earliest memory, my parents read and told these stories to us as we were growing up. And I had my favorites. Of course, there were the wonderful Gospel stories of Jesus and his birth and life and miracles, culminating in his death and resurrection. I loved those stories. But I also loved the Old Testament stories. Among my favorites were the stories of the prophet Elijah.
So I am going to indulge myself over the next few weeks. As I was thinking about where to go for our next sermon series, I knew I wanted to do something from the Old Testament, since it’s been almost 2 years since we last spent time in the Old Testament. I also wanted to do something that had a narrative or story line to it, since we’ve just completed a lengthy series in an epistle filled with didactic and logical language and thought patterns. In the past, we have covered the entire narrative sections of the Pentateuch or first five books of the Old Testament. We’ve also done Joshua and Judges and Ruth and the life of David and the early days of the United Kingdom of Israel. We have even skipped ahead and done the post-exile books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. So what was left? Well, there was a gap; the historical books of Kings and Chronicles which tell the history of Israel during the days of the Divided Kingdom. So I have settled on the life and times of the prophet Elijah. This will take us from 1 Kings 17 through the first two chapters of 2 Kings.
We are not going to go verse by verse, but rather story by story or event by event. I loved these stories then and love them still because they are filled with high drama and great courage. Elijah stands out and is honored in Jewish tradition as the greatest of the prophets. Yet he is also a very human character. In fact, the New Testament reminds us in James 5:17 that Elijah was a man “with a nature like ours.” Or, as the King James Version renders it, he was “subject to like passions as we are.” He was like us! Yet God did remarkable things through him. The stories of Elijah are a valuable reminder and encouragement to us that the stories and the drama of these chapters do not rest on the power and character of Elijah but on the character and power of the God Elijah served.
In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that Elijah is not the main character in these chapters. God is the main character. God is at work, both declaring and demonstrating his power on the stage and in the pages of Israel’s history. These are stories that demand us as readers to bow our knees in worship. But there are also valuable lessons we can learn from Elijah, the man.
So, with that introduction, let’s get started. To understand Elijah and God’s display of power through this remarkable man of God, we need to understand the times in which he lived. So let’s do a very brief summary of Israel’s history: Following the Exodus and the settling of the nation in the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua, the nation fell into a very dark time; the time of the Judges is described as a period in which “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”
During this time, the people came to Samuel, the last of the judges, and asked him to appoint for them a king. By God’s permission, Samuel did so. A man by the name of Saul was anointed as the first king of Israel. After a promising start, he demonstrated a heart that was not wholly committed to God. He gave God only partial obedience. So God took the kingdom away from Saul and his family and gave it to David, a “man after God’s own heart” who would do everything that the Lord commanded. This ushered in the golden age of Israel’s history, first under David and then under his son, Solomon.
But darker days soon followed under Solomon’s son. Rehoboam’s harsh and unwise rule soon alienated the ten northern tribes. They rebelled and set up their own rival king and kingdom in Samaria, leaving the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south under the kings who followed in the line of David. Thus began the period of the Divided Kingdom.
The history of the northern tribes of Israel was dark from the beginning. To prevent the Israelites from going down to Jerusalem and worshipping at the temple, the first king, Jereboam set up golden calves and invited the people to worship God in the form of these calves. It was the first step in a long history of syncretism and idolatry. Of the many succeeding kings and dynasties in the north, not one was described as a good king. All of them “did evil in the sight of the Lord.”
But there are degrees of evil, and as evil king succeeded evil king, the darkness intensified. In 1 Kings 16, a king is introduced by the name of Ahab. He is described in these words in 1 Kings 16:30: And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him.
The degree of his sinfulness is described in the next verses, which also introduce another character who will play a key role in the drama about to unfold before us.
And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. 32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. (verses 31-33)
Jezebel. It is a name that is still recognized and used in common language and literature to describe an evil woman. “You Jezebel!” is a powerful insult even today. This is the woman whom Ahab took as his wife, and he eagerly participated with her in introducing increasingly brazen and offensive forms of idolatry and pagan worship practices in Israel. This is the background. This is the stage onto which strode a remarkable man.
Verse 1 of chapter 17 introduces him: Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab…
What do we learn in this short introduction? Let’s start with the meaning of his name. The meaning of names is often significant in the Scriptures. Elijah is a clear example. Pronounced “Eleeyah” or “Eleeyahu” in Hebrew, it means, literally “Yahweh is God.” This was his name and it was also his clear calling and mission in life: to call the people of God who were rapidly giving themselves over to the worship of idols and false gods to return to the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as the one and only true God.
What else to do we learn? Of his origins, we learn very little. Tishbe is a village whose identity and location is unknown to us. Gilead is the name of the region east of the Jordan River. An obscure village from a relatively unimportant region of the country. But we do learn one other very important thing from this verse about Elijah’s character. He was a man of great courage. “He said to Ahab…” Ahab is the king. Elijah is an ordinary man of obscure origins. Yet Elijah had the courage to face the king and deliver a very bold message. How he gained access to the king, we do not know. Maybe the ancient kings of Israel practiced some form of the majlis that is still practiced today in many of these Gulf countries, in which the citizens are able to enter the ruler’s presence to present their opinions and or plead for some special favor. Gaining access, however, is one thing. Speaking up in the face of the ruler and all his court is something else. And the message was not only bold, but dramatic and even harsh:
“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.”
We learn some more about Elijah from these words. He is a servant of the one true and living God. “As the LORD lives…” I have the impression that this was a common saying; a kind of oath by which one sought to emphasize the seriousness and truthfulness of his words. While for many, it may have become simply an expression of everyday speech, as with many such Hebrew sayings, it expressed a deep theological reality. Yahweh, the God of Israel does live. We can call on no greater authority than that of the living God of the universe.
Not only does Elijah call on God’s authority, but he identifies himself as one of God’s servants. “Before whom I stand.” To stand before God is to stand ready for action, for service and for obedience. The servants of the king all stand in the presence of the king, awaiting his commands. We don’t know anything about Elijah’s calling or how he became a prophet. But we do know that he was one who stood waiting to serve: waiting for God to speak so he could obey.
This much we know about Elijah as he makes his entrance onto the stage for the first time. It is not much. But it is enough. The more I thought about it, the more I realized: this is all that God really asks and requires of any of us, is it not? To believe in him and him alone as the living God of all creation and to stand before him as one who is ready to hear God’s word and obey it. Whether our role is large or small; whether we play our role in the spotlight at center stage or in some obscure venue out of the public eye is ultimately God’s call to make. Our part is but to believe and to remain faithful and obedient to the role he calls us to play.
In the seventies, Francis Schaeffer published a book of sermons. I read it years ago and I’ve forgotten most of the sermons, but one particular title still remains with me. He used it for the title of the book: No Little Places, No Little People. A man from Tishbe in Gilead. In God’s economy, every place is an important place and every person is important. He is looking for those who believe in him as the living God and are standing in his presence, ready to serve. If we do that, he has a role for us to play, and in the economy of God it will be an important role.
The rest of 1 Kings 17 is given over to the narration of three episodes or events in the life of Elijah. The first reality created by Elijah’s bold pronouncement of the coming drought was the need for him to go into hiding. God’s word immediately comes to him and directs him to a wadi out in the wilderness. There is water there to drink, but what will he eat? God uses a very dramatic and supernatural strategy. He tells Elijah to hide by the wadi and he will command ravens to bring him food every morning and evening. Now, I know this was a miracle. The area I visited in India last week has lots of crows or ravens. Every morning, I was awakened by great flocks of them cawing in the trees outside my window, as they came scavenging to find something to eat. You don’t have to watch a flock of crows very long before you realize something: they are not big on sharing! In fact it is just the opposite. They will drive each other away if they can, and if they can’t they will snatch the food and fly to another tree with it. It’s every crow for himself. But faithfully, every morning and every evening, these ravens would arrive with food for Elijah to eat. They did it, we’re told, because God commanded them to do it.
But then the day came when the drought was so severe that the stream in the wadi dried up. There was nothing to drink! Once again, the word of the Lord came to Elijah with instructions. “Go to Zarephath in Sidon.” Sidon was in the area that is now Lebanon. It was outside the land of Israel, in the land of the Gentiles. There he was to find a widow who would provide for him. Now these are strange instructions. Not only is he leaving Israel, which made a certain amount of sense under the circumstances, but he is to go to a widow. Widows were typically the most vulnerable and poorest of the poor, without a husband to care for them or provide for their needs. I imagine it must have been hard for Elijah to think of relying on a poor widow to care for him. And the story shows just how difficult it was.
Listen as I read the account from verses 10-12:
So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.” 11 And as she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 And she said, “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.”
Now, if you’re Elijah, how do you feel right about then? About 6 inches tall, right? You’ve just found yourself begging for food from someone even more desperate than yourself! But Elijah persists! God’s instructions must have been very clear to him at this point.
And Elijah said to 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. 14 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.’ ” 15 And she went and did as Elijah said. And she and he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
It was another miracle. There is no natural explanation for this, anymore than there is for greedy crows bringing him food in the wadi. God supernaturally replenished the widow’s supply of flour and oil. Every day she would tip up the clay vessel containing her flour, and out would pour just enough for the day’s bread. The same thing would happen with the jug of oil. Every day, day after day for as long as the drought lasted. It took faith on the widow’s part.
Remember, on that first day, she was told to trust the word of the Lord and give the food to the prophet first, and then feed herself and her son. She did what she was told and she never lacked for God’s supply.
I am not sure how far to press the application of this passage. I could say, “Feed the prophet and the pastor and the missionary first…and then God will provide for you…” But that seems rather self-serving! This was a unique circumstance with unique instructions. But one thing is clear. It happened “according to the word of the Lord.” When the Lord speaks, we better listen. I think we also learn that our God is a God of provision and supply. Even in times of drought and economic recession and personal poverty, God is able to provide for his servants when we put our faith in him and walk in obedience to his will. That provision may not be all at once. It may be one day at a time, as it was for this widow and for Elijah. Each day, there was just enough for the day’s food. But the supply never ran out.
I remember when Esther Ruth and I were first married. We were poor college students. We never kept a budget because we knew there was no way we had enough money to last out each month. But for our wedding, Esther Ruth’s grandmother had given us $200. That was a lot of money for us. She told us to use it however we needed it, but we decided we wanted to set it aside for something special. We just weren’t sure what. So we put it in our bank account and kept a separate ledger for that amount. During that first month, there wasn’t enough money in our regular account, so we borrowed against her $200. When we got paid at the end of the month, we replenished that account. But by the end of the second month, we had to borrow from it again. But again we topped it up on pay day. And that’s the way it went. Every month we borrowed from that account. But we were borrowing from ourselves, and not the bank. That $200 became our jar of flour and jug of oil. It never ran out! We scraped bottom a few times, but there was always just enough to keep us afloat over the next 4 years of college and seminary. We graduated from seminary debt free. We learned valuable lessons of trusting in God to supply our needs during those years. They are lessons we have never forgotten. Our God is a God of provision and supply when we trust in him.
There is one more story in this chapter and this one is even more dramatic. The widow’s son became ill and died. In her anguish, the widow turns her grief into anger at God and his prophet. She also blames herself. Look at what she says in verse 18:
“What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!”
Apparently there was a serious sin or sins in her past which still tormented her. And when her son dies, she believes that she is being punished for this sin. But God’s grace is supremely evident in this story. We don’t know what her sin was, nor do we know whether she is right in connecting her son’s death to that sin. Elijah simply takes the son’s body in his arms and carries him up to his room. There he stretches out his own body on the body of the dead child and pleaded with God three times to restore the life of the child. I love the way this story ends:
And the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23 And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house and delivered him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives.”
It is another miracle through Elijah. Because Elijah listened and obeyed the voice of God, God also listened to the voice of Elijah when he pleaded for the life of this child. There is not enough time to lay out an entire theology of prayer in this message. Nor does this incident alone give us all the information we need for such a discussion. Does God always give us what we ask for? I think the answer to that question is, “No.” But I also think that we are often too timid in our asking. I think the Biblical balance in this subject lies somewhere on a point of tension between two statements found in the teaching of James in James 4:2-3
You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
Why did God answer Elijah’s prayer in such a dramatic way on this occasion? I would present two answers. One is somewhat speculative and the other has support in the text. The first answer is that I think God is building Elijah’s faith and spiritual strength for the climactic battle which lay ahead of him. Every battle won and every prayer answered provides fuel for the fire of faith to burn more fiercely within us. God is getting Elijah ready.
The second reason, I believe, is that God is building his own credentials of power and glory as well the credentials of his prophet, both in the eyes of this woman and even more so in our eyes and ears as the readers of this story. Look at the response of the widow:
And the woman said to Elijah,“Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
This miracle confirmed her faith, not only in Elijah, but in the reliability of the word of the Lord in the mouth of the prophet. I believe this last verse in the chapter is the key to understanding the whole chapter. This is the conclusion that God, through the author, has been aiming for throughout this chapter and these stories. God has been laying out his own credentials. He is the living God. He is a God of power and his Word is truth. He is also verifying Elijah as his prophet. He is doing this in the context of great spiritual darkness in a nation that has plunged deeply into idolatry. God is marshalling his forces for a great battle against the forces of darkness by declaring himself as the living God and putting Elijah forward as his champion and spokesman in the battle that was about to take place.
In studying Hebrew narrative literature, one of the ways of discerning the theme and emphasis of the writer is through looking for repetition of phrases and words. When we do that, it is not difficult to discover the major theme of this chapter. In verse 1, 2, 5, 8, 14, 16 and 24 it is repeated again and again. It is “the word of the Lord.” “The word of the Lord came to him…” and things happened “according to the word of the Lord.” Every story and event in this chapter is here to illustrate and bear testimony to this reality. “The word of the Lord is truth.”
In the darkest of times and in the darkest of places, Yaweh is still God. He is still alive and his Word is still true. Will we believe it? Will we trust it? Will we obey it?
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- What do you know about the period of history in which Elijah lived? Do you see any parallels to our own period of history?
- Where do you come from? (If you are doing this in a group, go around the circle and each tell a little bit about your home town/village.) Was it a big place? A small place? Pastor Cam remembers a sermon/book title, No Little People, No Little Places. Discuss this title in the light of Elijah being “a Tishbite from Tishbe” and your own origins and the origins of others in your group. How do our origins affect our place in God’s plan?
- “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand…” These are the first recorded words we have out of the mouth of Elijah. Pastor Cam states in this sermon that this is all we really need to know about Elijah. What did he mean by that? Do you agree or disagree?
- The first two accounts in this chapter record how God provided for the needs of the prophet. How do you think these two unique examples of God’s provision might have been difficult for Elijah? (Put yourself in his shoes!) Share examples of ways God has provided for your needs.
- In Pastor Cam’s conclusion, he says that this chapter was written to establish God’s own credentials as well as the credentials of Elijah as his spokesman. Do you agree or disagree? Why? How does God establish his credentials in our day? What about the credentials of his spokespersons?