This Mother’s Day I would like us to look at a mother—a widow actually—who showed great faith in God.
Her story is found in 1 Kings 17, and takes place during the days of Elijah. Elijah, of course, is the big name actor in the story—but it’s the nameless widow’s faith that really steals the show for me.
Turn to 1 Kings 17:7-16. The first thing we see in this passage is…
1. THE NEED FOR FAITH
In the first part of 1 Kings 17, we find Elijah living by faith, in fact, greater faith than we can imagine ourselves living. He is out in the wilderness, by himself, living on food delivered to him by ravens and drinking from a small brook.
Maybe he thought he was doing pretty well, living on faith—I know I would have thought so.
Well, just when you think that you are doing pretty well spiritually, God turns the thermostat on the faith-testing furnace up a few more degrees.
Elijah’s nice living arrangement of food-delivering ravens and a nice brook from which to drink was about to change. God was about to expose Elijah’s need for faith with…
1.1. A Dried Up Brook
1 Kings 17:7
And it came to pass after a while,
that the brook dried up,
because there had been no rain in the land.
A drought is a crisis in any nation or time, but a drought in the days of Elijah was a serious and life-threatening thing. This was a drought that would last three years, so many people died because of it.
Where do you get food when there isn’t any to be had anywhere?
There wasn’t normally any government help during a famine in those days. There were no relief agencies waiting to airdrop food and supplies.
When your cow died and your crop didn’t grow, that was it. You kissed your hungry children good night and secretly hoped that they wouldn’t wake up the next morning.
What could be worse than a drought?
Being a widow during a drought. In this passage, God was also showing the need for faith to…
1.2. A Destitute Widow
1 Kings 17:8
And the word of the Lord came unto him, saying,
1 Kings 17:9
Arise, get thee to Zarephath,
which belongeth to Zidon,
and dwell there: behold,
I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee.
A “widow” in ancient times would have been the poorest of all people. With her husband gone, there would be no provision for her and the children.
There was no government money, like social security, to be had. With no childcare facilities, it would have been difficult to find work for a widow with young children.
A widow back then couldn’t attend night school to learn secretarial skills while working at the local gas station as her child went to public school or a day care.
Jewish law did provide somewhat for the poor and widows by requiring farmers to not reap the complete harvest so that the poor could come in and pick up the gleanings (Leviticus 19:9-10).
In the book of Ruth, that’s exactly what the widow Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth, also a widow, did in order to survive.
But alas, there was a famine going on, so there were no crops to harvest, much less glean from. This widow was truly destitute.
Elijah may have thought it was unusual for God to lead him to a destitute widow to care for him.
Human wisdom would have said, “Go to Jerusalem, you are a prophet of the Lord—the good and godly King Asa will recognize that and help you. You’ll be safe there; you’ll be fed there.”
Faith is another story all together. God’s plan was not to make life easy for Elijah, but to strengthen his faith and the faith of a destitute widow. Because of what God did in their lives, we can see…
2. THE KIND OF FAITH WE NEED TO HAVE
1 Kings 17:10
So he arose and went to Zarephath.
And when he came to the gate of the city,
behold, the widow woman was there gathering of sticks:
and he called to her, and said,
Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel,
that I may drink.
1 Kings 17:11
And as she was going to fetch it,
he called to her, and said,
Bring me, I pray thee,
a morsel of bread in thine hand.
To us, this may seem rather forward and even demanding of Elijah to do. If a stranger came to our house and asked for water and a bite to eat, we’d be shocked and even a little upset.
The culture of that place and time had a strong code of hospitality. There were no motels or restaurants, so travelers had to depend on other people along the way. If you cared about your fellow human being at all, you would show hospitality.
Sometimes we worry about showing hospitality because of safety reasons, but the same would have been true for the widow. I mean, what would you do if a stranger covered with travel dust, with shaggy hair, and wearing hairy garments came to your house?
In this simple widow we discover several characteristics of faith:
2.1. Faith Is Prepared
1 Kings 17:12
And she said,
As the Lord thy God liveth, I have not a cake,
but an handful of meal in a barrel,
and a little oil in a cruse:
and, behold, I am gathering two sticks,
that I may go in and dress it for me and my son,
that we may eat it, and die.
She tells Elijah this, swearing by “the Lord thy God.” She must have recognized Elijah as an Israelite. She does not demonstrate any faith at this point, because she refers to the Lord as being Elijah’s God.
Neither does the fact that verse 9 says that the Lord “commanded” her mean that God was speaking to her as a person of faith. She does not seem aware that she was supposed to feed Elijah.
God’s command was an act of providence working in her heart to prepare her for the encounter with Elijah. The great preacher Spurgeon said:
[God] had so operated upon her mind that he had prepared her to obey the command when it did come by the lip of his servant the prophet. Even thus, and blessed be God for this comforting truth, long before the minister is sent to preach the gospel, God prepares the hearts of men to receive the word (Spurgeon, 353).
People do not come to salvation all by themselves. If you could mentally reason yourself to believe in God, that would be salvation by works.
Instead, people come to Christ only when the Father draws them.
44 No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:44)
The Lord has to prepare one’s heart first, before faith can be born in it.
14 And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul. (Acts 16:14)
This is a wonderful thing for us as witnesses. It’s not our job to save people. Our job is to be witnesses to Christ. If God is working in their heart, opening it, drawing them, then they will respond in faith. The field will have been prepared.
The widow pleads for an exemption from the code of hospitality. She simply doesn’t have anything left to feed Elijah with. She’s at the end of her rope. She recognized the hard truth that she was about to die.
But Elijah isn’t ready to let her off the hook; He says something that must have seemed rude and uncaring to her. But we learn that…
2.2. Faith Involves Risk
1 Kings 17:13
And Elijah said unto her,
Fear not; go and do as thou hast said:
but make me thereof a little cake first,
and bring it unto me,
and after make for thee and for thy son.
“Oh, not enough bread? Well, feed me first!” But before she can protest and call him an Israelite blockhead, Elijah gives her a promise from God for her to believe.
1 Kings 17:14
For thus saith the Lord God of Israel,
The barrel of meal shall not waste,
neither shall the cruse of oil fail,
until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth.
There it is: are you going to believe this or not?Faith involves risk. Faith is never safe. The woman did not have much to lose, that’s true, but what she had, Elijah asked her to give to him, at least in part.
Someone who is starving isn’t inclined just to give up any food that they have. In fact, they are more inclined to grab whatever they can from others. The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, described the actions of people during a famine at Jerusalem:
…children pulled the very morsels that their fathers were eating out of their very mouths, and, what was still more to be pitied, so did the mothers do as to their infants…when they saw any house shut up, this was to them a signal that the people within had gotten some food; whereupon they broke open the doors, and ran in and took pieces of what they were eating, almost up out of their very throats, and this by force; the old men, who held their food fast, were beaten; and if the women hid what they had within their hands, their hair was torn for so doing. (Josephus)
So you see, everything in the widow’s instinct would have been shouting for her to run away from Elijah. She would not have been inclined to believe him at all.
This is the case for all humanity when it comes to believing in God. We’re inclined against it. Our sinful nature screams at us to depend on ourselves, to preserve ourselves, to think that God doesn’t have our best interests in mind at all.
Faith enables to take the risk to trust God and not ourselves for salvation.
What did the widow woman do? Did she believe? That’s our third characteristic of faith:
2.3. Faith Obeys
1 Kings 17:15
And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah:
and she, and he, and her house,
did eat many days.
Faith is staking everything upon God’s Word—it’s wagering everything you have on the truthfulness of God. Then it’s acting in obedience.
You know how a pendulum works. If you take a weight, attached to a rope, which is itself attached to a point on a ceiling, and pull that weight all the way to one side and release it, what happens?
It will swing back and forth in shorter and shorter arcs until it comes to a rest in the middle. Unless an outside force acts on the pendulum, it will aways do this—it’s a law.
A student named Ken Davis did a class presentation once on the law of the pendulum.
First, he explained the law, then he demonstrated it with a small pendulum on a string in front of the blackboard, marking the arc as it got smaller and smaller. He asked everyone if they believed in the law of the pendulum. They all raised their hands.
Then he revealed what the presentation was really about. He had 250 pounds of metal weights attached to four strands of 500 pound-test parachute cord hanging from the steel ceiling beams in the middle of the classroom.
He asked the instructor to sit in a chair on a table with his head against the cement wall. He brought the 250 pounds of metal up so that it touched the instructor’s nose.
Again he explained the principle of the pendulum and that it would not come back to the same position as before, but it would swing short of the instructor. Then he asked the sweating instructor, “Do you believe?” The instructor responded, rather weakly, that he did.
Then Ken Davis let the weight go. It made a swishing noise as it swung in an arc across the classroom. It paused briefly at the far end of it’s swing, and then it started to swing back towards the instructor.
The instructor literally dived from off from the table. Did he really believe? No!
Faith is not merely an intellectual acknowledgment that there is a God. Many people have that, “Yes, I believe there’s a God,” they will say. Faith is a trust in Him that will stake everything that you have on His word and His character.
There is one more characteristic about faith I want to draw out here and that is that…
2.4. Faith Continues
1 Kings 17:15
And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah:
and she, and he, and her house,
did eat many days.
1 Kings 17:16
And the barrel of meal wasted not,
neither did the cruse of oil fail,
according to the word of the Lord,
which he spake by Elijah.
God did not make a storeroom full of bags of flour. Instead, when she went to the “barrel of meal” in the morning, there was flour there. Every morning, there was more flour in the barrel. Simple and quiet.
God did the same thing with the Israelites in the wilderness, remember. The manna that came from Heaven did not last until the next day (except for the Sabbath manna). Why did God do it that way? Why didn’t He allow His people to store up food? (Exodus 16).
He did the same sort of thing to Corrie Ten Boom back during World War II. She, her sister Betsie, were prisoners in the Ravensbruck concentration camp.
Food was scarce, and the bare bread they did have did not provide enough nutrients to keep them healthy. However, they managed to acquire a small brown bottle of Davitamon—vitamin drops. But how long would it last? Corrie tells the story…
The Davitamon bottle was continuing to produce drops. It scarcely seemed possible, so small a bottle, so many doses a day. Now, in addition to Betsie, a dozen others on our pier were taking it.
My instinct was always to hoard it—Betsie was growing so very weak! But others were ill as well. It was hard to say no to eyes that burned with fever, hands that shook with chill. I tried to save it for the very weakest—but even these soon numbered fifteen, twenty, twenty-five. . .
And still, every time I tilted the little bottle, a drop appeared at the top of the glass stopper. It just couldn’t be! I held it up to the light, trying to see how much was left, but the dark brown glass was too thick to see through.
“There was a woman in the Bible,” Betsie said, “whose oil jar was never empty.” She turned to it in the Book of Kings, the story of the poor widow of Zarephath who gave Elijah a room in her home: “The jar of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of Jehovah which he spoke by Elijah.”
Well—but—wonderful things happened all through the Bible. It was one thing to believe that such things were possible thousands of years ago, another to have it happen now, to us, this very day.
And yet it happened, this day, and the next, and the next, until an [amazed] little group of spectators stood around watching the drops fall onto the daily rations of bread.
Many nights I lay awake in the shower of straw dust from the mattress above, trying to fathom the marvel of supply lavished upon us. “Maybe,” I whispered to Betsie, “only a molecule or two really gets through that little pinhole—and then in the air it expands!”
I heard her soft laughter in the dark. “Don’t try too hard to explain it, Corrie. Just accept it as a surprise from a Father who loves you.”
The bottle continued to produce drops until one day a Dutch woman assigned to work in the hospital was able to sneak them some large bottles of vitamins. Corrie says,
…that night, no matter how long I held [the bottle] upside down, or how hard I shook it, not another drop appeared. (Sherrill)
Why didn’t God just send the large bottles of vitamins in the first place? Why did He only allow the manna to last one day? Why didn’t He give the widow twenty sacks of flour?
The answer comes back to faith. For faith to be strong, for it to be real—it has to continue. Jesus explained this in the parable of the soils:
Some seed fell on soil where it grew up for a time, but then sun or thorns killed it. Jesus wasn’t saying that you could lose your salvation. He was saying that a characteristic of true faith is that it continues and produces fruit, thirty, sixty, and even hundredfold (Matthew 13).
God is interested in making our faith continue. He’s not interested in those who have a breakthrough and declare their allegiance to Him one day, but within a few days, they are back to their old ways.
Elijah and the widow, Corrie and her sister, and many others, have learned this principle of faith—faith, if it’s real, continues.
Think on a few questions as we conclude.
1. Are You Prepared For Faith?
Read through the parable of the soils in Matthew 13. What kind of soil is your heart? Hard? Rocky? Full of thorns? Or is it a good soil where faith can grow?
2. Do You Have Faith Despite Risk?
Of course, we need to take reasonable care for our safety. We lock our doors. We look both ways before crossing the street.
But do you avoid obeying God’s commands because of the risk? Like His command to speak to others about Christ? Or to show hospitality?
3. Does Your Faith Obey God?
It’s one thing to say that you are a Christian, that you believe in God. It’s entirely another to show it. I am not saying that you need to be perfect to have real faith. But, if you have real faith, you will have growth in your obedience, and repentance when you fail.
4. Is Your Faith A Continuing Faith?
Did you, long ago, make a decision for Christ? What has become of that decision? Has it continued? Does your faith lead you to obedience? Do you have faith in Christ today?
Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987)
Sherrill, John, Elizabeth Sherrill, and Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen, 2006)
Spurgeon, C. H., “The Widow of Sarepta,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1868), XIV.