Lectures Introductory to 1 Kings: Chapter 17-22

1 Kings 17‑22  •  13 min. read  •  grade level: 8
1 Kings 17-22
The days were very dark in Israel. Not only rebellion. And rebellion, always serious, was peculiarly so in Israel, for there it was insubordination in a direct manner against not only God's providence, but God's government. That government, as no other, was the direct action through the family that God Himself had chosen to govern His people, and therefore the very fact of their being the people of God made their insubordination to be so much the more grievous. For there cannot be a more false maxim than to bring in the question of whether people are God's children—to apply it to present circumstances—in order to mitigate the judgment of any evil thing that is done by them. In fact, the very thought is a pollution, and shows that souls must have departed from God, whenever the fact of the grace of God towards any person could be used in order to mitigate the gravity of their guilt against God. It is evident that if sin be always sin, the aggravation of the sin is the favor that God has shown the person that is guilty of it, and the nearer the relationship of the person that is guilty the greater the sin. Hence, even in Israel, God did not require the same sacrifice from one of the common people that He did from the ruler, nor did He look for that from a ruler which He did from the congregation as a whole; and the high priest, although he was only one man—the high priest's guilt as being that of (in early days at any rate) the representative of Jehovah on the earth in Israel as king, became Israel's guilt. The high priest's sin had precisely this same effect, that is, it damaged the communion of the whole people, just as the whole people's guilt would have interfered with, or affected, him. But now we see the very darkness and evil of the people of God—for here we have to do not with a family, not with His children in the true and Christian sense of the word; but we have to do with a people under the government of Jehovah—in having now set up, not the fullest form of apostasy from God, but that which was verging towards it—the first great departure from God, religiously as well as politically.
In the setting up of the calves of gold—founded upon antiquity, no doubt, but an ancient sin—having gone back as men will, not to ancient purity, but to ancient sin, so it was a divided allegiance, nominally to Jehovah. They had not yet cast Him off entirely, but really there was the worship of the golden calves. But dark as this day was, it only furnished the occasion for God to cause a new light to shine—the light of prophecy. It always gives a grand testimony for God, and if that light be always alight, when would it shine most? When the darkness was greatest. So then we find it coming out now in a very conspicuous manner, even in a richer and fuller form, as we know it afterward did when not merely the ten tribes of Judah were departing from God. Then we have the grand burst of prophecy in Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and all the rest, not to speak of the Minor Prophets. But here we have a peculiar form—prophecy not merely in word but in deed—the blending of miracle. For these are miraculous signs, as well as wonders. Indeed, this is a very common thing in the miracles that God causes to be done by His servants, that is, even what was done teaches. The facts speak out the mind of God, and so it was in the case of Elijah. He is introduced most abruptly. The occasion required it. It was high time for God to interfere. There is no preparation of the way. It was a question of God, and God accordingly works by His servant.
But this remarkable planting of prophecy on miracle is found, not in Judah, but in Israel. The reason is manifest. Judah maintained still, however guiltily, the word of the Lord. Israel had virtually cast it off. Accordingly, therefore, having sunk into the place of the faithless they would have signs offered to them, as the apostle Paul shows that miracles are for the unbelieving. Prophecy, in the Christian sense of the word, no doubt as such when compared and contrasted with miracles—prophecy is for the church. Thus you see we find that the double character remarkably suits the case. On the one hand it was Israel, and, consequently, there is prophecy; on the other hand it was Israel faithless or unbelieving, and consequently there were miracles, that is, there were signs to unbelievers at the same time that there was prophecy planted with them. So that the perfect wisdom and harmony of the dealings of God with the grand principles of truth that are found throughout the word of God, I think, must be apparent to any person who will consider what has been just brought before him.
Elijah, then, gives to Ahab a most solemn warning of the first great miracle which was itself a prophecy. He says, “There shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.” He does not say merely, “According to Jehovah's word.” Had it been simply according to Jehovah's word it would have been simply a prophecy; but “according to my word” made it miraculous as well as prophetical. He was in the secret of Jehovah; he was an announcer of Jehovah's mind, but more than that, he was the executor of Jehovah's purpose; that is, there was prophecy in deed as well as in word, and this we have seen to be most suitable to the circumstance of the case.
The word of Jehovah: then, bids him flee. He has been bold in telling the king—the guilty king. But now that his testimony has been rendered, and that the fearful calamity that the restraint of dew or rain for years must be particularly in the east—that this was about to fall upon the people and to be connected indeed in a measure with the prophetic, and not merely with God, would have at once exposed him to the resentment of a wicked people and their king. God therefore bids His servant—for it must not be a mere resource, still less a question of timidity, but according to the word of Jehovah—to flee and hide himself by the brook Cherith. Yet even in this hiding-place he brings out the illustrious power of God, and His care for His servant, for God had many ways of watching over him. He chose one that suited His own glory. He says, “I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there” —birds which, as we all know, are remarkable for their voracity. These were the birds that were ordered to feed the prophet. “So he went and did according unto the word of the Lord, for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening.”
Undoubtedly, it was a solemn sign to Israel when it came to be known by them—that is, that the unclean should be rather the instruments of the action of God, the medium of caring for His prophet. It was, I say, a witness to them that they were even below what God had commanded to feed His prophet. It was not to be some particular person. Yet at this very time we know that there was one that God employed. But no, God would prove before all Israel how little His sympathies were with the people—how completely He was independent of all such action. He would care for His prophet Himself, and in a way suitable to His own glory. So after a season the brook dries up, but not before God had another purpose in hand. He sends him now to a place outside the land, to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon. And how important this is, our Lord Himself teaches us, for in the 4th of Luke the Savior particularly selects this fact, as well as another that will come before us in the Second Book of Kings, as the witness of grace to the Gentile when the Jew had accounted himself unworthy of the government of Jehovah. Grace must work somewhere or other if the chosen people cast it out from them and will have none of it. God will not permit that brook to dry up, for the waters shall only flow in a fuller volume for the refreshment of weary souls elsewhere. And thus it is that God is always above the evil of man, and that the deeper the evil, God's goodness only shines the more.
So the widow of Zarephath, or Sarepta, as it is called in the New Testament, becomes the favored one. She is met in great desolation. She is reduced to the lowest state. The prophet makes no small demands upon her pity, he puts her faith thoroughly to the test, and says what, if he had not been a prophet, and if it had not been a trial of faith, would have been a most cruel and selfish word, for with what face could a man, as a man, have asked her out of her little—her last meal—to provide first for him and then for herself and her son? But this was exactly the trial of it. God, when He gives a trial of faith, does not pare it down so as to spoil the very force of His blessing; but contrariwise. The greater the faith the more He tries, and if any one makes up his mind for slighting the practical cross in this world—the sense of what it is to have the dying of the Lord Jesus—that man will be tried in that very way. So this poor woman. She was in circumstances next door to death, and it is evident that God was far from giving her by the prophet, as He could easily have done, a barrel of meal to encourage her and the cruse to begin marvelously supplying oil. This would have spoiled the whole teaching of the Lord. Not so. Everything adds to the difficulty. This stranger-prophet that she never saw, never heard of before, is entirely unnoticed, and indeed, I think, we are warranted rather to gather that it was her first sight, and it may be, the first sound even of the prophet Elijah.
But still there is that, as in the word of God, so also in the prophet of God—in a man of God that gives confidence where there is faith. Very likely it will shock and provoke the flesh; very likely it will give ground for unbelief there, for you will find this to be most true that the very same things which are a support to faith are the stumbling-block to unbelief; but however that may be, God in no wise softened the trial, but brought it out to her in all its apparent harshness and difficulty. But He strengthens the heart to meet the trial, and we must never leave out this, which does not appear, and it is one of the beautiful features of the Old Testament.
Here we get the facts. The New Testament shows us the key that is behind. The New Testament lets us see every now and then, as, for instance, in this very case. There was the electing grace of God that wrought in this widow just as in the case of Naaman the Syrian. There were many widows in Israel; God chose this one outside Israel. There were many lepers; it was not there that the grace of God was running, but it was towards the Syrian—towards the great captain of their great enemy, for Syria was, at this time, perhaps their greatest foe. But if grace works God will prove that it is grace. He will show that there is no ground for acceptancy which indeed would deprive it of its character of grace—if there was any ground to look for it. Well then, the widow acts upon the word of the prophet, and not without a solemn word which he received. “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. And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days.”
But there was a greater trial still, for all this was either the sustenance of the prophet or the sustenance of those who were dying, as it were, from the famine, along with the prophet. But now comes another thing—death. And it is evident that there are no discharges for man in that war. There a man is utterly foiled. There, at least, he must feel the vanity of his pretensions. And so it came to pass that God would give a witness of that. It was manifestly above man, for soon the only son of the widow fell sick and died; and this searches the woman's conscience, and she thinks of her sins and she spreads it out before the prophet—the lamentable, irreparable loss, as she supposed, of her son. But he asked for the dead body and he cries to Jehovah, and he stretches himself upon the child three times—a most unmeaning thing without the Lord. But the Lord would give the sign of interest, of tender interest, and the use of means even to any other, but not so with Him. We know still that He is pleased to use according to His own power, and I must make a little remark upon this.
There is a common idea that prevails, even among Christians, that miracles mean the setting aside of the natural laws of God. They mean nothing of the sort. The natural laws of God—the laws that He has been pleased to stamp upon creation—are not altered by a miracle. They go on all the same. Men are brought into the world; men die. There is not an alteration of that. That goes on. What a miracle is, is not the reversal of what are called these natural laws, but the introduction of the power of God to withdraw from the operation of them in a particular case. The laws remain precisely the same as before. The laws are not altered, but an individual is withdrawn from the operation of those laws. That is another thing altogether, and this is the true and only true application of the thought. This alone is the truth as to a miracle. So in this present case there was no question at all about setting aside the ordinary operation of death. God acted according to His own sovereign will, but the same sovereign will that orders the creation and deals with each soul in it was pleased to withdraw a particular person for His own glory. This does not interfere, I repeat, with the ordinary course of nature, except in that one particular case or those cases where God has been pleased to do it. And in this instance Jehovah heard the voice of Elijah, and the soul of the child came into him again, and be revived; and Elijah takes him and gives him to his mother, who at once owns the God of Israel.
[W. K.]
(To be continued)