When Elijah met a widow in Zarephath, a town located between Tyre and Sidon, the woman expected she and her son would soon die of starvation. She had nothing to give the prophet except that which she and her son would have eaten as their last meal — and then the Lord performed a miracle.
In fact, he performed two miracles. The gospel reverberates throughout this passage by way of several themes and motifs.
An Overview of 1 Kings 17
When the events of 1 Kings 17 took place, one writer explains, “The Lord was withholding rain from Israel [and] the drought was in judgment of the nation’s rampant idolatry, led by the royal couple Ahab and Jezebel.”
Everyone faced the same judgment for Ahab and Jezebel’s sin, but Elijah would bring rescue through one faithful widow.
Their experience would include feeding many people with a small amount of flour and oil, which did not run out for many days. Elijah would bring the widow’s son back to life after he succumbed to illness.
Various scriptural experts point out ways in which 1 Kings 17 foreshadows the ministry of Jesus over 800 years later.
Feeding the Hungry
At least twice in the gospels, Jesus fed thousands of people with a few loaves and fish. The food was sufficient for everyone gathered there: “they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over” (Matthew 14:20).
Yet, as the Lord said, “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Bread is not what brought life to this widow and her household.
John 6:51 records Jesus telling the Jews, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Followers were eager to eat the bread he provided but not to hear what he had to say about sin, repentance, and eternal life.
They remembered how God sent food from heaven to feed the people (Exodus 16) and asked Jesus, “What sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?” (v. 31).
Was feeding the multitude from so small a supply of provisions not sign enough? They wanted real bread only, just as God’s people wanted only relief from the physical stress of wandering.
The Israelites grumbled: “you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). The Lord had demonstrated his power over and over, yet his people quickly forgot.
What Jesus offered was the bread of communion, of obeying the Lord and loving him wholeheartedly. He offered sanctuary from sin, not from mere hunger or bodily death.
Healing the Sick
Soon after feeding the 5,000, Jesus walked on water. Then he healed the sick. “And as many as touched it were made well” (Matthew 14:36). Jesus even resurrected the dead. Yet even these miracles did not convince the disciples that Jesus was Lord.
Only when they saw him resurrected did they really believe and start to understand, at last. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
The woman in Zarephath became angry when her son died. Perhaps this was not a prophet of the Lord after all. Did he save them all from hunger in the wilderness only to cause her even greater suffering?
Elijah covered the boy with his whole body three times, and he called upon the Lord to bring him back to life. “And the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived” (1 Kings 17:22).
God was merciful, and the woman knew for sure that Elijah came from God. Only God could resurrect the dead. Yet, while she doubted because of her pain, her faith began strong and ended with God’s affirmation through Elijah.
Faith and Fellowship
Paul Tripp says this: “The widow's response to [Elijah’s] first request amazes me. Why? Because she steps out of her own suffering to provide this man she doesn't know with a drink.” Her faith was astounding.
Not only did she find water for a stranger in the middle of a drought, but she also responded in faith to his instructions. Somehow, the words Elijah spoke struck a chord in this believing woman’s heart.
Perhaps the Holy Spirit helped her to recognize God’s voice, or maybe she was simply obedient to the Lord’s command to “love kindness” (Micah 6:8).
Tripp remarked, “by acting in faith, the widow not only made Elijah a cake, but she made a cake for her and her son, and she was able to make many meals for all of them because the flour and oil didn't run out.”
This is a familiar refrain throughout the biblical narrative. God uses a single person to bless many people. Another example would be the Samarian woman, whose story is told in John 4. “Jesus said to her, ‘give me a drink’” (v.7).
She did so, and Jesus told her, “All that I ever did” (v.29). The Samarian woman received Living Water — water that never runs out — in exchange for her kindness and faith, which seemed to recognize the Messiah where others had seen him only as a charismatic teacher.
The Samarian woman took his good news into the town and told everyone. She shared Living Water with them, even though she had left her jug behind.
“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” (Luke 4:25-26).
God sent Elijah to just one faithful woman, but through her, he redeemed a group. Jesus chose a lone woman at a well in Samaria and, through her, spread the news that their Messiah had come.
One might imagine the impact of stories shared by those single individuals who responded to God in faith.
Not all were healed of disease and loss; however, with the Samarian woman, in particular, one recognizes a hunger to overcome sin, shame, fear, anger, and loneliness.
She found hope in Jesus, which overwhelmed her shame and drove her into the midst of those who scorned her.
The One Son
“You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” (1 Kings 17:18). In the widow’s cry, one might also hear the cry of King David’s heart two centuries earlier. Had God chosen to punish the widow for her sins by taking her son?
Her words are reminiscent of those the Israelites spoke to Moses: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11).
And then one must look forward to Christ: why did God send his only Son to die? In order to pay for the sins of all people.
The woman and her son did not pay the penalty for the sins of herself and her household, nor did David’s infant cover his sins.
Still, these symbols foreshadow events to come. God’s only Son would pay the price for all who had sinned.
One cannot experience resurrection life without death. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Everyone will experience resurrection, whether to the second death or to eternal life.
The Mercy of God
Why are some people blessed by an obvious act of healing or provision, and others must suffer from pain, grief, or want? One might ask instead, “Why does the Lord choose to save anyone? “Our transgressions are multiplied before you, and our sins testify against us” (Isaiah 59:12).
But he did send an answer for everyone — Jesus, who died to redeem each person who believes in him alone for healing.
Believers admit that he is worthy of all praise, and they choose to serve him. Believers trust God to raise them to eternal life where there is no more hunger, no more thirst, and no more death.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.