But God was not done displaying miracles. Some time later the brook dried up and God told Elijah to seek out a widow who lives in a town called Zarephath. Normally, in those days, if you were a widow, that meant you were probably extremely poor. And on top of that, with a drought, you can be sure that food prices were higher than normal.
Sure enough, in 1 Kings 17 Elijah knocks on the door of this widow’s house and the situation is bleak–the widow has barely enough food for one final meal. The situation is bleak, and still, Elijah asks for water and bread. The widow has a son and she’s probably thinking, there’s a drought. Water is hard to come by. I’m a widow. I have a son whose starving. And all I have is a handful of flour and little oil to make bread for my family. Who is this stranger who has the nerve to ask for a handout from me? Come on, Elijah.
You know there are some people who are so clueless and because they are clueless, they can ask for something that they shouldn’t be asking for if they had a little bit of common sense. And when you are on the receiving end of such a person, you don’t know how to respond because you don’t want to offend or to appear selfish but you’ve been put into a really awkward situation. Elijah, have a little common sense. Knock on someone else’s home. Not the home of this poor widow.
It’s interesting how Jesus interprets this encounter between Elijah and the widow in Luke 4:24-26.
24 “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.”
Jesus contrasts the widow welcoming Elijah into her home with thousands upon thousands of people who did not welcome him. And Jesus links this encounter with his own. Jesus is a prophet who likewise is not welcome in his hometown.
Following this logic, we shouldn’t be surprised that the same way the prophets of the Old Testament were dismissed by the vast majority of the people, most people in our day will not welcome Jesus Christ. Given her desperate situation, it’s amazing that this woman not only welcomed Elijah into her home but she actually parted with the last meal which she was preparing to give to her own son. And she shared the meal knowing full well that this would probably be her final meal because she had nothing left.
Elijah reassured her that the Lord, the God of Israel, will keep multiplying the flour and oil so that there would be a continuous supply until the Lord sent rain and ended the drought. And the amazing thing is that she agreed to share her meal. We can’t overlook how great this widow’s faith must have been to part with what looked like a final meal with her son.
We don’t know exactly how long Elijah stayed there but it was long enough for them to experience the miracle of God’s provision day after day. But God was not done performing miracles. Enough time had passed that the son grew ill while Elijah was still there and the son died.
We read in 1 Kings 17:17-18.
1 Kings 17
17 Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. 18 She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”
It’s an irrational statement. If Elijah had not showed up, the son and the widow probably would have died earlier because they were down to their last meal. But of course, when your son dies, people are not thinking rationally. Elijah prayed 3 times for the boy and God raised him back to life. And it’s at that moment the widow finally believed and placed her faith in the same God that Elijah knew.
In the following chapter, things came to a head. Many Jewish prophets were killed during the reign of Ahab. And God spoke to Elijah to issue a challenge to Ahab in 1 Kings 18:22-24.
Let’s turn there.
1 Kings 18
22 Then Elijah said to them [he’s speaking to the people of Israel], “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”
This was a showdown between Baal and God. And the odds were stacked against Elijah because he was by himself. On the other side, 450 prophets of Baal. Two altars were set up and the 450 prophets of Baal were up to bat first. They prayed to Baal, they yelled, they danced around the altar, but still, no fire.
Then, it was Elijah’s turn. For dramatic effect, Elijah asked the crowd to fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood. They did this 3 times until the altar was thoroughly drenched. Elijah prayed and God rained down fire from heaven and everything was burnt up. The crowd immediately repented before God. Emboldened, the crowd seized the 450 Baal prophets and had them slaughtered.
And because the people had repented, Elijah prayed for rain and it rained for the first time in three and a half years. This was the high point of Elijah’s ministry. He had fulfilled his mission. The people had repented and the rain of God’s grace fell afresh on His people.