Hello Sunday school teachers, preachers, and students! Welcome to SundaySchoolPreacher.com. What man in his right mind, asks a woman to feed him first, before she feeds her ONLY child her last meal? If he’s in his right mind the answer is clearly a man with a LOT of faith. This week I show how both the prophet Elijah and the unnamed widow of Zarephath are blessed for faithfulness. They have active faith in God’s provision. Elijah travels a great distance only to learn that the woman God commanded to feed him had just a handful of food. I believe it took a great deal of faith for Elijah to ask this nameless widow to feed him first. I also believe it took even more faith for the nameless widow to actually follow Elijah’s instructions. Can you imagine your mother, or can you imagine YOU feeding someone you don’t even know the last part of your meager meal? This is real faith. They both had to really believe that God really would provide. This foreign woman didn’t know Elijah and she didn’t know Elijah’s God, but somehow she knew what the true and living God required of her and she did it. Likewise, Elijah was in the heart of Baal worship territory and he knew nothing about this woman. But both of them were faithful to what God instructed and as a result both were saved in their time of distress. Some of the ideas surrounding this week’s text include the terms:
The books of 1 and 2nd Kings, like its name suggests, features the kings of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. 1 Kings begins with King David as an old man about to leave the scene. But before David dies, of course, there is family drama surrounding who will succeed him. In the first chapter, after some drama, Solomon ascends to the throne. This is before David’s United Kingdom is divided into two kingdoms. The two books of 1 Kings and 2 kings “were originally one book in the Hebrew Bible but were divided into two scrolls when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek” (New Interpreter Study Bible). Together they cover a period of “almost 400 years from the ascension of Solomon to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE” (NISB). The NISB also notes that
“The writers of Kings selected, combined, and arranged the written and oral traditions of Israel and Judah to express their theological understanding of their histories. The sources they used include The Books of the Acts of Solomon (I Kings 11:41), the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah (mentioned 15 times, beginning with Rehoboam in 1 Kings 14:29) and other unnamed sources including a narrative of the last days of David and several sources providing information about the prophets Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah and other prophets”.
Just as the first five books of the Old Testament are known as the Books of Law, 1 and 2 Kings are two of the twelve books known as the Books of History. Nelson’s Bible handbook notes that
“Early tradition credited the prophet Jeremiah with the writing of these two books, but most scholars today no longer hold to the Jeremiah theory. Evidence points to an unknown prophet who worked at the same time as Jeremiah to compile this history”.
The seventeenth chapter of 1 Kings introduces the prophet Elijah. Nelson’s indicates that Solomon entered the scene about 971 BC, the kingdom divided about 931 BC and Elijah and Elisha would have entered the scene about 66 years later around 865 BC. Scholars believe Elijah’s prophetic ministry lasted from 865 to 847 BC. It’s important to note that part of what Elijah portrays is God’s power over other false gods. Miracles happen in 1 Kings that as the NISB says “reflect prophetic opposition to the rise of the cult of Baal and Asherah in Israel as introduced by Ahab and his wife, Jezebel”. 1 Kings 16:30 tell us that Ahab did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all who were before him. Ahab marries Jezebel who lived among the Phoenicians. Phoenicia was in the heart of Baal worship territory (Townsend). In this seventeenth chapter God sends Elijah into the heart of Jezebel’s home territory. Elijah’s mission is to demonstrate God’s power over and above the power of Baal. Townsend Commentary notes that Baal was worshiped as a fertility god and was supposed to make it rain. Some important words to consider from this text include:
Review of Last Week and How it Connects to This Week.
Last week’s lesson covered Moses’ perspective after wandering in the wilderness for forty years. The focus last week was to understand that God expected Israel’s obedience. At this point Moses knew that he would not enter the Promised Land. Moses knew that there would be new leadership guiding the Israelites into the Promised Land and going forward. So at this point Moses was driving home the importance of obeying God. The old generation had died out. The new generation was about to see the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.
In verse one, Moses opened with an admonition to heed the statutes and ordinances that he was teaching. He told them “so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God your ancestors, is giving you”. Moses knew and all of Israel should have known that the old generation died in the wilderness because they were not faithful and obedient to God. Moses reminds them “so that you may live”.
In verse two Moses warned the Israelites not to add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it. This same idea is echoed in Revelations 22:18-19. The NISB notes that “the comprehensive nature of God’s law did not rule out additions to its written text. See Deuteronomy 1:5 where Moses expounded on earlier laws. The written law could receive clarification and revision but its fundamental truth as God’s covenant law would remain unchanged”.
In verse three Moses reminded them of what God did to those who followed the Baal of Peor. I noted how the NISB explained that Baal is another name for a god and that the Baal of Peor mentioned here “involved sexual relations with the women of Moab (numbers 25:1-5). This worship of Baal of Peor encouraged these sexual encounters with Moabite women at the sanctuary. Townsend Commentary noted that 24,000 Israelites died because of unfaithfulness.
In verse four Moses made the stark contrast between faithfulness and unfaithfulness. He told the Israelites “those of you who held fast to the LORD your God are all alive today. This is a reminder that unfaithfulness leads to death. Their parents and forbears had died because of unfaithfulness.
In verse five Moses told the Israelites he was following instruction from God. He was teaching them to observe statutes and ordinances that they should observe in the land. Moses knows they will face temptation to stray away from God just as their parents and forebears did in the wilderness.
In verse six he pressed the point to follow the statutes and ordinances diligently. Then he added that following these statutes and ordinances diligently will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples who when they hear them will say “surely this is a great nation of wise and discerning people”. Moses expected the neighboring nations to admire the Israelites. However the Israelites would show soon enough that Moses’ faith in the people was misplaced.
Verses seven and eight show how much hope and trust Moses placed in the Israelites. Moses imagines other nations saying “what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him”? Moses knew he wouldn’t enter the Promised Land. He knew things would soon be out of his control. These laws, these statutes and ordinances that God had given him were his greatest possession. These were the statutes and ordinances that he had worked on across the years. Theses statutes and ordinances, these laws were his most valuable possession and the very best he had to offer to a people who would soon stray from the very God who Moses had so diligently served.
In verses twelve and thirteen Moses reminded the Israelites of the power, majesty, and grandeur of the God of their covenant. He reminded them how God spoke to them out of the fire. And he reminded them that it wasn’t just him coming up with these laws all on his own. These laws came from God. They weren’t just laws to follow but more so these laws were the covenant between them and God. In these Ten Commandments they would understand their “duties and responsibilities toward God and their fellow human beings” (NISB). I noted that these Ten Commandments may have been written 3,400 years ago but they are still relevant today. In these commandments and statutes we begin to understand how to relate to God and each other.
Last week, Moses’ response to God’s faithfulness was to encourage the Israelites to remain faithful going forward. He knew they would face temptation to worship other gods but wanted them to remain obedient in faith. This week we see a widow who has almost nothing left and by her own words is about to eat her last meal and die. It is her act of faith to feed the prophet of God first that saves her and her sons life. She is blessed for her faithfulness. Townsend and Boyd’s Commentaries title this week’s lesson “Blessed for Faithfulness,” Standard Commentary titles this lesson “Active Faith”. The scripture text comes from 1 Kings 17:8-16.
What Takes Place in This Passage:
At first glance it would seem that this week’s lesson is focused on the faithfulness of the unnamed widow of Zarephath. Without question, she deserves that consideration but when I look a little closer I see the faithfulness of Elijah also. At any rate, faithfulness is the topic.
Our lesson begins at verse eight with a phrase that is often repeated in the Old Testament. “The word of the LORD came to me”. This phrase indicates the reader should pay special attention. God is about to speak.
In verse nine the LORD tells Elijah to go to Zarephath which is a city near Sidon on the Phoenician coast. The LORD tells Elijah to live there because The LORD has commanded a widow who lives there to feed him. The NISB explains that “God sends Elijah among the Phoenicians, which is the center of Baal worship, to demonstrate that even in the land of Baal, the LORD is sovereign. In other words, God is sending Elijah away from the land of Israel into a foreign land. And ultimately God will show that the one true and living God is God outside Israel also.
It’s important to note two things here. First, the LORD has already commanded a widow to take care of Elijah. And secondly, this widow lived in the heart of Baal worship territory so she was likely not a worshiper of Elijah’s God. She probably worshiped Baal. Townsend Commentary notes that “the Old Testament portrays God as being particularly concerned for “the widow, the orphan, and the poor” – that is, the vulnerable and marginalized in society”. In this chapter we see God using a woman who most likely doesn’t even know who the one true and living God is. But yet, God uses this woman to show God’s sovereignty. The point is, God can use whomever God wants to use. God can deliver whomever God wants to deliver. Just because they don’t do religion the way you do religion doesn’t mean God doesn’t care for them.
In verse ten Elijah goes to Zarephath. When he arrives the gate of the city the unnamed widow was there gathering sticks. Elijah asks her for a drink of water.
In verse eleven as she was going to get the water Elijah asks her for a morsel of bread.
In verse twelve the unnamed widow said “as the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug”. Elijah has traveled all this way, only to discover that this woman God commanded to feed him has but a handful of meal. She tells Elijah that she’s gathering a few sticks so she can go home, prepare her meal for herself and her son, and then eat it and die. This unnamed widow is in a terrible situation. She only has a handful of food left and She literally has no hope of living beyond her last meal. She’s given up hope and has no one and nowhere to turn to for help. Townsend commentary notes that “the status of widows in ancient Israelite society was precarious. Having no inheritance rights and often in want of life’s necessities, she was exposed to harsh treatment and exploitation”.
In verse thirteen Elijah tells her, don’t be afraid, go and do as you said, but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, then make something for yourself and your son. It’s this verse that strikes me as a powerful way to show Elijah’s faithfulness also. Here, Elijah had to know that God would provide. What man in his right mind would dare ask a woman who is about to make her last meal for her only child to feed him first. This took faith on Elijah’s part. He had to know that God was going to take care of this woman and her son.
In verses fourteen and fifteen Elijah tells the widow, “The LORD, the God of Israel says the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the LORD sends rain on the earth”. The unnamed widow did as Elijah said so that Elijah and her household ate for many days. This woman deserves every bit of credit due her for not just listening to the man of God but truly believing that God would be her provider. Can you imagine what your mother might have said to someone who told her to feed them first, when she knew all she had was a small handful of food? Now, my mother has a reputation for feeding people. Maybe she’s capable of it, but I just can’t imagine her feeding someone else what she believes to be her last meal before she feeds her children. The faith of this unnamed widow is astounding. She really believed! She believed the man of God and she believed that God would take care of her and her son.
Verse sixteen closes this lesson helping us to know that God did provide. The jar of meal was not emptied; neither did the jug of oil fail according to the word of the LORD that Elijah spoke. The unnamed widow only had a handful of meal and a little oil. But God made her little bit last a long time. God multiplied her little to become much. Beloved that’s good news for us today. You might not have much in your own eyes, but what you do have God can use it and make it last.
Townsend Commentary notes that “during the famine, Elijah was fed by God via unclean ravens that brought him food and later by a widow who was not part of the household of faith”. God is creator of all of this universe. Acts 10:15 reminds us “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” You and I are created “Imago Dei” that is – in the image of God. Just because someone doesn’t look like you, act like you, wear their clothes like you, speak like you, have the same able-ness of you or have your religious standards doesn’t mean God doesn’t care for and love them in the same way God cares for and loves you. The unnamed widow of Zarephath didn’t know Elijah, but God saved her and her son in the process of saving Elijah. As long as we claim to be God’s people, we ought to treat everybody right.
Key Characters in the text:
Elijah – The first great prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel. Elijah is known to abruptly enter the scene to confront Ahab’s worship of Baal, the Canaanite god of storm, rain, and fertility.
Widow of Zarephath – An unnamed widow in Zarephath of Sidon, a Phoenician city. She is known for responded in faith to Elijah’s request to feed him first from her last meal.
Key Words (not necessarily in the text, but good for discussion)
Miracle – An event that is considered unusual or extraordinary in that it appears to be contrary to what is currently known of nature. Theologically, the emphasis is on what God has revealed through this event, as in the miracles of Jesus.
Faithfulness – The characteristic of being steadfastly loyal to a person or to promises. Theologically, it is a basic description of God who is perfectly faithful to all that God promises, in contrast to sinful humans who are unfaithful in their relationships and actions.
Themes, Topics, Discussion, or Sermon Preparation Ideas
1. Faithfulness for the hopeless.
2. Faithfulness after hopelessness (Elijah after fleeing Jezebel).
1. If you were the widow of Zarephath would you be able to believe God and feed Elijah first?
2. Elijah went to the heart of Baal worship territory. Would you be able to do the same recognizing that your life might be in danger for speaking against Baal?
Faithfulness can be demonstrated in a number of ways. Those include in a sexually exclusive marriage, the loyalty of friendship, unwavering commitment to a mission, or resolute and firm trust in a person, group or cause among other ways. Faithfulness builds relationships, secures hope, and creates trust. Our God is the ultimate demonstration of faithfulness. Let’s strive to follow God’s example in our families, and in our communities.
Preview of Next Week’s Lesson
Next week’s lesson moves from the Old Testament to the New Testament book of Luke. I discuss how a centurion’s faith can heal. A Roman centurion’s servant is sick unto death. But his faith so astonishes Jesus that he declares he has not seen such great faith in all of Israel. As we continue in the theme of responses to God’s faithfulness, I show next week the importance of faith in the life of believers. Next week’s lesson is titled “Faith Can Heal”.