Can we really trust God? It’s a question many – most – of us ask repeatedly, even though we’d probably tell everyone around us that “Of course we can”! The story of the widow of Zarephath and her son raises all sorts of questions and perhaps gives us the ‘space’ to acknowledge the struggle to trust God in the midst of our own difficult circumstances.
The prophet Elijah, on the run from King Ahab of Israel, was told by God to go to Zarephath in Sidon, where God had commanded a widow to provide for him. He went. Yet, when Elijah encountered the widow, he found that she was herself in desperate need. In fact, she was about to use up her last food and facing imminent starvation, so probably the last thing she needed was an extra mouth to feed. In response, Elijah reassured her that, if she supplied his needs, then her food would not run out, as God would provide supernaturally for all of them. This is exactly what happened. All good.
However, the story then takes an unexpected twist. ‘Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing’ (1 Kings 17:17).
When he died, her outburst at Elijah is perfectly understandable: “What do you have against me man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” (verse 18). The widow had been obedient to God in taking in Elijah. God had certainly seemed to provide for them. And now this!
Many of us can perhaps testify to moments in our lives when God has been incredibly kind to us, only to be then faced with a situation which leaves us wondering why He suddenly seems to have turned against us. Maybe we have wondered whether God really is trustworthy at all.
Coming from the area of Sidon where the God of Israel was neither known nor worshipped, this widow would have been more familiar with the gods of her region, which were thought to act in unpredictable ways. Her expectation would have been one of shifting sands and uncertainty, rather than trustworthiness.
But the God of Israel was seen to be so different. Even the death of her son wasn’t beyond the scope of His gracious reach. Taking the boy in his arms, Elijah, the servant of God, carried the boy to the room where he was staying and cried out to God in intercession (verse 20). Again, unlike the prayers to try and influence the fickle pagan gods, Elijah’s was a simple one, a plea for mercy that the boy’s life might be returned to him (verse 21). How marvellous that God heard Elijah’s cry (verse 22)!
As a result, the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth” (verse 24).
Sometimes it’s really hard for us to understand the ways of God, especially in the darkest of times. But our God is not capricious or volatile. He is always steadfast and compassionate. What seemed like the ultimate disaster for this widow turned out to be the very means for her to discover the reality of Elijah’s God, who specialises in bringing life from the dead.
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