1 Kings 17:17-24

Sermon preached on May 27, 2007 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2007. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at http://www.newlifeop.org/.

Does it pay to be righteous? Does it pay to do the right thing? Do the promises of God come true? One of my favorite verses from the Psalms is
Psalm 37:4, which says,

"Delight yourself in the LORD
and he will give you
the desires of your heart."

Is that true? Or how about Psalm 112:5-8? It says,

"Good will come to him
who is generous and lends freely,
who conducts his affairs with justice.
Surely he will never be shaken;
a righteous man will be remembered forever.
He will have no fear of bad news;
his heart is steadfast,
trusting in the LORD.
His heart is secure,
he will have no fear;"

But consider this widow of Zarephath. She helped the prophet Elijah. She was generous to him and fed him with the last food that she had. She was blessed for awhile. The flour and oil were not used up. But then her son died. It was like God's blessing had gone and her worst fears were realized. She had done what was right—feeding Elijah and hiding him from Jezebel's father. But instead of being greatly rewarded for her righteous behavior—she was greatly afflicted.

She was not alone. The same thing happened to the
Shunammite woman. In 2 Kings 4 we read how she was concerned about the prophet Elisha and how she took the initiative in was hospitable to him, providing him with a room to stay—yet the reward she received for doing this was that her son died when he was very young.

Job knew about this too. He was the most righteous man on the earth—he was generous to the poor. (Job 31:16) Yet God's hand was heavy on him—he lost his possessions, his children, his health.

Stephen was one of the first deacons. (Acts 6) He looked after the poor. He trusted in the Lord and proclaimed Jesus as Lord. Yet he was stoned to death.

That's the way that it seems to be sometimes. Bad things come to those who are godly. The opposite is also true—good things come to those who are evil. In
Psalm 73:3-5 the psalmist said,

"For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from the burdens common to man;
they are not plagued by human ills."

He continues in verses 12-14,

"This is what the wicked are like—
always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been plagued;
I have been punished every morning."

Sometimes it doesn't seem to pay to be righteous. The wicked sometimes seem to have it better than the righteous. This widow of Zarephath knew that. She was perplexed because of the way that God treated her. She had done what was right, she had trusted in God and obeyed Him—and yet something terrible happens to her. Her son dies.

What are we to learn from this? God included this as a portion of His Word one of the great truths we see here is that

when God sends bad things our way, He is attempting to teach us something.

To see this, we need to look at the conclusion of this whole matter. After Elijah brought her son back from the dead, the widow of Zarephath said,

"Now I know that you are a man of God
and that the word of the LORD
from your mouth is the truth."

God taught her that lesson. That lesson was one of the great purposes of the ordeal. Because of what happened this woman's impression of Elijah, of God, and of His Word were changed. She was a changed woman—changed for the better. She had been brought closer to God. At the end of it she trusted in God more completely. She knew that He was a great God of grace, power and love.

So when hardship comes to you—know that God is teaching you something. Hardship is meant to change us—for the better. It is meant to draw us closer to God, to get us to trust Him better, to praise Him more, to glorify Him more fittingly. The Holy Spirit tells us about this
1 Peter 1:6-8. Peter wrote,

"for a little while you may have had
to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
These have come so that your faith—
of greater worth than gold,
which perishes even though refined by fire—
may be proved genuine
and may result in praise, glory and honor
when Jesus Christ is revealed."

It's like the lines from the hymn, "How Firm a Foundation".

"When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;The flame shall not hurt thee; I only designThy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine."

In the afflictions God sends our way God has plans to make us more holy—more humble, more like our Savior Jesus in love and righteousness. He has plans to bring us to greater understanding of Who He is and what He is like.

We see this in the story of Naaman.
Naaman had leprosy. He was healed by God through the prophet Elisha. After it was over he said to Elisha, (2 Kings 5:15)

"Now I know that there is no God
in all the world except in Israel."

We see this in the story of Job. At the end of his ordeal, Job said to God, (Job 42:2-6)

"I know that you can do all things;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.
[You asked,]
'Who is this that obscures my counsel
without knowledge?'
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
[You said,] 'Listen now,
and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.'
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes."

We see this in the story of the Israelites and their suffering in Egypt. After the Egyptians perished in the Red Sea and the Israelites were delivered, Moses and Miriam sang in song to the Lord, (Exodus 15)

"I will sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted.
The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and my song;
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
my father's God, and I will exalt him.
The LORD is a warrior;
the LORD is his name.
Pharaoh's chariots and his army
he has hurled into the sea.
Your right hand, O LORD,
was majestic in power.
Your right hand, O LORD,
shattered the enemy.
In the greatness of your
you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger;
it consumed them like stubble.
By the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up.
The surging waters stood firm like a wall;
the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy boasted,
'I will pursue, I will overtake them.
I will divide the spoils;
I will gorge myself on them.
I will draw my sword
and my hand will destroy them.'
But you blew with your breath,
and the sea covered them.
They sank like lead in the mighty waters.
Who among the gods is like you,
Who is like you
majestic in holiness, awesome in glory,
working wonders?
You stretched out your right hand
and the earth swallowed them.
In your unfailing
love you will lead the people
you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide them
to your holy dwelling.
The nations will hear and tremble;
anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the people of Canaan will melt away;
terror and dread will fall upon them.
By the power of your arm
they will be as still as a stone—
until your people pass by,
O LORD, until the people you bought pass by.
You will bring them in and plant them
on the mountain of your inheritance—
the place, O LORD,
you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary,
O Lord, your hands established.
The LORD will reign for ever and ever."

What did the troubles the Jews had in the time of Esther teach them? What did Haman being hanged on his own gallows teach them? What did their enemies being killed on the very day they planned to kill them teach them?

We should always remember the truth that the apostle Paul told us in
Romans 8:28,

"And we know that in all things
God works for the good
of those who love him,
who have been called
according to his purpose."

When you're going through troubles know that God is refining you. Know that are lessons for you to learn.

The second thing we see from our text about these lessons is that

they are not always apparent.

Sometimes lessons are easy. I still remember the first time I ever changed a muffler on a lawn mower. I took what remained of the old one off and put the new one on. Then I started the mower to see how it sounded. It sounded a lot better. I turned it off right away and since it had only been on for five or six seconds I thought I would give the muffler another turn to make it tighter. So I grabbed it with my hand to do that. But I didn't hold on to it long. It was hot and I burned my hand a bit. I could hardly believe it got so hot so quickly. But it did. Mufflers get hot really quickly. I've never made that mistake again. It was easy to learn that lesson.

But other times the lessons are not easy to discern. That's what we see here. The widow was perplexed. She couldn't figure out what was going on.
The obvious answer—the one she immediately jumped to—that there was a direct relationship between her sin and her son dying—was wrong. She was mistaken. It wasn't about that at all. There wasn't a direct connection between her sin and the death of her son. That's not what God was teaching her. He was not punishing her for her sin. In fact, something far different was going on.

But her mistake is common. Many people often deduce the wrong lessons from God's providences. That's what Job's three friends did. They concluded that Job must be a great hypocrite and that he was merely pretending to be righteous, that in fact he was a great sinner. They missed the real lesson that God was teaching. It went completely over their heads. They had no idea that Job was suffering like he was because he was the most righteous man on the earth.

Israelite foremen completely missed the lesson that God was teaching them when Moses went to Pharaoh and in response Pharaoh made their work harder. They were angry at Moses and said to him, (Exodus 5:21)

"May the LORD look upon you and judge you!
You have made us a stench to Pharaoh
and his officials and have put a sword
in their hand to kill us."

They didn't have a clue about what God was doing.

Sometimes God's lessons are like that. For a long time
Job didn't know what was going on. It was only at the end that he understood some of it. But even then, he acknowledged that he understood very little. (Job 40:4-5) God's lessons are often very difficult to discern and understand. When you're in the midst of them—you sometimes can't see the point. It's only at the end that some of God's purposes become clear.

We see that in our text. When the widow asked
Elijah about the death of her son, he had no answer for her. He didn't know the reason. He didn't have an answer, all he had was a question for God. He said,

"O LORD my God, have you
brought tragedy also upon this widow
I am staying with,
by causing her son to die?"

God's ways are often perplexing. His lessons are hard to discern. I can relate to that. I've been in a situation where I know God has lessons for me—and yet I have an overwhelming impression that I'm not comprehending it. When my brother died four years ago it had a profound affect on me. It was so difficult to watch him suffer and die. So very difficult.

Now on the one hand, I can see some lessons in it and I could make a list of them. We need to be prepared for death. We Christians need to die well. We need to have great faith in the face of death. We need to make the most of the time we have. We need to be careful that we don't focus on the minor things of Christianity and miss the major things. It was to help me understand suffering and death more and be more appreciative of Christ, His work and His love for us.

But in another sense—when I think about what God is teaching me through that—it's still a big question mark. What's the lesson? Perhaps it's the one about being more appreciative about Christ and His sufferings and death. But it's like I really still don't get it. I know I don't understand it. It's like I know it's there—this great lesson—but I know I've barely begun to understand it, to assimilate it into my life like I should.

God's lessons are not always apparent.

This means that we need to trust God even when we don't understand.

God's ways are not our ways. They are higher than our ways. (Isaiah 55) Job had great faith in God. Nothing could snuff it out. In the midst of great suffering Job declared, (Job 13:15)

"Though he slay me,
yet will I hope in him;"

When you don't understand what God is doing—trust Him, seek Him. Ask Him to open your eyes to the lessons He is teaching you.

The third great truth that we see in this passage is that, as paradoxical as it may seem, there was

great grace for the widow here.

At first glance it might seem that God was pouring out His wrath on this woman. But the exact opposite is taking place. His grace is seeking her out.

Elijah was soon going to leave this widow and go back to Israel. If he had left without the widow's son dying, she would have missed out on much grace. If her son had not of died and been brought back to life, she would not have been drawn close to the Lord. The oil and flour not being used up was not enough of a lesson for her to be bound to the Lord. As M.B. Van't Veer points out, the oil and the flour not being used up was primarily for Elijah's sake. God was keeping his prophet alive. Her and her son only shared in the miracle because they were hosting Elijah. She did not seem to realize that God was interested in her—in giving her grace for her sake alone. She was not drawn close enough to God through the miracle of the oil and flour. It did not have the impact on her that it should have. It should have given her great faith in God's faithfulness, in His love, in His power. But it didn't. When her son died, her faith seemed to have vanished. 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?"

M.B. Van't Veer writes, (p. 121)

"Through this shocking divine deed, it becomes apparent that the Word of the Lord does not govern the widow's life completely. The Lord's promises have been given to her and the Word of God has been proclaimed to her in the clearest terms, but now the truth comes out: the Word still does not completely dominate her life and all its circumstances."

In other words, her faith was not like that of Abraham or Job. It needed to become like that.

You'll recall the faith of
Abraham. When God told him to sacrifice his son Isaac, the son of promise, he made immediate preparations to obey. He got up early the next morning and started out. (Genesis 22) The book of Hebrews tells us that (Hebrews 11:17-19)

"By faith Abraham,
when God tested him,
offered Isaac as a sacrifice.
He who had received the promises
was about to sacrifice his one and only son,
even though God had said to him,
'It is through Isaac
that your offspring will be reckoned.'
Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead,
and figuratively speaking,
he did receive Isaac back from death."

Abraham knew that Isaac had to live. He was the son of promise. But Abraham trusted God so much that he knew that God would preserve Isaac, even raising him from the dead. At the critical juncture, Abraham did not question God. He did not complain. His faith did not waiver. He trusted and obeyed.

It was the same with
Job. When Job lost all his possessions and all his children, receiving one blow after another—his faith in God was still strong. What did He do after receiving all the horrible news? He worshiped God. We read, (Job 1:20-21)

"At this, Job got up
and tore his robe and shaved his head.
Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:
'Naked I came from my mother's womb,
and naked I will depart.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
may the name of the LORD be praised.'"

Job had great faith in God.

Now the point is that if Elijah had left this widow without her son dying, this widow would not have been drawn closer to God.
This whole thing was about grace coming to her. God was drawing her much closer to himself. If Elijah had left without this incident, this may not have had any lasting effect on her, except as an outsider looking in on God's grace and merely experiencing it in a peripheral way.

But this incident with her son showed her that

God was concerned about her and had grace for her.

He did something for her in which she and her son were central. He brought her son back from the dead.

I think we should see Satan's hand in the death of her son. Satan didn't want her to believe in Elijah's God. He didn't want her rewarded for helping the prophet. He didn't want her to trust in God. So he took her son.

But what does God do? He shows her that His power can overcome one of mankind's greatest enemies—the curse of sin—death. The widow's son died—but God raised him back to life. The widow learned that God's Word is true, that His prophet's speak the truth. She declared,

"Now I know that you are a man of God
and that the word of the LORD
from your mouth is the truth."

This whole incident is about grace—God's saving grace coming to her and saving her.

Lastly, for those of you who are not Christians, this passage shows that

you need God's grace to come to you and save you.

Outside God's grace there is death. Death came to this boy. Apart from God's grace there would have been no hope for him. You need God's grace. Go to Jesus. He underwent death so that those who believe on Him might live. Go to Jesus. He suffered and died and so defeated the great curse that is against us.

Go to Jesus. Your past sin is no roadblock to God's grace. This woman was saved in spite of her past sin. Her past sin did not prevent God being interested in her and calling her with grace.