Great Escapes 3 with Prophets, Mothers and Sons: How and Why God Sometimes Rescues at (or Past) the Last Minute

God’s rescues have many purposes, including the opportunity of increasing the faith of mothers and prophets alike in Him, His goodness, truth, provision and power. In 1 Kings 17:1, the prophet, Elijah, tells wicked King Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” God then instructs Elijah to hide by the brook Cherith, from which he drinks. God commands ravens to bring bread and meat for Elijah morning and evening (verses 2-6). As Ahab searches for Elijah and the drought worsens, Elijah stays safe and well fed by Cherith. It’s not until the brook fails that God provides a widow for Elijah—at the last minute for them both.

The LORD tells Elijah (verse 9), “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and stay there; behold, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you.” A widow hardly seems a capable candidate to provide for a prophet, but then neither do ravens. This widow doesn’t even seem aware of her part in God’s plan. At the city gates, Elijah meets her gathering sticks and asks her to bring him a little water (verse 10). As she’s going to get it, he calls, “Please bring me a piece of bread in your hand.” She replies (verse 12), “As the LORD your God lives, I have no bread, only a handful of flour in the bowl and a little oil in the jar; and behold, I am gathering a few sticks that I may go in and prepare for me and my son, that we may eat it and die.” She vows identically to Elijah in verse 1 except for calling God his God, not Israel’s—or hers.

I wonder if the widow recoiled at the thought of further depriving her own surviving flesh and blood of his last meal for this rather pushy stranger’s sake. Or did she know Elijah, and feel she had nothing to lose, especially after his next words to her (verse 13): “Do not fear; go, do as you have said, but make me a little bread cake from it first and bring it out to me, and afterward you may make one for yourself and for your son.”

A handful of flour and a little oil would make a pretty pitiful personal cake for one, let alone three, but Elijah adds (verse 14), “For thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘The bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall the jar of oil be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain on the face of the earth.’” Elijah corrects her vow: God is indeed Israel’s, not just his. Verses 15-16 say that the widow “went and did according to the word of Elijah, and she and he and her household ate for many days. The bowl of flour was not exhausted nor did the jar of oil become empty, according to the word of the Lord which He spoke through Elijah.”

God has rescued Elijah twice in this chapter so far, and continues to do so as King Ahab seeks the prophet, but the widow’s next rescue is past the last minute (verses 17-18): “Now it came about after these things that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became sick; and his sickness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. So she said to Elijah, ‘What do I have to do with you, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my iniquity to remembrance and to put my son to death!’” Despite literally tasting God’s provision for many days, when her son dies she assumes she’s being punished for past sin and blames Elijah to boot.

Sometimes we may do the same when we’re going through agonizing trouble, but nothing in this text validates her assumption. Elijah springs to the widow’s rescue, unable to figure out what’s going on, either (verses 19-20): “He said to her, ‘Give me your son’. Then he took him from her bosom and carried him up to the upper room where he was living, and laid him on his own bed. He called to the LORD and said, ‘O LORD my God, have You also brought calamity to the widow with whom I am staying, by causing her son to die?’” The King James Version (KJV) says Elijah “cried” to the LORD, whom he now calls “my” God. In the most excruciating times, we want God closest to us, even though we may blame Him and assume that He acts for our harm, not our good, as Elijah does (verse 20): “have you also brought calamity to the widow.” Elijah implies that God has already brought calamity, perhaps to himself, Ahab and maybe even all Israel.

God does hold the power over death, as Elijah realizes, but also over much more, as Jesus teaches (Luke 12:4-7):

“I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him! Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.”

In His absolute omnipotence, God benevolently regards even creatures most people would consider insignificant—and He loves and cares for His own intimately.

After stretching himself on the widow’s son repeatedly and again crying out to God, Elijah delivers the living child to his mother. She ends Chapter 17 by telling Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” “Know” is yada, which can also be translated, “to perceive and see, find out and discern, to know by experience, be acquainted with, to admit, acknowledge, confess, be wise.” Although the widow and her son experience God’s miraculous provision day after day, and Elijah’s been her extended-stay houseguest, only now can she say she knows Elijah for a man of God who speaks God’s truth.

Similar events occur in 2 Kings 4. A widow of the sons of the prophets calls to Elisha, Elijah’s successor, for assistance: a creditor wants her sons as slaves to pay off her debt. Elisha asks what she owns, and she replies (verse 2), “Your maidservant has nothing in the house except a jar of oil.”

Elisha tells the widow to borrow many vessels from her neighbors, take them inside, shut the door behind her and her sons, pour the oil into the vessels and set aside the full ones. Verses 6-7 say, “When the vessels were full, she said to her son, ‘Bring me another vessel’. And he said to her, ‘There is not one vessel more’. And the oil stopped. Then she came and told the man of God. And he said, ‘Go, sell the oil and pay your debt, and you and your sons can live on the rest’.” This terse account does not detail the widow’s response, and 2 Kings 4 seems less extreme than 1 Kings 17—at first.

For starters, Elisha isn’t on the run from Israel’s unrepentant king during a famine-producing drought which is actually God’s judgement (verses 8-10):

Now there came a day when Elisha passed over to Shunem, where there was a prominent woman, and she persuaded him to eat food. And so it was, as often as he passed by, he turned in there to eat food. She said to her husband, “Behold now, I perceive that this is a holy man of God passing by us continually. Please, let us make a little walled upper chamber and let us set a bed for him there, and a table and a chair and a lampstand; and it shall be, when he comes to us, that he can turn in there.”

Under much less stressful conditions than Elijah and the Sidonian widow endured, the married Shunammite woman (whom the KJV calls, “great”) provides a bed and breakfast for Elisha during business trips: merely a perk for the prophet from a woman with plenty. Unlike the Sidonian, the Shunammite already knows (yada) that the prophet is a man of God.

Elisha wants to pay her back, but she only indicates her utter sufficiency (verse 13). Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, points out that she has no son and her husband is old, so Elisha prophesies (verse 16), “At this season next year you will embrace a son.” The woman replies, “No, my lord, O man of God, do not lie to your maidservant.” Like the widow, the woman has trouble believing truth, but verse 17 says, “The woman conceived and bore a son at that season the next year, as Elisha had said to her.” It’s a rescue of sorts—from son-lessness, and might even be at or past the last minute, since her husband is old. But her next rescue is extreme by any reckoning.

One day after her child is grown, he goes out to his father and the reapers. After complaining about his head, he is carried according to his father’s orders back to his mother. She takes him in her lap until he dies around noon.

The Shunammite is the strong, silent type: she lays her son on Elisha’s bed, closes the door and only tells her husband, “It will be well” when he wonders what’s going on after she asks him for a servant and a donkey to run after the prophet. Unsurprisingly, she saddles her own donkey and tells her servant (verse 24), “Drive and go forward; do not slow down the pace for me unless I tell you.”

Elisha sees her coming and realizes something is not well, so he sends Gehazi to question her. She replies, “It is well,” but seizes Elisha by the feet when she reaches him. Gehazi moves to push her away. Elisha orders (verse 27), “Let her alone, for her soul is troubled within her; and the LORD has hidden it from me and has not told me.”

The woman then breaks her silence (verse 28): “Did I ask for a son from my lord? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me’?” Like the Sidonian widow, the Shunammite woman blames the prophet and shows her continuing difficulty with accepting truth and realizing God’s goodness and provision.

Elisha tells Gehazi how to go ahead and attend to the son, then follows with the woman, who vows not to leave him. Gehazi’s efforts to revive the child fail. Apparently Gehazi has his own issues.

When Elisha reaches the woman’s son, he closes the door, prays and stretches himself on the child similar to what Elijah did in regard to the widow’s son. The child revives, Elisha summons Gehazi to call the woman and tells her to carry him out. Characteristically, she says nothing but falls to his feet and bows herself to the ground before wordlessly carrying her son away.

God’s extreme rescues in these two chapters of Kings demonstrate His goodness, truth, provision and power: invitations to grow in faith. For Elijah, it was rescuing from a murderous king, drought, starvation and the death of his hostess’s son. For the Sidonian widow, it took rescuing her and her son from starvation and then also saving her son from death. For the widow of the sons of the prophets, it was a miraculous jar of oil that kept staying full until it provided revenue enough to rescue her from her debt and her sons from slavery. For the self-sufficient Shunammite, it was the resurrection of the son she didn’t admit she wanted—maybe not even to herself.

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