What deeper interest we would have in some of the conspicuous characters of the Bible if only we knew their names and their significance! The renowned widow of Zarephath, or Sarepta, so sympathetic, kind and self-sacrificial, must have had a lovely name. Yet both her own name and that of her boy are not given. The prophet Elijah who lived with them for so long must have come to know them well, but he has left us with no clue as to their identity. Even the Lord, who has our names engraven upon the palms of His hands, does not lift the curtain of anonymity, but simply refers to this commendable female, as “a woman that was a widow.” Evidently, attention is focused on what she did, rather than on who she was.
She lived in Sarepta which belonged to Zidon—a fact marking the striking providence of God. When the land of Israel was apostate and unsafe, Elijah found a welcome refuge in a heathen country, which was, moreover, the native place of his deadliest enemy, Jezebel, daughter of King Eth-Baal of the Zidonians. Although brought up among worshipers of strange gods, it would seem as if she had come to know about the faith of the Hebrews before Elijah the prophet came her way. She came to accept it more fully as the result of what she saw and heard due to Elijah’s sojourn in her poor home.
Of an alien race, she was likewise a widow with a child to keep. Half-way between Tyre and Sidon, she had the humble home her husband had left her, and from a few olive trees and a small barley field she was able to eke out a frugal living for herself and her growing boy. When seasons were favorable what she was able to gather sufficed for her modest needs, but when a terrible drought killed the growing harvest then her poverty was most acute. What struggles some women have after they become widows. Straitened circumstances and oppressive cares make life difficult. With the able breadwinner taken, widows frequently have more cares than they can cope with. Yet godly widows have the promise of divine provision and protection, as this widow of Sarepta came to experience. When famine struck she did not know where the next meal could come from to keep the two of them alive.
Little did the distressed widow realize that deliverance was at hand—that never again would she and her son suffer the pangs of hunger—that the rough-looking stranger who appeared at her door one day was to be her provider for many a day. Elijah was a hunted man on the run, for the godless Queen Jezebel had set a price upon his head, and the sleuths of the wicked queen hunted in vain for the prophet who had pronounced the doom of Jezebel and her equally godless husband, Ahab. They never thought of looking for Elijah in the poor home of a starving widow. Yet she was the one whom God had singled out to shelter the prophet for some two years. She fed him, as a heaven-protected guest, with fearless faith. When Elijah met the widow she was gathering sticks to make a final scanty meal out of the last cakes and oil she had. What pathos was in the woman’s reply to Elijah’s request for a drink of water and a morsel of bread. She said—
As the Lord thy God liveth, I have not a cake but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die.
Famine in the land had emaciated the widow and her boy, now they have come to their last meal. Once this was eaten there would be nothing to do but throw their haggard, fleshless bodies on the bed and await their release from suffering—the terrible death of starvation. But she was to be the widow whom God would command to sustain Elijah. His commands were to be His enablings, as she was to daily prove. Hereafter she and her son were to live from hand to mouth, but it would be from God’s ever open hand to their mouths—and the prophet’s as well!
Although she came to speak of Elijah as the “man of God,” and saw in him the prophet as he performed the miracle of multiplication, there is no evidence that she recognized in him, as he came to her as a stranger in a crucial moment asking for water, that he was indeed God’s honored servant. While God had marked her out as the widow to sustain Elijah, she had not received any advance word that the beggar coming to her would be the prophet. She did not know beforehand of God’s purpose for she was preparing to die. Further, lacking any intuition that the one asking for water would miraculously preserve her and her son from death by starvation, as soon as Elijah told her to go on with the preparation of what the widow felt would be her last meal, and share her penury with the prophet, she mechanically obeyed, believing what he had said about her meal never wasting and the cruse of oil not failing until the famine was past. “She went and did according to the saying of Elijah.”
This woman of true hospitality who, in her willingness to share her only mouthful of food with a stranger whose face indicated a weariness born of fatigue and thirst, and exhaustion due to long travel, knew not that she was to entertain an angel unawares. She yet took the stranger in, and proved herself to be a noble type of Christian hospitality in that it was exercised out of the depth of her poverty. She might have protested when the beggar asked for food by saying, “Have a heart, sir! Do not mock me, a destitute widow who, with a dying son, has only one scanty meal left.” Had this nameless woman met the request of Elijah with bitter scorn, asking him what he expected to find in a famine-stricken house, and also what kind of a man was he to take the last morsel of food out of her mouth, we would have understood her refusal. But no, she did none of these things. It may be that her kind heart said, “I'll share these last cakes with him, for death will soon end our hunger.” Although she felt sharing the final meal would hurt both herself and her boy, she ventured out to give the hungry man who had come her way a portion of it, not realizing that her venture was to be one of faith, and would become the evidence of things not seen.
The widow of Sarepta, then, went ahead with her baking and used up her last handful of meal. She served the stranger first for this was what he had said, “Make me a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son.” The astonished woman had little to say for the bold prediction and the manner of its announcement gave the man’s message a commanding solemnity and convinced her that this man was no ordinary beggar. Hastening to do what her innate love of hospitality prompted her to do, she came to prove that “little is much if God is in it.” Can you not imagine her after that first meal together—which she thought would be the last—was over, how anxiously she would steal away to the empty meal tub and examine her oil cruse to see if the prediction of the stranger had been fulfilled. How hope must have leaped in her heart as she fingered fresh meal and saw the empty cruse refilled. Truly the guest with whom she was willing to share, was a prophet! The widow was to experience a continuing miracle for until the rains came and famine was past—
The barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah.
Daily, the widow of Sarepta proved that sharing what she had with another needy one did not impoverish her life, but greatly enriched it, just as the heavenly Stranger does when we open the door for Him to come in and sup with us. Yes, God multiplied her handful of meal and cruse of oil as Jesus multiplied the five loaves and the two fishes to feed the hungry crowd following Him. How expressive are the stanzas an American poet has given us—
Is thy cruse of comfort failing?
Rise and share it with another:
And through all the years of famine
It shall serve thee and thy brother.
Love divine will fill the storehouse,
And thy handful still renew;
Scanty fare for one will often
Make a royal feast for two.
For the heart grows rich in giving;
All its wealth is golden grain:
Seeds, which mildew in the garner,
Scattered, fill with gold the plain.
Is thy burden hard and heavy?
Do thy steps drag wearily?
Help to bear thy brother’s burden—
God will bear both it and thee.
What a difference the God-sent prophet had made to the home of the widow! All trial was past and daily their need was met by Him who opens His hand and supplies what His own require. Before this the widow had come to know that her guest was a prophet and what blessed truths she must have received from his lips. As the weeks and months rolled by Elijah became part of the home, and without exposing himself unnecessarily must have helped in gathering sticks and helping in other ways when manual labor was required. Then there was the widow’s young son, who, like the rest of his kind, must have been inquisitive and full of questions as to the lodger’s name and experiences. The rugged personality of Elijah must have had an impact on the mind of that boy, whose coming had saved him from death by starvation.
As time rolled by the widow must have grown to feel as calmly secure as Elijah himself who knew that whomever the Lord hides is safe. But one day the peace and contentment of the home miraculously sustained were disturbed for the widow’s son was suddenly seized with illness and finally died. Once again the widow knew despair. Before Elijah came to the home, she feared the death of her boy because of the famine. Now he is actually dead and her mother-heart is perplexed and torn with unspeakable anguish. Why was her child rescued from death the first time, if only to die now? In her grief her conscience seems to trouble her. She feels that the boy’s death was a form of divine judgment because of sin and she said to Elijah—
What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?
The presence of the prophet in her home must have impressed her with the reality of God, resulting in a deeper sense of sin within herself, and thus she connected Elijah, whom she had come to regard, with this terrible calamity. She felt that this man of God had looked into her heart and had detected that it was sinful, and that divine vengeance had fallen upon her. But Elijah knew the bereaved mother was beside herself, and had committed no evil meriting the death of her son. This anguish was to be another trial of her faith.
Somewhat bitter, the Sarepta widow was not permitted to reproach Elijah who did not rebuke her nor answer her question, but simply said, “Give me thy son.” The dead form she was clasping was placed in the prophet’s arms, who took the lifeless body up to his chamber and asked God why He had allowed such a grief to overtake the widow who had been so kind to him. Three times he stretched himself upon the child and prayed most earnestly that the child might live again. For the mother downstairs it must have been an agonizing wait, but she was to be the witness to another miracle. The Lord heard Elijah’s prayer, the child’s soul came into him again, and, hastening down the stairs, the prophet handed over the precious burden saying, “See, thy son liveth.” The faith of the mother returned with a fervent vigor, and her sorrow turned to song as she praised God and exclaimed—
Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth.
In such a declaration we have the final victory of faith brought out by the crowning mercy of her child’s resurrection. The widow’s growing apprehension of God is seen in her concept of Him. As a heathen woman speaking of Jehovah from without, she said, “The Lord thy God” (1 Kings 17:12). Not her God but Elijah’s—thy God, and as “the Lord God of Israel.” Now she believes as never before that Elijah, God’s servant, is indeed “a man of God” and in accepting “the word of the Lord” from his lips as “the truth” seems undoubtedly to express the widow’s full surrender to Him whose miraculous power on her behalf had been manifested through His servant whom she had befriended.
It must have been a sad day when God called Elijah to leave the shelter and love of the widow’s home and go to show himself to Ahab and pronounce the end of the three and a half years drought. While, possibly, Elijah never lost contact with the Sarepta widow who had become such a part of his life, the Bible does not tell us anything further about her and her son whom God raised from the dead. Yet because of our Lord’s reference to her, she is held in everlasting remembrance. While in the synagogue at Nazareth He selected this incident from the Old Testament and said that although there were “many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah,” unto none of them was the prophet sent save unto the widow of Sarepta (Luke 4:26). As the heathen woman was visited of God, so Christ had come to gather Gentiles, as well as Jews, unto Himself. Jesus immortalized that lowly woman who was so hospitable, to emphasize the immortal truth that in this dispensation of divine grace God is no respecter of persons. No favored nation, nor exclusive privilege enters into His scheme of salvation. God’s favor becomes the portion of those who repent of their sin and accept His Son as their Saviour and Lord.