Evidently this bereaved woman was the widow of one of Elisha’s pupils who, left with two sons, faced the anguish of seeing her sons taken as slaves in payment of the debts facing her. She confessed to Elisha that her dead husband was a man who “feared the Lord,” even though he was not able to make adequate provision for her and their children. As a prophet, his calling prevented him from making money. Here was another widow who was to prove what God was able to accomplish. Because of the interest Elisha had in all of his students, the penniless widow of one of them approached the prophet for advice and help in her predicament. Those “sons of the prophets” were not young unmarried men living in a monastic life under the supervision of their chief, but were heads of families having their own separate houses, with Elisha taking a deep interest in their welfare.
“Heaven helps those who help themselves,” the axiom has it, but how could this debt-ridden woman help herself? Elijah said to her, “What hast thou in the house?” She replied, “Not anything, save a pot of oil,” and like the Sarepta widow, and the lad with his loaves and fishes, the young student-prophet’s widow was to prove how God is able to multiply what we surrender.
Elisha is conspicuous in Bible history as a miracle worker. For a full coverage of all the miracles he performed the reader is referred to the author’s volume on All the Miracles of the Bible. The miracle of the pot of oil is most instructive. First of all, it reminds us of the Levitical law concerning children exchanged for debt (Leviticus 25:39), who continued in servitude until the year of Jubilee. Under the ancient and more severe Roman law, no provision was made for the future release of an unhappy debtor (see Matthew 18:26). Then, as to the miracle itself, we note the combination of faith and action for the young widow, believing that the prophet would find a way out of her problem, obeyed his command to borrow all possible vessels from her neighbors. The one small pot the widow possessed did not hold sufficient oil to sell and pay off her husband’s debts which were not due to any profligate living on his part. The vessels borrowed had to be empty ones. Often we pray for the infilling of the Divine Oil, but we are not empty enough for Him to fill. “Emptied! that Thou mayest fill me.”
A further feature of the miracle is that when all the vessels had been gathered, the widow and her sons had to shut the door and follow the instructions of Elisha in private. Curiosity and disturbance from without had to be avoided because widespread publicity would be undesirable in such a miracle. Jesus imposed a similar injunction of secrecy on those whom He healed (Luke 8:51, 54). Spiritual miracles are entirely contingent upon the closed door.
Pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
Empty vessels are of little use if there is no closed door. With the door shut the widow took her own pot of oil and started to fill the empty pots, and as she measured out the oil it miraculously multiplied, as did the water turned to wine (John 2:1-12). When all the borrowed vessels were filled, the excited yet grateful widow said to her eldest son, “Bring me yet a vessel,” but sorrowfully he replied, “There is not a vessel more.” Then comes the suggestive phrase, And the oil stayed. God never allows His provision to run to waste.
The conclusion of the miracle is likewise suggestive. The delighted widow went and told Elisha of the wonderful amount of oil which her own meager supply had produced, and he told her to sell the abundance of oil she had and pay her creditor, and with her children live on the rest of the money secured for the oil. Over and above what was necessary for the debts the widow inherited, there was sufficient for the family to live on without any further shadow of debt. How like God it is to give us more than we could possibly ask or think! What a prodigality characterizes His giving! With divine benevolence there is never any niggardliness. After the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the disciples gathered up twelve full baskets of fragments. The pattern of divine bounty was set forth by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount, “Good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over” (Luke 6:28-46).