The Widow’s Flour and Oil

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Olivet Church – March 29, 2009

Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. See, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you.” (1 Ki 17:8-9)

  1. Historical Setting

    1. Solomon was the last king of a united kingdom of Israel. His son Rehoboam’s intention to raise taxes caused the northern tribes to break away and select Jeroboam as their king.

    2. Jeroboam was faced with a serious problem: The Lord had commanded that all the sacrifices and feasts were to be held in Jerusalem, so all good Jews had to travel there to fulfil the obligations of their covenant

      1. But Jerusalem was within the kingdom of Judah. Jeroboam was afraid that if his people regularly journeyed to Jerusalem they would get used to Rehoboam, and perhaps even desire to reunited the kingdoms. This would leave Jeroboam or his descendants out in the cold, perhaps even dead.

    3. To prevent the people from going to Jerusalem, Jeroboam had two golden calves made, and told the people that these were their gods,

      1. Thus establishing a tradition in Israel where the king himself deliberately lead the people away from the worship of Jehovah, and into the worship of idols.

    4. Jehovah’s response was to warn him that if he did not repent, his dynasty would be destroyed.

      1. He did not, and when his son Nadab became king, he was murdered and replaced by Baasha. The prophecy was fulfilled.

      2. Baasha also encouraged the worship of idols, and was also warned by the prophets. He ignored the warnings, and when his son Elah became king, he was murdered by Zimri, one of the two commanders of the army of Israel. Again, the prophecy was fulfilled.

      3. The other half of the army of Israel didn’t like Zimri, so they made their commander Omri the king. The civil war lasted 7 days, edning when Zimri was killed and Omri declared king of Israel.

      4. Omri’s son was Ahab, a king of Israel who did not love or serve the Lord, but instead deliberately, with his wife Jezebel, led the people to worship Baal.

    5. Because of this terrible state of affairs, the Lord sent word through Elijah that there would be a drought in the land to punish them for worshipping idols.

      1. Because Elijah was the one who announced the drought, as the Lord had commanded him to, Elijah was blamed for the drought, and Ahab wanted to kill him for causing the drought.

        1. I know. It makes no sense. But it does tell us something about the insanity that comes from thinking from falsities of evil.

      2. The drought was severe. There are almost no “artesian” well or springs in Israel. Except for those few living on the shore of the Sea of Galilee or the banks of the Jordan River, all the drinking water is captured and stored rainwater.

        1. Because it didn’t rain, the crops died. Soon there was neither water to drink nor food to eat, and the people were dying.

  2. The Drought

    1. Rain represents the way the Lord flows into the world from heaven with the truth that we need to do what is good. The drought represents that this inflowing truth has stopped – but what stops it?

    2. Whenever the Lord sends a prophet to announce a drought in the land, it is always in response to some horrible evil being committed by the people, or by a king who is leading his people into evil.

    3. Although it seems that it is the Lord who is withholding the good rain, the fact is that it is the evil that the people are doing is causing the drought.

      1. For it is well known that every good of love and every truth of faith flows in out of heaven, that is, from the Lord through heaven, with man, and that it flows in continually; … These both flow in so far as evil and falsity do not obstruct; it is these that shut heaven so that there is no influx; AE 644:2

      2. This can be seen from its being said:- That the rain was withheld, and consequently there was a famine in the land of Israel for three years and a half, under Ahab, because they served other gods and killed the prophets (1 Kings xvii. and xviii. Luke iv. 25). This was a representative, and thus a significative, that no Divine truth flowing in out of heaven could be received because of the falsities of evil, which were signified by “other gods” and by “Baal,” whom they worshiped. “Killing the prophets” signified also the destruction of the Divine, for a “prophet” signifies in the Word the doctrine of truth from the Word. AE 644:8

  3. The Widow

    1. The drought in the land of Canaan represents the spiritual state of people who are being disobedient.

      1. The results of turning away from the Lord, of being in a state where there is a spiritual drought is pictured by the widow gathering sticks with which to prepare the last meal for herself and her son.

        1. And yet it is this woman, at the end of a deadly crisis, who is to be the one to save the life of the prophet Elijah!

    2. The famine that was in the land because there was no rain, represented the vastation of truth in the church (see n. 1460, 3364); the widow in Zarephath represented those outside of the church who desire truth; the cake which she was to make for him first, represented the good of love to the Lord, whom, out of the little she had, she was to love above herself and her son; the barrel of meal signifies truth from good, and the cruse of oil charity and love; Elijah represents the Word, by means of which such things are done. AC 4844:12

    3. That “a woman a widow” denotes one who is in good, and longs for truth, is evident from what has just been said, and especially from what is related of her in the first book of the Kings, where are these words:-- “Elijah came to Sarepta of Sidon to a widow woman, that she might sustain him; and he said to her, Fetch me a little water that I may drink, and bring me a morsel of bread in thine hand; and she said that she had only a little meal in the barrel, and a little oil in the cruse, sufficient only for a cake for herself and her son.” And Elijah said:-- Make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it out to me, and afterward make for thee and for thy son. She did so; and the barrel of meal was not consumed; and the cruse of oil did not fail (xvii. 9-16). [7] Obedience, and the longing of good for truth, are described by her giving water to the prophet at his bidding, and afterward by her first making a cake for him out of her own little supply, and then for herself and her son; and that thereby she was enriched with the good of truth is signified by “the barrel of meal not being consumed, and the cruse of oil failing not;” for in the internal sense “water” denotes truth; “meal,” truth from good; “oil,” the good of love; and “a cake” made of these, truth conjoined with its good. From all this it is clear that “a widow” denotes one who is in good and longs for truth. Good and its longing for truth is described by the charity toward the prophet, which was greater than toward herself and her son. “The prophet,” as before shown, denotes the doctrine of truth. AC 9198:6,7

      1. A wife generally represents good, and her husband represents truth. A widow is a woman whose husband has died. A widow then represents someone who would like to do what is good and right but cannot because she doesn’t know how.

    4. Where is her salvation?

      1. She longs for truth – the knowledge to put her loves into action, but there is no truth for her, symbolized by the lack of rain – no truth from natural sources.

      2. So the Lord provides the truth that she longs for through another way – the prophet Elijah. And, is sometimes the case when we go to the Word for help, the answer is not what we expected or wanted.

    5. Remember when Naaman, the Syrian commander, came to Elisha looking for a cure for his leprosy (2KI 5:1-19)?

      1. Elisha told him to wash in the Jordan and he was terribly insulted. He was a big, important man, and he was expecting a big, important cure!

      2. Fortunately for him, one of his servants convinced him that since he would have done the big thing, he should at least try the little thing – and he was cured.

    6. As the Lord notes in our 2nd lesson, Naaman was the only leper cured, even though there were thousands of them, because he was the only one who trusted Elisha and obeyed his word even though from his own self-intelligence Elisha seemed wrong.

    7. Rather than giving the widow the food which she believes she needs, Elijah demands that she give him what little food she has – with the promise that if she does, she will have all the food she needs – a symbol for eternal life. This is the real test of faith, the ultimate temptation.

      1. Elijah represents the Word

      2. He tells her to do things that sound strange

      3. She’s starving, and he asks her for her food

      4. But when she obeys anyhow, she is saved.

    8. We note that a similar thing happens just a few chapters later, where Elisha causes a widows oil and flour to continue without ceasing so that she could sell it and prevent her sons from being sold into slavery (2KI 4:1-7

      1. On several different occasions, I have spoken with people who told me of personal experiences that have a similar feel, people who, in spite of deep financial problems, were moved to take the Lord’s words to heart, and to give freely of what little they had, and in each case their lives were blessed in some subtle way.

      2. (The legend of the abandoned pump in the desert with the jar of water and instructions on how to prime the pump.)

  4. These incidents are similar in that they all revolve around our trust in the Lord.

    1. We must have confidence that the Lord wants only what is good for us, we need to trust that He knows what is best, what will lead us to heaven.

    2. We can’t always understand why the Lord asks us to do something. Sometimes the things He asks of us seem strange or unreasonable.

    3. We need to remember that without the Lord, without the truth of the Word to lead us, our eternal spiritual life is at risk.

    4. If we obey the Lord in simple faith, He will literally save our lives.

    5. If we reach out to others by compelling ourselves to do what is good, even when it seems to us to be contrary to our own personal needs, we will find that our good will be multiplied like the widow’s flour and oil, and our spirits will be nourished until the drought is over.

So she went away and did according to the word of Elijah; and she and he and her household ate for many days. {16} The bin of flour was not used up, nor did the jar of oil run dry, according to the word of the LORD which He spoke by Elijah. (1 Ki 17:15-16) Amen.


First Lesson: 1KI 17:8-16

Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, {9} “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. See, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you.” {10} So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, indeed a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, “Please bring me a little water in a cup, that I may drink.” {11} And as she was going to get it, he called to her and said, “Please bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” {12} So she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I do not have bread, only a handful of flour in a bin, and a little oil in a jar; and see, I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” {13} And Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go and do as you have said, but make me a small cake from it first, and bring it to me; and afterward make some for yourself and your son. {14} “For thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘The bin of flour shall not be used up, nor shall the jar of oil run dry, until the day the LORD sends rain on the earth.’” {15} So she went away and did according to the word of Elijah; and she and he and her household ate for many days. {16} The bin of flour was not used up, nor did the jar of oil run dry, according to the word of the LORD which He spoke by Elijah.

Second Lesson: LUK 4:16-30

So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. {17} And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: {18} “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; {19} To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” {20} Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. {21} And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” {22} So all bore witness to Him, and marvelled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. And they said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” {23} He said to them, “You will surely say this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in Your country.’” {24} Then He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country. {25} “But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; {26} “but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. {27} “And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” {28} So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, {29} and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. {30} Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way.

Third Lesson: AE 644:1-3, 5

These have power to shut heaven that it rain no rain in the days of their prophecy, signifies that those who reject the goods and truths of heaven and the church that proceed from the Lord, receive no influx out of heaven. This is evident from the signification of “shutting heaven,” as being lest any influx out of heaven be received (of which presently); also from the signification of “rain,” as being truth fertilizing, which is truth from which there is good that flows down out of heaven. [2] “To shut heaven” means to prevent the reception of any influx out of heaven, because it is added, “that it rain no rain,” which signifies influx of Divine truth out of heaven. For it is well known that every good of love and every truth of faith flows in out of heaven, that is, from the Lord through heaven, with man, and that it flows in continually; from which it follows that neither the good of love nor the truth of faith is in any wise man’s, but is the Lord’s with him. These both flow in so far as evil and falsity do not obstruct; it is these that shut heaven so that there is no influx;

[3] Moreover, there are in every man two minds, an interior which is called the spiritual mind, and another, the exterior which is called the natural mind. The spiritual mind is created for the reception of light from heaven, but the natural mind for the reception of light from the world. The spiritual mind, therefore, which is man’s interior mind, is heaven with him, and the natural mind, which is man’s exterior mind, is the world with him. The interior mind, which is heaven with man, is opened so far as man acknowledges the Divine of the Lord, and man so far acknowledges this as he is in the good of love and charity and in the truths of doctrine and faith. But this interior mind, which is heaven with man, is unopened so far as man does not acknowledge the Divine of the Lord, and does not live the life of love and faith; and that mind is shut so far as man is in evils and in falsities therefrom; and when it is shut then the natural mind with man becomes a hell; for in the natural mind are evil and its falsity, consequently when the spiritual mind which is heaven with man is shut, the natural mind which is hell rules. [5]… “Rain” in the Word does not mean rain, but the inflowing Divine, which causes intelligence and wisdom, and also the good of love and the truth of faith in man, to grow and become fruitful.....