Facing North When the Market Goes South
1 Kings 17:7-16
Dr. Jim Denison
Today we want to address the subject of finances and family, the economic downturn and its effect on our lives and relationships. Financial challenges are something I know something about. Trust me when I tell you that Janet did not marry me for my money.
Our first home was a duplex in Arlington, renting for $330 per month. We struggled to make that payment each month. Our kitchen table was an old inlaid checkerboard table Janet’s grandfather had made. It was missing several of the checkers, so we put a tablecloth over it to hide the holes. But I knew where they were; when people would come over, I’d put my water glass in the holes just to watch it tilt and see the people’s reactions.
I drove a 1966 Ford Mustang, with a leaking power steering cylinder. It would have cost $35 to fix, so I cut off the belt and drove it manually. Janet worked at our church, then became a teacher. While finishing my master’s degree, I worked as a graphic artist part-time and as a janitor on Mondays, and we addressed the church newsletter on Tuesday nights for extra money.
Few problems challenge a family more severely than finances. But few circumstances can make our relationships stronger and more godly than the spiritual renewal which financial pressures can bring. The choice is ours.
If your relationships are not facing financial stress, they likely will be. Let’s ask God for practical help together. Walk with me through this remarkable Old Testament event, then we’ll gather up some lessons for life today.
The king who ruled a dust bowl
Elijah the prophet appears suddenly and without introduction in 1 Kings 17, walking into the middle of the greatest spiritual crisis his nation has seen since the wilderness. King Ahab and his wicked Queen Jezebel have led the people to worship Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility and rain. All sorts of unspeakable sexual immorality and heinous spiritual adultery have resulted.
1 Kings 16:33 makes this horrific statement about him: “Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him.” Of all their corrupt, decadent kings, he was the worst.
So God raises up this prophet Elijah to show the nation who is really Lord.
Rain was crucial to this drought-plagued, agriculturally dependent country. Without rain they could not farm, eat, or survive. You know what happens to us when the electricity goes out; far worse came to them when it did not rain.
Baal was supposed to be the god of rain. So the real God shows the people who’s truly in charge of the rain and the world. He send Elijah to tell wicked King Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1).
God kept his word. For 3½ years there was no rain in the land. The nation looked like the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. We suffered through a few weeks without rain last summer; imagine what would happen to Dallas if it didn’t rain until November of 2004.
The eventual result of this standoff between Elijah and Ahab, between Jehovah and Baal, was that the people returned to their worship of the one true God, and the wicked regime of Ahab and Jezebel was destroyed. God’s power prevailed, and the nation was saved. But along the way, innocent people would suffer the consequences of their leaders’ sinfulness, as they always do.
This is where our story picks up.
A strange way to feed a man
Elijah has been living by a brook in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan river. But the brook dries up because of the drought. “Then the word of the Lord came to him . . .” (v. 8). Not “before” but “when.” God never reveals his will to us ahead of time. Now that the crisis has come home to Elijah, God gives him his word.
And a strange word it is: “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food” (v. 9).
Zarephath was a commercial center located 20 miles north of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast of ancient Phoenicia. The small town of Surafend is there today.
Going to Zarephath was a bad idea. The drought had hit them hard as well, so that they have no more water than Elijah does. Jezebel’s father is still king of the region, and we know what she thought about Elijah. And these are pagan, Baal-worshipping idolaters. Why go there?
To make things even worse, he is to depend on a “widow” in the town. She is the least likely person to survive this drought. She has no husband and no other family; there is no welfare system; she and her son will likely die.
But Elijah goes anyway: “So he went to Zarephath” (v. 10). His life, and hers, would depend on his obedience to the word of God. Obedience is the theme of this entire text, and of its relevance to our lives.
He finds the woman at the city gate; someone has said that “coincidence” is when God prefers to remain anonymous. She’s “gathering sticks,” twigs, really. To make a fire for cooking—this must be a good sign, Elijah thinks.
So he asks her for some water, and she consents. Then he asks for some bread, assuming that she will have what he needs or God wouldn’t have sent him to her.
Then comes the shock: “As surely as the Lord your God lives, I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug” (v. 12a). To make matters worse, she says, “I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die” (v. 12b).
Great! Now the hungry prophet must help her as well as himself. “Don’t be afraid,” he says (v. 13). This is always the place to start. Literally, “Stop being afraid.”
Instead, do what you can do: make some food for me and for yourself. And God will provide for us: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land'” (v. 14).
God had promised in Deuteronomy: “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing” (10:18). Now Elijah claims this promise, and with it, the provision of God.
She obeys Elijah, and God keeps his word: “The jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah” (v. 16).
God kept his word—he always does. My pastor was right: “The will of God never leads where the grace of God cannot sustain.”
Profiting from the prophet
Now, how can we find God’s help and hope in financial pressure as Elijah and the unnamed widow of Zarephath did? How can we profit from the prophet? What lessons apply to our lives and relationships today?
Consider taking these steps.
First, examine your spiritual health. This drought was at its root a spiritual crisis, used by God for spiritual and eternal purposes. Nothing reveals our spiritual health more quickly than financial pressure. Use hard times to learn about your soul.
To see what’s inside a bottle, shake it up. To see if you’re a servant, see how you react when someone treats you like one.
The Bible contains 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 on faith, but more than 2,000 on money and possessions. Why? Because possessions show us who possesses us. They show us our souls.
Henry Ford said: “Money doesn’t change men, it merely unmasks them. If a man is naturally selfish, or arrogant, or greedy, the money brings it out; that’s all.” Fred Smith adds: “God entrusts us with money as a test; for like a toy to the child, it is training for handling things of more value.”
What is your relationship with God like, today? Are you focused on your soul, or your stocks? Possessions, or people? Worried, or trusting? Anxious, or at peace? Examine your spiritual health today.
Next, decide to rely on God.
You and I live in an amazingly materialistic culture. Did you know that Americans spend $9 billion a year to rent mini-warehouses, so they can store all their stuff they don’t have room for in their homes? Mercedes-Benz has just introduced the CLK-GTR, a sports car with the purchase price of $1.7 million. Mechanics must be flown in from Germany to fix it. In our culture, we must choose to rely on God. Elijah did.
The prophet and the widow have nothing but the promises of God to depend upon. Elijah could have left her for a place with water and food, but he didn’t. He knew this fact: the safest place in all the world is the center of the will of God.
Do you know that? Have you decided to rely on God, to trust his help and hope? His word is clear: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). And listen to this promise: “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).
Have you prayed for God to help your finances and your family? To strengthen your key relationships during this time of economic pressure? To draw you closer to him, and to each other? Why not today?
Third, work as God works.
God sent the widow to make bread as he provided the flour and oil. He could have made the bread, but so could she. As she worked, he worked.
God meets our needs, but not all our wants. He has given us the ability to work, and expects us to use it. Economic challenges can be a wonderful time to grow closer to the people in your life. These days can cause you to remember what truly matters, and to commit your heart to it again.
Do what you can, and trust God to do what only he can.
Last, lead your family to be faithful financially to God.
Martin Luther said, “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”
That which you cannot give away, you do not possess. It possesses you.
I like novelist John Grisham’s testimony: “My wife and I measure the success of the year on how much we give away.”
Use your money here to honor God eternally. Anne Graham Lotz is right: gold must not mean much to God, for he uses it as paving material in heaven. Use yours to help people be there.
Jesus is the great provider—for our bodies and our souls. He is the constant source of all we need. But like the prophet and the widow, we must turn to him in the hard times of life. And we must do it together.
The prophet and the widow would never forget each other, or their God. May this time of financial pressure do the same for us all.
The first-class passengers on the Titanic paid more for their accommodations than the average annual salary of most Americans. In the stateroom of Major Arthur Peuchen sat an ornate tin box containing $200,000 in bonds and $100,000 in preferred stock. But when the ship began to sink, the major looked into his tin box, then grabbed three oranges, stuffed them into his pockets, and left the box behind. Icebergs have a way of clarifying what matters.