ELIJAH SUSTAINED AT ZAREPHATH
A Sermon by Rev. Kurt Ho. AsplundhPreached in Bryn Athyn January 26, 1992
“And Elijah said to [the widow] … ‘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'” (I Kings 17:13).
Two striking personalities are involved in a struggle in this part of the Word. One is Elijah, the prophet; the other is Ahab, King of Israel.
Elijah was the prototype of the zealous prophets, a fearsome man of God whose dramatic confrontations with Ahab angered and troubled the king.
Ahab earned the condemnations heaped on him by Elijah. This powerful king, we are told, “did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (I Kings 16:33). Following in the footsteps of Jeroboam, first to rule over the divided kingdom, Ahab served and worshipped Baal. He had built altars and temples and maintained 450 prophets of Baal in his kingdom. He was urged on in his pagan idolatry by Jezebel, his wife.
So Elijah was sent by the Lord to confront the king, prophesying drought and famine: “There shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word,” he said (I Kings 17: 1). Thus began a three-and-a-half-year drought in Israel.
The conflict between Elijah and Ahab signifies the conflict between truth and evil. Ahab saw Elijah as his bitter enemy, for truth is ever the enemy of evil. Jezebel, too, representing especially the love of evil, held hatred for the prophet who challenged her idolatrous worship. The king and queen represent the harsh rule of the natural man, the selfish and worldly desires that grip us and lead our way of life. Elijah the prophet represents the leading of the Word of the Lord and its truths.
Whenever we allow the undisciplined loves and reasonings of the natural man to dominate our life, we are allowing a Jezebel and an Ahab to rule us. As a result, there will be spiritual drought and famine for us. While Ahab ruled, there was no rain.
“Rain” in the Word signifies “the inflowing Divine,” especially the influx of “Divine truth out of heaven” (AE 644:5). Drought is the deprivation of this. When truth fails, goods of life wither and die. Inevitably, drought is followed by famine. In life, failure to receive truth results in a lack of good.
The state of our life pictured in this account is an unregenerate state, a lack of spiritual good and truth. These qualities cannot enter our mind because of the opposition there. The Lord wills to bless us to nourish us with good, to instruct us with truth but we prevent it. The prophecy is fulfilled: “There shall not be dew nor rain these years … “
The Lord sends the prophet to touch our lives. For us today it is His truth revealed in the Word. This truth comes first as a warning to counter the comfortable false attitudes we hold and the evils we enjoy. Like the words of outspoken Elijah, the truth at first seems harsh and confrontive. The warning is that no spiritual good or truth can be received while we remain in evil and falsity. This general warning actually applies to each of us in a specific way. For one the prophecy may be: “You will not know the spiritual blessings of peace or contentment until you overcome selfish ambition.” For another: “Your marriage will be empty until you shun wandering lusts.” For yet another: “Your life will be unhappy drudgery as long as you remain lazy and indolent.”
Evil has many forms, having its own particular form in each of us. The Word, however, speaks to our personal states. Whatever the evil that grips us, the Divine principle is the same: until the evil that rules is exposed and shunned, the blessings of heaven cannot be received.
As soon as our way of life is challenged we take offense. That is, the evil spirits influencing our life cause us to react negatively to the judgment. This is portrayed in Jezebel’s fury against Elijah.
Another common reaction is pictured in Ahab’s response when he saw Elijah. The drought had continued three and a half years, and by this time had caused great hardship. The king cried out accusingly: “Is that you, O troubler of Israel?” (I Kings 18:17). Ahab blamed the drought on the prophet. Don’t we often do the same, looking for some outside cause of our unhappiness? Elijah replied: “I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, in that you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and have followed the Baals” (I Kings 18:18).
When we have broken a Divine law and suffer the consequences, we should not be angry with the law but with ourselves for having disobeyed. The Lord’s laws look only to our eternal welfare and happiness. He never condemns or punishes. We judge ourselves by defying His law. It is of the mercy of the Lord that He has given the Word. Through it we can know our faults and seek to overcome them, cooperating with the Lord.
During the drought, Elijah withdrew first to the brook Cherith, a small brook near the Jordan from which he could drink. When the brook failed, Elijah went beyond the borders of Israel to Zarephath in Sidon. The Lord sent him there to a widow who would provide for him. When Elijah found this woman, she was gathering sticks at the gate of her city. She was preparing to cook a last meal for herself and her son, for she had but a handful of flour and a little oil left. The famine had spread to this country as well.
He asked her first for a cup of water. As she was going to get it, he called for her to bring him a morsel of bread too. She then explained her plight, that she and her son faced starvation. Surprisingly, Elijah did not retract his request. In spite of her lack, he still asked that she first make him a small cake before making her own. “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” (I Kings 17:13).
She could not know that a miracle would take place if she fulfilled the prophet’s request. For when she went to make the cakes for herself and her son, there was enough flour and oil. And ever after that day, even to the end of the famine, whenever she went to the bin for flour or the jar for oil, she was not disappointed. There was always enough for the next meal.
The Writings expound the meaning of this miracle of the flour and oil that did not fail. Spiritually it teaches how the Lord sustains us through times of temptation when our evils and falsities of life are to be met and overcome. Consider some of the correspondences involved. From the Writings we learn that “the famine … represented the vastation of truth in the church; the widow in Zarephath represented those outside 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 … Elijah represents the Word, by means of which such things are done … ” (AC 4844:12).
By “Sidon,” we are taught, are signified “exterior knowledges of spiritual things.” Is it not true that when our understanding of truth is obscured by other interests and we lack enlightenment from the Word, as signified by the drying up of the brooks and rivers of the land, that we are left with only the shell of understanding? We may know about spiritual things but fail to see their application or inner force. This state of mind is represented by the widow a woman without a husband. What is the significance of this?
The Writings teach that a woman in a true marriage loves the wisdom of her husband, and that he is created with the particular love of acquiring intelligence or wisdom. The wife loves that wisdom of his and longs to conjoin herself with it. She longs to turn that truth to good ends, to clothe her love with his wisdom.
The widow’s longing is unfulfilled because she has no man to provide that truth. She lacks the means for carrying out her will.
All of this relates to the signification of the widow to whom Elijah was sent. By “a widow” is signified “one who is in good and longs for truth” (AC 9198:7). This woman to whom the prophet was sent signifies those who are in a simple desire for good or charity without the wisdom to carry it out. They may have exterior knowledges of spiritual things, but no real insights by which they can make them come alive.
The widow represents each one of us, man or woman, when we are in this state. Our spiritual life is starving. Hereditary evils represented by Ahab and Jezebel rule our natural life. We are suffering famine but have become resigned to die.
Into this desperate plight the Lord sends Elijah the Word. How different the role of Elijah with this widow is from that which he played in the presence of Ahab. In the one case, Elijah represents the truth exposing and judging what is evil; in the other case, he represents the truth leading and bringing new life. What Elijah represents in this story is the same as what the truth of the Word represents in our life. It has a dual function: to expose, confront, and warn us of evil; and to instruct, lead and nourish a new life.
When Elijah found the woman, she was gathering sticks. These pieces of wood signify what the Writings call “the good of merit.” The good of merit is a motivation in our life. It is acting from a desire for reward. Many may devote their lives to good works for the sake of reward or recognition. This is common. Acting for the sake of reward is an obvious motivation with children. Nor should we entirely dismiss the value of such efforts. The good of merit, however, is not the genuine good of the church. We must acquire a deeper and more altruistic motivation. Genuine good is from a love of serving the Lord and our neighbor without thought of reward. We do not easily make the transition from a selfish to an unselfish motivation.
Notice that the woman did not hesitate to fetch the prophet a little water in a cup. Because she was willing to do this representing her desire to be instructed in truth he then asked her for bread. At this she hesitated, torn by a difficult decision. There was only enough flour and oil to make one last cake. Her choice seemed to be between this prophet and herself and her son. It seemed impossible that she could feed him first without depriving herself of the last food she had.
So it seems to us at every crossroad of life. We face a difficult decision. Yes, we are willing to consider the truth of the Word. We can learn its teachings and think about its applications. This is like getting the cup of water, and it does not require us to change anything about our life. But when we are asked for bread and it seems as though there is not enough to go around, we are facing a different question. It makes a difference for us.
It was at this point in the incident, while the woman hesitated, that Elijah spoke encouraging words: “Do not fear … 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'” (I Kings 17:13f). This was both a command and a promise. She should make the prophet’s cake first. If she did, she would not lack what she needed for herself and her son.
The cake which the woman first was to make for Elijah signifies an attitude of mind and heart that should be first: a willingness to love the Lord above ourselves, to serve others before ourselves. We are called upon by the Lord to subordinate self-love and the desire to find reward. It is more important to love what is of use and to act accordingly in our life. Doctrine teaches that true charity is loving uses. If we are willing to give of ourselves, hoping for nothing again, we open a pathway of heavenly influx. The Lord said to “do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great … Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over … ” (Luke 6:35,38).
If we can act according to the Lord’s great commandments loving Him with all our heart and soul, and our neighbor as ourself we are assured spiritual food. When we share what little of truth and good we know and appreciate, we never deprive ourselves of these staples of spiritual life. In this, spiritual treasures differ from material treasures. We can take a truth, apply it and teach it, using it in many ways, and it remains with us indeed it is strengthened within us by its very use. On the other hand, if we seek to hide it away selfishly, we will soon lose it.
The same is true of our life’s loves. If we share them, they grow and are confirmed in us. If we hoard them, they will wither and die. So it was that the widow was enriched by an unending supply of flour and oil as soon as she was willing to give Elijah his cake first. By this is signified the spiritual miracle that takes place with everyone who seeks first the kingdom of God and His justice. All the necessary things of life will be added.
What will be our response to the teachings of the Lord? Will we have the spirit of Ahab and Jezebel offended by His truths, bitter that He has caused our troubles? Or will we seek Him in the spirit of the widow of Zarephath from a longing for truth and with a willingess to apply His truth? In this spirit, we can overcome the forces of evil that trouble our life and cause us pain and suffering.
The Lord said: “Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country. 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; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow” (Luke 4:24-26). Amen.
Lesson: I Kings 17:1-16; Luke 4:16-32; AC 9198:7,8
Arcana Coelestia 9198:7,8
Obedience, and the longing of good for truth, are described by her [a widow woman] 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 (n. 2702, 3058, 3424, 4976, 5668, 8568); “meal,” truth from good (n. 2177); “oil,” the good of love (n. 886, 4582, 4638); and “a cake” made of these, truth conjoined with its good (n. 7978). 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.
From all this it is evident what is the nature of the Word, namely, that it conceals within itself the secret things of heaven, which are not apparent in the letter, when yet in every word which the Lord Himself spoke when He was in the world, and which He had before spoken through the prophets, there are things heavenly and wholly Divine, and raised above the sense of the letter; and this not only in each word, but also in each syllable of the words, nay, in every point of each syllable. But who believes that this is so? Nevertheless it is a certain fact, of which I have received full and unquestionable proof, concerning which of the Lord’s Divine mercy elsewhere.