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1 Kings 17:8-16 -

The Furnace of Trial.

The village of Zarephath appears to have borrowed its name from the furnace or furnaces created there for the smelting of metals. See note on 1 Kings 17:9 . A great lexicographer interprets the word to mean, a "workshop for the melting and refining of metals." But that name might with scarcely less propriety have been bestowed upon it from the circumstances recorded in this section. It was a veritable furnace for men; a place of assay and refining both for the prophet and the widow with whom he lodged. "Surely… there is a place for gold where they fine it" ( Job 28:1 ).

I. IT WAS A PLACE OF TRIAL FOR ELIJAH . In connexion with it he was subjected to the following trials of his faith and courage—

1. He had to leave his hiding place . For months he had dwelt safely in the deep, sequestered, peaceful wady. That he must hide there, and bide so long, showed how great was the danger to which he was exposed. But now he is commanded to quit his asylum, to go forth into the world, to run the risk of recognition, of betrayal, of death; and to do so, we cannot doubt, would cost him a struggle, and put his faith in God to the proof.

2. He had to seek a home in Zidon . How those words would strike upon his ears, "Which belongeth unto Zidon"! Zidon was the capital of Ethbaal. The father of Jezebel, his implacable enemy, held sway there. It was like going into the lion's den. His feeling would be something like that of David's men, "Behold, we be afraid here in Judah: how much more then if we come to Keilah" ( 1 Samuel 23:3 ). Of all hiding places, that would seem to him to be the most to be dreaded. How can he escape detection there! He might well have taken fright, as at a later period, and have fled further into the desert. Or he might have petitioned, like Lot ( Genesis 19:20 ), to be allowed to find some other refuge. But he did neither. "He arose and went to Zarephath." He was "strong in faith, giving glory to God" ( Romans 4:20 ).

3. He had to be sustained by a widow woman . The position and circumstances of the Eastern widow are to be remembered here. The seclusion in which Oriental women live makes its difficult for a widow to find a livelihood, even if there were work for her to do. And we have only to consider what the position of widows amongst ourselves would be, if there were no such things as investments, no means of putting out money to usury ( Deuteronomy 23:19 ). Hence the repeated injunctions to remember the widow ( Deuteronomy 14:29 ; Deuteronomy 16:11 , Deuteronomy 16:14 ; Deuteronomy 24:17 , Deuteronomy 24:19-21 ; Job 24:21 ; Job 29:18 ; Psalms 146:9 ). Hence the special provision for widows in the early Church ( Acts 6:1 ; 1 Timothy 5:4-9 ). The widow was an object for charity, and needed sustenance. And now Elijah learns that by a widow he is to be sheltered and sustained. And this widow a foreigner, probably an idolater—an alien both in race and religion. Surely there was a trial both of his faith and of his obedience here.

4. He finds the widow in the extremest poverty . He encounters her "gathering of sticks." That in itself was not an encouraging sign. Next he hears from her lips that her cupboard is empty. She has not food for herself, much less for a stranger. "A handful of meal," a "little oil , " this is all her store. She who was to sustain his life is herself ready to die. But he knows in whom he has believed. He "argued not against Heaven's will." He did not "bate a jot of heart or hope." "Make me a little cake first." He is assured that "they shall not be ashamed in the evil time, and in the days of famine they shall be satisfied" ( Psalms 37:9 ). He knows that "God will not suffer his word to fail, nor alter the thing that is gone out of his lips" ( Psalms 89:1-52 :84).

5. He is immured in her house for two years . Those two years were years of banishment from his country and his work. Three years and a half had he to wait, and most of the time in a strange land, ere his recal; cut off, "not from life, yet from usefulness, which is the end and comfort of life." Which of us would not have been impatient, or, like the Baptist in his fortress-prison, tempted to think God had forgotten us? And he knew that all this time his people were suffering. We think it strange if a servant of God is laid aside for a few months from his ministry. But the greatest of the prophets was silenced, was buried alive, for the mystical period of forty and two months, for "time and times and half a time" ( Revelation 11:2 , Revelation 11:8 ; Revelation 12:6 , Revelation 12:14 ). "When we cannot work for God we must sit still quietly for him" (Henry). "They also serve who only stand and wait."

6. His presence there is no protection against sickness . Of the three inmates of the cottage home, one sickens and droops to his grave. This sickness causes us no surprise, but it did Elijah ( 1 Kings 17:20 ); and that because he lived under the dispensation of temporal rewards. Sickness was then regarded as, and it often was, the scourge of the Almighty ( Deuteronomy 7:15 ; Deuteronomy 28:61 ; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:30 ). It was a trial, consequently, of Elijah's faith. It looked as if the hand of the Lord was gone out against him. It seemed as if he was to be always the author of misfortune ("Hast thou also," etc.); as if the widow by whom he had been housed, and who had hidden him at the risk of her life, was to be requited with cruel punishment for her good deed. But let us now see in Zarephath

II. A FURNACE OF TRIAL FOR THE WIDOW . It was this in two ways—

1. A stranger demands a share of her last meal . Or, rather, he demands the first share. "Make me a little cake first." Now consider her position. She is reduced to her last morsel So sore is the famine that she and her son, after they have eaten this meal together, are about to lie down and wait for death. They must have suffered hunger enough already; they must have dreaded the hunger even unto death which awaited them. At this moment a stranger suddenly appears before her, and says he must eat first. It is true that he wears the aspect el a prophet, and appeals to the Lord God of Israel, but prophets were often deceivers ( 1 Kings 13:18 ; 1 Kings 22:12 ), and foreign gods could be expected to show her no favour. And at home, her own flesh and blood, the son of her womb, stretches out his skinny fingers, attenuated by famine, and cries for all she has to give. Moreover if this prophet could multiply food, as he professed to be able to do, why should he ask her for bread? Was it reasonable that she should part with her last morsel on the strength of such a promise? "Charity begins at home." "Let the children first be filled." "Shall I take my bread and my water and give it to one that I know not whence he is" ( 1 Samuel 25:11 ) ? Thus she might justly have argued. We could not have wondered had the ordeal been too great for her; had she kept fast hold of her children's bread and denied it to "dogs." But, like that other Syro-Phoenician woman ( Matthew 15:21 sqq.), her faith was equal to the test; she "went and did according to the saying of Elijah." And, therefore, of her also it might justly be said, "I have not found so great faith, no not in Israel."

2. Her son falls sick and lies apparently lifeless . The tie between a mother and an only son is, perhaps, the closest and tenderest of all blood relationships; and it has been remarked that it is peculiarly strong and sacred in the East. "The only son of his mother and she was a widow" ( Luke 7:12 ): who does not feel the pathos of these words? And the tie would be all the stronger in this case because they had suffered together; because he had been given back to her from the jaws of death ( 1 Kings 17:12 ). It is said by some that we value things in proportion to what they have cost us, and on this principle they would explain the deep love of the mother for her offspring. Goethe's mother used to say that "she and her Wolfgang had always clung to each other, because they had been young together;" but to have hungered together, to have, hand in hand, looked Death in the face, to have seen the spectre retreating, surely this communion in suffering, this συμπάθεια , this compassio, would beget a much profounder sympathy. And now this boy, whose life had been miraculously preserved, is so sick that there is no breath left in him. What could this fond and anxious mother think? Was the prophet who had given them bread unable to defend them from sickness? Or was this God's recompense for her hospitality? She might have had hard thoughts of God, or unworthy thoughts of the prophet. It is a wonder she held fast her integrity. But she only thought hardly of herself. It must be, she argued, a judgment for her sin. The man of God had read her life; had brought her sin to the remembrance of his Master ( 1 Kings 17:18 ). It never occurs to her, strong as was the temptation, to arraign God's providence. But her faith and patience must have been sorely tried.

It now remains for us to consider how these assays of faith, which have given to this Phoenician workshop its tame and immortality, were "more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire" ( 1 Peter 1:7 ). In that workshop God Himself sat "as a refiner and purifier of silver."

It is said that when the crucible, the fining pot for silver ( Proverbs 17:8 ), is put into the furnace, the chymist has a sure and ready test of its purity; a means of knowing when his long processes have accomplished their object. When he sees his face reflected in the glowing and untarnished metal, he knows that the purification is complete.

It was that Elijah and his hostess might learn to know God, might be transformed into the image of God, that they experienced this two years' purgation in the furnace. It was that the dross might be purely purged, and the tin taken away ( Isaiah 1:25 ); that they might be changed into the image of their Creator ( Colossians 3:10 ; 2 Corinthians 3:18 ).

Now the historian does not record the results of this assay, except incidentally. But we can clearly see that the faith of Elijah and the widow alike grew stronger by the exercise. How much Elijah gained; how the discipline told on his subsequent career; how the trying of his faith wrought patience ( Acts 1:8 ), we cannot now discover. But we can see that it resulted in the widow's conversion, or in the confirmation of her faith, and in the glory and praise of God ( 1 Kings 17:24 ). And that is not all. Its issues are in eternity. The cross was the forerunner of the crown ( James 1:12 ).


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