Nobodies of the Bible: the widow of Zarephath and biblical prosperity
God wants his people to be prosperous. Most people want the same thing, or think so. But God and most people, including the so-called prosperity preachers, have quite different definitions of what that means. Many people equate it with lots of stuff. God has nothing against a nice house and car or a full bank account, but none of that has to do with what he means by prosperity. Biblical prosperity has more to do with giving than having, more to do with faithfulness than stuff. Many who seem rich in this world may be less prosperous than many who seem to have little or nothing.
I suspect that, if asked to name a character in the Bible that exemplifies prosperity, most people would mention Solomon. We see in 1 Kings 10:14-23 that he had great material wealth, unparalleled anywhere in the ancient world, and probably not even equaled today. In fact, he had more material wealth than he knew what to do with, but as we can see from Ecclesiastes 5:10-17, he did not regard it as a blessing. Spiritually Solomon died a pauper who just happened to have more stuff than was good for him.
Generations later, Elijah prophesied to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel that it would not rain in Israel until he said so. They didn’t like him much and figured their lives would be more pleasant if they killed him. God eventually sent him to a widow in Zarephath who would supply him with food. As is often the case, God’s choice seems very odd. First, Zarephath was in Sidon, Jezebel’s homeland. Second, the widow in question was to all appearances destitute. When Elijah first saw her, she was gathering firewood to prepare her last bit of flour and oil before she and her son starved to death.
The widow's son must have been a child of no more than 12 years old. If he were 13, he would have been considered a man and would have therefore had the responsibility of supporting his mother. He may have been a baby. The widow, therefore, may have been a teenager. She was certainly no older than her early 30s.
She couldn't just go find a job. That was not an option in her society. Widows had to depend on family or remarriage to take care of them, but Zarephath was also suffering from the drought. If she had any family, they were clearly no help, and the drought may have made another marriage less likely. Elijah, a stranger, came to town and moved in with her. That was the turning point in her life.
Paul defined prosperity in 2 Corinthians 9:8 as having enough for every need and a lot more for good works. According to 1 Timothy 6:8, food and clothing meets our needs. (Just think of the number of people in the world who lack even those basic necessities!)
So how does the widow of Zarephath exemplify biblical prosperity? The very first thing to notice is that she gave. Elijah asked her for water, which she immediately went to get for him. But then he asked her to bring him some bread at the same time, and she replied that she had none. She had only enough to make one last meal for her and her son. Elijah said that she would always have enough oil and flour to make more if she gave him some first.
The Bible requires believers to pay a tithe and live off of 90% of what they make. Many Americans consider that unreasonable. People have written articles about how offensive it is for a church to demand a tithe. The fact of the matter is that the Bible never says anything about paying the tithe to a church. We pay it to God for the sake of ministering to the poor with it. God considers the tithe a person’s minimal obligation. He also expects offerings above and beyond that.
Shame on Christians who pay their bills and their taxes and buy the stuff they want, put anything that might be left over in the collection plate, and think they’ve somehow been generous. God deserves, and demands, that we give to him first tenth of what we get and live off of the rest. The widow of Zarephath moved from destitution to prosperity the moment she decided to take Elijah up on his ridiculous promise. Assuming she made three cakes of roughly equal size, she gave one third of all that she had to God in order to support Elijah’s ministry.
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From that moment on, her jars always contained just enough oil and flour to prepare the next meal. She had clothing. More than that, she still had her husband’s house. Therefore she had both enough for her needs and abundance to keep sharing with Elijah. Remember, though, that her future depended on her son reaching maturity and taking care of her the rest of her life. He died. Some times we can do all the right things in the kingdom of God and still suffer disaster.
The widow became angry with Elijah and with God. (That was a weakness of faith, by the way. Contrast her reaction with Elisha’s hostess, who bore a son at a relatively old age. When he died, she went to Elisha and told his servant all was well before she confessed to the prophet the reason for her visit. 2 Kings 4:25-26.) So Elijah prayed, and the son came back to life. She needed her son to grow to adulthood, and God provided what she needed.
When we step out in faith and give cheerfully and generously to the Lord's work, he will see that our needs are met and that we can keep on giving. Among other things, living by faith means giving to God when it looks like we can’t afford it. That opens the door to biblical prosperity. We can have a wonderful salary and prosper in an obvious way, or we can be unemployed and still prosperous. By natural means or supernatural means, God will take care of people who act out their faith.
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