(1 Kings 17:17-24)
The death of a child!—reminding us, that, three thousand years ago, the griefs of the old world were identical with our own—the stricken hearts of mourning parents the same in the ancient homes of Palestine as in the modern homes of England—the Rachels in both "weeping for their children and will not be comforted because they are not!"
From the words which stand at the head of this chapter, the prophet Elijah was now under the roof of the widow of Zarephath. A grievous famine was still raging amid the thousands around. But as each morning's sun rose on the inhabitants of this tranquil home, lo, the barrel and the cruse described in the preceding context, and which the evening meal seemed to have exhausted, were again replenished. God's mercies were "new to them every morning, and His faithfulness every night."
We can only venture to surmise how the Prophet's hours, in this secluded dwelling, would be spent. We can follow him in thought as betimes, perhaps, he wandered up the rocky ridges which flanked the town; gazing now on the everlasting snows of Hermon, now on the wood-crowned top of Tabor—thus beholding both "Tabor and Hermon" "rejoicing in God's name." Or, as at other times, he would wander along the shores of the great and wide sea, in adoring contemplation of Him who takes up the waters in the hollow of His hand, and who "gives the sea His decree." Yet again, when the barrel had yielded its evening supply, and the lamp had been lighted from the unfailing oil-cruse, we can picture him unfolding to these two dwellers in Pagan Phoenicia—the mother and her child—the name and works and divine character of the God of Israel—dwelling on the glorious promise spoken to the fathers, but in the blessings of which all the families of the earth were to participate.
We can think of them, perhaps, joining their voices together in the psalms of the great Hebrew minstrel—many of them so applicable to their own circumstances and experience—"Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God; who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that therein is; which keeps truth forever; which executes judgment for the oppressed; which gives food to the hungry. …The Lord preserves the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow." Or, more appropriate still in that heathen Tyrian home—"And the daughter of Tyre shall be there with a gift; even the rich among the people shall entreat Your favor. Instead of Your fathers shall be Your children, whom You may make princes in all the earth. I will make Your name to be remembered in all generations—therefore shall the people praise You forever and ever!"
But a dark season is at hand for that lowly home. Perhaps it was with this widow, as with many among us still—in her state of comparative prosperity—of exemption, at all events, from the pressure of famine, so severely felt all around—she may have been beginning to forget the Hand which was filling her empty cupboard, and warding off starvation from her dwelling. Miraculously fed from day to day—seeing the barrel and the cruse each morning recruited with the needed supply—she may have begun to feel too confidently secure—that her "mountain was standing strong," and that she might safely calculate on a permanent immunity from the inroads of trial.
How apt are we, after a season of long-continued blessing—unbroken prosperity—to indulge in this spirit of boastful independence—taking our daily comforts—food—health—friends—children—as matters of course. We may see, in the case of others, these strong pillars shattered and broken; but our inmost thought and feeling is, "I am all secure—I need not fear!" So may have meditated the Sarepta widow. And the last trial she would ever have anticipated would probably be the very one that was in store for her. With appalling suddenness, the little life—the light of her dwelling—is extinguished! "There is no breath left in him."
Since this beloved and only child had been given back to her from the gates of famine and death, we may imagine her heart-strings had entwined more tenderly than ever around him; he was every day growing up more of a companion and solace to her—a pledge of unspeakable blessing in her latter years—when his arms would toil for her, his prayers would comfort her, and his hands at last would close her eyes in death. Sad, indeed, that that one lone star which twinkled in her skies should be blotted out! Better it had been if, two years ago, he had been removed, and thus been spared the pangs and struggles of many an after-hour of privation and suffering. His life being prolonged only to be taken, seemed a cruel mocking of her grief and tears. All her hopes and joys perished in that moment of woe. She could bear to see the barrel of meal yielding a diminished supply—she could endure to look on an empty, unreplenished cruse; but to gaze on that withered flower, lying cold and lifeless in her bosom—to lose HIM, this was death indeed!
We cannot, perhaps, wonder, that for a time, faith, and patience, and submission were tempted to give way. In the bitterness of her bereft soul she thus upbraids the Prophet—"What have I to do with you, O you man of God? Are you come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?" The words were a cutting reflection on Elijah, as well as an insinuation against Elijah's God. It was as if she had said, "What have I done to provoke at your hands so terrible a calamity? Is this your recompense and requital for sheltering your defenseless head? In pity I gave you welcome to my humble roof. Have these been your answered prayers for your benefactress? Has your God come, in this fearful retributive sense, to be the 'Judge of the widow?' Have you come, a wolf in sheep's clothing, to ravish my flock—and rob me of my one lamb?"
How striking is the contrast between this agony of her impassioned grief and the calm composure manifested when she first met Elijah. Then her child's death was equally imminent, and threatened, too, under a more terrible form. Her words on that occasion, in speaking of partaking with him of her last morsel, were these, "That we may eat it and die." She had familiarized herself with the approach of the last enemy—it was the passive, silent submission of blank despair. Now, however, it was "sudden death,"—death unexpected—death when she was handling the full cup. It was her gourd withering, not by a process of slow, gradual decay—drooping leaf by leaf; but it was, as with Jonah, the luxuriant plant—coiled fresh and beauteous round her evening bower—becoming, in a night, a mass of blighted, withered leaves. In the words of the Patriarch of Uz, "The morning was even as the shadow of death."
Nor can we fail to admire Elijah's conduct in the trying circumstances. We know to what course his natural character would have impelled him. Hurt at the unkind and unjust reflection, his fiery nature might have prompted him to retaliate. He might, with an angry word, have answered the unkind suspicion breathed by that broken heart. But there is no syllable of recrimination or resentment. He says nothing (as he might have done) about the blessing he had been, and brought, to her household. He makes no reference to the barrel and the cruse beside them, the silent witnesses of God's mercy and goodness. Deeply touched at the impressive sight of death—and, perhaps, with a tender love for the youthful victim—he makes kind allowance for the anguish of the childless widow.
Saying, "Give me your son," he takes the cold marble, the dead body, in his arms, and carries it to his own couch. In Eastern dwellings in these times, as at the present day, there was generally a room higher than the rest of the building, called "alliyeh," or, as it is here translated, "loft," where strangers and guests were accommodated. In the better class of houses it was regarded as the place of honor. To this upper room Elijah bears the lifeless child. That quiet chamber echoes to the voice of impassioned prayer. The Prophet, though he had controlled his feelings before the sorrowing mother, evidently felt keenly the severity of the blow. He dreaded lest the dealings of his God might be misjudged by that crushed mourner, and he cried out to the Lord and said, "My Lord God, have You also brought tragedy on the widow I am staying with by killing her son?"
Laying the corpse upon the bed, he stretched himself upon it—not for the purpose of imparting, as some have thought, natural warmth to revive and quicken the dormant physical energies, but rather, it would seem, to communicate the quickening power of God. He knew that He who had "brought the evil" could alone remove it. Three times, as he overlaid the dead body, did the importunate cry ascend, "My Lord God, please let this boy's life return to him!" The prayer is heard—the limbs begin to move—the eye dilates—the pulse beats. Back comes the departed spirit. The Prophet has rekindled the cold ashes on this desolated hearth; and carrying in his arms the living trophy of God's goodness, he hushes the sobs of the mother with the joyful announcement—"Look, your son is alive!" Her tears are dried. Her murmurings cease. Her faith in Israel's Jehovah is confirmed. "Now"—is the utterance of her bounding heart—"now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth."
From this touching and suggestive episode, we may gather, as one out of many practical lessons, thatBereavement is not necessarily a divine judgment on account of any special sin. The widow, in the first moments of her grief, as she sat with her dead child upon her lap—the hot tears coursing down her cheek—was led to form the hasty conclusion, that God had sent her this heavy chastisement as a rebuke and retribution for some previous transgression—"Are you come unto me to call my sin to remembrance?" Many, we know, in the season of bereavement are apt to draw a similar unwarranted deduction—saying to themselves what Job's unfeeling friends reproachfully addressed to him, as they pointed to the miserable bed of dust and ashes on which he lay—"Such, surely, are the dwellings of the wicked; and this is the place of him who knows not God."
But we may thus often misinterpret the reason and motive of the Divine procedure. Our Lord, in one of His great miracles—curing the blind man at the Temple gate—declared emphatically, in opposition to the false and gratuitous assumption of the Pharisees, that it was in consequence of no sin either of the sufferer or his parents that he had been doomed to grope his way in darkness at noontide, but, "that the works of God might be made manifest in him." Let us not, therefore, hastily surmise, when God at times sees fit to empty the chairs and hush the loved voices of our households, that some specific sin must have evoked that special judgment and drawn forth the arrow from the Almighty's quiver. We shall find in a subsequent page that at the very moment when the darkness of death was shadowing the home of Bethany, "Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus."
We may farther learn from the incident before us, thatno amount of good works or of active service in the cause of religion will exempt us from trial. This widow had rendered the greatest benefit which the Church of God at that age could receive, by affording shelter to its most valued servant and defender, the honored Prophet of Heaven. Yet she was smitten. Her generous pity and kindness to God's viceregent could not shield her from the assaults of affliction! It becomes us, whatever be the Divine dealings, never to ask with the voice of complaint and querulous upbraiding, "If the Lord is with us, why has all this befallen us?" Good deeds, lofty virtues, self-denying sacrifices, will not purchase for us immunity from His righteous ordination—that through much tribulation we must enter into the kingdom. Whatever be our lot or portion, be it ours to "rejoice with trembling."
The vessel best manned and equipped may strike on the sunken rock, as well as the lowest and most unseaworthy craft. No, God's most favored saints are often put in the foremost ranks of chastisement. Upon the most fruit-bearing trees of His garden He often uses His sharp pruning-knife. Trial, in its varied forms, has ever been employed by Him as a powerful means of leading to deeper convictions of sin, as well as a salutary quickener of spiritual graces. He knows what discipline is best fitted to draw the soul to Himself; and often does He show that none is so effectual as that which was employed in this home at Zarephath—snapping the ties which bind us to the creature—disuniting us from earthly, to bind us to heavenly things. Many can trace their first deep sense of sin—their first lively apprehension of Christ and of Divine realities—to the hour when their dwelling was rifled of its prized blessings. He breaks the heart in order to save the soul.
This, however, reminds us of what has already been noted, and which, as an ever-present reflection with the mourner, will often occur in these pages—how baffling and mysterious are many of God's providential dispensations. Amid all the homes of that region, who would have expected that the one to be so terribly smitten was that which had, for two years, kindly sheltered the exiled Prophet of Israel? Surely, we might think, if there is one dwelling more than another secure from the assaults of the dread invader, it will be that of the widow of Sarepta, and of the hope and solace of her declining years; who, if spared, might become an honored instrument in the defense and maintenance of the true religion. And yet, behold, the desire of her eyes and the delight of her heart taken away by a stroke!
Oftentimes are we perplexed and confounded by similar dealings; decayed scaffoldings, crumbling props remaining—and the strong and vigorous, the virtuous and useful, swept down in a moment! There is no key now to these dark dispensations. Many a weeping eye cannot read them through blinding tears. But the hour is coming when we shall read them—when they shall be luminous with love. "Men see not yet the bright light in the clouds;" "but it shall come to pass that at evening time it shall be light!" We may have to wait until we obtain entrance within the Gates; but then, at least, the legend will be subscribed—rather will the lips be attuned for the everlasting song—"We have known and believed the love that God has to us!"
Earth may not, as in the case of the widow of Phoenicia, give us back our dead—no prophet's voice can reanimate the silent ashes—no anguish of prayer recall the departed spirit. But we joyfully believe the day will yet dawn when we shall write under every mystic providence, "He has done all things well." Meanwhile let us rejoice, like Elijah, in the assurance that "the Lord reigns"—that all bereavements and chastisements are His appointments. "You" (the Prophet says, addressing his God in prayer)—"YOU" (the living Jehovah) "have brought this evil." Oh, comforting thought! enough to dry all tears and silence all murmurings—"Does disaster come to a city," to the cottage, to the palace—is there disaster which blights some unknown poor man's dwelling—is there disaster which clothes a nation in mourning, "unless the Lord has done it?" Amos 3:6
The narrative farther exhibits, what we have revealed in the case of many of the Divine dispensations—the energy and power of Prayer. Not when he supplicates, as he had previously done, that Heaven should seal up its rains and dews from a whole nation—not when afterwards, on Carmel, invoking defeat on Baal and his priests, is his prayer more earnest than now, in this lowly dwelling, when not the lives of thousands, but the life of one lowly child, is the subject of his intercession. He seems, indeed, to have felt, personally, deeply moved under this sudden bereavement. The strong, heroic, brave man could bear with equanimity any ills affecting himself, but he was stung to the quick under the imputation of his benefactress. He could not brook the allegation of bringing evil on the home of one who had opened her door to a friendless stranger.
His prayer is an urgent appeal to God—(we had almost said a bold remonstrance)—as a just and merciful and righteous Being. "It cannot be, Lord," he seems to say; "You can not allow this reproach to descend on me and on Your great Name! You, who have made the widow's cause Your own, oh, recompense not thus, her kindness to me! Let not this heathen woman say, as she points to her childless home and buried treasure, 'Where is now your God?'"
We can imagine the Tishbite pacing up and down his little chamber in importunate, impassioned prayer. It was a mighty demand, indeed, for a mortal to make—a request that had no previous parallel in praying lips. It was nothing short of this—Victory over Death—the iron crown plucked from the head of the King of terrors. When Elijah does manifest faith, it is always of the noblest type. He would doubtless now revert to his life-motto—the first utterance of his prophetic mission—"JEHOVAH LIVES" Confiding in the "El Shaddai," he feels confident that He who provided him his brook at Cherith will restore this more sacred living brook which had been so suddenly dried in its earthly channel. Strong in faith, giving glory to God, he proceeds to the couch where the lifeless child lay. Once more he stands before us as delineated by James, "the righteous man," bearing the glorious testimony as to the "availing,"—the "much availing power"—of "effectual fervent prayer!"
Bereaved one, are your prayers in a similar hour
left unanswered? Is your anguished cry rather, "Why these defeated
supplications?"—the urgent plea not only left unheard, but responded to in
the way you most dreaded and deprecated? Are you tempted to give way to the
plaintive soliloquy—"Surely my way is hidden from the Lord, and my judgment
is passed over from my God?"—the cry of your crushed and broken heart in the
well-known words of John Newton—
Yes, more, with His own hand He seemed
All we can say in reply is—"Be still and know that He is God." His thoughts are not your thoughts, nor His ways your ways. "A man devises his own ways; nevertheless, the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand." Would that we could believe that at times the denial of our prayers may be the best, the kindest, the really paternal answer to them; that when thwarted in our aspirations after what we think is for our good, we are tempted to pronounce the hasty verdict; we could trust the ALL-LOVING, to guide our steps and grant our petitions, not according to our finite and fallible wisdom, but according to the counsel of His sovereign but gracious will. I believe at times, even in this world, He discovers to us sooner or later the reason of apparently unowned supplications; bringing light out of darkness; and showing that, often in the midst of overwhelming domestic bereavements, there are undreamt-of blessings in reversion, which could not otherwise have been ours. "To think," says Lady Powerscourt, "that led by Him we are safe from everything. No evil shall ever touch us—evil at the end or evil on the way—all is paved with love." Yes, believe it. He answers prayer, not in our ways, but in His. He answers us, even though it may be, at times, "in the secret place of thunder!" (Ps. 81:7).
Finally, we have here a glimpse given us of the doctrine of the Resurrection. This was a truth dimly unfolded in Old Testament times. Its full revelation was reserved for Him who, under a more glorious economy, "abolished death and brought life and immortality to light." As the gladdening words sounded in the mother's ears, "See, your son lives!" not only was that widow herself taught that the God of Elijah had a power which no Baal ever had, in imparting life to the still ashes—reanimating the cold clay, and putting light into the rayless eyes; but it was a parable to the Jewish Church of that great gospel disclosure, that there is a day coming "when all that are in their graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear shall live." No, more; from the fact which is expressly recorded in the inspired narrative, that Elijah brought down the living child from the upper chamber into the house, "and delivered him to his mother," we have the precious thought suggested, under a significant figure, that in that glorious resurrection morning friends will be reunited to friends—there will be undying reunions of the departed in the Church of the glorified; mothers restored to the embrace of children, and lost little ones given back to their parents. How will the happiness of that day of complete triumph be augmented and enhanced, as death-divided relatives, re-linked in bonds of purified earthly affection and love, will be able to exclaim to one another, "See my son! my parent! my brother! my beloved, long-lost child!—see, HE LIVES!"