1 Kings 17:17-24
March 7, 2006 | Ray Pritchard
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Of all the episodes in the life of Elijah, this is probably the most troublesome. There really isn’t anything else like it in the Old Testament. In our text Elijah lays himself out over the body of a dead child and the boy comes back to life. And it’s not exactly like the story of the resurrection of our Lord on Easter Sunday morning, which is surrounded by angels and a sense of glorious triumph. It doesn’t even carry with it the same feel of Jesus crying out, “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43). Because this story is so unusual, some people have discounted it as being a myth. They see it as a kind of folk story, almost like a fairy tale. Some critical scholars suggest that either the boy wasn’t really dead or that it never really happened at all. Before we examine this passage, I want you to know that I firmly believe exactly what the Bible says. I think the widow’s son died, Elijah stretched himself over the boy’s body and prayed, God heard his prayer, and the boy’s life returned to him. But I also acknowledge the emotional difficulties because it raises questions we don’t often talk about. If God can do this some of the time, why doesn’t he do this all the time? That is a great question, but I don’t know how you can deal with the story without coming to grips with some of the great mysteries of God in his mercy and sovereignty, what God does and what God doesn’t do. We’ll look at that in just a moment.
I. A Mother’s Sorrow
The story begins this way:
Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” (vv. 17-18).
Note carefully the very first phrase, “Some time later.” The Hebrew literally says, “After these things it happened.” That’s a powerful statement about God’s sovereignty. Whatever else you want to say about this unforgettable episode, don’t call it an accident. The child didn’t get sick by chance, and he didn’t die by chance. His sickness and his death were both part of the sovereign plan of God.
There are so many mysteries about why God does what he does. I’m reminded of the words of Tony Evans who said, “Everything in the universe is either caused by God or allowed by God, and there is no third category.” That’s a hugely important statement. So many times we look at heartbreaking tragedy, and we want to invent a third category called, “Bad things that just happened for no reason.” But there is no such category. When the text says that it came about that the child grew ill, it’s the writer’s way of saying that what happened to this young boy was not an accident. It was not chance. It was not fate. God was present in the home when that boy died.
The timing of all this deserves our attention. The boy gets sick after many weeks and months of miraculous provision by God. After many months of the flour and the oil never running out, suddenly the boy gets sick and dies. Why does it happen that way? We walk with the Lord and we do the best we can, and one day the phone call comes that changes life forever. Or we get a report from the doctor with bad news. Or our children get into terrible trouble. Or our marriage falls apart. Why do these things happen?
It is very easy for us to become complacent in the midst of the blessings of God. We secretly begin to think, “Everything’s okay now; I’ve got life all wired up. My marriage is good and my kids are good and my job is good and life is good and I love my church. Everything in my life is exactly where I want it to be.” If that happens to be your situation at this moment, don’t feel bad about that. If your life is like that, you ought to enjoy it and you ought to be profoundly grateful to God. But know these two things for certain:
1) You don’t deserve these blessings.
2) They won’t last forever.
They never do. Soon enough the clouds will move in and the rain begins to fall. You shouldn’t live in fear, but you ought to be wise enough to know that after sunrise comes sundown, and after high noon comes the darkness of midnight. So it is for all of us sooner or later.
After the time of God’s blessing, disaster strikes. We don’t know why the child got sick. It almost seems like a contradiction. There was the testing, then the blessing, and then the sorrow comes. It seems like it ought to be reversed around somehow, like it ought to be sorrow and then testing and then blessing. But that’s not how God works. It’s more often this way:
It is so easy to be lulled into false thinking. “Ah, we made it through the hard times. It’s going to be smooth sailing from here on out.” But that usually is not God’s design for us.
A Period Before the End of the Sentence
Of all the sorrows of life I know of no sorrow greater than the death of a child. This is nothing that seems more unnatural. Parents are not supposed to bury their children. It is the privilege and the honor of children to bury their parents. It is not supposed to be the other way around. The death of a child is like a period before the end of the sentence. Several years ago I was called to the hospital because a eleven-day-old baby had died during the night. As I drove to the hospital, it occurred to me that when I was new in the ministry, I used to dread these moments. It’s only in later years that I’ve come to understand that this is really what the ministry is all about. Preaching and teaching may be the most visible part of the ministry, but it’s not the whole thing. The real work is going to the hospital to comfort brokenhearted parents. Somewhere along the way the Lord just took my fear away. In my early years I was always afraid I’d say the wrong thing. After a while I learned the less you say the better. When I got to the hospital, they ushered me into a small room where the parents were holding their little baby in their arms and they had been weeping. When I walked into the room, they both stood up. The father said, “Pastor Ray, I’m so glad to see you.” Later he told me, “When you walked into the room, it was like Jesus walked into the room.” That’s one of the great honors of being a pastor, to bring the Lord into a situation like that.
We sat down and I looked at the tiny body of that baby. We talked for a minute, and then the mother started weeping. At one point tears ran off her face and fell onto the forehead of her little child. She was rocking back and forth as she said to me, “God has a reason, doesn’t he?” I took a deep breath and said, “God does have a reason, but I don’t know what it is.” In the early days of my ministry I would have given a long explanation that would have done no good. I since have learned if you don’t know, you might as well just say you don’t know.
I don’t know why that child died any more than I know why the widow’s son died. The mother’s dreams were dashed. She didn’t see this coming at all. If you go back and read the text, she thought she and her son would die together because of the famine in the land. In her anguish and in her sorrow, she blames Elijah. “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” There are at least three problems with her thinking. First, she seems to have thought that having a prophet in the house made her immune from suffering. Who could blame her, especially after all the miraculous provision of the flour and the oil? But she was wrong. Second, she assumed that her own sin somehow caused her son’s death. But that does not appear to be correct in this instance. Third, she blamed Elijah. It’s very human to find someone to blame when tragedy strikes.
II. The Prophet’s Faith
As I read the text, a question comes to mind that I cannot answer. When the child first became ill, where was Elijah? Was he there and did he pray for the boy? I assume the answer is yes, but the Bible doesn’t tell us. I have a further question. When the child died, why did Elijah do what he did? Here’s the answer. He got involved because he saw God in everything, including all the sorrows of life. I find his response very instructive when the mother accuses him of coming to her house just to kill her son,
Number one: He doesn’t get angry.
Number two: He doesn’t try to explain why her son died.
Number three: He doesn’t argue with her.
Number four: He doesn’t make any excuses.
Instead he responds with incredible gentleness. Consider the words of F. B. Meyer:
We need more of this practical godliness. Many deceive themselves. They go to fervid meetings and profess that they have placed all upon the altar. They speak as if they were indeed filled with the Holy Ghost. But when they return to their homes, the least friction, or interference with their plans, or mistake on the part of others, or angry outburst arouses a sudden and violent manifestation of temper. Such people have not yet experienced His special grace. There is much more for them to learn. He who first led them to Jesus is able to make them meek with His meekness, and gentle with His gentleness… . If the Holy Spirit is really filling the heart, there will come over the rudest, the least refined, the most selfish person a marvelous change. There will be a gentleness in speech, a softness of the voice, a tender thoughtfulness in the smallest actions, an expression of abiding peace on the face. These shall be the evident seal of the Holy Ghost, the mint-mark of heaven. Are they evident in ourselves?
When the widow makes her unkind accusation, Elijah responds very simply. All he says is, “Give me your son” (v. 19a). When I go to visit a family where a death has occurred, I don’t say as much as I used to. In my earlier years, I would often do lots of talking. Looking back, I think I felt nervous and awkward, and I think I felt a need to try to explain things. I don’t say much anymore. For one thing, I find that people in sorrow don’t remember much that you say anyway, and there is always a danger of saying too much.
He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. Then he cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” (vv. 19a-21)
There is no easy way to explain what happens next. Elijah lays down on top of the body of the child. Foot to foot. Leg to leg. Chest to chest. Arm to arm. Hand to hand. Face to face. He does it not once, not twice, but three times. No one really knows exactly why he laid down even once, much less why he did it twice or three times. Perhaps Elijah understood that to do anything for this boy he was going to have to get very personally involved. As a side note, since the boy was dead, he was now unclean under Jewish law. It was wrong for a prophet of God to touch a dead body, but extreme cases call for extreme measures. And so by lying down on the body of the child, it is as if he is saying “Oh Lord, take some of the life from within me and give it to this boy.” He prayed for a miracle because he believed in a power greater than death.
A.W. Pink points out seven noteworthy features of Elijah’s prayer:
1) He went to his private room where he could be alone with God.
2) He prayed fervently
3) He relied on his personal experience, calling him “My God.”
4) He recalled God’s sovereignty in causing this child to die.
5) He prayed earnestly and persistently.
6) He appealed to God’s tender mercy toward this poor widow.
7) He made a definite request–”Let this boy’s life return to him.”
Where did he learn to pray like that? Where is the precedent in the Bible prior to Elijah for anybody praying that way? Before this moment, no one had ever been brought back from the dead. Enoch walked with God and was taken directly into heaven without dying. Moses died and they never found his burial site. But that doesn’t mean he was raised from the dead. This is the first case in biblical history of anyone who died and came back to life. Where did he get faith to pray like this? It’s not as if he could look back and say, “O God, as you did in the days of Moses,” because God didn’t do that in the days of Moses. He couldn’t say, “O God, as you did for my father Abraham,”, because he didn’t do anything like this in the days of Abraham. When Abraham offered Isaac, he regarded his son as being as good as dead, but that’s not the same thing as actually dying. Nothing like this had ever happened before.
When Elijah prayed, he submitted himself completely to God. In himself the prophet had no power to bring this child back to life. He doesn’t demand anything from the Lord nor does he “name it and claim it.” He humbly asks God to “let this boy’s life return to him.” That was as much as he could do. The rest was up to God.
III. God’s Response
Now we see how God responds to Elijah’s boiling prayer. “The Lord heard Elijah’s cry” (v. 22) I love that. The text does not say the Lord heard Elijah’s prayer, though he prayed. It says, “The Lord heard Elijah’s cry.” Have you ever wondered what the Bible means when it talks about how the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groanings that cannot be uttered (Romans 8:26-27)? When I lived in Southern California many years ago, I heard a Bible teacher tell of a wreck in which his wife was badly hurt. When he got to the crash scene, his wife was unconscious and her life was hanging in the balance. As he rode in the ambulance to the hospital with her, this man stretched his arms over her body. “In that moment all I could do was say, ‘O God, O Jesus, O God, O Jesus, O God, O Jesus.’” Then he added, “I felt like it was the first time in my life I had ever really prayed.”
When I heard him say that, my mind went back to the night our first child was born. My wife was several weeks overdue, and that night there were various complications and difficulties. During the long hours of waiting, the doctor warned us that they might have to do a Caesarean delivery. Sometime in the late-night hours, the doctor came in and told us that the baby was having fetal heart distress. He showed us on the monitor how his heartbeat was going way up and way down. “We’re going to watch this, but it doesn’t look good.” Two or three hours passed, and about five-fifteen in the morning—I’ll never forget this—the doctor came striding in with a very concerned look on his face. He spoke one sentence. “We’re going to take the baby now.” That was not a question. He wasn’t asking for my permission. Suddenly the room exploded with activity. Nurses coming in and out, carts being wheeled in, someone grabbed my wife, and within thirty seconds the room was completely empty except for me. It happened so fast I didn’t have a chance to kiss my wife good-bye. I didn’t have a chance to pray with her. I didn’t have a chance to do anything. The last thing I saw was the frightened face of my wife as they wheeled her into the delivery room. It was clear something bad was going on and they were going to take the baby very quickly. As I sat alone in that room I tried to pray but I couldn’t. No words came out. All I could do was say, “O God, have mercy. O Jesus, have mercy. O God. O God.”
After what seemed like seven hours, though it was only about 20 minutes later, the doctor came in and said, “Mr. Pritchard, you’ve got a son. He’s healthy. He’s going to be okay. Your wife is doing fine.” And I felt that day like it was the first time I had ever prayed in my life.
James 5:17 says Elijah was a man with a nature like ours. He had the same fears, the same doubts, the same worries and the same concerns. The previous verse in the King James Version says that the effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. The word fervent comes from a Greek word that means boiling. The boiling prayers of the righteous avail much with God. What’s a boiling prayer? It has nothing to do with standing or sitting, kneeling or lying down. It has nothing to do with lifting your voice or speaking in a whisper. It has nothing to do with how loud or how long you pray. I really don’t need to define it all. When they take your son or daughter away for surgery, you’ll discover what a boiling prayer is. When your children are in trouble, you’ll pray boiling prayers to God. It’s what happens when you pray like there’s nothing else in the world really matters.
When the Bible says, “The Lord heard Elijah’s cry,” it means that when he stretched himself out on that boy’s dead body, something happened. God spoke from heaven and said, “All right, man of God, it shall be done.” The application is simple. Pray like that and you will see heaven opened on your behalf. The effective boiling prayers of the righteous avails much.
The boy’s life returned to him and he lived. That boy who was dead came back to life. It’s a pure miracle of God.
IV. A Mother’s Testimony
We come now to the end of this amazing story. Seeing that her son has come back to life, the grateful mother declares to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth” (v. 24). The Bible doesn’t record that she said, “Thank you,” though surely she did. It’s not recorded here because that’s not the point. Her words explain the miracle, and they also explain why not every mother receives this miracle when a child is sick to the point of death. The miracle happens to authenticate Elijah as God’s anointed prophet. God had promised to sustain all three of them–mother, son and Elijah–until the rains came and drought ended (v. 14). On the basis on that promise, Elijah believed that God would bring the boy back to life. Strange as it may sound, the miracle is less about the boy and more about God’s power working through Elijah. It is a miracle of sovereign grace, given this one time in Elijah’s life and never again given during his ministry. God answered this prayer by this man in this way at this particular moment in time. And he did it for his own purposes. There is no other way to understand the story. This is a lesson about the Sovereign of the universe moving in a miraculous way in answer to the prophet’s fervent prayers.
“Now I know,” the widow says. Ponder those words. Think about what they mean. Here is a message from God for the church of Jesus Christ. The world waits to see the power of God. The world doesn’t need another formula, and it certainly doesn’t need more empty promises. The world needs what this woman needed–a demonstration of the power of the living God.
When John the Baptist was in prison, discouraged and besieged with doubt, he sent messengers to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:2-3) That’s the right question. The world looks at us and says, “You talk a lot about Jesus, but how do we know he is the one we’re looking for?” Remember that John had already called Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). But now he says, “Are you the One or should we look for someone else?” And what answer does Jesus give? He doesn’t rebuke John for his spiritual confusion and he doesn’t quote Old Testament prophecy (which he could have done). Instead he instructs the messengers to go back and tell John what they have seen and heard. The blind see. The deaf hear. The lepers are cleansed. The lame walk. The dead are raised. And the poor have the gospel preached unto them (Matthew 11:4-6). Let the power of God be seen and the world will pay attention to our message. Unbelievers ignore us because we have given them formulas when we need to demonstrate the power of the living God.
“Now I know,” she says. Compare that with verse eighteen where she speaks bitterly to Elijah. Her bitterness turns to faith as she’s come to understand that God only wounds in order to heal. When the child is raised to life, the widow is encouraged and the prophet is affirmed.
In our journey through Elijah’s life, we have come to the end of the period of his personal preparation. Little does he know that he will soon confront the prophets of Baal in the greatest public showdown of his life. Before we go on, let’s look at Elijah’s preparation in perspective. Think of it this way:
He lived in the ravine when he attended Dry Creek University.
Then he moved on to Empty Barrel Graduate School.
Now he has finished an internship at Resurrection Hospital.
All these things were part of Elijah’s training to make him ready for the work God has for him to do. What did he learn from these three episodes?
At the brook he learned, “God can take care of me.”
From the empty barrel he learned, “God can use me to help others.”
From the child that died he learned, “God can work through me to do the impossible.”
It’s not by chance that in verse 1 of 1 Kings 17 he is called “Elijah the Tishbite,” but in verse 24 the woman calls him a “man of God.” God’s preparation is finished. Elijah is now ready for the ultimate challenge. No one becomes a man of God by chance, and no one becomes a man of God overnight. God must bring us to the end of ourselves so that we learn it’s all about him and not about us. When that truth finally breaks through, we are ready to be used by God in a mighty way.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for this story which speaks to us on so many levels. We thank you for its encouragement. Lord, we confess that all of us have questions we can’t answer. You do things we don’t understand and put us in places that may seem to have no purpose. But we thank you that you are a God of providential purpose. Thank you for the gift of prayer. Give us Elijah-like faith. Forgive us for holding back and doubting instead of trusting you for the impossible. Teach us to pray effective, fervent, boiling prayers that the world may look at us and may say, “Now we know the living God is in this place.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.