Admitting Your Emptiness

2 Kings 4:1-7

July 24, 2005 | Brian Bill

Follow along as I read 2 Kings 4:1-7: “The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, ‘Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the LORD.  But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.’  Elisha replied to her, ‘How can I help you?  Tell me, what do you have in your house?’  ‘Your servant has nothing there at all,’ she said, ‘except a little oil.’  Elisha said, ‘Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars.  Don’t ask for just a few.  Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons.  Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.’ She left him and afterward shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring.  When all the jars were full, she said to her son, ‘Bring me another one.’  But he replied, ‘There is not a jar left.’  Then the oil stopped flowing.  She went and told the man of God, and he said, ‘Go, sell the oil and pay your debts.  You and your sons can live on what is left.’”

Elisha is the prophet that came after Elijah.  Elijah was known as God’s fiery spokesman who confronted people with truth.  Elisha, his understudy, was known more as a tender healer who gave grace to people.  In tandem, they ministered like Jesus, who was known as one was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  Elisha, who had been given a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit, was keyed into compassionate acts of mercy.  He helped this hurting woman realize that you have more than you think when you offer the little that you have.  Let’s look at the process she went through.

1. Verbalize your needs (1). 

The story begins with a woman who is suddenly widowed.  Her husband was one of Elisha’s disciples.  Tradition tells us that his name was Obadiah.  If that’s true, then we know that he was a key player during the time when the awful king Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel were trying to annihilate the prophets.  Obadiah hid a number of the prophets in a cave and personally took care of their needs, at great personal cost.  We see this in 1 Kings 18:4: “While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.”  Perhaps that’s why he died destitute.  He may have borrowed the money in order to provide for the prophets.  Notice that this woman “cried out to Elisha.”  She was in desperate straights because she was in a time of bereavement and impending bankruptcy.  She had not only lost her husband but now was in danger of losing her two boys to the creditor.

God has a heart for the hurting, especially those who are widows, orphans and aliens.   We see this in passages like Psalm 68:5: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling” and Psalm 146:9: “The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow…”  In Deuteronomy 24, God makes special provision for widows to glean in the fields, vineyards and orchards after the harvesters are finished.   And, he expects his followers today to have compassion and provide care as stated clearly in James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” 

Some of you can relate to the pain and emptiness that this widow felt because you’ve lost a spouse.  I can only imagine how alone you must feel at times.  Let me remind you that God is your defender and He will sustain you.  And, as your church, we want to do whatever we can to help as well.  Scripture reminds us in 1 Timothy 5:2-16 that the family is to be the front line of support and care, but if a widow does not have a family and meets some other qualifications, then the church family is to provide some help.  We see this in Acts 6, where the early church leaders developed a system to care for widows. 

Perhaps you’re wondering why God would let a choice servant die suddenly and leave a wife and kids behind.  I know my little sister has asked this question after her pastor, who she loved dearly, died of a stroke several months ago.  He was only in his mid-40s.  All I can say is that Christians are not exempt from trials and troubles and testing, and as Psalm 139:16 says, our days are ordained by the Almighty, “Before one of them came to be.”   

It’s time to break up your pity party and be proactive by verbalizing your needs to God

I don’t know what situation you’re in today but my guess is that you’re facing a problem bigger than you are.  And if you’re not, get ready because you will be shortly.  This woman appealed to God’s spokesman for help and then verbalized her needs.  When I asked a friend for his insights into this passage, he made the point that this woman was able to state succinctly what she needed.  She got right to the point and came to someone she could trust to take it to God for her.  He also pointed out that she doesn’t bad mouth the creditor or blame her circumstances or even shake her fist at God.  She was concerned about her family and verbalized it to Elisha.  Have you told God what it is you need?  Have you cried out to him in the midst of your despair, knowing that if He doesn’t come through for you, all will be lost?  Don’t be passive.  It’s time to break up your pity party and be proactive by verbalizing your needs to God.

2. Admit your emptiness (2a). 

Elisha listens to her lament and then asks two questions:

  • How can I help you?
  • What do you have?

We can learn a lot from how he handled this situation.  She came to him for help and he deftly reflected the attention away from himself and back to her because he didn’t have any extra shekels.  He also employed the wonderful teaching method of asking questions used often by Jesus, the Master Teacher.  Let me pick just two instances, both found in Mark 10.  When James and John run up to Jesus, wanting the special seats of honor, Jesus asks a question that disarms them and reveals their selfishness: “What do you want me to do for you?” (verse 36).  Later in the chapter, Jesus asks this identical question to a blind man who replied, “I want to see” (verse 51).  In both instances, the question helped get to the heart of the matter, revealing selfishness in one situation and sincere faith in the other.  Elisha addresses the widow’s need not with an answer but with a couple questions in order to help her get to the heart of what she really wants God to do.

The first part of the widow’s answer reveals how empty she really is: “Your servant has nothing there at all.”  She had probably liquidated everything at the Promise Land Pawn Shop.  It’s important for her to proclaim her poverty, to realize that she is at the end of her rope.  Until she does, God cannot begin to fill her back up.  Her focus was on her limitations not on the limitless supply of God’s provision.  Friend, perhaps you have not been experiencing much of God lately precisely because you are too filled with yourself, or with sin, or with hobbies, or with activities, or with possessions.  This woman was empty and she admitted it.  Will you do the same?    I met with someone this week who told me that he feels empty even though he’s surrounded by things that should be fulfilling.  I told him that God brought him to this point so he would realize that Christ alone can fill the empty places in his soul.  You have more than you think when you offer the little that you have.

3. Use what you have (2b). 

I love the next part of her answer.  She told Elisha that she had nothing at all and then remembers that she has a little bit of something: “…except a little oil.” Some of you probably think that you have nothing at all but in actuality, everyone has something.  She knew what she didn’t have but she also knew what she did have.  In our culture, oil is something we try to avoid because it clogs our arteries or makes our hair greasy, but in Bible times oil had a multiplicity of good uses.  

  • It was a commodity that was freely traded.  In John 12:3-5, we read of Mary who took a pint of oil and poured it on Jesus’ feet.  This made Judas gasp because he knew it was worth about a year’s wages.
  • It was used in lamps to provide light in homes (see Matthew 5:15).
  • It was used in cooking, similar to how we use butter today (see Ezekiel 16:13).
  • It was used as a cosmetic.  Psalm 23:5: “You anoint my head with oil…” 
  • It was used as an ointment for injuries (see Isaiah 1:6).
  • It was offered as part of the sacrificial system (see Exodus 25:6).
  • It was used to anoint kings (see 1 Samuel 16:13).
  • It was used to prepare bodies for burial (see Matthew 26:12).  Perhaps this widow was saving the little that she had for her own funeral service.

In addition, oil symbolized abundance as stated in Jeremiah 31:12: “…they will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD — the grain, the new wine and the oil.”  To not have much oil often was humiliating and a sign that God had withheld blessing.  Oil also symbolized joy in Isaiah 61:3 where it is referred to as: “the oil of gladness.”  In addition oil is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit and communicated that God’s presence was with someone.

With all this in mind, this widow had lost her joy and was humiliated by all the hurt she had been through.  And yet, she still had some left!  And she’s told to take the little that she has and do something with it because what she had was enough for God.  Other than her sons, it was the most valuable thing she had, and yet she was willing to offer it to the Almighty.  When the young boy offered his “Lunchable” to the Lord, what he had fed five thousand men (see John 6:9-11).  Samson took a jawbone from a donkey as his only weapon and struck down a thousand men (see Judges 15:15).   What do you have right now?  It might not be much but maybe it’s important to you.  Or maybe you think it’s not very valuable.  Whatever the case, will you surrender it to God so that He can multiply it?  You have more than you think when you offer the little that you have.

4. Obey what you hear (3). 

This woman is then given a command that seems very strange.  She is to go to all of her neighbors and ask for empty jars.  I imagine that this was very humbling for her to do.  And she’s told to get as many as she can: “Don’t ask for just a few.”  This probably doesn’t make any sense to the widow.  What is she going to do with empty jars?  She’s already empty and yet is told to go and gather some more emptiness.  She could use some jars that were filled with food, or cans of corn, or pots of porridge, but what does she need empty jars for?  What will she tell her neighbors when they ask why she wants them?  I imagine that they probably laughed at her.  I wonder if she remembered that Noah obeyed and built his big boat even when it didn’t make sense either.  

The key issue here is to obey, even when it doesn’t make sense and when it’s not easy to do so.  Joshua was told to march around Jericho once a day for six days and then on the seventh day to march around it seven times in a row (see Joshua 6:3-5).  This was crazy but he obeyed and the walls got wobbly and fell down.  David used a slingshot to slay a big shot (see 1 Samuel 17:49).  Elisha threw a little salt in some bitter water and it immediately became better (see 2 Kings 2:21).  When the wine ran out at a wedding, Jesus told the servants to fill the jars with water.  It was only when they obeyed this rather unusual request that the water became wine (see John 2:7-9).

What is God asking you to do right now?  Some of you know but you’ve been delaying.  Delayed disobedience is really outright disobedience.  Don’t cut corners when God makes it clear what you are to do.  No matter how strange or unusual or illogical it may seem, when God says it, we must do it.  2 Kings 5 tells the story of a man named Naaman who almost missed out on God’s blessing simply because he didn’t want to do what he was told to do.  He had leprosy and Elisha told him to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River and then he would be cured.  Naaman thought this was preposterous and marched away angry.  He wanted Elisha to do something more spectacular than just telling him to take seven baths.  Thankfully his servants talked some sense into him, convincing him to obey what Elisha said.  He did so reluctantly and when he did, he was healed.  Friend, don’t miss out on what God wants to do in your life.  Obedience is a prerequisite for blessing.  

That reminds me of the man who told his pastor he was going to the Holy Land and was planning to visit Mount Sinai.  He was thrilled with his plan to climb to the top of the mountain and read the Ten Commandments outloud.  The pastor wasn’t very impressed for he knew the man well.  He turned to his church member and said, “Instead of traveling thousands of miles to read the Ten Commandments, why not stay right here at home and obey them?”  If we work at obeying what we hear, we will learn that we have more than we think when we offer the little that we have.

5. Get alone with God (4-5). 

After going out in public to get the jars, she was then told to go to God in private: “Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons.  Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.” Shutting the door probably kept the creditor and the nosy neighbors away.  But more than that, it gave God the opportunity to show up in the privacy of her house.  In Mark 5:40, we read about how Jesus dismissed the crowds and the commotion they caused, took the parents with him inside the house, shut the door and raised their daughter back to life.  The Bible says that they were astonished and interestingly they were told to not tell anyone what had happened.  Sometimes miracles are not meant to be shared with others but experienced only between you and the Lord.

Sometimes we miss out on miracles because we don’t take the time to get alone with God, to cultivate a time of quiet and rest before Him.  Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God…”  Jesus tells us to pray in private in Matthew 6:6: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Some of us do OK at praying but we’re not quiet enough to hear God’s answers.

You have more than you think when you offer the little that you have

This was also a time for her boys to see how God was going to provide.  They were going to be personal witnesses of this miracle.  Some of us hear how God works in other people’s lives, we read books about how Christian celebrities experience blessings, but we wonder why it doesn’t happen to us.  Are you getting alone with God on a daily basis?  It’s in those times of Scripture reading, prayer, reflection, and meditation that God often breaks through the clutter of our lives.  Shut the door and have a daily retreat with the Lord so that you can advance during the day.  If you’re really desperate for God to show up you will make time to be alone with Him.  Conversely, if you’re not getting alone with God it may mean that you don’t really want Him to work in your life.  Remember: You have more than you think when you offer the little that you have.

I read this week about the secret to Billy Graham’s spiritual stamina.  He has faithfully read five Psalms and one chapter of Proverbs every day for many years.  When asked why he does this, he said the Psalms show him how to relate to God, while the Proverbs teach him how to relate to people.  He put it this way: “Unless the soul is fed and exercised daily, it becomes weak and shriveled.  It remains discontented, confused, restless.” 

6. Make room for blessings (6-7). 

As the widow kept pouring, her boys kept bringing jars to be filled.  As each filled jar is set aside, finally they come to the last container and the son says, “There is not a jar left.”  It’s at that point that the oil stopped flowing.  Let me make a few observations:

  • The size of her blessing was directly related to how obedient she had been in getting the jars.  Obedience leads to blessings.
  • God’s ability to provide always exceeds our capacity to receive.
  • God used what she did have (a little oil) to provide what she didn’t have (a lot of oil).
  • God pours out His blessings when we are willing to pour out what we have first.
  • We must be empty in order for God to fill us.
  • As long as she kept bringing, God kept blessing.  Or as someone has said, “When faith asked no more, God worked no more.”  Jesus said it this way in Matthew 9:29: “According to your faith will it be done to you.”
  • God meets our needs and provides even more than we need.  Verse 7 tells us that this family had enough to pay their debts and enough left over to live on.  Solomon asked for wisdom and was also granted riches and honor (1 Kings 3:13).  The paralytic was healed and had his sins forgiven (Matthew 9:2).  The thief on the cross wanted Jesus to remember him and he received much more than he asked for when Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).  Ephesians 3:20 reminds us that God loves to over-answer: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine…”

In his book called, “Blue Like Jazz,” Donald Miller describes a festival at the college he attended.  On one particular weekend called “Ren Fayre,” he writes: “Friday night is mostly about getting drunk, and Saturday night is about getting high.”  He tells about how some of the Christians on campus decided that this was a pretty good place to come out of the closet.  He came up with an idea that gathered traction among the group.  They decided to build a confession booth in the middle of campus with a sign on it that said “Confess your sins.”  Miller writes: “I said this because I knew a lot of people would be sinning, and Christian spirituality begins by confessing our sins and repenting.  I also said it as a joke.”

After trying to bail on this idea and failing, one of his buddies said something that stunned them all: “Here’s the catch.  We are not actually going to accept confessions.  We are going to confess to them…as followers of Jesus we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry…we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus.  We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”  Miller and his friend then dressed up like monks and took their places in the confessional, waiting to see what would happen.  As the partying blasted away outside, they wondered if anyone would even come in.  Miller thought to himself: “Who wants to stop dancing to confess their sins?”

After a few minutes he had his first customer named Jake.  Here’s part of the dialog that took place:

“I’m supposed to tell you all of the juicy gossip I did at Ren Fayre, right?” Jake said.


“Okay, then what? What’s the game?  What’s with the monk outfit?” He asked.

“We are followers of Jesus…and He represented certain ideas that we have not done a good job at representing…so there’s a group of us on campus that wanted to confess to you.”

Jake replied, “What are you confessing?”

“Everything,” I told him.  “There’s a lot.  I will keep it short.  Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick.  I have never done very much about that.  Jesus said to love those who persecute me.  I tend to lash out…”

After going on for a couple minutes, Jake replied tenderly: “It’s all right.”  His eyes started to water.  “I forgive you.”  Then Jake said, “You really believe in Jesus, don’t you?”

That lead into a discussion of the Cross and redemption.  Jake’s eyes started watering again spoke these words of life: “If you want to know God, you can.”

When he left the booth someone else was ready to come in.  It went on like that for a couple hours.  Sometime around two or three in the morning, after speaking to about 30 college students in the confessional, Miller walked across campus with his monk robe under his arm and was struck by this thought: “I could hear the music thumping.  There were kids making out on the lawn and chasing each other down the sidewalks.  There was laughing and dancing and throwing up…I felt very strongly that Jesus was relevant in this place.

Friends, Jesus is relevant in this place and in the places you hang out.  Now that Miller had emptied himself through confession, he could be filled with the love of God, and he could bring other empty jars to Jesus.  

Let’s summarize what we’ve learned this morning.  You have more than you think when you offer the little that you have.

  • Verbalize your needs
  • Admit your emptiness
  • Use what you have
  • Obey what you hear
  • Get alone with God
  • Make room for blessings

Man, I wish I had thought to bring more jars today.  Actually, there are a number of jars here…sitting in chairs.  2 Corinthians 4:7 says that believers are jars of clay that are filled with the treasure of Christ.  Some of us look pretty banged up.  Others of you look pretty good.  Some of you are older and others are younger.  That’s what struck Paul as he looked at the church in 2 Timothy 2:20-21.  I like how Eugene Peterson translates these two verses: “In a well-furnished kitchen there are not only crystal goblets and silver platters, but waste cans and compost buckets — some containers used to serve fine meals, others to take out the garbage.  Become the kind of container God can use to present any and every kind of gift to his guests for their blessing.” 

Believer, let me ask you a couple questions.  Are you empty enough to be used by God?  Have you been filling yourself up with stuff that doesn’t satisfy?  If you’ve been saved, it’s time to start serving.  At one time you were in debt to Satan until Christ set you free.  Now you are in debt to your Deliverer.  David Livingstone, pioneer missionary to Africa could have retired on his royalties from his writings but instead plunged back into the interior of Africa.  When asked why he did what he did, Livingstone replied, “Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of a great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay?” 

Perhaps you would say this morning that you have not yet come to Christ.  You feel empty and used up and lost.  If you haven’t put your faith in Jesus, Satan is coming for you.  He wants to take you and your family.  The only way out is through the One who paid your debt.  His name is Jesus.  One song puts it this way: “He paid a debt He did not owe; I owed a debt I could not pay.”

Are you ready to have the work of Christ on the cross credited to your account right now?  If so, please pray this prayer along with me:  “Lord Jesus, for too long I’ve kept you out of my life.  I admit that I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself.  I owe a debt I can never pay and so I repent of my sins by changing my mind about the way I’ve been living.  Thank you for paying the price for my freedom.  By faith I gratefully receive your gift of salvation.  Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth.  With all my heart I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day.  Thank you for bearing my sins and giving me the gift of eternal life.  I believe your words are true.  I accept you into my heart.   Be my Savior and Lord.  I surrender to your leadership in my life.  Make me into the person you want me to be.  Amen.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?