Elijah and the Ravens
1 Kings 17:2-7
March 7, 2006
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Until recently, everything I knew about ravens, I learned from Edgar Allen Poe.
I don’t know when I first read his poem The Raven, but it might have been in Mrs. Graves’ ninth-grade English class. All I remember about the poem is the spooky refrain, “Quoth the raven, ’Nevermore.’” And until I read about Elijah and ravens, I hadn’t given those strange black bird another thought in almost forty years. When I planned out my series on Elijah, I didn’t intend to spend a whole week on the ravens, but for some reason I couldn’t get those birds out of my mind. I thought about it and thought it and decided there must be something important here that we need to know.
So let’s take a trip into the avian world and think about the ravens that fed Elijah. We begin with a few simple facts. Ravens are large black birds closely related to crows, the main difference being that ravens are bigger, with a wingspan that reaches 50 inches. They can be found from the arctic to the deserts of North Africa to the islands of the Pacific. During flight they perform complicated aerial acrobatics. Biologists consider them to be extremely intelligent birds. But that is not their most notable characteristic. Ravens are scavengers. They eat berries, fruit, insects, bread and carrion (the flesh of dead animals). They sometimes kill small birds and mammals such as rabbits and rats. They are capable of a wide range of noises, including the ability to mimic human speech. Given their black coloration, their enormous wingspan, and their reputation as scavengers, it is no surprise that ravens have gained a mythic reputation. They have even given us a word that describes a person so hungry that he will eat anything. Such a person is said to be ravenous.
Ravens appear in the Bible in only a few places. Genesis 8:6-7 says that when the floodwaters began to recede, Noah sent out a raven in search of dry land. Although the earth was still covered with water, the male raven (1/2 of the entire raven population at the time) had no trouble staying alive by scavenging off all the material floating on the surface of the water. If you are raven-haired, your hair is dark black. In Song of Solomon 5:11, the woman describes her beloved as having hair “as dark as a raven.” The scavenging side of the raven appears in Proverbs 30:17 where a rebellious child will be thrown in a valley and the ravens will pick out his eyes. Instead of an honorable burial, the rebellious child becomes food for the ravens. Isaiah prophesied that after God judged Edom, it would be so deserted that only the owl and the raven would live there (Isaiah 34:11). Despite their negative image, God cares for the ravens and he feeds them (Psalm 147:9). When Jesus wanted to impress this truth upon his disciples, he told them to “consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them” (Luke 12:24).
There is one more fact we need to consider. When God gave the Law to Moses, he declared that ravens were unclean birds:
These are the birds you are to detest and not eat because they are detestable: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite, any kind of raven, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat (Leviticus 11:13-19).
God doesn’t say why the Jews were to consider these birds unclean (“detestable”) and thus not to be eaten under any circumstances. Ravens may have been included because they eat dead flesh. But this much is certain. Once God declared the ravens unclean, no Jew would have anything to do with them. They were not to be eaten under any circumstances. And given their scavenging nature, that prohibition was actually a blessing to the Jews.
And that brings us back to the story of Elijah. When the Lord told him to go and hide himself by the brook Cherith on the east side of the Jordan, he also promised send ravens to feed him. I have no doubt that the prophet was not exactly thrilled with that promise. It’s hard enough to have to hide yourself in a desolate region. Far worse was the news that he would be fed twice a day by unclean birds. The whole thing was unusual because ravens normally care only for their own. Under no circumstances would they bring food to a man, much less do it twice a day.
What should we learn from the story of Elijah and the ravens?
1) God commanded and the ravens came.
In 1 Kings 17:4 the Lord declares, “I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” I can imagine Elijah sitting alone by the brook when suddenly a flock of birds approaches him. They are ravens, unclean scavenger birds. It must have been a fearsome sight to see these enormous black birds swooping in with bread and meat in their beaks. But they did not come by chance nor did they fly from a nearby cave. God sent them, God commanded them, God directed them, and thus they came to the prophet’s aid.
Let me pause to ask a question. How much food does it take to sustain your family each week? I confess that I don’t know the answer to that question, but my wife does. When all three of our boys lived at home, we went through an enormous amount of food every week. Some weeks we would go through 5-10 gallons of milk. No matter how often we went to the grocery store, we would have to go again a few days later. That’s how it is with growing boys. You have to keep feeding them because they never stop growing. And they are always hungry. Many nights we would hear some noise in the kitchen late at night. It was Josh or Mark or Nick foraging for food. It would take some detailed calculations to figure out how much we’ve spent on food over the years, but God knows the exact amount because he keeps track of what we need. He knows your name and he knows your address and he knows what you need today and he knows what you will need tomorrow. It’s all written on his heart because he watches over you even when you think he has forgotten you. God knows what you need, and he knows when you need it, and he will make sure you have it in time. As he sent the ravens to Elijah, he can command all heaven to come to your aid.
2) God did not allow Elijah to hoard up a surplus.
He sent the ravens to Elijah twice a day, in the morning and again in the evening. The ravens didn’t bring enough on Monday to last the whole week. They brought enough in the morning to last the day and enough at night to keep him nourished during the night. Just enough and nothing more. This is Jesus meant when he taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). God is teaching us in the Old Testament the same thing he is trying to teach us in the New Testament. He is willing to supply our needs but only on a day to day to day basis. We don’t like to live like that. Most of us have freezers at home filled with food. Maybe we have a side of beef and some vegetables. We have plenty of food. There is nothing wrong with that, by the way, but a freezer filled with food makes it difficult to pray this prayer sincerely. We mutter our prayers instead of saying them from the heart because we already know we aren’t going to go hungry. We don’t want to live day to day. We’d rather have pension plans and stocks and bonds and options. We would rather have life insurance policies that guarantee a secure future. If we had our way, this prayer would read, “Give us this week our weekly bread.” Or “Give us this month our monthly bread.” Or better yet, “Lord, give us this year our yearly bread. Just give it to us all at once and we’ll be alright. Then we’ll trust you.” But that is not how Jesus taught us to pray, and such a prayer would not be good for us anyway. We do better when we are forced to depend on God every day.
Life is uncertain. Most of us don’t have enough savings to get through more than another month or so. You can be doing fine and then one day the doctor says, “I’m sorry the tests are positive. You’ve got cancer.” Your life gets rearranged in a split second. Just when you think you’ve got it all together, an illness, the loss of a job, the collapse of an empire that you put together, can happen so fast. God lets those things happen to move us from self-sufficiency to God-sufficiency. From self-reliance to God-reliance. From trusting in our own ability to trusting in him alone.
One Day At A Time
I talked one day with a single mother who ran her own business. When I asked how things were going, she smiled and said, “We’re barely making it. June was tough. But I’ve got two jobs for July. We’re going to be okay for July. That’s the way it is. Just when we’re about to run out, God brings a little more work in.” That’s not easy, but she has discovered something that those of us who have plenty of money never discover. She’s learning in the laboratory of life that God will meet her needs.
Am I saying that we shouldn’t plan ahead? No, I’m not saying that. You should plan ahead. That’s biblical. You should plan ahead but you shouldn’t worry ahead. There’s a big difference. Here is how Charles Spurgeon brought the truth home:
Elijah had enough, but it did not always come to him in the nicest way; for I do not imagine that the ravens knew how to get bread and meat always cut into nicest shape. Perhaps they snatched a rough bit of meat here, and perhaps a crust of bread there, and it came in all sorts of ugly pieces, but still, there it was, and it was enough. “Beggars are not to be choosers,” we say, and certainly pensioners on God’s bounty ought not pick holes and find fault with the Lords providing. Whatever God gives thee be grateful for, for if too proud to take from the raven’s mouth, it will be well for thee to go without, until shine hunger consume thy pride. God promises his people enough, but not more than enough, and even that enough may not come to us in the way we should choose.
3) God didn’t ask Elijah’s permission before he sent the ravens.
I’m sure he didn’t ask because I think Elijah would have said, “Lord, I’ve got a better idea.” Ravens are scavengers whose number one meal is decaying flesh. They are flying garbage disposals. No respectable Jew would eat a raven, and neither would we. How would you respond if someone said, “Why don’t you come over this Saturday and we’ll have some fried raven and mashed potatoes?” I think you’d find a reason to be somewhere else that night. Perhaps Elijah wondered where the ravens got the food they brought him. Did they pick apart some decaying carcass and bring the leftovers to the prophet of God?
No, it wasn’t like that at all. The same God who commanded the ravens made sure that the food they brought Elijah was good for him. In this we see both the creativity and the sovereignty of God. He can take an unclean bird and feed his prophet, and he can do it for days or months or even for years. James 5:17 says that because of Elijah’s prayers, it did not rain in Israel for three and a half years. If that’s how long he was at Cherith, it means that the ravens served him over 2000 meals.
One writer commented that we would have been less surprised if God had used a robin redbreast or a meadowlark or a turtle dove to bring the food. But that is not how God works. He routinely chooses the despised things of the world in order to confound the mighty, and he uses the foolish to bring the strong down to nothing. As you look at the course of life, you may think that God is going to use some rich uncle or a wealthy friend to help you out. But experience shows how unlikely that is. He is much more likely to meet your needs through the ravens of the earth that fly to your need when you least expect them. The Lord has plenty of ravens to supply the needs of his children. If God sends you to Cherith to hide you for a season, do not despair for he has not forgotten you. Though you be hidden to man, you are not hidden to your Heavenly Father. He knows where you are and he knows why you are there. Your grocery list is written on his heart. Do not be surprised when a flock of large black birds gathers to your hiding place. They are God’s ravens, sent from heaven to bring you food.
4) God has appointed the beginning and ending of every season of life.
1 Kings 17:7 says that “some time later the brook dried up.” That makes it sound as if it happened by chance. But the Hebrew phrase translated “some time later” actually means “at the end of days.” It means the brook dried at the end of the days appointed by God. The water ran as long as God decreed, and on the day he decreed, the brook began to dry up. Remember the words of Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” All creation must answer to him. Every drop of water that falls comes from his hand. The same God who sent the rain also sent the drought. The same God who called Elijah to confront Ahab also sent him to hide by the brook. The same God who sent the ravens now sends him to live with the widow of Zarephath. As the narrative of Elijah’s life unfolds, it appears to take many wild swings.
From the mountains of Gilead,
To the king’s palace,
To the brook Cherith,
To a widow’s home in Zarephath.
But what seems to be haphazard and unplanned is actually the unfolding of God’s divine plan. “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). Most of our plans don’t stand. They are like the leaves that blow away in the autumn wind. But when God determines to do something, it will happen. You can write it down and take it to the bank. You can make all the speeches you want and announce your long-range plans, your ten-year goals, and your personal objectives, but just remember this. When you are finished, God always gets the last word. What a relief to realize that God is God and we’re not. Now you can rip that big “G” off your sweatshirt. You don’t have to play God anymore and you don’t have to try to control everything around you. You can sleep well when you realize that God is God and you are not. Corrie Ten Boom was having trouble going to sleep one night because she was so worried about the affairs of her life. She tried praying but it didn’t help. Finally, the Lord said to her, “Go to sleep, Corrie. I’m going to be up all night anyway.”
We can learn several important lessons from this:
First, God’s timing and ours are rarely the same. That is why we must learn to wait on the Lord.
Second, God’s plan is rarely revealed in advance. Elijah had no idea of where God would lead him next, and neither do we.
Third, God’s leading often involves sudden changes. Just when we think we think life is exactly the way we want it, suddenly everything changes. Life is a kaleidoscope of constantly shifting colors and patterns. Only God sees the big picture. At best we see only a part of the pattern, and then only for a brief moment.
Would you like to be like Elijah? This week I met a woman who told me she prays, “Lord, do the impossible in my life.” That’s an Elijah-like prayer because the prophet continually saw things happen that could not be explained apart from God. R. G. Lee said, “We never test the resources of God until we attempt the impossible.” Sometimes we are called to speak truth to power, and sometimes we are called to hide ourselves by the brook. If we are willing to obey, God can take care of the details. He can send the ravens to feed us when the world has forgotten us. Amen.