by T. Austin-Sparks
Reading: 1 Kings 17:8-24.
"Jesus Christ our Lord... declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:3-4).
Romans 1:3-4 is basic to our present meditation and the portion in the book of Kings will be the means of illustrating the truth in Romans 1:3-4.
The last cry of the widow of Zarephath, as you notice, was "Now I know". The declaration of Romans 1:4 is "determined, declared... the Son of God in power... by the resurrection of the dead".
If we turn back to things as they were in the days when this of which we have read took place, we remember that they were days of real spiritual declension. The conditions on the earth were but an illustration of how things were spiritually. There was a sore famine through drought, rain was long withheld, and all fruitfulness therefore was in a state of suspense, because (as we learn later in the great crisis which was already on the horizon, the great Carmel crisis) there was that state of indefiniteness; what the prophet called "limping between two opinions", a state of spiritual maimedness, haltedness, the heart divided. And because of that, there could be no spiritual fulness, there could be nothing of the real fulness of the Lord amongst His people. And what He sent into the natural world of drought and famine, speaking of a spiritual condition, was but the counterpart of what obtained in the spiritual realm - a divided heart, a heart not wholly for the Lord, a heart largely set upon its own blessing, this world - therefore spiritual famine. Days, we have said, of spiritual declension.
Elijah represented the Lord's testimony, the ministry of the Divine, the heavenly, things as here on the earth. And as we see, he was in a state of retirement from the public scene, he was not before the public eye. The Lord hid him, or commanded him, "Go, hide thyself", so that the real testimony of the Lord was not the thing which was the public thing, the recognised thing, the accepted thing. It was something which the Lord was keeping in secret, keeping hidden, but nevertheless was very active, very energetic, but energetic along one line, as we shall see.
God, while He was working in a hidden, in a secret way, while He was hiding that which represented His full thought, was nevertheless caring for His testimony. In the first place, He supported it by the ministry of ravens, and then by the ministry of the widow of Zarephath. The Lord was looking after His testimony in a hidden way, was caring for that which was most precious to Himself.
Now, that brings us immediately to the place where the Lord's message at this time comes up quite definitely. In going by the commandment of the Lord to Zarephath, and being brought to the gate of the city, this woman, this widow and her son, were brought into touch with the prophet, with the testimony of the Lord, with the full thought of the Lord along the line of their own need, along the line of their own conscious need. They were brought into relationship with God's testimony, and their need was met in relation to God's need.
God had a need; that need was represented by Elijah. It was bound up with Elijah, bound up with that instrument of testimony; there was a need there. If we may speak in spiritual language, the testimony had a need, as well as the woman and the son. The Lord, as represented by Elijah, had a need. He was after something, He was working toward something. The sovereignty of God is very clear in these happenings. It was some distance for Elijah to go. When the brook Cherith dried up the word of the Lord came to go to Zarephath in the land of Zidon, which was a journey. It was outside of Israel altogether. You remember what the Lord said about this very matter. He said there were many widows in Zarephath in the days of Elijah the prophet, but to none of them was he sent, but to the widow in the land of Zidon, outside of Israel. But this is the Lord's strange, wonderful way. He sent His servant on a long journey outside of Israel, acting in sovereignty, because He has deeper thoughts, larger thoughts.
Of course, there is a dispensational line of truth running right through this, which perhaps we need not stay to show in any fulness, just touching upon the significance of the words of the Lord Jesus about this very incident. You will remember it was in the day when He, who was the embodiment of God's fulness, He who was the testimony of God amongst men, had no place amongst them, but by God was a hidden one because of their spiritual state. Did He not cry, "The world knows Me not"? He came unto His own, and they that were His own people received Him not - like Elijah. It was then that God looked beyond Israel, beyond the confines of the earthly Israel, out to the Gentile nations, because He had a need, a need in His own heart. That need was centred in His Son, and the letter to the Ephesians is the background of all that we are saying.
The great phrase in that letter, and one which has caused us all so much perplexity, is: "the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints". Mark you, that word was being written, spoken, especially beyond Israel to that church which is greater than the bounds and the confines of earthly Israel, for the letter to the Ephesians is all on that - the greater thing which God has ever had in mind, the greater thing than Israel. Then you notice, immediately the apostle has used those words, "What the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints", he goes on, "what the exceeding greatness of His power to us-ward who believe, according to that working of the strength of His might which He wrought in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead". Now you have come back to Zarephath. You get the thought? It is all of a piece: this testimony established along the line of resurrection and established in the church which is a bigger thing than Israel, which is beyond Israel.
So the Lord had a need as represented in Elijah, and the others found their need met by answering to the Lord's need. That is a principle always underlying God's dealing with people, and that explains this strange and seemingly inconsiderate and selfish behaviour of Elijah. "I have a little meal, I am gathering two sticks. I only want a couple of sticks, the portion is so small, to bake a little cake for me and my son", no, it is not a death knell, though it sounds like it, "that we may eat and die". My heart leaps with joy when I read that - "and die" - because of that to which it is basic, to which it is essential: "We may eat and die".
And then this seemingly inconsiderate procedure of the prophet, "Me first! Bake a little cake and bring it to me first and then you and your son". It is a testing thing, a principle always pressed home by God when He is after something very rich. You and I will never come into God's fulness by having as our first consideration our own blessing, our own good, our own fulness. God's way is always to test us as to whether we have first of all His interests at heart, whether we discern and recognise that He has an inheritance, and whether our hearts are set upon His inheritance. Oh, there is so much that is constituted for the blessing of God's people, and there is so much activity, feverish quest for blessing, an immense amount of work that is for the blessing of the Lord's people.
Now, let us challenge our own hearts. Do you go to meetings usually to get a blessing? Well, that may be all right, I am not going to say that that is all wrong, but I'll tell you the way to get blessing. Suspend your anxiety to get a blessing and put in its place a desire that the Lord may get something, get what He is after, and you will get a blessing. But don't do it for that! You will be tested; the Lord will take away even that which you have got, to prove whether this is genuine, this faith, this obedience, whether really your heart is set upon Him or something for yourself. He will just take away all that you have. He will say, "Me first. My testimony first, My interests first, what I am after first". He will apply that in a very practical way, and He is applying it with most of us in a very practical way. He is bringing us more and more utterly to the place where, if the Lord's interests are not supreme with us, then we have nothing, better just give it all up.
That was the way in which this woman and her son came into fulness. The challenge was accepted, the obedience of faith was given, that which represented the Lord's interests was put first, and their blessing, their fulness, followed. Remember that is always the way of the Lord.
I am going to pause there just for a moment to press that home. It is the explanation of so much. You may have been on the line of blessing, and then the Lord brings you into touch with something which represents a great fulness for Himself, something which is very much more important with Him than that line of blessing. It has bound up with it His own satisfaction, the purpose upon which His heart has been set from before times eternal. You get a touch with that, and when you get a touch with it, immediately your line of blessing is affected, and that line of things begins to dry up, begins to be taken away from you. The Lord seems to withdraw that which you had, seems to require that you let that go, and you can see yourself gradually moving into a place where you have nothing left. All the blessing that you had is gone, God has taken it away.
Now you have come into a place where there is only one question. It all resolves itself into one issue: is this the Lord, am I persuaded that this is of God? What other course can I take? What alternative have I? Am I compelled to believe that the Lord has met me at this point, in this way? If so, what can I do but say "Yes" to the Lord? In saying "Yes" to the Lord, we let go all that line of blessing that we have been in, and pass into a time of complete barrenness when we let go even what we had. The Lord has taken that, and during that time (and for some it is drawn out, not just five minutes) this testing is pressed to finality.
In that time of testing, all sorts of questions arise and the enemy is never far away to give a construction to your experience, an interpretation, and will say, "You have made a great mistake. You have lost all your blessing, you have lost all your usefulness. You were being used, now you are not being used. All the doors that were open to you are now closed. You have got nothing". During that time, you have all that sort of thing, but then the test is: what can we do otherwise? And concluding that this is the Lord, you say, "Well, I can do nothing else, but simply be obedient to the Lord and wait for Him. I have no longer personal interests, even in spiritual things, at heart. The Lord knows my heart. His interests alone are before me", and that issue is tested out thoroughly. When that thing has been settled, established (and the Lord only knows when it is established, these hearts of ours may think that it is all settled long before it really is) quite quietly, without demonstration or ostentation, a greater fulness of the Lord begins to come in, something which we have not had before. We know that we have come into an inheritance, but it is into the inheritance of that which is pre-eminently precious to the Lord, it is something very dear to Him, no longer a thing which is just personal. It is a thing which we now see to be God's own treasure, God's own satisfaction, the thing upon which His heart has been set.
Beloved, it is true that God has His heart set upon something which to Him is more than anything and everything else. "The Kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchantman, seeking goodly pearls; who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it" (Matt. 13:45). The Lord Jesus is saying that about Himself. Was there ever a merchantman who understood his business better than that one? If His business is pearls, He knows all about pearls. He knows a good thing in the way of pearls when He sees one. He is a master at this trade, and when He says that He discovers a pearl of great price, you may take it that, with His knowledge of things, His understanding, His judgment, that statement is a perfectly accurate one, "a pearl of great price". He, God's Son, this great, Divine Merchantman, goes and sells all that He has. Was there ever One who had more to dispose of than He had? "The glory which I had with Thee before the world was..." that was a part of it, equality with God; yes, all that He had. He sells all that He had, that He might buy it. He paid the price for that pearl and the price which He paid was all that He, God's Son, had. What is that pearl? The church. "Christ loved the church, and gave Himself up for it". All that He had! A pearl of great price!
That is the parable of Ephesians 1:18: "What the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints". That is beyond us. God has His heart set upon something which to Him is of great price; that fulness in His Son which is to be in the church which is His Body, the fulness of Him that fills all. Our testing, our trying, on all matters of personal value, is in relation to God's satisfaction, God's need being met, God reaching His end.
That all comes out of this simple and yet so direct challenge to the widow: "Go, make a little cake for me first". "Seek ye first the kingdom of God... and all these things shall be added unto you". "Me first".
Now, along that line they came into an experience, and the nature of the experience into which they came, mother and son, was that they were set in, perhaps solitary, contrast to all the conditions around. Conditions all around were famine conditions, emptiness conditions, conditions of dissatisfaction, discontent, starvation, need, spiritual tragedy, and right in the midst of those conditions they were living with all that they needed. They had found in the midst of those conditions the secret of fulness, an experience which set them in contrast to all that was around; a secret thing, going on quietly, but there it was.
Do they not represent that vessel of testimony which has been brought into touch with God's needs, God's desire, and been filled with His fulness, but which, nevertheless, is not the public thing, not the well-known thing, not the general thing, but it is hidden? It is a secret thing, even in the midst of God's own people, speaking of them as a whole. A contrast! The thing that characterises their experience at this point is fulness. They have what others have not. It was the blessedness which came to them through that obedience of faith which sets its heart upon God's interests first, God's testimony first, and not their own blessing.
Now we hurry to a close, but it is on this closing note that we find our main emphasis. God has something more in mind yet. They have come into touch with God's fuller thought, they have come into an experience of the way of God's greater fulness. They have tasted, and are continually tasting, all the Lord's good pleasure, but something more has to be done. The testimony must be established in them in an inward way. I do want you to recognise this fine discrimination - it is a very important one. It is possible for us to have come into touch with the greater fulnesses of the Lord, and to be deriving blessing therefrom continually, and rejoicing in that knowledge and that experience, and yet, at the same time, strangely enough, for the testimony not to be rooted in us. It may still be something that we are in, but it is not in that fullest and deepest sense, in us. We are rejoicing in it, participating in it, benefitting by it. Yes, it is ours. The Lord has brought us into the sphere of it, and into the good of it, and yet He sees that somehow that thing has got to be made in us. There is still something to be done.
So "it came to pass after these things" - wonderful things, blessed things - "that the son of the woman... fell sick; and his sickness was so sore, that there was no breath left in him". Note, "that we may eat and die" - "There was no breath left in him". He did die. He did not in the first place die because of circumstances, the Lord intervened there, but now he died because the Lord intended him to, for another purpose. There is a dying to death which is unto death, and there is a dying which is unto Life. It depends whether you are, or whether you are not, in vital relationship with God's purpose. If you are out of relationship with God's purpose, you die unto death, yours is a death; when you come under the hand of God, you do not escape death, but you go through it.
Put that in another way: he died, and this under the sovereignty of God, not under the sovereignty of circumstances. This is not the natural course of things. This is in the hand of God, God is doing something. He died, and we know what happened, and the end, oh, that triumphant cry which does not come from a sense of blessing which has come to you, which you are enjoying, but which comes right from the very depth of the being: "Now I know!" If you had challenged her before, she would have said she knew. By what Elijah had done for her and her son, she knew, but there is something more now. Job cried on one occasion, "I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye sees Thee". Now there is a transition from the outward to the inward. That is what happened here.
When the Lord gets us in hand in relation to His end, He may strip us of all that is the line of just personal blessing, to bring us into line with His own object and satisfaction, and then He will at once begin to operate with us so that the testimony is established in us. And the testimony of the Lord has never yet been established in the history of this world only on the ground of resurrection. "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death". That is being done in the church now. That is the thing left over to the end to be fully wrought out in the church.
Now, very simply, the testimony is established in an inward way by resurrection. Then, if that is so, there must be death, and it may be 'deaths oft'. I am speaking spiritually. It is the experience of those who become related to God's highest thought and fullest purpose, that the Lord takes them into, or allows them to go into, experiences of death, not only physical death - maybe that sometimes - but death, that awful thing, death, that enemy, enemy of God, enemy of God's purpose, enemy of His church: death. Some of us know the meaning of that: death waves, death assaults, an awful sense of spiritual death which at times comes over like a cloud and leaves you drained of all Life, all energy, all light, all sense of God - death. You cannot describe it. It is a terrible reality, and strangely enough, it so often comes just as God is going to do some new thing, just as God is going to take some new step forward, and the thing is so real that even our recognition of that fact seems to become beclouded and deadened.
If only we are alive to it when these experiences come, we shall at once say, "This means that God is going to do something. There is something coming for God!" But the thing is so awful, you feel rather it is an end than a beginning. But whenever God is going to do some new thing in relation to His testimony, it is anticipated by the adversary who makes fresh assaults by death, spiritual death, working in mind, sometimes in body, around us, upon us, but it points to a driving of the testimony inward, the establishment of the testimony yet more firmly, for that is God's way: through death in the mighty power of resurrection to make His testimony to be an established thing.
"Determined the Son of God with power" (I am going to leave out the next clause for a purpose for a moment) "by the resurrection of the dead". That is what happens with you and with me under the hand of God - established, determined by resurrection which comes after these experiences of death which come to us, not as accidents, not in the course of things, but as under the sovereign eye and hand of the Lord. But if it is incidental, incidentally something is happening. That is why I left out that clause. Now we will put that clause alongside another statement of the woman. When the son died, she turned to the prophet and said, "What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? Art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance and to slay my son?" I do not know what she referred to and it will not do for us to suspect, to judge. Was there something of sin in relation to that son? We do not know, we will leave that. But sin became an issue at that point.
Now, "determined the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness". Have you got that? Resurrection means that something has been dealt with and put away through death, some unholiness, something that was there which was a ground of death. God now is not judging unto death, He is judging unto Life, He is dealing with the very ground upon which death has its advantage, and destroying death by taking death's ground away. That is what He is doing in us. It is not just an experience of death. God is doing something to make life triumphant yet more possible by removing, dealing with, some ground of death, some unholiness. I say incidentally, but there it is: "according to the Spirit of holiness".
The Lord Jesus Christ could never have been raised from the dead, only according to the Spirit of holiness, that means if sin had not been fully and finally dealt with and put away in His death. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is always God's great declaration to the universe that sin is done with. He will never have a man back alive in whom there is sin. He is done with a man in whom there is sin and if He took our sins, His death bore them all away, and His resurrection declares that sin is done with in that Man, if the testimony of Jesus is to work in us unto resurrection, then we must have things dealt with in our hearts, in our lives, which give death a ground of advantage. Incidentally God is doing that. It is not judgment, it is incidental in the goodness of God.
But what He is after mainly is that His testimony shall be ratified, confirmed, established in an inward way; the testimony of God in Christ is the testimony of Life which is ever triumphant over death, over which death has no power.