Ravens and the ProphetStrange Guidance - Chapter Five
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.” So Elijah went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.” “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread – only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it – and die.” (1 Kings 17:8-12)
What a joy it must have been for Elijah to hear again the Lord’s direction for his life! As the implications of the word became clearer, however, and the still small voice fainter, bewilderment returned, like a besetting cloud of flies. Here he was, eagerly awaiting the call to return to release the rain in Israel, being summoned to the kingdom of Queen Jezebel’s father. It was like asking a Christian to go and live in Mecca!
A lesser man would have balked at so strange a command. What could one man do against such fearsome odds? True, life in the Spirit was never designed for those who look too much to their own security, but sending Israel’s finest prophet out of the country altogether hardly looks the ideal solution for overthrowing Baal worship. But the Lord was more interested, for the moment, in deepening His work in Elijah’s life than in sending him back to challenge the Baals.
The Place of Refining
There are few things most of us fear so much as losing face.(1)
The Lord’s instructions to Elijah must have sounded like a death-knell to his pride. To be told that God intended to provide for him through a woman was doubly humiliating in a culture which inhibited men from receiving anything from the hand of any woman – let alone a widow.(2)
Seventy difficult and dangerous desert miles separated Elijah from the aptly named township of Zarephath: ‘The Place of the Smelting Furnace.’ It was a prophetic indication of the refining that lay ahead.
Allegorically, Zarephath represents an important stage in God’s dealings with us. There are certain things the Lord can only accomplish by changing our circumstances. Perhaps many of us can identify with some plants F.B. Meyer, a celebrated preacher and writer of the last century, once came across. They were the most luxurious shrubs he had ever seen, and his enquiries revealed that they owed their splendour to having been continually transplanted. So far from weakening the plants, the repeated replantings had actually served to strengthen them.
The Lord values our union with Himself so highly that He is quite prepared to shake all that can be shaken if this will succeed in purging us of our dross. It is both a comfort and a challenge, therefore, that the Lord Jesus tells us, ‘I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He trims clean so that it will be even more fruitful.’ (3)
The reason for this pruning is simple: a vine that is left to itself will produce much wood but little fruit. If the Lord allows us to be at peace for too long, we may easily become tasteless and complacent. Wine likewise tastes best when it is poured from one jar to the other, because the unwanted sediment falls to the bottom before it is discarded. ‘Moab has been at rest since youth, like wine left on its dregs, not poured from one jar to another – she has not gone into exile. So she tastes as she did, and her aroma is unchanged.’ (4)
We, who are so enamoured with the easy life, rarely appreciate the Lord’s designs during these unsettling periods. We feel insecure, resentful even, as He ‘empties us from vessel to vessel.’ Of this we can be certain: the Lord would not be putting us through such experiences unless He knew they were necessary, both in order to fashion His purposes for us, and His life within us.
‘He must become greater . . .’
Elijah has often been compared with John the Baptist. Both were the foremost preachers of their day, as well as the moral conscience of the nation. John had been recognised from before his birth as a chosen man of God, but the day came when one greater than himself was found preaching on his patch. Did he feel resentful or jealous because his ministry was being superseded? Not in the slightest. John recognised in this man the Messiah he himself had foretold, and his unspeakably humble words echo down to us through the centuries. ‘He must increase (become greater) but I must decrease (become less).’(5)
Perhaps in no other gesture can John’s greatness be so clearly seen than in his willingness to hand his own followers over to Jesus. John’s attitude is the perfect antidote to all forms of jealousy, and a poignant reminder that we are to gear all our spiritual work, not to fulfilling ourselves, but to preparing the Bride for the Bridegroom.(6)
The most moving story I have heard along these lines again concerns F.B. Meyer. The time came when this anointed minister was superseded in popularity as a conference speaker by a younger man, one Campbell Morgan. For a time Meyer had to wrestle with the understandable pain of seeing his followers turning elsewhere for their spiritual nourishment. Then he hit upon a splendid way of overcoming his disappointment. He resolved to spend as much of his spare time as he could praying for the success of Campbell’s ministry! Would that all ministers of the gospel were prepared to do the same.
The Hidden Sacrifice
Understanding little, but doubtless wondering much, Elijah set out for Zarephath, embracing a summons that must have seemed like a contradiction to his life-calling. Submission means placing our future in the Lord’s hands, and willingly allowing Him to choose where we should go, and even the means by which He will provide for us.
We dare not boast, ‘Tomorrow I will do this or that.’ It is the direct command of Scripture that we should say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ Even the Lord Jesus was heard ‘because of His reverent submission.’(7)
At the heart of most anointed ministries we will find acts of hidden obedience. When Abraham was called to sacrifice his son, he did not argue with the Lord, but simply told his servants that he intended to go to Mount Moriah and worship. This, the first time the word ‘worship’ appears in Scripture, shows that the concept of worship is undergirded by sacrifice right from the beginning. A better understanding of this would go a long way to counteract the brasher elements that have become so widespread in certain parts of the Church.
In many ways, Abraham’s three day march to sacrifice his son prefigures the terrible moment when the Father watched and waited as His own Son walked out to die. Abraham appears never to have doubted that God still intended to fulfil His earlier promise, even though He was taking away the son through whom the promise had been destined to come.
God was pleased with Abraham’s uncomplaining obedience.(8) At the very last moment a voice came from heaven to bid him stay his hand, and Isaac’s life was gloriously spared. It was Abraham’s heart God had wanted all along – not Isaac’s life. The provision of a ram, as an alternative sacrifice, is testimony to the truth that, even in the midst of our strangest testings, we will find God tender beyond our wildest imaginings – and abundantly able to lead us along His chosen path.
Much the Lord does in our lives appears bewildering at the time. Later, we may be better placed to appreciate the reason for His actions – or, at least, to perceive the grace that was with us during those times of testing. Would we not consider our present uncertainties in a very different light if we could enjoy by faith the understanding that hindsight alone usually brings?
Think of examples of ‘strange guidance’ in your own life. What have you learnt from them?
Lord Jesus, grant me the grace to yield to You, and to trust You even when I cannot understand what You are doing. Grant me, too, the faith to continue to affirm and build up others during these dark times. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1 Since the Lord often seems to lead us in ways which appear strange to the outsider, we are wise if we leave the matter of our reputation firmly in the Lord’s hands – especially if we are leaders! (See John 5:44)
2 The fact that the Lord Jesus received much of His support from women was a revolutionary concept for His day. (Luke 8:3)
3 John 15:1-2, cf Hebrews 12:5-11
4 Jeremiah 48:11, cf Deuteronomy 32:11
5 John 3:27-30
6 John 3:29
7 James 4:13-17; Hebrews 5:7
8 Genesis 22:3-5, 15-18; cf Romans 4:11
Chapter One - The Courts of the Lord
Chapter Two - The Hidden Life
Chapter Three - By the Brook Cherith
Chapter Four - The Shrinking Brook
Chapter Five - Strange Guidance
Chapter Six - The Provision of the Lord
Chapter Seven - In the Power of the Spirit
Chapter Eight - The Stature of Waiting
Chapter Nine - Interfacing with the World
Chapter Ten - Fire on Mount Carmel
Chapter Eleven - The Ministry of Heaven
Chapter Twelve - The Importance of Rest
Chapter Thirteen - Strategic Retreat or Headlong Flight
Chapter Fourteen - Shock and Shame
Chapter Fifteen - The Temptation to Despair
Chapter Sixteen - Angelic Restoration
Chapter Seventeen - Confronted with God's Challenge
Chapter Eighteen - Symbols of His Power
Chapter Nineteen - The Dark Speech of God
Chapter Twenty - The Judgements of God
Chapter Twenty One - When My People are one
Chapter Twenty Two - A Heart of Mourning
Chapter Twenty Three - Three pdfs
The Prophetic Ministry
Part One - May our Hearts be free from idols
Part Two - The Prophetic Calling
Part Three - Prophets and Pastors
Chapter Twenty Four - The Challenging Counterfeit
Chapter Twenty Five - The Schools of the Prophets
Chapter Twenty Six - Translated to Eternity