Ravens and the Prophet

The Shrinking Brook - Chapter Four

  It came to pass after a while that the brook dried up,
because there had been no rain in the land.
(1 Kings 17:7 KJV)

The Shrinking Brook

For several long months Elijah lived in enforced seclusion. Blessed though he would have been by the Lord’s presence, it must have been a time of great tension. Not only did he have to wait day after day for the ravens to bring him food, he would have been conscious, too, that Ahab the Vengeful was scouring the country for him. As if these pressures were not enough, Elijah now faced a still more imminent danger: his supply of water was beginning to dry up!

Whichever way you look at it, Elijah’s situation was critical. It seems inconceivable that the Lord should appear to abandon Elijah at the very moment when he needed Him most, but facts must be faced. The Lord had said that Elijah would drink from the brook, but He had not promised to send any rain, and the Cherith brook really was drying up. Neither had He shown him what He was going to do to provide for him.

 As the full weight of his predicament settled on him, any hope of being of use again to man or nation must have seemed like a distant mirage. All too acutely he would have felt the poverty of his food, the harshness of his environment and the monotony of his days.

Everything had been bearable so long as the brook flowed
– he might even have counted it a privilege to make do with so little
– but who can live without water?

As Elijah watched the brook shrinking, it would have been easy to have indulged in bitter thoughts towards God. Like Isaiah he might have shouted out: ‘Truly, You are a God who hides Himself!’(1) Elijah does not waste time and energy blaming God for his situation, and neither should we when we find ourselves faced with equally incomprehensible and life or ministry-threatening situations.

All of us approach life with certain basic assumptions. In many ways, the further we go with the Lord the higher these expectations will be. Buoyed up by past deliverances, triumphant faith reaches out to believe for more than is humanly possible. But what happens when we step out in obedience, only to find circumstances appearing to contradict all that we believe God has promised us?

Since many are finding themselves confronted by just such a sequence in their lives at this time, I would like to share a spiritual pattern with you which we have experienced on many occasions, and which may, perhaps, speak to your own condition.

We find ourselves confronted with a serious difficulty, much as Elijah faced a shortage of water. We are thrilled if God speaks to us about it. What He says, however, may still leave us feeling bewildered, because we can see no way by which God’s word can be fulfilled. Or He seems to say nothing at all, and we are left to work out what to do. These are the most painful of all, especially if we sense that other people look askance at our apparent failure.

This is a time for perseverance, for doing what the Lord gives us to do from one day to the next, and for not giving in. God is closer than we think. Sooner of later, further revelation will be granted, or a fresh set of circumstances unfold, and all that has been promised or that is truly necessary will come into view. The important thing is to be ready to act on it when it does.

There may be other occasions when we will need to eat humble pie and admit that we had been mistaken in supposing that it was the Lord who had led us in some particular direction. Sadly, some are too proud, and some too stubborn, to retrace their steps at this point.

Hanging on grimly to what they mistakenly believe to have been a word from the Lord, they bulldoze forward, ensnaring others in their lopsided way of thinking.

If I may be allowed to alliterate for a moment, we might summarise this process like this:
First we have some extreme Difficulty (which may incline us to feel Despondent).
If Discernment comes, it brings us great Delight.
Once the initial Delirium has worn off, however, we are still left with such a Dilemma that we risk entering a further period of Darkness.
Provided we do not open the gate to Doubt or Delusion, however, we will live to experience God’s Deliverance to our great Delectation

Avoiding Panic Situations

Generations of viewers of Dad’s Army have enjoyed Corporal Jones’ panic stricken call to his soldiers ‘Don’t panic! Don’t panic!’ As Elijah looked around the drearily familiar terrain that bordered his dried-up wadi, he must have been sorely tempted to do just that and to head off and chance his arm somewhere else. Thirst can make people do the most desperate things, and since waiting itself can be so challenging, doing almost anything would have felt better than doing nothing.

In far less testing circumstances than those which Elijah faced, have we not rushed to seek solutions to our predicaments with all the poise of a distraught chicken trying to cross a busy man road? If we have known the temptation to come home early from a retreat, or to abandon a project too soon, we can readily imagine that Elijah must have experienced an almost overwhelming longing to head somewhere else and take his chance with the king’s hostility.

Someone pointed out that ‘A diamond is a lump of coal that has been transformed under pressure into something exquisitely beautiful.’ If ever there was a rough diamond it was Elijah, and he knew that the Lord had led him to the brook Cherith. He dared not desert his post, therefore, without a fresh commission. Resolutely refusing to run away, Elijah waited for the Lord to show him what to do next.

This is faith on the line. Unless God intervened, Elijah was going to be just one more victim of the devastating drought. If the Lord was closing down this means of support, then He would surely open up another. Would the Lord once again cause water to pour from a rock as He had done for Moses? Not on this occasion.

It is a great mistake to assume God will always do the same sort of thing twice. God has different plans for each situation that we face. We can never afford to rest on yesterday’s deliverance or rely on yesterday’s guidance. It is entirely consistent with the way the Lord works that He allowed Elijah to watch the water-level shrinking from one day to the next before telling him what He was going to do about the situation.

The grace of God shields us from many difficulties, but faith is always put to the test sooner or later. Before the Lord does something special He allows us to see the extent of the problem. Before He does something magnificent, however, He allows it to appear completely impossible! Did not Moses and the Israelites have to watch the Egyptian army drawing ever closer in hot pursuit before the Lord disclosed His extraordinary plan to bring His people safely through the Red Sea?

During those times when the ‘stream’ of our life (our source of supply) is drying up, it is not surprising if we are more conscious of the absence of God than of His presence. The Lord often ‘hides’ His purpose from us during these periods for the simple reason that if we knew what was going to happen in advance, we would be rest complacently on the outcome rather than remain in an attitude of humble dependency and a spirit of fervent prayer.

  ‘When I called, you answered me,’ the psalmist declares. ‘You made me bold and stouthearted. Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You preserve my life; You stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes, with Your right hand you save me. The Lord will fufill His purpose for me. (Psalm 138:3,7-8)

In His great faithfulness the Lord will yet fulfil His purposes for our lives. The very dryness can serve to sharpen our longing and to purify our prayer. Has He ever let His loved ones down?

Time and again we suffer needless worry because we cannot see how He is going to handle some dilemma that is beyond our control. The Lord is not anxious: He knows what He is doing, and He wants our hearts to be made stronger, as opposed to harder, through the things which happen to us.

But He will never allow Himself to be limited by our expectations. The sentence of drought had been decreed, and if Elijah had fallen into the trap of believing that this particular stream would be spared, then he would have been deceiving himself. Do not so many of our mistakes and deceptions stem from adding our own interpretation to what God has said? Deception always makes us less well equipped to handle reality.

The Sinai Blues

As the brook dried up, Elijah was being reminded in the most direct way possible that he could not afford to look to any earthly support for his ultimate security. We are pilgrims on a journey, and although we must devote proper time and effort to our earthly responsibilities, we must always remember where our real roots lie.

‘For here we have no enduring city,
but are looking for the city that is to come.’(3)

If the Lord allows us, like Elijah, to watch the stream of our earthly provision drying up before He shows us what He is going to do about it, then this is, in one sense, only to highlight the contrast between our helplessness and His all-sufficiency.

He will never allow us to be tested beyond our ability to endure. He who sent us out will also provide us with all that we need to make it to the end of our journey, for His commissions contain His hidden provision.

I cannot speak for you, but I am only too aware of my propensity to fall into ‘moan-mode’ whenever the going gets sufficiently tough, or when I am feeling tired or anxious. We may not be responsible for the things that happen to us, but we assuredly are for our response. One of the most unhelpful things we can do during these times of uncertainty is to succumb to the sin which plagued the children of Israel during their long years in the wilderness – the grumbling spirit which I will call ‘The Sinai Blues’.

Humanly speaking, Elijah had good reason to be afraid. This man of the mountains knew, far better than us, that ravens are members of the crow family. They are scavengers of food not distributors of it! Just imagine how unhappy Elijah would have been if he had spent his days worrying whether the ravens would remember to come the next day, instead of thanking God that He was thinking of him. Where was their seemingly inexhaustible secret store of food coming from anyway? And what would happen (in our terminology) if some trigger-happy farmer fetched his gun and made himself a raven pie? And, if any of you have felt concerned at being out of phone or mobile range, just what was going on back home while he was stuck in the middle of nowhere?

If you are anything like me, you probably waste a great deal of mental energy worrying about things the Lord already has in hand. It is rather like driving with one foot on the brake! We cannot change the past, but we can easily ruin a perfectly good present by worrying about the future.

I always think it risks sounding harsh to say that worry is a sin, given how inclined most of us are to it so let’s just put it the other way round: it is not a sin not to worry! Convicted?

In the Hebrew text of the beautiful verse, ‘You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast,’(4) the word ‘peace’ is repeated twice. ‘Perfect peace’ translates this phase happily, and encourages us to focus on matters that will strengthen our mind.

In the Revised Version, the word ‘mind’ is translated ‘imagination’. This is a useful reminder for those of us who know how dreadful it can be to let our imagination dwell on things which weaken our will. What a joy it is to discover that the focus of our anxiety turns out to have been an imaginary fear or problem, like the two Marys, who made their way to the tomb worrying how they were going to roll the stone away, we will often find the Lord has already rolled our ‘stones’ aside for us. God be praised, by far the greater number of our fears are groundless.

Psychologists reckon that 80% of our fears have no substance in reality – but it is a sad indictment that we, who are the only people on Earth who can really afford to be joyful, so rarely are. It is the inordinate passions which weigh us down: avarice, which can never have enough, and ambition that knows no limit. These are the emotions that inflame and bewitch the heart.

The Scattering of our Fears

Christians who have learnt the secret of praising God during times of testing and distress will be far less prone to those faith-crippling bouts of the ‘But what if’ mentality. Praise and worship counteract our tendency to grumble and are the best and fastest way to remind ourselves that all things do indeed work together for the good of those who love the Lord.(5)

By praise and faith we can overcome every giant which stands in our way, and every thought. Jesus taught His disciples so much about the nature and the power of faith because He wants to see us respond to our problems with the same faith and trust with which He Himself met difficulties. Faith and fear are opposites. It is impossible to praise God and succumb to negative thoughts at one and the same time. Frank Boreham illustrates this principle with a telling parable. He suggests that, like the virgins, there are two kinds of bird: the wise and the foolish. The foolish birds are deterred by the scarecrow – but the wise ones realised that the presence of a scarecrow was pointing to there being particularly juicy pickings to be had!

Do not be too upset, therefore,
when circumstances appear almost overwhelmingly difficult.
Say rather,
‘I am here by His will in this affliction of sickness, in this painful time when friends forsake me, and when the forces of the world and of darkness are pressing in on me. He is here with me, and since He is always more faithful to me than I deserve, He will deliver me from this dilemma too.’

‘All things are possible to him who believes,’ Brother Lawrence wrote, ‘they are less difficult to him who hopes; they are still easier to him who loves; they are even easier to him who practices all three virtues.’(6) The Lord who was with Elijah is also with us, even if at times it may feel as though everything around us is shrinking rather than expanding – and He is trusting us to keep going. Although we may feel as though all we had hoped and longed for is further away than ever from us, God knows both what He must do, and when He must do it in order to lead us on. He will not fail to send us His ‘ravens’ when we have set out on a project at His bidding.


You may well be aware of a number of such ‘shrinking brook’ situations. It may be a business or an organisation that is struggling to make ends meet, or a friendship that is under strain. Commit them now to the Lord and ask Him to pour out His mercy on them, and to keep the people involved free from the Sinai blues!


Lord, I praise You that nothing is impossible for those who have faith in You, but I confess that my faith has sometimes faltered as I have watched the waters shrinking from day to day.

Forgive me that I have looked more at the water level than I have at You. Here and now I resolve that the very next time a situation occurs which looks as though Your purposes are going to be defeated, that I will trust You to work the situation out to bring You glory. In Jesus’ name. Amen. 7

Previous Chapter – By the Brook Cherith
Next Chapter – Strange Guidance


1 Isaiah 45:15
2 Exodus 14:9f
3 Hebrews 13:14
4 Isaiah 26:3
5 Romans 8:28, cf 1 Thessalonians 5:18, cf Ephesians 2:6-10
6 Brother Lawrence The Practice of the Presence of God
7 Luke 13:7; Matthew 17:20-21

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