Never tell me the odds.
On the implausible and improbable deliverance of God.
A condensed version of this article has also appeared on 1517.
There are certain moments throughout history where ominous bells seem to peel a thunderous tune, like storm clouds on the horizon set to water the earth with dread and despair. Such is the case when the historian of 1 Kings reports, almost off-handedly, that Omri’s son Ahab began to reign “in his stead” (1 Kings 16:28). Those words convey not just mere information; this development is about far more than Omri’s offspring carrying on the family name. Although, to ensure no one misses that connection, we are told that Ahab is Omri’s son no less than three times in two short verses (1 Kings 16:29–30). That squeaky-clean historical résumé Omri crafted for himself is tainted with Ahab’s tawdry foray into idolatry (Micah 6:16). Those words which signal Ahab’s ascension, therefore, are a haunting note which will echo throughout Israel for the next several decades. In fact, the historian gives priority to Ahab’s reign for the better portion of the rest of the narrative of 1 Kings.
You are likely familiar with Ahab’s reprehensible reputation, especially in conjunction with his ill-fated spouse, Jezebel, who together form a dynamic duo of devastation, unleashing havoc upon God’s chosen people. It is precisely in devastation, however, that the Lord God of Israel chooses to work. That’s his speciality. Indeed, one of the prevailing themes of the Bible remains God’s utter disregard for impossible situations. Throughout the pages of Scripture, God displays a curious propensity for stacking the odds against himself, choosing to work with the small, fragile, weak, and foolish things of the world rather than with what is generally considered strong and great and mighty. The God of the Word delights in employing the unlikeliest and most unexpected means at his disposal in order to accomplish his errands. This is precisely so, as St. Paul would later articulate, “that no flesh should glory in his presence” (1 Cor. 1:27–30).
There is, perhaps, no better example of this than the events which surround Ahab’s coronation and Elijah’s sudden proclamation of judgment in 1 Kings 16 and 17. Throughout these scenes, which relay the awful consequences of abandoning God’s Word, we are also privy to the uncanny and untroubled providence of God, who revels in effecting his deliverance when it appears implausible, improbable, and downright impossible.
Our defense is always ready.
The scene of Ahab’s enthronement is appalling, to say the least. The political stability experienced under his rule is the only remotely positive remark one could make about him (1 Kings 16:29). That’s it for the pluses, with the historian quickly situating the legacy of Ahab firmly in the negative: “Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord above all that were before him” (1 Kings 16:30). This description almost comes across as an exaggerated joke that had already worn out its welcome, with each monarch in recent memory being given the title “worst king ever” in succession (1 Kings 14:9, 22; 16:25). But, as is if in anticipation of such a response, the historian hastens to elaborate on Ahab’s distinctively prodigal wickedness:
And it came to pass, as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he took to wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Zidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshipped him. And he reared up an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he had built in Samaria. And Ahab made a grove; and Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him. (1 Kings 16:31–33)
This abridgment of Ahab’s irreverent and irreligious tenancy as Israel’s king reads like a laundry list of idolatry. He not only invited paganism into Israel’s midst, he invested in its integration into Israelite culture writ large. He plunged headlong and headstrong into ungodliness, fulfilling whatever impulse his heart desired. He married Jezebel, the daughter of a pagan king, who brings with her an insatiable enthusiasm for idolatry. He is seen serving Baal, worshiping Baal, and building an altar and a house for Baal, all of which, of course, are rampant repudiations of the decrees of God forbidding such gross idol worship. God’s words were surely nothing but a forgotten memory at this point, with the sensuous liturgy of the Church of Baal echoing in the streets of Samaria. That which plagued the people of God throughout the days of the Judges is welcomed once again by those supposedly in covenant with Yahweh (Judg. 2:11–13; 3:7; 8:33; 10:6). Ahab even sets about reconstructing the old ruins of Jericho, commissioning “Hiel the Bethelite” to oversee the project (1 Kings 16:34). This endeavor comes at great cost, though, with the foreman losing two of his sons in the process. This is no cursory comment, by the way. This is the painfully precise realization of an ancient curse laid down by none other that Moses’s successor, “Joshua the son of Nun” (1 Kings 16:34; Josh. 6:26).
Ahab’s descent into gross sacrilege is characterized by a swift embrace of everything that is opposed to the Lord God of Israel. All of which is in keeping with Ahab’s idol-making administration, which persisted in open defiance of the Word of the Lord. “This is the age of Ahab,” Dale Ralph Davis comments, “when the word of God doesn’t count.”It’s no wonder, then, that the historian says it was a “light thing” for Ahab to “walk in the sins of Jeroboam” (1 Kings 16:31). And it is precisely into this profane quagmire of iniquity and idolatry that the Word of Yahweh is suddenly broadcast through the mouth of “Elijah the Tishbite.”
And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word. (1 Kings 17:1)
This is certainly among the most mysterious introductions to a man of God in the entire Bible, rivaled only by John Mark’s introduction to Jesus in his Gospel. We are afforded no lengthy account of Elijah’s calling; no nativity or backstory; no miraculous appearance of Yahweh to an adolescent Elijah who then surrenders his life to divine servitude. In fact, the details we are given are vague at best, with the origins of Tishbi being inconclusive and the region of Gilead being a nebulous mountain district east of the Jordan river. Adding to the intrigue is Elijah’s message, which consists of a sinister prophecy of imminent famine, which ought to be understood for what it is: a direct challenge of Baal by Yahweh himself (Deut. 11:16–17; 28:23–24). “Ahab and Israel,” Davis clarifies, “will now be able to see what sort of fertility god Baal is. If he cannot produce in the area of his expertise, in his speciality, his reputation will suffer a shattering blow. Baal’s deity will shrivel as the cracks in the fields get wider. Elijah so much as says that Yahweh has decided to shut Baal’s faucet off.”
Elijah’s presence illustrates God’s penchant for the unexpected, as an obscure and audacious non-Israelite comes in the name of the “God of Israel” pronouncing judgment on the people of Israel in the face of the king of Israel himself. He is an unlikely voice from an unknown place who comes bearing an unforeseen Word from the Lord — which is Yahweh’s way of saying, “Life, history, everything operates ‘according to my word.’” Despite whoever else claims authority over our day, there remains but One whose voice holds sway over the ages. When depravity sits on the throne, with vulgarity and vice walking the streets in open contempt, you can be sure that God has already readied his defense. “When evil has its heyday,” Davis writes elsewhere, “and comes steamrolling over the people of God, he is not caught unprepared.”Even as iniquity and idolatry seemingly rule the hour, Yahweh is never caught napping. Though his Word can be tuned out, it can never be fully drowned out. His truth never fades — precisely because he is ever and anon preserving a remnant to speak on his behalf. Ours is a God who makes a way where there is no way, sovereignly readying the defense of his Word and his people when we least expect it.
Our strength is always provided.
Without any additional detail as to how Ahab received such a judgmental word from such a little known prophet, we are immediately thrust into subsequent events, with Elijah receiving further instruction from the Lord to “hide himself by the brook Cherith” (1 Kings 17:2–3). God’s command to Elijah to “get thee hence” allows for fairly authoritative guesswork on the proceedings of the prophet’s audience with the king — especially if one considers the king and queen’s wholesale sanctioning of national propheticide (1 Kings 18:3–4). With famine threatening the land and the monarchy breathing down his neck, Elijah retreats. The prophet does so, “according unto the word of the Lord,” abiding in an inconvenient place for an undisclosed length of time where his only means of staying alive are a small stream and food via “carrier ravens.”
And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there. So he went and did according unto the word of the Lord: for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook. (1 Kings 17:4–6)
This is just like God. He loves to operate in surprising and even off-putting ways in order to demonstrate his limitless sovereignty. His prophet has barely begun his public ministry and already he is summoning him to the wilderness, wherein the Lord’s Word is upheld as the only enduring, authoritative Word. Elijah learned firsthand that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3). It is no trifling thing when scholars hypothesize some rational explanation for these charitable ravens. The hoops through which one must leap to explain-away the supernatural are not worth reiterating. This, indeed, is a moment of divine interference, in which the same authority which sustains the expanse of the universe is seen controlling the carnivorous stomachs of birds. The same Word which reprimands kings and nations is seen restraining ravens in their flight so that the Lord’s servant might find provision and strength in his time of need. “Grant Omnipotence as the author of this act,” John Cumming declares, “and all that is incredible and improbable instantly disappears in the light of Him to whom all things are equally easy.”
The raven-borne strength with which Elijah was provided is surely miraculous — but it also evinces God’s mysterious strategy to accomplish his will. Despite openly announcing his allegiance to Yahweh alone, Elijah wasn’t immune to the affects of judgment. He, too, was made to feel the desperation and deprivation brought on by Israel’s rejection of and rebellion against Jehovah. The Lord’s prophet is forced out of his station and made to subsist on water that trickled in Jordan’s creeks and bread that fell from ravens’ claws. In like manner, our status as the people of God, baptized by faith, doesn’t immunize us from suffering. Like Elijah, we feel all the grueling pains of grief and loss, adversity and sorrow.
But even when we endure hardship, our strength is not cut off. Rather, it is sovereignly provided. Ours is a God who has never met a circumstance in which he was outmatched or outdone. He delights in showing off his ability to strengthen his sons and daughters through the most unexpected means. “We should,” says Davis, “adore the scintillating creativity of a God who brings help to his people through channels they would never suspect.”Perhaps for you and I it won’t be raven-sent groceries, but there are no boundaries to Yahweh’s sovereign watch-care over us. He will stop at nothing to imbue his children with his strength, even if it means taking on flesh and retreating to the wilderness.
Our supply is always sure.
As if to further corroborate this idea, the Lord brings Elijah to the brink yet again. The piddling brook from which the prophet had been drinking dried up, a consequence of the invective he recently delivered in Ahab’s court. Yahweh, however, intervenes on his servant’s behalf and tells him to make for “Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon” (1 Kings 17:8–9). It is there that he will find a “widow woman” who will be able to sustain him. This verse is loaded with details that are begging to be unpacked, at the forefront of which is the venue for God’s next waypoint for Elijah. Zarephath was a bustling industrial Phoenician city known for its metallurgy and refineries. Of more consequence, to Elijah especially, however, was its position along the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea, putting it deep within Jezebel’s daddy’s backyard. Thus, when Yahweh orders him to scurry to Zarephath, all the prophet heard was, “Go withdraw to enemy territory.” Not exactly a winning strategy if one is attempting to avoid detainment and, ultimately, losing his head.
But that’s not all. Elijah’s point of contact once he arrived in the lion’s den was none other than a “widow woman,” one who was bereft of social standing and one who was least likely to have a pantry flowing with milk and honey. Yahweh’s suggestion that a widower would be able to offer Elijah nourishment and support was almost a contradiction in terms. Widows in this time period were associated with the poorest of means and the scantiest supply. In fact, the Hebrew word for “widow” is also used to mean “desolate places.” The prophet of the Lord, therefore, was told to find provisions in house of one who was familiar with scarcity, even before a famine had laid waste to the land. Once again, Yahweh is bringing his servant to the fringes of his faith, as he often does with you and I as well.
Elijah finds the widow, just as the Lord said, and calls for her to bring him some food and water (1 Kings 17:10–11). The widow, however, embarrassingly declines, indicating that she and her son are scraping the bottom of the barrel as it is. In fact, they barely have enough for one last meal together (1 Kings 17:12). Her situation was worse than hopeless. Such, by the way, were the “real world” ramifications for Ahab’s egomaniacal infatuation with Baal, which left his people physically, emotionally, and spiritually starving. This disconsolate widow, though, is greeted with by a soothing albeit surprising word from the prophet.
And Elijah said unto her, Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son. For thus saith the Lord God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth. (1 Kings 17:13–14)
Elijah insists that she make him “a little cake first,” and then tend to the growling belly of her boy. The audaciousness of this request abates at the prophet’s reassurance that for however often she visits her pantry, her “barrel of meal” will never be depleted. Despite how preposterous these words appear, the widow uncannily obeys — and much to her surprise, “the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail” (1 Kings 17:15–16). For days on end, she and her gaunt lad were nourished by an inexhaustible supply. All of this is done “according to the word of the Lord,” the historian adds, making certain that none miss the point: Yahweh’s words are always stronger.
It might be “a light thing” for us to doubt such promises. It is one thing to say that God’s defense is always ready and his strength is always provided and his supply is always sure; and quite another thing entirely to believe those things are true for you. In the severest of droughts, we are more likely to sympathize with the widow’s sentiments that we be left alone to die. The abject hopelessness of the darkest nights of the soul can make TV dinners feel like last suppers. But, in the end, it might actually be a good thing that we identify with this Phoenician widower — precisely because she is our New-Testament-certified proxy.
Centuries later, another prophet who had recently spent time in the Judean wilderness, would make his way to this same region of the ancient world and bring this entire moment full-circle. Shortly after one of his first public appearances — post-baptism, post-temptation, post-Messianic-self-reference — Jesus identifies Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zarephath as one of the earliest indicators of the wideness of Yahweh’s mercy (Luke 4:25–26). Instead of being sent to any of the “many widows” who were in Israel, Elijah’s assignment is expressly a destitute Phoenician woman. Such is the boundlessness of God’s merciful Word, which embraces even those who are on the outside looking in at the covenant promises of Jehovah.
Jesus Christ alone, therefore, brings to bear the efficacy of these promises for you and for me. He substantiates the elemental truth of the gospel which announces that the Lord God of Israel has “also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18; cf. Rom. 11:11–12). He picks the unexpected and the unlikely, and goes to the unforeseen places, stacking the odds against himself, in order that age after age might stand in open-mouthed wonder at his sovereignty in and over all things. Christ, who is God’s Word in the form of flesh, demonstrates once and for all that everything transpires “according to the world of the Lord.” There is no one beside this God. In Christ alone, your defense is always ready. In Christ alone, your strength is always provided. In Christ alone, your supply is always sure. It is Christ’s blood-bought assurance of “mercy and grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16) which stuffs the pantries of our souls with inexhaustible supplies of good news.
Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020), 199.
Davis, 1 Kings, 202.
Dale Ralph Davis, The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2007), 102.
John Cumming, Expository Readings on the Books of Kings (London: Hall, Virtue, & Co., 1859), 117.
Davis, 1 Kings, 210–11.