(I KINGS XVII. 2-9.)
Now we have, from the second verse of the chapter, the Lord's discipline of His servant. We have his character in the first verse,- what he was, how he stood before the living God, the God of Israel. We see him in the presence of God's enemies with His word; one of those who had learned His mind, and therefore who could be used as Jehovah's mouth. He is now called away into the wilderness, himself to be disciplined; to learn some needed lessons under God's hand.
Discipline is needed by us from the first moment of our lives until the last. The discipline of the Father is ours because we are children. And the discipline of the Lord is ours too in the character of servants; for He has as much to do in shaping the instruments He uses as He has by them when they are shaped.
That discipline of the Lord never ceases; but still there are special seasons of it, and a special season we have here in Elijah's life. He has scarcely stood forth publicly before the world before the Lord takes him away again, apart by himself. No doubt it was not a new thing for Elijah to be alone with God ; but there are yet some new features in his present isolation. He is bidden to turn eastward and hide himself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. You know what "Jordan" means,- the great typical river of death. And "Cherith" means "cutting off." The Lord brings him to that significant place, and there makes him drink of the brook, sustained by the ravens, which feed him there.
We have to take these illustrative names to help our understanding of the Lord's dealings here. They show us Cherith as the prophet's Mara, where he had to drink in, as it were, the death from which as judgment he escapes. Miraculously sustained himself, he learns for himself "the terrors of the Lord," and how sin has wrecked the first creation. And it is a lesson we have to learn. We have to pass through the world, knowing, as far as outward circumstances go, no exemption from the common lot of men. God would not sever us from it. His own Son has come down into the world, as we know, in order to go through it Himself; the One who was ever pleasing to the Father, and had no need of discipline, and could not possibly have to say to judgment except as bearing it vicariously on the cross. Yet, in His grace, He came in the likeness of sinful flesh, and passed through all the trials and troubles proper to man. Free from the callousness which sin engenders in us, He entered into them in a way we can little realize. "Himself took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses." His mere presence in the world was enough to make Him a "Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." It did not need that He should personally be subject to it: it was enough for Him to be in the world to realize what the world was. He had come from God and went to God, and He was with God all the way through. That was sufficient to make Him pre-eminently a Man of sorrows, just because He was not a man like us. How little of the misery around have our hearts room for! How even familiarity with it deadens our sense of it! And how our own personal sorrows absorb and abstract us from those around! Think of One all eye, all ear, all heart, for all of this. The Lord knew it divinely, and felt every thing.
Personally, however, He gave Himself up to that which sin has made our condition. His probation was not in Eden, but a wilderness nor did He use His miraculous power to relieve His hunger there. He had come into the world only to do God's will in it, and His hunger was no motive to act, when that will was not expressed. In His answer to Satan, He just takes the ground of man, but perfect man:-" Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God."
And the word of God, whatever trial were involved, whatever suffering it called for, that word was to Him meat and drink. He lived by it. It ought to be that to us. The bare fact of having the word of God to fulfill, whatever it call for ought to be enough, surely, to sustain us. The bare fact of being in His path ought to be enough, as we realise it, to furnish us with the endurance and faith needed for it.
Thus, then, the Lord passes Elijah through the suffering and sorrows coming on the land. He brings him to Cherith, and Cherith yields him water for his thirst. Just as, in the beautiful language of the eighty-fourth psalm, it is said, as to the blessing of those "in whose heart are the ways "- the ways that lead to the presence of God, "Who passing through the valley of Baca," (of tears) "make it a well." Cherith becomes this to the prophet. Thus God makes things most contrary to work together for good to them that love Him. It is not loss to learn what that world is through which Christ has passed before; nor to be proved by it as He was proved; nor to have had in it the discipline He could not need ; nor the opportunity of doing in it, as He did, the Father's will, in the face of suffering and of sorrow.
By and by, it will certainly be no sorrow to have known, in whatever measure, the circumstances of his path down here, in which God was glorified as nowhere else. How could we be so prepared to see, as now we may see, but soon shall fully, what His perfection was, or what the grace that brought Him into the world for us? And then to have shared, in whatever smaller measure, with Him the trial, and with Him the victory! Manna is no mere wilderness food, though it is that. In our Canaan home at last, and forever, it is written that he that overcometh shall eat of the hidden manna.
This is another thing from discipline, of course; but we do need discipline at God's hand continually too; and that discipline is really what God uses to strengthen and bless. You have it in a beautiful way in Balaam's unwilling blessing of the people. "Who can count the dust of Jacob?" Jacob is looked at in the figure of dust. What does that mean? It means that they had been as dust trodden under the foot of the Egyptians. And yet Egypt was the place in which suddenly Jacob had grown into a nation. "The more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew." It is the rule in all dispensations that have been, for all God's people. Thus Balaam says, "Who can count the dust of Jacob'" "Jacob" is designedly said. It was his natural, not spiritual, name,- Jacob, the "supplanter." And Jacob needed humiliation, but grew by it.
That is what we find in the first place as to the prophet in this chapter. In the second place, God takes him away from the brook, when it fails and dries up, to Zarephath, outside of Israel altogether. Israel had rejected the Lord, and were feeling His hand in consequence. He takes him outside of Israel to be witness that the grace of the Lord will not be dammed back by human barriers, or restricted to the narrow limits to which man would confine it. That is the way the Lord uses that story of the widow of Zarephath. And the gospel in Luke commences with His testimony at Nazareth, that if in Israel the outflow of His goodness is restrained, God will have His witnesses in spite of that. Grace will only show itself the, more gracious. Outside of the whole field of privilege, He takes Himself a witness among the Gentiles.
For the Lord's words recorded in the fourth chapter of Luke are not a mere arbitrary expression of God's sovereignty; - they have been so taken, but they are not. "Of a truth," He says, "many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land; but unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow." (vv. 25, 26.) Now you must remember that what they had been just saying, after they had borne witness too of His gracious words, and wondered at them, was, "Is not this Joseph's son?" Before this, He had been declaring to them the acceptable year of the Lord, and the power of the Spirit there in Him for their healing. It is when they were saying, "Is not this Joseph's son?" in spite of the gracious words they were conscious and witness of,- it is then that He warns them that God cannot be shut up by their unbelief: if they reject Him, He will go outside to the Gentiles.
That is what Elijah has to learn in the case of the widow of Sarepta. He has to learn to go out with God outside the limits to which natural ties, and even religious associations, would confine him, and recognize in a woman of Sidon the work of God's sovereign grace,- there in its fullest and most wonderful display. I do not believe we have bottomed the need of man (or, therefore, our own,) until we have learnt the absolute sovereignly of divine grace,- shown, however, let us remember, in a scene where man's rejection of it compels Him to be sovereign, if He show grace at all. Man's will, alas! is in opposition to that will of God to which, if all yielded, all could and would be saved. But if some,- if we have yielded, is it because of betterness in us?- were our hearts naturally more docile or obedient? Scripture shall answer for us: "As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man." Therefore, beloved brethren, was it needful that we should be born again, "not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" alone. The very figure speaks of this; for in our natural birth, was there aught of our own will ?- were we consulted? Or in creation, has the thing called into being its choice? And we are not only born of God, but His creation, "His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works."
But then this sovereign grace is grace in its fullest display. It is divine love overtopping barriers that might well be thought, even by it, unsurmountable. It is the heart of God manifested,- His will shown indeed to be but the energy of His nature who is love.
I know what rises in the mind of some: "Why not, then, save all? Could He not as well save all ?" But I can only answer, The necessary limit even to divine goodness is its own perfection. God has solemnly assured us He would not have men perish. What infinite wisdom can do, I must be infinitely wise thyself to know.
Elijah's second lesson is one that it indeed imports the man of God to have learnt well. All the way through, Elijah has to learn the lesson of dependence. Dependence, of course, is nothing else than faith; and the Lord puts His servant where faith shall be a continual necessity. Thus, what He seeks from us, He gives us practical help toward producing for Him. Faith grows by exercise. God ordains for it, in Elijah's case, continual exercise. He has no stock of his own, we may say, ever to subsist upon. The ravens bring him bread and flesh in the morning and bread and flesh in the evening; and the next day, and still the next, it is the same thing again. And then when he comes to Zarephath, there you find, in the same way, the widow is called upon to sustain him, and there is a little oil in a cruse and a handful of meal in a barrel. The meal does not fail in the barrel, and the oil does not fail in the cruse. It does not increase, however,- it continues a handful of meal and a little oil ; and he is kept, in that way, in constant dependence upon God.
And that is the way the Lord would have us spiritually. He never gives a stock of any thing - of grace or of gift - so that we can say, "I have got enough to last me so long, at least." That would be taking us out of the place of faith, and depriving us of the blessing God has for us. He covets to show us what He is,- His power, His love, His unforgetfulness of us. As it is said of the people whom in His love and His pity He redeemed, "He bare them and carried them all the days of old." It is a great thing to get this in a real and practical way for ourselves with God. If He keeps us low down here,- and you know it is His way, in more senses than one, to call and choose the poor,- it is not because His hand is niggard, (God forbid !) but that we may not miss realizing this great blessing of His care. Often all we think of is, having our need met; but how little a thing is that with God ! It would cost Him nothing, we may say, to meet the need of a lifetime in a moment ; and a lesser love than His would supply it at once, and get rid of a constant burden. But that is not His way. To supply the need is a small thing; but to supply it in such a way as to make us feel in each seasonable supply the Father's eye never withdrawn from us, the Father's heart ever employed about us,- that is what He means. "Give us day by day our daily bread" is the prayer the Lord taught His disciples; and thus we ask Him continually to be waiting on us. Is it not much more than to ask, Give us now, that we may not have to come again?
What a place the wilderness was to Israel, where the constant manna was a daily miracle, and the cloud of Jehovah's presence led them in the way! It was the place, alas! of constant murmurings; but in God's design, and to faith wherever in exercise, how wonderful a manifestation of the living God ! Yet that wilderness journey is but for us a type,- only a shadow, therefore short of the reality of what faith in us should realize to be ours. What a spectacle to the heavenly beings, to whom is "known, by the Church, the manifold wisdom of God "! what daily miracles of grace for eyes that are open to it! And of course these were types (as the manna and the water from the rock,) of spiritual blessings ministered to us. And here, the same rule applies. No stock given into our hand; all funds in God's treasure-house, but therefore unfailing; and a daily, hourly, ministry of strength according to the need, which not only meets it, but tells of the tenderness of a Father's care, and of the faithfulness of our High Priest gone in to God.
Precious lessons for more than Elijah the Tishbite!- fresh for our hearts to-day.