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With this chapter begins the third section of the book, marked by a complete change in the character of the history. Drawn evidently not from official annals, but from records of the lives of the last of the elder line of prophets, Elijah and Elisha—probably preserved in the prophetic schools—it becomes detailed and graphic, full of a spiritual beauty and instructiveness, which have stamped it on the imagination of all succeeding ages. The two great prophets themselves stand out as two distinct types of the servants of God. Elijah’s mission, one of narrow and striking intensity, is embodied in his name—“My God is Jehovah.” Appearing at the great crisis of the conflict against the sensual and degrading Baal-worship, he is not a teacher or a law-giver, or a herald of the Messiah, but simply a warrior of God, bearing witness for Him by word and by deed, living a recluse ascetic life, and suddenly emerging from it again and again to strike some special blow. The “spirit of Elias,” well expressing itself in the indignant expostulation at Mount Carmel, has become proverbial for its stern and fiery impatience of evil, wielding the sword of vengeance in the slaughter at the Kishon, and calling down fire from heaven to repel the attack of earthly force. It is high and noble, but not the highest spirit of all. It breathes the imperfection of the ancient covenant, adapted to the “hardness of men’s hearts,” leading to alternations of impetuosity and despondency, but doing the special work as, perhaps, no calm and well-balanced character could have done. Elisha builds on the ground which Elijah had cleared, filling a place hardly equalled since the days of Samuel, as a teacher and guide both of king and people. His very miracles, with one exception, are miracles of kindliness and mercy, helping the common life from which Elijah held aloof. It is impossible not to see in him a true, though imperfect type, of the greater than Elias, who was to come.
Chapter 17 contains the one scene of domestic affection and rest in the stormy career of Elijah. Its abrupt beginning—though it suits well the suddenness of the appearances of Elijah—is probably due to quotation of some original document.
(1) Elijah the Tishbite of the inhabitants of Gilead.—The most probable rendering of this disputed passage is that of the LXX., and virtually of Josephus, “Elijah the Tishbite of Tishbe in Gilead,” the last words being added to distinguish the place from a Tishbe (or Thisbe) in Naphtali, referred to, though the reading is rather doubtful, in Tob. 1:2. The word here rendered “inhabitants” (properly “sojourners”) is evidently of the same derivation as the word rendered “Tishbite.” The only alternative would be to render “the stranger of the strangers of Gilead,” which has been adopted by some, as suggesting a startling and impressive origin of the great prophet. But it is doubtful whether the Hebrew will bear it.
Gilead—properly “the rocky region” that lay on the east of Jordan, between the Hieromax and the valley of Heshbon (although the name is often more widely used). Open to the desert on the east, and itself comparatively wild, with but few cities scattered through it, it suited well the recluse dweller in the wilderness.
The Lord God of Israel before whom I stand.—This adjuration (repeated in 18:15, and with some alteration by Elisha in 2 Kings 3:14; 2 Kings 5:16) is characteristic. Elijah is the servant of God standing to be sent whither He wills.
This is evidently not the first appearance of Elijah. In James 5:17, the withholding of rain, foretold again and again as a penalty on apostasy (see Leviticus 26:19, Deuteronomy 11:17; and comp. 1 Kings 8:35), is noted as an answer to the prophet’s prayer, calling down judgment on the land. Evidently there had been a struggle against the Baal-worship of the time, and, no doubt, previous warnings from Elijah or from some one of the murdered prophets. This chapter introduces us suddenly to the catastrophe.
(3) The brook Cherith—properly “the torrent (or valley) Cherith, facing the Jordan;” evidently one of the ravines running into the Jordan valley; probably on the east from the prophet’s own land of Gilead.
(4) The ravens.—Of the accuracy of this rendering, which is that of almost all the ancient versions and of Josephus, there can be little doubt. The singularly prosaic interpretations, substituted for this striking and significant record of miracle by some ancient and modern writers (adopting slight variations of the Hebrew vowel points)—such as “Arabs,” “merchants,” “inhabitants of a city Orbi or the rock Oreb”—seem to have arisen simply from a desire to get rid of what seemed a strange miracle, at the cost (be it observed) of substituting for it a gross improbability; for how can it be supposed that such regular sustenance by human hands of the persecuted prophet could have gone on in the face of the jealous vigilance of the king? But it is idle to seek to explain away one wonder in a life and an epoch teeming with miracles. It is notable, indeed, that the critical period of the great Baal apostasy, and of the struggle of Elijah and Elisha against it, is the second great epoch of recorded miracle in the Old Testament—the still more critical epoch of Moses and Joshua being the first. It is hardly less idle to determine that this or that miracle is so improbable, as to introduce any difficulty of acceptance which does not apply to miracles in general.
(9) Zarephath—the Sarepta of the LXX. and of the New Testament (Luke 4:26). It is said by Josephus to have lain between Tyre and Sidon, and by St. Jerome to have been on the great coast-road. Hence it has been identified with a modern village, Surafend, in that position. The words, “which belongeth to Zidon,” appear to be emphatic, marking the striking providence of God, which, when the land of Israel was apostate and unsafe, found for the prophet a refuge and a welcome in a heathen country, which was moreover the native place of his deadliest enemy.
(12) I have not a cake.—The famine may have already extended to Phœnicia; for there, according to Menander, it lasted for a year; or, since the country depended upon Israel for supplies, the distress may have been only the reflex effect of the famine in Israel.
As the Lord thy God liveth.—The phrase indicates a recognition of Elijah as a prophet of Jehovah the God of Israel, but probably (as, indeed, seems to be implied by the use of the words “thy God”) no acknowledgment of Him as yet by the woman herself, such as the neighbouring heathen (as, for example, Hiram in the days of Solomon) often yielded.
(15) The barrel of meal wasted not.—The miracle is doubly remarkable. First, in this instance, as in the similar miracles of Elisha and of our Lord Himself, we see that God’s higher laws of miracle, like the ordinary laws of His providence, admit within their scope the supply of what we should consider as homely and trivial needs—in this respect perhaps contradicting what our expectation would have suggested. Next, that it is a miracle of multiplication, which is virtual creation—not necessarily out of nothing—doing rapidly and directly what, under ordinary laws, has to be done slowly and by indirect process.
(18) O thou man of God.—The terms of the address (contrasted with 1 Kings 17:12), indicate a natural growth in the recognition of the true God by the woman, through familiar intercourse with the prophet, and experience of his wonder-working power. For it is the adoption of the regular Israelitish description of the prophet as her own. (See Judges 13:6; 1 Kings 12:22; 1 Kings 13:1.)
To call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?—The words express the unreasonableness of natural sorrow. The underlying idea is that of the exclamation, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” The better knowledge of God, gained through the presence of the prophet, had, of course, brought out in her a deeper sense of sin, and now makes her feel that her sorrow is a just punishment. With pathetic confusion of idea, she cries out against his presence, as if it were the actual cause of judgment on the sin, which it has simply brought home to her conscience.
(20) Hast thou also brought evil.—Elijah’s complaint is characteristic of the half-presumptuous impatience seen more fully in 1 Kings 19:0. He apparently implies that his own lot, as a hunted fugitive not protected by God’s Almighty power, is so hard, that it must be his presence which has brought trouble even on the home that sheltered him.
(21) He stretched himself upon the child.—To suppose that this implies merely the use of some natural means of reviving the dead, is simply to explain the whole description away. The idea in this passage (as in 2 Kings 4:34; 2 Kings 13:21, and, perhaps, Acts 20:10) clearly is of a certain healing “virtue,” attaching in measure to the person of the prophets, as without measure it belonged to our Lord Himself (Luke 8:45-46). But it is to be noted that in the case of the prophet, the power to heal or raise up is made distinctly conditional on prayer, “the Lord heard the voice of Elijah.”
(24) Now by this I know . . .—In these words we trace the final victory of faith, brought out by the crowning mercy of the restoration of her son. First, the widow had spoken of Jehovah from without, as “the Lord thy God” (1 Kings 17:14); next, had come to recognise Him as God (1 Kings 17:18); now she not only believes, as she had never believed before, that His servant is “a man of God”; but, in accepting the “word of Jehovah” in his mouth as “the truth,” seems undoubtedly to express conversion to Him. (Compare the stages of faith in the nobleman at Capernaum, John 4:47; John 4:50; John 4:53.)
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Kings 17". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19