The prophet’s widow was experiencing hard times. Not only had she lost her husband and fallen into debt, but her creditor was threatening to take her two sons into slavery as repayment. She cried to Elisha for help in her distress and poverty (2 Kings 4:1-7).
Perhaps we have here a portrait of the church in times of weakness and decline. This was a godly family – her husband had feared and served the Lord. Once they had prospered in that service but now decline had set in and disaster threatened. Did God no longer care?
What we lack
Such thoughts must surely pass through the minds of those who are old enough to remember former times of refreshment from the Lord – times when the kingdom of God advanced and many were converted to Christ.
But such times seem long departed. Many churches are ‘successful’ today, but their success is seldom based on reverent worship and the unadulterated gospel of Christ and his apostles.
What is Elisha’s response to the widow’s cry? He does not ask what she has lost – which would have called forth a litany of sorrow and complaint. Rather, he asks what she still has: ‘Tell me, what do you have in the house?’
She replies, ‘Your maidservant has nothing in the house’. She had no possessions, no resources, no line of credit and no hope – nothing! Oh, except that jar of oil. Yet, in the goodness of God, what she already possessed – but almost forgot – became the source of her deliverance.
What we have
Oil in Scripture is a picture of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the triune God. Zechariah saw two olive trees feeding oil into the seven-branched lampstand. What did it signify? ‘This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel, “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit”, says the Lord of hosts’ (Zechariah 4:1-10).
Zerubbabel, who led the Jews back from their Babylonian captivity, faced the daunting task of restoring the sanctuary that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. So we who would restore the house of God today must learn that the task can only be accomplished in the strength of God’s Holy Spirit, not by our ingenuity, originality or marketing flair.
The Lord assured the repatriated exiles, ‘My Spirit remains among you; do not fear!’ (Haggai 2:5). The true church of Jesus Christ may have fallen on hard times and have ‘nothing in the house’, but we do have the Holy Spirit – even though we see little of his manifest presence among us at this present time. The ‘jar of oil’ might seem incapable of meeting our great and present need. But in reality what we possess is not a commodity but the mighty Spirit of the living God!
What we must do
Did the widow sit at home waiting for God to intervene? Not at all. Rather, Elisha called her to vigorous activity. Neighbours had to be approached. Empty containers – ‘not a few’ – had to be collected. The oil had to be poured and the filled vessels set apart. It was quite a project!
So also, as we look to the Holy Spirit to revive Christ’s people and his church, we are to be active – ‘steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that [our] labour is not in vain in the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 15:58).
The greatest activity we need is prayer. When the apostle Paul, imprisoned in Rome, looked expectantly for deliverance, he expressed his confidence thus: ‘I know that this will turn out for my salvation through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1:19).
As the woman depended on the oil to rescue her from poverty and worse, so we must depend on the Spirit of Christ to renew our spiritual prosperity. But this cannot happen without the prayers of God’s people.
We must bring our empty vessels before the Lord in prayer before he will fill them with the power of his Holy Spirit.