In 2 Kings 4:1-7 a widow has some bills coming due that her husband left behind in righteous circumstances (meaning not out of lavish living but out of sacrifice for God and frugal living) and the debt collectors will take her sons to work off the debt if she doesn’t have the money when they arrive. She goes to the prophet Elisha for guidance because her husband had been one of his servants.
This was the first Bible story I ever learned as a child. I was taught it was about the vessels and faith, being available to God, and trusting Him to provide even when it feels like you have very little. More than 30 years later @iammiketodd (“Bring Me Another Vessel”, Transformation Church) and @stevenfurtick (“Frozen Oil and Chosen Vessels”, Elevation Church) have broken this scripture down within the past few months and shared the same high level thought while going in deeper about the vessels, the oil, and the widow’s actions.
Scripture doesn’t change and when folks are hearing revelation of its meaning from God, the interpretation does not change but becomes expanded from various viewpoints. In this case, three preachers looked at this scripture and shared the same high level thought while coming from three different angles that helped me find a fuller meaning within the scripture AND dive deeper to look from another angle (thanks to my own pastor sharing this approach).
From the Sons’ View
When I read this scripture again this weekend m, I read it from the sons’ point of view. I don’t know how old the sons were but from commentaries and Bible references I’ve read over the years, it’s possible this was Obadiah’s widow and the sons are men with their own families. Going from that understanding, I read through this story from their viewpoint and noticed some things.
The sons were in a scary situation.
Being the sons of a prophet who didn’t make money off what he did, they were watching their widow mother not have enough to survive and now were at risk of having to go pay the debt for their father. This would still leave their mother without as far as current living expenses and needs go while also now leaving two more families with need during their time away. Maybe you’ve been there? Trying to figure out how to pay your own bills while helping your folks with theirs? Trying to be creative in how you stretch your money and still coming up short? It’s a stressful time. Sons don’t want to see their mother’s struggling, and specifically not in a time of mourning and healing. They want to know their families are provided for both as sons and as fathers and husbands.
I imagine the sons were receiving some stress from their wives as well. “Think of something! There has to be some way to help her so you won’t have to go work off this debt.” I can imagine the strain in the marriage relationships. I can picture the kids feeling the stress and wondering what was going on. Are mom and dad going to make it? The sons are not in an easy situation and for their mom to be approaching Elisha, I’m guessing that all options they could think of had been exhausted. They’d looked around the house at what they could sell, they’d tried to earn extra money in their own through their vocations, and they’d thought of every entrepreneurial ways they could get this money legally and were left with nothing. They were at their end and only knew they had to trust their mother’s instinct that the prophet would be able to help them.
Their faith would determine their mother’s blessing.
Their mother goes to Elisha and presents the situation and his response is first to ask her what she has available. Assuming the sons were with her (since it says in verse 5 that she shut the door behind her and her sons), at this point they may have been shaking their heads. “We wouldn’t be here if we had anything! We’ve thought through all possibilities.” Then they hear their mother share she that her only remaining possession of value is a little bit of oil and they were probably flabbergasted! What could she possibly do with a few drops of oil?! And here is the prophet getting their mother’s hopes up saying to get empty vessels? For what?
Remember that while the people had seen and heard of miracles, this was before Jesus turned water to wine, before the feeding of the 5k and 4k men, and before they’d really seen God multiply things. So I imagine when he said to get the empty vessels the sons had a moment where they themselves had to be emptied.
- Emptied of their pride as they went around to ask neighbors for empty oil vessels.
- Emptied of their plans since they were now working the prophet’s instructions and had to put aside their own thoughts.
- Emptied of their disbelief as they gathered the vessels and wondered how this would work. If they gathered too few vessels, they would hinder their mother’s ability to pay the debt if this worked. But gather too many and they risked their mother feeling even more disheartened.
- Emptied of their desperation. They’d exhausted all options and now we’re at the point their only hope is a miracle. (There’s a rabbit trail there on why do we wait until LAST to expect a miracle? What if that became our first prayer and we asked God for wisdom and guidance from the start… but I will stay on task today…)
The pressure was on as they went from neighbor to neighbor asking for empty oil vessels for their mother. When their mother shut the door behind them, they knew this was the moment of truth. Their own faith in God would be shown in this moment. As they brought in the last pot, they were revealing how big they felt their God was. We don’t know how many pots they ended up collecting but we know that God performed a miracle and there was more oil than they collected pots for, so while their faith helped their mother (next point), they also had lower expectations than God was prepared to meet for them. That had to be a tough moment when the sons watched the oil stop, knowing their faith hadn’t been large enough for the blessing their mother was to receive! Let that speak to you for a moment if you’re in lack or watching your folks go through a need.
Their faith ultimately allowed them and their mother to be provided for in abundance.
How great is our God that even though the young men had not prepared for the same amount of blessing the Lord had been prepared to provide, He met their needs as well as their mother’s? In verse 7 we read as Elijah tells the widow to now go and sell her oil and she AND her sons will be able to live on the money remaining after the debt is paid. As we see time and again with God, the widow petitioned for a specific need (pay the debt so her sons weren’t taken) but God answered the larger problem (she would not only need to pay the debt but have money to live on). True to His style though, He didn’t stop at providing for her but also provided for the sons. Ultimately it was their faith also that led to this miracle, since they were responsible for how many oil vessels were available to be filled.
From the Widow’s View of the Sons
To see the story from the sons’ viewpoint, we still have to step back and then think of how the widow responded to her sons’. We’ve heard the viewpoints on the miracle and the actions she had to take, but now that we’ve thought of the sons’ vantage point for this miracles, think of the widow for a moment from that same advantage: She trusted her sons to bring back the amount of vessels she would need. She knew she’d raised them well enough with her husband and had given them a foundation of faith that would allow them to bring back just what was needed to ensure this miracle would solve her problem.
There had to be a moment of “oh no!” when the son said there were no more vessels. I imagine the three of them looking at one another and having truly been in awe at how many they had filled but wondering if they’d made a mistake not knocking on those next doors. But then I imagine the widow being the voice of assurance. “Okay… God has provided more that we had and we now trust that this will somehow work. Let’s go back to the prophet and find out what to do next.” (This also makes me so happy that we get to go right to God now!!)
The widow, as she was walking back to the prophet, was possibly thinking of how her sons just jumped in to help her. It was a crazy request after all, “Get empty vessels so I can pour my few drops of oil into them…” How amazing is this God of miracles that they didn’t ring back only one or two jars but several and still God was going to exceed that! She didn’t have time to worry if it had been enough, she’d just seen God multiply her little but if oil and turn it into jars and jars of oil! He’d taken her nothing and turned it into something greater that would provide a blessing. When she heard the prophets words, I imagine her falling to her knees and praising the Lord… enough for her AND her sons to live on AFTER PAYING DEBT IN FULL!!
Looking at the story from this angle, I understand how God values family. He knew that this miracle would rely on the sons’ faith when He instructed Elisha to speak to the widow. He knew that they would be the legs of the mission and would empower their mother to fulfill the miracle by beginning to pour.
In both sermons I mentioned above, Pastors Michael and Steven noted that the miracle of multiplication began when the widow started pouring. She and her sons could have given up before then because it was such a stretch if an idea. They could have said, “Well that was a nice trip to see the prophet but totally unproductive. Now what?” But the three of them believed in and wanted the best for one another. In the mother’s concern for her sons, she not only saved them from being servants to work off the debt but provided for them for them for years to come thanks to God’s miracle. And the sons’ concern for their mother and wanting to see her provided for caused them to go the extra steps and get a few more oil vessels than maybe they truly thought they’d see filled. Their love for one another helped them work together and see this miracle occur!!
What did you see when you read this scripture? I’d love to hear your thoughts and explore this deeper with you!
Until next time,
(I apologize for any typos. I will edit from the computer later but wanted to share these thoughts now and only have access from my phone. I hope my fingers found the right keys more often than not!)