The Prophetic Ministry of Life and Death

Life, and prophets, can throw us a curve ball. The widow Zarephath found this out when she took in Elijah. When they met, she was ready to die after she made her last handful of flour into bread for herself and her son. Elijah tells her not to fear but rather make a cake of bread for him, then herself and her son. He then prophesies, “For thus says the God of Israel, ‘The bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall the jar of oil be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain on the face of the earth.'” I Kings 17:14

God was true to his promise. The oil and flour never ran out. This is where her Wednesday night testimony should end. But then the curve ball. Her only son gets sick and is on the brink of death. She says angrily to Elijah: “What do I have to do with you, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my iniquity to remembrance, and to put my son to death.” I Kings 17: Her initial question seems to ask, “What have I ever done to you?”

It is not clear to whose “remembrance” the widow is referring. It seems likely that she is accusing Elijah of reminding God of her iniquities with the result of God killing her son. However, her accusations make clear that she too has been reminded of her iniquities. In a sense, she is accusing Elijah of bringing both literal death and spiritual to her household.

We can only speculate what past experiences with prophets caused her to think that prophets are in the business of bringing people’s sins to remembrance. But she seems to grasp how prophetic ministry can bring either life or death.

The seer can either declare the hidden sins of people or hidden blessings God wants to bring to those who repent. The prophetic ministry not committed to the ministry of life will focus on past iniquities rather than future blessing. Even though a prophet sees what we have been, he or she can choose to minister life by declaring who God has called us to become. 

To Elijah’s credit, he goes to great lengths to minister life to the widow and her son. He doesn’t ask her, “What iniquities are you remembering?” Elijah, however, does question God, “O Lord my God, has Thou also brought calamity to the widow with whom I am staying, by causing her son to die?” I don’t think this is an accusation against God. Instead, it is a recognition that punishing this widow by killing her son is inconsistent with God’s goodness.

We are not told if God answers his question, but Elijah stretches himself over the body of the dead boy and prays three times. Elijah ministers out of his revelation of the character of God.

The lesson for congregations is to recognize that it is not enough for prophetic people to have a genuine gift. We need prophets who minister out of deep personal revelation of the goodness of God. The power of life and death are in the tongue (Prov. 18:21). Congregations will only be built up by the prophets committed to the ministry of life.

The lesson for those in prophetic ministry is that your understanding of the character of God can color our prophecy without impacting your accuracy.  We must stretch ourselves to minister life.

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About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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