The Poor Widow and the Empty Vessels (2 Kings 4:1-7)


Christians must be industrious laborers and good stewards. But sometimes, life deals a hard hand. Most of us have been spared from the ills of poverty by being born into an affluent country. Throughout history, however, most have not been so blessed. In 1820, it is estimated that 84% of the world’s population lived in absolute poverty, on less than $1 per day.

Today, welfare and bankruptcy laws protect most from utter destitution. But these are fairly recent developments. For most of history, unpaid debt meant prison or worse. It was common enough in Rome that Jesus used debtor’s prison as the basis for his parable of the unforgiving servant. Even Samuel Wesley, the father of John Wesley, spent time in debtor’s prison. When he passed away, creditors visited John’s childhood home to take away the Wesley’s furniture.

In 2 Kings 4:1-7, we read about a prophet’s widow who endured tragic financial hardship. The Jewish historian Josephus believed that this woman was the wife of Obadiah—the steward of King Ahab—who is mentioned in 1 Kings 18. When Jezebel “cut off the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water” (1 Ki. 18:4). The description given of Obadiah is the same as that given by the wife of the late prophet: he “feared the Lord.” If the men are one and the same, Obadiah borrowed money for the supplies he used to care for God’s prophets, then died before he was able to pay off the creditor. This left his wife (let’s call her Abigail) in dejection and poverty.

The story of the poor widow and her encounter with Elisha the prophet is recorded in 2 Kings 4:1-7.

1 Now there cried a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets unto Elisha, saying, Thy servant my husband is dead; and thou knowest that thy servant did fear the Lord: and the creditor is come to take unto him my two sons to be bondmen.
And Elisha said unto her, What shall I do for thee? tell me, what hast thou in the house? And she said, Thine handmaid hath not any thing in the house, save a pot of oil.
Then he said, Go, borrow thee vessels abroad of all thy neighbours, even empty vessels; borrow not a few.
And when thou art come in, thou shalt shut the door upon thee and upon thy sons, and shalt pour out into all those vessels, and thou shalt set aside that which is full.
So she went from him, and shut the door upon her and upon her sons, who brought the vessels to her; and she poured out.
And it came to pass, when the vessels were full, that she said unto her son, Bring me yet a vessel. And he said unto her, There is not a vessel more. And the oil stayed.
Then she came and told the man of God. And he said, Go, sell the oil, and pay thy debt, and live thou and thy children of the rest.

Abigail turned the flax bag inside-out for the tenth time—still empty. She spent her last shekel on bread; how was she supposed to pay the creditor?

“Your father was a good man,” she assured her two boys, Joshua and Jesse, as they peered up at their forlorn mother.

“Then why did he leave us with nothing?” asked Jesse. He was only twelve years old but old enough to be taken away and forced to work as a bondman. The law ensured that he and Joshua would be set free in the Year of Jubilee, but the thought of seeing them enslaved for even a day was heart-wrenching to Abigail.

Abigail turned her face to hide the tears forming on her dark eyelashes and dripping down her threadbare robe. She noticed a shadowy figure emerge from a dust cloud on the horizon.

“Joshua—quick! Take your brother. Hide in the barn. Don’t say a word!”

Abigail hurried to wipe her face and straighten her garments. She looked around. One pot of oil. Perhaps that would buy her a little more time with the creditor. She sat down, then stood up. Then down and up again, wringing her hands. Nervously, she peeked out the window.

Abigail sobbed in relief. The approaching man was far too short—and his beard far too long—to be the creditor. She watched as a small crowd gathered around the strange man; then, she knew. Elisha, the prophet of Jehovah! Abigail met him when he was a young man working beside Elijah; since then, she heard tales of his exploits. Elisha was a man who feared the Lord—a prophet. Abigail instantly thought of her late husband.

She could not imagine that the great Elisha, much less his God, would have time for a poor, penniless widow such as her. But before she knew what she was doing, desperation had carried her across the threshold of her house and halfway to falling at Elisha’s feet. From the loft, Joshua and Jesse could hear their mother crying: “Have mercy on me, man of God! Have mercy on me, for the sake of my husband—who was a prophet—and for my two sons!” 

Elisha recalled Deuteronomy 10:17-18: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.”

Abigail listened as Elisha gave instructions: “Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars. Don’t ask for just a few. Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side” (Deut. 4:3-4, NIV).

Abigail simply nodded, and scurried off to her neighbors to ask for empty jars. Elisha’s answer for her poverty was to take her last jar of oil and use it to fill empty jars. Did she hear that correctly? It seemed so straightforward, yet she couldn’t imagine what Elisha expected to happen. One jar of oil is one jar of oil, no matter how many pots you put it in.

It would be many centuries until Jesus performed his miracle on the mount, multiplying a little bread and fish to provide for the multitude. Abigail couldn’t comprehend that Elisha’s God intended to likewise multiply her little pot of oil. But she did the only thing that was expected of her. She trusted and obeyed.

Abigail recruited her sons to help her gather the vessels, then shut the door. It was just the three of them—and a big pile of pots.

Abigail began pouring her oil into a larger vessel she had borrowed. As it slowly drained, she stared out the window, hoping that Elisha would pass by once more.

“Mom!” Jesse exclaimed, “You’re spilling it!”

Abigail looked down to see oil overflowing from the brim of the larger vessel. It was full. But the pot she was pouring from did not feel any lighter.

“That’s impossible. That’s impossible! Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel! Baruk Yahweh elohe yisrael!” Joshua and Jesse listened wide-eyed as their mother repeated the praise over and over again, then asked for another vessel.

They filled that one too. Then another. Then another—until every pot was overflowing.

Abigail wished she had borrowed more pots. God worked a miracle in proportion to her faith, preparation, and expectation. But never mind—God had provided her needs. The miracle was cause for celebration.

God worked a miracle in proportion to her faith, preparation, and expectation.

Abigail rushed out to find the man of God.

On the outskirts of town, saddling a donkey, Elisha stood with a faint smile. He knew what God had done.

“Go, sell the oil, and pay your debt, and live with your children on the rest.”

All the way back to her house, Abigail skipped and jumped and danced. The last time she had done so, she was a little girl in the Jezreel Valley. A nosy neighbor peered out the window in wonder at the peculiar sight: “What’s wrong with Abigail?”

“Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts; his name is the Lord; exult before him! Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Psalm 68:4-5). Abigail sang the words sweetly and jubilantly, stopping everyone on the way to tell them the wondrous works of God.

“God is my protector! God is my protector in his holy habitation!”

That night, she hugged her boys more tightly than ever before as they gathered round to recite verses from the Torah.

Jesse remembered, “Dad never let us go to bed without teaching us from Torah.”

“That’s because it is true, son. Every word. ‘For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing’ (Deut. 10:17-18). And ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart’ (Deut. 6:5-6).”

God is able to take what is in our hand and do something miraculous.

In 2019, God still fills empty vessels. No matter what circumstances we face, God is able to take what is in our hand and do something miraculous. Little is much when God is in it. God feeds the multitude with a little lunch. God slays giants with a little sling. God defeats armies with a little band of lanterns and trumpets. And God fills vessels with a little pot of oil.

So bring your vessels—not a few—then wait and see what God will do.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.