*** This hymn celebrates the life-affirming power of God’s Word.True-servants-of-the-Lord
The searing and intimate encounter that is the basis for this hymn is itself set in a larger context. It provides a reminder that there is no such thing as private life: wider culture, albeit unrecognised and unacknowledged, always impacts on personal circumstances.
1 Kings 16.29-34 tells of the accession of Ahab to the throne of Israel, and how he did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel that were before him (1 Kings 16.33b). At the start of chapter 17 the prophet Elijah said to Ahab, As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word. Although Elijah did not specifically connect this announcement with Ahab’s provocations, the drought was only ended when, after three years, God sent Elijah to challenge Ahab to call down rain through the agency of the priests and prophets of Baal. They failed, Elijah prayed, and the rains came (1 Kings 18).
At the start of this saga, immediately after Elijah’s announcement of the drought, God directed him to live in the desert by the Wadi Cherith (17.3). But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land (17.7). At that point God sent Elijah to live in Zarephath, in Phoenicia, for I have commanded a widow there to feed you (17.9). The journey (on foot) into foreign territory would have been not less than fifty miles, possibly much more. Elijah was to be billeted on the widow until God sent him to Ahab three years later. In the meantime, like Israel, Zarephath, beyond the borders of Israel, was afflicted by the drought.
The hymn presents both Elijah and the widow as servants of the Lord, their service being evidenced by their record of unreserved obedience to the obligations laid upon them. If Elijah’s obedience was remarkable, the widow’s was altogether extraordinary. Elijah had only himself to look after (although the spiritual welfare of Israel was, for the present, also his responsibility), but the widow had a son. At the time of Elijah’s arrival, she had nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die (17.12). She may have believed that God had commanded her to feed Elijah, but in the extreme circumstances it would hardly have been surprising had she refused to obey.
The protagonist throughout the hymn is the word of God. Elijah and the widow focus aspects of the word that many worshippers will recognise from their own experience. At the start of the second stanza the word is described as ‘foolish’, to draw attention to the difficulty if not the impossibility of Elijah travelling to Zarephath without dying on the way. And at the start of the following verse the word is called ‘shameless’, for how could God even consider commanding the widow to feed the stranger Elijah (he might today be labelledan economic migrant rather than an asylum seeker) before feeding her son? Yet in each instance the word is vindicated in the restoring of their faith and their hope. For Elijah, the word is Love embodied, and for the widow the word is Love giving life. Although the story in 1 Kings 17 makes no mention of Love, this interpretation of the name ‘God’ is consistent with the movement in history that was saving not only these individuals, but all the people besides.
Worshipers are invited to identify with Elijah and the widow in obeying ‘God’s sovereign word’, even though the word may cause them to squirm and want to resist with all their strength. For ‘True servants of the Lord upraise God’s living word’. Not just victims of a seemingly aggressive and repressive God, at the prompting of the Spirit, they ‘proceed…to take the lead…(to) give when asked, though in great need’.
The seven-line verses are constructed in three segments: two lines of six syllables, three of eight, and another two of six. Musically, the first and third segments comprise statements complete in themselves, whilst the middle follows the text in journeying between the assertions of the opening and closing segments. The music is intentionally upbeat, as befits a celebration of the word of God.