The barrel belonged to a widow. She was not even a Hebrew widow. The Law of Moses made provision for Hebrew widows and orphans, but this woman had no such resource. Her case was desperate. All that remained to her, all that stood between her and starvation in a cold, pitiless world, was an almost empty barrel—almost empty but not quite.
The prophet Elijah had been sent to meet this widow. He had been staying by a brook, but it had run dry and God had directed him to go to Zarephath, an outpost of Zidon, where he would be cared for by a widow. Elijah's reactions were probably mixed. "A widow?" he might have exclaimed. "I wonder if she is young or old, good-looking or plain, rich or poor? But Zidon! Why that is where Jezebel comes from. Her father, Ethbaal, is king of the Zidonians; and that could be dangerous for me. Jezebel is scouring the land to lay her hands on me." But Elijah had not become a prince of prophets by running away from danger. So off he went to find this widow. Centuries later Jesus reminded His neighbors at Nazareth that there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, but God did not send Elijah to any of them. He sent him to a Gentile widow. Thus Elijah became the first prophet to the Gentiles.
We can picture their first encounter. The widow he met, at last, was evidently poor, and she had a child tied to her apron strings. Probably the prophet was far from impressed. "Excuse me, ma'am," he might have said, "do you know of any rich widows around here? I am a prophet. God has told me I will find a widow from these parts who will give me room and board."
"I'm that widow."
"Is that so? Well, please bring me some water; and I am hungry, so please bring me something to eat."
"All I have is a handful of meal in a barrel, just enough for me and my son. I am going home to make a small biscuit. I shall share it with my son, and then we shall starve to death."
A handful of meal! That was all. Of course, it all depends on whose hand is full. It so happened, in this case, that the hand that was full was the hand of God, the hand that holds the prairies. That hand could never fail.
There are three factors in the equation of this interlude in Elijah's ministry. First, there was handful of meal in her near-empty barrel. That meal spoke of the Christ. The second great offering of the Mosaic Law was the meal offering. It pictured the sinless humanity of the Lord Jesus, pure, even, crushed beneath the millstones and fit to be offered to God.
But this widow had something else, something that almost gets overlooked. She had a little oil in her flask. That oil would blend with the meal and make the dough for a small cake. The oil speaks of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is part of everything Jesus said, and did, and was. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit, filled with the Holy Spirit, anointed by the Holy Spirit, and offered in sacrifice to God through the Holy Spirit. As the flour and the oil were blended together, so the Son and the Spirit were blended together.
There was one other factor in this Old Testament equation of Christ. The woman was holding two sticks. The two sticks, surely, represent the cross. It takes two sticks to make a cross, no more, no less. The woman had a firm grip on what she needed—Christ, the Christ of the meal offering; the Comforter, the oil in a vessel; and the cross. They saw her through to the end.
That nearly empty barrel was never quite empty. That oil was just enough for each and every day, and Calvary took care of it all. God does not ask much of us when we first come into contact with Him in our deep need. But He does insist that we have some grasp on the Christ, the Comforter, and the cross. That will see us through.