The Pot Of Oil
( Originally Published 1921 )
She was very poor, and worse still, she was in debt. All she had was her two sons, and her creditor had told her that unless she paid her debts he would take her boys away from her and make bondmen of them. But she had nothing. What should she do in order to pay the money to her creditor and save her sons? Like all mothers, she did not want to lose her children. It was hard, bitterly hard, to have them leave her; but, what would make it worse, they were going away as bondmen and probably would not be treated kindly and would be unhappy.
The poor mother was a Hebrew, and the laws of her country forbade one Hebrew making a bondservant of another. So if her creditor were a Hebrew he would be acting against the laws of his country in making bondservants of her sons, and she knew that people who break laws of kindness — such as this law was intended to beware not likely to be careful of their bondmen. If her creditor were a rich foreigner, who knew nothing of Israel or of Israel's laws, the boys might not only be neglected or abused, but they would be taught to worship idols of wood or clay as gods, and never be taught the power of Jehovah, the God of Israel. She was a widow. Her husband had been a student, perhaps a teacher in one of the schools of the prophets. He had loved Jehovah and had lived in such a manner that the people respected and had confidence in him. What a pity that two boys brought up as his sons had been, should be sold for debt and really made slaves!
Would you like to know what these schools of the prophets were, and what it meant to be one of the "sons of the prophets"? If you have read the story of Samuel, you know he became a great prophet and founded schools where children could be taught about Jehovah and His laws. These schools were something like our theological seminaries where pupils study for the ministry. The word "son" in Hebrew meant any kind of relationship or likeness. For instance, "a son of Belial " was not a son of a person so named, but meant a worthless, good-for-nothing fellow, as "Belial" means uselessness, worthlessness. -So a "son" of the prophets was a member of the school or order of the prophets, as your father, perhaps, is a member of a masonic order.
This sad mother about to lose her two children and wondering what she could do to save them, finally thought of Elisha, the prophet. She had been taught the sacred books of the law, for girls as well as boys learned Israel's history, and how Jehovah had always cared for His people. She remembered a song that King David used to sing and that he had set to music so that it could be sung by the temple choruses. It was such a comforting song, and often at night she with her husband and the boys had used it for their evening prayer. One of the verses kept coming over and over again into her mind, "Who will show us any good?" until she thought, Jehovah is our God and Elisha is His prophet ; Elisha knew my husband and he will show me if there is any good.
The two boys also were very anxious. They were not afraid of the work they would have to do as bondmen, for every Jewish boy was taught to work so that he could care for himself and help his parents if they needed it. No, it was not the work; but they were free born, and slavery was hateful to every son and daughter of Israel. Besides, their mother needed them, and they knew their father had expected them always to care for her. Sold for debt and taken from her, how could they be any help to her?
It was a sorrowful supper mother and sons ate together that last evening. Big boys as they were, when they rose to repeat the psalm of David for their evening prayer, they could not be blamed if their voices choked as they uttered the words, "Many there are that say, who will show us any good?" But a tired, healthy boy falls asleep easily, and these two lads speedily forgot their dread of to-morrow.
With the mother it was different. She was determined she would not lose her children. Elisha was not far away, and there was a whole night between to-day and to-morrow. Perhaps in that time something could be done to save her boys. She left them sleeping and hurried to Elisha, who always was kind and usually found ways of helping people who called upon him. Elisha listened. He was a busy man, but it was God's business, not his own, that he was interested in, and he knew that God's business was helping people, especially the "widow and the fatherless."
"What shall I do for thee?" had been the cheery greeting of Elisha to her, and as soon as she had finished her story he asked her, "What hast thou in the house?"
Some of you boys and girls are thinking that a very foolish question to ask when the widow had just told him she had nothing. But Elisha had not sympathized with and helped people for years without learning the best way to help them. He knew this mother had made herself so miserable for fear she would have to part with her two sons that she could think of nothing else; that probably in her grief she had forgotten she had some things which she could use to relieve her trouble.
She must have something. The widow of one of "the sons of the prophets," and one who was as highly esteemed as her husband had been, surely could not have left his family without anything. Elisha was the best kind of a friend, for he knew the only good way to help others was to show them how to help themselves. So instead of saying, "What can I give you?" he said, "What hast thou in the house?"
Her heart must have grown lighter as she told her story, and she was able to remember one good thing she had in her house, for she answered Elisha's question with the words, "Thy handmaid hath not anything in the house, save a pot of oil."
Just think of it, nothing but oil and an abundance of it ! Oil was not only a necessity but one of the greatest luxuries of her country and of the people around her.
"She had only a pot of it," you may say, "and that is not much."
Yes, but the word translated "pot" means in the Hebrew a great many sizes of dishes for liquids. It may mean a cask, a keg, a barrel, or even a vat. We know that the widow must have had a large quantity or Elisha would not have given her the advice which he did.
Oil had many uses among these oriental people of whom the Hebrews were a part. They cooked with it; they used it for their bath and toilet. It was used for medicine and at funerals, in their religious services and daily sacrifices. Kings, priests, prophets, were anointed with it. Even in war it served a purpose, as leather and metal shields were rubbed and polished with it, and wounds and bruises were washed in it. Hosts anointed with oil the heads of guests who were especially honored. On hot days people rubbed themselves with it to make them cool, and, if they were cold, an oil rub made them warm.
Above all, the people needed it for light. In those days after the sun went down, no oil meant no light. As you can see, oil was used for so many different things that one was very fortunate to have plenty of it. So our poor widow all this time was rich and did not know it. And this was the good thing that Elisha showed her.
You say she was foolish not to have thought of it herself? Perhaps she had remembered it but did not know how to use it, or if she did know how, perhaps she was afraid to do so, and it needed Elisha's kindly encouragement to set her to work.
Haven't we all "a pot of oil" that we might use if we worked as hard looking for good as we do looking for evil? This sad mother afraid of losing her two boys is not the only one who for-gets his "pot of oil."
Fortunately there are people who see their "pot of oil" and use it—Abraham Lincoln, for instance, who loved to study but could not afford to buy books. Some forty miles from his home lived a person who owned the book he needed, and he walked eighty miles to borrow it—all the way to the man's house and back. I have no doubt he gave thanks that he was able to go for the book. Walking was his "pot of oil," and he used it.
Michael Angelo longed for greater opportunities to study art, and was much encouraged because he had a " pot of oil " which he could use.
"What was the `pot of oil'?" you ask.
He carried mortar up long ladders in order to watch the frescoers and learn some of their ideas.
A girl wished to study music, but had no money and no piano. Was she discouraged? Not a bit of it. Her "pot of oil" was working short hours in a department store and taking lessons and practicing at night, and now she teaches in a large musical conservatory.
You ask me, "When the widow remembered her oil, how did Elisha tell her to use it?"
He told her to borrow vessels and kettles from her neighbors and to borrow plenty of them—not to be satisfied with only a few. She had enough oil for many bowls or flagons, and he wanted her to keep thinking of the dishes that were to be filled from her cask, instead of looking all the time at the barrel, wondering how long the oil was going to last and worrying for fear she might not have enough.
All the borrowed jars were to be filled; not one was to be left empty. For Elisha had said, "And thou shalt go in, and shut the door upon thee and upon thy sons, and pour out into all those vessels; and thou shalt set aside that which is full."
A glad-hearted mother hurried home from Elisha and told the two boys the prophet had shown her how they could help themselves out of their trouble. As soon as she could get the oil ready for the people they would want to buy it, and probably what her good friend Elisha would advise her to do was to sell it.
Two happy lads went out among the neighbors and borrowed vases, jars, bottles—anything that would hold oil. Then, shutting the door so they would not be disturbed, the mother and the boys began to pour their oil into the borrowed dishes. How they must have hurried, and watched, as jar after jar was filled and set aside. Not a drop of the precious oil must be lost—that oil which the widow only a few hours before had called "nothing."
She was so busy and interested in her work, constantly calling for more dishes, that when one of her sons told her all were filled and there was still plenty of oil left in her cask, she was much astonished.
Back she went to Elisha. She had used her oil and had plenty left. What would he tell her to do with the oil? Sell it, of course. She did not need it all, and her neighbors did need all that she could spare.
By this time some of you have guessed what Elisha meant when he told her to borrow empty vessels of her neighbors and to sell them the oil. Look at people and see what they need. You may have what will fill those needs. The empty vessels are our neighbors' needs, and our oil is whatever we have that will fill them.
"Go, said Elisha, "sell the oil, and pay thy debt, and live thou and thy sons of the rest."
When home again, she and her sons must have set the dishes filled with the oil where the creditor could see them the very first thing when he came to carry the boys away to be bondmen. The creditor knew the value of oil, and when he looked at the rich display belonging to the widow he would know that her debt would soon be paid and he need not disturb either her or her children further.
The next night when they repeated again David's hymn for their evening prayer, they must have added the words of another of his songs :
"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies : Thou hast anointed my head with oil; My cup runneth over."