We’ve looked at some shorter passages over the last few weeks, so today we’re going to dive into a longer story. Specifically we’re going to look at a piece of a story that exists within a much larger narrative. I’ll give a bit of a condensed context and backstory here, but if you want to get the full bigger picture, you can read 1 Kings 12:1—14:20.
A Kingdom Divided
At the end of 1 Kings 11, Solomon dies and his son Rehoboam becomes king. However, earlier in that same chapter it is prophesied that the kingdom will be split, and ten of the twelve tribes would form a separate kingdom under the reign of a man named Jeroboam. In 1 Kings 12, Israel splits from Judah and names Jeroboam as their king.
Now, Jeroboam knew that the people would still want to travel to Jerusalem to worship God, as prescribed in the Law, and this made him afraid. He says,
If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the LORD in Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will return to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah; and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.1 Kings 12:27 NASB
So despite the fact that he received his kingdom and authority by God (1 Kgs 11:31), Jeroboam takes matters into his own hands, and decides to completely ignore the Law and create his own religion and form of worship. This is reinforced in 11:33 when the text emphasizes that the date Jeroboam picks to start his religious festival is merely one of his own choosing, in contrast to the specific calendar of feasts and worship given by God in the Law. He makes idols, sets up his own altar in Bethel, names himself and assorted commoners as priests, and prepares to consecrate his imitation “holy” places by burning incense.
However, God is not about to allow Jeroboam to so openly make a mockery of the sacrificial system through leading the people into such blatant disobedience and idolatry, so he sends a prophet from Judah (referred to throughout chapter 13 as a “man of God”) to warn him. I like the NASB sub-heading here: “Jeroboam Warned, Stricken”, which does a great job encapsulating the highlights of what happens in 13:1–10. The man of God condemns the false altar, prophecies the demise of this faulty religion, and backs up his claims with a miraculous sign which causes the altar to split apart.
When the king tries to stop the prophet, he is stricken immediately with some form of hand ailment. He asks the man of God to pray for it to be healed, specifically saying “Entreat the LORD your God, and pray for me” (emphasis mine) which shows that he, himself, has no faith in God. However, he is healed and he invites the man of God to stay for a meal, which the prophet refuses, stating that the word of the LORD made it clear that he was not to eat or drink in such a place. The man of God leaves, and it’s here that we come to the story we’re going to look at today.
A Tale of Two Prophets
This next narrative arc takes place throughout 1 Kings 13:11–34, but we’re going to just focus on 11–24, so take a moment to read that now.
I’m going to assume if you just read the text, you’ll understand immediately why I picked it—it’s so interesting! A faithful prophet, used by God to pronounce judgement against a wicked and idolatrous king and nation just a few verses ago. Then here, he’s led astray by a liar, tempted into disobedience, condemned by the very one who tricked him, and almost immediately mauled by a lion as a consequence! Wow! That’s a lot to unpack! So let’s break it down.
First, let’s look at the “old prophet [who] was living in Bethel” (vv. 11). We aren’t told too much about him, but we can draw some logical conclusions from what we do read. While he may have been a faithful prophet at one time, the fact that he has remained in Bethel despite the rampant disregard for the Law, and that his own sons attended the idolatrous ceremony would lead us to believe that he is not actively serving the LORD.
The best we can do is guess at his motivation for seeking out the man of God, whether for genuine, hospitable reasons, or selfish preservation. But the fact that he insists, even to the point of deceit, in spite of the man of God’s denial in verses 16–17 points us to the impurity of his motives. That he would dare challenge the word of the LORD by falsely claiming to have his own contradicting word (and delivered by an angel at that!) shows us just how far he’s fallen.
The Man of God’s Mistake
It’s easy to read this story and come to the conclusion that it’s unfair. The man of God was faithful! He did what God asked! How was he supposed to know that this old prophet was lying to him, especially when that prophet claimed to speak on behalf of the same God? Why is it the victim of deceit rather than the deceiver that gets killed by a lion?
But we need to remember a few key things. First, the man of God had clear, specific instructions from God to not eat or drink in Bethel, or even on his way there and back (vv. 9, 17, 21–22). While the words of the old prophet were no-doubt convincing, the man of God should not have so willingly trusted in a truth claim that completely contradicted that which he knew came directly from God. He trusted a third-party when he had his instructions directly from the source.
Second, a prophet’s job was to communicate God’s words to the people fully and completely, often using their own actions as a live demonstration, even at the cost of their own comfort. Remember Hosea marrying an unfaithful wife, Ezekiel eating bread cooked over human waste, or Jeremiah’s near-constant abuse and persecution, just to name a few. We can assume that part of the heart behind God’s command to the man of God to not eat or drink with the people of Bethel had to do with a denouncement of all that they were partaking in. That is to say, engaging in fellowship with these blatant idolaters would be seen as endorsing their behaviour (think of Paul’s words about eating with immoral believers in 1 Cor. 5:11).
When the man of God disobeyed the LORD by eating and drinking with the old prophet in Bethel, his life and actions no-longer demonstrated the totality of condemnation he was told to communicate. By swiftly bringing judgement upon him for his sin, the LORD made it clear to all who would hear this tale, the severity of disobeying a Holy God.
God’s Will Be Done
Before we turn to application, there are just a few other quick details I want to acknowledge. First, I find it interesting that God uses the deceitful old prophet to communicate judgement to the man of God. Perhaps this was just a case of God using whoever was available, and in the process, making clear his omniscience and authority to the old prophet. We can tell by the tone that the old prophet was likely shaken by this event (and honestly, if you or I had just lied about something we had claimed to be on behalf of God, and then God himself spoke through us, I think we’d be pretty shaken too).
I also don’t want us to miss that the lion killing was not a chance encounter. The fact that the lion did not eat the man or attack his donkey makes it clear to us that this was not an ordinary or natural situation. And it was out of place enough that in the next part of the story in verses 25 and following, the men who wandered upon the scene talked about it back in town, so that the old prophet would hear and piece together what had happened.
Why Does it Matter?
While it can be easy to look at a story like this and wonder at it’s relevance, not just for a modern-day reader, but specifically for a New Testament believer. But with that being said, I’d like to note two applications from this text that are definitely important for us to understand.
First, disobedience is no joke. Now, as sinners saved by grace through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ, it’s a little less likely that God is going to send a lion to kill us for disobeying him. We trust that
if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous, so that He will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.1 John 1:9 NASB
However, sometimes I think, in light the forgiveness offered by God, we can end up taking grace for granted, and losing appreciation for the severity of our sin. While we are promised forgiveness, we are not promised freedom from all consequences for our actions. And disobeying God, whether deliberately or through carelessness as with the man in the story, can definitely bring consequences.
Second, we need to test out truth claims. If the man of God had taken pause when contradicted by the old prophet, to either seek God directly through prayer, or at the very least, to think if God would contradict himself, the story may have gone very differently. As Christians, we have God’s word in the form of the Bible, and as such, it needs to be our final authority. Whenever anyone presents a statement as truth, or even more specifically, as “from God”, we need to check it against scripture. God is never going to contradict his perfect, infallible word. Again I’ll note, for more on this topic, I highly recommend you check out Pastor Josiah’s blog series “Is the Bible All We Need?”
Our God is perfect and Holy, and it can be easy to fall prey to disobedience when constantly buffeted by the barrage of contradicting truth claims in our society. But this is not a new issue, as we see clearly in this Old Testament narrative. And ignorance is not an excuse to be a victim of deceit when we have access to the final authority on truth. So let’s learn from this man of God’s mistakes, and seek to trust and obey our LORD.