Guest post by Pastor Eric North
How do we understand a passage that leaves more questions than answers? Not only, ‘why did he?’ but also, ‘why did God?’ and how should I respond to it? Head scratching then moving on may be one way but possibly there is another.
The story is from 1 Kings 13.
Jeroboam’s Two Golden Calves
As a result of Solomon’s continued fostering of idolatry among Israel, the whole kingdom would be divided by God’s doing. The Southern Kingdom of Judah and Benjamin would continue to be ruled by Solomon’s son after his death but the remaining ten tribes of the North would be under the rule of rebel leader Jeroboam. Even having God’s promise of a future dynasty for himself through obedience Jeroboam believed that in allowing his people to continue worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem he would eventually lose their loyalty to the Southern kingdom.
With that irrational fear weighing heavily, newly crowned King Jeroboam took counsel that advised him to erect two golden calves – one at either end of his kingdom – as new places of worship for Israel. The result was prophetic judgment on Jeroboam’s idolatry at the hands of future king Josiah.
No Stopping Until You Get There
The unnamed prophet from Judah sent by God to relay this message to Jeroboam was ‘…commanded by the word of the Lord: ‘You must not eat bread or drink water or return by the way you came.’” 10 So he took another road and did not return by the way he had come to Bethel.’
As the prophet from Judah is now returning home this is where it all goes south:
‘11 Now there was a certain old prophet living in Bethel, whose sons came and told him all that the man of God had done there that day. They also told their father what he had said to the king. 12 Their father asked them, “Which way did he go?” And his sons showed him which road the man of God from Judah had taken. 13 So he said to his sons, “Saddle the donkey for me.” And when they had saddled the donkey for him, he mounted it 14 and rode after the man of God. He found him sitting under an oak tree and asked, “Are you the man of God who came from Judah?”
“I am,” he replied.
15 So the prophet said to him, “Come home with me and eat.”
16 The man of God said, “I cannot turn back and go with you, nor can I eat bread or drink water with you in this place. 17 I have been told by the word of the Lord: ‘You must not eat bread or drink water there or return by the way you came.’”
18 The old prophet answered, “I too am a prophet, as you are. And an angel said to me by the word of the Lord: ‘Bring him back with you to your house so that he may eat bread and drink water.’” (But he was lying to him.) 19 So the man of God returned with him and ate and drank in his house.
20 While they were sitting at the table, the word of the Lord came to the old prophet who had brought him back. 21 He cried out to the man of God who had come from Judah, “This is what the Lord says: ‘You have defied the word of the Lord and have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you. 22 You came back and ate bread and drank water in the place where he told you not to eat or drink. Therefore your body will not be buried in the tomb of your ancestors.’”
Was the Old Man Really a Prophet?
What do we make of this?
At face value, it’s a story of severe judgment for disobedience but also a story of misplaced trust and deceit. What motivated the old prophet of Bethel to lie to his fellow prophet implying that he too had received a heavenly message knowing the command that had been given?
Clearly, after the prophet of Judah was killed, the old prophet expressed remorse, mourning over his ‘brother’, burying him and wanting to be buried with him. Even God honored the disobedient prophet by using the means of judgment (a lion that killed him) to protect his dead body until it was claimed by the old prophet.
The extent of God’s grace on the interred bones of both men continued three hundred plus years to the fulfillment of the prophecy against Jeroboam by King Josiah. As Josiah was removing the bones of the false prophets, burning them on the idolatrous altar at Bethel, he came across the tomb of the two prophets and left their bones undisturbed. You could argue that if the old prophet of Bethel who lied was a false prophet that served Jeroboam, Josiah would have had his bones removed to be burned with the others.
What to Do with Contradicting Instructions
What we are left with to consider are two men, both guilty of their respective sin, but only one held to a high – and severe – accountability. It would be great if everything in the Bible was straightforward or the text (or a later one) provided an explanation. As God works in our lives we want similar things: clear answers to confusing questions.
In the end, though we need to trust and obey what is clear in front of us even if nothing else is. It’s easy to be detoured by other voices that sound like they could be God’s voice especially from people we have no reason to distrust.
But where could that detour lead you?
Maybe the wise thing to do, and the lesson here is if something contradicts what God has made clear then go back to God to confirm it. Make sure what you believe to be from God is consistent with God’s word. Talk to the wisest people you know. As with the prophet in this story, things often happen in the moment and a decision needs to be made.
Better to be cautious and skip dinner than be too trusting and forfeit something greater.