1 Kings 13 (NIV)✞: A Man of God Confronts Jeroboam, The Prophet’s Disobedience
This is a fascinating passage—or at least, the middle part is. But I should cover the first part first…
In the last passage we read about how Jeroboam purposely introduced idolatry into the northern nation of Israel for fear that his people would abandon him to go down to Judah to worship the LORD. Obviously this doesn’t go unnoticed by God—nothing does!—so He sends a prophet from Judah to confront Jeroboam at his altar in Bethel:
1 And behold, a man of God came out of Judah by the word of the LORD to Bethel. Jeroboam was standing by the altar to make offerings. 2 And the man cried against the altar by the word of the LORD and said, “O altar, altar, thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.’” 3 And he gave a sign the same day, saying, “This is the sign that the LORD has spoken: ‘Behold, the altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are on it shall be poured out.’”
The king is not happy about this and stretches out his hand to point at the prophet so that he can dramatically say “sieze him,” but as he stretches his hand out it dries up! And then, according to the sign from the prophet, the altar does indeed split apart, and the ashes pour out!
Verse 5 (NIV)✞ is written passively, it just says “the altar was split apart and its ashes poured out” (emphasis added), it doesn’t hit us over the head by saying it happened supernaturally, but that’s how I’m reading the text. I’m not reading it as saying that the people heard the prophet’s words and tore the altar down. The ESV Study Bible notes read it the same way:
1 Kings 13:3–5 Since Josiah’s reign is still a long way off, a sign is also described and then enacted, indicating that the prophecy is true: the altar … was torn down, and the ashes poured out from the altar. This demonstration of God’s power strikingly illustrates the truth that God is not under Jeroboam’s control just because he has invented a new worship system, any more than God’s prophet is under royal control when the king’s hand stretches out to capture him, and the king experiences an immediate judgment from God: he could not draw it back to himself.
ESV Study Bible
Jeroboam is convinced that the prophet is speaking for the LORD. He asks the prophet to entreat with God to restore his hand and the prophet does so; the hand is immediately healed.
Jeroboam then asks the prophet to come to his home where they can share a meal and Jeroboam can reward the prophet. I’ve always read that as a ruse—that Jeroboam wants to bring the prophet to safe territory and have him executed or punished or something—but it doesn’t matter anyway because the prophet had previously been told by God not to eat bread or drink water in Israel, and to not even go home by the same path he took to get here. The prophet is actually pretty blunt about it: “Even if you were to give me half your possessions, I would not go with you, nor would I eat bread or drink water here” (verse 8 (NIV)✞).
And so he leaves, taking a different route (as commanded by God), and we get into the part of the story that I find strange.
There is another prophet living in Bethel, an older one. The passage doesn’t say a prophet of the LORD, however, and I think that’s significant. He hears from his sons what the prophet from Judah has done so he saddles a donkey and goes after him, and when he catches up with him he invites the prophet to come home and eat with him. The prophet from Judah says no, the LORD told him not to do so. But then the old prophet lies to him:
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. (1 Kings 13:18–19 (NIV)✞)
The men have barely sat down when the word of the LORD actually does come to the old prophet:
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.’”
They finish eating, however, and the prophet (the real one) leaves, and is met and killed by a lion. But then both the lion and the donkey the man had been riding stay there, beside his body! Others pass by and see this strange sight, and go back and report it to the old prophet in Bethel. Who immediately understands what has happened:
26 When the prophet who had brought him back from his journey heard of it, he said, “It is the man of God who defied the word of the LORD. The LORD has given him over to the lion, which has mauled him and killed him, as the word of the LORD had warned him.”
There’s no indication that the man is taking responsibility for his part in this, but maybe I’m just hoping for too much explicitness from the text…
He goes to find the body and discovers that, although the lion killed the man, it didn’t maul or eat him, nor did it maul the donkey! They’re just… sitting there. The picture we get is of the lion killing the prophet and then it and the donkey standing guard over his body.
He brings the body back—again, the text doesn’t talk about this, but he must have had to really gather up his courage to get close to the lion to get it!—and has it buried in his own tomb. He also asks his sons to bury him in the same tomb when he dies; all of the things that have happened have convinced him that the prophet was right, and that the word of the LORD he brought will surely come to pass.
The passage ends by telling us that Jeroboam has basically learned nothing:
33 Even after this, Jeroboam did not change his evil ways, but once more appointed priests for the high places from all sorts of people. Anyone who wanted to become a priest he consecrated for the high places. 34 This was the sin of the house of Jeroboam that led to its downfall and to its destruction from the face of the earth.
In my mind this passage breaks down into three parts:
- Jeroboam confronted by the prophet from Judah
- The prophet from Bethel lying to the prophet from Judah, and the consequences from that
- A postscript, summarizing the fact that Jeroboam hasn’t changed at all
So I’ll talk about them in that order…
Jeroboam Confronted at Bethel
This part of the passage kind of seems the most straightforward to me, even though there are miracles involved. In fact, it’s the way we often think that things should go when someone is confronted by a prophet of the LORD, whereby God proves, right there and then, who He is and what He is capable of. “Jeroboam, you have sinned against the LORD, and as a sign that it is Him speaking, your hand will shrivel, then the altar will come apart, then your hand will be healed again!”
We like scenarios like this because everything works the way we think it’s supposed to work. There’s no doubt, after Jeroboam’s confrontation with the prophet of God, that He is in control.
And yes, in this case I’m assuming that Jeroboam is inviting the prophet home for nefarious purposes; the ESV Study Bible similarly posits that Jeroboam’s invitation is an attempt to curry favour with the prophet, hoping to get him to reverse the curse. (If so, Jeroboam doesn’t understand the mind of God at all.) But even that was anticipated by God, who tells the prophet ahead of time not to do so.
The Death of the Prophet of Judah
This, for me, is the strangest part of the story.
Firtly, I notice tha the prophet from Judah doesn’t even have his name listed! (The old prophet from Bethel doesn’t either, but the prophet from Judah is the main character in this story!) I’m reading this as a silent commentary by the author: although he deliverd the message to Jeroboam, as asked, he didn’t obey the LORD fully, and so is condemned1.
The next question is why the old prophet from Bethel lies, saying that God essentially changed His mind and told the Judahite2 prophet to come and eat afterall. That same ESV Study Bible note I referred to earlier assumes that he’s lying for the same reason Jeroboam did; here’s the whole thing:
1 Kings 13:7–32 Jeroboam’s invitation to the man of God to dine and receive a reward is best understood as an attempt to buy his loyalty, perhaps hoping for the curse on the altar to be reversed. The invitation from the old prophet living in Bethel is best understood in the same way (v. 15), as an attempt to stave off the destruction of Bethel (and the desecration of his own tomb that he knows must follow the Judean’s words of v. 2; see v. 32). No doubt concern about the possibility of such a corruption of the man of God lay behind the detailed instructions given to him about his journey (vv. 9, 17)—that he should go directly to Bethel and come directly back, not even stopping to eat and drink; and that he should vary his route so that he could not be easily found and prevented from completing his mission (he should not return by the way that he came). Disobedience leads him to an unfortunate end: a lion meets him on the road and kills him (vv. 23–25)—a lion ordained by God and behaving quite out of character (the lion had not eaten the body or torn the donkey, v. 28). True prophecy will bring forth the judgment it promises. Even prophets cannot escape if they are disobedient. Bethel will indeed be destroyed (v. 32), and by extension all the other houses of the high places in Samaria, for which Bethel provides the focal point. The name “Samaria” is used here by extension for the territory of which the city of Samaria became the capital under Omri, the father of Ahab (16:24).
ESV Study Bible
This quote also covers another point I’d have mentioned, which is that the lion and the donkey are both obviously obeying God in their uncharacteristic behaviour: we wouldn’t expect the lion to just sit there, leaving the man’s body and the donkey alone, and neither would we expect the donkey to simply sit there beside a lion!
But let’s come back to the Judahite prophet’s actions, because I skipped over something important: his decision to believe the prophet from Bethel. Remember, God has given this man detailed instructions, not just to avoid eating and drinking in Israel but even to alter the path he takes on his way home—the ESV Study Bible authors posited above that this was to prevent exactly what Jeroboam and the Bethel prophet are trying to accomplish. So the idea that God would come to the Judahite prophet, give detailed instructions about all of this, and then go to a different prophet and say, “never mind, go tell the Judahite prophet that I changed My mind so he can eat now…” It seems ludicrous. The Judahite prophet should have known better.
And that seems to be the point. He should have known better. So why did he believe the prophet from Bethel? And although this is just a guess—by no means would I fight for this opinion—I’m wondering… was he maybe just hungry?
When the old man finds him he’s taking a break from his journey, sitting under a tree (verse 14 (ESV)✞), not walking. The passage mentions the old man riding a donkey, and it mentions the old man sending the Judahite prophet on his way on a donkey, but it doesn’t mention the man having a donkey in the first place; I think he’s been walking. Which leads me to believe that maybe the man believes the old man simply because he wants to, because he’s tired and hungry. “Well,” he might be thinking to himself, “it doesn’t seem likely that God would change His mind, and tell this man instead of telling me directly (after He was so explicit with me before), but… I could really use some food right now!”
So, again, I’m not claiming I have a strong case to make about this, but it does fit in with human nature: we’re much more likely to believe a lie if believing that lie would benefit us.
- We know we’re supposed to pay our taxes, Jesus is quite clear about that, but if someone makes a case that it’s immoral to pay taxes, which we don’t want to do in the first place, we’re more likely to let ourselves be persuaded and try to find ways to get out of it.
- We know that it’s wrong to commit adultery, but literally millions of people throughout history have let themselves be persuaded that it was justified in their case—maybe even the right thing to do!—because their circumstances were “different.”
- We know that the Bible tells us that Christians should only marry other Christians, but when there aren’t many good choices at the local church we are more likely to let ourselves be persuaded that marrying a non-Christian might be a form of outreach.
Maybe these examples are impactful maybe they’re not, but the general point is that we all have different temptations and I’m much more likely to commit a sin I really want to commit than one that doesn’t tempt me as much. If God tells me I’m not allowed to eat for a few days, and I get really hungry, and someone comes and tells me that God changed His mind, I can eat now, I’ll really want to believe that person.
As an aside, this is similar to a wry joke I’ve heard in Christian circles when confronted with so-called “prophets” who claim to have instructions from God, that He wants someone to do something. “Funny,” is often the response, “He didn’t tell me that!” This particular prophet from Judah should have had a similar response.
As we read the end of the passage, and see thet these events did nothing to stop Jeroboam’s actions in the slightest, it makes him seem very stubborn. After all this, he still won’t listen to God? Isn’t he afraid his hand will shrivel again or something?!?
I sometimes have to remind myself that these passages are summarizing years of activity. I’m reading in one paragraph a summary of the entirety of the rest of Jeroboam’s life! Frankly, he probably did pause in his idolatry after having his hand shriveled and healed and watching his altar magically3 dismantle itself. He probably was shaken by this encounter with God (and His prophet). But for how long? Was it a week before he repaired that altar? A month? A day? The passage doesn’t say.
I know I’ve had similar experinces: I’m doing something I shouldn’t, and I suffer some kind of consequences for it, and my immediate reaction is, “never again!” I’ll decide that I’ve come to my senses, and this activity needs to be stripped from my life. But over time the memory of those consequences fades and things go back to normal, and something that was anathema to me yesterday becomes tempting again today.
However long it took Jeroboam to get over these events, he definitely didn’t start worshipping the LORD, so it was just a matter of time before he’d be sinning again.
All that being said, the ESV Study Bible notes give some interesting context on the Hebrew language used in the passage:
1 Kings 13:33–34 did not turn from his evil way, but made priests … again. The Hebrew is literally “did not return from his evil way, but returned and made priests,” playing on the verb shub (“to return”) earlier in the story (vv. 16, 18, 19, 20, 22, 23, 26, 29) and particularly on the phrase “return by the way” in vv. 9, 10, 17. The man of God was told not to retrace his steps at any point on his journey, but he did so in order to return to the prophet’s house (vv. 19, 22). Because he allowed himself to be brought back alive (“returned”) by this prophet (vv. 18, 20, 23, 26), he was eventually brought back dead (v. 29), as God’s judgment fell upon him. In spite of this, Jeroboam also “retraces his steps,” and this too will bring downfall and destruction (v. 34).
ESV Study Bible
Though he’s far from the only person who ever sinned in the Bible, and not everyone has their name stripped out in the text! ↩
Given that this man isn’t given a name in the passage I have to call him something, and calling him “the prophet from Judah” over and over is a lot of typing… ↩
I know, I should say “miraculously,” not “magically,” but I’m not giving Jeroboam much credit in terms of his knowledge of God. ↩