It is important to establish some important principles before studying this unusual chapter. First, the incident is not stand-alone, but follows on from the events described in the previous chapter. Second, the incident is not primarily about the man of God from Judah, v. 1, and the old prophet in Bethel, v. 11. The writer’s spotlight is trained predominantly on Jeroboam and his false religion. Third, the writer’s key theme is the centrality and importance of God’s word. The expression, ‘the word of the Lord’, appears on nine occasions in the chapter.
It was an indictment of Jeroboam’s false religious system that there were no prophets in Israel at this time through whom the Lord could speak and, therefore, He had to turn to Judah to find such a man, v. 1.
The man of God had been entrusted with a clear message that held out the prospect of nothing but judgement, v. 2. He would, no doubt, have preferred to deliver a more palatable message; nevertheless, he proved to be faithful and delivered it courageously as the Lord had given it to him. He did not address his words directly to Jeroboam, but to the altar, i.e., to the corrupt religious system that it typified.
A study of miracles in the scriptures will reveal that God did not use them indiscriminately. They stood at the beginning of a work in order to establish it and to confirm that it was of God. The man of God stood at the beginning of Israel’s descent into idolatry; therefore, his message was confirmed by an immediate sign, v. 3.
Jeroboam was accustomed to giving the orders. However, on this particular occasion, the Lord taught him an important lesson. His hand that was erroneously raised to apprehend the man of God, suddenly and dramatically lost its power, v. 4. He learned that even the word of a king has no power if the Lord decrees otherwise. He was reminded, in dramatic fashion, that the Lord was in control, v. 5.
Miracles do not of themselves produce faith. Jeroboam’s response to the withering of his arm and the rending of the altar was entirely predictable, v. 6. There was no sign of repentance and his request was centred entirely upon self. He was more concerned about the condition of his hand than the state of the kingdom. His spiritual condition was such that he had to ask another to pray on his behalf.
Jeroboam had witnessed the power of the word of the Lord. When it suited him, he would presume upon it and ask for it to work in His favour. Yet, it was truly amazing that in the midst of judgement, the grace and mercy of the Lord were seen. It says much about the man of God that, having been abused by Jeroboam, he graciously ‘besought the Lord’, v. 6, on his behalf.
Jeroboam’s invitation to the man of God appeared to be irresistible: ‘Come home with me, and refresh thyself, and I will give thee a reward’, v. 7. Self-interest would have been at the heart of this invitation, and not the welfare of the man of God. Once again, the writer takes the reader to his central focus of the word of the Lord. Jeroboam discovered that he was confronted by a man who refused to consider any compromise as far as God’s word was concerned, vv. 8-9. The latter understood that eating with the king would have been a sign of close fellowship with him and tantamount to supporting the evil system that he represented. All the ground that he had won in the confrontation at Bethel would have been lost in a moment. The word of the Lord commanded him to avoid such a disastrous course of action and he obeyed, v. 10. It is not clear why he returned home another way. It might well have been to avoid anyone following him and bringing him back to do something inconsistent with what the Lord had given him to do.
As the man of God went on his way, ‘an old prophet in Bethel’ appeared on the scene, v. 11. It is not clear whether he was a genuine prophet or not. Whether his motives for pursuing after the man of God and inviting him home were worthy or not is not stated. Once again, the historian’s main focus was on the word of the Lord. The old prophet rode upon an ass and found the man of God ‘sitting under an oak’, vv. 13-14. The word ‘oak’ means ‘strength’. Sadly, it proved to be a place of weakness for the man of God. The delay in his journey allowed the prophet to catch up with him. His invitation did not hold out the same attraction of a reward as the one Jeroboam had issued, v. 15. However, he responded in similar fashion: ‘I may not return with thee’ v.16. Once again, he showed his commitment to obeying God’s word.
The old prophet’s response was a total abuse of God’s word, v. 18. Whatever his motives might have been, his lie ruined the testimony of the man of God and led to his death. It is almost unbelievable that, if he were a genuine prophet, he would have paraded a lie as the word of the Lord. Yet, this is precisely what Jeroboam had done. He managed to deceive the people into believing that his counterfeit religious system was acceptable to God; however, it could equally have been said of him, ‘But he lied unto them’.
The statement is simple, but tragic: ‘So he went back with him, and did eat bread in his house, and drank water’, v. 19. After withstanding the overtures of Jeroboam, the man of God fell to the lie of an old discredited prophet. All that he had gained in Bethel, he lost as he returned there and sat at table in the prophet’s house, v. 20. He ought to have known that the word of a prophet who was still living in Bethel could not be trusted. He ought also to have appreciated that the word of God never contradicts itself. His experience warns believers that it does not matter who a person is or whom they claim has spoken to them; if what they say does not match up to the word of God, it is a lie and must be rejected. The message to him from the Lord was unequivocal: ‘Thy carcase shall not come unto the sepulchre of thy fathers’, vv. 21-22.
One of the most remarkable features about this message of judgement is that it came from the lips of the old prophet, vv. 20-21. It mattered not whether he were a true or false prophet, the sovereign Lord can speak through whom He chooses, cp. Num. 22. 9-12. Nevertheless, it emphasized the tragedy of the situation that the Lord used the man through whom He could not speak to Jeroboam at Bethel to denounce the disobedience of the one through whom He did speak.
Many find it hard to justify the harsh judgement meted out to the man of God, whereas the old prophet appears to have escaped unscathed; however, it must be viewed in its context to gain a true understanding. The man of God had been sent by the Lord to pronounce judgement upon Jeroboam for his disobedience to the word of the Lord. He had discharged that great responsibility faithfully, but now he stood guilty of the same charge. There was more at stake than one personal act of disobedience. By so doing he had besmirched the testimony, discredited the word of the Lord, and nullified the impact of His message on Jeroboam. Jeroboam could have concluded that if a man of God had disregarded God’s word, then he was perfectly justified in doing the same thing. However, the swift discipline meted out to the man of God was a warning to him that God is no respecter of persons when dealing with those who disobey Him.
It must have had a great impact upon the old prophet as he saddled the ass that took the man of God out to his death, v. 23. The historian records the outcome of the final journey: ‘And when he was gone, a lion met him by the way, and slew him: and his carcase was cast in the way, and the ass stood by it, the lion also stood by the carcase’, v. 24. This miraculous scene was proof that God was in control. The departure of the man of God was a powerful witness to all in the city of the consequences of disobeying the word of the Lord. If events had been permitted to take their natural course, the lion would have devoured both the man of God and the ass. Far from this being the case, the people were able to relate a scene that would have captured the interests of the inhabitants of Bethel, reached the king’s ears and, hopefully, pricked consciences.
There are strong indications that the old prophet’s conscience was genuinely stirred by what had happened and that he had respect for the man of God. When he heard news of the strange sight outside the city, he was not slow to give the correct interpretation of events, v. 26. His encounter with the man of God in life had been brief, but his desire now was to be united with him in death. Once his sons had saddled him an ass, v. 27, ‘he went and found his carcase cast in the way, and the ass and lion standing by the carcase: the lion had not eaten the carcase, nor torn the ass’, v. 28. Miraculously, the lion did not prevent him from removing the carcase, vv. 29!
It is touching to note that when King Josiah arrived at Bethel three hundred years later to fulfil the prophecy, he saw the sepulchre where the two men were buried and said, ‘Let no man move his bones’, 2 Kgs. 23. 18.
Sadly, the events recounted in the chapter did not move Jeroboam to repentance before the Lord, vv. 33-34.