Strange Prophets

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I’m reading through 1 Kings these days. Some wild and wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) things are happening there.

Amongst the stranger things I’ve read so far comes the story of the two “prophets” as found in 1 Kings 13. Of course, you should read the chapter yourself, but here’s a quick recounting of the story.

A “man of God” is sent by God to speak a message of judgment on Jeroboam (whom, you will recall, is the first king of Israel in the divided kingdom–Rehoboam is the king of Judah). The man of God gives the message to Jeroboam, along with the usual sign given to demonstrate its truthfulness. In this instance, the sign to the king that the man of God’s words are from God is that the altar would be split and the ashes poured out. (The sign also clearly signifies that in the division of the Kingdoms into Israel and Judah, there is s divided worship of God, unacceptable to God.) After the man of God delivers his message, the king reacts violently, but the sign occurs as predicted, along with Jeroboam’s hand being shriveled (and restored!), to prove the prophetic point. So far, in terms of the narrative, pretty standard prophetic stuff.

But shortly the story becomes convoluted when the man of God returns home. He had been directed by God neither to eat or drink along the way, signifying the broken fellowship between Israel and Judah. But an “old prophet” from Bethel hears (via his sons) about the man of God and intercepts him. The old prophet claims (deceptively) that an angel has said the man of God is to go with him to eat and drink. The man of God accepts the word as genuine, goes to the prophet’s home, and eats and drinks. But while there, a message of God comes through the old prophet, directed to the man of God. The message is again one of judgment, but this time directed to the man of God himself. The old prophet spills the unfortunate news that because the man of God disobeyed the direct command of God, he would “not be buried in the tomb of [his] fathers” (13:22).

On the way home, the man of God is killed by a lion, who neither devours the body nor chases away the donkey the man was riding on. News goes back to the old prophet, who brings the man of God’s body home, buries it, and then mourns for him. He then directs those around him to make sure he is buried beside the man of God when he dies. The chapter then closes by telling us that despite all this, Jeroboam does not repent and carries on with his false worship.

Strange story! So what is going on here? First, some observations, and then a few theological applications.

Observations

1)  The fellow from Judah is never called a “prophet” except by the “old prophet” himself. But the narrator consistently calls him a “man of God.” There is clearly some kind of contrast intended, but as we will see, this is not a study in black and white contrasts.

2) The two characters are not simply paired off against one another as “good vs. bad” or “true vs. false.” Though in the first instance the man of God obediently carries a message of God to Jeroboam and the old prophet acts deceitfully, in the second instance the man of God is the one who disobeys the sure command of God, while the old prophet becomes a messenger of the Lord to the man of God. Both characters, in other words, show virtue and flaws. Consequently, I agree with Karl Barth here who insists that “The peculiar theme of the chapter is the manner in which the man of God and the prophet belong together, do not belong together, and eventually and finally do belong together; and how the same is true of Judah and Israel.” (CD II/2, 393). There is in this chapter, in other words, a study in contrasts, but it is not in absolute terms. Rather, there is a complex relationship between these two prophets such that though clearly coming at the issue from very different perspectives, both belong together and are connected together by an overarching theme.

3) It’s fascinating that it was a lion who killed the man of God from Judah. It’s hard for me not to think here of Rev 5:5:  “Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed . . . ” Think also of the fact that Judah is called a young lion (Gen 49:9) and God is spoken of judging his people as a lion roars (Amos 1:2; 3:8). Beyond the lion, it’s also keenly interesting that the donkey continued to stand alongside the slain man of God. Donkeys, it seems, are particularly committed to sticking with their prophet masters (Cf. Num 22:21ff.)!

4) Despite being killed by a lion, the man of God is not devoured (13:28). He has disobeyed and been judged, but in his judgment, his body is not desecrated. Though his body is buried in a foreign place, it is buried nevertheless. In this regard, I think of how the Man from Judah, though judged in our stead, is nonetheless prevented from having his body see decay (Psa 16:8-11; Cf. Acts 2:25-29).

5) When the old prophet finds the man of God, he is sitting under an oak tree. It seems being found by God under a tree is a relatively common thing in biblical narratives. E.g., God appears to Abraham sitting under the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18:1); the angel of YHWH appears to Gideon under the oak (Judges 6:11); and Jesus confirms who he is by recalling to Nathanael that he saw him while he was still under the [fig] tree (John 1:48). [My OT colleague Eric Ortlund informs me that trees are often referred to in the OT as a metaphorical connection or meeting point between heaven and earth–that is, they reach to the sky even while being deeply rooted in the earth. Thanks, Eric…]

So what do we make of this story? A few theological applications strike me as evident.

1) From a homiletical/ethical perspective, we have an important moral point being made here in the form of the actions of both the man of God and the old prophet. That is, past performance is no guarantee of future faithfulness. Both man of God and prophet have been at some point, it appears, faithful to God, but both are also guilty of disobedience. That’s a somber thought, isn’t it? Just because we may have been faithful to God’s word up until this point is no guarantee that we won’t fall into disobedience in the future, indeed, even immediately after fulfilling a command of God!

2) From a narrative perspective, this passage indicates that neither Israel nor Judah have a particularly favoured standpoint in God’s election. It is the whole people of God, Israel and Judah together, who are subject both to God’s favour and judgment. God, in fact, uses Judah (i.e., the man of God from Judah) to deliver a message of judgment to Israel’s king, but he also uses an Israelite prophet to deliver a message of judgment to the disobedient Judahite. In this regard, the story is clearly a living parable to the fact that God does not show favouritism (Rom 2:11). If God can use the mouth of a donkey to deliver his Word, he can surely use the mouth of a deceiving prophet, too. And, to be sure, if God can judge a king and a nation, he can surely judge a no-named man of God who wavers in obedience to what he knew was right and good.

3) Is this story just about strange prophets? Only nominally. True, it is clear from the narrative that both “prophets,” in their own way, are “strange.” Neither is faultless. This is not, in other words, a study in contrasts–a classical “good vs. evil” story. On the contrary, the story is set up not as a two-sided character sketch, but as a parable to Israel to point out that the judgment of God upon individuals (and indeed, more importantly in this context, upon nations) is relative to obedience to his command. Both “prophets” mess up precisely on account of faithfulness or unfaithfulness to God’s Word. Let me explain.

On the one hand, the man of God messes up because he did not obey the clear command of God to refuse to eat and drink in Bethel. For the man of God to eat and drink in Bethel would have been to reverse the sure announcement of God’s judgment against Israel and the cult-worship which Jeroboam was setting up. It is a sad a tragic truth that even the man of God was dissuaded from obedience by appeal to angelic encounter.

On the other hand, the old prophet messes up because he seeks to use his office as a means of manipulating the outcome of God’s sure Word.  God had announced judgment on Jeroboam for sacrificing to foreign gods upon the altar of God (Cf. 12:31ff). But the old prophet believed, wrongly, that if he could only convince the man of God to eat and drink in Bethel that somehow there would be a reversal of God’s announced word, just as the sign of Jeroboam’s shriveled hand was reversed. But his attempts to intervene using a prophetic “white lie” simply deceives the man of God, and does nothing to change God’s word.

So as it stands, the old prophet finds himself in a predicament: The man of God is dead on account of the old prophet’s deception and therefore subject to judgment himself. But even then, he asked to be buried alongside the man of God (13: 31-32) in hopes, apparently, that he will be associated–innocence by association, as it were–with the true prophecy of God.

So,  if there is anything stable in the story, it is not men of God or prophets or kings; it is only God’s Word that does not change.

4) So in the end, I think this story is really about the pre-eminence of God’s Word over prophets, kings, and nations alike. Though there is a prophetic office, instituted by God himself, the office itself does not preempt or overrule God’s Word. Though there is a king appointed by God, such kings do not preempt or overrule God’s Word. And though there is a nation elected by God, there is no favoritism in Judah or Israel alike: God’s Word applies equally to Judahite and Israelite alike, and none dare to seek to manipulate it to religious or national gain.

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