The Prophet and the Lion
This is a strange story of the man of God who denounced King Jeroboam for apostasy. Afterwards on account of an apparently trivial breach of instructions he was waylaid and slain by a lion in punishment. Some have asked if God is really so vindictive as the story, on the surface, would appear to indicate.
The scene is set almost immediately after the separation of the Ten Tribes and Two Tribes, consequent upon the death of Solomon, and the account is recorded in 1 Kings 13. Jeroboam had just become the first king of the newly constituted Ten Tribe nation, henceforward to be known as Israel. He had been told by Ahijah the prophet that if he and his people remained faithful to the Lord God of Israel their prosperity was assured. Notwithstanding this he had at once instituted what amounted to idolatrous worship and was actually engaged in personally officiating at the pagan altar when the man of God, sent from Judah for the purpose, publicly reproved him. Jeroboam gave orders that the prophet be seized for punishment and at once the Lord gave a sign. The altar was torn down from top to bottom and Jeroboam's arm paralysed so that he could not move it. In sudden terror the king begged that his opponent would intercede with the Lord for him. His request granted, the prayer was answered and the king's arm made whole. Impressed with the miracle, and not a little subdued, Jeroboam invited the man of God to accept his hospitality and a fitting reward, but this the prophet declined, saying that he had been instructed neither to eat nor drink in the pagan land or to tarry for any reason, but to return home directly his mission was accomplished.
So far so good. He set out on the way to Judah, but before passing out of Jeroboam's domains sat down to rest under an oak tree. There he was found by an "old prophet" who in his turn invited him to accept the hospitality of his home. He gave the same reply as to Jeroboam, but the old prophet went further. He told the man of God that he also was a prophet of God and that an angel of the Lord had commissioned him to bring the traveller into his house and insist on his sharing a meal. "But" says the narrator "he lied to him". Willing to believe the story, the traveller gave way and returned with the old prophet. Whilst at table, the Spirit of the Lord came upon his host and under that influence he told the traveller that because he had disobeyed the commandment of God he would meet his death in a strange land. The narrative goes on to describe how, upon resuming his journey, he was attacked and killed by a lion, and his body buried in the old prophet's own tomb, with an expression of grief on the part of the latter and a declaration that the dead man's prediction concerning the fate of the nation would surely come to pass.
As related, the whole story seems so pointless, and the fate of its central character seemingly so unnecessarily severe, that the reason for its inclusion in the record might well be queried. The man was so evidently deceived by the old prophet of Bethel that the infliction of the death penalty seems out of all proportion to the crime. It is evident that a closer scrutiny of motives and implications hidden in the story is necessary.
The man of God was sent into an apostate land, to utter his message and depart, doing nothing whilst within its borders that would savour of participation in, or toleration of, its apostasy. Jeroboam had set up images of the golden calf, saying as did his forebears in the days of the Exodus "behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt" (1 Kings 12.28). No truehearted worshipper of God could tolerate or condone that blasphemy and in fact most of the priests and Levites and prophets among the Ten Tribes had left and gone into Judah. The Lord's word had been clear and explicit; he was neither to eat bread nor drink water with anyone in the land and he was not to linger or turn back whilst within its frontiers. So far as the prime object of his mission was concerned he had obeyed, flatly refusing Jeroboam's invitation and immediately setting out for home.
Perhaps his sitting down to rest under the oak tree, in still alien territory, was his first mistake. There was really no need for him to rest, or to eat, at all. Bethel is only twelve miles north of Jerusalem; from the hastily set up frontier between the two kingdoms he would only have about seven or eight miles walking to make the round trip. He could have been back in Judah within three hours of setting out had he been as zealous as he should have been to leave the land defiled by apostasy. He chose instead to take his ease under the tree and there the old prophet found him.
One might ask what this old prophet, if indeed he was a prophet of the Lord, was doing in Bethel, the centre of the apostasy? Why had he not accompanied his probably more God-fearing fellows to Judah? It is possible that he had compromised his conscience to the extent of tolerating the false worship that had been instituted and had no intention of leaving home. The fact that he deliberately lied to the traveller shows that in any case he was not a very good prophet. For what purpose did he thus seek to persuade the other to abandon his principles? The most logical suggestion is that he sought to obtain some concession, some outward sign from the traveller that a basis of fellowship or agreement might be possible between the rival faiths. It must not be forgotten that the sharing of a meal together meant a great deal more in the East in those days than it does today
It bound the participants together in a tie of friendship and even of brotherhood. It implied that neither would seek to injure the other and the two would make common cause against any external threat to either. For the traveller to eat bread in the house of any of the apostates meant that he was prepared to join with them in fellowship and make common cause with them. This is what the traveller did, and in so doing he greatly mitigated the effect of the message he had just delivered and the judgments of which he had been the agent. The people around might well consider that their position in the sight of God was by no means so serious as had at first been suggested, if his messenger of condemnation was prepared to eat bread in one of their houses.
He did this thing in the assurance that an angel of God had told the old prophet the former command was rescinded. It seems very probable that the traveller wanted to believe it. As an instructed messenger of God he should have known better than to think that the Lord would change His mind after giving explicit instructions. He ought to have reasoned that even if the Lord had so decided, He was not likely to pass on his revised commands at third hand through a discredited prophet who was himself an apostate, when the original mandate had come direct to the traveller from God Himself. The whole setting of this part of the story seems clearly to indicate that he was only too willing to accept the explanation and to go with the old prophet, heedless of his original very definite instructions.
It may seem strange that after all this the Lord should in fact speak through this treacherous old prophet. The account says that "the word of the Lord came unto the prophet that brought him back". The Divine sentence was that because he had disobeyed, "thy carcase shall not come unto the sepulchre of thy fathers". It is not unusual, though, for the word of the Lord to be spoken by the mouth of an unworthy instrument. Balaam could well have been one such case. This might well be an instance where the man was impelled by the Divine Spirit to utter words despite his own volition and even perhaps against his will. The point should not be missed here that the traveller himself, because of disobedience, or more likely because of an inward unfaithful condition of heart which had now led him to his disobedience, had severed the link between himself and God, so that God had departed from him.
The meal ended, the traveller set forth again, riding upon an ass, the gift of which he had accepted from the apostate. He had only four miles or so to go but he must needs arrive in Judah with visible evidence of having accepted a present from the "people of the land". But he did not get so far. A short way out of Bethel "a lion met him in the way and slew him". Speculation as to whether the Lord actually sent the lion or the account merely records an incident which was all too common in those days and this was an accidental encounter, is rather beside the point, for this, being the focus of the story, must enshrine the principle which its preservation in the Old Testament is intended to illustrate.
That principle is this. Whilst the prophet was faithfully discharging his duty to God in circumstances involving danger, not only from lions but from the wrath of King Jeroboam, he was under Divine protection. When he became faithless he lost that protection and must take his chance. From the moment he broke bread in the apostate's house he lost contact with God, and when the lion met him he had no defence. So with Israel, the nation over which Jeroboam was at that moment king. If they continued faithful, Divine protection was guaranteed; if they fell into apostasy they were at the mercy of their enemies, and eventually their enemies would destroy them, as in fact they did some two centuries later. That was the object lesson which the untimely death of this unfortunate messenger presented to the spectators. That, perhaps, is why the story was recorded and has been preserved through the centuries.
The old prophet who had been the cause of the happening, buried the dead man in his own tomb, and mourned him, and gave instructions that he himself should be laid to rest beside him when his own time should come. Does this indicate a rather tardy repentance for the part he had played? Did this Divine judgment upon the traveller awaken him to a sense of his own false position before God? It might well have been so. The story closes with his admonition to his own sons declaring that the word of the Lord against the apostate nation would surely come to pass, so that he seems to have changed his attitude considerably.
The event must have produced an impression. Three and a half centuries later, long after the blow had fallen and the Ten Tribes taken into captivity, good king Josiah of Judah, coming into Bethel, found a monument by the wayside. Enquiring its significance he was told that it marked the grave of the man of God who had prophesied the downfall of Israel and had been slain by the lion for his own disobedience (2 Kings 23. 16-18). That monument, then, must have stood near Bethel, a silent witness to the Divine condemnation, during the entire history of the Ten Tribe kingdom from the time of its organisation under Jeroboam to the day that Shalmaneser of Assyrian carried them all away captive. It remained in the deserted area for more than another century at least to the time of Josiah.
So, even in his death, the man of God was a witness to the Ten Tribes through all their national history, of the fate they would incur by continued apostasy. But they did not heed, and so God executed judgment.
In later days the same principle holds good. "Separate yourselves from the people of the land" was the call in Old Testament times. Christians of this Age are under the same obligation. "you… saith the Lord God Almighty". It is as necessary today as it was in the days of Jeroboam to be positive and definite in our stand for the ways of the Kingdom of Heaven and to admit no compromise that would appear. "What concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part has he that believes with an infidel? asks Paul in 2 Cor.6.15-18 "Wherefore come out from among them and be separate, and touch not the unclean thing and I will receive you, and will be a Father; says the Lord God Almighty". It is as necessary today as it was in the days of Jeroboam to be positive and definite in our stand for the way of the Kingdom of Heaven and to admit no compromise that would appear to the unbeliever to condone his unbelief.