A Tale of Two Prophets
By J.P. Thackway
And he laid his carcase in his own grave; and they mourned over him, saying, Alas, my brother! 1 Kings 13:20
Bethel is a place rich with godly association. We see it first in the life of Jacob. In Genesis 28 the Lord manifests His presence in the angel-ladder and gracious promises. The lonely sleeping-place is transformed into “the house of God … the gate of heaven” (verse 17), and Jacob re-named the place, “Bethel,” meaning, house of God. The Lord became real to him there, and thirty years afterwards Jacob returned to it to fulfil the vows and promises he had made to God (Genesis 35).
Abraham built his altar where his tent was “on the east of Bethel” (Genesis 12:8). When Israel settled in Canaan, Joshua captured Bethel (now a city) and gave it to the tribe of Benjamin (Joshua 12:9; 18:22). In the days of the Judges, Deborah the prophetess lived near there (Judges 4:5). The Ark of the Covenant was in Bethel (Judges 20:26-28), and right into Samuel’s time it was a place of worship: “three men going up to God to Bethel” (1 Samuel 10:3).
In King Rehoboam’s time, when Israel split into two kingdoms, Bethel was in the northern part called Israel. This kingdom of 10 tribes became virtually heathen under successive evil and idolatrous kings. The first of these was “Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin” (1 Kings 22:52). He made Bethel one of the centres of idol-worship (together with Dan in the north), with false priests to establish people in the apostasy.
How ironic that the once house of God should become “Satan’s seat” (Revelation 2:13)! The devil loves to do this if he can. Places once known for the presence and blessing of God are now known for the abominable thing that God hates. Today Satan has turned British cities once known for their multiple evangelical churches into places known for their night clubs and mosques. Church buildings, where once the gospel thrilled hundreds, are now derelict or turned into carpet warehouses, cafes, or dwellings. The devil gloats over these petty triumphs.
However, in 1 Kings chapter 13, the Lord does not leave Himself without a witness. He sends to Bethel a prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah to denounce Jeroboam and his idolatrous altar. And through him He predicts that one day a godly, reforming king will desecrate the altar there (1 Kings 13:2). This happened three hundred years or so later (2 Kings 23:15ff).
In this prophecy, the reforming king is identified: “Josiah by name” (1 Kings 13:2) – three centuries before this happened! The Lord knows the future because He makes it happen: “I the LORD have spoken it: it shall come to pass, and I will do it” (Ezekiel 24:14). The promised event is confirmed by a miraculous sign – Jeroboam’s altar splits apart and the ashes from the sacrifices spill out (1 Kings 13:5).
The enraged Jeroboam orders the arrest of the faithful prophet, but the hand that points to him is struck with paralysis (verse 4). The horrified king is now reduced to a suppliant as he begs the prophet to pray to the Lord for him! But why not turn to the calve-god of Bethel? Strange how he has suddenly lost his efficacy! And so, the Lord exposes and discredits that refuge of lies. However, He also remembers mercy: “the king’s hand was restored him again, and became as it was before” (verse 6).
Jeroboam’s anger turns to gratitude – not to the Lord but to the prophet. He offers him royal hospitality and a reward, but he cannot accept these. The Lord has charged him not to linger in Bethel but to go straight back home (verses 7-10; cf Ephesians 5:17). And he is faithful: not only to his commission but to the terms of his commission. Let us always remember that partial obedience is partial disobedience.
However, another prophet lived in the forbidden place: “an old prophet in Bethel” (verse 11). His sons have witnessed the destruction of Jeroboam’s altar, and they tell their Father about it. He seeks out the younger man, who is resting on his way home (verses 12-14). Again, he is offered hospitality, which is again refused for the same reason (verses 16,17). Better go without a good lunch and home comforts than disobey God. So far so good.
Yet, this meeting ends with this faithful prophet’s death, and the old prophet conducting his funeral in Bethel (verse 29-32). What has happened? This is really a tale of two prophets and has a message for us today. We can summarise it in the lament of the old prophet at the committal: “Alas, my brother!” (verse 30). What is his sorrow and regret for?
1. A LAMENT FOR HIMSELF
Verse 30 “Alas.” In the first instance this may well be personal. It becomes likely as we think about this man.
1] He was a true prophet.
Scripture call him “the prophet” (verse 29). He is not a false seer like Balaam, for instance, or like the false prophets of Ahab afterwards. Moreover, he had served the Lord a long time because he is “an old prophet” (verse 11). Samuel reached this stage of life and honour (1 Samuel 8:1).
In later life saints should “still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing” (Psalm 92:14). And as Proverbs 16:31 says, “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness.” However, it is not the case with this “old prophet.” He cries out in bitter regret as if lamenting over himself.
2] He is not the man he was.
Several features confirm this:
a] He lives at Bethel.
Verse 11 “there dwelt an old prophet in Bethel.” What a place for a man of God to be! The younger man was not allowed to be there any longer than he had to be. Many of the godly had begun to emigrate to Judah and Jerusalem to escape the apostasy under Jeroboam (2 Chronicles 11:13,14). But not this man. He has many successors today who ignore the clear command of scripture,
And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty (2 Corinthians 6:16-18).
This lack of separation did him no good – all such compromise leads to lamentable regret in the end. Ministers who stay in doctrinally mixed denominations, being “in it to win it,” will find that they only lose it. Christians who learn to live with modern, worldly churches, thinking that their “witness” will change things for the better, will find that they are changed, and for the worse. We are to witness in the world, not in the church. Separation is not only scriptural but is pleasing to God because it makes a clear-cut testimony for the truth and results in real blessing. Separated Abraham in Mamre served his generation better than Lot in Sodom. Let us be sure to do likewise.
b] His sons were present at the idolatrous worship.
Verse 11 “and his sons came and told him all the works that the man of God had done that day in Bethel.” They had been there! Where was the parental instruction that warned them about this? But if they had been warned, why should they take any notice when their own father is no better! This also is the harm that such inconsistency does: it affects the next generation, and probably generations to come.
c] He tells a lie in the name of the Lord.
Verses 14-19. The old man urges the faithful prophet to come home with him for refreshment. However, that home is in Bethel, so he refuses for the same reason as he refused Jeroboam. However, the old prophet claims he has had a message from heaven to say that the young man can come after all: “But he lied unto him” (1 Kings 13:18).
This wicked deceit is the fruit of long compromise and disobedience. He wants the man’s fellowship but does not respect the terms of his commission. He is prepared to override it with a pious lie. It is easy to sound spiritual when we want something badly enough. And even to blasphemously attribute the “guidance” to God! (Compare Genesis 27:20).
3] This illustrates the danger of older age.
Verse 11 “an old prophet” … verse 30 “Alas.” Over the years we can decline. The keen discipleship that once kept us clear of sin, and even accommodation to it, wears off. Middle and later life can find us less acute and single-minded. As a friend once said to Andrew Bonar: “Remember, it is a remark of old and experienced men, that very few men, and very few ministers, keep up to the end the edge that was on their spirit at the first.” So many are tragic ghosts of what they once were. It will be an awful thing to give account for on the last Day. Let us seek grace to be kept, that it might be said of us, “But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4:18). (See also Why Good Men Change, on the Bible League web site: https://www.bibleleaguetrust.org/why-good-men-change).
2. A LAMENT FOR HIS FRIEND
Verse 30 “Alas, my brother!” It took a prophet from Judah to decry against Jeroboam and his altar; the old prophet is ominously passed over. But too late he realises, not only his own lamentable state, but what his sin has brought upon his younger friend.
1] At first, the younger man was kept faithful.
In verses 7-10 it is difficult to know which is more impressive: his courage denouncing Jeroboam and his altar, or his strength in rejecting Jeroboam’s flattery and tempting offers. So often either have proved the downfall of the servants of God. Regarding the latter, Proverbs 27:21 reminds us how dangerous flattery is: “As the fining pot for silver, and the furnace for gold; so is a man to his praise.”
2] Yet, the good man is deceived by a supposed friend.
Verse 18 “I am a prophet also as thou art; and an angel spake unto me by the word of the LORD, saying, Bring him back with thee into thine house, that he may eat bread and drink water. But he lied unto him.”
3] The man of God received the message in good faith.
Verse 19 “So he went back with him, and did eat bread in his house, and drank water.” This was, as he thought, a counter-message from God. Therefore, not to go home with the old prophet now would be to disobey God as much as if he had gone home with Jeroboam before! However, what a shock he must have had when the old prophet brings a real message from the Lord:
Thus saith the LORD, Forasmuch as thou hast disobeyed the mouth of the LORD, and hast not kept the commandment which the LORD thy God commanded thee, But camest back and hast eaten bread and drunk water in the place, of which the LORD did say, Eat no bread and drink no water; thy carcase shall not come unto the sepulchre of thy fathers (verses 21,22).
4] He loses his life on his way home.
Verses 23-25 relate how swiftly the rod of chastisement fell. No sooner had he left the old prophet’s house he is met by a lion who kills him. That this is of God is seen by the fact that the lion is docile afterwards, and merely “stood by the carcase.”
Although he was deceived, the younger man finds he has nonetheless disobeyed God. That which he was so careful to reject from an evil king he ends up accepting from an apparent friend claiming a special dispensation from God. This supplies us with some serious lessons.
a] Nothing must ever be allowed to supplant God’s word.
If it goes against what God has already said in His word, not even a message from heaven is to be taken seriously. The case is clear, the man had “not obeyed the mouth of the LORD.” There is no higher authority, nor more reliable warrant, than Scripture. Even compared with Christ’s audible word on the transfiguration mount, Scripture is “a more sure word of prophecy” (2 Peter 1:19) – that is, more stable, fast, firm – i.e. permanent.
Many so-called “prophets” today claim to bring messages from God. Tragically, many are in awe of them and tend to believe what they say: where they should worship, whom they should marry, where they should relocate, that they will be physically healed and no longer need medication, and so on. Acting upon the alleged word from the Lord, it leads to ridiculous and even disastrous consequences. Of course, that it does so is not the prophet’s fault but the recipient of the message who “lacked faith,” or some such get-out device. This event stands as a warning to us. There is such a thing as “a lying spirit” (1 Kings 22:22). This tests whether we believe the Scriptures to be sufficient and final or not (cp also Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Paul declared that even an angel from heaven was not to be believed above the apostolic gospel word (Galatians 1:8,9).
b] We are in most danger from friends.
When King Jeroboam tried to befriend the young prophet, coming from an evil idolater made the matter clear. When the same offer came from a fellow prophet with a confirming message from heaven, he was taken in. How clever Satan is! He can use those who are close to us. Abraham listened to Sarah over Hagar more readily than if the suggestion had come from another quarter. Those whom we are most likely to trust can disarm us and prove to be our downfall. Only thinking biblically can always keep us safe. We will never go wrong while we walk in the warnings and promises of Holy Scripture.
c] Even so, the prophet was safe.
His body was slain, but his soul was still saved. Grace secures glory hereafter, even though some leave life under a cloud. The chastening rod sometimes takes believers out of this world and into heaven before they can do more sinning. It is equivalent to what happened to some at Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:30,31). How much better to “endure to the end” under the Lord’s smile! It is ironic that the faithful prophet does not live out half his days, while the old deceiver can live longer and conduct his funeral! And even Jeroboam is whole and well!
Bishop Hall turns this into a timely warning,
O the unsearchable ways of the Almighty! The man of God sins and dies speedily: the lying prophet that seduced him survives; yea, wicked Jeroboam enjoys his idolatry, and treads upon the grave of his reprover … How much happier is it for us that we die now, to live forever, than that we live a while, to die forever!
5] The faithful prophet is honoured.
“And he laid his carcase in his own grave; and they mourned over him” (verse 30). Like Joseph of Arimathea honoured our Lord by burying Him in his own grave, so this old prophet did the faithful prophet. If they cannot have fellowship any more in the land of the living, they will rise together at the resurrection and be together in a better world. As Thomas Watson wrote, “Heaven will make amends for all … In that Heavenly kingdom, the saints are crowned with perfection!”
6] The prophet’s ministry was successful.
Because what he prophesied happened: compare verse 2 with 2 Kings 23:15f. Good king Josiah did come to Bethel and desecrate that altar and bring the Lord’s people back to Jehovah to a great degree. The young man was successful because he was faithful. Unlike the old lying prophet, his word was faithful and true. Not even his personal failure could change the faithfulness of God’s true word.
Let us so live, and serve the Lord in our day, that we may never have to lament our decline and fall. May there be none to sadly shake their heads at the mention of our names. And may we never cause the stumbling and sins of others because of what we have done. May this double lament never be ours. But rather, may we be nothing but blessed of God, and be nothing but a blessing to others.