So Close, But Yet So Far

11 Now an old prophet lived in Bethel. And his sons came and told him all that the man of God had done that day in Bethel. They also told to their father the words that he had spoken to the king. 12 And their father said to them, “Which way did he go?” And his sons showed him the way that the man of God who came from Judah had gone. 13 And he said to his sons, “Saddle the donkey for me.” So they saddled the donkey for him and he mounted it. 14 And he went after the man of God and found him sitting under an oak. And he said to him, “Are you the man of God who came from Judah?” And he said, “I am.” 15 Then he said to him, “Come home with me and eat bread.” 16 And he said, “I may not return with you, or go in with you, neither will I eat bread nor drink water with you in this place, 17 for it was said to me by the word of the Lord, ‘You shall neither eat bread nor drink water there, nor return by the way that you came.’” 18 And he said to him, “I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘Bring him back with you into your house that he may eat bread and drink water.’” But he lied to him. 19 So he went back with him and ate bread in his house and drank water.

20 And as they sat at the table, the word of the Lord came to the prophet who had brought him back. 21 And he cried to the man of God who came from Judah, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Because you have disobeyed the word of the Lord and have not kept the command that the Lord your God commanded you, 22 but have come back and have eaten bread and drunk water in the place of which he said to you, “Eat no bread and drink no water,” your body shall not come to the tomb of your fathers.’” 23 And after he had eaten bread and drunk, he saddled the donkey for the prophet whom he had brought back. 24 And as he went away a lion met him on the road and killed him. And his body was thrown in the road, and the donkey stood beside it; the lion also stood beside the body. 25 And behold, men passed by and saw the body thrown in the road and the lion standing by the body. And they came and told it in the city where the old prophet lived.

26 And when the prophet who had brought him back from the way heard of it, he said, “It is the man of God who disobeyed the word of the Lord; therefore the Lord has given him to the lion, which has torn him and killed him, according to the word that the Lord spoke to him.” 27 And he said to his sons, “Saddle the donkey for me.” And they saddled it. 28 And he went and found his body thrown in the road, and the donkey and the lion standing beside the body. The lion had not eaten the body or torn the donkey. 29 And the prophet took up the body of the man of God and laid it on the donkey and brought it back to the city to mourn and to bury him. 30 And he laid the body in his own grave. And they mourned over him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” 31 And after he had buried him, he said to his sons, “When I die, bury me in the grave in which the man of God is buried; lay my bones beside his bones. 32 For the saying that he called out by the word of the Lord against the altar in Bethel and against all the houses of the high places that are in the cities of Samaria shall surely come to pass.”

33 After this thing Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but made priests for the high places again from among all the people. Any who would, he ordained to be priests of the high places. 34 And this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth. 1 Kings 13:11-34 ESV

After delivering God’s message of judgment to Jeroboam and having destroyed the altar dedicated to one of Jeroboam’s false gods, the young prophet had begun his return journey to Judah. He had successfully fulfilled His God-ordained mission and had been given strict instructions to spend no additional time among the northern tribes. He was to accept no forms of hospitality or allow anyone or anything to delay his return home. He was even warned to take a different route back to Judah in order to prevent anyone from interfering with his mission. And this young prophet had proved to be obedient to the will of God. He had rejected Jeroboam’s tempting offer of a meal and a reward, declaring his intentions to remain faithful to every detail of God’s instructions.

“Even if you gave me half of everything you own, I would not go with you. I would not eat or drink anything in this place. For the Lord gave me this command: ‘You must not eat or drink anything while you are there, and do not return to Judah by the same way you came.’” So he left Bethel and went home another way. – 1 Kings 13:8-10 NLT

But as the story continues to unfold, we find the young prophet taking what appears to be an unsanctioned break under a large tree. Having not yet crossed the border into Judah, he decided to take a much-needed rest. While the text does not tell where the young man began his journey to Judah that day, it is likely that he had spent many hours making the trip to Bethel. If he began his trip from Jerusalem, it would have been a 90-mile trek to Bethels. And now, after having destroyed the Jeroboam’s altar to his false god, the prophet was having to walk all the way back. So, it makes perfect sense that he was weary from all the activity and excitement of the day. He was tired, hungry, and alone. But he had not yet completed his mission. He had been instructed by God to return to Judah without delay and to avoid all distractions.

Yet, as the young man rested under the tree, he was approached by a stranger – an old prophet who happened to live in Bethel. The author provides few details about this man, except that he was a prophet and a father. His sons, who had witnessed the events at the altar that day, returned home and told him all about all that the young prophet had said and done. Intrigued by what he heard, the elder prophet commanded his sons to saddle a donkey so that he could seek out his young peer. It seems likely that he simply wanted to verify the message the younger prophet had delivered. As a prophet himself, this older man would have been interested in whether the message delivered by the young man was actually from God. If it was, there were dark days ahead for the northern kingdom. Remember what the young prophet had declared at the altar earlier that day.

“A child named Josiah will be born into the dynasty of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests from the pagan shrines who come here to burn incense, and human bones will be burned on you.” – 1 Kings 13:2 NLT

Those were serious words that implied future judgment against the northern kingdom and this senior prophet was anxious to verify their veracity. So, he mounted his donkey and began his search for the one who had delivered this foreboding message. And because the young prophet had decided to take his unscheduled rest stop under the tree, the older prophet caught up with him before he had crossed over into Judah. This is where it gets interesting.

Based on what happens next, it is difficult to understand the motives of the older man. But we are clearly told that he used deception in order to convince the younger prophet to return to his home for a meal. His offer had been rejected by the young man because it violated the command of God.

“I am not allowed to eat or drink anything here in this place. For the Lord gave me this command: ‘You must not eat or drink anything while you are there, and do not return to Judah by the same way you came.’” – 1 Kings 13:16-17 NLT

It is clear that they were still within the borders of Israel. The young prophet had not yet made it to the safety of Judah. But, anxious to hear more about the young man’s message from God, the older prophet lied to him. He falsely claimed to have been given a message from an angel commanding him to bring the young man to his home for a meal. Driven by hunger, the young prophet lowered his defenses and accepted the offer. But in doing so, he disobeyed the command of God. He allowed his physical appetites to cloud his thinking and compromise his convictions.

The text indicates that the young prophet ended up violating the divine decree by sharing a meal in the older prophet’s home. And as soon as he had eaten the food he had been commanded to avoid, the young man received a stinging rebuke from God delivered by the very man who had just deceived him.

“This is what the Lord says: You have defied the word of the Lord and have disobeyed the command the Lord your God gave you. You came back to this place and ate and drank where he told you not to eat or drink. Because of this, your body will not be buried in the grave of your ancestors.” – 1 Kings 13:21-22 NLT

This time, the older prophet had spoken the truth. His lie had caused the younger prophet to disobey God. And now, he had the unpleasant responsibility of delivering God’s message of judgment against the very man he had deceived and caused to disobey. The rest of the story reads like something out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The young man, with a full stomach and a heavy heart, began his journey home. But before he could make it into Judah, he was attacked by a lion. The beast killed the prophet but left the donkey unmolested, then stood sentry over the fallen body. And passing travelers saw the strange scene and reported it back in Bethel. Upon hearing the news, the older prophet retrieved the body of the young man and placed it in his own tomb, located in the city of Bethel.

The old man was now fully convinced that what the young prophet had said had been the word of God.

“For the message the Lord told him to proclaim against the altar in Bethel and against the pagan shrines in the towns of Samaria will certainly come true.” – 1 Kings 13:32 NLT

Yahweh had used this young, unnamed prophet to declare His judgment against the ten northern tribes. Their continued apostasy would eventually lead to their destruction. When it came to His chosen people, God was deadly serious that they obey Him. Whether they were a fully united confederation of 12 tribes or divided into two rival kingdoms, they remained His prized possession and were obligated to live according to His commands. Obedience would bring the blessings of God. But disobedience would bring His curses. And the young prophet had learned the costly lesson that partial obedience was insufficient and unacceptable to God. He had almost completed his mission but had ultimately failed. He had been sent by God but had ended up being punished by God for allowing the things of this world to distract him from his end goal. Had he crossed the border into Judah, he could have eaten his fill of food. But he compromised. He allowed his physical appetites to cloud his thinking and distract him from his God-given assignment. And he paid dearly for his mistake. This young man’s life is a perfect illustration of what the apostle John warned about in his first epistle. The young prophet’s desire for physical pleasure ended up superseding his love for God and it proved not only disappointing, but deadly.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson