The Tragedy of an Old Prophet

1 Kings 13:11-34 is one of the most strikingly sad and terrible stories in Scripture.  It’s about two men of God—prophets—who make some “small” sins for apparently minor reasons and pay a heavy price.

The story opens with a “certain old prophet,” name unknown, from Bethel, and a “man of God,” also a prophet, also nameless, from Judah, who goes to Bethel.  It’s a very long passage for nameless people.  The “man of God” prophecies that Josiah is coming and will punish the idolatry of Jeroboam.  And to this, God added another commandment for the man of God himself—to not return to Judah the same way he had come, and to not eat bread or drink water (in Bethel).  The commandment is interesting in light of what happened next.

In obeying God’s command to not go back the way he had come, he is observed by the old prophet’s sons, who come and tell their father what had happened and of the prophecy of the younger prophet.  The old prophet quickly gets up on his donkey and chases after the man of God and invites him to his home to eat.

The younger prophet refuses, and tells him that God forbade him.

And then the older prophet lies.  He tells him that God spoke to him (1 Kings 13:18, hcsb):

An angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord: ‘Bring him back with you to your house so that he may eat bread and drink water.’

And so the younger prophet goes home with the older prophet and they sit down to eat.  Whereupon the word of YHWH comes to the old prophet—the lying prophet—and rebukes the younger one, and says he will die and not even be buried with his fathers.

This is really sad stuff!  Why did the old prophet lie?  It doesn’t say.  He was living in the midst of an idolatrous people, he was old, he gets wind of a new prophecy and a prophet who—at least momentarily—had been the instrument prodding Jeroboam’s repentance.  It is easy to imagine why this old servant of God wanted to sit down and talk to this new “man of God.”  Easy to imagine him being worn down and out by the years of living among those who worshipped idols.  Easy to imagine him being excited to talk to another “man of God” at last.

But lying doesn’t pay, of course, and he received a new prophecy that weighed heavy: because his guest turned aside, his guest was going to die.  They finish eating, what must have been a gruesome meal as the younger prophet surely realizes that the older one had lied, and as he had just seen for himself firsthand the very literal power of God quickly fulfilling prophecy (1 Kings 13:5).  The old prophet generously saddles up his own donkey for the younger, and sends him off, wherein he is promptly attacked and killed by a lion.  The old prophet hears about it, and responds:

He is the man of God who disobeyed the command of the Lord. The Lord has given him to the lion, and it has mauled and killed him, according to the word of the Lord that He spoke to him.

There is clearly a point to be made here about personal responsibility and not obeying our elders even when they are men of God, when they instruct us contrary to how God has instructed us, or even told us (as the old prophet did) that we have misunderstood or that there is a newer word.  God and the older prophet both clearly fault the younger prophet for believing the lie.  But I am most struck by the old prophet.  He goes and retrieves the corpse—which is still being guarded by the lion!—mourns, buries him in his own grave, and calls him his brother.  He tells his sons to bury him in the same grave as the young prophet, in order that his bones will be kept safe from the fate that was awaiting the false priests of Jeroboam.

And Jeroboam continues to refuse true repentance, and is “wiped out and annihilated” (v. 34), and the larger story continues.

The old prophet doesn’t die at the end of the story.  He continues, living with the memory of the events.  Maybe he lives to see the younger prophet’s testimony about Jeroboam come to pass.  Maybe he remembers the young man who sat at his table and continues to mourn.  There are so many variables here that the story doesn’t tell us.  But I am deeply struck by the tragedy of sin here.  I can sympathize with the older prophet in what might be called a “white lie,” and I can sympathize with the younger prophet in following the testimony of his elders.  But together, they disobeyed God.  The older prophet made himself a false prophet, and the younger made himself disobedient to God to the point of death.  And they both knew it, knew the great effect of their sin, how offensive it was to God, and both stood unquestioningly by as His mighty sentence was carried out.  And, in judgment, the younger one obeyed—got back on the path, though it carried him to his death.  And the older one made what recompense he could, and wept.

It’s a stark picture of the terribleness of sin, even little ones that don’t seem to hurt anyone, and of the capacity of men who even hear YHWH’s voice, true prophets, to nevertheless fall so easily—so quickly, without deliberation!—into sin.

Cautionary tale.

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