Beware of Old Prophets
The events recorded in 1 Kings 13 took place in a day when the nation of Israel was falling into apostasy. For this reason they have a special significance and warning for saints whose lot is cast in the midst of a corrupt Christendom fast moving on to the last great apostasy. We are not dealing here with mere history, but with things “written before ... for our instruction” (Rom. 15: 4) - a message for the present moment.
Jeroboam had received a definite word from God through the prophet Ahijah that he would reign over the ten tribes of Israel (1 Kings 11: 31), and he was also told by God that “if thou wilt hearken unto all that I command thee, and wilt walk in my ways, and do that which is right in my sight, in keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, that I will be with thee, and build thee a lasting house, as I built for David, and will give Israel unto thee” (v38). Sadly, when Jeroboam came to the throne he sought to establish his kingdom by his own devices, instead of depending upon God and His word: “And Jeroboam said in his heart, Now shall the kingdom return to the house of David. If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of Jehovah at Jerusalem, the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me, and return to Rehoboam king of Judah. And the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold. And he said to them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12: 26-28). One calf he set up in Bethel and the other in Dan. The solemn result was that the people became worshippers of these false gods and were thus led into apostasy.
God, however, raised up a witness against this fearful evil. He sent a man of God out of Judah to Bethel to condemn the wickedness of Jeroboam (1 Kings 13: 1). This man’s message was that this evil was so abhorrent to God that a day would surely come when Jehovah would deal with it in judgement (v2). Accompanying this word was a sign to confirm “that Jehovah hath spoken” (v3). The man of God was specially warned against weakening his testimony by associating with evil. He was to deliver his message, give his sign, and then depart. On no account was he to eat bread or to drink water at Bethel, nor was he to return by the same way as he had come (vs9, 10). He was to have no fellowship with the false position of those who, while professing to be the people of God, were walking in disobedience to the word of Jehovah.
With great faithfulness the man of God delivers his message and gives the sign––which comes to pass (v5). The enraged king stretches out his hand against the man of God and his hand is dried up. Subsequently, when the king pleads for his hand to be restored, the man of God acts in interceding grace for Jeroboam and the hand is healed. (vs4, 6). He declines the thankful king’s offer of rewards and, in obedience to the word of Jehovah, firmly refuses to eat or drink at Bethel. In all these ways the man of God faithfully discharges his mission, acting in a spirit of grace while firmly refusing to be drawn into association with evil.
Passing on to the latter part of this instructive story, we find that faithfulness to the word of Jehovah is put to a further and more severe test. This portion of the story is introduced with the words “Now there dwelt a certain old prophet in Bethel” (v11). In the very place of the evil that the man of God had been sent to denounce, and with which Jehovah said he was not to have any association by eating or drinking - in this very place a fellow prophet had found his dwelling. He was truly a prophet, and was aware of the evil (v32) but, dwelling in a wrong association, he was not only unable to witness against it, but actually put a sanction upon it. It is through this fellow prophet that the obedience of the man of God is put to the test. It was a severe test, for not only was this man a brother prophet, but he could also plead the experience of old age. Furthermore, he shows much gracious hospitality to a weary and hungry brother prophet. “Come home with me” he says “and eat bread” (v15). Above all, he claims that an angel had given him a specific “word of Jehovah” to bring the man of God back to his house.
To refuse such an appeal would appear to be putting a slight upon a fellow prophet. It would also have the appearance of disrespect for old age and it would look like indifference to brotherly kindness that was so ready to show hospitality. Above all it would have the appearance of ignoring the direct word of Jehovah by an angel. Yet the story clearly shows that behind all these specious reasons that nature might plead, there was the effort of the enemy to undermine the word of Jehovah by involving the man of God in a wrong association.
How does the man of God act in the presence of this strong and subtle temptation? Sadly, and apparently out of respect for old age, response to brotherly kindness, fellowship with a fellow servant, and professed obedience to the word of Jehovah (though this communication of the old prophet plainly invalidated and contradicted his first instructions from God), he allowed himself to be drawn into a wrong association. An old prophet may, alas, become a deceiver and seduce one from loyalty and obedience.
It is easy to see how serious was this disobedience to the word of Jehovah. First, by turning back to eat and drink with the old prophet at Bethel, the man of God put his sanction on an association which God’s word condemned. Secondly, he put his sanction upon the unfaithfulness of the old prophet in living in such an association. Thirdly, he nullified his own testimony by sanctioning the very evil against which he had been sent to witness.
What, we may ask, should have kept the man of God from falling into this snare? His own word gives the answer, for he confesses “For it was said to me by the word of Jehovah, Thou shalt eat no bread nor drink water there, nor turn again to go by the way that thou wentest” (v17). Evidently, then, his safeguard against every effort to draw him into false association was unswerving obedience to the word of Jehovah. Whenever God has made His will known to us, we are not to allow any after influence whatever to call it into question, even though the latter may take the form of the word of God. In every case our part is to obey what He has said.
If the word of Jehovah charged him not to eat and drink at Bethel, in spite of the fact that a fellow prophet was dwelling there, was the man of God to turn back and eat and drink because a fellow prophet was at Bethel? If his eye had been single would he not have discerned why the word of Jehovah so strictly forbade him to associate with the old prophet? How was it that, when God was denouncing evil at Bethel, he has to send a prophet from Judah, seeing there was already a prophet at Bethel? Does this not indicate that the old prophet at Bethel was not himself separate from evil, and therefore not a vessel fit and meet for the Master’s use?
Being in a false position the old prophet was ready to go to great lengths to get the man of God to sanction his unfaithfulness by associating with it. Tragically the man of God fell into the snare and destroyed his own testimony by associating with one who, while admitting the evil, still bore with it. The man of God resisted temptation when presented in the form of evil, but fell when tempted by apparent good. The voice of a fellow servant, his standing and reputation, are honoured above the word of Jehovah. He disobeyed God and believed a lie (v19) from his peer. He triumphed over the opposition of the world without, and is seduced into unfaithfulness by a fellow prophet within. By abstaining from eating and drinking with the king he took God’s side against the evil; by returning to eat and drink with the old prophet he sided with the evil in associating with it.
The last part of the story (vs20-32) clearly shows that God is not indifferent to the unfaithfulness of the old prophet nor to the failure of the man of God. In His governmental ways both come under His chastening. The old prophet is justly punished in that God compels him to expose his own duplicity by pronouncing judgement upon the man of God: “And it came to pass as they sat at the table, that the word of Jehovah came to the prophet that brought him back; and he cried to the man of God that came from Judah, saying, Thus saith Jehovah: Forasmuch as thou hast disobeyed the word of Jehovah, and hast not kept the commandment that Jehovah thy God commanded thee, but camest back, and hast eaten bread and drunk water in the place of which he said to thee, Eat no bread and drink no water; thy carcass shall not come to the sepulchre of thy fathers” (vs20-22). In turn the man of God has to learn that the very one by whom he had been drawn into disobedience will be the instrument in God’s hand for exposing his sin.
The severity of the judgement that overtakes the man of God shows how deeply God resented his disobedience: “And it came to pass, after he had eaten bread, and after he had drunk, that he saddled the ass for him, for the prophet that he had brought back; and he departed. And a lion met him by the way and slew him; and his corpse was cast in the way” (vs23-24). Jehovah had given this man of God great light as to the evil of Bethel, his abhorrence of it and the judgement that was coming upon it. Great honour had been put upon him in being used as a witness against the evil. God had plainly warned him against being entangled in a false association. In spite of light, and privilege, and warning, he allowed himself to be drawn into a false association, with the result that, in spite of all his former faithfulness, his career as a witness for God is terminated. It is no small matter to disregard the word of God and sin against the light.
Nevertheless we are permitted to see that if God, in His holiness, has to chasten His people for their failure and unfaithfulness, He is not unrighteous to forget any work or labour of love that has been shown to His name. So that three hundred and fifty years after these events, when Josiah carries out the word of Jehovah by the man of God and burns the bones of the false prophets, he spares the sepulchres of the man of God who came from Judah and the old prophet of Bethel. Through their unfaithfulness, the people of God may come under His chastening, but through the faithfulness of God they will not share in the judgement that overtakes the world (2 Kings 23: 15-18).
In seeking to apply the lessons of this striking story, we shall do well to remember three great facts. First, in the day in which we live there has, by the grace of God, been a rediscovery of the great truths concerning Christ and the Church as revealed in the Word of God. Secondly, in the light of this rediscovered truth many have had their eyes opened to see how far that which professes to be Christian has departed from the truth. Like the man of God in the story, we see that just as it was in Israel, so the corrupt condition of the professing Church is leading to apostasy and judgement. Thirdly, with our eyes opened to see the departure from the truth, we have also been enlightened as to God’s mind for the individual believer in relation to the corruption of Christendom. We have learned that the knowledge of the truth on the one hand, and the corruption of Christendom on the other, demand entire separation from that which is a denial of the truth and is bound for the judgement of God.
Much of that which claims to be Christian today is Laodicean in character––a religion with which man is thoroughly content and yet which Christ is outside (Rev 3: 14-22). It is the religion of Aaron’s golden calf when Moses was on the mount, the religion of Jeroboam when he proclaimed “behold thy gods, Israel”, and the religion of the Jews of the Lord’s day. It professes to be according to God yet knows absolutely nothing of His sanctifying presence. This kind of thing God calls “the camp”, and from such all true believers are exhorted to “go forth to him without the camp, bearing his reproach” (Heb. 13: 13). Furthermore, we read “Let every one who names the name of [the] Lord withdraw from iniquity. But in a great house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also wooden and earthen; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. If therefore one shall have purified himself from these, [in separating himself from them], he shall be a vessel to honour, sanctified, serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim. 2: 19-21).
Thus the Word of God makes it very clear that in a day of ruin the separation to which we are called is both ecclesiastical and personal. Regrettably, there may be one without the other. We may be truly separate from the ecclesiastical evil and yet fail in personal holiness. Or there may be personal separation, as in the Church at Sardis where there were a few names that had not defiled their garments, but no separation from a lifeless and condemned ecclesiastical system (Rev. 3: 1-6). True separation to Christ combines both. Furthermore, just as in the days of the man of God from Judah, so the power of our testimony will be in proportion to the reality of our separation.
This being so, those who have gone without the camp unto Christ will find, just as it was with the man of God in our story, that all the efforts of the enemy will be directed to marring their testimony by once again drawing them into associations condemned by the Word of God. To gain his ends the Devil employs the same devices today by which he sought the downfall of the man of God. First, he will seek to entangle us in false associations by some worldly advantage that the association may offer, even as he sought to entice the man of God into disobedience to the word of Jehovah by the king’s rewards. Secondly, having failed to turn us aside by this device, he will endeavour to do so by the much more subtle device of a fellow Christian in a false position.
Many, like the man of God from Judah, will firmly reject the first device only to fall by the second. We may see that an association is condemned by the Word of God, and, if there were no Christians in it, would readily have nothing to do with it. Yet when we see a brother there then how great the difficulty! Yet we may well ask ourselves, Are we right in going back into a false association under the plea that Christians are there? If God calls us out of the Camp, in spite of some remaining in the Camp, can it be right to return to the Camp because they are there? Nevertheless the appeal to go back often comes with great force and under many specious pleas. Brotherly love, old friendships, the desire to help the Lord’s people and strengthen the things that remain––these may all be used as reasons for going back into associations condemned by the Word of God. Furthermore, we have the flesh in us, and at times the call to go back may flatter the vanity and self-importance of the natural heart. Nor can we shut our eyes to the fact that the brother who seeks to draw us back also has the flesh in him and, as with the old prophet of Bethel, may seek to draw us into a wrong association with the low motive of seeking to justify his own false position.
The fact that we have left associations condemned by the Word of God is in itself a testimony against them. To go back is to annul our testimony and, in principle, build again the things we have destroyed. Furthermore, we may well ask, Does our going back into a false position really help the Christians in that false position? Will we by so doing deliver such from a false association? It is evident that by eating and drinking at Bethel in disobedience to the word of Jehovah, the man of God neither helped the old prophet nor delivered him from his false position. Again, by going back into wrong associations we are in danger of not only destroying our testimony against the evil but, like the man of God from Judah, of ending our career as a witness for the truth. It is only as we walk in unswerving obedience to the Word of God that we shall escape the devices of the enemy to draw us back into a false position. Let us then seek that the Word may have its absolute authority over our souls, and be content to take the outside path with all its obscurity, content if the Lord can say of us “thou hast a little power, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.” (Rev. 3: 8)