Friday, August 15, 2014

The Lost Word

A few weeks ago, while reading my Bible, I read a interesting story. I've read it before but it just happened to be my reading for that day. This particular story has always created a mix of emotions in me. It makes me angry and it always puzzled me. I think it is one of the saddest stories in the Bible and it may be the only story that I physically don't like reading. You can scroll down to read the original. I only summarize it here.  

The story is about two prophets - one young and one old. The Bible does not give the name of either prophet but the crime of the young prophet was so great he was buried in ground that was not his own, among people he did not know, forever nameless and forgotten. In fact, I suspect that today, virtually no one knows this story.

The Bible states that God instructs this young prophet to go to Bethel from Judah and prophesy against Jeroboam for his extreme wickedness. He was told what to say and, when he was done, he was to leave by a different route and not eat or drink in that land with anyone. 

After I read the story that morning, I had to go back and read it twice. I decided I needed to look, not just at the tragedy of it, but at how it happened. Forget the heart strings stuff. What's going on?

Here is a young prophet who was given explicit instructions on what he was to do and how he was to do it. Go here, say this, and return home a different way. It was pretty simple. 
And he does everything to the letter until....someone gives him new instructions. 

Having completed the initial phase of his task, the young prophet is on his way home. An old prophet in the region heard about the ruckus the young prophet caused and jumps up, saddles his ass, and hurries after him. The old prophet tells the younger one that he's had an angelic visitation and that the young prophet is to come to his house, share a meal and spend the night. The Bible plainly states the old prophet was lying to the younger one. 

Stop right there for a minute. This is what just blows me away. Here's a prophet of Israel, actually of Judah since the kingdom was divided at this point, but the Bible says he was a prophet, nonetheless. He is blatantly lying to another prophet with the intent to deceive him. Why? What was the point of that lie? What would he gain by it? Why did he need this young man to defy the instructions he'd been given? As a prophet he had to know the consequences of deviating from God's directive would be dire. What kind of preacher deliberately leads a person astray? 

Boy, could we write that book.

Now, I can understand the younger prophet's actions. As a mother of sons, none of his behavior surprises me. They get sidetracked. I'm sure this young man was taught to respect the prophets, not just respect but revere them. An older, wiser prophet pops up out of nowhere and says, "Hey Brother! I too am a prophet as you are!"  So, being true to his upbringing, he has to be thinking that if this older, wiser prophet says he's had a visitation from God and a word from the Lord, then who was he to disobey? Would a prophet of God lie? So, he followed him home for dinner.

Every time I read this story it punches me in the gut. It is a terrible story. I always want to stop him. If it were a movie, the audience would be screaming, "Don't do it! Don't do it!" But the end of the story is already written. I can't change it. I can only follow it to the horrible end. 

In the middle of dinner, the old prophet jumps up and tells the young prophet that because he didn't follow God's original instructions, he was going to be torn apart by animals, die, and be buried in a foreign land. The young man leaves and is in fact, torn apart by a lion and dies. The old liar takes his body, buries him in his own family plot and weeps over him. Really? Really.

The early actions of this young prophet leave no doubt in my mind that he was sincere in his own walk with God. The gifts of God are not given lightly. He was a prophet in his own right but he trusted the "man of God". As a result of his sincerity and his honor for those who held the office of prophet, he changed his path, went where he was not supposed to go, did what he was not supposed to do -- all because someone he trusted said it was OK.

It is so clear to me who is in the wrong here. I mean, it should be the old prophet who was ripped apart by that lion and dumped in someone else's grave. The only real justice I suppose is that the old prophet is not remembered either. But it is no justice to me. 

Why is this story in the Bible? What does it mean? Sure, I get the disobedience is its own reward aspect of it. Do what you're told to do or you'll be someone's lunch. I get that. But in this case, that doesn't sit well with me. 

That old prophet is so clearly the evil influence, the wicked one and it is he who should be punished. But he isn't. There's no indication he is ever punished and the way I read it, he's stands over that grave, gloating. "Oh, bury me next to him! Everything he said will happen." How horrible is that? The last thing I'd want is my murderer sharing my grave.

The story is confusing but I really wanted to understand it. As I sat thinking about it, a statement, like the whisper of a breeze, drifted through my mind. I stopped and wrote it down right then because things drift pretty fast these days.Then, I sat and stared at it, confused even more.

For a few days it lay on the table and because it kept tugging at me, I stuck it somewhere so as not to lose it. Now I can't find it. But I have not forgotten those words. The didn't drift away. They stayed and grew louder. So loud that I've played the story over and over in my head several times in the last few weeks. 

This young prophet had been given a word from God, a word so powerful and of which he was so certain, that he went into a hostile environment and pointed his finger at the most powerful man in that region and uttered an indictment of death. We can't know but from the story, there doesn't appear to be any fear in him for that task. He does it.

The king of Judah stands up, points right back at him, and pretty much orders his execution. But moments later he's pleading for this young prophet to heal his hand because God withered it when he dared point it at the anointed. That young, courageous prophet walks away unscathed. So, how is it that later in the day he steps completely out of character and disobeys his orders? 

Because he didn't believe in his own experience as much as he did someone else's. He forgot that the entire land he was in and all the people in it, was under a curse. He looked at that old prophet, at his years of experience, at his position, and he measured himself by what he saw. He assumed because of his own youth and inexperience that his word from God was less important that the word of an old prophet. In one moment, the young prophet did not trust his word from God.

What were the words I wrote down? Trust your word from God.

1st King 13

1 And behold, a man of God went from Judah to Bethel by the word of the Lord, and Jeroboam stood by the altar to burn incense. 2 Then he cried out against the altar by the word of the Lord, and said, “O altar, altar! Thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, a child, Josiah by name, shall be born to the house of David; and on you he shall sacrifice the priests of the high places who burn incense on you, and men’s bones shall be burned on you.’” 3 And he gave a sign the same day, saying, “This is the sign which the Lord has spoken: Surely the altar shall split apart, and the ashes on it shall be poured out.”

4 So it came to pass when King Jeroboam heard the saying of the man of God, who cried out against the altar in Bethel, that he stretched out his hand from the altar, saying, “Arrest him!” Then his hand, which he stretched out toward him, withered, so that he could not pull it back to himself. 5 The altar also was split apart, and the ashes poured out from the altar, according to the sign which the man of God had given by the word of the Lord. 6 Then the king answered and said to the man of God, “Please entreat the favor of the Lord your God, and pray for me, that my hand may be restored to me.”

So the man of God entreated the Lord, and the king’s hand was restored to him, and became as before. 7 Then the king said to the man of God, “Come home with me and refresh yourself, and I will give you a reward.”

8 But the man of God said to the king, “If you were to give me half your house, I would not go in with you; nor would I eat bread nor drink water in this place. 9 For so it was commanded me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘You shall not eat bread, nor drink water, nor return by the same way you came.’” 10 So he went another way and did not return by the way he came to Bethel.

11 Now an old prophet dwelt in Bethel, and his sons came and told him all the works that the man of God had done that day in Bethel; they also told their father the words which he had spoken to the king. 12 And their father said to them, “Which way did he go?” For his sons had seen[a] which way the man of God went who came from Judah. 13 Then he said to his sons, “Saddle the donkey for me.” So they saddled the donkey for him; and he rode on it, 14 and went after the man of God, and found him sitting under an oak. Then 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 cannot return with you nor go in with you; neither can I eat bread nor drink water with you in this place. 17 For I have been told by the word of the Lord, ‘You shall not eat bread nor drink water there, nor return by going the way you came.’”

18 He said to him, “I too am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘Bring him back with you to your house, that he may eat bread and drink water.’” (He was lying to him.)

19 So he went back with him, and ate bread in his house, and drank water.

20 Now it happened, as they sat at the table, that the word of the Lord came to the prophet who had brought him back; 21 and he cried out to the man of God who came from Judah, saying, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Because you have disobeyed the word of the Lord, and have not kept the commandment which the Lord your God commanded you, 22 but you came back, ate bread, and drank water in the place of which the Lord said to you, “Eat no bread and drink no water,” your corpse shall not come to the tomb of your fathers.’”

23 So it was, after he had eaten bread and after he had drunk, that he saddled the donkey for him, the prophet whom he had brought back. 24 When he was gone, a lion met him on the road and killed him. And his corpse was thrown on the road, and the donkey stood by it. The lion also stood by the corpse. 25 And there, men passed by and saw the corpse thrown on the road, and the lion standing by the corpse. Then they went and told it in the city where the old prophet dwelt.

26 Now when the prophet who had brought him back from the way heard it, he said, “It is the man of God who was disobedient to the word of the Lord. Therefore the Lord has delivered him to the lion, which has torn him and killed him, according to the word of the Lord which He spoke to him.” 27 And he spoke to his sons, saying, “Saddle the donkey for me.” So they saddled it. 28 Then he went and found his corpse thrown on the road, and the donkey and the lion standing by the corpse. The lion had not eaten the corpse nor torn the donkey. 29 And the prophet took up the corpse of the man of God, laid it on the donkey, and brought it back. So the old prophet came to the city to mourn, and to bury him. 30 Then he laid the corpse in his own tomb; and they mourned over him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” 31 So it was, after he had buried him, that he spoke to his sons, saying, “When I am dead, then bury me in the tomb where the man of God is buried; lay my bones beside his bones. 32 For the saying which he cried out by the word of the Lord against the altar in Bethel, and against all the shrines[b] on the high places which are in the cities of Samaria, will surely come to pass.”

33 After this event Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but again he made priests from every class of people for the high places; whoever wished, he consecrated him, and he became one of the priests of the high places. 34 And this thing was the sin of the house of Jeroboam, so as to exterminate and destroy it from the face of the earth. --1 Kings 13 New King James Version (NKJV)

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