Jeroboam is a real piece of crap, and this chapter exposes the depth of his evil, along with other lessons for us and signposts in the history of redemption. At first reading the story is confusing; in fact after several readings it is confusing, so I sought the help of the commentaries, and while there are numerous opinions about the meaning of the events chronicled here, I think God is continuing to communicate his purposes through Israel’s history.
We have three major characters in the story: Jeroboam of course, a man of God from Judah, and an old prophet from Bethel. The man of God comes to Bethel “By the word of the Lord,” and he “cries out” against the altar as Jeroboam is “standing by the altar to make an offering.”
2 He cried against the altar by the word of the Lord, and said, “O altar, altar, thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name; and on you he shall sacrifice the priests of the high places who burn incense on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.’”
This Josiah would be born several hundred years after this event and have a very important role to play in the history of redemption. Here according to Wikipedia:
Josiah was a king of Judah (641–609 BC), according to the Hebrew Bible, who instituted major reforms. Josiah is credited by most historians with having established or compiled important Hebrew Scriptures during the Deuteronomic reform that occurred during his rule.
Josiah became king of Judah at the age of eight, after the assassination of his father, King Amon, and reigned for thirty-one years, from 641/640 to 610/609 BC.
He is also one of the kings mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
Josiah led these reforms because the book of the law was found during his reign, and he not only instituted the worship Moses had proscribed, but did exactly as this prophecy said. The people of God cannot worship the one true God, and idols, so as Josiah institutes the right worship of God he destroys all the implements of false religion. In 2 Kings 23 we read:
15 Even the altar at Bethel, the high place made by Jeroboam son of Nebat, who had caused Israel to sin—even that altar and high place he demolished. He burned the high place and ground it to powder, and burned the Asherah pole also. 16 Then Josiah looked around, and when he saw the tombs that were there on the hillside, he had the bones removed from them and burned on the altar to defile it, in accordance with the word of the Lord proclaimed by the man of God who foretold these things.
17 The king asked, “What is that tombstone I see?”
The people of the city said, “It marks the tomb of the man of God who came from Judah and pronounced against the altar of Bethel the very things you have done to it.”
18 “Leave it alone,” he said. “Don’t let anyone disturb his bones.” So they spared his bones and those of the prophet who had come from Samaria.
19 Just as he had done at Bethel, Josiah removed all the shrines at the high places that the kings of Israel had built in the towns of Samaria and that had aroused the Lord’s anger.
This is all several hundred years in the future. For the present, Jeroboam, who once worked for Solomon and obviously learned from him how to worship other gods, doesn’t much like being cried out against, so he orders the man of God killed. But as he’s pointing to the man his hand shrivels. He freaks out and pleads with the man to pray for him and restore his hand, which he does. Jeroboam is chastened for the moment, and invites the man of God to come to his home and eat with him and give him a gift, but the man refuses because the Lord had commanded him to not eat or drink or go back the same way he came, so he leaves.
This is when the story gets weird. The text says the sons of “a certain old prophet” who lives in Bethel told him what the man of God had said. Why the word “certain”? Why not just “old prophet”? Maybe because it’s not just any old prophet; this one had a reason to be curious about what happened. Maybe living in Bethel he sees what Jeroboam is doing and hates it, or doesn’t and wonders what a true man of God would say about it.
Whatever the nature of his curiosity, he gets on his donkey and goes after the man of God, who he finds sitting under an oak tree. He was probably tired and hungry when the old prophet finds him, and the prophet invites the man home with him to eat. The man reiterates what the Lord told him not to do. The prophet then lies to the man saying an angel told him he could now eat and drink, which he does. Bad move. The Lord then speaks to the prophet to tell the man of God that he has defied the word of the Lord, so he will come to an unnatural end.
On the way back riding his donkey, the man is met by a lion and killed, and strangely the lion neither destroys the man’s body or kills the donkey. The lion and the donkey just stand there beside it. What a picture. People pass by and report what happened back in the city. You can imagine Jeroboam hearing about this and thinking God was actually on his side. One of the commentaries I read pointed out the the symbol of the tribe of Judah is the lion, so there is something symbolic going on here with God’s judgment against the man of God. And something you can be sure Jeroboam doesn’t get because is says at the end of the chapter:
33 Even after this, Jeroboam did not change his evil ways, but once more appointed priests for the high places from all sorts of people. Anyone who wanted to become a priest he consecrated for the high places. 34 This was the sin of the house of Jeroboam that led to its downfall and to its destruction from the face of the earth.
So God in his mercy was using this to communicate to Jeroboam, but he would not listen and suffer the consequences, just as the man of God did who defied the word of the Lord. It seems harsh, but we’ve seen it over and over again in the biblical narrative, the wages of sin is death, and at any time God can call his card. And when he does, you can bet there is a very good reason. As Moses says in Deut. 32, the Lord is “A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.”
And interestingly, we can see that the old prophet had no animus toward the man of God because he went and got him from the road, mourned his death, and buried him in his own tomb. Then requested when he dies he be buried with him. And most importantly:
32 For the message he declared by the word of the Lord against the altar in Bethel and against all the shrines on the high places in the towns of Samaria will certainly come true.”
God’s word and victory over false God’s and idols will always and ultimately come to pass.