Basically it's the story of a prophet from Judah who comes to Bethel, the worship center for the northern kingdom of Israel, and speaks a word of judgment from God on the religious practices of Israel. You see, Jeroboam -- who was set up as king in Israel by God when Solomon's son Rehoboam turned out to be a jerk -- had crafted a couple golden calves (sound familiar?) and set them up at Dan in the north and Bethel in the south so that his people wouldn't go to Jerusalem (the capital city of Judah) to worship. God sends a prophet from Judah with very specific instructions to go speak a word against what Jeroboam has done. The prophet does so, and continues to obey God's word.
So far all this makes sense.
Now, there's a prophet in Bethel who (long story) lies to the prophet of Judah and gets him to disobey God's word by saying he has a more recent, more authoritative, more spiritual revelation. So the prophet from Judah disobeys, which basically means coming back to Bethel and eating a meal. Then the prophet from Bethel says, "Ha! You're going to die because you disobeyed!" The prophet from Judah goes on his way and gets killed by a lion. Not making this up. THEN the prophet from Bethel goes far out of his way to honor the prophet from Judah (what?), buries him in his own tomb and gives his sons instructions that when he dies, he should be buried right next to that guy whom he deceived.
Take a look for just a moment at a few of the wild dynamics in this story. (By the way, I'm guessing none of us have EVER heard a sermon on this story. It's way too complicated to preach. That doesn't mean it's not important. It's incredibly important; most of us just don't have a clue it's in the Bible.) So. Dynamics.
- Jeroboam has founded his kingdom on the promise of God. (This happens earlier in 1 Kings.) Jeroboam is God's chosen king for the northern kingdom of Israel, but Jeroboam makes an expedient decision about the religious life of his people, creating local worship centers to protect his political power. Not to draw too fine a parallel, but how many of our churches are built on authentic promises of God, authentic interpretations of God's word, but we have compromised ourselves in order to protect our political power through expedient decision making?
- God speaks a word to the prophet from Judah that frankly puts his life in danger. This seems to be the reason why the guy is not to return by the same route after delivering his message -- people will want to ambush and kill him for the judgment he speaks. The prophet is boldly obedient, resolute in the face of resistance, and he takes this wild word from God to heart. Question: Does God still speak this way? If not, why not? Remember that this prophet doesn't have a trove of written scripture he can go to in order to test the word he receives from God. He does, however, have a Levitical priesthood that had some basic laws drawn up that would have condemned Jeroboam's religious practices.
- When the prophet from Judah is in Bethel, he has no one to back him up. He's totally solo. He has to cling completely to what he thought he heard God say in the face of incredible resistance. We don't know, but we can imagine, that maybe he had support back in Judah. He might have had a band of prophets he prayed and prophesied with. That seems to have been fairly common. Or he might have had reinforcement from the Levitical priests in Jerusalem who would have recognized the wrong in Jeroboam's worship practices. But when he's on assignment, he is totally isolated.
- The prophet from Bethel takes advantage of this. He comes alongside, says, "Hey, I'm a prophet, too, and God has given me another word for you ..." and he convinces the prophet from Judah to compromise what he's heard. He is flat-out lying, but the younger prophet doesn't know this yet. So by giving in to spiritual counsel from what looks like a teammate and compromising what he's heard from God, he participates in his own destruction.
This story is leading me into far more questions than answers. What do you do if you think you've heard a word from God, but that very word seems to isolate you? What do you do with feedback from people who look like teammates? Is there a difference between how the Spirit of God operated pre-Pentecost versus today? What does it mean to be guided by the Holy Spirit -- to be, as Len Sweet calls it, a "pneumanaut"?
I'm going to park here for a day or two and reread this text. Lots of questions.