Have you ever been reading a story in the Old Testament and thought it sounded completely weird? Have you ever encountered stories that sounded very unlike the God that you see in the New Testament? If you haven’t, then you’re probably not paying close enough attention. The Old Testament is full of very difficult stories that can be tough to reconcile with the loving God we see in the Gospels. Because of this difference, people have either concluded that the God of the Old Testament should be discarded, or they simply ignore the complexities altogether. Neither is an appropriate response.
In the face of stories that we don’t like or understand, it’s important that we give the time, thought and prayer to exploring them. Sometimes the most difficult passages yield the most valuable lessons. I had this experience just the other day as a read a strange and surprising story in 1 Kings 13.
In this passage, a “man of God” (we’re never given his name) is sent to rebuke the king for his disobedience to God. Once the king believes the warning he invites the man of God to stay and eat with him, but the offer is declined. According to the man of God, he has been given specific instructions by God to warn the king, but he must then return directly home without stopping to eat or drink. So the man of God accepts nothing from the king, saddles his donkey and heads home.
Then the story gets weird. An old prophet in Bethel heard this story and wanted to find this man of God. He found out the direction in which the man of God had left, and rode after him. When the prophet finally caught up with him, he invited the man of God to his house for food and drink, an offer that was again declined because of God’s specific instructions. To this the prophet had an interesting response:
“I too am a prophet, as you are. And an angel said 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.’”
This was a lie, but the man of God believed the prophet and went home with him. After eating and drinking at the prophet’s house, God rebuked the man of God for disobeying his command, and foretold his punishment: he would not be properly buried with his ancestors, a sign of great shame. So the man of God left the prophets house, only to be killed by a lion.
I don’t know about you, but I thought this story was very strange and a little bit disturbing. Not only did the punishment seem too severe, but the prophet wasn’t punished at all! If anyone should be mauled by a lion, it should have been him! What are we to make of passages like this?
First, we should be careful not to read these stories as a prescription of God’s future actions. Disobedience to God will not automatically earn you a lion attack. Nor should we see the man of God’s death as a final judgment on his soul. Death in this life does not equal death in eternity.
What we should look for are hints about the character of man and the character of God. What can we learn? Well as I studied this passage and pondered it for awhile, I realized how often I make the same mistake as the man of God. How easily I stray from the path that God has given me because I have listened to a trustworthy source offering good advice instead of listening God! The prophet not only sounded reliable, but his lie would have also been welcome news. The man of God had been fasting his entire journey and was probably very hungry. He must have thought, “God must have changed His mind because I’m so hungry! He is providing for me!” All in all, this may not have been a brash decision but a well thought out one. All signs pointed to go.
This story therefore provides us with a template for weighing our decisions against the leading of God. First and most obviously, we should be wary of the voices who seem reliable but lead us to blatantly contradict the Word of God. After all, that is exactly what the prophet did–he contradicted the clear command of God and made God out to be a liar. Similarly, when dealing with the clear commandments of Scripture such as murder, adultery and greed, there is no exception clause.
However, there is also a more nuanced level of meaning to this story. It urges us to persevere with diligence in the things that God has called us to. We must guard against distractions along the way, even when the cause is good. As already mentioned, the man of God was hungry and needed to eat, so it was not unreasonable for him to think that God would answer this desire. God’s harsh response to the man of God’s distractedness reminds us that He cares greatly about our time. He cares about our schedule and whether it is submitted to Him. We can be serving in every ministry of the church yet disobeying God in the process.
All of that to say, one of the lessons we can take from this story is the importance of saying no, not simply as a matter of time management but as a matter of obedience to God. Guard your schedule and be shrewd about your commitments. Don’t take on too much. Not only is it unwise to overload your calendar, but there can be a seed of disobedience in the heart that is so undiscerning.