Summary: A warning to those who wander from the path of the LORD.
THE STRANGE HISTORY OF THE MAN OF GOD
This strange episode, in the midst of the Jeroboam cycle in the books of Kings, demonstrates the interplay between the Sovereignty of the LORD and human choices. The ‘man of God’ narrative is flanked by accounts of Jeroboam’s sin (1 Kings 12:25-33 & 1 Kings 13:33-34). It begins with Jeroboam standing upon the altar which he had made, for a feast of his own devising, to a ‘god’ of his own imagining, at a place of his own choosing (1 Kings 12:33).
Suddenly, just as Jeroboam is standing there to burn incense to one of his golden calves:
“Behold!” (Look!) a man of God out of Judah comes into sight,
coming “by the word of the LORD” to Bethel (1 Kings 13:1).
'By the Word of the LORD' is a good journey to follow, as long as we don't deviate from its path -
as we shall see.
Before the King can say, ‘don’t interrupt me now, I am at worship’, the man of God cried against the altar “in the word of the LORD” (1 Kings 13:2): “O altar, altar, thus says the LORD…” Sometimes stones are more responsive to the voice of the LORD than people (cf. Luke 19:39-40)!
The prophecy itself (1 Kings 13:2) is precise and succinct, briefly and clearly expressed. It was fulfilled to the letter later (2 Kings 23:15-18). We may never complain that the word of the LORD over our lives is unclear!
In the meantime, Jeroboam was given a “sign” (1 Kings 13:3), and an opportunity to repent (2 Peter 3:9). The king of Israel chose instead to “lift his hand” (which had once been ‘lifted’ against Solomon in rebellion) against the man of God (1 Kings 13:4). The offending hand immediately dried up!
The sign of the integrity of the word of the LORD, that the altar would be rent and the ashes poured out (1 Kings 13:3), was also now fulfilled (1 Kings 13:5). The king asked for healing, which the LORD graciously granted (1 Kings 13:6), but Jeroboam showed no sign of repentance (cf. 1 Kings 13:33-34). The best he could do was invite the man of God home for tea, and perhaps a reward (1 Kings 13:7) - which, obedient to an express command from the LORD, the man of God declined (1 Kings 13:8-9).
Like the wise men centuries later (Matthew 2:12), the man of God set out for home by “another way” (1 Kings 13:10). So far so good - as long as his choice of the 'another way' does not take him outside "the word of the LORD" by which he came.
Sometimes we are most vulnerable in the full blush and head-rush of perceived victory, as illustrated by Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-3), and Peter (Matthew 16:18; Matthew 16:23). The man of God ceased to be alert, and was ensnared by a fellow-prophet (1 Kings 13:11-19).
Why “an old prophet” (1 Kings 13:11) “lied to him” (1 Kings 13:18), and “brought him back from the way” (1 Kings 13:26), we do not know. The man of God had quite clearly been told not to associate with anyone in that accursed area - yet having been so staunch in his refusal to eat with Jeroboam (1 Kings 13:8-9), he now let his guard down, and chose to disobey the LORD (1 Kings 13:19). The retribution was swift, as the word of the LORD now returned to His old (backslidden?) prophet, condemning the “man of God” (1 Kings 13:21-22).