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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters

the Disobedient Prophet

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IT was an high day of idolatry at Bethel. And, all the time, Bethel, of all the cities of Israel, was one of the most ancient and the most sacred. Bethel, as its name bears, was none other but the house of God, and it was the very gate of heaven. Bethel was built on that very spot on which their father Jacob had slept and dreamed when he was on his lonely way to Padan-aram; and it is that very heaven out of which the ladder was let down on Jacob's pillow that is today to be darkened by the unclean incense of Jeroboam's altar-fires. It was a brave step in Jeroboam to set up his false gods at Bethel, of all places in the land. And he needed a stout heart and a profane to support him as he stood up to kindle with his own hands the heathen fires of idolatry and impurity at Bethel.

Where angels down the lucid stair
Came hovering to our sainted sires,
Now, in the twilight glare
The heathen's wizard fires.

And, behold, there came a man of God out of Judah by the word of the Lord unto Bethel: and Jeroboam stood by the altar to burn incense. And the man of God cried against the altar of the Lord, and said, O altar, altar! And then he foretold the fall of the altar, and with it the fall of him who stood in his royal robes that day ministering to his unclean gods at that altar. And how Jeroboam's hand was withered that moment; how it was healed immediately at the intercession of the man of God; how Jeroboam invited the prophet to come home with him to eat and to drink and to get a reward; and how the prophet answered the king that be had the command of the Lord neither to eat bread nor to drink water in that polluted land, but to return home to Judah as soon as he had delivered his prophetic burden-all that is to be read in the thirteenth chapter of First Kings. At the same time, we are not told so much as this great prophet's name. He was wholly worthy thus far to have his name held up aloft along with the names of Samuel and Elijah themselves, for he stood up alone against Jeroboam and against all Israel and nailed the curse of God to Jeroboam's altar under the king's own eyes. We would hold his name in more than royal honour if we knew it. But for some reason or other of her own the Bible holds his great name back. This great man of God comes out of a cloud, he shines for a splendid moment before all men's eyes, and then he dies under a cloud. Alas, my brother!

As the man of God from Judah so nobly refuses Jeroboam's royal hospitality, I am reminded of Lord Napier. On one occasion his lordship was sent down to Scotland by the Queen on a royal errand of review and arbitration between a great duke and his poor crofters. The duke, the administration of whose estate was to be inquired into, was good enough to offer his lordship his ducal hospitality for as long as the royal session of review lasted. But her Majesty's Deputy felt that neither his Royal Mistress nor himself could afford to be for one moment compromised, or even suspected, by her poorest subject; and therefore it was that his lordship excused himself from the duke's table, and took up his quarters in the little wayside inn. 'At any rate, you will come to the manse,' said the minister, who was on the crofters' side. 'Thank you,' said Napier, 'But in your college days you must have read Plutarch about Cæsar's wife. No, thank you.' And his lordship lodged all his time in the little hotel, and went back to his Royal Mistress when his work was done, not only with clean hands, but without even a suspicion attaching to her or to him, 'Come home with me and refresh thyself.' But the man of God said to the king, 'If thou wilt give me half thine house, I will not go in with thee, neither will I eat bread nor drink water with thee.' So he went another way, and returned not by the way that he came to Bethel.

Just as the man of God is setting out to go back to Judah with a hungry belly indeed, but with a good conscience, we are taken by the hand and are led into the house of an old prophet who dwells at Bethel. Yes. There are prophets and prophets' sons all this time at Bethel. Only, they had their domiciles and their doles from Jeroboam's bounty on the strict condition that they kept at home and kept silence. Well, this old Bethelite prophet was keeping at home and was keeping silence when his sons burst in upon him with the great news of the day. Father, you should have come with us! We asked you to come. What a day it has been! And what a man of God we have seen! Till they told him all that we are told about Jeroboam, and his altar, and the man of God from Judah, and his cry that shook down the altar, and the king's withered hand, and the prayer of the man of God, and the king's hospitality, and the man of God's refusal of the king's hospitality. 'What way went he home? demanded the old prophet of his excited sons. 'Saddle me the ass,' he instantly ordered. 'Art thou the man of God from Judah?' he asked, as he overtook the man of God sitting under an oak. 'Come home with me and eat bread.' 'I may not eat bread, nor drink water by the word of the Lord,' said the man of God. 'But I am a prophet also as thou art,' said the old Bethelite; 'and an angel bade me bring thee back.' But it was a lie, adds the sacred writer. So the man of God rose and went back and did eat bread and drink water. And so on; till a lion met him in the way home that night, and slew him because he had gone back. And when the old Bethelite prophet, who had deceived him, heard of it, he mourned over him, and said, 'Alas, my brother!' And he said to his sons, 'Bury me beside this man of God. Lay my bones beside his bones.'

What is it that makes the decrepit old prophet of Bethel post at such a pace after the man of God who is on his way home to Judah? Has his conscience at last been awakened? Have the tidings of his delighted sons filled the poor old time-server with bitter remorse for his fat table and for his dumb pulpit? Or, is it deadly envy and revenge at the man who has so stolen his sons' hearts that day till they are about to set off to Judah to go to school to this man of God? It is too late now for him to command his sons' reverence and love. And how can he ever forgive the man who has so taken from him his crown as a prophet and as a father? 'Saddle me the ass,' he shouted. And the decayed old creature rode down the Judean road at a pace he had not ridden since he used, as a godly youth, to be sent out on errands of life and death and mercy from Samuel's School of Mount Ephraim. If lies will do it; if flattery, flesh, and wine will do it; if there is man or woman in Bethel that will do it,-that Judean prophet's pride shall be brought down today! 'Saddle me the ass!' he thundered. So they saddled him the ass, and he rode after the man of God, 'I am a prophet as thou art I' But he lied unto him.

Let us all take care of the swift and sure collapse that always comes on us after every great excitement. As sure as we are made of flesh, and blood, and brains, and nerves, and feelings, a great reaction always takes place in body and mind after any unusually great effort of body and mind. And especially after any great preaching effort. After you have faced for hours a surging congregation, and have worked yourself and them up to heaven,-to see them scatter, and to be left worn out and alone,-then comes the hour of temptation: a temptation that has been fatal in more ways than one to some temperaments of men. Some temperaments are tempted at such times to eat and drink and smoke and talk all night to any listener if they have done well; and the same temperaments are just as much tempted to silence, and gloom, and bad temper if they have not done well: if they have not come up to themselves, and have not got the praise they worked for and expected. We are not told why this great man of God stopped short so soon on his way home from Bethel, and sat down so soon under one of the oaks of Bethel. He had done a splendid day's work. Never prophet of God did a more splendid day's work. But our hearts sink as we see him stop short, and then take his seat under that tempting tree. What was the matter? We are not told. He may have been very hungry by this time, and he may have begun to repent that he had not accepted the penitent king's hospitality. Who knows what good might have come of it had he, God's acknowledged prophet, been seen sitting in the place of honour at the royal table? Had he not been somewhat short, and sharp, and churlish after his great battle with Jeroboam's altar? Stern men have often been known to soften and secretly repent of their too-ascetical self-denial. They have felt it hard to have to pay the whole self-denying vow which they made when some great exaltation was upon them. Some men have gone so far, indeed, as to call back in imagination the hour of temptation, and wish that they had not let it slip so soon. Well, then, if that was the case with the man of God from Judah,-here is the forbidden fruit of Bethel back and at his open mouth this moment; 'I am a prophet as thou art, and an angel spake unto me by the word of the Lord, saying: Bring him back to eat and to drink.' So he went back with him to his house.

As a rule let ministers sup at home on Sabbath nights; and let them sup alone. As a rule. It cannot always be acted on, but it is a good rule, nevertheless. Many a good sermon has been drowned dead in the supper, and in the supper-talk that followed it. Your people will not care one straw what you say to them from the pulpit if you sup heartily with them immediately after it. All the great awe of the morning went off the Bethelite prophet's sons and servants, as the man of God sat and ate and drank and laughed and talked over his supper that night. And the old Bethelite himself was quite at home, hail-fellow-well-met, with the terrible preacher of that awakening morning.

I was once spending a Sabbath in a well-known farm-house in Glenisla, and after church the old laird and I began to talk about John Duncan and his great sermons when he was a probationer in a chapel of ease in the neighbourhood. After supper and worship I was anxious to hear more about Dr. Duncan, and to hear more of his old sermons read, 'No,' said the old patriarch to me; 'No: no more tonight; we always take our candles immediately after family worship.' How often has that rebuke come back to me as another Sabbath night closed with all kinds of talk after public and family worship; talk that but too plainly had blotted out for ever all that had been said and heard that day. It is not possible that we should all spend the last hours of the Sabbath alone; but, most certainly, many a deep impression has been obliterated as the preacher ate and drank and talked and laughed after his solemn sermon.

And then this-follow your conscience to the end, let men and angels say what they will, A man is but a man: an angel is but an angel: and false prophets have come out into the world. But conscience is more than conscience. Conscience is God, Conscience is Immanuel, God in us. My conscience, accordingly, is more to me than all prophets and apostles and preachers, and very angels themselves. If that had been Paul sitting under that oak, and had the old Bethelite deceiver come riding on his ass, with his certificate of office, and with his story about an angel to Paul, we have Paul's answer to him in the Galatians: 'If an angel from heaven bids me go against God in my conscience, let him be accursed.' And the old deceiver would have fallen down and would have reported at home that God was in the man of God from Judah of a truth. So would the secrets of his heart have been made manifest. 'Conscience,' says Sanderson, 'is a fast friend, and a fierce foe.' 'I take my ears,' said King Charles, 'to other preachers; but I take my conscience to Mr. Sanderson.' And go you to the preacher who speaks closest to your conscience, whatever denomination he preaches in, and then hold fast by your enlightened and awakened conscience against men and devils.

At the same time, to be slain by a lion on the way home was surely much too sharp a punishment for taking one's supper with a prophet and an angel; uneasy conscience and all. But then, 'some sins,' says that noble piece, the Westminster Larger Catechism, 'receive their aggravation from the persons offending; if they be of riper age, greater experience in grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, and as such are guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.' The very case, to the letter, of the man of God out of Judah. The sublimity of his public services that morning had henceforth set up a corresponding standard for his private life. And this is one of our best compensations for preaching the grace of God and the law of Christ. Our office quickens our conscience; it makes the law cut deeper and deeper into our hearts every day; and it compels us to a public and private life we would otherwise have escaped. Preaching recoils with terrible strokes on the preacher. It curtails his liberty in a most tyrannical way; it tracks him through all his life in a most remorseless manner. Think it out well, and count the cost, before you become a minister. For, it was surely a little sin, if ever there was a little sin, to sup that Sabbath night at an old prophet's table, and that, too, on the invitation of an angel. But the lion that met the disobedient prophet that night did not reason that way.

'Bury me,' said the remorseful old man to his sons standing in tears round his miserable deathbed, 'bury me in the same grave with the bones of the man of God out of Judah.' And the old prophet's sons so buried their father. And an awful grave that was in Bethel, with an awful epitaph upon it. Now, suppose this. Suppose that you were buried on the same awful principle,-in whose grave would your bones lie waiting together with his till the last trump to stand forth before God and man together? And what would your epitaph and his be? Would it be this: 'Here lie the liar and his victim'? Or would it be this: 'Here lie the seducer and the seduced'? Or would it be this: 'Here lie the hater and him he hated down to death'? Or would it be this: 'Here lie the tempting host and his too willing to be tempted guest'? Or, if you are a minister, would it be this: 'Here lies a dumb dog, and beside him one who was a crowded preacher in the morning of his days, but a castaway before night'? Alas, my brother!


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Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'the Disobedient Prophet'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wbc/t/the-disobedient-prophet.html. 1901.

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Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020
the Second Week after Epiphany
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