O altar, altar
by Jonathan S Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)
The Bible records messages preached and proclaimed against many topics. This is especially true in the Old Testament, where God’s prophets spoke about (and against) kings, individuals, foreign countries, and even the nations of Israel and Judah.
The text has a number of unusual things in it. First, it’s spoken against an altar! I’ve never found any other message preached against an altar. Secondly, it’s spoken by an unnamed prophet, who was a citizen of Judah, the southern kingdom, against the altar in Bethel, a place of worship in the northern kingdom or Israel. Third, no fewer than four specific prophecies were mentioned, all of which were literally fulfilled. Let’s take a closer look at the text:
(1Ki 13:1-10 NASB) 1 Now behold, there came a man of God from Judah to Bethel by the word of the LORD, while Jeroboam was standing by the altar to burn incense. 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.'" 3 Then he gave a sign the same day, saying, "This is the sign which the LORD has spoken, 'Behold, the altar shall be split apart and the ashes which are on it shall be poured out.'" 4 Now when the king heard the saying of the man of God, which he cried against the altar in Bethel, Jeroboam stretched out his hand from the altar, saying, "Seize him." But his hand which he stretched out against him dried up, so that he could not draw it back to himself. 5 The altar also was split apart and the ashes were poured out from the altar, according to the sign which the man of God had given by the word of the LORD. 6 The king said to the man of God, "Please entreat the LORD your God, and pray for me, that my hand may be restored to me." So the man of God entreated the LORD, and the king's hand was restored to him, and it became as it was before. 7 Then the king said to the man of God, "Come home with me and refresh yourself, and I will give you a reward." 8 But the man of God said to the king, "If you were to give me half your house I would not go with you, nor would I eat bread or drink water in this place. 9 "For so it was commanded me by the word of the LORD, saying, 'You shall eat no bread, nor drink water, nor return by the way which you came.'" 10 So he went another way and did not return by the way which he came to Bethel.”
We’ll need to know a little of the background for this message. The 12 tribes of Israel, had come to Shechem to crown Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, king. He made one of the worst blunders in history, resulting in the 10 northern tribes seceding, one of Rehoboam’s officials murdered, and Rehoboam running for his life back to Jerusalem. All this and more is found in 1 Kings 12, which should be required reading for every new elected official!
Beginning with verses 25 and 28 of 1 Kings 12, we see that Jeroboam, the usurper and newly crowned king of the northern tribes, could have already made plans for building an idol to cement his grip over the people. At any rate, he made the altar and the idol, then made his declaration of independence, even from God, when he cried out, “Behold your gods, O Israel!”
So now, as He has done so often in the past, God, the God of ALL Israel, sent them a prophet.
The message about the altar
The Bible doesn’t give us any details about Jeroboam’s altar, in Bethel, except to say what is recorded in 1 Kings 12, the last couple of verses. Jeroboam was not only king, but the chief religious leader, and was preparing to make a sacrifice when God’s prophet came and declared the first, and probably only, message against an altar! Whether that altar was made of stones, dirt, metal, or anything else—again, we’re not told much about it—God was very displeased.
The message about the altar had several parts. The first one was that the house of David would have a son named Josiah (verse 2). This is a prophecy that several times came within an inch of never being fulfilled. Had Rehoboam been captured (and, probably, executed!), he may not have had the time to have a son. And yet, God delivered.
Several kings of Judah were bad, as in, they did evil in God’s eyes. Abijah was one, Joash another: he started off good and then forsook God later in life, and Queen Athaliah killed all the royal children (except, incredibly, for Joash!).Given the wars and other problems, it’s only a miracle that any of the kings of Judah lived as long as they did. And, God kept His promise: Josiah was born about 200 years after this message from the prophet.
The second part of the message is also found in verse 2: “and on you he shall sacrifice the priests of the high places who burn incense on you”. This is irony: the priests, and Jeroboam himself, were even at the time beginning to offer sacrifices on the false altar. God said that Josiah was going to offer the very ones who had led Israel astray. It is sad but true in so many cases: when the government goes bad, and the official or state religion goes bad, the people generally will go bad as well. Certainly not all the northerners were corrupt, but many were, and the nation never repented of the calf worship, established by Jeroboam.
A third part of the message, also from verse 2, reads, “and human bones shall be burned on you.” This was fulfilled, also, to the letter when Josiah did that very thing, according to 2 Kings 23:16.
As if that wasn’t enough, the prophet also gave a final sign or prediction, as recorded in verse 3. Many prophecies did not have specific dates or times, but this one did, and the test of any prophet was to see if his prophecies came true. The specific word from God in that regard is found in Deuteronomy 18:22. If that altar remained standing, then the man of God from Judah would have been found to be a liar and a loudmouth, and worse, a false prophet. His message would not have been worth listening to. What would happen next?
The results of the message
The reactions are among some of the most fascinating parts of the Bible, in my opinion. We don’t know how much time the altar remained standing, but one thing to always keep in mind is that God is not always the God of the immediate. Could God be possibly giving Jeroboam time to repent? But nothing happened, yet, at the altar in Bethel until Jeroboam ordered the man of God to be seized. We aren’t told what Jeroboam had in mind, but we can guess it wasn’t going to be pleasant. Certainly the prophet wasn’t going to get a state dinner or any other recognition of that kind! And yet, something was going to happen, as we’ll see.
The first thing, which to me is a surprise, was that the king’s arm dried up (verse 4) and he couldn’t bring his arm back to himself. God was perhaps saying, “You tried to stretch out your arm against Me and My prophet? You won’t be able to use that arm again.” Jeroboam would never be able to use both hands or both arms to offer incense or anything else unless his arm was healed.
The second event was the direct fulfillment of the last prophecy The altar was split apart and the ashes were poured out. We don’t know how many sacrifices had been made on this false altar, but there had been enough for some ashes to be accumulated. There was no sound, apparently, except that of the altar’s materials splitting.
I can only imagine the shock of the priests and Jeroboam as they watched the altar they had no doubt built so carefully, being torn in pieces! Another thought: perhaps this reminded Jeroboam of the original promise from Ahijah, the prophet, who had taken a new garment, torn it into 12 pieces and then gave Jeroboam 10 of them.
The reaction to the message
This certainly caught Jeroboam’s attention. This was enough to remind him that even though he had been crowned king, and even though he had appointed himself chief religious leader, he wasn’t the greatest. God still had something to say about that.
Jeroboam quickly asked the man of God to pray for him, so that Jeroboam would have his arm restored as before. This is one of the most unusual requests for prayer that I’ve seen in Scripture! Jeroboam could have asked for any number of things: peace, God’s favor, repentance, and God would have answered any of these, I’m sure, had Jeroboam been genuinely repentant. But he only asked for the use of his arm. God granted that request.
The king also offered the man of God a meal and a present or reward! We aren’t sure why that happened, or why Jeroboam suddenly became so generous, but the man of God would have nothing to do with any of that. He politely said that God told him not to eat bread or drink water and then to not even follow the same way to go back home.
One thing, though, that did take place afterward, was that the altar was eventually rebuilt. We’re not told how or when, but it was restored. How else could Josiah tear it down unless it had been rebuilt before Josiah’s time?
Application for us
You and I may not be told to find altars to false gods and tear them down. This was a singular event, and Josiah followed God’s instructions many years after this incident. But we do have the responsibility to be true to God ourselves, and to bring His messages to those who need to hear. Above all, may we be bold enough to stand up and deliver God’s messages, and be honest enough to refuse any kind of rewards from the ungodly.
May God Himself give us the boldness to live as He wants us to live, and say what He wants us to say. In all things, may we bring glory to God in all we do.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. http://www.lockman.org