It is an interesting fact that the only part of a Roman soldiers body that was not protected by his battle dress was his back. Quite simply, they were not to retreat, for that would be when they were most vulnerable. We see the same in the amour of God as described in Ephesians 6; we have shoes to protect our feet, a belt to keep everything in place, our loins covered and a breastplate to protect our heart. We have protection for our head, a shield to withstand frontal assaults, and a sword with which we make war, but there is nothing to quench those fiery darts when once we turn our backs on the enemy. There can be a real danger when we retreat.
First Kings 13, which we were studying on Sunday, is incredible chapter of instruction for anyone in the service of God. The chapter opens by introducing us to ‘a man of God’. In the 34 verses of the chapter we are reminded 15 times that this prophet from Judah was a man of God. He was no ‘nominal believer’ and evidently close enough to God that he obediently accepts the call to go and speak to king Jeroboam and rebuke him for his disobedience! Imagine God asking you to go and speak to the king of a nation, and openly chastise him! You have got to be certain you have hard from God before setting off on that mission! Given such a daunting task many of us would flee like Jonah looking for the quickest way out of there! But this man steps out in incredible faith and off he goes to see Jeroboam.
Jeroboam, although not a Levitical priest, is found offering incense to one of his golden calves. Like most people who are in rebellion against God, he does not take kindly to the word of the LORD being presented. No one wants to hear that they are wrong, and even more so when they are told that judgment is coming as a result. The prophet foretells an event that would be fulfilled over 300 years in the future, when king Josiah of Judah as part of his national reforms would destroy this and other idolatrous shrines. That event is recorded in 2 Kings 23:15-18
Outraged, Jeroboam orders the prophet to be seized, but just as the command goes from his lips, his arm locks in place, and withers. Suddenly fear grips Jeroboam, and this time it is not the fear of man, but the fear of God. In a dramatic u-turn the man of God, whom moments before Jeroboam wanted to destroy, is now his new best buddy! Jeroboam pleads with him to ask God to heal his arm – which he dully does. Jeroboam, then offers lodging and hospitality and gifts to this man of God who emphatically states: “If thou wilt give me half thine house, I will not go in with thee, neither will I eat bread nor drink water in this place: For so was it charged me by the word of the LORD, saying, Eat no bread, nor drink water, nor turn again by the same way that thou camest” 1 Kings 13:8-9.
The man of God has faithfully come, delivered his message and is now on his way home. This would be a great place to end the chapter! However, what follows serves as a vital lesson to anyone serving in ministry (and if you are a Christian that means you – for we are all servants of Jesus!).
At this point in the narrative we are introduced to another prophet, who just happens to live in Bethel! If God already had a prophet in Bethel, why get one to travel all the way up from Judah? Maybe it was because ‘a prophet is not welcome in his own town’ and Jeroboam and those gathered at the alter in Bethel would not have listened to him? Then again, if he was a prophet of God, why was he still living in a place so given over to idolatry? And why were his sons at Jeroboam’s idolatrous worship service?? It seems more likely that complacency had rendered this old prophets ministry ineffective. It is true that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29), but that doesn’t mean that God won’t take you out of the game if you give in to compromise.
Anyway this old prophet then goes after the prophet from Judah, and “found him sitting under an oak” v14. It would be easy to read over this without giving it much attention, but I believe this is the key to the whole chapter (which we will come back to in a moment). After this the old prophet deceives him by convincing him, that despite God’s original clear instruction to immediately return to Judah, that now he is to go back to the old prophet’s house. This is of course an act of disobedience; God never changes His mind! He is the same, yesterday, today and forever! And God will never contradict His word! As we read on we find that upon leaving, the young prophet is attacked and killed by a lion, and of course word gets back to those in Bethel. This act of unwitting disobedience had the effect of totally discrediting his ministry and witness, for we read: “After this thing Jeroboam returned not from his evil way” (1 Kings 13:33). Only the LORD knows what effect this young prophet’s open rebuke of Jeroboam would have had if he had obediently returned to Judah, his witness still in tacked. What subsequent effect could this of had on the kings of Israel who would follow after Jeroboam, following in his footsteps?
So the first lesson is, don’t think some trivial act of disobedience on your part, that no one really sees, doesn’t matter. In God’s plan it could change the destiny of a nation!
But let’s return to the oak tree. Why was the young prophet sitting here anyway? I thought he was heading straight back home? Well, as anyone in ministry will know, after a time of ‘giving out’ in service to God, our physical frame and mental strength is often drained. We see this with Elijah, after the great victory over the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel in 1 Kings 18, at the beginning of chapter 19 he is tired and ‘washed out’, so much so he even asks God to end his life. Spurgeon said: “Fits of depression come over the most of us. Cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy”, and it is in these moments we are most vulnerable. In the midst of ministry the prophet would never follow Jeroboam home, but resting under the oak tree, his guard was down, his back was turned and he was not ready for attack. The Roman soldier would never turn his back in the heat of the battle, but what about the weary journey home after the battle was won?
It is no coincidence that this young prophet is later killed by a lion, for Peter tells us: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Satan is unlikely to attack you when you are exercising the ministry God has given you filled with the Holy Spirit, but after the people have gone home, after the lights are dimmed and there is time for reflection, you may hear the lion whisper “You were no good today, you let God down” – and depression creeps in leaving you wide open for attack. Or you might hear “You were brilliant! You are so gifted, I hope they appreciate you!” – and this time pride is Satan’s weapon of choice. However it comes, know that it’ll be when you are not expecting it, maybe while you are just chilling under an oak tree.
“Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you”. (1 Peter 5:9-10)