Lions and Levels of Narrative
My husband and I have been together enjoying the Bible reading schedule presented in Don Carson's For the Love of God. It's one of those good plans that takes you through the whole of Scripture. It's also a great way for us to connect with each other around the Word, in the midst of much other individual work, and whether together or apart. We recommend the daily email, which lists the readings and offers Carson's pithy comments on one of the four passages for the day. Along with the Word itself, of course, a short word from Carson often makes you start the day sitting up a little straighter!
Recently we came to 1 Kings 13. We've certainly read this narrative before, but this time its strangeness struck. Now, Carson's comments in this section aim to guide readers through Ezekiel's challenging chapters, so there was no word from him on this weird series of events that involves a prophet from Judah traveling north to Bethel and eventually being eaten by a lion in the road. It's a surreal little narrative stuck in here at the start of the northern kingdom. And, as we had a good time observing, it's a fertile example of a narrative that could be dealt with on a number of levels.
The Lazy Level
You can't help but notice the lion in 1 Kings 13 and wonder what it's doing there in the road . . . which might bring to mind a cross reference or two. In Proverbs, for example, it's the sluggard who says, "There is a lion in the road! / There is a lion in the streets!" (26:13). In this story, there really is! Ironically, of all the characters in the story, it's the one who makes the effort to obey who gets killed by the lion. But where can such wandering observations lead? We must not sluggardly stop on such a level.
The Moralistic Level
1 Kings 13 is about required obedience to God, the lack of it, and the consequences of that lack. The man of God from Judah obeys God---up to a point. He himself explains the Lord's clear instructions to take a message of judgment to Israel's King Jeroboam and then to return home by a different route, not stopping to eat or drink along the way. When he follows through with Jeroboam, we cheer for him; when he falls for a corrupt old prophet's deceptive words and stops for refreshment, we know he's in for it. We learn from this Judean prophet the need for alert and persevering obedience to God's commands---especially in those vulnerable and perhaps self-righteous moments right after we've been tested and done well.
But it's King Jeroboam who illustrates disobedience in its most willful and persevering form. The chapter begins and ends with a focus on Jeroboam, who rebelliously flaunts God's commands concerning how and where his people should worship him. Jeroboam has set up his own priests and altars, and he persists in this evil in the face of God's dramatic warning sent through the Judean prophet. Even when Jeroboam's hand is withered and his altar burned to ashes, he cares only for his own restoration and not for the restoration of proper worship. The chapter ends with a dire sentence, naming his disobedience sin and declaring his house cut off and destroyed from the face of the earth.
Certainly obedience is the moral point---but can we stop here? That would be stopping with the law that condemns, without getting to the grace that saves.
The God-Centered Level
Obedience focuses on the human perspective, but the chapter doesn't let us stay there. Even an initial reading highlights the relentlessly repeated "word of the Lord" that emerges throughout the text like bright red peppers in a stew. This phrase infuses the divine perspective into each turn of the plot, initiating the action in the first sentence and then echoing a dozen times. Everything in this narrative happens according to the word of the Lord---from the Judean prophet's trip north and his dramatically fulfilled words to Jeroboam, even to such details as the lion's unusual and clearly supernaturally directed behavior. No normal lion kills a man and then just stands there beside the body---alongside the man's donkey.
The deceptive old prophet from Bethel illustrates this point in a kind of inside-out way, as he answers the Judean prophet's faithful assertion of "the word of the Lord" with a contrary command ostensibly received also "by the word of the Lord." The disobedience of both prophets stems from a mishandling of the word of the Lord: one of them unthinkingly replaces God's word with the word of a man, and the other pretends that his word is God's. Sadly enough, the pretender actually realizes the power of God's word. Hearing of the Judean prophet's death, he says, "It is the man of God who disobeyed the word of the Lord; therefore the Lord has given him to the lion, which has torn him and killed him, according to the word that the Lord spoke to him" (1 Kings 13:26).
The God-centered perspective makes clear that this story has a director, God himself, who sovereignly speaks into every detail of the story. It makes clear that the word of this divine director is supreme and must be heeded. It makes clear his mercy in that he lets the characters know his word and his will. Can we stop here, however, with this acknowledgement of the sovereign direction and merciful self-revelation of God? This stopping point would leave us with eyes lifted up but with the distance illumined between a disobedient people and such a Lord God.
The Big-Story Level
We knew we had to make our way here. A sovereign God so mercifully involved in human lives clearly has a plan. The plan for judgment on evil disobedience certainly shines through in this chapter. But the plan for redemption shines through as well, if only in a small way---in proportion to the small remnant of faithful ones left in the two-of-twelve tribes serving David's throne in Judah.
The distinct narrative of I Kings 13 finds its place in the flow of the larger historical narrative just after the kingdom of God's chosen people has divided. We have already heard God's promises of an everlasting throne to David, but then we have watched David's kingdom crack apart, with sons and subjects all seeking to follow their own good rather than the good prescribed by God. Jeroboam has taken ten tribes for himself, received God's promise of blessing if he will walk in God's ways (11:37-38), and then proceeded to walk in his own ways. Will Rehoboam in the southern kingdom of Judah do better? It doesn't look good in chapter 12. But God's promise that "David my servant may always have a lamp before me in Jerusalem" (11:36) keeps flickering. The prophecy offered right at the start of chapter 13 includes mention of "a son born to the house of David, Josiah by name," who will destroy the high places of false worship (13:2). That very mention, from this man of God who came out of Judah, makes the hope of David's house light up yet again.
In the midst of the dark disobedience of God's people and specifically the disobediences in chapter 13, God's word relentlessly shines out, resonating with the larger story and offering the only hope. Even in judgment we see hope---for if the word of the Lord is so all-sovereign and true in its judgment, so it must be true in its hope. There will be a son born to the house of David. There is a lion that kills, but there will be a lion of the house of Judah who not only judges but also brings about "the obedience of the peoples" (Genesis 49:10). The unnamed man of God who comes out of Judah at the opening of 1 Kings 13, bringing the word of the Lord, is not the one. Even he fails the test, along with everyone else in this story. But there will come a man out of Judah bringing the word of the Lord who will not fail. Only when we finally look to Jesus Christ the Son of righteousness, the Word made flesh, our Redeemer, will we reach the level of this story that gives full light and hope.
What fertile narratives---leading to Christ through their own marvelous layers. What huge hope---to know the word of the Lord binding together the whole complicated story, even this day. What arresting details---a dried-up extended hand, a meal of bread and water in an old prophet's house, a lion keeping watch with a donkey. What a delight, to read on day by day.