The Bible records messages preached and proclaimed against many topics. This is especially true in the Old Testament, where prophets spoke about (and against) kings, nations and sometimes the nations of Israel and Judah.
What is unusual about the text and topic here is that, first, it's spoken against an altar! So far as I've found, no other message has ever been preached against an altar. Second, 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, it has a multi-part application, in that there are no fewer than four specific prophecies, all of which have been fulfilled. Let's take a closer look at the text:
"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. 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."' 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."' 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. 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. 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. Then the king said to the man of God, 'Come home with me and refresh yourself, and I will give you a reward.' 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. 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."' 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 united kingdom, all 12 tribes of Israel, had come to Shechem to crown Solomon's son, Rehoboam, king. He made one of the worst blunders in history, with the end result being 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
We're not told how much time elapsed between the events of verses 25 and 28 of 1 Kings 12. Jeroboam, the usurper and newly crowned king of the northern tribes, already could have made plans for building an idol to cement his grip on the people. In any case, he made the plans, built the altar, made the idol, and made his declaration of independence from God when he cried out, "Behold you gods, O Israel!" The last few verses of chapter 12 tell the sad story of how, once again, God's people left Him behind. They knew all about the promises, blessings, curses and so forth of the law, yet they walked away from it because of the new king.
So now, as He had done so often in the past, God, the God of all Israel, sent a prophet to His people.
The Message About the Altar
The Bible doesn't give us any details about Jeroboam's altar in Bethel except what is recorded in the last two verses of 1 Kings 12. Jeroboam not only was king, but also 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 materials comprised the altar (wood, stones, etc.), God was very displeased.
The message about the altar had several parts. The first 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. Yet God delivered.
Several kings of Judah were bad, evil in God's eyes. Abijah was one, Joash another. He started off good and then forsook God later in life. Queen Athaliah killed all the royal children (except for Joash).Given the wars and other problems, it's a miracle any of the kings of Judah lived as long as they did. 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 at the time were beginning to offer sacrifices on the false altar. God said Josiah was going to offer the very ones who had led Israel astray. When a government is corrupt, the people are corrupt, as well; politics always follow culture. Not all the northerners were corrupt, but many were; 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 to the letter also when Josiah did that very thing, according to
As if that weren't enough, the prophet also gave a final sign or prediction, as recorded in verse 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."' There were many prophecies which 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
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 hearing. 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 always to keep in mind is that God is not always the God of the immediate. Not to read too much into the text, but was God possibly giving Jeroboam time to repent? After all, the Israelites followed God and Moses until they got to Mount Sinai. Soon after Moses went up to the mountain, they demanded Aaron make a god—an idol—to worship!
Nothing had 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 pleasant. Certainly the prophet wasn't going to be treated to a state dinner or any other recognition of honor! Yet, something was going to happen, as we'll see.
The first thing, which surprised me, was that the king's arm dried up (verse 4) and he couldn't bring his arm back to himself. God was saying, "You tried to stretch out your arm against Me and My prophet? You won't be able to use that arm again." Jeroboam never would be able to use both hands or arms to offer incense or anything else unless his arm was healed, which didn't seem likely at the time.
The second event was the direct fulfillment of the last prophecy, namely that the altar was split apart and the ashes 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. Apparently there was no sound except that of the altar's materials splitting.
I can only imagine the shock of the priests and Jeroboam himself, as they watched the altar they had 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 though he had been crowned king, and 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 Jeroboam would have his arm restored. This is one of the most unusual requests for prayer I've seen in Scripture! Jeroboam could have asked for any number of things: peace, God's favor, repentance…but he only asked for the use of his arm. God granted his request.
The king also offered the man of God a meal and a 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 such gifts. He politely said God told him not to eat bread or drink water, as well as not follow the same route when returning home.
One thing, though, that did take place afterward, was the altar eventually was rebuilt. We're not told how or when, but it was restored. How else could Josiah tear it down had it not been rebuilt before his 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. However, we do have the responsibility to be true to God and to bring His messages to those who need to hear His truth. Above all, may we be bold enough to stand up and deliver God's messages and honest enough to refuse any kind of reward 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.