In the previous chapter we heard the Lord tell Solomon that because of his sins the kingdom of Israel was to be taken from his son, though not in its entirety. Two tribes would remain with the house of David, the most southern two tribes. The other ten would rebel and find their leader in Jeroboam, formerly one of Solomon’s able officials. In chapter twelve we are told how the promised division of the kingdom came about.
It appears that since Solomon had succeeded his father David, the principle of dynastic succession was at least generally accepted in Israel. Rehoboam was Solomon’s eldest son and so naturally the heir to the throne upon the death of his father. But, as we will see, the people’s loyalty to the house of David was not inflexible or deeply rooted.
It is not explained why Rehoboam went to Shechem. Shechem was in the center of the kingdom due north of Jerusalem. It has not been mentioned in the narrative of the reigns of David and Solomon but it had an important place in Israel’s earlier history. Israel renewed her covenant with the Lord there as we read at the end of Joshua. Joseph’s bones were buried there. But it may indicate that tensions were already at a height and Rehoboam was not in a position to dictate where the assembly would convene. Shechem is deep in northern territory and, as the following verses make clear, the northern tribes were already ambivalent toward the house of David. Only spiritual convictions would keep the twelve tribes united and those convictions had been weakened considerably under Solomon. [House, 178]
It is clear that the people of Israel were already restive under the rule of Solomon. As the years had passed Solomon’s rule had become more domineering and the people themselves had prospered less and suffered more.
It seems clear that though Jeroboam had the confidence of the northern tribes and had received the prophecy of Ahijah that he was to rule the ten northern tribes, he also was not yet in a position to dictate terms. Perhaps the people knew nothing of the prophecy and, of course, Jeroboam had been out of the country for some time. So it seems as if the split might have been avoided had Rehoboam answered more wisely. But the Lord had already determined to take the kingdom, or almost the whole kingdom, from the house of David and Rehoboam’s response would serve the divine intention, however freely given on Rehoboam’s part.
Rehoboam became king when he was 41 years of age, so the “young” men he grew up with and whom now he consulted were hardly boys. But they were young in respect to wisdom and sound thinking. They were immature and foolish.
Rehoboam imagines himself a bigger man than his father, Solomon. [Provan, 107] Events will prove him, in fact, much smaller.
It is unlikely that we should understand Rehoboam as genuinely undecided and weighing dispassionately the respective advice of his father’s counselors and his own contemporaries. Much more likely the younger men gave Rehoboam the advice he wanted to hear.
In a replay of the exodus history Rehoboam is in Pharaoh’s role, increasing the oppression of the Israelites. No doubt this never occurred to him.
The division of the kingdom was facilitated by Rehoboam’s stupidity, but that was not its ultimate cause. Rehoboam’s listening to bad advice and his provocative statement to the representatives of the ten northern tribes were simply the means by which the Lord brought about the division of the nation as a judgment upon Solomon’s idolatry. It is one of a great many similar texts in the Bible that teach us that the Lord accomplishes his will even through the sinful thoughts and actions of human beings.
Nevertheless, one really dumb decision by a reckless and foolish man tears down in a moment what it took David and Solomon 80 years to build. [House, 182]
Israel apparently had something of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people mentality. They did not consider themselves obliged to the house of David if the house of David did not rule them benevolently.
Rehoboam follows his first act of foolishness with a second, a ham-fisted attempt to impose his will on the rebellious ten tribes. There was no chance of this succeeding and that should have been obvious to him. But it is characteristic of fools that they don’t reckon with the consequences of their choices. Rehoboam was cocky, like his advisers, and cocky is no match for bigger battalions.
The “all Israel” in v. 20 is unexpected. We would have thought the narrator would say that Jeroboam was made king over the ten northern tribes, which is what had been prophesied in the previous chapter and what actually took place. But the suggestion of the text is that the tribes of Israel intended Jeroboam to be king over the entire nation, though, as it happened Rehoboam retained control of the two southernmost tribes, Judah as well as Benjamin.
It is noteworthy that the Lord refers to the northern tribes even in rebellion as the brothers of the southern kingdom. The break that has come did not alter the fact that the twelve tribes were together one Israel, or should be.
In any case, though war is averted in this case, there would be nearly continuous war between north and south from this point until the destruction of the northern kingdom in the late 8th century B.C.
The holy people have been torn in two but it is very important to notice that the house of David retained the tribe from which it was long before promised the Messiah should come. It is no accident that the tribes that left and the tribes that stayed were the tribes they were. There is one family from one tribe through whom the Lord will fulfill the promise he made that through Abraham’s seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. That family was the family of David and that tribe the tribe of Judah. So it is no accident that it was Judah that remained with the royal house of David when the kingdom was divided.
There are a number of valuable lessons to be learned from this narrative.
- There is, for example, the evidence provided for the truth – a truth of God’s Word and a truth of human life – that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. Solomon played the fool in the later years of his reign – the more egregious his foolishness because he had been granted such great wisdom by the Lord – and his son is condemned to imitate his father in that foolishness. We are tempted to say that Rehoboam was no Solomon, but the fact is he was very much his father’s son. Everyone who is a parent of children should take to heart not only the massive evidence of this truth provided in Holy Scripture, but its confirmation in life every day apart from interventions of the grace of God. You hold the lives, the godliness, the fruitfulness, the happiness of your children in your hands when you are raising your children. Jesus said, “For their sakes I sanctify myself.” And that is what you are to do as the parents of children: be holy and live a holy life, not only because it is right, not only because it pleases God, not only because it is your reasonable worship of your God and savior, but because your godliness has so much to do with how your children will live, with whether they will be godly themselves, with whether they will even want to be godly themselves. Live for your children and for your children’s godliness and happiness in the Lord Jesus. That is a true purpose in life!
- Second, we have here the interesting demonstration of how spiritually mixed can be the lives of men and women in the church of God. Surely it is a very interesting fact that neither Kings nor Chronicles paints Rehoboam’s character all black. Here he obeyed the prophet of God and cancelled his military foray to the north. We might well have expected him to ignore that counsel too, but he did not, in fact we read that “he listened to the word of the Lord…” Was Rehoboam a believing man or not? It is very hard to tell. He did good things in what seems to have been real faith in the Lord; he did bad things that he should not have done as a believing man. Such is the mystery of life. We will return to this question is a later sermon. But, for the moment, it is possible to leave your loved ones wondering all the rest of their lives whether you were a Christian or not. Don’t do that to them. Make it clear; make it always and overwhelmingly clear that you were always and only a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting in his grace for the forgiveness of your sins, committed to serving him in his kingdom, and awaiting the day when you could be with him forever. Don’t leave your loved ones guessing!
- Third, we have a striking illustration here of the divine sovereignty over human sin. Here is Rehoboam acting foolishly, but in his foolishness accomplishing God’s intention to tear the kingdom of Israel in two and to take most of it from the house of David. We wonder about how God can make use of human sin; how he can, as my pastor in Scotland used to put it, “use sin sinlessly.” How can he employ our sin without being tainted by it himself? But God is God and whether we can always understand how, he is holy in all his ways. He does not tempt men and is not tempted himself and he is not the author of sin. God is so utterly sovereign, so utterly in control of everything in this world that even in their rebellion against God men only serve his purpose. Even when they sin against him, in one respect they are doing his will. That is how powerless men are before God! This is both a warning to man – his rebellion is utterly futile, even rebelling he does not escape God’s control; even rebelling he does God’s will – and a comfort to the saints. Even in our sin, forgiven as it is, even when we are at our worst, we have not, because we cannot, placed ourselves beyond our heavenly father’s absolute control.
- Fourth we have here an instance of the sinister effect of foolish and unspiritual peers. Whether or not these friends of Rehoboam gave him the advice they knew very well he wanted to hear, they shouldn’t have. Their advice either confirmed him in or persuaded him to follow a course of disobedience to God. We are the Israel of God, brothers and sisters, and we ought to be a healthy influence, a steadying influence on one another. Fellow Christians should be better Christians because of our influence, not worse. Too often it is painfully obvious to any sympathetic observer that one of, if not the primary cause of a Christian’s bad behavior, perhaps especially a young Christian, is the company he keeps, the conversation he is listening to, and the absence among his friends and acquaintances of anyone who will care enough to speak the truth. Choose your friends wisely: there is the lesson of I Kings 12; as Paul puts it in I Cor. 15, bad company corrupts morals. Place yourself in the company of Christian folk who will make you wiser and better than you are. That is a very important way of hungering and thirsting after righteousness.
I could preach on any of those subjects and every one is a subject taught often in the Bible and a subject of great practical importance. But what I want to draw your attention to this evening in particular is the main point of this narrative of the division of the kingdom of Israel: namely the tragic and so soon end to such a wonderful thing.
The great kingdom of David and Solomon, the empire that had placed itself astride the ANE world, the wealth and prosperity of that fortunate people, and the impression that this kingdom and its two kings had made on the world around, this wonderful beginning is, in a few years, squandered. The empire shrinks to half its former size, its influence in the world wanes and, very soon, virtually disappears. No more visits from the Queen of Sheba. No prayers offered in the temple that the world might come to pray in the temple because of what she sees of the greatness of the kingdom of God’s people Israel.
What Solomon frittered away and what Rehoboam inherited was a kingdom and a people stripped of everything that made that kingdom and people wonderful, unique, and supernatural. Israel became, like the small countries around it that it had for a time been embraced in its empire, small and petty and looking always over its shoulder, worrying about what more powerful states might choose to do to it or to demand from it. Before Rehoboam’s days are out all the treasure of Jerusalem amassed by his father Solomon will be sitting in the treasury of the Egyptian Pharaoh and Israel and Judah will be paying a significant part of their annual tax revenues in tribute to the Egyptian government. How swiftly the mighty have fallen! What has happened here? Well it is not difficult to discern reading this narrative of the division of the kingdom.
No one was reckoning with the Lord. Solomon’s toleration of the worship of other gods, his pluralism, had eroded the source of Israel’s fundamental and unique strength, the one thing that separated her from all the other nations of the world, viz. her knowledge of the one living and true God. Israel’s strength, her power lay in her theology, her knowledge of God and, indeed, God’s presence with her. From Yahweh had come David’s victories and Solomon’s wisdom; from Yahweh had come the conquest of the nations round about her and her domination of trade in the Levant. From Yahweh had come her protection from enemies and her mastery of every political situation. But where is Israel’s confidence in Yahweh in 1 Kings 12? Indeed, as we continue the chapter, we will find Israel beginning to forsake the most fundamental features of her theology. Jeroboam will make two golden calves, placing one in the north and one in the south – the very idol that Israel had made once to her shame in Sinai, and then this appeal to the people: “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Your gods! As if Yahweh were now just one of the gods of the ANE. Well if Israel’s gods are, at last, just local versions of Chemosh and Molech and Astoreth, no wonder Israel becomes a nation just like Ammon and Sidon and Tyre.
In Jerusalem it is not at first so bad, but Rehoboam is obviously in this narrative a man whose thinking is not being controlled by his theology. He is not here a man who trusts in the Lord, the God of Israel; he is not a man who lives to serve and to honor the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is not a man who loves God and rejoices in the fact that he is Yahweh’s king. He acts like any other petty tyrant of the ANE. He learned that behavior, alas, from his father in the later years of his father’s reign. His father Solomon oppressed his people because he had lost the meaning of his relationship with the living God. His heart had grown cold toward God so much so that he was willing to tolerate and even, alas, at the end to foster and to pay for the worship of pagan gods in the city of Jerusalem. And the result was that his people began to feel that it was oppressive for them to have him for their king. “How happy your people must be!” the queen of Sheba said when she saw Solomon. But nobody felt that way at the end. And so they felt when Rehoboam succeeded Solomon. When a man loves God, the people around him are blessed for it. But Israel felt oppressed.
You have heard of Christopher Hitchens, one of the new champions of atheism, and of his book God is not Great. Have you heard of his brother, Peter? Peter Hitchens is an English journalist who began his life in nominal Christianity, passed into unbelief in his adolescence, was for a time into his adulthood a leftist and outspoken atheist, but in a remarkable way eventually became an earnest Christian. He has written books that are not only a powerful counter-argument to the writings of his brother, but make the very case made in our text this evening. A failure to reckon with the living God is never good for a nation, a people or a society; it is always bad. God has a sense of humor I am sure, and he certainly is determined as the Scripture says never to leave himself without a witness. It is more than simply irony that one of the celebrated atheists of our day should have a Christian brother who feels it important to write books making a counter argument. Peter Hitchens spent several years on assignment for English newspapers in the Soviet Union near the end of its life as a communist state. It was that experience that hardened him in his conviction that apart from God man will not live a moral life and godless states will not bring true happiness to or ennoble the lives of their people. The state, in those days, watched everyone and corrupted the entire population by bribing them to spy on their neighbors. Everyone became everyone else’s enemy. If you didn’t know if this was the case of a neighbor of yours, you suspected that it was. This changed everything. As life would have been under Rehoboam, if he had had his way, having forgotten Yahweh as he had, Soviet life was harsh, dangerous, and depressing. Forced abortions, on the one hand, and, on the other, mothers virtually forbidden to care for their children because the state demanded to care for and educate the children so as to make sure that they thought the way the state wished for them to think; and because the state set salaries so that it absolutely took two incomes to pay for the basics of life. People lived in dismal apartments, were forced to get by on very poor food, alcoholism was endemic. In a desperate measure to try to get the people back on their feet, alcohol was banned and the result was that sugar disappeared from all Soviet store shelves because it was being used for the distillation of vodka. Society was discourteous, brutish, and selfish. Petty theft of unsecured property was universal, so much so that when it started to rain, traffic stopped dead while drivers leapt from their cars to put their windshield wipers in their holders. Any windshield wipers left in place while the car was parked would be stolen as a matter of course.
He later visited Mogadishu in Somalia, once a beautiful seaside city, full of lovely buildings and sidewalk cafes, white-gloved policemen directing traffic along wide tree lined avenues. But by the time Peter Hitchens arrived it was an urban desert, an armed camp, vicious and violent, the streets and buildings utterly ruined, basic services unavailable, murder commonplace. He writes that these experiences convinced him how fragile civilization actually is and how without a conscience informed by the specter of the living God looming above human life human beings find it very easy to slip from civilization to anarchy or to a totalitarianism in which most people live degraded lives for the sake of a few who hold power in their hands. Israel and Judah were on that road because Solomon and Rehoboam had forgotten God, and both nations would eventually reach that destination; a life so callous, brutal and unworthy that God felt it necessary to destroy it.
But, of course, the very same thing, Peter Hitchens says, is what is becoming of the West now that it has thrown off its moral foundations in the same way Soviet Russia had. When the state becomes God, or society, when the reality of God is denied and the law of God is denied, societies, Hitchens argues, do not become more just, more civil, more gentle, more affirming of human life, but less and less in every way. Our children are not safer and happier for living in the USA in 2010 with the sexual revolution and its consequences firmly in place; and with a government more and more taking to itself the prerogatives of God. Marriages are not healthier, relationships are not more fruitful, people are not more fulfilled. Quite the reverse in fact. One excellent feature of Peter Hitchens’ book, The Rage Against God, is his powerful depiction of the coarsening, hardening, and dehumanizing character of modern Western life. [cf. 85-91] He points out that what is happening in the Europe and North America is eerily similar to what happened in the Soviet State and is inevitably to have the same dismal, cruel, and dehumanizing result.
When the state replaces God, as it is doing in the West, because it will not submit to God’s law, there is no flowering of freedom or human creativity blossoming in the arts or goodness and love spreading itself over society. You don’t get more people who are kind and generous to others, you get less. You don’t get stronger families, you get weaker. You don’t get the affirmation of life, you get abortion and euthanasia, commonplaces of the godless state. You get what you got in Soviet Russia, in North Korea, and increasingly in the West, vicious states that are increasingly intolerant of anything – the Christian faith in particular – that represents any challenge whatsoever to their power. The godless state will always demand the society’s children and insist that they be educated in that way the state prefers. You have heard Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens describe the education of children in Christian homes as a form of child abuse and the kind of thing a government should prevent. It was prevented in the Soviet state. So completely and thoroughly was the Christian conscience and sense of Christian history destroyed that once liberty was granted to the people they had nothing to remember and nothing to recover. They went from a totalitarian state to a thuggish and criminal state. When propaganda replaces education and free and independent thinking, whether in politics or the university, when the church becomes less free and is soon condemned as actually dangerous, as it has been so many times in the 20th century and as it appears more and more to be the interest of the elite in our culture today, you do not get more freedom but less, not more independent thinking but more thought control. Stheism, and this is Hitchens’ point, – whether in the individual life or the life of a society – can only destroy; it cannot build.
Peter Hitchens, in a lovely passage – the man writes very well – recounts an experience he had that led, at least in part, to the unraveling of his atheism as a young journalist.
“What I can recall, very sharply indeed, is a visit to the Hotel-Dieu in Beaune, a town my girlfriend and I had gone to mainly in search of the fine food and wines of Burgandy. But we were educated travelers and strayed, guidebook in hand, into the ancient hospital. And there, worth the journey according to the Green Michelin guide, was Rogier van der Weyden’s fifteenth-century polyptych The Last Judgment.
I scoffed. Another religious painting! Couldn’t these people think of anything else to depict? Still scoffing, I peered at the naked figures fleeing toward the pit of hell, out of my usual faintly morbid interest in the alleged terrors of damnation. But this time I gaped, my mouth actually hanging open. These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their own age by time-bound fashions. On the contrary, their hair, and, in an odd way, the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me and the people I knew. One of them – and I have always wondered how the painter thought of it – is actually vomiting with shock and fear at the sound of the Last Trump.
I did not have a ‘religious experience.’ Nothing mystical or inexplicable took place – no trance, no swoon, no vision, no voices, no blaze of light. But I had a sudden, strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time. A large catalogue of misdeeds, ranging from the embarrassing to the appalling, replayed themselves rapidly in my head. I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned, if there were any damned.
And what if there were? How did I know there were not? I did not know. I could not know. Van der Weyden was still earning his fee, nearly 500 years after his death.”
A great deal of the point of Peter Hitchen’s observations of atheism in modern society, of modern atheistic states (as the United States in increasingly becoming) is based on the conviction that without a sense of divine order, of a law to which all human beings are subject, of a law that is above them and outside of them, and which they cannot change, without the voice of a conscience that speaks with absolute morality, without the prospect of a divine reckoning, human life suffers and invariably must suffer terribly. And wherever these denials become the governing principles of a society or state human life will never be ennobled or enriched, but always and in the most ugly and brutal ways, corrupted, degraded, and destroyed.
We see all of this in 1 Kings 12 just as we see it today in our world. Yahweh being forgotten everything fell apart and the promise of Israel’s life slipped away. Israel had lost her faith in God under Solomon. And the result had been almost immediately that life became harsher and less happy for the ordinary Israelite citizen. Rehoboam would have made it much worse if he had been able to. He had forgotten the source of his life and of the blessing of his people and so sought to find those things where everyone else will always try to find them who will not look to God: in the exercise of power, in the enjoyment of wealth, and in the seeking of pleasure. We see that happening in chapter 12 and we see the folly of it emerging at the same time. When people forget God and begin to live without reckoning with him they are on their own and on their own they always find themselves at war with one another, competing with one another for a better life than they have. Only God can give such a life to everyone!
This is truth of very great importance on the personal level as surely as on the level of the state and the society. To remember God and to remember from the beginning of the day to the end of it that he, that the living God is the sole source of all our hope for happiness, for justice, and for goodness in life is the foundation of everything good, pure and lasting in your life. Without him you have no one to hope in but yourselves and believe me that is not good news and the entire history of the world is the proof that it is not.
So, brothers and sisters, put this question to yourselves, the question Rehoboam never thought to ask: Do you have any idea of what God has done for you? Do you realize that the living God, the Majesty on high, has loved you personally, really, passionately. That the greatest thing ever done in the world was done for you! Yahweh has revealed himself to you. He has not done that for everyone, indeed, at this moment in time he has not done that for most people. But he has done it for you. He has made himself known to you. And he has made himself your father and you his child. He has taken away your sins and brought you under his fatherly care. He has made promises to you that are not only surpassingly wonderful but cover every aspect of your life, every situation in which you find yourself, and every conceivable problem you might face. All of this he has done for you. You of all people!
Compared to this nothing else really matters at all, does it? We don’t need to be harsh with other people the way Rehoboam was planning to be because God has been gentle with us. We don’t need to force others to bend them to our will, to think as we do—as modern states desire to do, as Rehoboam desired to do —because God will see to the vindication of his name and his cause. Indeed, God has taught us gentleness and made us to love it. Solomon knew that once; he forgot it and Rehoboam perhaps had never learned it. We don’t need to count on our acquisition of money or power or fame because the Lord will meet our needs and because he has promised us in due time and forever prosperity beyond our wildest imagination. There need be no air of desperation in our behavior the way there is in Rehoboam’s behavior in I Kings 12. None of that is necessary for us. God has made us to be at peace with him and if we are at peace with God then we have peace indeed. Rehoboam thought he had to take matters into his own hands and he ruined everything. We can be good fathers because God has been a wonderful father to us. We can be good friends because God has made himself our friend. We can be the source of blessing to others because God has lavished his blessing on us.
With Yahweh you have all things and more. Believe me, most people around you every day think that they need a lot of things and have no idea whether they can acquire them, but they are absolutely sure they need them. It is extraordinarily important for them to see you not needing those things. You never give yourself over to drink and drugs or to impure sex because you don’t have to. You can’t find anything there that you don’t have already and much better in God and in Christ your savior. Let unbelievers see that about you and they will ask you for the reason for the hope that you have!
It is so easy – we do it every day – to slip into a way of thinking that leaves the Lord God out of account. And when we do we begin caring for things and worrying about things we needn’t care or worry about; and then we begin to do stupid things that we never would have done if we would have remembered who we are and what the Lord means to us. That was Rehoboam’s problem. He forgot his God and everything fell apart. He felt he had to protect his power and seize it when threatened. Forgetting that his power was in Yahweh he began to act like every man acts who thinks power actually belongs to him. This temptation is pressing upon us every moment of every day, to forget the Lord, to take him for granted, to slide into a way of thinking that leaves the glory of the gospel of God’s grace out of account and with it our utterly wonderful life, our glorious future, and our supremely great calling that we can fulfill no matter what is happening in our lives. This church, this congregation is known of God. You are known of God. He is your father and you his people. You are free then and absolutely set at liberty to live that good life the Lord has ordered for you, that life that is worthy to be called life; that life of which no one needs to be ashamed; that life that is good for others as well as for yourself and is never harmful. When you live that life, the people around you, unlike the Israelites of Rehoboam and Jeroboam’s day, are always and obviously better for it, never worse.