The kingdom has been divided as the ten northern tribes threw off the authority of Rehoboam’s government and made Jeroboam their king. By the way, this is the first of two Jeroboam’s who would be king in the north; the one who ruled 200 years later is known as Jeroboam II and very often as Jeroboam the Great. This is the great king of Israel’s prosperity who ruled over the nation literally just a few decades before it was destroyed. We are talking now about Jeroboam I. But Jerusalem remained the theological and liturgical center of Israel. The temple was there to which all Israelite men were required to go for each of the three great feasts of the year. Sacrifices could be offered only there. Jeroboam thought that if his people continued to stream to Jerusalem to conduct their sacred rites, the Israelites of the ten northern tribes would continue to enjoy and experience a powerful emotional and spiritual tie to the south. Such pilgrimages would advertize the illegitimacy of the northern royal house. This could not be good for him, he thought.
As Shechem obviously had already long existed by this time, “built” means “rebuilt” or “enlarged.” Archaeological excavations show the city wall and two gates were strengthened in Jeroboam’s time. Shechem became the first capital of the northern kingdom. It would eventually be replaced by Samaria. Penuel was in Gilead in the Transjordan, so a strong point on Israel’s eastern flank.
v.28 No reader of the Bible could fail to notice that Israel was repeating the sin she had committed at Sinai and for which she had been so severely punished. The words, “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” are virtually the same, word for word, as those spoken on the former occasion at Sinai (Ex. 32:4). Put Exodus 32:4 in the margin next to v. 28 and you will immediately remember when you pass this way again in your reading of the Bible that the same sin was being committed as before.
That is, one in the south and one in the north. Bethel was only eleven miles north of Jerusalem. The “high place” at Dan from the time of Jeroboam has been excavated. [Wiseman, 144] The question is whether we should read “gods” as if Jeroboam were introducing polytheism into Israel or think of Jeroboam’s project as rather to introduce a different way of worshipping Yahweh. More on that later. In any case Jeroboam was deferring to the culture because he was introducing a form of religious practice drawn not from the Law of Moses but from paganism of that time and place. He was also making it easier for his people to practice their religion within the borders of the northern kingdom. No need for those in the north to make a long and tiring journey to Jerusalem; a sacred site was available nearby.
In any case, it is clear that Jeroboam is not looking to the Lord to secure his kingdom, even though he had received a prophecy from Yahweh that he was to be Israel’s king and even though that prophecy had come true. In v. 27 he even referred to Rehoboam as Israel’s “lord,” as if he still accepted that Rehoboam ought to have been king over all Israel. Jeroboam is insecure and the steps he took were all designed to bolster his position.
The sense of the text is probably that Jeroboam built a full temple at Bethel with an altar, rather than that there were temples scattered all over Israel. What was built is literally a “house of high places,” with house in the singular, not plural. This then is the temple where Jeroboam will be standing when he is encountered by the prophet in v. 1 of chapter 13.
In other words, Jeroboam set up a complete substitute religious life for the people of the northern kingdom, replacing the Levitical priesthood, the spiritual calendar, and the place for sacrifice. The autumn feast, for example, was scheduled a month later than the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths in Jerusalem. This kind of thing has very often been done as a means of undermining religious life. During the French revolution an effort was made to create a 10 day week, so as to destroy the concept of the Christian Lord’s Day and the strength that Christian belief gathered from Lord’s Day worship, and in Soviet Russia the attempt was made to create a five day week for the same reason. It is easier to undermine a people’s religious loyalties by introducing changes than by attempting simply to eradicate it and forbid them to practice it.
As so often in human history, we see here religion being used as a form of political control. [Provan, 109]
“Man of God” is a typical term for a prophet in Kings, occurring some 37 times. We encountered it last Lord’s Day evening in 12:22. This man of God is unnamed though Josephus gives his name as Yadon. The first time Jeroboam received a word from the Lord it was that he would become king of Israel. This next message was not so positive!
You read of King Josiah’s desecration and destruction of this very altar and the execution of the illegitimate priests and the burning of bones on the altar in 2 Kings 23:15-20. The only other instance of the naming of a man long before his lifetime is Isaiah’s 8th century prophecy of Cyrus two-centuries before Cyrus’ appearance in the 6th century B.C.
The fulfillment of that prophecy is a long way in the future, 300 years, and so a sign is given to assure Jeroboam of its truth: the altar is split apart – perhaps by some earthquake – and the ashes came pouring out. The ashes collected in the middle of the altar as things are burned on the grate above. The point is, Jeroboam has no power over God and cannot appropriate Yahweh for his own uses.
These is the first of what will be many miraculous events associated with the ministry of prophets in the book of Kings. There is very little of this in the Bible. You have it at the time of the Exodus, the wilderness wandering, and the early conquest and then nothing. You have it here especially in the ministry of Elijah and Elisha and then you have it in the ministry of Christ and the apostles. Otherwise this kind of thing almost never happens in the Bible. That is why their appearance was so shattering to people; they were as unused to the supernatural and we are. “Thus Jeroboam experienced in the limbs of his own body the severity of the threatened judgment of God.” [Keil, 204] And the prophet’s answered prayer was a demonstration of the Lord’ grace, that was available to Jeroboam if only he would ask for it.
For the man of God to eat and drink with the king would have been virtually a public repudiation of the message of judgment he had just pronounced. What is more, a prophet had to remain completely free of any political loyalties so that he could speak the word of the Lord without fear or favor. Through the rest of the book we will encounter many prophets whose ministries and predictions were for sale.
Now I have broken the story in the middle, for the account of this prophet returning from Bethel continues in the remainder of chapter 13. We’ll consider that very odd history next time. Tonight I want us to consider the subversion of Israel’s faith by the manipulation of religion for worldly purposes, a story oft told in the Bible and in the history of the church from that time to this.
There is an interesting article in the most recent First Things, that excellent magazine of commentary on the intersection of religion and public life in the United States. It is by Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and is entitled “God and Gettysburg.” [August-September 2010, No. 205, 15-17] Professor George had attended a conference at Princeton sponsored by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, a generally politically liberal organization that is concerned especially to maintain a strict separation between religion and government and between religion and public life.
He begins the article by recollecting that as he took his seat at the conference in front of him on the table was a nicely printed blue pamphlet distributed to all conferees that contained what were described as “the founding texts” of the United States: the Declaration of Independence (which, I hear was recently stolen by Nicolas Cage, so printed copies are important), the Constitution of the United States, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. He opened the pamphlet and remembered that in sixth grade he had been required to memorize the Gettysburg address and decided to see if he could still recite it. He made it only half way through and had to read the rest. But he noticed as he read that something had been omitted from the text. According to the printing in the pamphlet Lincoln had said after the opening words that are more familiar to us,
“It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
But, of course, what Lincoln had said was “that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom…” Perhaps the most famous text in American history had been altered by omission of the offending words, “under God.” The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy wished Lincoln had not said that this nation was “under God” and so they printed his text as if he hadn’t said the words. They didn’t explain the omission; they didn’t even note it. Perhaps they hoped no one would notice. It is the more interesting a case of intellectual dishonesty because Lincoln’s own view of God was hardly such as should worry overmuch a modern political liberal. Although, perhaps even such a vague theology as Lincoln’s is much too much for them.
But my point is not Lincoln or the Gettysburg address, but the way religion, and in our case, the way the Christian faith intersects with public life. Whether one is taking God-words out of a document or putting them into a speech, people feel perfectly free to manipulate the religious sentiments of people for what they take to be political advantage. Politicians use religious speech when necessary, but hardly ever take it seriously even what they have uttered themselves. Nancy Pelosi, our current Speaker of the House and a Roman Catholic who acts consistently against the stated positions of her church, recently gave an address in which she sought to connect her politics to Jesus and the incarnation as referred to in John 1. Conservative politicians do the same. They invoke the Lord as blessing this or that. Everyone does when they say or sing “God bless America,” a short phrase that is redolent with implications that nobody actually expects anyone to take seriously. Of course, none of these expressions of civic religion means that the people who utter them have any intention whatever of actually submitting their lives to God’s law and living in obedience to his commandments. Mrs. Pelosi cited John 1 as the political authority of her life but it is highly doubtful she intended anyone to assume that she felt obliged therefore to believe the theology or practice the ethics taught in the Gospel of John or the rest of the Bible
Well this is what Jeroboam was doing. He was employing religion, faith in God, the practice of devotion, for political purposes: he was, as it were, leaving words out of Israel’s founding texts to bolster his power, to legitimate his reign, and to quell any fears that might exist among his people that they were doing the wrong thing, the irreligious thing, the unfaithful thing by breaking away from Judah and Jerusalem. He used religion to make people comfortable. He had, if you remember, come to prominence in Solomon’s administration as a builder. He knew all about the temple in Jerusalem, he knew all about its central role in the life of God’s people. He had been a part of the enormous construction projects that had transformed Jerusalem from a Canaanite town into a magnificent Israelite city. He had been perfectly happy to be a part of building Jerusalem.
But now, king of the northern ten tribes, he needed a way to cement the loyalty of his citizens to this new northern kingdom. He didn’t want them going to Jerusalem three times a year or more. He didn’t want them to be reminded of the spiritual bonds that united them to their southern brethren. He didn’t want them to be reminded of their history, concentrated for them as it was in the temple and its services and in the feasts of the annual calendar: Passover and Tabernacles in particular. But they were a religious people. He could not demand that they cease being religious; that they forget about God and worship and piety. So he gave them an alternate form of their religion, close enough to be eminently recognizable, different enough to wean them from the south. Feasts but not at the same time and place. Sacrifices on altars, to be sure, but not at the same temple. It is not necessary to believe that Jeroboam would have thought of his actions in such crass terms. Men are rarely honest about their deeper motivations, even more rarely honest with themselves.
Indeed, there is a longstanding debate in scholarship as to whether Jeroboam actually introduced or intended to introduce idolatry into Israel with his two gold calves. There is a sizeable scholarly opinion that the calves were, in fact, pedestals, upon which an invisible Yahweh was to be regarded as standing to receive his people’s worship. That is, if such were the case, Jeroboam wasn’t attempting to introduce the worship of other gods into Israelite life, but simply the worship of Yahweh himself in other places and with other forms. There seems to be some reason to think that this was, at least to some extent, what was happening here. It would have much easier to persuade the general population to go along if that were the case. Had he demanded the cessation of the worship of Yahweh and the introduction of Canaanite idolatry he could have expected a much more violent reaction. But to continue the worship of Yahweh in a more convenient and – no doubt this is how it was put – a more authentically “northern” form; that would be much easier to sell. We know that at other times and earlier in the wilderness, that was the case. Israel was not throwing off Yahweh by making the golden calf; she was simply worshipping him in the form used by the culture round about. But as first Moses and then this prophet pointed out, it was a distinction without a difference. Worship Yahweh as the pagans worshipped their gods and, in the nature of the case, you have reduced him to one of their idols. Besides, God had spoken. The regulations of his worship were laid down in the Law of Moses and Jeroboam had broken every one of those commandments.
It would not be the last time religion was invoked in the name of a political cause. I was fascinated to read in Peter Hitchens’ book, The Rage Against God, that in his opinion the two great victorious wars of the 20th century did more damage to Christianity in Great Britain than any other cause. Both wars Britain won and in Hitchens’ view the result was catastrophic for the Christian church. I’m not sure that this is so – the seeds of the decline and fall of Christianity in Britain had been planted and well watered in the 19th century, the introduction of German higher criticism, Darwin, and so on – but I think Hitchens has more of a point than most of us who celebrate our victories in those wars might be inclined to think. His argument is that the church and the Christian faith therefore with it were enlisted in support of the state in the two world wars and the result was that the reputation of the church and the church’s message was therefore tied to that of the state. God was invoked constantly during those wars. He really was. If you want to go back and read that history, you will see how often God was invoked by both sides in those wars. And so God came to be identified with those two calamitous events, the first a war that everyone soon realized – victors and conquered alike – was a galactic miscalculation and a horrendous crime against humanity and the second, however necessary to fight, leaving the world in an utterly demoralized condition, with little hope of better things to come. As Hitchens put it, “The churches [of Britain] were full before 1914, half-empty after 1919, and three-quarters empty after 1945.” 
The church must never allow her faith or her independence of message and witness to be compromised by those who would make political use of that faith, just as the man of God here was absolutely correct not to accept Jeroboam’s invitation to supper. He was not to be and not to be allowed to seem to be Jeroboam’s man. He was God’s man.
Now, all of this has implications for the practice of our faith as Christians in the public square no doubt. But it also has implications for the personal practice of our faith, yours and mine. I have seen far too many times, indeed I have found it within myself too many times, the Christian faith invoked as a kind of talisman or even as an act of wish-fulfillment by Christian folk who would be highly critical of Mrs. Pelosi, but who, like her, have no intention of doing what God says. They pray, when it suits them, though not much otherwise and not for things that are not immediately interesting to them however important they may be to the kingdom of God. They invoke the Lord’s name in pursuit of some result they desire, though care little, apparently, for that name in other aspects of their lives. Their expressions of religious faith are nullified by the indifference and disobedience of their lives.
What should Jeroboam have done? The Lord had made a prophecy that he would become king of the largest part of Israel and now he was. What should he have done in respect to the inconvenient fact that the temple of Yahweh was in Jerusalem in the southern kingdom and the Law of Moses required all Israelites to worship there and to offer their sacrifices there and to celebrate the three great feasts there?
Well, this is what he should have done. Realizing that Yahweh had given him the throne of Israel as a gift just as he had promised, Jeroboam should have set his sights on ruling that kingdom in precisely the way Yahweh approved. He should have maintained contact with Jerusalem for the sake of Israel’s continued worship at the temple, no matter the inconvenience and no matter the worldly calculations that people might make about the damage that might be done to the Israelites loyalty to his reign and his house. When his citizens in the north complained to him, as no doubt they would have done, that it was too far to travel to Jerusalem, to time-consuming and too expensive, he should have told them in no uncertain terms that there was only one correct way to worship the living God and that was in Jerusalem, with a Levitical priesthood, according to the calendar established in the Law of Moses, and that he was not going to permit any deviation whatsoever from that law. He should have reminded his people that obedience to the Lord was the only thing they should demand of their king because it was the path to the blessing of the people and the nation. He should have forbidden liturgical innovation, any accommodation of Israel’s religious practice to that of the surrounding culture, and he should have made it clear to the citizenry that Israel, though now politically separate from the south, was still and would remain the people of Yahweh, living according to the covenant God had made with his people at Mt. Sinai, and that in faithfulness to that covenant lay Israel’s hope of God’s blessing.
That is what Jeroboam should have done. But, of course, that would have required faith in the Lord, confidence that the Lord was good, was faithful, and would keep the promises he had made to Jeroboam. The healing of Jeroboam’s hand, first it being shriveled and then it being healed, should have reminded Jeroboam of that and brought him up short. He should have left the Bethel sanctuary that day and given orders to have it torn down, together with the one at Dan; but, of course, he didn’t do that either. Faith in Yahweh, living faith, real confidence was precisely what Jeroboam did not have.
We do the same thing, you and I, or we are tempted to do it. We say it in a hundred different ways, “Here I am living in Dan, in the far north, and I have to go all the way to Jerusalem. It doesn’t make any sense. I shouldn’t have to do that. Surely there is no great problem with this one change. Surely the Lord wants his people to find it easy to give him right worship.” Think yourself about the form that temptation takes in your case: in your business ethics (if I kept God’s law I’d lose every customer I have! or, if I don’t cut corners there is no way I’d get this done or make a profit); in your marriage (the Lord certainly doesn’t expect me to put up with that!); in your sexual life as a single person (surely he doesn’t expect me never to enjoy sex!); and on and on.
And, of course, while the Bible warns us against disobedience, the judgment is delayed. The punishment doesn’t come. Josiah wasn’t to reign for 300 more years! It takes faith to worry about a judgment that will be three hundred years in coming. And even if the Lord adds signs, indications to us that he will not bless our flaunting of his will, they are usually relatively easy to ignore. Otherwise why would Jeroboam keep on the course he had marked out for himself even after the prophet’s warning and even after his hand’s being shriveled, and even after it was restored?
Faith is the key and the only way one knows he or she has faith is if he or she is willing to obey, to obey commandments that are hard to obey, to obey against the promptings of one’s flesh, to obey against the counter-encouragements of the culture. I don’t say one must obey perfectly. Of course not! There is forgiveness with God that he may be feared. But in the OT as in the NT obedience is the mark of faith, obedience to God’s law marks the life that is lived out of a genuine love for and trust in God. The obedient life is the only authentic, faithful life. Because if one really believes in God and is trusting in him, placing confidence in him, you will want to obey and fear not-obeying more than you fear anything else! That is why James can say “show me your faith by your deeds,” and “faith not accompanied by action is dead.” As Martin Luther put it in his Preface to Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
“O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly.”
There wasn’t any of that in Jeroboam’s case. He was figuring out how to disobey and how to take words out of Israel’s founding texts or ignore them. Jeroboam knew the Word of God. He knew it as an Israelite and he knew it as one to whom prophets had been sent. But he did not do the word of God. And there is nothing more dangerous to man or woman than to know and not to do. [Moody Stuart, Memoir, 244]
Rehoboam had a little faith, not much, and perhaps not enough; it is hard to tell. But Jeroboam had none at all. And in the final analysis that explains not only everything that he did but everything that happened as a result down to Josiah’s day when this sanctuary was destroyed and the altar with it and the bones of the priests were burned upon it. That is why faith looms so large in the Bible—faith in God, faith in Jesus Christ—because everything else depends upon it and flows from the connection we have with God which is made by faith and faith alone. Everything flows from our confidence in the Lord.
You and I are to come away from a text like this one thinking we are never going to do what Jeroboam did. Never, in any way, shape for form. Our lives are going to be lives of faithfulness to the Lord, come wind, come weather; no matter the difficulty, no matter the losses we may suffer as a result, and in most cases there won’t be all that many losses, believe me. We are going to be the kind of Christians who wear their faith on their sleeve, the sort who would never think of going to a high place in Dan when the law of God requires the long trip to Jerusalem. We are to rejoice in such obedience, thrive on it, welcome its challenge, and when we fail, seek forgiveness not for forgiveness’ sake, but as always with the forgiveness of God for the sake of new obedience so that we can get started again in doing what God approves.
When Florence and I, with Dawn Darby, then Dawn McColley, were in Holland in 1984, we lived in a large old home, once a wealthy family’s estate, but now owned by a foundation. The home was so large that several couples could live in it, different parts of the house for separate families. One night later in our stay we were invited to a party thrown by one of our housemates. One of the other wives asked us about our practice of family worship which she had observed and overheard [you could often hear what was going on through a wall because we were in the same house after all] and after speaking something of Christ to her she offered the observation that we must be “strenge in de leer,” that is, “strong in faith.” She thought that if we did such a thing as family devotions we must really take our faith seriously. Well, we should all and always be strenge in de leer and it should obvious to anyone that we are. And what makes it obvious, what makes it true for that matter, is that our faith works through love, that we are committed to keep God’s commandments because we know of his faithfulness and he would never command us to do anything but what is right and good and the path to our own blessing and happiness. Let everyone see the strength of our faith demonstrated in the fact that we are absolutely committed to the right worship of God because we love and revere him. Never in Dan, always in Jerusalem! Get that right and you get almost everything else in the bargain.
Jeroboam, the broken altar, the prophecy of Josiah, the capitulation of Israel to the culture, these are all excellent reasons for us to renew our determination to love to obey all of God’s commands and to trust him to prove us wise for doing so!