Unlike Chronicles, which deals only with the kings of the southern kingdom or Judah, Kings gives us a summary at least of the reign of every northern and southern king, so it goes back and forth between north and south in a chronological order. We hear of southern kings who were reigning during the time of a northern king’s reign and vice versa.
Only the mothers of the kings of Judah are named in Kings and it appears that they are mentioned in part because they had so much to do with whether a king was faithful or unfaithful to the Lord, just as mothers do with respect to children raised in the home nowadays. Naamah was the daughter of Solomon through one of his treaty-marriages. She was an Ammonite and, presumably, remained an Ammonite at heart. Not the sort of mother likely to produce a devout king of Israel!
Jeroboam’s sins as Israel’s king were greeted with a prophetic pronouncement of the coming death of his royal house, his dynasty. But with Rehoboam we are reminded that Jerusalem was Yahweh’s chosen city. The same sins are not to have the same effect in the south as in the north. Such is the discriminating grace of God!
From this point on in the book the northern kingdom will be referred to as Israel and the southern as Judah. Even though the southern kingdom will prove to be the true spiritual heir of the nation of Israel, and even though Judah will be called Israel again after the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians in 721 BC, it would have been a stretch to call the southern kingdom “Israel” when almost the whole of the original nation was now separated and separately ruled from Samaria.
“Jealousy” is usually in our minds associated with negative traits. But there is a right kind of jealousy: the jealousy of husbands for the love and welfare of their wives, of parents for the welfare of their children, and so on. In this case it refers to Yahweh’s desire for his chosen people to love and serve him as they certainly ought to have done and not to serve the false gods of Canaan. Surely, after all that they had been shown and all that the Lord had done for them, they should have been loyal to Yahweh alone. He had created a relationship of love with his people and it was a matter of deep distress that they betrayed that relationship. We can certainly understand that! Here jealousy is an index of loyalty, of love, and of faithfulness betrayed. [House, 194]
The pillars were standing stones with divine symbols carved on them, perhaps were phallic symbols – typical of ANE idolatry (indeed these sacred stones are listed in Deut. 12:3 among the objects of worship Israel is to destroy when she enters the Promised Land) – and the Asherim, as we noted last time, were poles of wood devoted to Asherah, the Canaanite goddess and consort of Baal. So we are not talking here only about the worship of Yahweh in an inappropriate way or method, but of outright idolatry. And while we knew that this was going on in Israel under Jeroboam, it is blow to discover that the same spiritual defection was underway in Judah.
In other words their gods hadn’t helped them in the face of Yahweh’s power. Here is Israel choosing the powerless over the powerful in hopes of the weaker god’s blessing. Judah’s moral and theological uniqueness were being completely jeopardized. There were strong sexual overtones in Canaanite religion and prostitutes were present – of both sexes – so that worshippers could fulfill their obligations to the gods of fertility.
This invasion of Palestine by the Egyptians is well attested in Egyptian reliefs at the Temple of Amon at Thebes (Karnak). Egypt was reasserting its control of the vital trade routes through Palestine and the Negeb. That relief asserts that the Egyptian army fought in 150 places in Israel and Judah during this particular incursion. The narrator is only interested in Judah and what happened at Jerusalem. The end of Judah’s autonomy has come already, so soon after the heady days of the empire of David and Solomon. Paying invaders to leave her alone will now become Judah’s ordinary practice.
The “everything” is hyperbole. We know that because Kings will tell us of other incursions into Judah and Jerusalem by foreign powers who will take still more of the temple’s treasure. Indeed, some of it lasted until the Babylonians either took or destroyed literally everything including some of the larger pieces that Solomon had made!
The golden age of Solomon had quickly become the bronze age of Rehoboam! [Provan, 122]
The repetition of the information about Rehoboam’s mother again suggests that the narrator is explaining something about Rehoboam’s reign by reference to his upbringing. That is, “what else would we expect from the son of an Ammonite woman?” [Provan, 121]
I want to consider one aspect of our text tonight. The main point – Yahweh’s judgment of Judah’s infidelity and yet his continuing faithfulness to Judah – we will have cause to return to many times. Tonight something else from this narrative. Rehoboam is an interesting, fascinating and important case. Indeed, he is a, if not the, principal illustration of a biblical fact of life that all of us have encountered in one form or another. There is no doubt that he failed to keep Judah faithful to the Law of God and to the right worship of the Lord. The narrator makes no bones about that here. But Rehoboam is not by any means all bad, nor was his reign. If you remember from chapter 12 when the kingdom was divided by Jeroboam gathering the ten northern tribes to himself, Rehoboam made plans to get the kingdom back by military means. He was instructed by the Lord’s prophet not to do so – as the division of the kingdom was the Lord’s plan, his promised punishment of the sins of Solomon’s later reign. When so instructed Rehoboam obeyed the word of the Lord and returned home. In 2 Chron. 12 we read that Rehoboam took wise steps to defend his borders against Israel. What is more, the remaining faithful priests and Levites in the north – those who couldn’t stomach the liturgical innovations being introduced by Jeroboam – came south to Jerusalem and Rehoboam put them to work in the worship of God’s temple in Jerusalem just as he ought to have done. In Chronicles we even read that Rehoboam “dealt wisely” in managing his diminished kingdom and his own house. [2 Chron. 11:23]
Finally, we read in 2 Chron. 12 that after Shishak had invaded Judah and plundered the nation and the temple in Jerusalem Rehoboam “humbled himself,” declared that the Lord had been just in his punishment of Judah, and, as a result of Rehoboam’s repentance, the Lord relented and did not punish Judah then as he might have done. [2 Chron. 12:6] We even read that after that conditions were good in Judah.
None of this is mentioned to Rehoboam’s credit in chapter 14, but it is interesting that we read in v. 22 that Judah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord…” Ordinarily we expect to hear that the king did evil in the Lord’s sight. We hear that of Abijam in the opening verses of chapter 15 and of Nadab in 15:26, of Baasha in 15:34, and so on. But here nothing is said directly of Rehoboam doing evil but of Judah doing it; they did it, as if the narrator wished to indicate that he wasn’t blaming Rehoboam for all that went wrong in Judah during his reign. On the other hand, in 2 Chron. 12:14, where we read of the good things that Rehoboam had done and even his humble submission to the Lord, we read that “Rehoboam did evil because he did not set his heart to serve the Lord.” We might well think that such a statement settles the issue, but we will see as we continue through Kings that it does not. Uzziah did some great evil but he is listed clearly among the good kings; so is Asa who imprisoned one of the Lord’s prophets because he didn’t like his message, who abused his people, and did not seek the Lord in the final crisis of his life and reign. [2 Chron. 16:10-12] And he is said to have been a faithful king, a good king.
Samuel Rutherford, in one of his letters to Marion M’Naught [XII, p. 55] wrote:
“…I beseech you in the [mercy] of Jesus, welcome every rod of God, for I find not in the whole book of God a greater note of the child of God, than to fall down and kiss the feet of an angry God.”
To submit oneself to God’s will when it is at cross purposes with your own, says Rutherford, is a sign of the child of God. Well twice, on two very important occasions, Rehoboam kissed the rod and bowed to the judgment of the Lord. That isn’t a small thing to say about a man, as Rutherford is right to point out.
Another wise man said about Eli – who, you remember, also bowed before the Lord’ rod and accepted as right and just the punishment the Lord inflicted upon him and his house because of his parental failures – “Eli was memorable for the passive virtues. He could bear much, though he could dare little.” [W.G. Blaikie (from the Expositor’s Bible), cited in Gordon, 1 and II Samuel, 90] Perhaps we should think about Rehoboam in a similar way; a man with faith enough to recognize the Lord’s judgment and bow meekly before it, but not faith enough to eradicate idolatrous practices that were becoming more and more popular among the people.
We wonder and can’t help but wonder: was Rehoboam a good man or a bad, a son of God or a child of the devil or, in the language of our day, was he a genuine or a bogus Christian? It is not easy to say. There is that in Rehoboam’s heart and life that we associate with true faith and there is that which we associate with unbelief.
Of course, we can say that about every Christian and most of all we can say that about ourselves. There is that in our lives that contradicts our profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and our loyalty to the King of Kings, and there is that in our lives that confirms and adorns that profession. But how much bad is too much and how little good is too little? Obviously it is not our works of obedience that make us a Christian; we know that. It is living faith in the Lord who is our savior from sin and death. We know that. It is Christ who saves.
But that fact hardly solves the problem. It was the Lord who said, and then had his apostles and prophets say in one hundred different ways, that you will be able to recognize the true followers of God in Christ by the way in which they live, by the way in which their faith is expressed in their speech and conduct. Genuine faith will prove itself by the results it produces in the lives of those who have it. If Christ is truly in our lives, he will make a difference. We all know that. But how much of a difference: that is the question?
There is nothing simple about this question. It has been the source of untold agony in many tender hearts through the ages: this concern to know whether I am or my husband or wife is, or whether my child is or my friend is a Christian or not. We have wondered about this in respect to members of this congregation. We can’t help but wonder; and it is by no means a foolish pride that motivates us, as if we know we can be confident about ourselves but have doubts about others. The fact is there are many believers of whom we have never entertained a single doubt regarding the genuineness of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Their lives are the evidence of their faith in the Lord Jesus as he said their lives would be. But regarding others we are not so sure. We wonder and we worry and, at their death, serious Christians simply hope for the best. Rehoboam is a prime biblical example of this unhappy phenomenon of life in the kingdom of God. It is inevitable. If we cannot read the heart, if men and women can fool even themselves, if, as J. Gresham Machen once remarked, we will never know how little a man or woman must believe to be savingly united to Christ, well then, in some cases there will be doubt about whether a certain man or woman really has saving faith and really has crossed over from death to life.
I have been reading a wonderful new biography of John Newton, the former slave trader turned Christian minister, the author of the justly famous hymn, “Amazing Grace,” and many even finer hymns than that most famous one. It is a biography by the English politician, Jonathan Aitken, who was at one time what we would call the Secretary of State of Great Britain, a prominent political figure, but who was caught in a scandal and went to jail for financial improprieties. He was a figure like Charles Colson and, like Colson, Aitken found Christ in prison, and has ever since been writing books of a different kind. Sometime ago he wrote a well regarded biography of President Nixon. But this is his biography of John Newton beautifully written and obviously well researched. In fact, better researched I guarantee you than any biography by John Newton that you have so far read. Many of you know the outlines of Newton’s story. A godly mother who died when he was a little boy, a distant father, a sea captain; a boy growing up bitter and unbelieving, a young man who by his abysmal behavior drove away virtually anyone who might have been his friend. He was really a disreputable and unlikeable human being until he was dramatically converted to Christ during a storm at sea. So disgusting and dishonorable had been Newton’s behavior on that ship that the sailors and even the Captain came near to suggesting that the only way to save the ship was to throw Newton overboard! It was easy for the men to think that they were being punished for John Newton’s many sins! But that terrible night at sea, when all seemed lost, March 21, 1748 Newton began to pray and found peace with God. He always remembered that date as what he called his “great turning day.” [Aitken, 19] From that time until his death in 1807 he never failed to mark that date as it came year after year in thankful remembrance of the Lord’s mercy to him. That is the story that we know.
What you may not have read is that for some several years after that “great turning day” Newton continued to live in some very sordid ways that were entirely inconsistent with a serious profession of faith in God. His terrible swearing had stopped immediately, he had the foulest mouth among all the foul mouths that were found on English ships those days; Newton stood out for the ferocity of his profanity. But other behavior went on as before. Most of his slave trading days followed the day of his conversion, they didn’t precede it. And, sadly, though he would later greatly repent of this, he had little thought for the African captives who were chained and often dying in his ship’s hold as he took his human cargo from Africa to the auction blocks of the Caribbean and the colonies of North America. He participated himself in tearing husbands away from their wives and children, shackling screaming men below, refusing to let them escape the claustrophobic squalor of the slave decks. On one ten-week Atlantic crossing sixty-two of the 218 captives on board died before they could reach the slave market in Charleston, South Carolina. During this time in all of his letters he never spoke with compassion of these poor souls. All we can say in his defense is that hardly anyone else in England did either; not much of a defense for a Christian man! And yet at this very same time he was taking time out of his day to enjoy communion with God and arranging for services of Christian worship for his crew which, as captain, he required them to attend! [99-100] Is this not something like Rehoboam welcoming the Lord’s true priests but not eradicating the high places, the pillars, and the Asherim?
Even less easy for us to understand, I suspect, is that during this same two year period following his conversation, his “great turning” day, March 21, 1748, when he was madly love with Polly Catlett and had deeply felt hopes of marrying her one day, he was regularly unfaithful to her. Indeed, during this same two-year period he finally secured her promise to marry him. But engaged as he was, writing the purest of love letters home to her as he did, he still made use of native women on his slave buying journeys up and down the Atlantic coast of Africa.  Is this not like Rehoboam obeying God’s prophet but, at the same time, allowing his people to become idolaters?
Was John Newton a believing man in the two years following March 21st 1748 or not? Is that behavior simply impossible to reconcile with a profession of faith in Christ or can it be the behavior of a child of God when viewed in the totality of someone’s life? It isn’t easy to tell; indeed, it is so difficult that while Newton always celebrated March 21, 1748 as the day of his “great turning” or conversion, he would later say that he wasn’t sure that either he or Polly was a Christian when they married two years later, in February of 1750. His biographer is puzzled as well.
“For all the religious formality of John and Polly’s wedding, their marriage could not be described as a Christian union in its early stages. ‘At that time we knew not God,’ said Newton, a rather surprising assertion, considering the amount of time he had devoted to his prayers, his Bible, and the writings of spiritual authors during the two years that had passed since the terrifying Atlantic storm that nearly sank the Greyhound on the night of March , 1748. [104-105; on the date cf. n. 76]
But was he really an unbeliever then? I doubt it. I think certain temptations were still very powerful and not consistently resisted but reading the entire story it is easy to see Newton’s life as undergoing a sudden and powerful change that was then worked out over years as he came to understand the gospel better and to live it more consistently. But, my point is, had any knowledgeable Christian judged the genuineness of Newton’s faith in those early years of his Christian life, there might well have been a significant measure of doubt as to whether he had really crossed over from death to life.
Well, so with Rehoboam. How much faithlessness and disobedience cancels out faith in God and how much humility and trust and obedience must there be to assure us of a man or woman’s standing with God? No one can say. “To whom much is given much is required,” the Lord once observed, indicating at least that God’s standards of judgment take into account many factors that we cannot begin to measure.
I suspect myself that Rehoboam was a believing man and that we will see him in heaven. But, then, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t behave miserably at many times and in many ways. Eli did, David did, Solomon did, Peter did, and you and I do more than we care to admit. We all learn over time that the living of a genuine Christian life requires us to take note of what is wrong in our attitudes, in our speech, and in our behavior; and to be humble therefore before God, relying on his grace and forgiveness and, at the same time, to be mindful always of the perfect righteousness that we have in Christ.
But we know too little of Rehoboam’s personal and spiritual history to say whether he was a man who, in the ways appropriate to his time, had that double perspective or not, humble before God in the knowledge of his own moral failures, trusting in the Lord for his mercy, grace and forgiveness; though, as I said, I expect he did. It is often the case that in the history of spiritual decline in families sons are worse than their fathers and we read of that in 1 Kings 15 of Rehoboam’s son Abijam, who, we read in v. 3, walked in the sins that his father did before him…” But even of Abijam it is said only that his heart “was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God…” That is precisely what was said of Solomon in 11:4! But Solomon, for all his terrible failure, was a believing man. What is more, Asa, Rehoboam’s grandson, was a good king and it is not unlikely that some of that positive influence came from his grandfather, because we know from 1 Kings 15 that it did not come from his mother or grandmother (as the case may be).
Now I bring all of this up about Rehoboam not because it is the main drift of the narrative. Rehoboam did not do what he should have done in many respects; that is made clear and it had sinister consequences for the life of God’s people. He did not rid the land, as his grandson would do, of the idols and cult prostitutes. We will hear of much more of these sorts of failures in the line of Hebrew kings. But we have here a very interesting account of something all of us, or most of us certainly, have faced and will face in life. We want to know of someone we love: is this person a believer or not.
How many times has this happened? You have asked a fellow believer whether his or her parents or other loved ones (brothers and sisters, for example) are Christians too. And the answer comes back in hesitant tones: well, I’m pretty sure about my father, but I’m not so sure about my mother or vice versa.
Well it was so in Judah. Every king was not as bad as he might be. Some of the worst sins were committed by a man, Manasseh, who would later furiously repent and die a devoted servant of Yahweh. Good kings marred their records with sometimes horrifying sins and kings that were generally a loss sometimes did good things for which they receive credit in the Bible.
This is the way of grace in the world. I want you to think about this. If every believer were a sterling example of a faithful and obedient man or woman I think it would be very hard to continue to credit the grace of God. It is not ordinarily the sins we commit before we become Christians that teach us the depth and width and power of God’s mercy and Christ’s atonement, but the sins we commit after we know God and know of Christ’s sacrifice for us, after we have been forgiven and after God has lavished eternal life upon us. Those later sins are the sins that most of all prove to us how gracious and merciful God is.
John Newton himself once said that when he got to heaven he would see wonders there. The first wonder would be not to see some people he expected to see. The second wonder would be to see some people there he did not expect to see. And the third and greatest wonder will be to see himself there! But I’m not sure anyone would continue to think seriously, deeply, emotionally that it is a wonder to find himself or herself in heaven at the end if there weren’t the doubt about others, if there weren’t the concern that there is missing what ought to be present in the speech and behavior of a true Christian in whom the salvation of God dwells. It is the ambiguity of life that keeps us thinking about the reality of a salvation that might not have been and in the case of some, might not be. It is this reality that keeps us thinking about our own salvation and caring to be sure of it because those same doubts will flit through our minds and hearts as well!
Rehoboam is not only teaching us that there are things we cannot know for sure about other people and that their salvation in some cases may be one of them, but is teaching us that the kingdom of God moves forward in the world by drawing into its embrace people who then demonstrate widely varying degrees of commitment to the Lord, consecration of life, and the good works that we expect of a gospel driven life.
It isn’t always the case that when Christ comes into a life that life becomes obviously, measurably and immediately the life of a man or woman, boy or girl, who is inhabited by the Spirit of God. It isn’t always the case that suddenly and permanently a life is reborn that forever after betrays all the marks of God’s own holy and loving presence. Some Christians take some time to get going, as Newton did. Others move very slowly forward. Others race forward and then get stopped or stumble in some embarrassing way. Some Christians have sparkling moments or periods of devotion in their lives but during other times are less than devout. Others have less sparkle but more plodding perseverance. All of it is the demonstration of how much of God’s grace a single Christian life consumes every single day—55 gallon drums of divine grace lined up behind your house to be delivered to your life by the Spirit of God hour by hour, day by day.
We all have every right to a real assurance of salvation, but it never ceases to amaze me how reticent some Christians are in speaking about their own salvation. The Apostle Paul himself said that he beat his body and made it his slave lest having preached to others he be disqualified for the prize, an extraordinary thing for the great Apostle to the Gentiles to say. William Wilberforce would characteristically speak of his “hope” of being in heaven at last. These men were so careful not to presume, to take salvation for granted, that they spoke sometimes in a way that could make others think they weren’t sure whether they were Christians or not. That wasn’t the case; but take the point. There is a lot in the observation of life as well as in the teaching of Holy Scripture that ought to make all of us careful and cautious and never flippant about salvation.
If we can wonder whether Rehoboam was in or out; if we can worry that some loved ones may not be saved although they may be, we are saying at least that salvation is something to be cherished, never taken for granted, and that we are to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the Lord Christ, careful not only to be always trusting in him but careful always to be serving him in word and in deed for the sake of others who are examining, evaluating and measuring our lives.
I could be wrong about Rehoboam. Perhaps he isn’t in heaven after all. Perhaps his sins said more about his true nature than did his moments of faith and grace. He ought to be a spur to all of us to be sure that our loved ones are never wondering whether we are Christians in truth and, after we die, whether we are in heaven. Let it be your life’s work to make that perfectly clear to everyone. It is a very good way of thinking about your life: how can I live and how should I speak; what should I do that no loved one of mine will ever doubt my salvation? How can I make it clear that my eye is on the prize and fixed on the One who alone can give it to me! Let it be your life’s work to make that perfectly clear to everybody. But expect that in some cases it will not be clear and that such is the mysterious way of God’s grace in this world. I think Rehoboam is one of, if not the Bible’s principal proof of that fact!