THE KINGDOM DIVIDES 1 Kings 12–14
“Only the tribe of Judah remained loyal to the house of David” (1 Kings 12:20).The old saying suggests that “well begun is half done.” It is just as true that “poorly begun is undone!”
The Northern Kingdom of Israel was founded on an apostate religion. Not 1 of its 21 rulers did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. Gradually many true believers in the north drifted across the border to settle in Judah, illustrated by the growth of Judah’s original 180,000 fighting men (12:21) to 400,000 fighting men just 18 years later (2 Chron. 13:3). Decades later the Northern Kingdom was crushed by Assyria, and its people deported. This has given rise to the fable of “10 lost tribes.” In fact, members of all 12 tribes of Israel were represented in Judah throughout the kingdom era, and no tribe has been “lost.” Many may turn from the Lord. But God will preserve His own.
Israel rebelled when Solomon’s son Rehoboam threatened to raise already heavy taxes (12:1–19). The 10 northern tribes made Jeroboam king (vv. 20–24). Jeroboam set up a counterfeit religion (vv. 25–33), which was condemned by a prophet who came from Judah (13:1–34). The Prophet Ahijah announced God’s judgment on the family of Jeroboam (14:1–20). Judah too abandoned God and suffered an Egyptian invasion (vv. 21–31).
Understanding the Text
“Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him” 1 Kings 12:1–9. On Solomon’s death his son Rehoboam took the throne. In Solomon’s later years heavy taxes and an increased corvee on labor caused resentment. The north made tax reduction a condition of recognizing Rehoboam’s royal authority. Rehoboam’s pride was displayed in rejecting the conciliation advised by the elders, in favor of an arrogant demand for submission. A leader who responds to the just complaints of others gains their loyalty. The leader who acts arrogantly deserves to lose support. “Rehoboam . . . mustered the whole house of Judah” 1 Kings 12:20–24. When the north acclaimed Jeroboam as king, Rehoboam prepared for war. Only intervention by a prophet named Shemaiah headed off the conflict. Shemaiah’s advice is still appropriate for Christians, who too often find occasion to feud with other believers. “Do not go up to fight against your brothers.” “The king made two golden calves” 1 Kings 12:25–33. Jeroboam feared that if his people went up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord, as the Law required, they might in time seek political reunification. His fears led him to set up a system that counterfeited the Old Testament’s revealed religion. Jeroboam chose two cities long associated with worship, Bethel and Dan, as worship centers. He appointed priests who were not of Aaron’s line, changed the dates of religious festivals, and offered sacrifices on altars set up at Bethel and Dan. This was a calculated abandonment of revealed religion. Yet it was intended to mimic the true. False religions often have elements in common with biblical faith. For instance, many of the world’s “great” religions call for morality. Yet counterfeit faiths lack one essential ingredient—the presence and power of the one God, who has revealed Himself to us. Only God is able to forgive sinners and transform them so that they may live godly lives. Religion without the Lord is empty, as the religious system Jeroboam established was empty and useless. “A man of God came from Judah to Bethel” 1 Kings 13:1–10. The day that Jeroboam dedicated the religious center at Bethel, a prophet appeared and announced that a future king of Judah, Josiah by name, would desecrate Jeroboam’s altar by burning human bones on it. As proof, the altar would now split and ashes be poured out. Jeroboam pointed at the prophet to order his death, but his hand and arm atrophied! Shaken, Jeroboam begged the prophet to pray for him, and his hand was restored. Jeroboam knew that his acts displeased God. Yet this first king of divided Israel continued in his sinful course. “Even after this,” the text tells us, “Jeroboam did not change his evil ways.” When God warns us, it is wise to change course! “Abijah son of Jeroboam became ill” 1 Kings 14:1–19. Jeroboam’s wife came to Ahijah the prophet in disguise. The prophet gave her a message of doom for Jeroboam. His son would die. And every male descendant of Jeroboam’s would die a violent death. The judgment was merited, for Jeroboam had set Israel on a course of apostasy and idolatry that would lead to national disaster. Perhaps most significant are the words about Jeroboam’s ill son. His death was intended as a blessing, for “he is the only one in the house of Jeroboam in whom the Lord . . . has found anything good” (v. 13). Those of us who suffer the loss of a child, or of some other young person who is dear to us, often struggle to understand. Usually there is no explanation, and we are forced to keep on living by faith. Yet this passage reminds us that the death of godly persons is not always a tragedy. Sometimes it is intended as a blessing. The thought is echoed in Isaiah 57:1–2: “The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.” “Judah did evil in the eyes of the Lord” 1 Kings 14:21–31. Solomon’s son Rehoboam permitted great apostasy in Judah, the Southern Kingdom. As a result, God sent Shishak of Egypt to sack Jerusalem and steal the golden treasures Solomon had assembled (see 1 Kings 10). Life became hard in the divided kingdom, and incipient war flared up again and again between the Divided Hebrew kingdoms. It’s easy to gain momentum going downhill. It’s much more difficult to stop and begin to go up again.
Don’t Listen to Old Prophets (1 Kings 13)
One of my professors in seminary told the story of how, as a young and single pastor, one of the ladies in his congregation announced that God had told her he was to marry the lady’s daughter. In a way, his experience was like that of the young prophet God sent to Bethel to speak against Jeroboam’s false religion. The passage tells us that after he completed his mission, and was on the way home, an old prophet who lived nearby stopped him. God had told the young man not to eat or drink in Israel. But the old prophet had a ready answer. God had told him, the old prophet, to tell his younger colleague that it was all right to stop over at his house and have a meal. We don’t know the old prophet’s motive. Maybe he was lonely. Perhaps he was upset that God hadn’t sent him to Jeroboam. Whatever the reason, the old prophet was lying. As the young prophet set out on his way back home, he was attacked and killed by a lion. The incident carried an important message for Jeroboam. If God’s word was so important that even a slight deviation brought death, how terrible Jeroboam’s sin must be. As far as we know, Jeroboam remained unmoved. He even lived and ruled in Israel for another 22 years, perpetuating his own false cult. The story has an important lesson for us as well. It’s a lesson my professor had learned, and after being told many times by this lady of God’s desire for him to marry her daughter, my prof taught the lesson to her. “When God tells me to marry your daughter,” he said, “I’ll do it.” The lesson? Just this. We don’t have to listen to old prophets, who insist on telling us God’s will for our lives. God will tell us that Himself. And only when He does are we to act.
God will show you what His will is. Be sensitive to Him, and beware of those who glibly tell you what you ought to do.