Commentary on 1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29
The hopefulness and unity of the kingdom of Israel glimpsed in last week’s readings are no more.
Jealousy, greed, and selfishness in David’s household and among his descendants, have led to coups, rape, murders, and rebellions. Royal projects and policies have placed a heavy burden upon the citizens to supply crops, animals, and other materials. Both King David and his son King Solomon implemented systems of forced labor. Both favored certain cities and tribal affiliations over others. Both developed strategic international alliances through marriages to the daughters of foreign rulers. Solomon built cities to store the chariots, horses, cavalry, and other goods he amassed. He made shields and goblets of gold. Solomon built a magnificent temple in Jerusalem and led a massive procession, with innumerable sacrifices, to transfer the ark to the inner sanctuary of the temple. Solomon also built worship sites (“high places”) for the gods of all his foreign wives, and “walked after” the goddess Astarte and the god Milcom.
Solomon had a heart (loyalty) problem. Solomon was wise and prosperous, but “his heart had turned away from the LORD.” The LORD confronts Solomon directly and passes judgment: “Since this has been your mind and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant” (I Kings 11:9-13). The LORD immediately clarifies: 1) there will be one part of the kingdom that will remain; 2) it will pass to Solomon’s heir; and 3) the tearing apart of the kingdom will occur after Solomon’s death.
The conditions for civic collapse and division were the result of the royal decisions of David and Solomon. It is the LORD, however, who initiates and leads the process of change. The LORD not only announces the LORD’s intention to tear away the kingdom, the LORD raises up three adversaries: Two – Hadad the Edomite and Rezon of Damascus – represent grievances going back to David. Jeroboam, however, was “a servant of Solomon,” “very able” and “industrious” whom Solomon himself appointed to have “charge over all the forced labor of the house of Joseph” (1 Kings 11:26-29).
Jeroboam’s status as adversary is due to a divine promise to him that parallels the divine judgment delivered to Solomon. The prophet Ahijah reports to Jeroboam the judgment the LORD delivered to Solomon and reveals that the LORD will give him the torn-away kingdom. Moreover, the LORD desires to work in covenant with Jeroboam, as the LORD had done with David and Solomon (1 Kings 11:38).
The wisdom of the LORD’s decision to tear away part of the kingdom is clear in the encounter between Rehoboam and the people of Israel at Shechem. The people are prepared to serve Rehoboam as their king. They request that the “hard service” and “heavy yoke” imposed by Solomon be lightened. The elders, familiar with Solomon’s administration, counsel Rehoboam to lead with service (“be a servant;” “serve”), and indicate that the people will respond in kind: “then they will be your servants forever.” The contrast to the Solomonic model of service could not be clearer. It was, however, not the counsel Rehoboam wanted to hear, nor the way he chose to address the people and describe how he would treat them.
The self-serving and oppressive royal policies of David and Solomon are what Samuel warned would happen when the people requested a king (1 Samuel 8:11-17). They are not in keeping with the expectations that the king would be the one who “delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper … has pity on the weak and the needy…[and] from oppression and violence he redeems their life” (Psalm 72:12-14).
Jeroboam, like King David, had no special pedigree to be king, was a servant of the king, was chosen by God to be king while his predecessor was still in the position, was targeted to be killed by his king, and never harmed his king or his king’s successor.
There is nothing to suggest that Jeroboam adopted the forced labor system of Solomon, his former king and employer, for his city building projects in Shechem and Penuel, or that he collected wealth for himself, or offended the people of Israel. In fact, “all Israel mourned” when Abijah — Jeroboam’s son and presumed heir — died (1 Kings 14:18).
Though Ahijah had indicated the LORD’s desire to build Jeroboam “an enduring house, as [God] built for David,” Jeroboam feared that if the Israelites continue to journey to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices, their hearts (their loyalty) “will turn again to their master, King Rehoboam of Judah,” and they will kill Jeroboam.
Jeroboam decided, first, to redirect the center of worship to two sites in the territory of Israel: Bethel in the south and Dan in the far north. Bethel was a place of worship on Abraham and Sarah’s journey (Genesis 12:8). It was where Jacob dreamed and heard God’s promise (Gen 28:10-19), and where the LORD renamed him “Israel” (Genesis 35:9-15).
In Bethel and Dan Jeroboam set up golden calves and announced: “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” – the very words Aaron spoke to the Israelites anxious over who would lead them (Exodus 32:4). Jeroboam provokes divine anger and judgment (1 Kings 14:9-11). There will be no “enduring house” because of the “sin of Jeroboam.”
The narrative of First Kings from this point on toggles between reports of the kings of Israel and reports of the kings of Judah. Rehoboam’s record indicates the people of Judah “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” and “built for themselves high places, pillars, and sacred poles” (1 Kings 14:22-23).
1 Kings 12 does not provide a judgement-free example of royal leadership, but it shapes our judgment of leaders: they are to be servants, and are to not to confuse or detract from the people’s loyalty to their God.
- On contrasts and similarities in the presentation of the Davidic kings and Jeroboam see Keith Bodner, Jeroboam’s Royal Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Mighty God, your servant Rehoboam divided your kingdom with his tyranny, yet you remained faithful to both kingdoms, even in the midst of conflict. Show us your presence in conflict, and help us to resolve our differences, uniting this world in your name. Amen.
Thy Kingdom Come, O Lord, F. Melius Christiansen