- Main Text: 1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29
- Accompanying text: Mark 10:42-45
What this passage means to us
“Europe is committing suicide. Or at least its leaders have decided to commit suicide” . Nowadays there are dire assessments and predictions about the future of Europe, the UK, the United States, China and other nations in the next 10 years or so. Is the world heading for another crisis? Perhaps there are some similarities between our fragmented situation now and what led up the one of the most fractious divisions in the history of the Old Testament.
Little did people expect it at the time but Solomon’s kingdom in all its glory was heading for catastrophe. Towards the end of Solomon’s reign Ahijah the prophet of Shiloh prophesied to a man called Jeroboam, “Take ten pieces for yourself, for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘See, I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand and give you ten tribes’”, and, in response, “Solomon tried to kill Jeroboam, but Jeroboam fled to Egypt, to Shishak the king, and stayed there until Solomon’s death” (1 Kings 11:31,40).
As we read 1 Kings, it’s useful to remember that in “Hebrew the book is called the ‘Kingdoms’ of Israel, not ‘Kings’. The word ‘kingdom’ has a different meaning in Hebrew. In English it refers to the land over which a sovereign rules. Thus England is part of the United Kingdom under the reign of the Queen. In Hebrew, however, the word ‘kingdom’ refers to the reign of the monarch, so it is defined in terms of authority not area, rule rather than reign…under a constitutional monarchy, the Queen reigns but does not rule, the power residing in the elected government…The kings of Israel, by contrast, had absolute power”.
What Solomon and in turn his son, Rehoboam, had failed to grasp and to put into practice was the concept of the shepherd-king, which had been announced to David at the time of his anointing as King of Israel (2 Samuel 5:2).
The word “shepherd” described the ideal ruler of God’s people. In looking forward to the Israel to come, the spiritual Israel that is the church, God uses the same imagery as a model for modern day pastors and church leaders: “Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding” (Jeremiah 3:15). God’s condemnation of the kings of both Israel (and Judah) is clear: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? — You have ruled them harshly and brutally” (Ezekiel 34:2,4). The only hope was for a true Shepherd King to come, one who would care for the people and be willing to sacrifice for them: “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep” (Ezekiel 34:11-12). This is referring directly to Jesus, who declared, ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15).
Jeroboam is an interesting character study. Perhaps he was right in pointing out to Rehoboam that to oppress the people was wrong, but afterwards he appears to take personal advantage of the situation and to take matters into his own hands. Jeroboam had previously been put in charge of Solomon’s forced labour camps in the north, and, subsequently, is thought to have rebelled against Solomon’s idolatry, injustices and excesses. “Jeroboam son of Nebat rebelled against the king. He was one of Solomon’s officials, an Ephraimite…a man of standing, and when Solomon saw how well the young man did his work, he put him in charge of the whole labour force of the tribes of Joseph” (2 Kings 11:26, 28). His life after he became the first King of Israel brings James 3:16 to mind. “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice”. Towards the end of Jeroboam’s reign Abijah sent a message to him, “Go, tell Jeroboam that this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I raised you up from among the people and appointed you ruler over my people Israel. I tore the kingdom away from the house of David and gave it to you, but… You have done more evil than all who lived before you…Because of this, I am going to bring disaster on the house of Jeroboam” (see 2 Kings 14:1-10).
At one point in Christ’s ministry some of the disciples wanted to advance themselves and to be promoted in status. The Good Shepherd, Jesus, said to them, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45). There are lessons here for church and world leaders alike.
Context and Story Line
The deep-seated differences between the northern and southern areas of David’s kingdom were never resolved by either David or Solomon. In particular the tribes of the north resented the imposition of taxes levied from the prosperous southern capital. Rehoboam failed to realise how serious the situation was and made matters worse by his aggressive posturing. When the northerners chose the exiled Jeroboam as their spokesperson, Rehoboam rejected their requests to ease the tax burden, and appointed a despised bureaucrat to oversee further taxation. The northerners stoned the bureaucrat to death, and the soon-to-be Jeroboam 1 of Israel consolidated his position before leading the rebellion against Rehoboam and forming a separate nation. Jeroboam set up pagan worship centres in Bethel and Dan to rival the Temple at Jerusalem and changed the worship seasons, perhaps to reflect how in the north harvesting took place later than in the south, but also to distract the Israelites away from going up to the Temple at Jerusalem. After the split there “was continual warfare between Rehoboam and Jeroboam” (1 Kings 14:30). With a few exceptions, most of the kings of Judah were unjust and corrupt rulers. As for the kings of Israel, they “did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam” (2 Kings 15:28).
Some historians trace the divided kingdom back to resentments that had built up at the time of Solomon. “But at the end, what marked the end of the united monarchy was Solomon’s foreign wives, who seduced him into setting up worship centers in the land for their foreign gods (1 Kings 11). That and Solomon’s history of using forced labor, especially from the northern tribes (David and Solomon were from Judah in the south), and before you know it the country breaks along the north-south default line and two nations are formed around 930 BCE; Israel in the north and Judah in the south” .
Despite internal weaknesses caused by the division, both Judah, with its Temple riches, and Israel, with its agricultural heritage, remained good pickings for any passing invader. “Nine years after Solomon’s death…The pharaoh Sheshonq, who had encouraged the breakup of the Israelite united monarchy, marched up the coast, swerving towards Jerusalem. The temple was rich enough to make a further detour lucrative. King Rehoboam had to buy off Sheshonq with the Temple treasury — Solomon’s gold…the pharaoh left an inscription on a stele boasting of his conquests: a tantalizing fragment survives. A hieroglyphic text…shows that soon afterwards Sheshonq’s heir Osorkon dedicated 383 tons of gold to his temples, probably the loot from Jerusalem. Sheshonq’s invasion is the first biblical event confirmed by archaeology” . Sheshonq is traditionally identified as the pharaoh Shishak, who protected Jeroboam in Egypt (1 King 11:40), who plundered the prosperous kingdom of Judah (2 Chronicles 12:1-4, 1 Kings 14:25-26), and whose military conquests are described on a display in the Amon temple in Luxor.
The divided kingdom was an historic division of the land, of the people, of the monarchy and, more importantly, of religion. Would it ever be the same again? Prophets began to offer a hope that would be realised in Jesus Christ. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
In this perilous and confused world in which we now live, Jesus still remains that only hope.
- Psalm 46
- John 10:1-21
Other GCI resources
Footnotes and references:
- Douglas Murray, The Strange Death of Europe (London, UK: BLOOMSBURY CONTINUUM, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2017). 1.
- David Pawson, Unlocking the Bible: A Unique Overview of the Whole Bible (London, UK: William Collins, 2015). 292-293.
- Peter Enns, How the Bible Actually Works*: *In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers – and Why That’s Great News (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 2019). 232.
- Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem: The Biography (London, UK: Weldenfeld & Nicolson, 2011). 31.