Solomon’s life left deep scars on both his family and his subjects. His rebellion against God turned him into a cruel ruler. A harsh and exacting man who demanded more than his subjects could give. He also led them away from worshipping the one true God and into a confusing web of idolatry and pagan ritual that sent them reeling back into the days when Israel was ruled by Judges and was engaged in one long cycle of apostasy and subjugation.
When Solomon died his son Rehoboam ascended to the throne. Soon after his ascension Rehoboam went to Shechem, where the nobility of the kingdom had gathered to formally recognise him as king.
However, just prior to Solomon’s death God had sent a prophet to Jeroboam, the son of Nebat. The prophet Ahijah, a native of Shiloh, was instructed to tell Jeroboam that because Israel had forsaken God and followed after idols during the reign of Solomon, God would divide the kingdom after the close of Solomon’s reign.
Solomon was aware of Ahijah’s prophecy and tried to prepare his son Rehoboam to meet the crisis with the wisdom and tact it necessitated but Rehoboam allowed the advice to slide over him like water off a duck’s back.
After Solomon died and Rehoboam came to claim what he believed rightfully his, he was faced with the first and most catastrophic crisis of his nascent rule. Soon after Rehoboam was confirmed on the throne he was approached by a group of leading men from the kingdom.
The delegation that approached his asked him a simple and reasonable question. Having experienced hardship under the sometimes tyrannical rule of his father Solomon, the people of the kingdom wanted to know if they could expect him to dish out more of the same or if, unlike his hedonistic father, Rehoboam could be counted on to be a fair and just ruler.
Rehoboam didn’t give them an immediate answer. Instead he approached some of his trusted counsellors. First he approached the old guard, courtiers and counsellors who had been with his father and had observed first hand the pressures that his exacting demands had placed on the people. The old guard urged moderation and compassion. They urged him to consider the appeal that his subjects had presented to him and ease off on the taxes and other hard measures that his father had put in place.
Rehoboam then approached a group of younger counsellors, quite possibly friends of his whom he had elevated to the role of courtiers. They gave him advice that was completely opposed to what the older men had given him. They suggested a heavy handed approach. They urged him to tighten the screws and press down the yoke and make sure that his subjects knew who was in charge.
When the men of the kingdom came back to the king three days later Rehoboam decided to go with the advice that the younger men had given him. He told the delegation that he intended to make their lives harder and more miserable than his father had made it. He told them he intended to increase their taxes.
It was a foolish move. Made all the more perverse by the fact that God had never intended for Israel to have kings in the first place much less for them to treat their subjects with such contempt.
Rehoboam’s reckless bid to create a state that resembled the Assyrians for sheer force of power backfired. Instead of submitting to him ten of the twelve tribes seceded. Israel was no longer a united kingdom. The kingdom was divided in two and the ten northern tribes formed a separate government under the rulership of Jeroboam who had already been warned by God of what was coming.
The southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to Rehoboam for the sake of his grand-father David.
And so it was that what God had prophesied came to pass not so much because it was predetermined and therefore impossible to prevent but more because Rehoboam chose to make a single foolish reckless choice that alienated people.
Meanwhile in the south Jeroboam, new to the throne and elevated from the position of being nothing more than a pauper in the kingdom, was feeling vulnerable. In truth he had nothing to worry about because God himself had given him the northern kingdom but he did worry. So much so that he began to plot ways to preserve the loyalty of his subjects.
He decided that having them go up to Jerusalem to worship at the temple was a serious liability. After all, if they continued to view Jerusalem as the heartland of their spiritual experience then they might be tempted to view it as their political center as well. Maybe they would forget Rehoboam’s rashness over time. Maybe they would choose to pay homage to him and Jeroboam would be cast down from his newly acquired throne.
Paranoia and a thirst for power spurred Jeroboam on to create a second center of worship in the northern kingdom. In fact, he was so zealous about the whole idea that he built two centers of worship one in Dan at the northern end of the kingdom and the other at Bethel in the south.
He reasoned that the ten tribes could worship here instead of at Jerusalem. He built a temple similar to the one in Jerusalem at what is now known as Tel Dan. Then Jeroboam went a step too far. He placed two golden calves in the most holy place of the temple, picked the most amoral men to be priests of his new hybrid religion and encouraged the ten northern tribes to not only worship at Dan but to also worship a false God.
It was debacle of epic proportions surpassed only by the debacle with the golden calf at Sinai and the Midianite harlots at Moab. This was the beginning of the dizzying downward spiral that brought the northern kingdom to its knees leading to deep and terrible apostasy and eventually to the dispersion of the northern tribes among the Assyrians.
The story of the rending of the kingdom of Israel is filled with so many lessons. The first being a cautionary tale about who we choose to look to for advice and counsel. The second being a warning against greed and pride. Ultimately the key takeaway is this; both kings needed to trust God and obey his commandments. It was their unwillingness to do this that destroyed them both.