A People Divided
Reflections on 1 Kings 12:1-16
Marie Antoinette was Queen of France during the violent era of the French
Revolution (1755-1793). She was an Austrian, but in order to seal a peace
treaty between Austria and France, she married the heir to the French
throne. Marie Antoinette loved the lavish lifestyle of royalty and openly
pursued personal pleasure above all else.
At the time, France was nearly bankrupt. Most of the people were peasants
who lived in poverty while a small group of nobility hoarded the resources
of the country. Frequent shortages of basic foods angered the people. On one
occasion a starving mob surrounded the palace and demanded bread. Marie
Antoinette arrogantly responded, "Let them eat cake." The story is perhaps
legendary. Yet it illustrates the complete lack of sensitivity of those who
have forgotten, or never known, the needs and concerns of the people around
Eventually, a bloody revolution erupted in France that led to Marie
Antoinette’s execution on the guillotine. Discord is always the result when
persons who live in community together, whether leaders or people, fail to
understand or care about each other. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, showed the
same callous disregard of the people he ruled. The result was the tragic
division of the Israelite kingdom.
1. A Rebellious People (1 Kings 12:1-5)
1 Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all
Israel had come to Shechem to make him king. 2 And when
Jeroboam the son of Nebat heard of it (for he was still in Egypt, whither
he had fled from King Solomon), then Jeroboam returned from Egypt. 3 And
they sent and called him; and Jeroboam and all the assembly of Israel came
and said to Rehoboam, 4 "Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore
lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke upon us, and we
will serve you." 5 He said to them, "Depart for three days, then
come again to me." So the people went away.
In many ways, Solomon is remembered as a great king of Israel. Yet
he is also remembered as the king who wasted his God-given potential by
failing to keep his priorities straight. He started the nation on a downhill
slide from which it would never fully recover.
Solomon’s son Rehoboam inherited the throne from his father and, sadly,
followed in his footsteps. Rehoboam had grown up in Solomon’s royal court.
Because God had blessed Solomon and the people of God, Rehoboam had never
known scarcity, strife, or war. He grew to be king without ever knowing the
crucible of personal struggle and triumph that forge character, maturity,
and spiritual growth.
The other person in this story is Jeroboam. He had overseen Solomon’s
building projects in the northern part of his kingdom. The Northerners were
fiercely independent people who resented being ruled by a king from the
South (David’s family was from southern Judah). They were also unhappy about
the taxes and forced labor imposed by Solomon. Jeroboam used the people’s
discontent to build support for himself. Solomon had forced him to flee for
his life when he tried to make himself king over the northern tribes (1
So when we read that Jeroboam had returned to Israel, there is suspicion
that he had not come merely to bring greetings to the new king. When
Jeroboam and the people asked Rehoboam to ease the taxes and "harsh labor,"
it was a thinly veiled airing of discontent with the rule of the Davidic
dynasty in the north. They were on the verge of open rebellion and were
hoping for a compromise from the new king.
We should admit here that it is a human shortcoming to place great
expectations on new leaders. We too easily assume that a new person at the
top can solve all our problems, or we expect that any change in leadership
will always be for the better. The people’s unrealistic hopes placed on the
new king helped create the later disappointment in his reign.
While the people had valid complaints, they created a crisis by their
narrow range of vision. They were more concerned with their rights and
localized interests than they were with the stability of the larger
community. In sending for the rebellious Jeroboam, the people betrayed a
lack of loyalty to the kingdom. They had already decided their course of
The real crisis here is a crisis of community. Both people and leaders
were unwilling to set aside their selfish agendas and work together for the
good of the whole community. Dissension and conflict within any community
usually come because self-centered leaders or people are unwilling to give
up personal rights for the sake of unity.
2. An Insensitive Leader (1 Kings 12:6-14)
6 Then King Rehoboam took counsel with
the old men, who had stood before Solomon his father while he was yet
alive, saying, "How do you advise me to answer this people?" 7 And
they said to him, "If you will be a servant to this people today and serve
them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be
your servants for ever."
8 But he forsook the counsel which the
old men gave him, and took counsel with the young men who had grown up
with him and stood before him. 9 And he said to them, "What do you advise
that we answer this people who have said to me, `Lighten the yoke that
your father put upon us’?" 10 And the young men who had grown up with him
said to him, "Thus shall you speak to this people who said to you, `Your
father made our yoke heavy, but do you lighten it for us’; thus shall you
say to them, `My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. 11 And
now, whereas my father laid upon you a heavy yoke, I will add to your
yoke. My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with
12 So Jeroboam and all the people came
to Rehoboam the third day, as the king said, "Come to me again the third
day." 13 And the king answered the people harshly, and forsaking the
counsel which the old men had given him, 14 he spoke to them according to
the counsel of the young men, saying, "My father made your yoke heavy, but
I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will
chastise you with scorpions."
It is amazing that the story provides no hint that Rehoboam was even
aware of the danger confronting him. He faced a crisis of leadership that
would have broad implications. Yet the narrative presents him as mindless of
the severity of the crisis.
Perhaps we might credit Rehoboam with realizing that he was in over his
head and needed advice (vv. 6, 8). But the narrator interprets the events in
a different direction. The questions posed to the two groups from whom
Rehoboam was seeking counsel are revealing. He asked the "elders" for advice
("How would you advise?"), but asked the "young men"’ how to
deal with the people ("What shall we
Like the people, Rehoboam had already made up his mind. Asking advice of
the elders was a mere formality required by tradition. In rejecting the
opinion of the elders who had served his father, he rejected the style of
leadership of Solomon and David. While neither David nor Solomon was
perfect, each showed commitment to God and compassion for God’s people.
Rehoboam showed little concern for either. He was more interested in his
position and exerting his authority than in building a community in which
the people could truly be God’s people.
Rehoboam illustrates the arrogance of leaders who are more concerned with
an institution than with the people for whom the institution exists. Before
we jump too quickly to condemn our favorite villain leaders, we need to
remember that the real issue here is not just leadership, but people living
and working together in community. People, as well as leaders, make up
community. As the prophet Zechariah pointed out, people usually get the kind
of leaders they deserve; and leaders usually get the kind of people they
deserve (Zechariah 11:4-17).
Rehoboam also illustrates the crucial need to pass on faith in God
carefully and deliberately from one generation to the next. David was the
first generation of a new era of history. The Scriptures remembered him as a
deeply committed man of God who molded a nation from a loosely organized
group of competing tribes. Second generation Solomon inherited a stable
kingdom and simply had to organize the nation.
Rehoboam is a classic example of a pattern of behavior seen in the third
generation. He showed little concern for God or for the nation he was to
rule as the anointed of God. Whether in nations, organizations, businesses,
churches, or families, the third generation is always at risk. Frequently,
they simply inherit the traditions of their parents without making them
their own. The dream of the first generation does not fire them. They are
not compelled to maintain the stability won by the second generation. They
often see no need to walk in the ways of their fathers and try to make their
own way. Lacking commitment to something beyond themselves, without the
guidance and wisdom of a larger community, their quest for independence
Young people growing up in the community of faith today are not immune to
these tendencies. The church needs to be aware of the problem of third
generation Christians and work hard at nurturing the faith in a positive way
for its children.
3. A Community Divided (1 Kings 12:15-16)
15 So the king did not
hearken to the people; for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the
LORD that he might fulfill his word, which the LORD spoke by Ahijah the
Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. 16 And when all Israel saw
that the king did not hearken to them, the people answered the king, "What
portion have we in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To
your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David." So Israel
departed to their tents.
The Scripture writer interprets these events as "from the Lord" to
fulfill a prediction spoken by a prophet. This does not mean that the events
were predestined to occur, thus taking
away the ability of the persons involved to choose their course of action.
The Scripture writer condemns the events as not in harmony with God’s
purpose for the nation. This is a confession of faith. In these events, bad
as they were, God had not abandoned His work in the world and His purposes
for His people.
"The king did not listen to the people."
How often in history has this been the epitaph of a nation? Tyrants,
dictators, and authoritarian leaders usually end up tearing apart the people
whom they govern. It is no less true for religious leaders.
Ezekiel presented a graphic illustration of oppressive leaders. He
compared leaders to shepherds who should care for and take responsibility
for the flock. Instead of feeding the sheep, bad shepherds butchered them
for food and took their skins for clothing (Ezekiel 34). Against this
background Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd and challenged Peter to
feed the sheep (John 10; 21:15-19).
"What share do we have in David?"
How often has this been the motto for rebellion and withdrawal from a
community. Some people think that the best way to solve problems is to
withdraw and do things their own way. They have broken up families, split
churches, caused governments to collapse, and started wars. It is much
easier to run from problems than to stay and work to resolve them.
On the one side a king who could not, or refused, to understand the needs
of his people. On the other, a group of people who resented restrictions and
control, valuing their independence more than the larger community. The
result was a nation fragmented by civil war and eventually destroyed.
What would the Israelite nation have become if it had not succumbed to
internal disharmony? No other nation was in control of world history then.
Could Israel have emerged as the world power that Assyria would later
become? Could God have worked in even greater ways in the world had the
nation stayed together? Of course, we can only speculate. But the question
is real, and serious.
How many churches have crippled their ability to proclaim the redemption
of Jesus Christ because they have mired themselves in petty disputes? How
many people have given up on God, religion, the church, because they saw too
little harmony in the community of faith? It is like the story of the person
who drowned while the lifeguards were arguing about the best way to rescue
him! Is God pleased with ANY discord within the Body of Christ that lessens
the church’s ability to minister to a hurting, broken world?
Again, we must be honest enough to admit that friction between human
beings is unavoidable. Prayer, a trip to the altar, a religious experience,
commitment to God, may all bring us closer to God but will not make us any
less human. Whether we like it or not, friction between persons is part of
being human. Even Paul, while spreading the Gospel, had his personality
clashes (Acts 15:39).
The difference for Christians is in how we deal with friction and
disharmony before it develops into dissension and division. Here we need to
hear, and practice, Paul’s advice to the church at Philippi: "Do nothing
from selfishness . . . Let each of you look not only to his own interests,
but also to the interests of others." (Philippians 4:3-4). Paul pointed to
Jesus as a model of such selfless love (vv. 5-11).
Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States through its most
trying test of unity, the Civil War. Much like the division of Israel, the
war set opposing views of community against each other. The divisions ran
deep and many wondered whether the nation could ever again be united with
common goals and a common purpose.
Shortly after the South had surrendered, a crowd of some three thousand
people led by a brass band gathered before the White House. They called for
a speech from Lincoln, expecting him to proclaim a great celebration at the
victory of the North. Instead, Lincoln asked the band to play "Dixie," the
unofficial anthem of the Southern Confederacy.
Lincoln could not prevent the
division of the Civil War. But he could respond to those who had been his
enemies, those he would now have to govern, with compassion and
understanding, "with malice toward none, with charity for all" (from
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865). He understood, as Jesus
did, that a people divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25). No
community can, not even a church.
O Lord, forgive me for my selfish attitudes, for
my lack of compassion, for wanting my own way even when it hurts others.
Teach me to follow the example of the unselfish humility of your Son. Mold
me with others into a people united in service to you that we together may
serve the hurting and broken humanity around us.
Questions for Discussion
1. In the church, what are some areas in which we must give up
individual rights for the sake of the community?
2. Which is more important to preserve in the church: personal freedom
or community identity? Why?
3. What are some biblical guidelines for dealing with truly arrogant
and selfish leaders? with self-centered members of the community?
4. Should we realistically expect radical change from a new leader? Why
or why not?
5. What are some other factors besides the person that would affect how
a new leader could bring about change in a community or group?
6. Considering the popularity of independent churches, what advantages
and disadvantages are there in individuals belonging to an institutional
or denominational church? What advantages and disadvantages are there for
a particular congregation to belong to a larger denomination?
7. What are some ways a community of faith can deal with the problem of
the third generation?