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A People Divided
Reflections on 1 Kings 12:1-16

Dennis Bratcher

Introduction

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 them.

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.

The Text

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 Kings 11:26-40).

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 action.

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 scorpions.’"

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 answer?").

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 becomes destructive.

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).

Conclusion

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?

-Dennis R. Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis R. Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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