Have you ever had the experience of not being treated as a real person? Eg, maybe someone’s asked how you are; and you start telling them, but suddenly realise they’re not listening – they’re looking over your shoulder for someone else. And you think, ‘Don’t just pretend to be listening. Please treat me as a real person.’ Or maybe you’ve had the experience I had recently in a restaurant. The waiter brought me something completely different from what I’d ordered; so I told him, and he said, ‘Well, are you happy with this, or shall I take it away?’ And I thought, ‘Well, of course I’m not happy with this or I’d have ordered it. Please treat me as a real person.’
Just think about what was going on with that waiter. The real me wanted salmon. Whereas he’d created in his mind a different me, an unreal me – who’d be equally happy with pork. And he did that for his own convenience – to save him going back to the kitchen and starting again. Ie, he did it to stay in control, pursuing his agenda of not wasting the pork, rather than surrendering to my agenda of having salmon.
And if we’re honest, we treat others that way a lot of the time. And this morning’s part of the Bible is a warning against treating God that way. Because it comes naturally to us to create in our minds a picture of God that’s completely different from the real God of the Bible. And the Bible word for doing that is idolatry. And we do it for the very same reason as that waiter. We do it because it’s more convenient, because an unreal God of our own making will never make big demands on us. Ie, the bottom line is: we do it to stay in control of our own lives rather than surrender them to God. And we need to be warned against that, and encouraged to treat God as the person he really is. So would you turn in the Bibles to 1 Kings 12.
This is the last of a series in 1 Kings – which is a book about the kings who ruled over God’s Old Testament (OT) people. And the picture below shows the story so far:
King David handed over a united 12 tribes of Israel to his son Solomon (1 Kings 1-10). Solomon then went spiritually off the rails and, as a judgement, God allowed a rebellion so that his people split into two (1 Kings 11-12). So Solomon’s son Rehoboam became king of just one tribe, Judah, down south. While this other guy Jeroboam became king of the rest of Israel, up north.
And for the writer of Kings, Jeroboam is the example of how not to treat God, the warning against idolatry. I’ve got two headings,
Firstly, THE ILLUSION OF BEING IN CONTROL (vv1-4)
When that waiter in the restaurant thought I might be equally happy with pork, he was thinking of an unreal me. And he wanted that unreal me to exist so that instead of him serving me and having to go back to the kitchen, I would actually serve him by settling for the pork. Ie, he was turning everything upside down, because whereas the customer is supposed to be in control, with the waiter serving, he was thinking he could be in control with the customer serving.
And the way Jeroboam treated God was just like that. Jeroboam thought that he could be in control, with God serving him. Let me remind you what we’ve seen about him. Look down to 1 Kings 12.26 (Jeroboam is now king up north):
26 Jeroboam thought to himself, "The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David (ie, he’s worried about losing control to the south). 27 If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam."
28 After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, "It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12.26-28)
So his agenda is to stay in control of his kingdom. And he thinks he can use God to serve his agenda. Look on to v31:
31 Jeroboam [also] built shrines [literally, temples] on high places [ie, the places where other gods were worshipped by the people who were in the promised land before Israel]… (1 Kings 12.31)
So he not only encourages people to worship the real God in the wrong way (with golden calves); he encourages them to worship other gods as well, as if the real God is just one among many. And all to stay in control, so that he doesn’t lose people to the south.
But the real God won’t tolerate being treated like that. So in chapter 13 we saw him fire a warning shot across Jeroboam’s bows. Look on to 13.1:
1 By the word of the LORD a man of God came from Judah to Bethel, as Jeroboam was standing by the altar to make an offering. 2 He cried out against the altar by the word of the LORD… [skip to v4:] 4 When King Jeroboam heard what the man of God cried out against the altar at Bethel, he stretched out his hand from the altar and said, "Seize him!" But the hand he stretched out toward the man shriveled up, so that he could not pull it back.
5 Also, the altar was split apart and its ashes poured out according to the sign given by the man of God by the word of the LORD. [So suddenly the real God has made his presence felt, to show that he, not Jeroboam, is in fact in control. Read on, v6:] 6 Then the king said to the man of God, "Intercede with the LORD your God and pray for me that my hand may be restored." So the man of God interceded with the LORD, and the king's hand was restored and became as it was before. (1 Kings 13.1-6)
And you might think Jeroboam would change after that experience. But look over the page to 13.33:
33 Even after this, Jeroboam did not change his evil ways… (1 Kings 13.33)
I don’t know if you remember in the news a while back the story of a jumbo jet which flew through an ash cloud over a volcano and all four engines stalled, and it went into a shallow dive. It took 10 minutes to restart them. And I remember interview after interview with passengers who said, ‘I’m not religious, but boy did I pray for those 10 minutes.’ And the interviewer said, ‘And do you think it will make you more religious in the future?’ ‘Oh, no,’ they all said.
Which is Jeroboam all over again. In fact it’s what comes naturally to all of us sinful human beings. By nature we think we can live without God, and that our successes and joys and well-being 99% of the time can be put down entirely to ourselves. And then we think that, having ignored God and not thanked him for the 99% of the time, we can still expect him to come to our service, the other 1% of the time when we feel out of our depth. That’s how people around us think of God; that’s how we, if we’re believers, used to think of God - and it’s how we can slip back into thinking of him.
But that is not the real God. And in his kindness, the real God causes illness and healing, and causes plane engines to stall and start again, and causes 101 other things to undermine this illusion that we’re in control of life, and gives 101 other signs to make his presence felt. And he does it to turn us back from sinful independence to himself.
So maybe you’re not yet a believer and you’ve had one – or some - of those experiences of God making his presence felt, God being good to you in a particular way that’s made you realise he’s been being good to you all the time – only you’ve never acknowledged him. Well, can I say: have you responded to that? Because it’s God’s way of saying, ‘You need to realise who’s really in control and surrender your life to me, before time to do that runs out.’ And that is wonderfully possible, because despite all our mistreatment of him, God send his Son the Lord Jesus to die on the cross for our forgiveness. And if you need to know how to do that, do pick up this booklet, Why Jesus? From the Welcome Desk at the back. But Jeroboam carries on under the illusion. 13.33, again:
33 Even after this, Jeroboam did not change his evil ways, but once more appointed priests for the high places from all sorts of people. Anyone who wanted to become a priest he consecrated for the high places. 34 This was the sin of the house of Jeroboam that led to its downfall and to its destruction from the face of the earth. (1 Kings 13.33-34)
So this man who – like many of our contemporaries, maybe like some of us here this morning - feels so successfully in control of life without God, is about to have that illusion shattered. So,
Second, THE REALITY OF THE GOD WHO IS IN CONTROL (vv5-20)
1 At that time Abijah son of Jeroboam became ill… (v1)
So God brings Jeroboam face to face with mortality. And according to the Bible, back in Genesis 3, mortality is the blanket judgement that God has laid on every member of the human race for turning our backs on him. And mortality more than anything else undermines this illusion that we’re in control, that we can and do ultimately live without God, independent of God. Which is why our culture hushes up mortality so much. It’s why it’s not talked about. It’s why we desperately try one more operation or one more medication rather than face up to the fact that dying is taking place. It’s why we’ve invented euthanasia – to keep up the illusion that we’re in control right to the very end.
And Jeroboam keeps living the illusion. Look down at 14.1 again:
1 At that time Abijah son of Jeroboam became ill, 2 and Jeroboam said to his wife, "Go, disguise yourself, so you won't be recognized as the wife of Jeroboam. Then go to Shiloh. Ahijah the prophet is there—the one who told me I would be king over this people. 3 Take ten loaves of bread with you, some cakes and a jar of honey, and go to him. He will tell you what will happen to the boy." 4 So Jeroboam's wife did what he said and went to Ahijah's house in Shiloh. (vv1-4)
So Jeroboam thinks he can somehow manipulate the LORD. That’s the point of sending the wife in disguise. Jeroboam knows he’s defied the LORD completely and that the LORD owes him nothing but judgement. So he thinks if Mrs Jeroboam goes anonymously, she may be able to manipulate a healing out of the LORD – especially if she sweetens the prophet with some chocolates. Which is crude thinking, isn’t it? But that’s the sinful, unreal picture of God that comes naturally to all of us. Eg, it’s easy for us to think that there are things God can’t see – like a compromise in some area of life, or some area of settled disobedience. But that’s the unreal God. That God doesn’t exist. Or, eg, it’s also easy for us to think we can manipulate God in prayer, to give us what we want, regardless of what he wants or how we’re relating to him. But that’s the unreal God, too. Remember what the Lord Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:
7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. [Ie, they think they can manipulate God by the way they pray. He goes on:] 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6.7-8)
Ie, we’re not to think that we’re in control and always wise enough to decide what’s best for us and can then just manipulate it out of God by prayer. Instead we’re to trust that God is in control, and that he knows better than we do what we really need, and that he’s good enough to give what’s good for us - and not to give what isn’t good for us (even if we, in our lack of wisdom, ask for it). But Jeroboam keeps living the illusion. Read on, half way through v4:
Now Ahijah could not see; his sight was gone because of his age. 5 But the LORD had told Ahijah, "Jeroboam's wife is coming to ask you about her son, for he is ill, and you are to give her such and such an answer. When she arrives, she will pretend to be someone else." 6 So when Ahijah heard the sound of her footsteps at the door, he said, "Come in, wife of Jeroboam. Why this pretense? (vv4-6)
Now, remember: the Bible is not just human words, but God’s word through human authors. So we should always pause over the questions in the Bible, because they are God’s questions to us, today. And this one may be what some of us in particular need to hear from God this morning: ‘Why this pretence?’ Like the Bible says elsewhere:
13Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrew 4.13)
The God we can hide things from, the God who can’t see we’re living a double life is not the real God. And some of us in particular may need calling on this morning to stop thinking of God like that and start or re-start relating to him as the person he really is. Read on, v6:
Why this pretense? I have been sent to you with bad news. 7 Go, tell Jeroboam that this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'I raised you up from among the people and made you a leader over my people Israel. 8 I tore the kingdom away from the house of David and gave it to you, but you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commands and followed me with all his heart, doing only what was right in my eyes. 9 You have done more evil than all who lived before you. You have made for yourself other gods, idols made of metal; you have provoked me to anger and thrust me behind your back. (vv6-9)
So one thing we need to know about the real God is that he’s angered by idolatry. Just like we can’t stand it when people don’t treat us as real people. Only with us, our anger is often selfishness and wounded pride. Whereas God’s anger is perfectly right and proper.
Now let me give you a definition of idolatry. It really covers two things. On the one hand, it covers worshipping some other ‘god’ than the one, true God (which breaks the 1st commandment, ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ – Exodus 20.3). On the other hand, it covers thinking that we can worship the one, true God in some other waythan he’s said (which breaks the 2nd commandment, ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol [ie, an image of God] – Exodus 20.4-6).
And Jeroboam had done both. The golden calves broke the 2nd commandment. You remember he set them up and said, ‘Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ Ie, he wasn’t saying, ‘Let’s worship a totally different God.’ He was saying, ‘Let’s worship the LORD who brought us out of Egypt - but in a new way, using these representations of him.
But any man-made representation of God is bound to misrepresent him. That’s because, just like only you can tell others what you’re really like, so only God can tell us what he’s really like - whereas our sinful guesses and ideas about him are bound to go wrong. And God has told us what he’s like in the words he’s spoken and the events he’s brought about - which are recorded for us in the Bible – supremely leading up to sending his own Son, the Lord Jesus, into the world as a man, to die on the cross and rise again from the dead. So this book, the Bible, is the only thing that represents God truthfully. Any other representation of God – be it a picture or statue or any image - is bound to misrepresent him. (And even a sermon like this that is attempting to be faithful to the Bible will, to some extent, misrepresent God because the preacher is a sinful human being. Which is why we have Bibles in the pews - so that you can be following what’s being said and be constantly asking, ‘Is what he is saying what the Bible is saying?’)
So, how does that apply to us, who are probably not tempted in the golden calf department? What this means is that we must only think God is like what he says he’s like in the Bible. Otherwise we’re bound to create a false image of him in our minds. And it’ll always be a false image that shrinks God’s Lordship over our lives. That’s what idolatry always does. It always creates an unreal God who’s easier to live with, who’s only interested in being Lord of some areas of our lives, rather than rightful Lord of all.
Eg, a while back I spoke on a Bible passage about submitting to authorities. It says that, because Jesus is Lord of all authorities, submitting our lives to his control involves submitting to authorities. And I gave the example of keeping the speed limit. Because the unreal God we create in our minds is only interested in a few private, ‘spiritual’ areas of life – like Bible reading and prayer. He’s really not bothered about how you drive because he’s only Lord of ‘spiritual’ areas. But that isn’t the real God. And someone came up to me a while later and said, ‘You know you preached about the speed limit a while ago? Well, it really convicted me, and I’ve been driving differently and I feel a whole lot better, because that was a whole area where I realised I’d basically been rebelling against God.’
Idolatry shrinks God until he’s only Lord of some areas. Whereas the real God is not just Lord of our private, ‘spiritual’ lives, or even just Lord of our homes. Step outside our front doors into our public lives, then wherever we go and whatever we do, Jesus is Lord – eg, Lord of our working lives, whether that’s business or medicine or research or parenting or whatever. Which is why one of our three aims as a church is ‘Changing Britain’ – by which we mean we aim to help one another to take the values of the Lord Jesus Christ out into all the areas of public life that we’re involved in.
But Jeroboam also built those temples to other gods – and that’s the other form of idolatry, worshipping some other god than the one, true God. Eg, look down to the end of v15. The end of v15 says:
they provoked the LORD to anger by making Asherah poles. (v15)
Asherah was one of the other gods of the other religions of the day. And people thought she was in control of fertility – making crops grow. Now the Israelites knew that the LORD could feed them with manna in the desert. The doubt was whether he was any good at farming, now they were settled in the promised land. So Jeroboam led the way in spreading trust between gods: ‘We’ll trust the LORD for some things, but we’ll trust Asherah for our food.’
Well, again, how does this apply to us today, who are probably not tempted in the Asherah department, either? Well, again, idolatry shrinks God until he’s only Lord of some areas. And then the temptation is to spread trust between him and other gods. Eg, say we have a health problem. We take it to the doctor. And doctors in our culture do have almost god-like status. Because the culture thinks this life is all there is, so your greatest need is health; the doctors have ultimate control over health, so they really are gods. Now it’s not wrong to take the health problem to the doctor. But it is wrong to think that my health is ultimately in the control of the doctor, while the Lord only looks after ‘spiritual’ areas (like life after death). That’s spreading trust between two gods. What I should be saying is, ‘The Lord is Lord of all areas of life, including my health, and he will use the doctor as his servant to bring about what he wants for my health.’ So I don’t ultimately trust in the doctor, I trust in the Lord. And the sign that I’m doing that will be that I don’t just go to the doctor, I don’t just have the operation, I don’t just take the medicine, but that I… pray about my health. The sign that I’m not doing that will be prayerlessness and anxiety. And idolatry does make for a very anxious life - because idolatry is about trusting in gods who aren’t really God –eg, doctors. (No disrespect if you’re a doctor.)
So, the story of Jeroboam teaches us that God is angered by idolatry. And lastly, the story of Jeroboam teaches us that God will ultimately judge idolatry. Look down, lastly, to v10, and we’ll read to the end of the passage:
10 " 'Because of this, I am going to bring disaster on the house of Jeroboam. I will cut off from Jeroboam every last male in Israel—slave or free. I will burn up the house of Jeroboam as one burns dung, until it is all gone. 11 Dogs will eat those belonging to Jeroboam who die in the city, and the birds of the air will feed on those who die in the country. The LORD has spoken!'
12 "As for you, go back home. When you set foot in your city, the boy will die. 13 All Israel will mourn for him and bury him. He is the only one belonging to Jeroboam who will be buried, because he is the only one in the house of Jeroboam in whom the LORD, the God of Israel, has found anything good. [In the original, the language there suggests that the boy was a believer, so that although he died of this illness, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t in right relationship with the LORD.]
14 "The LORD will raise up for himself a king over Israel who will cut off the family of Jeroboam. This is the day! What? Yes, even now. 15 And the LORD will strike Israel [because it wasn’t just Jeroboam who was culpable; we, the people of God (in the OT or the NT) are culpable if we allow ourselves to be led into idolatry], so that it will be like a reed swaying in the water. He will uproot Israel from this good land that he gave to their forefathers and scatter them beyond the River, because they provoked the LORD to anger by making Asherah poles. 16 And he will give Israel up because of the sins Jeroboam has committed and has caused Israel to commit."
17 Then Jeroboam's wife got up and left and went to Tirzah. As soon as she stepped over the threshold of the house, the boy died. 18 They buried him, and all Israel mourned for him, as the LORD had said through his servant the prophet Ahijah.
19 The other events of Jeroboam's reign, his wars and how he ruled, are written in the book of the annals of the kings of Israel. 20 He reigned [and this shows how patient God is - giving people time and opportunity to repent] for twenty-two years and then rested with his fathers. And Nadab his son succeeded him as king. [And he gets assassinated in the next chapter.] (vv10-20)
So the message of this part of God’s word is simply this: don’t believe in the unreal God of your own thinking, but believe in the one, true God who’s made himself known in the Bible. Because if we don’t treat God as the person he really is, then like Jeroboam we’re on a collision course with him on the day of judgement. And the reason God sent his Son, the Lord Jesus, ahead of that day, to die on the cross for our forgiveness, was that he doesn’t want it to come to that in anyone’s life.