There is a terrible inevitability about the way that consistent disobedience to God leads to conflict and division and ultimately to destruction. It happens in families. It happens in local churches. It happens in denominations. It happens in nations. When we insist on our own Godless way, the writing is on the wall for us. We are on a downward path to conflict, division and destruction.
We see it again and again. Recently I saw some of a famous series of programmes charting the unfolding of the American Civil War in the 1860’s. When the United States was founded in the late 18th century, the one big issue that was left unresolved because it was too hot to handle was the question of slavery. But it was a cancer and ignoring it wouldn’t cure it. Half a century later, it became the root of that ferocious and bloody civil war that tore the United States apart.
In Europe we’ve recently been commemorating the end of the Second World War. Godless political ideologies took root and Europe descended into conflict and chaos. And the result of that was not only the tearing apart of Europe in general, but in particular the tearing into two of Germany – a division that we’ve only recently seen undone, though even now the impact of it remains.
At the other end of the scale in terms of the size of the social units involved, we only have to look around our own extended families, I imagine, to see this pattern of Godless behaviour leading to conflict, division and destruction. You may be aware of local churches that have torn themselves apart. These are tragic patterns of behaviour that we see over and over again. I believe it is the pattern that’s unfolding also in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. Disobedience to God’s word and will has caused and is causing conflict that has brought us to the brink of catastrophic division.
In one way or another we all get caught up into these situations – the Godly and the ungodly alike. If you are part of the society – as small as a family or as large as a continent – that slides towards division in this way, you cannot escape it. You get caught up in it. You may not be at fault. But you still get drawn in, and if you want to live in obedience to God, then you have to learn to do so in the context of conflict and division.
Well, our Bible passage this morning can help us. If you’ve been away, last week we started a new series called After Solomon. Through August and September we’re going to be working our way through 1 Kings 11-14. This morning we get to 1 Kings 12.1-24. You’ll find that on p 351 in the Bible’s in the pews. Do please have that open so you can follow what’s going on here. My title is ‘The Tearing of the Kingdom’ – because this is the moment at which the Kingdom of David gets wrenched apart and becomes two separate kingdoms – the northern Kingdom of Israel, and the southern Kingdom of Judah.
By the way, I wonder if talk of northern and southern Kingdoms immediately begins to get you a little confused. If you’re going to get the most out of your reading of the Bible, an overview of the Bible and an overall grasp of the major developments in Israel’s history is a tremendous help. There’s a lot that becomes so much simpler and easier to understand – and therefore easier to apply to our own lives. So let me give a little plug here. A great way to get that overall view is to do the Introduction to the Bible which is the first unit of the Moore College Introduction to the Bible course. We’ll be running that again this autumn, starting mid-September.
This year Ian Garrett’s going to be leading a series of seminars to take people through it. There’s a red leaflet out with more details. You can register by contacting Alan Munden. I highly recommend it. You don’t have to commit yourself to anything beyond this first term’s Introduction to the Bible unit, which goes right through the Bible in ten weeks. Dozens and dozens of people from JPC have done this over the years, and again and again people have told me that it’s been tremendously helpful to them – even opened up the Bible to them in a life-changing way.
So if you haven’t done this, and you can set aside a few hours a week to study, sign up soon for the course and for Ian’s seminars. We usually have twenty or thirty people a year do that, and it would be great if there were even more this year. Then you can read 1 Kings with even greater confidence that you know how it all fits in.
Anyway, back to 1 Kings 12, and the tearing of the Kingdom into two.
What I want us to do is to think first about the people involved here, then secondly about the events –as simple as that. So:
First, THE PEOPLE
Who are the key characters we need to know here?
To begin with, there’s Solomon himself. What do we need to know about Solomon? For a start, by the beginning of chapter 12, he’s dead.
Solomon was the heir of David. That made him the heir of the Kingdom that had been united and victorious under the leadership of his father David. It also made him the heir of the promise that God had given to David that David’s dynasty would last for ever. It’s there in 2 Samuel 7 and it’s one of the key promises of the Bible – above all because it found it’s fulfilment in the reign of King Jesus, whose Kingdom will indeed last for ever, and who is in the line of David.
But that promise also has a warning built into it. If the King in David’s line is ungodly and does wrong, then there’ll be a price to pay. He’ll have to face the consequences of his sin. So there was no room for a Davidic king to be complacent or arrogant. Or there should not have been.
And of course the same applies to us if we are believers in Jesus, with a sure confidence in his promise of salvation. We may be heirs of the King, and of all the spiritual blessings that are in Christ. But there is no room for us to be complacent or arrogant. And if we go off the rails and do wrong, then we too will be subject to God’s loving and holy discipline, designed to get our lives back on the rails again.
Solomon was given by God great wisdom to rule, and tremendous prosperity. But in the end his head was turned and his heart (I quote) ‘was not fully devoted to the Lord his God’ as he grew older, and he became idolatrous. He bought into a politically expedient and spiritually comfortable multi-faith agenda. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? How easy it is for us to do the same in our own very different context.
And the result? 11.9:
The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord… [on to v 11] So the Lord said to Solomon [and this is the key to the events of chapter 12], “Since this is your attitude … I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates.”
The Davidic dynasty is part of God’s plan and promise and he’ll never give up on it. So, God says to Solomon, it won’t be now, and it won’t be total. But the kingdom is going to be torn out of the hands of your son.
Who is that son? He’s the next character we need to know about. And his name is Rehoboam. Now Rehoboam wasn’t all bad. In time, he acted in such a way as to strengthen the kingdom that was left to him. He was capable of acting wisely. The parallel account of his reign in 2 Chronicles makes that quite clear. And he was capable of listening to God and changing course. But for all that, 2 Chronicles 12.14 gives a chilling summary of his reign:
He did evil because he had not set his heart on seeking the Lord.
The Bible is always both admirably fair and frighteningly realistic. There can be much that is good in someone’s life. But it’s the underlying direction that ultimately tells. Is it towards God? Or is it away from him? Under the surface, is there a godly humility? Or a godless arrogance? We need to search our own hearts and think about how God will sum up our lives when we rest with our fathers. As for Rehoboam, as the events of 1 Kings 12 show, he was arrogant as a young man, and in the end he never lost that arrogance.
The third key character here is Jeroboam. The context for the role he plays come first back in 11.14:
Then the Lord raised up against Solomon an adversary, Hadad the Edomite.
Yesterday Vivienne and I were driving home when our way was blocked by a Police sign: Road Closed. We had to rethink and change course. In life, when someone is going off the rails, God doesn’t leave them alone, or smooth their way on the road to hell. He puts roadblocks in their path. Hadad was the first roadblock for Solomon. The second is in 11.23:
And God raised up against Solomon another adversary, Rezon son of Eliada…
Then on to 11.26, which introduces us to Jeroboam:
Also [in other words, here comes adversary number three], Jeroboam son of Nebat rebelled against the king. He was one of Solomon’s officials, and Ephraimite from Zeredah, and his mother was a widow from Zeruah.
Now like his eventual rival, Solomon’s son Rehoboam, Jeroboam wasn’t all bad. It’s true that in the end, he does turn out bad –very bad. We’ll see that when we get to chapter 14.
But like Rehoboam, Jeroboam, it seems, for all his rebellious tendencies, could have gone either way. He was a fine young man. 11.28:
Now Jeroboam was 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 house of Joseph.
At the start, Solomon approved of him. And that’s not all. He was part of God’s plan but God is never the author of evil. And in fact the prophet Ahijah, the same prophet who later condemns Jeroboam, as we’ve seen, had given him a very different prophecy earlier in his life – before we even get to the events of chapter 12. Ahijah tells Jeroboam, in a very graphic way, by tearing his own cloak into twelve pieces and giving ten of the twelve pieces to Jeroboam, that God is going to make him the ruler of ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. 11.31:
“See, I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand and give you ten tribes.”
It won’t be all of them – the promise to David is not forgotten.
“However [this is 11.37], as for you, I will take you [this is God talking to Jeroboam], and you will rule over all that your heart desires; you will be king over Israel. [Jeroboam is clearly not only rebellious but ambitious with it – but listen to this:] If you do whatever I command you and walk in my ways and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statutes and commands, as David my servant did, I will be with you. I will build you a dynasty as enduring as the one I built for David and will give Israel to you. I will humble David’s descendants because of this, but not for ever.”
So Jeroboam at this stage is not outside the will of God. He has a tremendous opportunity to reap a great harvest of blessing, and to be on God’s side. But not if he rebels against God. But at this stage, it’s an open question which way he’ll go. He has it in him to be a good and godly servant of God. But the seeds of self-destruction are also in him. The issue is finely balanced. May be the future spiritual direction of your own life is a finely-balanced matter at the moment. If so, then it’s time to tip the scales and following Christ whole-heartedly.
So Solomon’s legacy is left to Rehoboam and to Jeroboam. And of course we’ve already seen who the plays the lead role in all of these events as they unfold. God himself. He comes on stage directly, as it were, through his prophets. His voice is heard loud and cleer through them. And behind the scenes, God is working his purpose out. These are real flesh and blood people, making real flesh and blood decisions. They are not mere lifeless puppets with God pulling all their strings. And yet, for all that, there is not escaping the fact that what God wants to happen, happens. And in all that happens in our own lives, and in the church, and in the world around us, that remains true to this day.
So those are the people.
Secondly, THE EVENTS
With Solomon off the scene, the young Rehoboam on the throne, and Jeroboam back in town from the exile in Egypt where he’d fled from Solomon, what happens when these two square up, like some pair of ancient Israelite gunslingers at High Noon. There is great drama and tension here. But also real tragedy. And this is not great fiction. This is history. Our history, as the people of God.
Jeroboam obviously has a wide following – at least among the northern tribes of Israel. And they see an opportunity to improve their terms and conditions now that Solomon is out of the way. And Jeroboam confronts the son of the man who promoted him but then became his enemy. 12. 3:
So they sent for Jeroboam, and he and the whole assembly of Israel went to Rehoboam and said to him: “Your father [Solomon] put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labour and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”
There’s already more than a hint of impending rebellion about this, but there may be some justice in their claim. The outcome will depend on how Rehoboam handles this tricky situation that’s developed before he’s even cut his teeth as a king, so to speak.
“Give me a few days to think about it”, Rehoboam says to them. And they do. And Rehoboam consults two different groups of people: the old guard who had been in his father’s administration; and the young peer group with which he had grown up. “How would you advise me,” he says to the oldies. “How should we answer these people,” he says to the young guns who are his friends. And the ‘we’ makes it pretty clear which group he identifies with.
The elders advise (12.7):
“If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favourable answer, they will always be your servants.”
In other words, they have a point. But more importantly, you, Rehoboam, need to understand what Godly leadership is all about. As they would never have said back then, it’s not about you. Leadership is not about self-gratification. It’s about service. God has put you where you are to serve the people under your rule and your care. And the irony is, if you serve them, they’ll serve you. If they can see that you want the best for them, and your’re not just out for all that you can get for yourself, then they’ll follow your lead.
One of the interesting trends in secular management writing on leadership nowadays is the emphasise on leadership as service. It’s fashionable to talk about servant leadership. What we need to do in all our roles of leadership is to make sure that this is more than theory and more than talk. It needs to be the way we live – as servants. And if we’re going to sustain that, we need to do more than pick it up as a fashion trend. We need the right character, the right heart. We need the spirit of Christ who gave himself for others and served others, whatever the cost to himself.
Rehoboam didn’t have that character. He didn’t have that kind of wisdom. Because the question here is whether the son of Solomon the wise would be wise himself. And that’s not nearly as simple as always listening to the old rather than the young. Of course the voice of experience should be heard. But there’s no particular indication of that as a principle in the text here. The point is, there are different voices, different possible courses of action, and wisdom is choosing the ability to choose the right one. That’s what Solomon had when he had to listen to two mothers both claiming that a baby was hers. Wisdom taught him which voice to listen to.
But this son Rehoboam has no such wisdom. 12.8:
But Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him and consulted the young men who had grown up with him and were serving him.
Before he’s even heard the alternative advice, he’s rejected the voice of the elders. And what’s the advice of the young guns? Go for repression. Put the boot in. 12.10:
“Tell these people who have said to you, ‘Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter’ – tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist [There’s the fearful arrogance of youth]. My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions’.”
So when the people return to hear his verdict, that’s what he tells them. And the predictable result? Most of them reject him as their king:
“What share do we have in David, what part in Jesse’s son? To your tents, O Israel!”
The irony is that two generations earlier it was these same tribes of Israel who had sought out David to be their king, saying to him, ‘We are your own flesh and blood’, and acknowledging that God had chosen and anointed David to be their ruler. But that’s all forgotten now.
So the kingdom divides. And Jeroboam becomes king over the ten northern tribes. And Rehoboam hangs on to the two southern tribes of Benjamin and Judah.
Rehoboam doesn’t want to give up without a fight, and he mobilises an army and threatens a massive civil war. But again there is a word from God through a prophet, saying ‘Don’t do it.’ 12.24:
“This is what the Lord says: Do not go up to fight against your brothers, the Israelites. Go home, every one of you, for this is my doing.”
And here’s another indication that there remains some good in Judah and in Rehoboam, because, perhaps surprisingly…
… they obeyed the word of the Lord and went home again, as the Lord had ordered.
And even worse and more deadly civil conflict was averted – for a time.
Don’t miss that little phrase at the end of the prophetic word from God: ‘for this is my doing’.
The father rebels against God. The son rebels against the father’s legacy. The servant rebels against the son. The people rebel against their leaders. And through it all, God is working his purpose out. God is in control. God is sovereign.
As we dig in to our history in this way and try and identify the motives and the forces shaping each character and their actions, there are many challenges for the way we live. There’s the need for godly wisdom; the need to take to heart God’s word; the need for obedience; the need to discern which voices to listen to; the need to serve others through our leadership. All of this is vitally important.
And when we find ourselves caught up in conflict and division, we need to recognise that even if we have right on our side to a great extent, we can easily find ourselves falling into even worse sin than those we’ve opposed. In 1662 a large body of puritans refused to stay within the Church of England in their determination to bear a faithful witness to God’s word. But just twenty years later, one of their number was writing: “Alas! What divisions, what decays, deadness, unprofitableness! The old Puritan spirit is gone; we are woefully degenerated.”
And the Church of England that they had left became just as degenerate in the years that followed.
In the next century the methodist movement under the godly and irregular leadership of John Wesley – seen by many at the time as rebellious and destructive – brought tremendous renewal both within and outside the Church of England. But today the Methodist Church shows all the same signs of long term decline and turning away from the Bible that the Church of England shows.
So we find ourselves in this generation in a new fight for the gospel in this country. And we need to take to heart all the challenges of this ancient but living history. We need to be wise and godly. We need to heed the implicit warnings about dangerous arrogance and stupid leadership and self-centred desires.
But above all, we need to go back to that little phrase that comes from the mouth of God. It’s impact is there in 12.15, which says:
… for this turn of events was from the Lord, to fulfil the word the Lord has spoken…
And it’s spelled out in 12. 24, where God says:
… for this is my doing.
The real King in all of these events 3000 years ago – the King of kings – is God. His promises will not fail. His kingdom will not fall. He will bring about his purposes – for our lives, for our families, for this church, for the church in this nation, for this country, for the world. It’s a deep down knowledge of that that enables us to persevere and remain faithful to King Jesus when we find ourselves caught up in conflict and division.