A foolish leader
1 Kings 12:1-20
An Empire that took David and Solomon eighty years to build was destroyed by the injudicious actions of Rehoboam in a few days. He responded to the North’s request by favouring the mutual folly of his peers to the amassed wisdom of those who served Israel’s wisest king. The divided kingdom became a reality due to the unfaithfulness of Solomon, the senselessness of Rehoboam and Jeroboam’s political adeptness.
Israel as a nation was covenantally decreed to represent a united people to the world who prosper under the divine rule of God. Though there were military, economic, social and moral forces moving the twelve tribes towards a united nation, it was truly their shared redemptive history and worship of the one true God that united them. The united nation arose from the twelve tribes at war. Forces of disharmony like covenantal unfaithfulness, tribal jealousy, bureaucratic institutional favouritism, social injustice, persisting moral decay and national spiritual blindness remained a present and real danger to national unity. Under the rulership of a godly king these forces were kept at bay. Covenantal protection, blessing and unity were ensured through the covenantal fidelity of the nation. Solomon through his own selfish greed, lustful pursuits and grandiose ambitions fulfilled Samuel’s prophetic warning (1 Sam. 8:11-18). Solomon ruled like the kingdoms Israel were redeemed from with a comparable abusive tyranny. Though various factors contributed to the division of the kingdom, the author of the Book of Kings (1 Ki. 11:9-13, 29-39) was clear that the tipping point were God’s judgement against the covenantal unfaithfulness through idolatry by Solomon.
Solomon’s unfaithfulness started by not giving adherence to the commands of Deuteronomy 17. He became a king who did “turn from the law” (Deut. 17:20 NIV) and enraged God. Solomon’s apostasy had immense consequences for all within the kingdom. The division of the kingdom was not an unforeseen and random event, but was the culmination of progressive events[i]. God as a covenant-keeping God judged Solomon’s covenantal infidelity and for sake of the Davidic covenant left a much smaller nation for Solomon’s son to rule (1 Ki. 11:9-13). Solomon’s disobedience cost his descendants the benefit of rulership over an extended united empire. God prophetically through Ahijah (1 Ki. 11:26-36) infallibly decreed the division of the nation[ii]. Although the rupture is irredeemably predetermined by God as the ultimate Judge and Lord of history, Rehoboam’s actions were the catalyst to God’s prophetically decreed judgement upon the kingdom (1 Ki. 12:5)[iii]. Even Josephus an apologist for Rehoboam described him as a boastful and foolish man who would not avail himself of wise counsel[iv]. His imprudent actions directly contributed to the empire built by his father and grandfather tearing into two smaller and weaker kingdoms[v].
The author of Chronicles depicted Rehoboam as an incompetent casualty of events that he was ill-suited to handle. While the Books of Kings showed that the events that overwhelmed him were a progression of incidents which climaxed at Shechem[vi]. Rehoboam inherited an unstable empire which could only maintain past glories by enforcing and increasing heavy taxes and the unpopular burden of enforced labour[vii]. History remembers Rehoboam as a king who was engrossed with educing political and military solidification[viii]. Rehoboam when he travelled to Shechem was between a rock and a hard place. Solomon left his son an empire with a greatly depleted treasury. Egypt adopted a more hostile stance towards Israel in the latter years of Solomon’s reign. In light of Egypt’s aggression the South’s military defences were insufficient. If Rehoboam maintained or increased the burden upon the North, he risked fracturing the empire. If he reduced the burden upon the North the South would have been at risk of an Egyptian invasion[ix]. At Shechem Rehoboam sought a unilateral benefit for the tribe of Judah to the detriment of the North. The North hoped to negotiate a new arrangement with the king, which would constitute a more beneficial arrangement for them. The account of history revealed that both fears came to past. The empire splintered into two nations (1 Ki. 12:16) and Egypt invaded Judah (1 Ki. 14:25-26).
Israel always seemed to have had the privilege of assenting to the king appointed over them[x]. This was implicit in the Deuteronomic instruction given to govern the appointment of Israel’s future kings (Deut. 17:14-16). Saul was publically reaffirmed as king at Gilgal (1 Sam. 11:15), David was made king over all of Israel at Hebron (2 Sam. 5:1-3), and the people with great feasting made Solomon their king (1 Chron. 29:22). In 931 B.C. Rehoboam undertook a risk by travelling from his powerbase in Jerusalem to Shechem[xi]. Shechem was a site that Jeroboam would later choose as his capital city (1 Ki. 12:25). It was at an Ephraimite (the northern tribe of Jeroboam) stronghold where two covenant renewals occurred (Jos. 8:30-35; 24:1-27; Deut. 27:11-13), Joseph was buried (Jos. 24:1, 32), it was the allocated territory of Manasseh (Jos. 17:7), and Abimelech attempted to establish a kingdom for himself there (Jud. 9)[xii]. Rehoboam due to the oppressive reign of his father do not receive the early and pervasive support that Saul and David enjoyed[xiii]. Something that is noticeably different between Rehoboam’s attempted ascension and the coronations of Saul and David is that the tribes approached these prospective kings[xiv]. For Saul the tribes travelled to Mizpah (1 Sam. 10:17) and the Northern tribes asked David at Hebron to be their king (2 Sam. 5:1-3). However, Rehoboam is forced to travel (1 Ki. 12:1) to an opposition bastion in order to bargain for the future of his kingdom. He attends a ceremony over which he had no control[xv] in order to solicit the North’s support.
Rehoboam arrived to find that the newly returned rebel Jeroboam was the focal point of the Northern tribes’ negotiations (1 Ki. 12:2-3). It was obvious that Jeroboam was not as apprehensive of the risk Rehoboam posed to his welfare and safety as he was of his father Solomon[xvi]. Although Jeroboam fronted the Northern tribes’ request the tribes were the true driving force that pressured Rehoboam to consider their request for a lightening of their load[xvii]. It was a cultural practise in ancient Mesopotamia that a new king would as part of his coronation gift his subjects with the cancelation of debt and the release of slaves[xviii]. The people demanded a lessening of Solomon’s harsh economic and social policies (1 Ki. 4:1-28; 5:13-18) which echoed Samuel’s prophetic warning of the way of the king (1 Sam. 8:11-18). The North offered loyalty and the coronation of Rehoboam in exchange for an end to Solomon’s oppressive rule (1 Ki. 12:4). It is clear that the nation has experienced a spiritual decline under Solomon’s rulership of state sponsored idolatry. The complaint is social and economic. No concern is expressed for the spiritual or moral condition of the nation. They seek the good life not the godly life[xix]. The resulted full-blown idolatry under Jeroboam after the division of the kingdom underlines this fact (1 Ki. 12:28; 2 Ki. 10:29). Rehoboam at Shechem experienced direct and formidable opposition as the heir to Solomon’s troubles. Rehoboam was ignorant of the deep seated discontent of the nation to his father’s rule[xx].
Rehoboam was wholly unprepared to immediately respond to the people’s request and asked for three days of deliberation (1 Ki. 12:5). In his ignorance he does not engage the people in order to understand their dissatisfaction with the palace. He instead turned for advice to his advisors who did not suitably warn him about the level of discontent among the people[xxi]. The choice that had to be made was between following David in seeking tribal unity or strengthening Solomon’s absolute monarchy[xxii]. He had two groups of advisors, which is described in the text as the “elders” and the “young men” (1 Ki. 12:5-10). The “elders” were the patriarchal principals who served in the advisory council of Solomon. The text called them “elders” in order to emphasis their greater maturity, acquired experience and established wisdom[xxiii] compared to Rehoboam’s contemporaries who are called “young men”. The “young men” who grew up benefiting from Solomon’s patronage and some could have been the decedents from mix-marriages with principles foreign to Israel[xxiv]. The “elders” were shaped by David’s kingdom which respected Israel’s familial and tribal heritage. They wanted to compromise and seek tribal unity (1 Ki. 12:6-7). There was more concern about the individual people groups who made up the tribes. The Davidic court ruled over a tribal social structure with interdependence between the tribes. The “young men” in contrast were the beneficiaries of Solomon’s new districts and they formed the new elite. They owe their social status to the palace and therefore their loyalty was to the king. They viewed the people as means to benefit the Palace court. To them the tribal structures were a foreign concept[xxv].
The dissimilarity in the backgrounds of Rehoboam’s advisors was reflected in the advice they gave. The “elders” operated within Solomon’s court when he instituted the policies the Northern tribes rebelled against. Having ascended to their positions during David’s reign, they urged a tempered approach that pursued Davidic harmony[xxvi]. Their appeal to Rehoboam to “speak good words” (1 Ki. 12:7 ESV) echoed Abner’s request to David (when he concluded a covenant with the North) to do “all that is good in the eyes of Israel”[xxvii]. The “elders” advised Rehoboam to “be a servant”, “give them a favourable answer” and to “speak good words” (1 Ki. 12:7). They counselled that Rehoboam were to act in the interest of the people. They advocated servanthood leadership to supplant the enslavement of the people[xxviii]. Biblical leadership is not primarily about positional power or accumulated privilege, but serving God’s people through leadership. The king’s duty was to administrate God’s will to the people (Ps. 72:1-6). Furthermore, the “elders” advised Rehoboam to deviate from Solomon’s worst exploitative and authoritarian policies and lighten the load of the people. They prompted him to speak “good words”. The Hebrew term “tob” translated as “good” does not only imply friendly words, but implicated a practical benefit to the hearer. The word as used in 1 Kings 8:18 implied moral and spiritual advantage, while in 1 Kings 10:7 it indicates economic wellbeing and in 1 Kings 8:36 it is a piously lived life before God. It can be concluded that “good words” are to declare to the people that which is to the welfare of God’s purposes, gratifies God’s will and is in harmony with God[xxix].
Rehoboam then turned to the “young men” a group of contemporaries who owed their status in society to him and their source of wealth was the palace[xxx]. These counsellors were puerile, ambitious, pompous and insecure[xxxi]. Rehoboam had an affiliation with the “young men” who displayed no knowledge of the true level of tribal displeasure in the North. Their advice rejected servant leadership but promoted placing a heavier burden of servitude upon the people in order to benefit the palace economy[xxxii]. From the text it seems that Rehoboam from the start were not committed to the advice of “the elders”. He turned to his contemporaries – the new elite with whom he shared a similar outlook. This assumption is based upon the fact that Rehoboam sided with “the youth” by asking: “How should we answer these people?” (1 Ki. 12:9). He saw himself as being part of the “young men”[xxxiii]. The advice was a rejection of servanthood leadership and an endorsement of autocratic leadership. The reply they formulated was harsh, sarcastic[xxxiv] and vulgar[xxxv]. He is encouraged to not only use whips on the people but to use scorpions, a barbed whip (1 Ki. 12:11)[xxxvi]. “My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist.” (1 Ki. 12:10) was a loutish reply. The word finger does not appear in the original text. A probable reading implies the small member which only men have. The waist or loins is the location of sexual power[xxxvii]. This phrase was the braggadocios swagger of youth who asserted that they possessed greater masculinity and virility[xxxviii]. As Richard Nelson described his actions: ”Rehoboam chooses slogans over wisdom, machismo over servanthood.”[xxxix].
Rehoboam responded to the North’s request by favouring the mutual folly of his peers to the amassed wisdom of those who served Israel’s wisest king[xl]. “If Rehoboam had wished to split the kingdom, he could have found no better wedge than this blustering promise of tyranny.”[xli]. Due to his inexperience he completely underestimated the discontentment amongst the Northern tribes revealed in the fact that he was forced to flee to Jerusalem (1 Ki. 12:18). Instead of listening (1 Ki. 12:15) to the people, Rehoboam attempted to impose his position forcefully upon the people (1 Ki. 12:13). Jeroboam approached Rehoboam from a position of strength based upon personal power as recognised by the people (1 Ki. 11:27-32; 12:2, 12, 20). Rehoboam attempted to rule through positional coercion instead of his own gifting, capability or standing amongst the Northern tribes[xlii]. The Book of Chronicles (2 Chron. 13:5-7) depicted Jeroboam as having taken advantage of Rehoboam’s credulousness[xliii]. Adoniram being killed, left any attempt to continue the negotiations stillborn (1 Ki. 12:18). The wealth of the North became a distant memory for the South[xliv].
An Empire that took David and Solomon eighty years to build was destroyed by the injudicious actions of their descendant in a few days. In an irony of history Solomon’s servant gains the rulership of ten tribes, while Solomon’s son who rejected servant leadership were left with two tribes[xlv]. Rehoboam did not give up on the dream of a united kingdom, but was prophetically stopped by God to use military force (1 Ki. 12:24). The divided kingdom became a reality due to the unfaithfulness of Solomon, the senselessness of Rehoboam and Jeroboam’s political adeptness. The division of the kingdom was the combination of various factors, with Rehoboam being the final catalyst. However the true reason for the division of the kingdom was the result of God’s judgement upon the rule of Solomon. The result was a permanent parting between the North and the South. The spiritual fidelity of both nations changed. The security of both new nations was weakened[xlvi]. In the end Israel lost the kingdom permanently.
[i] (Knoppers 1990:426-427)
[ii] (House 1995:177)
[iii] (Fischer 2002:36)
[iv] (Feldman 1998:246)
[v] (Vasantharao 2003:44)
[vi] (Knoppers 1990:425)
[vii] (Fischer 2002:358)
[viii] (McKnight 2005:838)
[ix] (Brindle 1984:228)
[x] (Van Groningen 1996:n.a.)
[xi] (Keener 1993:n.a.)
[xii] (Nyirimana 210:183)
[xiii] (Knoppers 1990:434)
[xiv] (Nyirimana 210:186)
[xv] (Keener 1993:n.a.)
[xvi] (House 1995:181)
[xvii] (Nyirimana 210:186)
[xviii] (Vasantharao 2003:42)
[xix] (Berlyn 1999:51)
[xx] (McKenzie 2005:455)
[xxi] (Nyirimana 210:197)
[xxii] (McKnight 2005:839)
[xxiii] (Nyirimana 210:190)
[xxiv] (Berlyn 1999:217)
[xxv] (Halpern 1974:527-530)
[xxvi] (Nyirimana 210:197)
[xxvii] (Vasantharao 2003:43)
[xxviii] (Nyirimana 210:190)
[xxix] (Case 1988:58-59)
[xxx] (Provan 1995:n.a.)
[xxxi] (House 1995:182)
[xxxii] (Berlyn 1999:217)
[xxxiii] (Nyirimana 210:197)
[xxxiv] (Nyirimana 210:197)
[xxxv] (McKenzie 2005:839)
[xxxvi] (Keener 1993:n.a. )
[xxxvii] (Fischer 2002:358)
[xxxviii] (McKenzie 2005:452)
[xxxix] (Nelson 1987:79)
[xl] (Reardon 2007:48)
[xli] (MacLaren 2013:n.a.)
[xlii] (Case 1988:65)
[xliii] (McKenzie 2005:454)
[xliv] (McKnight 2005:839)
[xlv] (Reardon 2007:427)
[xlvi] (McKenzie 2005:455-457)
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Brindle, W. 1984. “The Causes of the Division of Israel’s Kingdom.” Bibliotheca Sacra (July-September):223-233.
Case, R. 1988. “Rehoboam: A study in failed leadership.” Presbyterion 14(1):55-77.
Feldman, LH. 1998. Studies in Josephus’ rewritten Bible. Leiden: Koln:Brill.
Fischer, S. 2002. “The Division of Israel’s Monarchy and the Political Situation of Lesotho.” Verbum et ecclesia 23:353-366.
Halpern, B. 1974. “Sectionalism and the schism.” Journal of Biblical Literature 93(4):519-532.
House, PR. 1995. The New American Commentary: 1,2 Kings. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Keener, GS. 1993. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Knoppers, GN. 1990. “Rehoboam in Chronicles: villain or victim?” Journal of Biblical Literature 109(3):423-440.
MacLaren, A. 2013. MacLaren’s commentary-expositions of Holy Scripture. Delaware: Delmarva Publications.
McKenzie, SL 2005. “History of Israel 4: Division of the Monarchy.” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by BT Arnold and HGM Williamson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
McKnight, S 2005. “Rehoboam.” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by BT Arnold and HGM Williamson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Nelson, RD. 1987. Fisrt and Second KIngs. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Nyirimana, E. 210. “The tribal dimension in the division of the Kingdom of Israel: A contextual study of 1 Kings12:1-24 from the perspective of the struggle for national unity in Rwanda.” Doctor of Philosophy, School of religion and theology, University of KwaZulu-Natal , Pietermaritzburg.
Provan, IW. 1995. Understanding the Bible commentary series: 1 & 2 Kings. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
Reardon, PH. 2007. “A royal fool.” Touchstone: A journal of Mere Christianity November:48.
Van Groningen, G. 1996. Evangelical Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker.
Vasantharao, C. 2003. “The division of the kingdom: It’s causes and consequences.” Indian Journal of Theology 45(1&2):41-51.