1 Kings 12:1–24 (NIV)✞: Rehoboam’s Folly
When last we were in 1 Kings King Solomon had just died, so he is now being replaced by his son Rehoboam. All of Israel goes to a place called Shechem “to make him king” (verse 1 (NIV)✞). We’ll see in a second that it’s not quite this simple—the Israelites want to feel out Rehoboam on what kind of a king he’ll be—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
There’s one man in particular whom the text is paying special attention to: Jeroboam. We might recall that God had prophesied to him that He would make him king, for which Solomon tried (but failed) to have him killed, at which point Jeroboam fled to Egypt. When he heard that Solomon was dead he came back, and now that the Israelites are going to talk to Rehoboam about what kind of a king he’s going to be they specifically call for Jeroboam to come with them. They seem to view him as a leader.
The Israelites make only one demand of Rehoboam: “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” (verse 4 (NIV)✞).
Rehoboam asks for three days to think this over, and does the smart thing: he consults the elders who had served with his father and asks for their advice.
They replied, “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.”
Makes perfect sense, but unfortunately Rehoboam rejects their advice. He asks the men he’s grown up with what they would advise, and they give a very different answer:
10 The young men who had grown up with him replied, “These people have said to you, ‘Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter.’ Now tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. 11 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.’”
This is cruder than the modern reader might think; from the ESV Study Bible:
1 Kings 12:10–11 My little finger is thicker than my father’s thighs. The foolish advice of the younger men to Rehoboam is literally in Hebrew “my little one is thicker than my father’s thighs,” most likely a reference to his sexual organ rather than a literal finger. Power and sexual potency were very much connected in the ancient Near East (see ch. 1). The equally obscure scorpions (12:11) is probably a reference to a particularly vicious form of whip.
At the end of the three days Jeroboam and the rest of the people come back for Rehoboam’s answer, and he goes with the answer his friends had recommended, rather than the advice of his Elders.
Verse 15 (NIV)✞ tells us why:
So the king did not listen to the people, for this turn of events was from the LORD, to fulfill the word the LORD had spoken to Jeroboam son of Nebat through Ahijah the Shilonite.
The consequences of this are not surprising:
When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king:
“What share do we have in David,
what part in Jesse’s son?
To your tents, Israel!
Look after your own house, David!”
So the Israelites went home.
We’re told that Rehoboam continues to rule over Judah, though we’re not yet told about Jeroboam becoming king over the rest of the nation. Well… former nation.
Rehoboam is still in denial, unfortunately. He doesn’t seem to understand how far the tables have turned. So he sends Adoniram, the man who’s in charge of his forced labour. It doesn’t say what he sends Adoniram for, but we’re told the result: the Israelites stone him to death! Rehoboam finally gets the message, and flees to Jerusalem in his chariot.
The rest of the story plays out pretty much how one would expect it to:
19 So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day.
20 When all the Israelites heard that Jeroboam had returned, they sent and called him to the assembly and made him king over all Israel. Only the tribe of Judah remained loyal to the house of David.
21 When Rehoboam arrived in Jerusalem, he mustered all Judah and the tribe of Benjamin—a hundred and eighty thousand able young men—to go to war against Israel and to regain the kingdom for Rehoboam son of Solomon.
22 But this word of God came to Shemaiah the man of God: 23 “Say to Rehoboam son of Solomon king of Judah, to all Judah and Benjamin, and to the rest of the people, 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.’” So they obeyed the word of the LORD and went home again, as the LORD had ordered.
From this point on, for the rest of the Old Testament, the Jewish people now form two nations instead of one:
- Judah in the South—the smaller of the two—continues to be ruled by descendents of David. They aren’t all as good as David was—in fact few even come close, though some are very good kings indeed—but still, they’re his descendents, as the LORD had promised David.
- Israel is in the North, ruled by a succession of kings from various families, none of whom is ever good. This includes Jeroboam, even though God was the one who made him king in the first place!
The first thing that struck me about this passage was the fact that Israel gathered at Shechem to make Rehoboam king. Why there? Why not Jerusalem? Here is a case where the ESV Study Bible notes really helped:
1 Kings 12:1 Shechem is a place of covenant renewal (Josh. 24:1–27), and the place also where kingship first briefly intruded itself into the tribal life of Israel (Judges 9). It is the ideal place for a prospective king to be invited and confronted with the question of how he is going to exercise his kingship.
ESV Study Buble
So, having read that, Shechem makes perfect sense for the Israelites to do exactly this: confront Rehoboam with what kind of a king he’s going to be. (Unfortunately, they got the answer they got…)
The Israelites’ Demands
The Israelites’ demands on Rehoboam—or actually their singular demand—seems pretty tame to modern eyes. Looking back, however, I’m shocked they made any demands; this is just not how I understand succession to the throne to work in that day and age! Solomon died so his son is taking over. I would think that would be the end of the discussion. There are lots of instances where a king’s heirs might fight over succession, or maybe where the leader of the nation’s army might vie for the throne, but there aren’t a lot of examples I can think of where the people decide to put conditions on a new king taking the throne!
Despite how we like to think of Solomon’s rule as such a success—he was very rich, after all!—this passage seems to indicate that the people living under his rule weren’t so happy with how things were going. It’s especially interesting because 1 Kings makes a point of mentioning once or twice that all of Solomon’s slave/conscripted labour came from other nations, the Israelites held positions of leadership. There isn’t a hint of the “heavy yoke” mentioned here. Either that was overstated, or the people felt like even the little work they still had to do was too much. (I don’t know which it is.)
Frankly, it makes me wonder how much of a hand Jeroboam has in this. Is he perhaps the one stirring up the people to rebel against Rehoboam? I don’t see any support for this theory in the passage, other than:
- Word has obviously gotten around that God promised Jeroboam kingship; it was, after all, why he’d had to flee Israel when Solomon was still alive, and
- The people make a point of bringing him along when they make their “demands” against Rehoboam, so they’re definitely viewing him as a form of leader
And actually, as I think about it, there’s also the point I made above: I’m not a historian but it seems unheard of, to me, that a people would place demands on a potential new king, as opposed to just getting whatever king was coming. This wasn’t a democracy, after all! So… maybe Jeroboam really does play an active role in this, trying to get the kingdom away from Rehoboam?
Speaking of active roles, God plays a very active role in this entire narrative! Not only did He tell Jeroboam ahead of time that He’d make him king, but here in verses 23–24 (NIV)✞ He explicitly tells the Israelites1 not to fight amongst each other.
Does that mean Rehoboam isn’t responsible for his mistake that led to the nation being divided into two? Nope! It’s a topic that comes up over and over again in the Scriptures, but both things are happening at once:
- God is in control over the situation. These things are happening because He chose to have them happen. And, at the very same time:
- Rehoboam does something very foolish—sinful, even, because it wasn’t love for his people that caused him to give the answer he gave—and he’s responsible for that.
I’m going to have to research whether I should still be calling them “the Israelites” for the rest of the Old Testament. I’m leaning toward yes, at the moment, but technically only the ones in the North are in the nation of Israel, the ones in the South are in the nation of Judah. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the term “Judahites” mentioned, when specifically talking about the folks in the Southern nation, but I’m not clear if we’d still use the term Israelites when referring to all of God’s people. Then again, now that they’re two separate nations, maybe there won’t be a lot of occasions to refer to them as one big people anymore… ↩