1 Kings 12(01–24)


We saw last week that things did not end well for Solomon. Though he was the wisest man in the world and the whole world sought audience with him to hear his wisdom, he very foolishly married foreign women, who did not worship the true God and who worshipped idols instead. And as Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart away from the Lord. And the Lord became angry with Solomon and he revealed to Solomon that he was going to take the kingdom from Solomon and give it to one of his servants. However, the Lord — who is gracious and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love — also revealed that this would not happen in Solomon’s lifetime, but in the lifetime of his son. And although the Lord was going to tear the kingdom from Solomon’s son, he would leave Solomon’s son with a portion of the kingdom. But because of Solomon’s sin — and because of the sin of the people who had also turned away from the Lord — the kingdom would henceforth be divided.

We also read last week of how the Lord raised up three adversaries against Solomon. And these adversaries caused him trouble. In the glory days of Solomon’s reign, there were no adversaries in the land and the people lived in peace and prosperity. But God then brought trouble on the nation. And one of the adversaries whom the Lord raised up was Jeroboam. And well hear lots more about Jeroboam in today’s passage.

But last week’s chapter ended with the little note that the other events of Solomon’s reign — all he did and the wisdom he displayed — are written in the annals of Solomon. And Solomon reigned in Jerusalem over Israel for 40 years. Then he rested with his fathers and was buried in the city of David his father. And Rehoboam his son succeeded him as king.

Verses 1 to 17

And so, we come to today’s chapter. And just as lots of people gathered in London yesterday to make Charles king over them, so lots of people gathered in Shechem to make Rehoboam king over them.

This recalls what happened in 1 Samuel 10 and in 2 Samuel 5 when the people of Israel gathered together to confirm Saul and David as their king. In both cases, Saul and David had already been anointed as king by Samuel the prophet. But that private anointing was followed by a public event when all the people confirmed that this was their king.

It’s not clear why the people gathered at Shechem and not at Jerusalem. One of the commentators says that this would have been humiliating for Rehoboam. Instead of the people going up to see him, he had to go down to see them. And, of course, when he got there, he discovered that his coronation was not going to be straightforward. It wasn’t going to be straightforward, because look who was there with the people of Israel. According to verses 2 and 3, the people of Israel had sent for Rehoboam and he was with them when they met their new king. And you wonder why it was that they invited Solomon’s adversary to this coronation service. And it wasn’t going to be straightforward, because the people made clear that they would only accept Rehoboam as their king if he agreed to their condition.

So, if Rehoboam thought this coronation service was going to be a formality, he was dead wrong, because his father’s old adversary was there and the people want him to agree to their condition.

And what was their condition? Take a look at verse 4 where they say that his father, Solomon, put a heavy yoke on them. The image of a heavy yoke conveys the idea that Solomon had treated them like slaves and had given them hard work to do. And so, they want Rehoboam to lighten the load. Lighten the harsh labour and the heavy yoke that Solomon put on us. If you do agree to that, then we will serve you.

I’ve said before that some of the commentators are critical of Solomon and they criticise and complain about almost everything he did. And so, those commentators take this verse as evidence that they are right and that Solomon was harsh and demanding and unfair to the people. Here’s all the evidence we need to confirm what we thought about Solomon: he placed a heavy yoke on the people.

But their complaint doesn’t really prove anything, does it? Think of a child who doesn’t get his own way. He goes to his friends and complains to them about his parents; and he tells his friends that his parents are so mean and unfair and strict and unkind. But his parents aren’t like that at all and the child is only complaining because he didn’t get his own way; and he’s forgotten all the other things his parents have done for him and given to him. He’s just being ungrateful. And while there have been some things which Solomon did which have caused us to raise an eyebrow or two, nevertheless the overall picture we have been given is that Israel under Solomon was a peaceful and prosperous place. The people were as numerous as the sand on the seashore, we read back in chapter 4, and they ate and they drank and they were happy. In chapter 5 Solomon said that God had given him rest on every side and there was no adversary or disaster at that time. And in the same chapter we were told that everyone lived in safety and every man lived under his own vine and fig tree, which is a picture of peace and contentment.

And so, it’s possible that the people were just being ungrateful. For the most part, life had been good for them under Solomon’s reign. Under his rule, the country had become peaceful and had prospered. But now, instead of being grateful for the many blessings they received, they complained to Rehoboam about his father. And they had humiliated the king, by asking him to come down to them in Shechem, instead of going up to him in Jerusalem. And they had invited Solomon’s adversary to be with them when they met the new king. Everything suggests that they’re ready to rebel; and perhaps they’re just looking for the right excuse.

And Rehoboam gave it to them. After they made known their condition, he asked them to go away and come back three days later. He wanted time to consult his advisors. First of all, he consulted the elders who had served his father during his lifetime. So, these are men with years of experience and they no doubt benefitted from Solomon’s wisdom. And Rehoboam went to them and asked them for their advice. How should I answer the people?

And we have their advice in verse 7 where they suggest to the king that he should give them a favourable answer. If you give them a favourable answer, they will always be your servants. So: listen to what they’re saying. And notice how the elders view the role of the king. The elders are telling Rehoboam that he is to be the servant of the people. The role of the king is not to rule over his people, but to serve his people. So, that should be your attitude, Rehoboam. You’re to see yourself as their servant. So, listen to them. And if you do, then they will be devoted to you. As one of the commentators (Davis) puts it, concessions now will conquer complaints.

And it’s good advice, isn’t it? But look at verse 8 where it tells us that Rehoboam rejected their advice. And instead he consulted the young men. And these are the men Rehoboam grew up with. So, they’re the same age as one another and they may even have been his friends. In fact, look how he puts his question in verse 9. He says to them: ‘How should we answer these people…? He identifies himself with the young men. And so, we know he’s going to take their advice, because they’re just like him.

And the narrator repeats for us in verse 10 that these young men grew up with Rehoboam. And their advice is to tell the people that his little finger is thicker than his father’s waist. The commentators tell us that their language is more colourful and crude than the English translations suggest and that they’re being vulgar. And then they say that Rehoboam should tell the people that if Solomon laid a heavy yoke on them, he will lay an even heavier yoke on them. So, if you think Solomon was a slave-driver, I’ll treat you worse then he ever did. And if Solomon scourged you with whips, I’ll scourge you with scorpions. Apparently they’re referring to a kind of whip which had lots of hooks or barbed wire on it. And when someone was flogged with one of these whips, it felt as if you were being stung by scorpions.

And so, the advice of the young men is not to back down. Don’t give an inch. Stand up to these complainers and show them who is boss. The king does not serve; he must rule with an iron fist.

And three days later, Jeroboam and the people returned to see Rehoboam and to hear his response to their demand. And we’re told in verse 13 that the king answered them harshly. Rejecting the advice of the elders, he followed the advice of the young men and he made clear that he would not give in to them.

And according to verse 16, when all Israel saw that the king would not listen to them, they said:

What share do we have in David,
what part in Jesse’s son?

In other words, we want nothing more to do with David’s family. You’re not going to rule over us anymore. And so, we’ll return to our tents, which perhaps means they’ll go home. But perhaps it means they’ll return to their tents to prepare for war, because the line, ‘Look after your own house, O David’ sounds a little threatening, doesn’t it? It’s as if they’re saying: ‘Watch out!’

The NIV says they went home. However, more literally it says they returned to their tents. Presumably they had set up camp at Shechem and, as I said, perhaps they were now preparing for war. But, just as the Lord had foretold, while most of Israel was torn from Rehoboam, the king was left with a small portion. And so, we’re told in verse 17 that Rehoboam still ruled over the Israelites living in the towns of Judah. In other words, he ruled as king over the tribe of Judah.

Verses 18 to 24

According to verse 18, Rehoboam wasn’t quite ready to give up. And so, he sent out this man named Adoniram who was in charge of forced labour. The narrator doesn’t tell us what Rehoboam sent him out to do, but since he was in charge of forced labour, presumably the king sent him out to force the Israelites to get back into line and to submit themselves to the king. But we’re told that all Israel stoned Adoniram to death. Meanwhile Rehoboam got into his chariot and headed for the safety of Jerusalem.

And the Israelites summoned Jeroboam and they made him king over them. And only the tribe of Judah — and, as we’ll see, part of the tribe of Benjamin — remained loyal to Rehoboam.

And when Rehoboam returned to Jerusalem, he summoned all the fighting men in Judah and Benjamin with the intention of making war on the rest of Israel and regaining control of the whole nation. However, according to verse 22, the word of the Lord came to this man Shemaiah who was a prophet. The phrase ‘man of God’ means prophet. And through the prophet the Lord commanded Rehoboam not to go up to fight against the Israelites. Instead, go home. Go home, every one of you, because this is my doing, said the Lord. And they obeyed the word of the Lord and went home. From that time on, the kingdom was divided.

Application 1

There are two things I want to say before we finish. And the first is about God’s sovereignty.

The whole of this book is about the kings of Israel; and today’s passage is about one king in particular. It’s about Rehoboam. And it’s about his foolishness and pride, isn’t it? If Rehoboam had been a little more humble and a little less foolish, then he would have been willing to listen to the good advice of the elders instead of being swayed by what the young men thought. If he were a little more humble, and a little less foolish, then who knows what might have happened and how things might have turned out differently in Israel?

However, while the whole of this book is about the kings of Israel, we need to remember that ultimately there’s only one true King; and it’s the Lord our God who rules over all things in heaven and on earth. And we see this clearly in verse 15 where it says that King Rehoboam did not listen to the people, for this turn of events was from the Lord, to fulfil the word the Lord had spoken to Jeroboam.

We know that it was the will of the Lord to tear the kingdom from Rehoboam and to give most of it to Jeroboam. We know that was the will of the Lord, because he revealed it in the previous chapter. So, this was God’s will. This is what he wanted to happen. He wanted to divide the kingdom like a garment and give most of it to Jeroboam and only some of it it Rehoboam. That was his plan.

But how would the Lord bring it about? How would he accomplish his plan? This is where we see God’s sovereignty and how he rules over all things in heaven and on earth; and how he’s able to use even our sin and foolishness to accomplish his own good purposes in the world. We see God’s sovereignty, because he was able to make use of the ingratitude of the people who would only let Rehoboam rule over them if he agreed to their condition. And he was able to make use of Rehoboam’s foolishness, who would not listen to the wise advice of the elders. God would make use of these two things in order to fulfil his own plan for the kingdom.

Our God is great. He is sovereign. He is king over all and he’s able to use our sins and shortcomings and our foolishness to bring about his purposes in the world.

And that should be a great comfort and encouragement to us when we think about the world, because no matter what people do, no matter how foolish we are, or how proud we are, or how people turn from God and go their own way, no-one is able to thwart God’s plans. No one is able to prevent God for carrying out his plans for the world. And God is able to use even our sins and shortcomings for his good. Just as he used the ingratitude of the people and the foolishness of Rehoboam, so he’s able to use our sins and shortcomings for his good and in order to accomplish his own good purposes.

I like the way one theologian (H. Bavinck) puts it. Think of a father who forbids his child from using a sharp knife, because the child will only misuse it and cause harm to himself and others. However, the father is able to use the same knife for a good purpose, because he’s a trained chef and knows how to use it. Likewise, our heavenly Father forbids us from committing sin. We’re not to sin. And we should aim to be wise and not foolish. God forbids us from committing sin. But God is able to use our sin for his own good purposes. And though the whole world sins and does wrong, nevertheless the Lord our God is able to overcome our sin and our shortcomings and he’s able to fulfil his plans for us and for the world; and nothing we do will be able to prevent him from doing all that he has planned, because he is the great King who rules over all.

I should add that just because this is true, it doesn’t mean we should think to ourselves that it doesn’t matter whether we sin or not. We mustn’t think like that, because God still forbids us from committing sin and he commands us to do good. And all of us are answerable to him for the things we have done wrong. So, while God is able to use our sin and shortcomings for good, he still holds us responsible for what we have done wrong.

And that’s why we must all trust in Christ the Saviour, because one day we must give an account of ourselves to God for the things we have done. And since all of us have sinned and done wrong, and have fallen short of doing what’s right and good, and since we all therefore deserve to suffer God’s wrath and curse, we need to trust in Christ for forgiveness. We need to trust in Christ, because he’s the only Saviour of the world, who gave up his life to pay for our sins and who shed his blood to cleanse us of our guilt. We’re to trust in him for salvation and eternal life so that when we stand before God to give an account of our lives, God will pardon us and not condemn us. And so, we must all trust in Christ.

But when we look at the world and see how people have turned from God and have rejected his law and commandments and have gone astray, we need not worry about the world and what will happen to it. We need not worry, because we know that our God is the sovereign king who rules over all things in heaven and on earth. And no-one is able to thwart his plans for the world, because he’s able to use our sin and shortcomings for his own good purposes.

Application 2

And so, this is our God. He is great and glorious and we can trust his Son for salvation; and we can trust him to fulfil his plans for the world.

The second thing I want to say before we finish is to point out to you again what the elders said to Rehoboam about being king. So, turn back to verse 7 where the elders said to Rehoboam that if you will be servant to these people and serve them and give them a favourable answer, they will always be your servants.

God’s gift to the world is the idea of a servant-king. I’ve said before that if you consider what we read in the Bible about the pagan nations, then you’ll see that they had a very different idea of kings. Think of how the King of Persia in the story of Esther was able to pass a law to ban the queen from his presence. And he also issued a law that every man should be ruler in his own household. And later he issued a law to annihilate the Jews. The king was the law-maker. He was not subject to the law, but he was above the law and he himself could do what he pleased and order other people to do whatever he wanted. And we find the same in the story of Daniel where the king of the Medes and Persians passed a law forbidding anyone from praying to anyone but him for thirty days. He could do whatever he wanted and he could make whatever laws he wanted. And the people were required to serve him and do what he wanted, because he was king over all and could do as he pleased.

But in Israel, the king was not above the law, but under it. The king was answerable to God and the king was required to obey God’s law. And the king was to be a servant. He was appointed by God to serve God and to serve God’s people. He’d been appointed by God to care for the people and to provide for them and to protect them. That’s why Solomon asked for wisdom, because he wanted to govern the people well and make good and wise decisions for their benefit. The king was to serve.

And we see this most clearly in the Lord Jesus Christ, who tells us in Mark’s gospel that he did not come to be served, but to serve. He did not come to be served by us, but to serve us by giving up his life for our salvation. He is our King and we’re to yield our lives to him. But he is the Servant-King, who was prepared to wash the feet of his disciples and who was prepared to lay down his life for our salvation.

And the Lord Jesus has become the model for all kings and rulers and leaders. Wherever Christianity has had an influence on nations, we now have servant-kings and servant-leaders. We don’t have tyrants and autocrats, who rule by force and who assume that the people are there for their own benefit. We have servant-kings and servant-leaders who are appointed for the good of the people. In the United Kingdom, the leader of the government is the Prime Minister. In other words, he is the First Servant. And in our churches, we have elders, who are not to lord it over the people, but who are appointed to shepherd the people, which means they’re to care for the people as a shepherd cares for his sheep.

And so, God’s gift to the world is the idea of the servant-king. And we ought to give thanks to God for his kindness to us in appointing his Son to be our Servant-King, who came into the world to serve us by giving up his life for us. And, even in heaven, he continues to watch over us for our good. And we ought to give thanks to God for his kindness to us in providing us with human leaders who serve and who use their time and their talents for our good. And we ought to pray for King Charles, asking that God will fill him with wisdom and will enable him to be a servant-king, so that he will use his position, not for his own good, but for the good of the people. And all of us, in our daily lives, should regard ourselves as servants of one another so that we will seek to love and serve the people we meet for the glory of God. And in this way we will reflect the image of our Saviour who did not think of his own interests, but to our interests, when he came down to earth as one of us and gave up his life so that all who believe in him may have everlasting life in the presence of God.