Sermon preached on 1 Kings 12:1-24 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/3/2019 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Kings 12:1-24
What Portion Do We Have in David?
You would think if your father was the uber wise king Solomon that you’d have better conflict resolution skills than what we see here. King Rehoboam’s lack of wisdom is glaring compared to his father’s. Yet similarly, you’d think God’s people today would have better conflict resolution skills than what we see. Today, God’s people still manage to have conflicts of all sorts. This is despite having so much teaching in Scripture about how to be at peace with one another. Today then, as we think about this conflict between Rehoboam and Israel, we’ll also make applications to the conflict we experience today among God’s people.
Let’s begin then by remembering that there are always two sides to a conflict and typically both sides contribute in one way or another to the conflict. It would be easy for us to just put the blame entirely here on King Rehoboam, but that doesn’t hold up to a close scrutiny. Rather, like most conflicts, lets begin today by looking at how each side contributes to this conflict that results in such a tremendous and long-lasting division among God’s people.
So, we’ll start with Rehoboam’s failings and then turn to Israel’s failings. We begin in the aftermath of King Solomon’s death. Rehoboam is set to be crowned king by all Israel at the historic town of Shechem. That’s notably not Jerusalem, though it was centrally located in the nation, and one of the Levitical cities which would have it made it not strictly tied to any one tribe. Here the people of Israel gather with the intention to make Rehoboam king, verse 1. But we also see that Jeroboam, who had fled to Egypt after rebelling against Solomon, returns from Egypt for the pivotal occasion. It becomes clear that Israel along with Jeroboam’s leadership has some demands for Rehoboam if they are going to crown him king. Specifically, they express concern over the heavy yoke of service that they claim Solomon had placed upon them.
Well, we notice then the first of Rehoboam’s failings is that he is just plain foolish. Yes, it was wise to ask for these three days to consider the matter. Yes, it was wise for him to seek multiple counsel. His father had written the proverb, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Prov. 15:22). But that’s where his wisdom stops. He received very good advice from the older and experienced counselors of his father. Their advice was that if he would humbly serve the people this one day in their request, he’d gain their loyalty and the result would be that they would serve him for a lifetime. But Rehoboam abandoned their commendable counsel for the advice he received from his young men that he grew up – advice that he should answer the people harshly and authoritatively. This was foolish of Rehoboam to so favor the wisdom of youth over age. His father had written, “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair” (Prov. 20:29). In other words, while young men have much vigor and strength, it’s the old men who tend to excel in wisdom. I guess that proverb proves true in young Rehoboam himself – he choses a position of trying to exalt strength over the people, but that was not a wise choice by him.
Rehoboam’s failing here is not only that he acted foolishly in choosing the unwise counsel of his youthful friends. But even more to the core of his failing is his spirit of pride and arrogance in relation to the people. His response here of harshness that he will increase the yoke over Israel reflects this core problem. His harsh response shows that he thinks himself better than them. Yet, Deut. 17’s requirements for the king of God’s people directly spoke against that. Deuteronomy 17:20 required that the king’s “heart may not be lifted up above his brothers.” In other words, he wasn’t to think that he was better and more important than his fellow Israelites. This is a problem for any human in a position of authority – when you use your position of authority to make yourself better and put down those under your authority, then you have abused the role of authority. This is why when a husband in the name of headship treats his wife as lesser than himself, we denounce that as chauvinism. Likewise, when a church elder starts doing that over the church members, we denounce it as lording it over them. This is Rehoboam’s core problem here. He violates the biblical requirements for a king by putting himself over the people as if they exist in some absolute way to serve him.
So then, what about Israel and Jeroboam’s contribution to this conflict? As I said, remember that conflicts have two sides to them. We might begin by noting their claim about the heavy yoke in verse 4. I think readers often read that and assume it is true in the fullest sense possible. Well, that may be true. But notice that verse 4 is not commentary by the narrator of 1 Kings. No, the narrator is reporting the claim of Israel and Jeroboam against Rehoboam. Now, I’m not saying that their claim isn’t based in some truth. I think the biggest evidence of that is Rehoboam doesn’t deny the claim but rather seems to concede the point in verse 14 when he says, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke.” But when we survey the history that 1 Kings gave us of Solomon’s conscripted labor force, it doesn’t explicitly put it in terms of a heavy yoke. Yes, there was a lot of building projects. Yes, there was certainly a conscripted labor force among Israelites that required them to do some amount of public service – at one point described as 1 month out of 3 for a certain subset of the Israelite population. But the text also distinguished from the sort of regular servitude of force labor Solomon required of certain Canaanite peoples. That sort of degree of service was not apparently required by Solomon of Israelite citizens. My point is that we have to be careful to not take verse 4 and extrapolate that backwards on all of Solomon’s record, when that’s really just one side of the story, especially when Solomon wasn’t even around to defend himself on this claim. Or to say it another way, it’s not entirely clear if Solomon’s yoke was so burdensome that it would warrant such a revolt. As an example of a different perspective, Rehoboam’s son Abijam would later comment about this. He’d say that Jeroboam was simply a rebel who gathered a group of worthless scoundrels to defy King Rehoboam to start this revolt, 2 Chronicles 13:4-7.
Yet, despite there being some gray area around Israel’s claims here about the harsh yoke, the more pressing concern here is what they do about it. Not knowing more from the details, it’s hard to see that they should have killed Adoram in verse 18. That almost sounds like the parable of the wicked tenants who kill that master’s servants who are sent to collect what was owed to the master (Luke 20:9ff). But even worse, look at what they say in verse 16. “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David.” First, we might note how those words seem to intentionally echo the words used by Sheba son of Bichri, a Benjamite, who led a revolt back in David’s day. There, way back then before Solomon, there was an attempt by the north to revolt against David’s kingdom. That revolution was unsuccessful. Yet, while today’s rebellion claims to have dissatisfaction with Solomon, notice how by picking up Sheba’s words, it implies there issue was something greater. They didn’t want to be ruled by David’s line. They don’t say here that they reject Rehoboam or even Solomon. They leave saying they reject David.
Just think about those words. When they say, “What portion do we have in David?” or when they rhetorically ask what inheritance they have in him. Think about those words in light of God’s words. God had previously promised to establish the kingdom of God’s people in glory upon glory in David’s seed. That’s the portion they are supposed to have in David. That’s the inheritance and the heritage of being in David that was to be there’s. Surely, if they would believe God’s covenant promises to establish such a house in David’s lineage, they should want to stick with David’s lineage. Even if there is hardship along the way! Even if there is a heavy yoke, because God has promised so very much to come about in David’s kingdom. Again, Rehoboam’s son Aibjam would later make this point to Jeroboam and Israel. Abijam would rebuke them for not believing in the LORD’s promise to give the kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons (2 Chr 13:5). Abijam reminds them there that God made those promises by a covenant of salt – meaning a perpetual and enduring covenant. So, you see, Israel’s ultimate contributing to this conflict is how they respond to their concern about a heavy burden. Whatever the issue is, explicitly looking to sever their relationship from the Davidic kingdom is not only treasonous – it is unwise in light of what God promised for that kingdom. If they had trusted in God’s word and God’s plans then surely an alternative response was in order.
Now, so far in this sermon, I’ve been thinking about all this from man’s perspective. From the standpoint of man’s responsibility we can appreciate how both Rehoboam and Israel contributed to this conflict. We can see how they each dug in their heels and their conflict led to a great divide among God’s people. Yet, I’d like us now to step back and recognize God’s work behind all of this. In fact, the text directs us twice to recognize this – verses 15 and 24. In verse 15, the narrator explains that God was behind all of this to bring about a turn of affairs. Why? So that God might fulfill the word he had spoken through the prophet Ahijah to Jeroboam. That refers to the prophecy read about in last chapter. And we were told there that the reason God was going to have the kingdom divided was in chastening to Solomon and his seed for the way Solomon had led the people in the idolatrous worship of false gods. This reminds us that what ultimately happened in this passage was going to happen ultimately. Even if Rehoboam had brought more wisdom into all this. As another of Solomon’s proverbs says, in Proverbs 21:30, “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the LORD.” Yet, nonetheless, God used the folly of Rehoboam and the rebelliousness of these Israelites, to bring about his purposes.
What an interesting picture of how God’s sovereignty works simultaneously and through man’s actions. For reasons that reach far back before Rehoboam’s actions here – to Solomon and previous prophecy to Jeroboam – these events happened the way they did. Yet, we should remember that when God is working his plans amidst and through human actions, it doesn’t mean that the human actions are all righteous. In fact, God often works through the sinful actions of humans to bring about God’s redemptive purposes. For example, long before God used the sinful envy of Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery so that eventually Joseph would end up in Egypt in a place of leadership so he could then save both himself and his brothers. Or in the future, God would use the sinful betrayal of Judas Iscariot to bring Jesus to the cross from where Jesus would make atonement for the sin of his people.
That means here, God uses the foolishness and arrogance of Rehoboam and the rebelliousness of Israel to chasten Solomon and the line of the Davidic kingdom… but not forever. Remember, that’s also what the prophetic word of God said last chapter. This humbling of David’s house and thus this division would not be forever. And thus, we see God’s work further at the end of this passage. There, the word of the Lord comes to Rehoboam and Judah to stop them from going up and fighting against Israel. Thankfully they obeyed here. Sadly, we know later that there is military fighting that will happen between Jeroboam and Rehoboam. But here, God’s purposes and plans work to limit the division and destruction among God’s people. This keeps God’s people from destroying themselves in civil war, until God’s further redemptive work would come about. And notice the reason he gives in verse 24 – Israel and Judah are relatives. They are still family, even though there is now this great division.
So then, step back and think what we find at the end of this passage. We end with a divided house. The ten tribes of the northern kingdom would be known as Israel and ruled by Jeroboam. The one remaining tribe of the south would be the southern kingdom known as Judah, ruled by Rehoboam. More importantly, what we end up with here is not only a divided nation, but a divided church. In the grand scheme of things, this is not good in itself to have God’s people so fractured and divided. It betrays not only the unity they should have had as close relatives. It also betrays the unity they should have had as a people of the same covenant and same one true church of God on earth.
Yet the good news is that God’s plan included a wonderful restoration, as later announced by the prophets. One such example is Ezekiel 37:16-28. There God instructs Ezekiel to take two sticks, one to represent Judah and the other to represent Joseph, i.e. the northern tribes. Ezekiel was told to join the two sticks together so that they become one. God then explains that this means he’s going to gather all the people of Israel from where they have been scattered among the nations. (Remember that the Assyrians would later destroy and scatter the northern kingdom of Israel and the Babylonians would later destroy and exile the southern kingdom of Judah.) God promises through Ezekiel that one day he’d gather up all these scattered people. God says there in Ezekiel 37 that he will then make the people into one nation and he will set one king over them – a king from David’s line. He then goes on to explain how he’ll do this in the context of making a new everlasting covenant of peace with them.
Well, the good news is that God has begun to do this in Jesus. Jesus Christ is that long awaited king of God’s people from David’s line. In him, God is gathering up his scattered people into one nation and one kingdom with one king. In King Jesus’ one day of service on the cross, he has made a people of servants forever gladly loyal to him. This King Jesus in meekness beckons us to come to him and find that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. We, God’s united people, come rejoicing then that we have a portion and inheritance in David’s house! Think of that – even us Gentiles according to the flesh, who otherwise would not have any portion in David. Jesus brings us into his kingdom and gives us a portion and inheritance among God’s people! All of us who are in King Jesus by faith – this is what we have. This is what unites all of God’s people in Christ Jesus. This is true even when we don’t express that unity in the ways that we should.
That then reminds us of the challenge of our current circumstances and brings us to think about application of this passage to today. You see, while that Ezekiel promise of reunification of God’s people into one kingdom has begun to happen, it’s not yet finished. God’s people are still so split. We are still so divided and fractured. I refer especially to all the denominational divisions that exist among the visible church today. We really see the start of denominations in today’s passage when the visible church at that time split into north and south groups. As we’ll see more next time, not all split off sections of the church are equally pure either. Israel will greatly pervert the true religion by their setting up of golden calves in Bethel and Dan as a way to worship the one true God – a clear and gross violation of the second commandment. So too, today some denominations of the visible church are more pure and some are less pure. None is perfect in their purity. And some have so departed from the truth that they can no longer even be considered part of the church of Jesus Christ.
I love how our Book of Church Order (FG IV.4) describes our current situation. It says, “The visible unity of the Body of Christ, though not altogether destroyed, is greatly obscured by the division of the Christian church into different groups or denominations.” It goes on to say, “All such churches should seek a closer fellowship, in accordance with the principles set forth above.” In other words, the church in its current fractured state, is not what it should be. It’s not what it will be. Prophecies like the one in Ezekiel tell us that God will ultimately unite this. But we are also reminded that if someone is truly in in Christ, we have a true spiritual unity, even if we are not all in the same church together. But in light of that reality and also in light of God’s plan to bring us together, let us pursue such visible unity now. I don’t mean let’s pursue a fake unity where we all pretend to be on the same page when we are not. But let us pursue a real unity in substance and truth. Unity that is united in both doctrine and practice.
And of course, speaking of such disunity and fracture and conflict among God’s people is not only something limited to denominational splits. Even within the same churches and denominations, Christians can be in conflict with each other. This should not be. We are called to pursue peace and unity within the church. As Jesus said, blessed are the peacemakers (Mt 5:9).
May God’s word guide us in this pursuit of peace and unity in the church. I think of how in this passage if Rehoboam and Israel had used God’s Word more in trying to handle their conflict, how hypothetically it would have helped them resolve their matter. Let us pursue substantive unity with our fellow Christians by the Word, and in much prayer, and may we hope on that too as part of God’s promises to us in Christ. Amen.
Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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