2. As a result, the termites have eaten away the foundations of the house of David and when Solomon dies the nation is split. His son, Rehoboam, becomes the harsh and foolish ruler of Judah – the Southern Kingdom – an upstanding man and his former manager of forced labor, Jeroboam, becomes the first king of Israel – the Northern Kingdom. Neither have the wisdom of Solomon and are the victims of self-serving advisors.
3. The one thing they have in common is the infection of the worship of Baal. It is stronger in Judah but it begins to take root later in the North in the same way. It is introduced when Ahab marries Jezebel from Sidon and she brings her religion with her in her baggage.
Idolatry almost never begins as worship. It’s always a practical approach to common problems. It is a practical religion that makes sense. Baal was a seemingly harmless ornamental god. The adherents of that belief understood agriculture and raising animals. Taking on some new practices in addition to the worship of God as required made sense. As long as we don’t give up the essentials we can add to it. That’s how it always begins.
But what begins as a practical solution and ornamental addition soon begins to spread and take over. It begins to made demands and to replace whatever good and decent was once there in our lives. It’s roots go deep and consume whatever allegiance we had for God. It is what you could call a religion of permission. It is a religion that makes us feel we are not different or backward. It is the religion of people who want to fit in and not be outsiders or to be considered intolerant and legalistic. It is a religion of love – not law. It is a sensible religion – at least at first. But, whatever desires we have that are controlled by God’s demands for holiness are soon out of control. The nature of idolatry is to lead us to believe what we desire is good for us and it comes with no downside. Yet, what we cannot see is the price we will pay for it. This is what Paul describes in Romans 1. People became so corrupted they were given over to their own desires. James describes it as desire that gives birth to death. It is fatal and, uncontrolled, it grows quickly. What begins as a practical solution with no demands becomes a tyrant far more demanding than God. People given permission to follow their desires will even kill their own children in order to please Baal. “In Ahab’s time, Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho. He laid its foundations at the cost of his firstborn son Abiram, and he set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub…” That is the nature of addiction and idolatry. Our idols are never pleased or satisfied. Baal ate away at the virtue of the people and destroyed their morality, integrity, decency and loyalty. It consumed and destroyed their souls.
4. We are all familiar with the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. It’s not an isolated story but actually a story of the first step in the two step process of the destruction of the worship of Baal in the Northern Kingdom.
Elijah, the troubler of Israel, taunts the 850 leaders and prophets of Baal. They dance around the sacrifice for a full day and nothing happens. Then Elijah calls down fire from heaven and the sacrifice is consumed along with the altar.
What happens after that? All the prophets are seized and slaughtered in the Kishon Valley. All 850 of the leadership are eliminated. You would think that would destroy them but it doesn’t. They are almost powerless but even without leadership they continue to function. The roots are too deep in the people and in the household of the King. Ahab and Jezebel are at the very center of the power of Baal. Elijah has cut off the leaves but not dug up the roots. They can function even without a visible structure. They go underground but they do not die.
Not long after that, Elisha (the successor to Elijah) anoints Jehu to be king of Israel. 2 Kings 9:6: “Then the prophet poured the oil on Jehu’s head and declared, “This is what The Lord, the God of Israel says: “I anoint you king over the Lord’s people Israel. You are to destroy the house of Ahab your master, and I will avenge the blood of my servants the prophets and the blood of all the Lord’s servants shed by Jezebel. The whole house of Ahab will perish.”
The house of Ahab was the center of the infection of Baal. It had lodged in the heart of the leadership in the same way it had with Solomon.
Let’s read 2 Kings 10:18-29: “So Jehu destroyed Baal worship in Israel.” That’s a remarkable statement because it is true. From that time on the worship of Baal was gone from Israel. It was completely eradicated. Jehu destroyed the roots of it when he killed the ministers and all who were left of Ahab’s family. He tore it out completely. No more foreign gods. And for a time Israel was strong and fought off enemies. For three years there was not war. Things improved. Without the worship of Baal you would think the kingdom would expand and grow. But it is the next sentence that explains the fall of Israel. “However, he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit – the worship of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan.”
In fact, if you begin to trace all of Jehu’s successors after that you will find that same sentence describing all of them until the eventual fall of Israel. “He did evil in the eyes of The Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit; he continued in them.” For all seven kings who followed it is the sin of Jeroboam that lies at the heart of the fall of Israel – not the worship of Baal. It is not the idolatry of a foreign god but a different kind of idolatry – one they had created themselves.
5. What is the sin of Jeroboam? Go back to the beginning of the Northern Kingdom in 1 Kings 12:20, 25-33: 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. 25 Then Jeroboam fortified Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. From there he went out and built up Peniel. 26 Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. 27 If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.” 28 After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 29 One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. 30 And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other. 31 Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites. 32 He instituted a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the festival held in Judah, and offered sacrifices on the altar. This he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves he had made. And at Bethel he also installed priests at the high places he had made. 33 On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a month of his own choosing, he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel. So he instituted the festival for the Israelites and went up to the altar to make offerings.
In spite of the fact God through the prophet Ahijah had promised him a dynasty, Jeroboam was afraid of losing the loyalty of the people. They were a new kingdom the religion that bound them together was centered in Jerusalem – a part of the kingdom of Judah now. Something had to be done to create loyalty and to cut the ties with Jerusalem. Something practical and innovative.
Jeroboam did not create a new religion or take the people after new gods. He simply distorted the truth in a way designed to appeal to them. Lord Palmerston said,
“Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” In the same way, nations do not have loyalty to a particular religion except that religion serving their permanent interests and their interest in permanence.
The golden calves were not to be worshipped. They were invented to replace the cherubim on the altar in Jerusalem. They were a symbol of national unity. They were also symbols of God and combining those two was Jeroboam’s interest. The more he could identify the interests of God with the interests of Israel, the more he could count on the loyalty of the people.
He gave them something familiar and convenient (two locations) and innovative (opening up the priesthood to anyone) and special (new festivals) in order to create a new identity that was not too new to be rejected. He created the first State religion in the history of the people. It was not the worship of a foreign God but the worship of Israel and their self-designed religion. The sin of Jeroboam is the sin of a leader who distorts the truth and uses it for his own purposes – to secure the loyalty of the people to the kingdom. In a sense, it was the idolatry of patriotism and tying the people’s loyalty to a nation and not God himself. The religion of Jeroboam was just as practical in the beginning as the religion of Baal. But it was flawed and fatal in the end. It was the cynical use of religion to prop up the national agenda. It was using religious language to describe the State. It was combining festivals celebrating the State with those celebrating religion. To be religious was to celebrate the accomplishments of the State and to be a patriot was to celebrate the accomplishments of religion. The combining of those two was, in essence, the sin of Jeroboam.
Andrew MacLaren: “Is there no such thing known as a flaming profession of religion, because it is respectable, or opens the way to some good position? Does nobody pose in public, especially about election times, as a liberal supporter of Churches and a devout Church-member, with an eye mainly to votes? Do political parties think it a good thing to get the religious people to go for their ticket? Or, to take less base instances, is there not a whole school who estimate Christianity mainly as valuable as a social force, and, without any deep personal recognition of its loftier aspects, think it well that it should be generally accepted, especially by other people, as it makes them easier to govern, and cements the social fabric?”
Christianity is something more than social cement. Jeroboam’s policy was a great success, as policy. It both united his kingdom and definitively separated it from Judah. But it was a success purchased at the price of degrading religion into the lackey of a court.
Jeroboam may stand, finally, as a type of the men who suppose themselves to be worshipping God when they are only following their own wills. All his ceremonial had this damning characteristic, that it was devised of his own heart; and so it was himself that was enshrined in his new house of the high places, and himself to whom the sacrifices were offered. Absolute obedience to God’s will, whatever perils may seem to attend it, is true worship. Wherever apparent devotion to Him is mingled with burning incense to our own net, the mixture ruins the devotion. Obedience is better than sacrifice. Temptations to take our own way will often appear as the dictates of sound policy, and to neglect them as culpable carelessness. But such paltering with plain commandments is as ruinous as sinful, and is not to be atoned for by outward worship.”
6. What is the cause of the fall of the Northern Kingdom? Two things. Read 2 Kings 17:14-23.
In the end both sins destroyed them. The religion of permission and desire and the religion of convenience and distorted patriotism. One was false and the other was a twisted truth. After the moral center was gone (they followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless) their worship of their own self-made religion made them proud of what they had created. They created a kind of civil religion that helped them preserve the state. In the end, they simply fell into the hands of plunderers – mere thieves – and gave up without a fight. There were no heroics and no struggle – just a three year siege. They ended not with a bang but a whimper. They have not been heard from since.