The Ways of Jeroboam

Partly as a response to the division of the country and the crisis of loyalty caused by the Civil War, Francis Bellamy, the son of a Baptist minister, was given the assignment in 1892 to write a Pledge of Allegiance to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. It was very simple: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands—one Nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.” Years later, it was amended to include “the United States of America” in 1923 and then as a result of lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, President Eisenhower approved the addition of “under God” on June 14, 1954.

That’s an interesting factoid of history but why mention it? I bring it up because the nation of Israel under David and Solomon had been one nation under God and indivisible. But upon the death of Solomon it became two nations and was never indivisible again. And while it was, like all nations, under God it was no longer obedient to him. Both sides chose to follow after other gods until their final destruction hundreds of years later. It took those hundreds of years but once the nation was no longer indivisible it was just a matter of time.

Have you ever noticed the number of stories Jesus tells about a king, a ruler, or a master who goes away and leaves people with instructions about how to live in his absence? The result is the same: an individual believes he knows better than the master. Do I really have to follow the instructions to a T? Surely there is some wiggle room. It is a corruption of character. That is what the Bible means when it says there was a “sin of the house” of a person (1 Kings 13:34). It was not just that person alone but that sin became a character trait of generations of his descendants. It became the sin that defined them and, in time, was the seed of their destruction.

The final commentary on the lives of many of the kings of Israel is, “He did evil and walked in the ways of Jeroboam.” But even when they did good things, the Old Testament always offers an addendum – a last line in their obituary and funeral eulogy, “Yet he walked in the ways of Jeroboam.” This has been the final word on kings of Israel for hundreds of years.

What is this defining sin, the standard by which all the kings came to be judged? What is the sin of the house of Jeroboam and does it have any relevance for us today?

Jeroboam understood the nature of people and their attraction to an easy religion. He devised a brilliant strategy to protect his interests. After the split, he was concerned about the historic ties of his people to Jerusalem, which was in the other kingdom. Jerusalem was central not only to the nation as a capital city but also as the place of worship to which people went with their tithes and offerings several times a year. It was the place that bound everyone together with a common identity. It was one thing to fortify the new kingdom – which he did – but there was the larger battle of capturing the loyalty and allegiance of the people. He had to move their hearts and not just their geographic boundaries.

His strategy was brilliant – and fatal.

“Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. 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.”

He puts being a man of the people over being a man of God and his desire to retain power over his responsibility to retain principle. He convinces himself that God cannot do what he said he would do when he called him prior to the death of Solomon. Remember what made Abraham a man of faith? He was fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:21).

He could have built a wall between the two kingdoms. He could have put up check-points and barriers. He could have suspended all trade between the two kingdoms and made it difficult for anyone to go back and forth. Instead, understanding the binding power of religion being even more permanent than business or politics, he simply took what would draw them to Jerusalem and turned it to his advantage.

He did not outlaw religion or use force to control people or make them martyrs. He did not create a new religion. After all, Solomon had already incorporated idols and foreign gods into the worship practices of Israel. He did not need to take the risk of upsetting anyone with a new heresy. They had already been corrupted by Solomon. He did not have to reverse or challenge their thinking or beliefs. He simply took them one step further that no one even noticed. He gave them the religion they already wanted.

He made them consumers of convenience and choice by using religion with only a few changes that were reasonable for everyone. He made worship more convenient and relevant for them while at the same time keeping them from Jerusalem and the house of David.

“It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem.”

“Why make the long, expensive and dangerous journey to Jerusalem when you can worship closer to where you live with people you trust?”

“Why support an institution that tells you what to do when you can have a religion that is more compatible with what you want – and deserve?”

I was at a conference this week and one of the topics was misinformation and disinformation. It’s a subtle but important distinction. Misinformation is what we experience all the time. People do not check the facts or they innocently pass along a story or piece of news that is not true but it sounds like something that would be true or we even want it to be true. It is what makes social media hum with millions of pieces of misinformation and half-truths. Sometimes there are retractions but not often. Sometimes people find out what they posted is false and they delete it or post a correction – but not often. It simply accumulates and over time and with enough people sharing and reposting it becomes a fact.

Disinformation is another matter. It is intentionally creating and publishing false information. It is knowing it is a lie and pushing it out to others hoping to be believed and acted on. There are numerous sources of disinformation and outright lies that are so well crafted that people sometimes act on them in violent ways. In fact, that is one of the goals of disinformation – to shape a lie to appear like the truth. I’ve read this passage from Hannah Arendt to you before but it is more true now than when it was written.

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

And here is the genius of Jeroboam’s disinformation: They believed him. They trusted him. In spite of the words of the prophets and the warnings of God to do just the opposite. In spite of their traditions and practices of worship at the Temple they chose to go after other gods. Like so many before and after they simply followed their leader. After all, he was a man of the people with their best interests in mind. He did not turn them into atheists. He turned them into even more down-to-earth people with a relevant religion. He relieved them of the burden of orthodoxy and obedience. They did not kill prophets nor did they need to as they could co-opt or simply ignore them. It was a good time for a man of the people and the people themselves. He gave them a way to find happiness – convenience, comfort and common-cause religion.

“We can disobey God and at the same time live blessed lives.”

“We can have a practical religion with none of the unrealistic expectations and still remain true to the Lord.”

“We can serve idols with none of the unpleasant aftertaste.”

Individuals do not want to hold two contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time. We want to resolve conflict in a way that eliminates our discomfort, often without really having to choose one or the other. Jeroboam understood this in the nature of people and was able to sell them on the possibility of choosing both – to combine them – with no thought to any consequences.

We need religion – but a practical religion combined with loyalty to a particular kingdom that makes sense in the real world where we live. We need it to be convenient and pleasant – especially pleasant without all that chatter about repentance and sin. We need it to affirm our other beliefs and not cause any discomfort.

The golden calves were now their national security. It was them that had brought the people out of Egypt and would protect them in the future. 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 so new as 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.

In the Screwtape letters the senior devil says to the junior devil, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,..” Jeroboam’s genius was creating the gentle slope.

Jeroboam, in a way, only encouraged what they already believed. He accelerated their impulses and gave them permission. St. Augustine would say that he led them down the path of disordered loves.

Everything was fine at first, but over time their disordered loves became a sin so corrosive that it led eventually to the destruction of his whole family and the nation itself. What was at first merely an astute accommodation to people became a horror they could not have predicted or imagined.

First, it affects his own family.

“Nadab son of Jeroboam became king of Israel in the second year of Asa king of Judah, and he reigned over Israel two years. He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the ways of his father and committing the same sin his father had caused Israel to commit.

Baasha son of Ahijah from the tribe of Issachar plotted against him, and he struck him down at Gibbethon, a Philistine town, while Nadab and all Israel were besieging it. Baasha killed Nadab in the third year of Asa king of Judah and succeeded him as king.

As soon as he began to reign, he killed Jeroboam’s whole family. He did not leave Jeroboam anyone that breathed, but destroyed them all, according to the word of the Lord given through his servant Ahijah the Shilonite. This happened because of the sins Jeroboam had committed and had caused Israel to commit, and because he aroused the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel.”

And then the corruption spread through the whole nation:

“They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshiped Baal. They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They practiced divination and sorcery and sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, provoking him to anger.”

Even the best kings could not alter the effect of what Jeroboam had done. It became a permanent characteristic and practice of the people. It had become so woven into their character that no change in leadership could pull it out without unraveling the whole. I’m reminded of the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24–30). There was no way to separate what the Enemy had sown without uprooting the good, so they both had to grow together until the time came to harvest. Unfortunately, the harvest was the end of the nation. And it all was traced back to the sin of the house of Jeroboam.

Jeroboam’s one astute insight and practical trade-off results years later in the slaughter of his whole house and the fall of Israel. That is what the Bible means when it says there was a sin of the house of a person. It was not just that person alone but that sin became a character trait of generations of his descendants. It became the sin that defined them and, in time, was the seed of their destruction. It is true that, in time, your sin will find you out. But not only you alone and that is the tragedy.

Leaders are answerable to God not only for their own sins but where they lead their followers. The sins of the house become the defining sins of a nation and what was once a great promise is turned into a ruin. What was indivisible became permanently divided, led by corrupt rulers and then wasted. The sin of a house brought about the death of a nation.

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