1 Kings 12 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

1 Kings 12
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

The comparatively detailed style of the narrative of the reign of Solomon is continued through 1 Kings 12, 13, 14. In the section 1 Kings 12:1-25 the record of the Book of Chronicles (2 Chronicles 10:1 to 2 Chronicles 11:4), after omitting the whole description of Solomon’s idolatry, and the risings of rebellion against his empire, returns to an almost exact verbal coincidence with the Book of Kings.

The narrative of the great revolution which led to the disruption of the kingdom, illustrates very strikingly the essential characteristic of the Scriptural history, which is to be found, not principally in the miraculous events recorded from time to time as an integral part of the history, but rather in the point of view from which all events alike are regarded. (a) Thus it is clear that the revolution had, in the first place, personal causes—in the stolid rashness of Rehoboam, mistaking obstinacy for vigour, and not knowing how and when rightly to yield; and in the character of Jeroboam, bold and active, astute and unscrupulous, the very type of a chief of revolution. (b) Behind these, again, lay social and political causes. The increase of wealth, culture, and civilisation under an enlightened despotism, which by its peaceful character precluded all scope and distraction of popular energies in war, created, as usual, desire and fitness for the exercise of freedom. The division of feeling and interest between the royal tribe of Judah and the rest of the people, headed by the tribe of Ephraim (for so many generations the strongest and the most leading tribe of Israel)—already manifested from time to time, and fostered perhaps by the less absolute allegiance of Israel to the house of David—now gave occasion to rebellion, when the strong hand of Solomon was removed. Perhaps, moreover, the intrigues of Egyptian jealousy may have already began to divide the Israelite people. (c) But the Scriptural narrative, although it enables us to discover both these causes, dwells on neither. It looks exclusively to moral and spiritual causes: The thing was from the Lord “—His righteous judgment on the idolatry, the pride, and the despotic self-indulgence of the Court, shared, no doubt, by the princes and people of Jerusalem, perhaps exciting a wholesome reaction of feeling elsewhere. What in other history would be, at most, inferred by conjecture, as underlying more obvious causes, is here placed in the forefront as a matter of course. For the history of Israel, as a history of God’s dealings with the chosen people, is the visible and supernatural type of the dealings of His natural Providence with all His creatures.

And Rehoboam went to Shechem: for all Israel were come to Shechem to make him king.
(1) All Israel were come to Shechem to make him king.—In the case of David, we find that, when he was made king over Israel, “he made a league” with the elders of Israel (2 Samuel 5:3), apparently implying a less absolute royalty than that to which he had been anointed, without conditions, over the house of Judah (2 Samuel 2:4); and in his restoration after the death of Absalom, there appears to be some recognition of a right of distinct action on the part of the men of Israel in relation to the kingdom (2 Samuel 19:9-10; 2 Samuel 19:41-43; 2 Samuel 20:1-2). Even in the coronation of Solomon, we find distinction made between royalty “over all Israel and over Judah.” (See 1 Kings 1:35; and comp. 1 Kings 4:1.) Accordingly, Rehoboam seems to succeed without question to the throne of Judah, but to need to be “made king” by the rest of Israel, with apparently some right on their part to require conditions before acceptance. It is significant, however, that this ceremonial is fixed, not at Jerusalem, but at Shechem, the chief city of Ephraim, of ancient dignity, even from patriarchal times, as of singular beauty and fertility of position, which became, as a matter of course, the capital of the northern kingdom after the disruption. Perhaps, in this arrangement, which seems to have had no precedent, there was some omen of revolution.

And it came to pass, when Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who was yet in Egypt, heard of it, (for he was fled from the presence of king Solomon, and Jeroboam dwelt in Egypt;)
(2) For he was fled.—In 2 Chronicles 10:2, and in the LXX. version (or, rather versions, for there is variety of reading) of this passage, Jeroboam is made to return from Egypt, on hearing of the death of Solomon, to his own city, and to be “sent for” thence. This is obviously far more probable, and might be read in the Hebrew by a slight alteration of the text.

That they sent and called him. And Jeroboam and all the congregation of Israel came, and spake unto Rehoboam, saying,
Thy father made our yoke grievous: now therefore make thou the grievous service of thy father, and his heavy yoke which he put upon us, lighter, and we will serve thee.
(4) We will serve thee.—It seems evident from the tone of the narrative, and especially from the absence of all resentment on the part of the king on the presentation of these conditions, that they were acting within their right; and whatever Jeroboam’s designs may have been, there is no sign of any general predetermination of rebellion. The imposition of the burdens of heavy taxation and forced labour on the people was against old traditions, and even against the practice of Solomon’s earlier years. (See 1 Kings 4:20; 1 Kings 9:20-22.) To demand a removal, or alleviation of these was perfectly compatible with a loyal willingness to “serve” the new king. The demand might naturally be suggested by Jeroboam, who, by his official position, knew well the severity of the burden.

And he said unto them, Depart yet for three days, then come again to me. And the people departed.
And king Rehoboam consulted with the old men, that stood before Solomon his father while he yet lived, and said, How do ye advise that I may answer this people?
And they spake unto him, saying, If thou wilt be a servant unto this people this day, and wilt serve them, and answer them, and speak good words to them, then they will be thy servants for ever.
(7) If thou wilt be a servant.—Both the policies suggested show how corrupt and cynical the government of Israel had become. For the advice of the old counsellors has no largeness of policy or depth of wisdom. It is simply the characteristic advice of experienced and crafty politicians—who had seen the gradual development of despotic power, and had still remembrance of the comparative freedom of earlier days—understanding at once the dangerous vehemence of popular excitement, and the facility with which it may be satisfied by temporary concessions, and perhaps desiring to defeat that private ambition, which was making use for its own purposes of the natural sense of grievance. It is to give “good words,” and to be for the moment “a servant to the people,” with, perhaps, the intention of abolishing certain excessive grievances, but by no means of yielding up substantial power. Whether it was in itself more than superficially prudent, would depend on the seriousness of the grievances, and the social and political condition of the people.

But he forsook the counsel of the old men, which they had given him, and consulted with the young men that were grown up with him, and which stood before him:
And he said unto them, What counsel give ye that we may answer this people, who have spoken to me, saying, Make the yoke which thy father did put upon us lighter?
And the young men that were grown up with him spake unto him, saying, Thus shalt thou speak unto this people that spake unto thee, saying, Thy father made our yoke heavy, but make thou it lighter unto us; thus shalt thou say unto them, My little finger shall be thicker than my father's loins.
(10) Thus shalt thou speak.—The advice of the young men—the spoilt children of a magnificent and luxurious despotism, of which alone they had experience—is the language of the arrogant self-confidence, which mistakes obstinacy for vigour, and, blind to all signs of the times, supposes that what once was possible, and perhaps good for the national progress, must last for ever. It is couched in needlessly and absurdly offensive language; but it is, as all history shows—perhaps not least the history of our own Stuart dynasty—a not unfrequent policy in revolutionary times; holding that to yield in one point is to endanger the whole fabric of sovereign power; relying on the prestige of an authority proudly confident in itself; and trusting to cow by threats the classes long subject to despotic oppression, and despised accordingly by those who wield it. It can succeed only when the popular disaffection is superficial, or when a nation is wearied out with revolutionary fanaticism and failure.

And now whereas my father did lade you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke: my father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.
(11) The scorpion is probably (like the Roman fiagellum) a whip, the lash of which is loaded with weights and sharp points.

So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam the third day, as the king had appointed, saying, Come to me again the third day.
And the king answered the people roughly, and forsook the old men's counsel that they gave him;
And spake to them after the counsel of the young men, saying, My father made your yoke heavy, and I will add to your yoke: my father also chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.
Wherefore the king hearkened not unto the people; for the cause was from the LORD, that he might perform his saying, which the LORD spake by Ahijah the Shilonite unto Jeroboam the son of Nebat.
(15) For the cause was from the Lord.—The very idea of the Scriptural history, referring all things to God, necessarily brings us continually face to face with the great mystery of life—the reconcilement of God’s all-foreseeing and all-ordaining Providence with the freedom, and, in consequence, with the folly and sin of man. As a rule, Holy Scripture—on this point confirming natural reason—simply recognises both powers as real, without any attempt, even by suggestion, to harmonise them together. It, of course, refers all to God’s will, fulfilling or avenging itself in many ways, inspiring and guiding the good, and overruling the evil, in man. But it as invariably implies human freedom and responsibility. Rehoboam’s folly and arrogance worked out the ordained judgment of God; but they were folly and arrogance still.

So when all Israel saw that the king hearkened not unto them, the people answered the king, saying, What portion have we in David? neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: to your tents, O Israel: now see to thine own house, David. So Israel departed unto their tents.
(16) To your tents.—This war-cry was not new. It had been heard once before, during the conflict between Judah and Israel after the rebellion of Absalom, when it was silenced instantly by the relentless promptitude of Joab (2 Samuel 20:1). Only the last ironical line is added, “See to thine own house, David” (which the LXX. explains as “Feed, as a shepherd, thine own house, David”). There is perhaps a sarcastic allusion to God’s promise to establish the house of David: “Be a king, but only in thine own house!”

But as for the children of Israel which dwelt in the cities of Judah, Rehoboam reigned over them.
(17) The children of Israel which dwelt in the cities of Judah.—The expression is doubly significant. (a) Historically the tribe of Judah had its semi-dependent tribes—Simeon, already absorbed into Judah; Dan, in great part transferred to the extreme north; and Benjamin, closely united to Judah by the position of Jerusalem. All these, it would seem, are here included—so that the territory of the southern kingdom would be really the Judœa of later times. In addition to these, we find from 2 Chronicles 11:13-16, that, at any rate after the idolatry of Jeroboam, priests and Levites and other Israelites made their way into the cities of Judah. (b) But, besides this, there may be a significance in the phrase “children of Israel.” Although the northern kingdom henceforth inherited the proud title of the kingdom of Israel, the phrase, as here used, is perhaps intended to remind the reader that in Judah also dwelt “children of Israel”—true descendants of the “Prince of God,” and inheritors of the promise.

Then king Rehoboam sent Adoram, who was over the tribute; and all Israel stoned him with stones, that he died. Therefore king Rehoboam made speed to get him up to his chariot, to flee to Jerusalem.
(18) Adoram, who was over the tribute (or levy).—In 2 Samuel 20:24, 1 Kings 4:6; 1 Kings 5:14, we find Adoram (or Adoniram, which is a longer form of the same name) described as holding this office in the later days of David and the reign of Solomon. The Adoram here mentioned must be identical with the officer of Solomon; but, though it is possible, it is not likely that he could have held office in David’s time. Probably the name and office were hereditary׳. The mission of Adoram shows that, too late, Renoboam desired to deal through him with the grievance of forced labour. But the sight of the man, who had been the taskmaster of their oppression, naturally stirred the multitude to a fresh burst of fury, venting itself in his murder, and perhaps threatening his master also, had he not fled hastily at once to Jerusalem.

So Israel rebelled against the house of David unto this day.
(19) Unto this day.—The phrase argues the incorporation into the narrative of an older document.

And it came to pass, when all Israel heard that Jeroboam was come again, that they sent and called him unto the congregation, and made him king over all Israel: there was none that followed the house of David, but the tribe of Judah only.
(20) Jeroboam was come again.—The assembly at Shechem probably broke up in disorder, carrying everywhere the news of the rebellion. It would be quite in harmony with Jeroboam’s astuteness, if, after setting the revolution on foot, he himself stood aloof from leadership, and waited till “the congregation,” the duly summoned assembly, sent for him and offered him the crown. The title “king over all Israel” certainly indicates a claim on the part of the ten tribes to be the true Israel, relying perhaps on the prophetic choice and blessing of Jeroboam, and professing to have risen in the name of the Lord against the idolatry of Solomon and his house. Perhaps it also indicated a desire for the subjugation of Judah, which Jeroboam, with the aid of Shishak, certainly seems to have subsequently attempted.

(20, 21) In these two verses we have again the same curious juxtaposition of “the tribe of Judah only” and “the house of Judah, with the tribe of Benjamin.” The army gathered would be, no doubt, drawn from Solomon’s established and disciplined forces, as well as from the levy of Judah and Benjamin generally—perhaps including (as in 2 Samuel 17:27) contingents from the tributary races—who would be attached with a strong personal allegiance to the house of Solomon, and prepared to stamp out the rebellion, before it could thoroughly organise itself for disciplined resistance.

And when Rehoboam was come to Jerusalem, he assembled all the house of Judah, with the tribe of Benjamin, an hundred and fourscore thousand chosen men, which were warriors, to fight against the house of Israel, to bring the kingdom again to Rehoboam the son of Solomon.
But the word of God came unto Shemaiah the man of God, saying,
(22) Shemaiah the man of God.—From the notices in 2 Chronicles 12:5-8; 2 Chronicles 12:15, it would seem that, while Ahijah belonged to Shiloh in Ephraim, and continued to dwell there, Shemaiah was rather attached to Judah, and hence, that his interference to protect the new kingdom was the more striking and unexpected. In this interposition, to which probably the very preservation of Jeroboam’s half-formed kingdom was due, there is a fresh indication of the great opportunity given to that kingdom to maintain itself, under the blessing of God and in devotion to His service. The phrase “your brethren, the children of Israel,” marks this with much emphasis.

Speak unto Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, king of Judah, and unto all the house of Judah and Benjamin, and to the remnant of the people, saying,
Thus saith the LORD, Ye shall not go up, nor fight against your brethren the children of Israel: return every man to his house; for this thing is from me. They hearkened therefore to the word of the LORD, and returned to depart, according to the word of the LORD.
Then Jeroboam built Shechem in mount Ephraim, and dwelt therein; and went out from thence, and built Penuel.
(25) Jeroboam built Shechem.—Shechem had passed through many vicissitudes of fortune. It was already a city when Abraham entered the Promised Land (Genesis 12:6), and is from time to time mentioned in the patriarchal history (Genesis 33:18, Genesis 35:4, Genesis 37:12-13). At the Conquest it became a city of refuge (Joshua 20:7; Joshua 21:20-21), and the scene of the solemn recital of the blessings and curses of the Law (Joshua 8:33-35). From its proximity to Shiloh, and to the inheritance of Joshua, it assumed something of the character of a capital (Joshua 24:1; Joshua 24:32). Then it became the seat of the usurpation of Abimelech, which allied itself with the native inhabitants of the region; but rebelling afterwards against him, it was destroyed (Judges 9). We then hear nothing more of it till this chapter, when the tribes assemble at Shechem, under the shadow of the famous hills of Ebal and Gerizim, to meet Rehoboam. Jeroboam is said to have “built it” anew. This may be taken literally, as indicating that it had never recovered from its destruction by Abimelech, or it may simply mean that he fortified and enlarged it as his capital. Subsequently it gave way to Tirzan and Samaria; but its almost unrivalled position preserved it in importance among the Samaritans after the Captivity, even down to our Lord’s time, and under the name of Nablous (Neapolis) it has lasted to the present day, while many other cities once famous have passed away.

Penuel.—See Genesis 32:30-31; Judges 8:8; Judges 8:17. It lay on or near the Jabbok, on the other side of Jordan, commanding the road from the east by Succoth to the fords of Jordan and Shechem. Jeroboam rebuilt it—perhaps out of the ruin in which it had been left by Gideon—as an outpost to his new capital, and a royal stronghold among the tribes on the east of Jordan.

And Jeroboam said in his heart, Now shall the kingdom return to the house of David:
If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah.
(27, 28) In these verses is recorded the adoption of the fatal policy which has caused Jeroboam to be handed down in the sacred record as “the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin.” Hitherto his new royalty had been inaugurated under a Divine sanction, both as receiving distinct promise of permanence and blessing (1 Kings 11:37-38), and as protected by open prophetic interference, at the critical moment when its ill-consolidated force might have been crushed. Nor is it unlikely that it may have been supported by a wholesome reaction against the idolatry, as well as against the despotism, of Solomon. Now, unsatisfied with these securities of his kingdom, and desirous to strengthen it by a bold stroke of policy, he takes the step which mars the bright promise of his accession. Yet the policy was exceedingly natural. In Israel, beyond all other nations, civil and religious allegiance were indissolubly united; it was almost impossible to see how separate national existence could have been sustained without the creation, or (as it might seem) the revival, of local sanctuaries to rival the sacredness of Jerusalem. Nor was the breach of Divine law apparently a serious one. The worship at Dan and Bethel was not the bloody and sensual worship of false gods, but the worship of the Lord Jehovah under the form of a visible emblem, meant to be a substitute for the ark and the overshadowing cherubim. It might have been plausibly urged that, to wean Israel from all temptation to the abominations which Solomon had introduced, it was necessary to give their faith the visible support of these great local sanctuaries, and the lesser “high places” which would naturally follow. But the occasion was the critical moment of choice between a worldly policy—“doing evil that good might come”—and the higher and more arduous path of simple faith in God’s promise, and obedience to the command designed to protect the purity and spirituality of His worship. The step, once taken, was never retraced. Eminently successful in its immediate object of making the separation irreparable, it purchased success at the price, first, of destruction of all religious unity in Israel, and next, of a natural corruption, opening the door at once to idolatry, and hereafter to the grosser apostasy, against which it professed to guard. It needed the faith of David—as shown, for example, in the patient acquiescence in the prohibition of the erection of a Temple to be the spiritual glory of his kingdom—to secure the promise of “a sure house, as for David.” That promise was now forfeited for ever.

Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
(28) Calves of gold.—The choice of this symbol of the Divine Nature—turning, as the Psalmist says with indignant scorn, “the glory of God into the similitude of a calf that eateth hay” (Psalm 106:20)—was probably due to a combination of causes. First, the very repetition of Aaron’s words (Exodus 32:8) indicates that it was a revival of that ancient idolatry in the wilderness. Probably, like it, it was suggested by the animal worship of Egypt, with which Jeroboam had been recently familiar, and which (as is well known) varied from mere symbolism to gross creature worship. Next, the bull, as the emblem of Ephraim, would naturally become a religious cognisance of the new kingdom. Lastly, there is some reason to believe that the figure of the cherubim was that of winged bulls, and the form of the ox was undoubtedly used in the Temple, as for example, under the brazen sea. It has been thought that the “calves” were reproductions of the sacred cherubim,—made, however, symbols, not of the natural powers obeying the Divine word, but of the Deity itself.

It is, of course, to be understood that this idolatry, against which the prohibition of many sanctuaries was meant to guard, was a breach, not of the First Commandment, but of the Second—that making of “a similitude” of the true God, so emphatically forbidden again and again in the Law. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 4:15-18.) Like all such veneration of images, it probably degenerated. From looking on the image as a mere symbol it would come to attach to it a local presence of the Deity and an intrinsic sacredness; and so would lead on, perhaps to a veiled polytheism, certainly to a superstitious and carnal conception of the Godhead.

And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan.
(29) Bethel and Dan, chosen as the frontier towns of the kingdom, had, however, associations of their own, which lent themselves naturally to Jeroboam’s design. Bethel—preserving in its name the memory of Jacob’s vision, and of his consecration of the place as a sanctuary (Genesis 28:19; Genesis 35:14-15)—had been (see Judges 20:18; Judges 20:26; Judges 20:31; Judges 21:2; 1 Samuel 7:16) a place of religious assembly, and, possibly, of occasional sojourn of the Ark. At Dan, it is not unlikely that the use of the local sanctuary, set up at the conquest of the city by the Danites, still lingered; and from the notice in Judges 18:30, that the posterity of Jonathan, the grandson of Moses, were priests till “the day of the captivity of the land,” it seems as if these priests of this old worship became naturally the appointed ministers of the new.

And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan.
(30) Even unto Dan.—It has been thought that there is here a corruption of the text, and that words referring to Bethel have fallen out. But there is no sign of such variation in the LXX. (which only adds, in some MSS., “and deserted the house of the Lord”) or other versions. The reason of the mention of Dan only is probably that there the old sanctuary remained, and the priesthood was ready: hence, in this case, “the people went to worship” at once. The verses which follow describe the erection of a temple and the creation of a priesthood at Bethel, necessary before the inauguration of the new worship at what naturally became the more prominent and magnificent sanctuary. This temple is called a “house of high places,” partly perhaps from its actual position, partly to connect it with the use of “the high places” condemned in the Law. Indeed, as we have no notice of any time spent in building it, it is possible that some old “high place” was restored for the purpose.

And he made an house of high places, and made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi.
(31, 32) Of the lowest of the people.—This is universally recognised as a mistranslation, though a natural one, of the original, “the ends of the people.” The sense is “from the whole mass of the people,” without care for Levitical descent—the Levites having (see 2 Chronicles 11:13-14) generally returned into the kingdom of Judah on the establishment of this idolatry. It is hardly likely that the king would have lacked because at Dan an unauthorised Levitical priesthood was (as has been said) forthcoming.

And Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like unto the feast that is in Judah, and he offered upon the altar. So did he in Bethel, sacrificing unto the calves that he had made: and he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made.
(32) In the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month . . .—The “feast that was in Judah,” to which this is said to be like, is clearly the Feast of Tabernacles, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The fixing of Jeroboam’s festival of dedication for the Temple at Bethel to this special day is characteristic. It at once challenged likeness to the Feast of Tabernacles, which was (see 1 Kings 8:2) the occasion of Solomon’s dedication at Jerusalem, and yet took liberty to alter the date, and fix it in the month “which he had devised of his own heart,” thus assuming the right to set aside the letter of the old law, while professing still to observe the worship of Jehovah.

Offered—or (see margin) went up—upon the altar.—The expression seems to imply that he ventured on a still greater innovation by taking on himself both functions of the priestly office—to offer sacrifice and (see 1 Kings 12:33) to burn incense. This is not, indeed, necessarily implied; for (see 1 Kings 8:63) the sacrificer is often said to offer, when he evidently does so only through the priests. But Jeroboam had set aside the peculiar sanctity of the Levitical priesthood already; and so was very naturally prepared to crown this process by acting as head of the unauthorised priesthood which he had created. Perhaps he had witnessed the exclusive prominence of Solomon at the great dedication festival, and desired to imitate and outdo it.

So he offered upon the altar which he had made in Bethel the fifteenth day of the eighth month, even in the month which he had devised of his own heart; and ordained a feast unto the children of Israel: and he offered upon the altar, and burnt incense.
(33) So he offered upon the altar.—The repetition of this verse is accounted for by its belonging properly in sense to the next chapter, opening the story of the mission of the “man of God from Judah.” The idea of the verse would be best conveyed by rendering the verbs of this verse in the imperfect tense: “So Jeroboam was offering,” &c.

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