The year is 930 BC. Forty years of relative stability have ended with a total collapse of government, as over 500 years of resentment and tribal differences have taken their toll on a fractured people. The nation of Israel has divided across lines of loyalty between Jeroboam in the north, and Rehoboam in the south. After a near miss in which Shemaiah the man of God kept Rehoboam from carrying an army northward to take back his kingdom, both kings have settled down to establish their bases of power.
Rehoboam, of the line of David, possesses the clear right to rule. In addition to being the dynasty’s heir and the beneficiary of God’s promises, he holds the seat of spiritual legitimacy—the city of Jerusalem, with God’s temple at its pinnacle. It is in this place that all the men of Israel must gather three times a year to worship the God of their forefathers.
Jeroboam hails from the tribe of Ephraim, which, in the period of the Judges, had been known for its violence, idolatry, wickedness, and rebellion. He himself is known as a rebel, and his only legitimacy comes from a promise granted to him by God, through the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite. Three times a year Jeroboam will lose all of the men in his kingdom to the mandated feasts in Jerusalem. He reaches the conclusion that, unless he does something to keep the men in the north, he will lose everything he has won so far. In answer, he has two calves of gold constructed, and sets one up at Dan in the north, and the other at Bethel in the south. He calls them the gods that brought Israel up out of Egypt. He establishes an alternate feast to the Day of Atonement, on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, rather than the fourteenth day of the seventh month.
Additionally, he does away with the old, restrictive system of priesthood that limited positions of service to the tribe of Levi, and opens up opportunities for everyone with a spiritual interest to serve. It’s a brand new day in Israel!
The Levites leave, and so do the priests. This new culture of tolerance holds no place for them. Family by family, person by person, anyone left in Israel who wants to seek God moves to the south. The light of spiritual truth begins to dim in the kingdom of Jeroboam as the God-fearers take their support to Rehoboam.
In the south, a nation shines, headed by a son of David’s line, made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and fully supported by all of the priests, Levites, and God-fearers from every tribe of the north. It is a beacon of hope and truth. It lasts for three years.
The Bible says, in 2 Chronicles 11:14-17; 12:1:
. . . The Levites left their common-lands and their possessions and came to Judah and Jerusalem, for Jeroboam and his sons had rejected them from serving as priests to the LORD. Then he appointed for himself priests for the high places, for the demons, and the calf idols which he had made. And after the Levites left, those from all the tribes of Israel, such as set their heart to seek the LORD God of Israel, came to Jerusalem to sacrifice to the LORD God of their fathers. So they strengthened the kingdom of Judah and made Rehoboam the son of Solomon strong for three years, because they walked in the way of David and Solomon for three years . . . . Now it came to pass, when Rehoboam had established the kingdom and had strengthened himself, that he forsook the law of the LORD, and all Israel along with him. (NKJV)
What happened? How could a nation with a God-ordained leader, a historically established spiritual capital, and a plethora of God-fearing Bible experts completely abandon God?
No record tells us that spies infiltrated the south and sowed the seeds of idolatry. We can’t say that perhaps these people who left the north weren’t actually all that passionate for God; the Bible clearly states that they had their hearts set on seeking God, and, anyway, lukewarm people don’t leave everything they own when it would be easier to stay put and accommodate the culture.
I suspect that they got comfortable. Put yourself in their sandals. Your culture has changed around you, seemingly overnight. Everything you have assumed about life and spirituality has been cast aside without thought or resistance. Everyone in your nation does whatever he or she wants, however he or she wants, whenever he or she wants. Anybody can be a spiritual leader, and everybody’s views are valid, except yours . . . you traditionalist. Your government keeps making changes that scare you; will they take your job away next, or force you to abandon your beliefs? You decide to move to a place where they’ve held on to their values and protected their religious freedoms and responsibilities, where the government respects what you believe and guards as sacred the ideas you hold dear. You pack your family and your things, and you leave. On the way, you find yourself with likeminded people, and it feels safe. You can voice your opinions, and others agree with you. It’s a breath of fresh air. You arrive in Jerusalem, and it’s beautiful, and so . . . right. Someone helps you find a house; someone else knows someone who gets you a job. You get to worship with people who believe like you. It feels so good. Finally you can rest.
Everyone feels the same. The right government is in place, and it will protect the people’s rights. The passionate believers band together to support the rightful leader, throwing their weight behind him. Surely he will do what is right and reverse the mistakes of the past. He will fight for them, and they won’t have to be afraid of their neighbors anymore. Over three years, the faithful settle in their new security, and their passion wilts until it results in the loss of everything that called them to Judah in the first place.
Does this sound familiar? The last few years in America have been a whirlwind of political fighting, and I know that for some the election caused deep grief, while for others it resulted in a great relief that suddenly America had a leader who would do the right thing. But no leader is capable of transforming a nation that, by and large, hasn’t heard the gospel. The call to Christians now is: will you be comfortable and expect the system to protect your way of life, or will you know and tell God’s story, regardless of what it costs you along the way, regardless of who is in power? Will you strengthen this earthly kingdom for three years, or will you seek the heavenly one that lasts forever, and seek to bring it into the hearts of the people? Only this—passionately transmitting God’s story to others so they can be a part of it—will transform the nation. Please, do not let Judah’s story be our story.