REHOBOAM, Solomon's son, had come before a public gathering to be proclaimed king officially (I Kings 12:1; II Chronicles 10:1), although he had actually been Israel's new ruler from the time of his father's death. (I Kings 11:43.) Rehoboam's attitude was that of a young man accustomed to what great wealth could provide. He had little interest in the welfare of his people.
Conflict with his subjects started on his inauguration day. Jeroboam, to whom God had promised rulership of ten tribes of Israel, led a crowd of men from all parts of the nation up to the platform where the new king stood. (I Kings 12:2-3.) "If you will permit me, sir, I have something to say to you on behalf of the people," Jeroboam addressed Rehoboam. The king stared impassively at Jeroboam. He resented what he considered an intrusion at a ceremony in which he was the star. He wanted to refuse Jeroboam, but he knew that the crowd would be angry if he didn't agree to listen. Finally he nodded curtly to Jeroboam. "For years your father has troubled us with heavy taxes," Jeroboam spoke out. "Lately he has forced many men of Israel into heavy labor on various projects. We can't continue under these conditions much longer. Now we're respectfully asking you to help us by lowering our taxes and stopping the draft of men into forced labor." Rehoboam felt like asking Jeroboam and the others to go mind their own business. Instead, he managed to appear friendly and quite thoughtful, as though the suggestion deserved his royal consideration. "What you have brought up is something I have thought about," he said. "I want to help my people. Come back here in three days. Meanwhile, I'll confer with my advisors. There will be a decision made by the time we get together again." (I Kings 12:4-5; II Chronicles 10:2-5.) "Thank you," Jeroboam said, bowing. "If you will help us, we shall serve you well for as long as you are king." As he promised, Rehoboam went to men who could advise him. First he asked the opinions of older men who had been consultants to Solomon. They told him that he would be wise to consider doing what the people asked, and that he would be looked up to as a good and fair ruler if he would help them out of their trouble. Later, Rehoboam conferred with younger men who were more inclined to his way of thinking. "Why worry about what the people want?" they asked the king. "Taxes and forced labor aren't hurting them too much. If you decrease what your subjects should give, your income will decrease. Why let the people talk you into something you'll regret? Be stern with them. Show them who's running this nation!" (I Kings 12:6-11; II Chronicles 10:6-11.) When Jeroboam returned with others to confer with the king, he wasn't too surprised at what happened. The new ruler strode regally out before the crowd and peered at the expectant faces. He was smiling, but his smile was more arrogant than friendly.
Rehoboam's Foolish Decision
"Three days ago you asked me to lower your taxes and demand less labor for projects in Israel," Rehoboam commenced. "I told you I would consult my advisors about these matters, and I did. Now you'll get my answer." The king gazed about with a growing smile before he continued. Obviously he was savoring those moments while his audience hung on every word he uttered. "You think my father taxed you too heavily and worked some of you too hard? Then you should appreciate how easy he was on you. I am young and have more competent men working with me and more projects in mind. Therefore I have more power than did my father, and so I am going to require more labor and heavier taxes. Some of you complained because my father's labor gang foremen struck you with ordinary leather whips when you became lazy. You didn't realize how well off you were then. From now on my foremen will beat you lazy ones with whips that have metal tips!" (I Kings 12:12-15; II Chronicles 10:12-15.) There was silence among the people as Rehoboam's words sank in. Then an angry, muffled muttering could be heard. It died out as the crowd slowly melted away. Jeroboam wasn't as disappointed as he appeared to be. He knew that the people were on the verge of revolting against the king. It was his opportunity to stir them up further, which he promptly did. As a result, every tribe of Israel except Judah (and Benjamin, the small tribe whose territory adjoined that of Judah) rebelled against Rehoboam. As representatives of the ten tribes were returning in disappointment to their homes, Rehoboam sent the chief collector of taxes to speak to the representatives of the people. Hours later an excited servant hurried to Rehoboam, who was still staying at Shechem, convinced that the people would passively submit to any extra burden he put on them. "Adoram your head tax collector has been stoned to death!" the servant exclaimed. "There are reports that the people are prepared to take the lives of anyone who attempts to collect taxes. There are even rumors that an angry crowd is forming to come here and demand to talk to you!" The frightened king didn't waste time calling for advisors to advise him to leave. It was entirely his own idea to get to his chariot as soon as possible and head swiftly south on the road to Jerusalem, where he knew he would be safer among the people of his own tribe. (I Kings 12:16-19; II Chronicles 10:16-19.) While Rehoboam was establishing himself in the royal palace, leaders of the ten rebellious tribes met to form a nation separate from Judah and Benjamin. They started by declaring Jeroboam king. His leadership convinced them that he was best fitted to be over them. That was as God had planned it, so that a large part of Israel would be taken from the rule of Solomon's family. Otherwise Jeroboam wouldn't have been allowed to become a ruler as he wasn't of the royal line. (I Kings 12:20.)
Reports of what was going on quickly reached Rehoboam. He began to realize that matters were much more serious than he had been given to believe. He gave orders that all the soldiers of Judah and Benjamin should be mustered to overrun the seceding tribes and force them back into allegiance to the government at Jerusalem. One hundred and eighty thousand troops answered Rehoboam's call. Just when the king was about to send them into action, a prophet by the name of Shemaiah came to tell him and the people of Judah and Benjamin that God didn't want them to war against the other tribes. "If you do," Shemaiah warned them, "God will surely bring some kind of sudden and severe punishment on you." Rehoboam was afraid. Even though some of his young friends and advisors considered him cowardly for doing so, he wisely called off the planned attack. "I happen to know that if we go to war against our brothers, God won't be with us in battle," he hesitantly explained to his astonished officers. "Dismiss the troops and send them back to their homes." By striking the king with fear, God prevented a civil war He didn't want to take place. (I Kings 12:21-24; II Chronicles 11:1-4.) One of the first things Jeroboam did as king was to rebuild and fortify the mountain town of Shechem, which he occupied with a small army after Rehoboam had fled. Shechem had been mostly in ruins since it had been ravaged by Abimelech nearly two hundred years before. Now Jeroboam planned to make it the seat of government of his kingdom. He also rebuilt and fortified the town of Penuel, located east of the Jordan near the Jabbok River. It was on a route to foreign cities, including Damascus to the northeast. Manned by Jeroboam's soldiers, it was an important outpost for checking on caravan traffic moving to and from Jerusalem. (I Kings 12:25.) In his efforts to strengthen himself as ruler, Jeroboam felt he had to do some scheming. He reasoned that if very many of his people felt obligated to go to Jerusalem to observe God's annual Sabbaths and Festivals, they might repent of their rebellion and feel that Jeroboam had led them astray. "They'll surely do away with me if they begin to think that way," Jeroboam thought. "Something will have to be done to keep them away from Jerusalem." Instead of showing obedience and asking God for help in his office of king, Jeroboam chose to pursue the opposite direction by deliberately leading the people away from God. He had two images of calves constructed of gold. One was erected in the town of Bethel, only a few miles north of Jerusalem. The other was set up in the town of Dan, on the east side of the Jordan not far southwest of Mt. Hermon. Jeroboam then made a proclamation to all his people. "From now on it will not be necessary for you to go all the way to Jerusalem to observe those old Mosaic festivals. Why be under the law?" he said, trying to deceive the people. "There is a golden calf at Bethel in the south and another at Dan in the north. They represent the gods which brought your ancestors out of Egypt. Now it will be easier, more convenient and even safer for everyone to confine your religious duties within the borders of your own land. Priests and their assistants at both locations will assist all who need help or instruction in sacrificing or worship."
A Pagan Priesthood
The "priests" referred to weren't of the family of Levi. They were men of low rank who were willing to conduct sacrifices to idols for whatever they were paid. Surprisingly, many people fell in with the king's suggestion to break God's law. Instead of being faithful to their Creator, they began making sacrifices to the calf images. Within only weeks Jeroboam's kingdom was infested with one of the evils God had especially warned the people about over the centuries. As for the real priests — the Levites — who lived in that part of the land, and the other people in the ten tribes who remained faithful to God, they fled to Judah and Jerusalem. (I Kings 12:26-31; II Chronicles 11:13-17.) But Jeroboam wasn't satisfied with the change he had made. God's Festival of Tabernacles was soon to be observed. He feared that this happiest time of the year would draw many to Jerusalem, where it had been joyfully kept. In a fanatical attempt to control his subjects in this matter, he denounced God's law. He then announced to the people that there would be no reason for them to go anywhere to observe the start of the Festival on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. He said he had officially changed the date to the fifteenth day of the eighth month — the period we now know as Halloween! (I Kings 12:32-33.) To attempt to alter the Holy Days established by God was rash, irreverent, and sinful. Mad as it was, Jeroboam didn't do any worse than others who — masquerading as God's ministers — have worked to change or do away with God's Sabbaths down through the ages. Today many churches have summer "camp meetings" instead of observing the Festival of Tabernacles in the fall. They keep Easter instead of Passover, Whitsunday instead of Pentecost. They celebrate the beginning of a new year in the winter, whereas God tells us that the new year begins in the spring. Sunday is regarded as a holiday instead of God's weekly Sabbath, and so on. These flagrant deviations will be corrected over the whole world when Christ comes to Earth to rule. (Zechariah 14:16-19.) To impress those who came to his centers of worship, Jeroboam often assumed the role of high priest. One-day when he was burning incense before the calf image at Bethel, a man broke through the audience and strode toward the altar.
"God has sent me from Judah to declare a curse on this altar!" he loudly announced. "A child by the name of Josiah shall be born to the house of David! He, too, shall burn something on this altar, but it won't be incense. It will be the bones of you lying priests who sacrifice here!" (I Kings 13:1-2.) These events were fulfilled many years later just as God prophesied. (II Kings 23:15-17.) The king turned to peer at the stranger. He put down the incense container and placed his hands on his hips. "So you are a prophet from Judah!" he said in a mocking tone. "Prove it to me and to these people by giving us a sign. If you fail, we'll know that you are a liar and that you deserve to die for reviling this sacred idol and temple!" The stranger stared at the king, seemingly at a loss for words. "A sign!" Jeroboam barked impatiently. "Give us a sign right now or admit that you lied when you said God sent you." "There is your sign!" the prophet blurted out, pointing to the smoking altar. "That altar shall break apart and dump its ashes on the floor!" "Well?" Jeroboam asked after seconds had dragged by and nothing happened. "Your time is up. Men, seize this wretch!" The king extended an arm toward the prophet. Attendants grabbed him and started to drag him away, but stopped when they noticed that something was wrong with their leader. His face was suddenly pale, and his expression was one of stark fright. His bare arm, still outstretched, was somehow hideously white and wrinkled and stiff. He was unable to draw it back or drop it to his side!
While startled people stared, a loud cracking sound came from the altar. It fell apart as though it had been sliced by an invisible bolt of lightning, crashing to the floor in a cloud of smoke, sparks and flying ashes. Shrieking and groaning with fear, the crowd quickly scattered. Even some of the attendants fled. Jeroboam was so shaken by this double blow that he staggered back against the wall. (I Kings 13:3-5.) "Beg your God to make my arm as it was before!" the king wailed. "I spoke hastily. How could I know that you are a true prophet?" The attendants were relieved to fall back from the man from Judah, who fell to his knees, thanked God aloud for sparing him, and asked that the king be healed. Almost instantly the withered arm took on its normal color and shape. Jeroboam muttered with satisfaction as he pulled his arm back and forth and flexed it up and down. Soon afterward he recovered his composure. His attitude toward the prophet became very friendly, but at the same time he had trouble hiding his concern about what had happened. "Come to my home with me and have dinner," he said to the prophet as he motioned to attendants to do something about the altar and the spilled ashes. "I want an opportunity to reward you for what you did about my arm. Besides, I would like to talk to you about becoming one of my priests. It could be very rewarding for you." (I Kings 13:6-7.) "I wouldn't go with you if you gave me half of your possessions!" the prophet exclaimed. "God told me not to eat nor drink while in this profane town. I'm not even to return by the way I came, lest evil men wait to harm me." Jeroboam's eyes narrowed as he watched the prophet stride away. Because the man had spurned him and his offer, he wanted to have him seized and put away. But he feared to have him touched lest God should strike again with some ailment more severe than a useless arm. Jeroboam would have been pleased if he could have known what would soon happen to the prophet. Two brothers who had witnessed what had taken place at the altar hurried home to tell their father, who was also a prophet. The father had failed to leave the country when idol worship started. "Tell me which way this man went!" the father excitedly asked. (I Kings 13:8-12.) The trudging prophet from Judah could never have guessed what was about to take place.