Devotional Hours with the Bible, Volume 4: Chapter 9 – Jeroboam’s Idolatry
By J.R. Miller
1 Kings 12
Jeroboam had a fine opportunity. He had come up from the ranks of the people through his own industry and efficiency. He was among the workmen engaged on the great public works of the nation when Solomon found him, his attention having been drawn to him by his industry and ability. He had risen, not through political influence–but by sheer worth–to a high place. Then he had been divinely pointed out–as the man to be the king of the ten northern revolting tribes. The prophet had told him that the Lord would give him this responsible place. The people had also freely turned to him and chosen him as their leader. He had the gifts and qualifications for kingship. If only he had used his opportunity aright–he might have become a great king and have built up a mighty empire.
But there was a condition, as there always is when God puts a trust into any man’s hands. “I will place you on the throne of Israel, and you will rule over all that your heart desires. If you listen to what I tell you and follow my ways and do whatever I consider to be right, and if you obey my laws and commands, as my servant David did, then I will always be with you. I will establish an enduring dynasty for you as I did for David, and I will give Israel to you.” But Jeroboam threw away this magnificent opportunity, and wrecked the possibilities of his own life. He might have made a brilliant story of honor and blessing for himself and the new kingdom if he had been faithful to God.
Jeroboam was a good builder. Building had been his business. When he became king, he set to work at once to build and fortify cities. “Jeroboam built Shechem . . . and built Penuel.” What a pity it is that he did not stay at his building work all his life! We cannot help thinking how different the history of God’s people might have been–if Jeroboam had not become king; or if, being king by divine appointment, he had walked in God’s ways.
A trail of sin, however, blotted every page of the nation’s story behind him. He is known as “the man who made Israel to sin.” Every time his name is mentioned, this mark of dishonor is attached to it. He was put upon his throne with a holy mission. He was called to be a godly king, and then was promised honor, divine blessing, and the perpetuity of his throne. But he proved a traitor to God, and failed to carry out the divine plan for his life. He not only wrecked his own destiny–but he dragged a nation with him, down to sin and infamy. It seems a pity that he was ever discovered by Solomon and promoted to a place of honor. Better if he had remained all his life in his lowly place. He understood building cities and strengthening fortifications; had he only built morally and spiritually as well as he had built in material things, he would have been a successful king. There are many people who do this world’s part of their life-work well enough–but fail utterly of their higher mission.
We must do our common work conscientiously. We are sure that Jesus was a good carpenter and did the work of His trade most honestly and carefully. But He had a higher mission than carpentering. There are fine carpenters, who are neglectful of their spiritual duties. No life is a success–which does not build for heaven. Bricks and stones and timbers–will not make eternal habitations. It is right to do one’s work well–but if one’s work on the heavenly side is neglected meanwhile, the result will be disastrous in the end. The record of Jeroboam’s enterprise, is all eclipsed by the black spots of his great moral failure.
Jeroboam wanted to keep his people loyal and faithful to him, and set about devising ways of encouraging such loyalty and devotion. He thought he saw danger in the people’s returning to the feasts in Jerusalem. He feared that if this were still permitted, that they would be drawn back to their former allegiance to the southern kingdom of Judah. He knew that they would not be satisfied without some system of worship. They had been accustomed to go to Jerusalem to the great feasts, and these observances had a tremendous hold upon them. If they had no place of worship of their own, they would continue to go to the temple and would gradually drift back to Judah. “Jeroboam said in his heart. Now . . . if this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of Jehovah at Jerusalem, then will the heart of this people turn again unto the Lord.”
It is true that old religious faiths die hard. Religious ties are very strong. When bred in the blood and fiber, it is almost impossible to break them. Those who have been brought up with strong religious habits from their infancy–can scarcely by any power be turned entirely away from these habits in later life. This is one reason why children should be trained from the cradle to obey God, and engage in His service. They may then for a time be drawn away from good paths by the world’s temptations–but they will almost surely come back in the end. Jeroboam was right in his impression that the people would be apt to drift back to the old altars, unless he provided something in place of what they had left. Yet this was no justification for the sin into which he led them. If he had been loyal to God–he would have sought the counsel of some wise and godly men, and have devised some plan to provide for his people religious worship, which would have the divine approval.
The king’s device to meet the danger was not God’s way. “The king made two gold calves. He said to the people, ‘It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. O Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!’ He placed these calf idols at the southern and northern ends of Israel–in Bethel and in Dan. This became a great sin–for the people worshiped them!”
Nature abhors a vacuum. A human heart cannot be left empty. “When one object of devotion is taken from it, something else must be put in its place. The king knew that the only way he could keep the people from returning to the old worship–was by furnishing some other worship for them. So he was not content to forbid them going up to the old national feasts; he set up new shrines and appointed new festivals.
The old missionaries understood this law of life. When cutting down the sacred groves where the people had worshiped idols, they used the wood to erect Christian chapels on the same spot. If we seek to drive out evil–we must do it by getting something good into the heart instead. There is little use in merely urging people to stop doing wrong–they must be taught to do something in place of the wrong, and unless they are given something good to do–they will continue to do the wrong things.
But while Jeroboam took advantage of this law of life, he erred grievously in the way he sought to fill the vacuum. Turning the people away from the worship of the true God–he set up idols and taught them to worship these! Only evil came out of it. “This became a great sin, for the people worshiped them, traveling even as far as Dan!” The king’s plan worked well, according to his purpose. The people took readily to his new shrines. They went even to the farthest off, to Dan, to worship. They do not seem to have had any desire to return to Jerusalem. So Jeroboam had a religion of his own for his new kingdom, and thus one of the strongest ties of the old national life, was broken and the separation was made complete.
Yet this is one of the saddest records in the Bible. It tells of the beginning of a departure from God, which in the end brought bitter sorrow and terrible ruin upon the people, blotting from the very face of the earth–the tribes who were thus set going on a wrong path! The man who starts an error–never knows to what it will grow. He who sets another’s feet in a wrong path–never knows where it will lead at last. To teach one child falsely–may be to hurt thousands of lives in the end. Those who start new enterprises open fountains of influence, good or bad, which will flow on forever. Jeroboam gave shape and character to the new departure, and the nineteen kings who followed him–all, with not on exception, walked in his evil steps!
There is an old story of an abbot who coveted a certain piece of ground. The owner refused to sell–but consented to lease it for one crop only. The shrewd abbot sowed acorns, a crop of which would take three hundred years to grow and ripen. Jeroboam’s one evil sowing, mortgaged the new kingdom for evil through all its two hundred and fifty years of history!
Jeroboam’s evil work did not stop with the setting up of the calves of gold. He established a full religious cult and elaborated a complete system of worship. He made priests, and ordained feasts and systems of sacrifice.
We may trace the course of this man’s sin as it works itself out in the after history. What were the consequences in Jeroboam himself? Trouble followed trouble. His hand withered at the altar. His child died. He was defeated in war. His kingdom was partially torn from him. He was smitten in his person and went to his grave in dishonor.
Then in all the ages since his name has been gibbeted before the world, branded with infamy, as “the man who made Israel to sin.” But his sin did not stop with himself. He poisoned the springs of national life and led a nation into idolatry. The whole history of the ten tribes is one of disaster and calamity, ending in captivity and extinction. Commentators note the fact that in the seventh chapter of Revelation, where the names of the tribes that are sealed in heaven are given, two are missing, Ephraim and Dan, the tribes in whose territories the idol-calves were set up. Is there no significance in this omission? The story of sin is always terrible! “Sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death!”
Jeroboam’s record is preserved as a warning for those who come after him. The red light of the story shines out as a danger signal. Which way are you starting? Are you facing light or darkness? As you start in youth–you will likely continue to go forever!