A last chance (in human terms) to salvage the mess Solomon has made comes in chapter 12, as his son Rehoboam is faced with a choice – will he repent of Solomon’s mistakes, and relax the heavy taxes and forced labour which have blighted life in Israel, or will he make them heavier to show that he is not to be taken lightly?
Those old advisers who saw the effect of Solomon’s actions give him good advice – to lead the people by serving them, not dominating them. This is the kind of leadership which Jesus would show much later, and it’s the kind of leadership which seems to produce the most lasting success in organisations. The leader who serves her people rather than herself will stay their leader, and (with other gifts!) will lead them into good things.
Unfortunately, Rehoboam listens to his other advisers – not old sages but young men eager to make a mark and be part of the entourage of the new, young king. Their advice is that he should show himself stronger than his father, by working his people harder and making their lives more miserable. Then they’ll know that he’s boss.
Jereboam has other ideas. Rehoboam is boss by the consent of God and of the people, and the people have just withdrawn their disagreement. So the kingdom splits, to remain divided for the rest of the Old Testament.
Straight away we get into the complicated parallel timeline of Israel (which from now on means the Northern Kingdom, following Jeroboam) and Judah (the Southern Kingdom, with Jerusalem and David’s descendants on the throne there). I remember when I was first finding my way around the Bible getting thoroughly lost at this point! The following timeline and map may or may not help to keep track…
From now on, Judah’s throne passes down father to son. That of Israel has a more turbulent time – by the end of these chapters we’re already on to the third dynasty, as one king replaces another. It’s worth remembering that this isn’t a full history by any means. One after another, the end of a king’s reign includes a variation on the phrase ‘The rest of the acts of … are recorded in the Annals of the kings of Judah/Israel’. The writer here is focussed mainly on one thing – how faithful is each king to the worship of the LORD? From Jereboam onwards, the northern kings have had it from the start – part of the rule against which they are judged is that worship should be offered at Jerusalem, which for much of the time is now in a hostile country. A few of the kings of Judah do get a better score-card, but they are few and far between from now on.
We know from other sources much more about a few kings – for example Omri, who’s dismissed as ‘did what was evil in the sight of the LORD’ in eight verses is recorded throughout the Ancient Near East as one of the greatest kings, who expanded the kingdom further than any other king, by conquest and treaty. But in the judgement of this book, he failed.
It leaves me with one question – whatever else I may or may not accomplish, what is the most important thing on which I will one day be judged, and how am I doing on that score?