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The Sad Tale of Sad King Rehoboam -- a study of 1 Kings 12:6-19

Rehoboam is a bad model for management.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Kings 12:6-19

In this week's almost-comical exchange, young king Rehoboam takes just about the worst advice possible, leading to an immediate dissolution of his kingdom and the slow death of the nation (all in fulfillment of God's judgment against Solomon). We learn valuable lessons about advice, advisors, and putting other people first.

Israel is still in rebellion against the house of David today. (12:19)

There are two roads you might take to get started here: bad advice, and uncaring selfishness. In our passage, the king listens to catastrophic advice. And it proved how utterly uncaring he was about the people. Either direction could keep you talking for a long time.


Where Do You Go for Advice?

(I've used this strip before. It's one of my favorites.)


Where do you go for advice? Do you have a person? A podcast? A talk show? A book? How much do you know about that source? What do they believe about other important topics?


In our passage this week, a young king is going to take some terrible advice, and his reign will suffer permanent consequences.


How do you know if someone is qualified to give you good advice? How do you know if the advice they give you is good?


We all are faced with situations/problems/challenges where we aren't sure what to do. That's life. And so, knowing who can help us decide how to handle that is super valuable. As Christians, it is beyond important that we are able to help the people around us know how to make good decisions. Your Bible study group should be a resource for you -- work together to come up with some reliable resources you can share with people in need.


What's the Worst Advice You've Ever Taken? -or-

What's the Worst Government Decision You've Ever Seen?

A variation on this opening topic is simply to lean in on bad advice. What bad advice have you taken, and how did it turn out? Or, what's a government policy that turned out predictably bad? (For example, when we lived in Kansas City, they told the police department to pull people over for being a good driver (not tickets but thank yous). It lasted about as long as you might it would.) Watch out on this one -- your group might get sidetracked on some government soapboxes. The point would simply be that governments can take terrible advice just like individuals can.


Have People's Best Interests At Heart

One of the things we learn in this week's passage is that the king and his advisors did not have the people's best interests at heart. So perhaps a way you could start would be to share examples you've seen: where have you seen a business/agency with the best interests of people at heart?

I recently had a situation where I needed something unexpectedly at the church, and a local business (who has no FBC church members on staff) loaned me what I needed at no cost. I was very impressed by that gesture. Perhaps you've run into something similar?


I know that businesses are in the business of making money, and that's why it makes such a huge impression on me when a business is willing to make a little less money in order to be a good "corporate neighbor". Or when a government employee goes above and beyond to take care of someone in need.


I think it would be great to start your time talking about positive examples. If everyone thought a little more about others, we could probably take care of most of the people in our country. Maybe even the whole world.


At that brings me to a sneaky-negative example.


The Millennial Lifestyle Subsidy

In our passage, the king is going to threaten the people with torture-backed forced labor. We (in America, at least -- but more about this below) do not have a context for this. Our hardships are nothing like that, and we're not going to pretend that they are.


But, there are plenty of people around us who put themselves ahead of everyone else. That's king Rehoboam from this week's passage, a man who would be rich and powerful at the expense of the people (didn't work out well for him). That actually seems pretty common in our culture; we all have experiences with the scenario of being overcharged or undercompensated by a business/government entity who cares more about personal profit than greater good. Obviously, that's a thing. What is the "Great Resignation" if not people being tired of being underpaid? What are the national stories about rent/housing if not how working-class people are being priced out of safe places to live?


Here's the opposite question from above: Where have you seen a business (or whatever) put profit ahead of the good of a person? How did it turn out? Did the person ever get fed up with the situation or just keep dealing with it?


[Personal observation and prediction: my guess is that you will be able to have this conversation without rooting it in race. Proponents of Critical Race Theory will tell you that any such discussion not based on race is illegitimate. They're wrong. This situation occurs in every culture. That's because it's not a "race problem", it's a human problem. It's a function of sin. The Bible tells us

3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. 4 Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others. (Phil 2)

It doesn't matter who we are -- when we put ourselves ahead of someone else, we're in the wrong.]


[Side note: "greedflation". Liberal elements of our society have begun using this term to blame inflation on the greed of corporations (making them like Rehoboam in our passage). I understand that corporations want to maximize profits, but economists have found no evidence of "greedflation" behind our circumstance. When labor and materials get more expensive, prices go up.]


So, what do any of this have to do with "Millennial Lifestyle Subsidy"??? Well, like I said, this is sneaky. You all know the scenario like the credit card who lures you in with absurdly low rates and then jacks up the rate when you're not paying attention. Sometimes, businesses play a long game, being willing to lose a lot of money in the short term with the plan of getting it back in the long term.


And that brings me to the crazy world of venture capitalism. Maybe not so much in Thomson, but there are people out there with billions of dollars to burn. (I know, right?) And they're just looking for a great idea to spend it on. Think Shark Tank, but bigger.


For a number of years now, interest rates have been so cheap that these venture capitalists have found it smart to borrow even more money to invest in "Millennial Lifestyle" startups. Have a business plan to walk dogs? To deliver lunch to the office? To give someone a ride in their personal vehicle? To let someone stay in their own home? That sounds like something to invest in! Here's a billion dollars!

If you follow earnings reports (and I'm not suggesting that you should), you would know that most of these companies seem to lose millions(!) of dollars all the time. How is that even possible? What kind of business plan is that?


Well, that is the plan. Venture capital money would subsidize unrealistically low prices/rates for the purpose of gaining a large customer base. (No different than any new business having a "store opening sale" except they have billions of dollars to burn.) (My favorite "someone thought that was a good idea?" story is MoviePass.) And this was their plan:

  • Underpay employees (like delivery drivers) with the promise of a one-day raise when the business gets booming

  • Overcharge/underpay providers (like restaurants) with the threat that their business will become irrelevant if they don't participate

  • Plan on jacking up prices once market share becomes such that customers have no choice but to pay

None of that is good. That puts them in the same category we're condemning in this week's lesson: putting personal profit/power ahead of everything else. God cares about motives -- make sure you are aware of the motives behind your business practices.


Put people first. God has good reasons for telling us to live that way.

 

This Week's Big Idea: Authoritarianism in the World Today

I didn't realize how widespread authoritarianism is in the world today, so this detour proved very depressing to me. "Authoritarianism" is a government style that suppresses opposition. They may allow "democratic elections", but their candidate always seems to win. People who criticize the government tend to disappear, the legislature (if it exists) passes laws approved by the executive, and the executive's power tends to shift based on need. "Freedom of religion" is generally not a thing in an authoritarian nation.


I counted more than 50(!!) nations that are identified as authoritarian with billions of citizens.

(Sorry, but this was the simplest map I could find. Dark gray means "not authoritarian"; all of the other colors mean some degree of authoritarianism.)


Kingships, like what our passage covers, are generally authoritarian. If the king rules well, no one complains. But when the king does something stupid like in this week's passage, the people only have three options: overthrow the government, leave, or endure. Communist nations are authoritarian. (Communist parties don't share power.)


There's a more extreme form of authoritarianism that's called "totalitarianism". Where authoritarian governments focus on their political power, totalitarian governments want to control, well, everything. North Korea falls into this category. Despite their public statements to the contrary, Afghanistan under the Taliban seems to fall into this category. And based on how Putin has controlled Russia during this war, I think Putin has totalitarian designs.


All of that to say -- what the people of Israel suffered under Solomon and Rehoboam is still the experience of millions of people in our world today. As Christians, we should not be okay with that. We should actively promote and work toward the freedom and well-being of every person in our world.

 

Where We Are in 1 Kings

A lot happened in the one chapter we skipped. In last week's passage, God announced that He would take most of the kingdom away from Solomon's son. Then we learned that Solomon had opponents both in Edom and Aram. And then the big one -- a prophet said that one of Solomon's own officials, Jeroboam, would be the one to lead the tribes who left the kingdom. Here are the big words in 1 Ki 11:

37 "I will appoint you, and you will reign as king over all you want, and you will be king over Israel. 38 After that, if you obey all I command you, walk in my ways, and do what is right in my sight in order to keep my statutes and my commands as my servant David did, I will be with you. I will build you a lasting dynasty just as I built for David, and I will give you Israel. 39 I will humble David’s descendants, because of their unfaithfulness, but not forever."

It's the same offer He made to Solomon -- an if/then. Of course, Jeroboam won't live up to the covenant. In fact, he'll be even worse than the kings in Jerusalem! The point God makes is this: every human king will eventually fail; only the perfect Messianic King is worthy of our trust and faith. All of these failures we learn about in 1/2 Kings are to point us to Jesus.


Anyway, Solomon hears about this and tries to kill Jeroboam. Nice. Jeroboam escapes to Egypt, and Solomon dies, and his son Rehoboam becomes king.


Chapter 12 sets up this week's passage.

The court went to Shechem for the coronation. Shechem had long been an important location along a trade route. Joseph was buried there. It was a city of refuge. Joshua built an altar there commemorating the law. It was relatively central to all of the tribes.


Anyway, it turns out that there was a large faction of disgruntled Jews under Solomon. They appointed Jeroboam to speak at the coronation and ask for improved conditions under the new regime.


3 "But they summoned him, and Jeroboam and the whole assembly of Israel came and spoke to Rehoboam: 4 “Your father made our yoke harsh. You, therefore, lighten your father’s harsh service and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” 5 Rehoboam replied, “Go away for three days and then return to me.” So the people left." (1 Ki 12)


Don't bury the lead. King Solomon was unpopular. He built his reign on forced labor (1 Ki 5:13) and high taxes (1 Ki 4:27). And though the Bible explains that the people lived in safety, which made them happy, such happiness apparently had its limits.


Asking for a boon at a coronation was not uncommon. New kings often wanted to be seen as generous (reduce the chance of rebellion). But it was also risky. You didn't know (for certain) what kind of a king this king wanted to be.


The Bible has already given us an example of such a request backfiring. You remember Pharaoh's response to Moses --

8 For they are slackers—that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ 9 Impose heavier work on the men. Then they will be occupied with it and not pay attention to deceptive words. (Ex 5)

Anyway, we're about learn what kind of king Rehoboam wanted to be.

 

Part 1: Experience Speaks (1 Kings 12:6-7)

6 Then King Rehoboam consulted with the elders who had served his father Solomon when he was alive, asking, “How do you advise me to respond to this people?” 7 They replied, “Today if you will be a servant to this people and serve them, and if you respond to them by speaking kind words to them, they will be your servants forever.”

I really don't have a lot to say about this week's passage. There's not a lot of "gray interpretive area". The new king went to the older advisors and got some very sage advice: grant this boon and it will go well for you.


Note that these advisors had served Solomon. Solomon's reign was balanced by high taxes/forced labor and also peace and prosperity. My guess is that the advisors heard the chatter. They were aware of the needle Solomon was threading. And they probably had much less faith in Rehoboam (who was not supernaturally wise).


You've heard these phrases:

  • Don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

  • Don't upset the apple cart.

  • Don't mess with a good thing.

They are all different ways of looking at this advice. What do you think the advisors were hoping to accomplish by giving this advice?


Big Aside: "Servant Leadership"

Through Jesus, we know exactly what God wants "servant leadership" to look like. I encourage you to draw up two lists on a white board:

  • What does servant leadership look like in business?

  • What does servant leadership look like in politics?

Servant leadership is the model God wants all Christian to follow.


BUT... There is a secular model called "servant leadership". I'm not talking about that.

Here are a couple of articles that summarize a Jesus approach:

And here's an article comparing the two:

Just know that when I say "servant leadership", I'm talking about the biblical model, not the model coined by a guy in the 70s.

 

Part 2: Arrogance Reigns (1 Kings 12:8-15)

8 But he rejected the advice of the elders who had advised him and consulted with the young men who had grown up with him and attended him. 9 He asked them, “What message do you advise that we send back to this people who said to me, ‘Lighten the yoke your father put on us’?” 10 The young men who had grown up with him told him, “This is what you should say to this people who said to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, but you, make it lighter on us!’ This is what you should tell them: ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist! 11 Although my father burdened you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with barbed whips.’” 12 So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam on the third day, as the king had ordered: “Return to me on the third day.” 13 Then the king answered the people harshly. He rejected the advice the elders had given him 14 and spoke to them according to the young men’s advice: “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with barbed whips.” 15 The king did not listen to the people, because this turn of events came from the Lord to carry out his word, which the Lord had spoken through Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam son of Nebat.

This response is so patently foolish that it sounds like a bad mobster movie scene. Watch out for hot-headed Sonny and his friends, right? It's comic machismo.


Hans Holbein the Younger (of Henry VIII portrait fame) did multiple pieces of art about this scene. Here's a young king who believes he is already greater than his father. He probably believes he is already greater than his grandfather David. Really, I don't know what to say.

We have things we might liken this to in the modern world -- delusions of grandeur, superiority complex, narcissistic personality disorder, and so on. It's not uncommon for people to have an unreasonably exaggerated view of their own power and abilities. But this guy! His little finger is thicker than Solomon's waist, boo-yah. (Note: Rehoboam actually says "my little one", which could mean a number of things.) "Barbed whips" is actually the word "scorpions". The general assumption is that Rehoboam was talking about something even more painful than a whip, so perhaps a whip with a barb in it. You might remember how the Romans scourged prisoners from our study of the crucifixion. They would wrap the leather whip around pieces of bone or metal. Sometimes, they would put a hook on the end of the whip -- not surprisingly, they would call those whips "scorpions". It's some of the most brutal torture we've ever heard described, and the king of Israel was threatening everyone around him with it?! How did he think this was going to go?


Let's take a step back. Remember from verse 5 that Rehoboam sent the petitioners away for 3 days. He wanted 3 days to make up his mind! The armchair psychiatrist in me wants to say that Rehoboam was actually indecisive and insecure, which is why he gravitated toward the advice which seemingly made him out to look stronger. (And perhaps this made him easy to sway by his peers. The clear indication is that Rehoboam grew up with these young men.) The Bible doesn't say that, so it's idle speculation.


[If you want to lighten the mood, ask people how they handled group conflict when they were kids. Were they the type to help everyone get along, the type to go home, or the type to break everything so nobody could play anymore? Rehoboam's behavior is rather childish, so this topic might work.]


Why do you think the young men suggested such a course of action? [My Serendipity Bible usually has some fun answers to consider for questions like this, and sure enough:

  1. Who do these people think they are?

  2. You're the king, you do as you please.

  3. Play hardball.

  4. Compromise is for wimps.]

Make it very clear that this is not an "old men are wise/young men are foolish" argument. When it came to Saul and David, the scenarios were reversed. And we recently studied Paul's exhortation to Timothy that he not let people look down on him because of his youth! So, what's going on here? Maybe they were all drunk on their own power. Maybe they all had that touch of superiority complex due to their upbringing. Or maybe they saw how good things had become for the ruling class and they wanted to keep the status quo. We're not told why.


But at the same time, we are told why. This was to fulfill the punishment Solomon had brought on the house of David through his disloyalty to God. I put this in the same category as Pharaoh (we've talked about him already). Remember this progression:

  • After the fourth plague: "32 But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also and did not let the people go."

  • After the fifth plague: "7 But Pharaoh’s heart was hard, and he did not let the people go."

  • After the sixth plague: "12 But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had told Moses."

Pharaoh's heart was set. God did not manipulate Pharaoh's decision. But God did help steel Pharaoh's heart so that when the decision to oppose God became so utterly ridiculous (locusts and darkness!), Pharaoh wouldn't chicken out.


The "easiest" way for the kingdom to divide would be for the king to do something so stupid that the people felt they had no choice but to rebel. If you keep reading the chapter, you'll see that Rehoboam went back to Jerusalem and even raised an army to conquer back the northern tribes! Here, God directly intervened and spoke to the people through a prophet that this division was from Him, and they didn't go to war. So, I think we can see the way God handled this whole mess as a mercy -- He brought about the division of a kingdom, and nobody went to war over it.

 

Part 3: Division Ensues (1 Kings 12:16-19)

16 When all Israel saw that the king had not listened to them, the people answered him:
What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. Israel, return to your tents; David, now look after your own house!
So Israel went to their tents, 17 but Rehoboam reigned over the Israelites living in the cities of Judah. 18 Then King Rehoboam sent Adoram, who was in charge of forced labor, but all Israel stoned him to death. King Rehoboam managed to get into the chariot and flee to Jerusalem. 19 Israel is still in rebellion against the house of David today.

This is a rather easy conclusion to predict. The people realized they didn't have to put up with this. Here's a simple map of the situation:

The north had 10 tribes. The south had 1 tribe (Judah), and they forced their neighbor Benjamin to stay with them. The balance of power was such that the northern kingdom took the name "Israel". They had a larger territory, a bigger population, more and better trade routes, and more resources. The southern kingdom had Jerusalem and the temple (but more about this is a moment). The prevailing opinion was that the king gave preferential treatment to his tribe (Judah; probably not a good look that they named the kingdom Judah), so the other tribes were already fed up with Judah.


[Note: This would make an interesting movie.]


I'm not sure why Rehoboam thought it would be a good idea to send the guy who was in charge of forced labor as his emissary. Either he was trying to cow the northerners, or he was trying to distract them. Either way, a terrible look. And then he fled home like the scared child I think he was. To save face, Rehoboam immediately conscripted an army to attack the north (even though he was outnumbered and probably outgeneraled). He was willing to send everyone around him to their deaths for his own pride.


The editorial remark says that Israel was still in rebellion when these words were written. This is why some scholars believe that there were editions/chapters that accumulated over time -- that perhaps this section was written when Israel still existed. (Note: if a later author like Jeremiah wrote this, it would still be true because Israel never reconciled with Judah.)


[The next part of the story. Jeroboam realized how important it was that the temple was in Jerusalem. If you keep reading, you'll see that he constructed his own altars with golden calves to represent God. This simply made it clear that Jeroboam wasn't going to live up to his part of the covenant that God offered him. In fact, Jeroboam invented his own religion, appointing priests and setting festivals at his own whims. It should not be any surprise that the northern kingdom of Israel went off the proverbial cliff before Judah.]


So, both Rehoboam and Jeroboam prove themselves to be real numbskulls. Great. The author of Chronicles concludes that Rehoboam was "evil" (2 Chr 12:14) (remember that Chronicles focuses entirely on Judah). And things would actually go downhill for both men from here.


Your application discussion might be along these lines: how might we fall into Rehoboam's trap of listening to bad advice, and how can we protect ourselves from that? Or -- how empathetic are we in conflict resolution? How good are we at putting other's needs before our own?

 

Closing Thoughts: Employers, Treat Your Employees Well

I started working in industry in the late 90s, at the height of cubeworld. So, it's difficult for me to consider labor dynamics without invoking Dilbert. My guess is that Rehoboam would have employed Catbert in HR. No biblical reason for including these comics; they just make me smile with nostalgia.





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