Sermon 5. Jeroboam

"He cried against the altar in the word of the Lord, and said, O altar, altar, thus saith the Lord, Behold, a child shall be born unto the house of David, Josiah by name; and upon thee shall he offer the priests of the high places that burn incense upon thee, and men's bones shall be burnt upon thee." 1 Kings xiii. 2.

{60} THESE words are parts of a narrative which we hear read once a year in the Sunday Service, but which can scarcely be understood without some attention to the history which precedes it. It is a prophecy against the form of worship set up in the kingdom of Israel; let us consider what this kingdom and this worship were, and how this woe came to be uttered by a prophet of God.

When Solomon fell into idolatry, he broke what may be called his coronation oath, and at once forfeited God's favour. The essential duty of a king of the chosen people was to act as God's representative, to govern for Him. David was called a man after God's heart, because he was thus faithful; he fulfilled his trust. Solomon failed, failed in the very one duty which, as king of Israel, he was bound to perform. {61}

In consequence, a message came from Almighty God, revealing what the punishment of his sin would be. He might be considered as having forfeited his kingdom, for himself and his posterity. For David's sake, however, this extreme sentence was not pronounced upon him. First, since the promise had been made to David that his son should reign after him, though that son was the very transgressor, yet he was spared the impending evil on account of the promise. As an honour to David, Solomon's reign closed without any open infliction of divine vengeance; only with the presage of it. "Forasmuch as this is done of thee, I will surely rend the kingdom from thee, and will give it to thy servant. Notwithstanding in thy days I will not do it, for David thy father's sake: but I will rend it out of the hand of thy son." [1 Kings xi. 11, 12.] A still further mitigation of punishment was granted, still for David's sake. It had been promised David, "I will set up thy seed after thee, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever ... If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men; but My mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee." [2 Sam. vii. 12-15.] Accordingly, when Solomon had sinned, and the kingdom was rent from him, still holy David's seed was not utterly put away before a new king, as the family of Saul had fallen before David; part of the kingdom was still left to the descendants of the faithful king. "Howbeit, I will not rend away all the kingdom; but will give one tribe to thy son," Solomon's son, "for David My servant's sake." This {62} one tribe was the tribe of Judah, David's own tribe; to which part of Benjamin was added, as being in the neighbourhood. And this kingdom, over which David's line reigned for four hundred years after him, is called the kingdom of Judah.—But with this kingdom of Judah we are not now concerned; but with that larger portion of the tribes, which was rent away from David's house, and forms what is called the kingdom of Israel.

These were the circumstances under which the division of the kingdom was made. Solomon seems to have allowed himself in tyrannical conduct towards his subjects, as well as in idolatry. On his death the people came to his son Rehoboam, at Shechem, and said, "Thy father made our yoke grievous; now therefore make thou the grievous service of thy father and his heavy yoke which he put upon us lighter, and we will serve thee." Rehoboam was rash enough to answer, after three days' deliberation, "My father made your yoke heavy, and I will add to your yoke; my father also chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions." [1 Kings xii. 4, 14.] Now every one sees that Rehoboam here acted very wrongly, and Solomon too, as I have said, had sinned grievously before him. His oppression of the people was a sin; yet, you will observe, the people had no right to complain. They had brought this evil on themselves; they had obstinately courted and struggled after it. They would have "a king like the nations," a despotic king; and now they had one, they were discontented. Samuel had not only earnestly and solemnly protested against this measure, as {63} an offence against their Almighty Governor, but had actually forewarned them of the evils which despotic power would introduce among them. "He will take your sons and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; he will set them to ear [sic] his ground and to reap his harvest and to make his instruments of war. He will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, and give them to his servants." The warning ends thus: "And ye shall cry out in that day, because of your king which ye shall have chosen you, and the Lord will not hear you in that day." [1 Sam. viii. 11-18.] These were Samuel's words beforehand. Now all this had come upon them: as they had sown, so had they reaped. And, as matters stood, their best course would have been contentment, resignation; it was their duty to bear the punishment of their national self-will. But one sin was not enough for them. They proceeded, as men commonly do, to mend (as they considered) their first sin, by a fresh one;—they rebelled against their king. "What portion have we in David?" they said, "neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel—now see to thine own house, David." [1 Kings xi. 16.] Ten tribes out of twelve revolted from their king in that day. Here they were quite inexcusable. Even putting it out of the question that they had brought the evil on themselves, still, independently of this, their king's tyranny did not justify their sudden, unhesitating, violent rebellion. He was acting against {64} no engagement or stipulation. Because their king did not do his duty to them, this was no reason they should not do their duty to him. Say that he was cruel and rapacious, still they might have safely trusted the miraculous providence of God, to have restrained the king by His prophets, and to have brought them safely through. This would have been the way of faith; but they took the matter into their own hands, and got into further difficulty. And I wish you to observe, that all the evil arose from this original fault, worked out in its consequences through centuries, viz., their having a king at all.

So much, then, for their first sin, and their second sin. To continue further the history of their downward course, we must look to the man whom they made the leader of their rebellion. This was Jeroboam.

Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, had been, during Solomon's lifetime, appointed to collect the tribute from the tribe of Ephraim, the most powerful of the ten tribes; a situation which gave him influence and authority in that part of the country. The king appointed him, "seeing the young man that he was industrious." We are told, too, that he was "a mighty man of valour." [1 Kings xi. 28.] Thus honoured by Solomon, he abused his trust, even in the king's lifetime, by rebelling against him. "Jeroboam, Solomon's servant, even he lift up his hand against the king." When Solomon, in consequence, "sought to kill him," he fled to Egypt, when Shishak, the king, sheltered him. On Solomon's death he returned to his country, and at the invitation of the revolting tribes, {65} headed their rebellion. "It came to pass when all Israel (i.e. the ten tribes) heard that Jeroboam was come again, that they sent and called him unto the congregation, and made him king over all Israel: there was none that followed the house of David, but the tribe of Judah only." [1 Kings xii. 20.]

Now, that Jeroboam was an instrument in God's hand to chastise Solomon's sin, is plain; and there is no difficulty in conceiving how a wicked man, without its being any excuse to him, still may bring about the Divine purposes. But in Jeroboam's particular case there is this difficulty at first sight; that Almighty God had seemed to sanction his act by promising him, in Solomon's lifetime, the kingdom of the ten tribes. The prophet Ahijah had met him, and delivered to him a message from "the Lord, the God of Israel." "I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and will give ten tribes to thee." And it was on account of this prophecy that Jeroboam "lifted up his hand against the king." On a little consideration, however, we shall find no difficulty here: for though Almighty God promised him the kingdom, He did not tell him to gain it for himself; and, if we must not do evil that good may come, surely we may not do evil that a promise may be fulfilled; and to "rebel against his lord" (in the words of Scripture) was a plain indisputable sin. God, who made the promise, could of course fulfil it in His own time. He did not require man's crime to bring it about. It was, of course, an insult to His holiness and power to suppose he did. Jeroboam ought to have waited {66} patiently God's time; this would have been the part of true faith. But it had always been, as on this occasion, the sin of the Israelites, to outrun God's providence; and even when they chose to pursue His ends, to wish to work them out in their own way. They never would "be still and know that He was God," wait His word and follow His guidance. Thus, when they first took possession of the promised land, they were told to cast the nations out, and utterly destroy all that did not leave the country. They soon became weary of this, and thought they had found out a better way. They thought it wiser to spare their enemies, and form alliances with them, and put them under tribute. This brought them first into idolatry, then into captivity. When Samuel rescued them, and their hopes revived, their first act was to choose a king like the nations, contrary to God's will. And Jeroboam, in this instance, as a special emblem of the whole people in the rebellion itself, had not patience to wait, and faith to trust God, that "what He had promised He was able also to perform." That it was a trial to Jeroboam we need not deny; of course it was. He was tried and found wanting. Had he withstood the temptation, and refrained himself till lawfully called to reign, untold blessings might have been showered on him and on his people, who, in the actual history, were all cut off for their sins. He was not the first man who had thus been tried. David had been promised Saul's kingdom, and anointed thereunto by Samuel, years before he came into possession; yet, though he was persecuted by Saul, and had his life several times in his power, still {67} he would not lift up his hand against his king. He had the faith of his forefather Abraham, who, though promised the land he dwelt in, wandered in it as a pilgrim, without daring to occupy it; wandered on with a band of trained servants at his command, who might have gained for him a territory had he desired it, as certainly as they smote Chedorlaomer and recovered Lot and his goods. David inherited this patient faith, and through it "obtained the promise," and founded a throne in righteousness and truth. Had Jeroboam followed it, he, too, might have been the father of a line of kings; he might have been the instrument and object of God's promised favour towards the house of Joseph; satisfying, in his own person, the prophecies which Jacob and Moses [Note 1] had delivered, and Joshua, himself an Ephraimite, had begun to fulfil, and founding a dominion not inferior in glory to that of Judah and Jerusalem.

Jeroboam, then, is not excused, though Ahijah prophesied; but, next, let us inquire how did he act when at length seated on the throne? It is not surprising, after such a beginning, that he sinned further and more grievously. When a man begins to do wrong, he cannot answer for himself how far he may be carried on. He does not see beforehand, he cannot know where he shall find himself after the sin is committed. One false step forces him to another, for retreat is impossible. This, which occurs every day, is instanced, first, in the history of the whole people, and then, in the history of Jeroboam. For awhile, indeed, {68} he seemed to prosper. Rehoboam, Solomon's son, had brought an extraordinary force of chosen men against him; but Almighty God, willing there should be no blood shed, designing to punish Solomon's idolatry, and intending to leave Jeroboam to himself, to work out the fruit of his rebellion, and then to judge and smite him with His own arm, would not allow the war. The prophet Shemaiah was sent to Rehoboam to put an end to it, and Rehoboam obeyed.

Thus Jeroboam seemed to have every thing his own way; but soon a difficulty arose which he had thought light of, if he thought of it at all. The Jewish nation was not only a kingdom, but a church, a religious as well as a political body; and Jeroboam found, before long, that in setting up a new kingdom in Israel, he must set up a new religion too.

It was ordered in the Law of Moses, that all the men throughout Israel should go up to Jerusalem to worship three times a year; but Jerusalem was, at this time, the capital of the kingdom of Judah, the rival kingdom; and Jeroboam clearly saw that if his new subjects were allowed to go up thither, they could not remain his subjects long, but would return to their former allegiance. Here, then, a second false step was necessary to complete the first; for a false step that must have been which, as it would seem, required for its protection a violation of the Law of Moses. He, doubtless, argued that he was obliged to do what he did, that he could not help himself. It is true;—sin is a hard master; once sold over to it, we cannot break our chain; one evil concession requires another. {69}

"Jeroboam said in his heart, Now shall the kingdom return to the house of David: if this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam, king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam, king of Judah. Whereupon the king took counsel." [1 Kings xii. 26-28.] A melancholy counsel it was: he resolved to select places for religious worship in his own kingdom. This was against the Law, of course; but what he did was worse than this. He could not build a Temple like Solomon's, and yet he needed some visible sign of the presence of God. Almighty God had bid the Israelites take to themselves no sign of His presence, no likeness of him; but Jeroboam thought he could not do better than set up two figures of gold, one at each end of his country, not, indeed, as representations (he would argue), but as emblems and memorials of the true God, and as marking the established place of worship. It is probable that the age of Solomon, a season of peace, when the arts were cultivated and an intercourse opened with foreign nations, was a season also of a peculiar religious corruption, such as had never occurred before. All through their history, indeed, the Israelites had opposed God's will; but by this time they had learned to defend their disobedience by argument, and to transgress upon a system. Jeroboam's sins, in regard to religious worship, were not single, or inconsistent with each other, but depended on this principle—that there is no need to attend to the positive laws and the outward {70} forms and ceremonies of religion, so that we attend to the substance. In setting up these figures of gold, it was far from his intention to oppose the worship of the One True God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Saviour of Israel; the words he used on the occasion, and the course of the history, show this. He thought he was only altering the discipline of the Church, as we should now call it, and he might plausibly ask, What did that matter? he was but putting another emblem of God in the place of the Cherubim. He made merely such alterations as change of circumstances and the course of events rendered indispensable. He was in difficulties, and had to consider, not what was best, or what he himself should choose, had he to choose, but what was practicable.

The figure he adopted, as a memorial of Almighty God, was in the shape of an ox or calf, the same which the Israelites had set up in the wilderness. It is hardly known what is the meaning of the emblem, which, doubtless, came from Egypt. The ox is thought to be the emblem of life or strength; and, being set up as a religious monument, might be intended to signify God's creative power. But, however this might be, it was, at any rate, a direct and open transgression of the second Commandment. "The king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto the people, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan."

Even this open idolatrous worship, not merely tolerated, {71} but established, even this was not the last sin of this unhappy man, who had begun a course of wickedness upon system, and then left it as an inheritance for others more abandoned than himself to perfect. The tribe of Levi, who were especially consecrated to religious purposes, had their possessions not in one place, but scattered up and down the country. It was not to be supposed that they, who executed judgment upon the sin of the calf in the wilderness, would tamely suffer this renewal of the ancient offence in a more heinous shape. They refused to countenance the idolatrous worship, and Jeroboam, led on by hard necessity, cast them out of the country, got possession of their cities and lands, and put in priests of his own making in their stead. "He made a house of high places," and "he and his sons cast off the Levites from executing the priest's office unto the Lord, and he ordained him priests for the high places, and for the devils, and for the calves which he had made; priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi." [1 Kings xii. 31. 2 Chron. xi. 14, 15.] And he changed the solemn feast days, and dared to offer incense, himself intruding first, for example's sake, into the sacred office.

In consequence of these impious proceedings, not only "the priests and Levites, that were in all Israel," left his kingdom and retired to Judea, but also, "after them, out of all the" other "tribes, such as set their hearts to seek the Lord God of Israel, came to Jerusalem to sacrifice unto the Lord God of their fathers." {72}

Truly this was an ill-omened commencement of his reign. He had made it impossible for pious Israelites to remain in the country. The irreligious alone held by him. Jeroboam ruled in a country given up, as it seemed, to evil spirits. So true is it, in a kindred sense to that in which the words were used by Samuel, that "rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry." [1 Sam. xv. 23.]

Now, then, we come to the concluding scene of this course of crime, perpetrated by one man—the transaction to which the text belongs.

It was on the new feast day "which he had devised of his own heart," and at Bethel where the idol was set up. The people were collected from all parts of the country, and the king "offered upon the altar and burnt incense." Such was the formal inauguration of the false religion in God's own hallowed country, answering to that sacred solemnity when Solomon offered the prayer of dedication in the Temple. The glory of God had come down on that chosen place in token of His favour, and now at Bethel, which He had once specially visited in an earlier age, He suffered not the heathen act to pass without an indication of His wrath. One of His prophets was sent from Judah to attend the festival; but, as if he were entering a country infected by the pestilence, he was bid go into no house, nor eat nor drink while he was in it, nay, he was not even to return to his home the same way by which he came, as if his feet must not touch the polluted earth twice. {73}

When the prophet came, he uttered his message before the apostate king. It was a prophecy; a prophecy set up as a witness against the complicated sins of the people, the destiny of that rebellious and idolatrous kingdom stamped upon it in the day of its nativity. The man of God addressed the altar, as not deigning to speak to Jeroboam, and foretold its fate. He announced that, after no long time, the idolatrous power should be destroyed, and that very altar should last long enough to see its fall; for upon it, fragrant as it now was with incense, the impious priests should be sacrificed, and men's bones burned; moreover, that all this should be done by a prince of the house of Judah; thus intimating that David's royal line would outlive the revolting kingdom of Israel. "O altar, altar, thus saith the Lord, Behold, a child shall be born unto the house of David, Josiah by name; and upon thee shall he offer the priests of the high places that burn incense upon thee, and men's bones shall be burnt upon thee." To show his Divine commission, the prophet gave the word, and the altar was miraculously rent in twain, and the ashes of the sacrifice scattered on the ground. Nothing could be more public than a judgment like this, denounced from God Himself, after Rehoboam, Solomon's son, had not been allowed to take the matter into his own hands. And to make the occurrence still more impressive, two further signs were added. Jeroboam stretched forth his hand to seize the prophet; it was instantly shrivelled up, so that he could not pull it to him again. At the prophet's prayer, it was restored. The second miracle was still {74} more awful. The prophet, wearied with his journey, was, on his return, persuaded by a bad man to eat and drink, against the express word of God declared to him. An immediate judgment followed. As he sat at table, his seducer was constrained to declare to him his punishment—that his body should not come into the sepulchre of his fathers; and as he went home, a lion, God's second instrument for its infliction, met and slew him, yet did not devour him, nor touch the ass he rode on, nor molest other passengers he met, but, fixed to the spot by miracle, he stood over the prophet's body, a sign, more truly than the idols at Dan and Bethel, of God's power, holiness, and severe justice, and suggesting, throughout all Israel, the fearful argument—"If God so punish his own children, what will be the final, though delayed, punishment of the wicked? If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?" [1 Pet. iv. 18.]

As for Jeroboam, in spite of all this, "after this thing he returned not from his evil way, but made again of the lowest of the people priests of the high places; whosoever would, he consecrated him, and he became one of the priests of the high places." [1 Kings xiii. 33.] Such was his life.

At the close of his reign, he lost even his earthly prosperity. "The Lord struck him, and he died." Such was his end.

His family was soon cut off from the throne; and after all his wise counsels and bold plans he has left {75} but his name and title to posterity, "Jeroboam the son of Nebat who caused Israel to sin." Such is his memorial.

"Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh, but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land, and not inhabited." [Jer. xvii. 5, 6.]

It requires but a very few words to show the application of this history to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. So strongly does it pourtray to us the existing disorders and schisms of the Christian Church—the profane and tyrannical usage which it meets with from the world—that the only question which can possibly arise in the mind is, whether it is allowable to apply it, and whether, as the events are alike, their respective character and their issue are like each other also. This, I say, is the only question, whether we may, without blame, judge of what we see by the light of what we read in the history of Israel; and I wish all readers would clearly understand that this is the only question. If the deeds of Israel and Jeroboam may be taken as types of what has been acted under the Gospel for centuries past, can we doubt that schism, innovation in doctrine, a counterfeit priesthood, sacrilege, and violence, are sins so heinous and crying, that there is no judgment too great for them, no woe which we may not expect will ultimately fall on the systems which have been born in them, and the lineage of their {76} perpetrators? What other lesson can we draw from the history but this? but that we ought to draw a lesson, is plain from the repeated declaration of St. Paul:—"Whatsoever things were written aforetime, were written for our teaching." "All these things happened unto them as types, and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come." "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness." [Rom. xv. 4. 1 Cor. x. 11. 2 Tim. iii. 16.] St. Peter also and St. Jude expressly apply occurrences in the Old Testament to parallels under the Gospel [Note 2].

May God give us the will and the power to realize to our minds this most serious truth, and fairly to follow it out in its necessary consequences! And may He of His mercy have pity upon our poor distracted Church, rescue it from the dominion of the heathen, and grant that "the world's course may be so peaceably ordered by His governance, that" it and all branches of the One Church Catholic "may joyfully serve Him in all godly quietness!"

Top | Contents | Works | Home


1.  Gen. xlix. 22-26. Deut. xxxiii. 13-17. cf. 1 Kings xi. 38.
Return to text

2. 2 Pet. ii. 1-15; Jude 5-11.
Return to text

Top | Contents | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.