Commentary on 1 Kings 12 (Division of the Kingdom)

Solomon has died, so now his son Rehoboam is going to take over as king of all Israel in 931 BC. Rehoboam travels to a place called Shechem to meet with the leaders of the 10 northern tribes, where he presumes that he will be coronated king (Judah and Benjamin are the other 2 tribes in the south).

Recall that Shechem has a lot of history with the people of Israel. Thomas L. Constable, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Old Testament:), writes,

Shechem afforded a fitting site for the coronation of a king of Israel. At Shechem Yahweh first appeared to Abraham in the land and promised to give him all of Canaan (Gen. 12:6–7). Jacob later settled there (Gen. 33:18–20) and Joseph was buried there (Josh. 24:32). After they had entered the Promised Land the Israelites, at Shechem in the valley between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, dedicated themselves to keep the Mosaic Law (Josh. 24:1–27). This sacred spot now reminded the Israelites of their divinely revealed destiny as a nation and of God’s faithfulness.

Unfortunately for Rehoboam, a surprise awaits him at Shechem. The northern 10 tribes select a former administrator under Solomon, Jeroboam, to speak for them. Jeroboam complains to Rehoboam that Solomon placed a heavy tax burden on the northern tribes, including forced labor for construction in Jerusalem and other places in the territory of Judah. David and Solomon were from the tribe of Judah, and so Rehoboam is continuing their dynasty. The northern tribes demand that Rehoboam lighten the burden before they will accept him as king.

In verses 6-11, Rehoboam consults for three days with two different groups of advisors. The older advisors, who served under Solomon, advise that he tell the northern tribes that he will lighten their tax burden. The younger advisors, who are contemporaries of Rehoboam, advise the opposite. They want him to tell the northern tribes that his tax burden will be far heavier than his father’s. Their idea is to instill fear into the northern tribes so that they will back down.

Rehoboam unwisely follows the advice of the younger generation. Instead of the northern tribes being cowed, they rebel against Rehoboam and declare their independence from the tribe of Judah and from the dynasty of David. Rehoboam sends one of his labor administrators to meet with the rebellious leadership, but he is stoned to death and Rehoboam has to flee Shechem to avoid the same fate. The author of 1 Kings notes that “Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day.”

Jeroboam is made king over the 10 northern tribes, which comes to be called Israel, and Rehoboam is made king over the two southern tribes (Judah and Benjamin), which comes to be called Judah. Rehoboam gathers an army to attack Israel immediately after his return to Jerusalem, but the prophet Shemaiah tells Rehoboam that he should not attack Israel, for the rebellion of Israel was God’s doing. Recall that God had promised to split the kingdom in two because of Solomon’s idolatry.

In verses 25-33, we learn that Jeroboam builds shrines and altars throughout Israel so that he can prevent his people going to the temple in Jerusalem to worship. He is afraid that if they go to Jerusalem, they will want the two kingdoms to reunite, with Rehoboam in command. Two of the shrines, placed in Bethel and Dan, feature golden calves. The calves, themselves, are probably not meant to be worshipped, because the invisible God is supposed to “stand” upon the backs of the calves, but this distinction is quickly lost on the people of Israel, who start worshiping the calves themselves.

In addition, Jeroboam replaces the Levite priests with illegitimate priests from other tribes, and even commissions new religious festivals for Israel. The Levites would eventually leave Israel and migrate down to Judah because of Jeroboam’s actions.

The splitting of the kingdom leads to serious consequences that would unfold over the next several centuries. First, neither Israel nor Judah would ever gain the prestige of the united kingdom. They would both be attacked by neighboring nations and suffer through numerous wars.

Second, the religious reforms instituted by Jeroboam would lead Israel further and further from obedience to the Law. As the decades went by, the true lovers of Yahweh would stream out of Israel down to Judah to worship and live. Israel’s kings are noted again and again for their disobedience to God’s laws.

Third, the prophetic movement gained importance. God would appoint prophets over the next several hundred years to challenge the rulers of Israel and Judah to follow the Law. This would cause many of the prophets to be hated by the kings and people of Israel and Judah, who did not want to hear about their sins.

See this chart to understand the succession of kings and prophets from 930 BC to 586 BC in both kingdoms. Israel is conquered and destroyed as a nation in 722 BC, while Judah suffers the same fate in 586 BC.

Go to this link to see a map of ancient Israel and Judah.