Yesterday, I wrote a note about the limit of legitimacy of rebellion from the biblical story of Jeroboam’s insurrection against Solomon . Today I would like to talk a little bit about that rebellion itself and the lessons we can learn about the cause of civil insurrections according to the biblical way of war.
Rehoboam and Aethelred the Unraed
Before I get into the proper analysis of scripture concerning the rebellion of Israel, I would like to put the situation of Rehoboam into some historical context. At least two kings in history lost their kingdoms due to heeding poor counsel. Rehoboam was at least able to maintain part of his kingdom, while Aethelred (whose cognomen “Unraed” means “without counsel,” a pun on his name which in the context inappropriately means “wise counsel”) had to become an exile after losing his kingdom to Danish invaders in 1013 . Most rulers are not sufficiently wise on their own to make good decisions, so having wise counselors is essential. In the case of Rehoboam, though, it must be remembered that he had wise counsel that he chose not to take. In examining rulers let us realize that this is usually the case–there is usually someone who gives a wise word of warning to an unwise leader, whose pride often prevents that advice from being taken.
The Tragedy of Rehoboam at Schechem
Let us break down the tragedy of Rehoboam’s appeal to the Israelites into several acts in order to better understand it. Let us break it into its four acts: the demand, the advice, and response, and the rebellion (the fifth act of this tragedy, already discussed yesterday, would be Jeroboam’s rebellion against God by instituting a counterfeit state-supported religion). In seeing these acts in the whole context (especially if one relates the context of religious obedience examined previously), we see the folly of man working towards God’s predetermined end, where God remains in control but man remains responsible for his misdeeds, the biblical pattern.
Act One: The Proposal
Act of one of the Rehoboam Tragedy is stated in 1 Kings 12:1-5, which says: “And Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had gone to Shechem to make him king. So it happened, when Jeroboam the son of Nebat heard it (he was still in Egypt, for he had fled from the presence of King Solomon and had been dwelling in Egypt), that they sent and called him. Then Jeroboam and the whole assembly of Israel came and spoke to Rehoboam saying, “Your father made our yoke heavy; now therefore, lighten the burdensome service of your father, and his heavy yoke which he put on us, and we will serve you.” So he said to them, “Depart for three days, then come back to me.” And the people departed.”
This scene in the Bible is great political theater. Shechem was an important city in Israelite history, being the city where Moses commanded the “blessings and cursings” to be read out from Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, the two mountains just outside of Shechem (Deuteronomy 27:1-26), where Joshua had charged Israel to obey God at the end of his life (Joshua 28:1-28), and where Abimelech, the half-Canaanite son of Gideon, had established his abortive first kingdom over Israel (Judges 9:1-6). By having the ceremony of establishing the kingship in this city, both God and Israel were sending a message. Israel’s message was clear–Shechem was in their territory and they were unhappy at being taxed and treated as second-class citizens by “Southern” monarchs of the tribe of Judah. God’s message was more subtle–Shechem would be a reminder for Rehoboam to choose between life and death, blessing and cursing as Moses had placed the decision before Israel many generations before. In any case, let us see that the “assembly of Israel” and the conditions for monarchy demonstrated Israel’s status as a constitutional and not a divine-right monarchy. Kings had obligations to both God and to their citizens to rule in a godly fashion and in a wise one. Was Rehoboam up to the challenge?
Act Two: The Advice
Act two of this tragedy takes place within the court of young King Rehoboam, as two different camps of advisers give him counsel, in 1 Kings 12:6-11: “Then King Rehoboam consulted the elders who stood before his father Solomon while he still lived, and he said, “How do you advise me to answer these people?” And they spoke to him saying, “If you will be a servant to these people today, and serve them, and answer them, and speak good words to them, then they will be your servants forever.” But he rejected the advice which the elders had given him, and consulted the young men who had grown up with him, and stood before him. And he said to them, “What advice do you give? How should we answer this people who have spoken to me, saying, ‘Lighten the yoke which your father put on us’?” Then the young men who had grown up with him spoke to him, saying, “Thus you should speak to this people who have spoken to you, saying, “Your father made our yoke heavy, but you make it lighter on us’–thus you shall say to them, ‘My little finger shall be thicker than my father’s waist! And now, whereas my father put a heavy yoke on you, I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.”
This is the moment of Rehoboam’s battle with his pride. He is given very different advice from two different groups of counselors. The men who had faithfully served his father give him the wise counsel that he should be a servant to his people (Matthew 20:26-28), perhaps seeing the growing unrest in Israel and realizing its cause in the harsh exactions of Solomon for taxes and labor for expensive building projects. Rehoboam rejected this wise counsel, though, and preferred the bellicose and tyrannical advice of his cohorts, who were lacking in wisdom and discernment and intoxicated with having power and domination over the common people–the way of the heathen (Matthew 20:25). Appealing to Rehoboam’s desire to dominate and crush the common people, they gave him very harsh words to say to the good citizens of Israel who made their reasonable requests at Shechem. Which way would Rehoboam choose–servant leadership or one-man rule?
Act Three: The Response
Act three, or the “climax” of the tragedy, takes place in 1 Kings 12:12-15, and goes as could be predicted: “So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam the third day, as the king had directed, saying, “Come back to me the third day.” Then the king answered the people roughly, and rejected the advice which the elders had given him; and he spoke to them according to the advice of the young men, saying, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions!” So the king did not listen to the people; for the turn of events was from the Lord, that He might fulfill His word, which the Lord had spoken by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat.”
The response was to the point–the prophecy of Ahijah was fulfilled by Rehoboam’s rejection of the biblical way of rulership (servant leadership) and the choice of the heathen way of one-man rule and autocracy. God had given, through the advisers to Solomon, the right answer to the question of the people, and Rehoboam had rejected it, and the opportunity to reverse God’s judgment on the House of David for their apostasy–in both worship and their approach to government, both matters defined by God’s law. As can be expected in a tragedy like this one (a “Greek” tragedy because of the heathen behavior of Rehoboam), the rejection of God’s rules for servant leadership (Matthew 20:26-28, Deuteronomy 17:14-20, Romans 13:1-7) led to the rejection of Rehoboam as king over the ten northern tribes of Israel.
Act Four: The Response
The final act that we will discuss here is the response of Israel, Rehoboam, and God to the civil war that immediately erupted in Israel after Rehoboam’s ungracious and tyrannical reply, which takes place in three scenes. Let us examine and comment on these three scenes personally, as they relate to the heart of the relevance of this passage to the biblical way of war, regarding the biblical way of civil warfare.
Scene One: Israel’s Response
Israel’s response to Rehoboam is given in 1 Kings 12:16-20: “Now when all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king, saying, “What share have we in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Now; see to your own house, O David!” So Israel departed to their tents. But Rehoboam reigned over the children of Israel who dwelt in the cities of Judah. Then Rehoboam sent Adoram, who was in charge of the revenue, but all Israel stoned him with stones, and he died. Therefore King Rehoboam mounted his chariot in haste to flee to Jerusalem. So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day. Now it came to pass when all Israel heard that Jeroboam had come back, they sent for him and called him to the congregation, and made him king over all Israel. There was none who followed the house of David, but the tribe of Judah only.”
Israel’s response was to raise the flag of revolt. Interestingly enough, their choice of rallying cries (identical to that in a similar “national” revolt in 2 Samuel 20:1) suggests that a latent sense of hostility to being ruled by the tribe of Judah existed within Israel from the time of David through the rebellion against Rehoboam, an undercurrent of rebelliousness that was never stamped out. Then Israel stoned Rehoboam’s tax collector–a sign of unwillingness to pay tribute any longer to what they saw as a hostile and exploitative regime. This caused Rehoboam to flee, realizing he was now “on enemy soil” hopelessly outnumbered by a crowd of very angry people. Then the assembly of Israel gave the throne to Jeroboam, showing its republican functions in offering the constitutional monarchy of Israel to an appropriate candidate who met the suitable terms and conditions of rule.
Scene Two: Rehoboam’s Response
Rehoboam’s response to Israel’s response is given in 1 Kings 12:21: “And when Rehoboam came to Jerusalem, he assembled all the house of Judah with the tribe of Benjamin, one hundred and eighty thousand chosen men who were warriors, to fight against the house of Israel, that he might restore the kingdom to Rehoboam the son of Solomon.”
Rehoboam’s response to the revolt of the Israelites was to declare war on Israel, to seek to drown Israel in a sea of blood and establish his rule by force. Having been unable to gain authority through constitutional means, he sought to gain power by force. Rehoboam’s goal was not to serve the people of Israel, but rather to retain power (or regain it, as the case may be) by whatever means possible. This is the response of tyrants and bullies–to seek power at any cost without any regard for the consequences to anyone else other than themselves. Perhaps at this moment Rehoboam wishes he had brought his army with him to Shechem in the first place.
Scene Three: God’s Response
1 Kings 12:22-24 gives God’s response to the preparations of war from Rehoboam: “But the word of God came to Shemaiah the man of God, saying, “Speak to Rehoboam the son of Solomon, king of Judah, to all the house of Judah and Benjamin, and to the rest of the people, saying, “Thus says the Lord: “You shall not go up nor fight against your brethren the children of Israel. Let every man return to his house, for this thing is from Me.’ ” Therefore they obeyed the word of the Lord, and turned back, according to the word of the Lord.”
God’s response was to claim responsibility for the rebellion, as it had been inspired by Him to accomplish His will, and with that the proud Rehoboam was forced to recognize the authority of a King higher than himself–God. Instead of civil warfare seeking to thwart God’s will, God commanded a peaceful separation as it had been his will for the division in the first place. Had it not been his will for Israel to secede, the coercion of Israel would have been allowed.
Lessons From 1 Kings 12
Now let us examine the lessons from 1 Kings 12 as they relate to the study of the art of war. Militaries are not only for defense from enemies without, but are also designed for use to deal with the enemies within a state. The nation of Israel at the time of Rehoboam had a long fissure between two different cultures, that had been inflamed by favoritism by Solomon towards his own tribe in taxation and forced labor for his monumental building projects. The response of Israel was to righteously demand for a return to constitutional rule, according to the biblical law of kings (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), upon which they granted their conditional offer to Rehoboam of the kingship.
Rehoboam, though, desired absolute and unrestricted despotism rather than to rule according to the Bible’s constitutional limitations as the servant of the people, and so his offer was revoked by the people of Israel, who gave it to Jeroboam according to the will of God and who killed the tax collector, the symbol of oppressive government, to boot. Rehoboam’s reply was to declare war on his own people, an act stopped by God. Legitimacy, just like rebellion, has its divine constitutional limits, its own proper boundaries, just like everything else in the universe. God’s design for the separation of Judah and Israel meant that Rehoboam’s legitimacy was limited to that of Judah (and Benjamin), just as Jeroboam’s was seen to have been limited to the northern ten tribes. Neither of them were given all the power, but each one only received part, for the purposes and by the design of God in heaven.
A few of these lessons are useful in the military sphere–unless a rebellion is authorized by God, the state has the right and responsibility to crush it (see the American Civil War). God’s will will not be thwarted, however, by force. Additionally, leaders are to rule within the constitutional limitations set by the Bible and as servants and not lords over the people, who have the right to demand rulers meet the constitutional limitations set by God in order to have their consent to rule. God is not on the side of dictators, but neither is he on the side of those who wish to rebel against His authority. God’s law is supreme over all.