by Luke Wayne
When one reads through the books of 1 and 2 Kings, a common indictment on rulers is that they continued in the "sins of Jeroboam, son of Nebat." Indeed, every single king over the Northern ten tribes is guilty of this, until finally, we read:
"When He had torn Israel from the house of David, they made Jeroboam the son of Nebat king. Then Jeroboam drove Israel away from following the Lord and made them commit a great sin. The sons of Israel walked in all the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they did not depart from them until the Lord removed Israel from His sight, as He spoke through all His servants the prophets. So Israel was carried away into exile from their own land to Assyria until this day," (2 Kings 17:21-23).
Thus, the "sins of Jeroboam" are the central reason why the Assyrian exile occurred! It is important, therefore, to understand exactly what these sins were. In short, Jeroboam replaced proper worship of God with the worship of idols/images, and he appointed priests contrary to God's commands. These practices, which profane the true worship of God, were the reason the northern nation of Israel was cast out of the land.
The Historical Background
The twelve tribes of Israel were united together as a single kingdom under three kings: Saul, David, and Solomon. Solomon, however, strayed from God. He married pagan wives, which God had forbidden (1 Kings 11:1-2) and was led astray by them, building shrines to their gods (1 Kings 11:7-8). Because of this, we are told:
"Now the Lord was angry with Solomon because his heart was turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he did not observe what the Lord had commanded. So the Lord said to Solomon, 'Because you have done this, and you have not kept My covenant and My statutes, which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you, and will give it to your servant. Nevertheless I will not do it in your days for the sake of your father David, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. However, I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son for the sake of My servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem which I have chosen," (1 Kings 11:9-13).
God then sends a prophet to one of Solomon's officers named Jeroboam, son of Nebat, and promises to make him king over ten of the tribes of Israel:
"He said to Jeroboam, 'Take for yourself ten pieces; for thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, "Behold, I will tear the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon and give you ten tribes (but he will have one tribe, for the sake of My servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, the city which I have chosen from all the tribes of Israel),"'" (1 Kings 11:31-32).
Notice that, both to Solomon and to Jeroboam, God emphasizes the importance of Jerusalem as the place where God has chosen for all Israel to worship Him. God is dividing the kingdom between two governments, but they must still remain under one God and worship God only where and how He has ordained. God repeats this again as he gives Jeroboam a conditional promise:
"but I will take the kingdom from his son’s hand and give it to you, even ten tribes. But to his son I will give one tribe, that My servant David may have a lamp always before Me in Jerusalem, the city where I have chosen for Myself to put My name. I will take you, and you shall reign over whatever you desire, and you shall be king over Israel. Then it will be, that if you listen to all that I command you and walk in My ways, and do what is right in My sight by observing My statutes and My commandments, as My servant David did, then I will be with you and build you an enduring house as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you," (1 Kings 11:35-38).
God will give Jeroboam a lasting royal dynasty in Israel just like He has given David, but only if Jeroboam stays faithful to God and follows His commands. Jeroboam, however, does not trust God to keep His word, fearing man more than God:
"Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and lived there. And he went out from there and built Penuel. Jeroboam said in his heart, 'Now the kingdom will return to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will return to their lord, even to Rehoboam king of Judah; and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah,'" (1 Kings 12:25-27).
This is what led to Jeroboam's, and Israel's, great sins.
Fearing that the people would betray him if they continued traveling to Jerusalem to worship the LORD at the temple according to God's law, Jeroboam plotted to turn the people away from God and, thus, from Jerusalem:
"So the king consulted, and made two golden calves, and he said to them, 'It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.' He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. Now this thing became a sin, for the people went to worship before the one as far as Dan. And he made houses on high places, and made priests from among all the people who were not of the sons of Levi," (1 Kings 12:28-31).
The first and most obvious of Jeroboam's sins is replacing God with golden calf idols. Even here, though, Jeroboam's cunning should not be missed. Jeroboam did not tell the people to abandon the LORD and instead worship a different god like Baal or Moloch. He did not say "don't worship the God of your fathers, worship this other god instead." Rather, Jeroboam said that Jerusalem was the problem. It's just too far! He then told them that the golden calves were the god "that brought you up from the land of Egypt." He implied that by serving the golden calves, they were actually still worshiping the same God. They just didn't need to go to the temple to do so. The calves provided visible evidence that their "god" was right there with them, and Jeroboam insisted that this was the very same God they had always known. This is certainly how the ancient Jewish Historian Josephus understood Jeroboam's words. He presents Jeroboam's speech to the people in an extended, interpretive paraphrase as:
"I suppose, my countrymen, that you know this, that every place hath God in it; nor is there anyone determinate place in which he is, but he everywhere hears and sees those that worship him; on which account I do not think it right for you to go so long a journey to Jerusalem, which is an enemy's city, to worship him. It was a man that built the temple: I have also made two golden heifers, dedicated to the same God; and the one of them I have consecrated in the city Bethel, and the other in Dan, to the end that those of you that dwell nearest those cities may go to them and worship God there."1
In this way, Jeroboam turned the people's hearts to an idol by clever stratagem. The parallels are striking between this sin and the earlier, more famous sin with a golden calf back in Exodus. Back there, we read:
"Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, 'This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.' Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, 'Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD,'" (Exodus 32:3-5).
Notice that here, again, the calf is said to be "your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt," and feasting before the calf is said to be "a feast to the LORD." In both cases, the calf is not merely set up as another god or a different god. It is put in the very place of God.
Yet, there is still more to Jeroboam's rebellion against His maker. To diminish the importance of Jerusalem, Jeroboam also, as we saw earlier, "made priests from among all the people who were not of the sons of Levi." This, too, was a great sin, a fact that is also emphasized in 2 Chronicles as well:
"He set up priests of his own for the high places, for the satyrs and for the calves which he had made," (2 Chronicles 11:15).
The people of Israel are also rebuked by Abijah for these sins, who says:
"So now you intend to resist the kingdom of the Lord through the sons of David, being a great multitude and having with you the golden calves which Jeroboam made for gods for you. Have you not driven out the priests of the Lord, the sons of Aaron and the Levites, and made for yourselves priests like the peoples of other lands? Whoever comes to consecrate himself with a young bull and seven rams, even he may become a priest of what are no gods," (2 Chronicles 13:8-9).
Thus, ordaining men as "priests" contrary to the explicit commands of God is likewise a heinous sin, and one for which the house of Jeroboam and all of Israel was severely punished.
Thus, the sins of Jeroboam included both replacing God with an idol who is presented as the true God as well as appointing people as priests whom God did not establish as priests. For these sins, the prophets frequently rebuked Israel and warned them of coming judgment. For example, in Amos we read:
"For on the day that I punish Israel’s transgressions, I will also punish the altars of Bethel; The horns of the altar will be cut off And they will fall to the ground," (Amos 3:14).
These are central sins for which Old Testament Israel was exiled, and the veneration of false gods and phony priests masquerading as biblical religion is still a great sin today.
- 1. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 8, Chapter 8, Section 4