Israel in Pieces

Because of Solomon’s disobedience and idolatry, his kingdom is divided at his death; yet most of the succeeding kings in both north and south persist in the kind of behavior that brought down the once-wise king of Israel.

The death of Solomon brought about a major realignment of Israel’s tribal loyalties. The king, though renowned for his wisdom, had failed to respond to the instruction to follow God’s law implicitly. He and the kingdom had prospered greatly for 40 years, yet “his heart had turned from the Lord God of Israel” (1 Kings 11:9), and he had become an idolater.

As a direct result, God had prophesied in Solomon’s later years that He would intervene and bring about a separation of the northern tribes from those in the south (verse 11). The tribes of Judah and Benjamin would be ruled by the king’s son Rehoboam, while Solomon’s servant Jeroboam would reign over the other 10 tribes. Jeroboam was an Ephraimite whom Solomon had put in charge of the labor force from the house of Joseph. A prophet named Ahijah took him aside and explained what would happen: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘Behold, I will tear the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon and will give ten tribes to you’” (verse 31). If Jeroboam would follow God as Solomon’s father had done, then, said God, “I will be with you and build for you an enduring house, as I built for David, and will give Israel to you” (verse 38). It was a remarkable prophecy. Judah would still exist under Solomon’s son Rehoboam, but there would be a separation for the foreseeable future.

Somehow Solomon must have become aware that his servant was about to inherit most of his kingdom, because he “therefore sought to kill Jeroboam” (verse 40), who was forced to flee to Egypt’s pharaoh for protection. Only when Solomon died did supporters invite Jeroboam to return, and together they went to meet Rehoboam at Shechem, where the latter was about to be made king over all Israel (12:1–4).

That fateful meeting led to Rehoboam’s harsh refusal to accept the northern Israelites’ petition for an easing of Solomon’s taxation and, as a result, to Israel’s “rebellion against the house of Judah to this day” (verse 19). Of course, this dramatic shift in rulership was in fulfillment of the prophecy, and so the northern 10 tribes began their largely independent existence.

Off to a Bad Start

It wasn’t long before Jeroboam began pursuing his own way, ignoring God’s commands. Fearing that his subjects would kill him and return to Rehoboam, he devised alternate religious centers to Jerusalem, which was the main site of Israelite worship and sacrifice. With advice from others around him, he made two golden calves, installing one centrally in Bethel and the other in the north at Dan and announcing, “Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (verse 28). Together with building other shrines and creating a rival non-Levitical priesthood, Jeroboam set out to subvert Israel’s allegiance to their God, going so far as to create a substitute festival one month later than the annual Feast of Tabernacles (verses 32–33), which the nation had known since the time of Moses.

A specific act of Jeroboam’s idolatry at Bethel provided the setting for a prophecy of its ultimate cleansing during the reign of Josiah, king of Judah and a descendant of David, more than 300 years in the future (13:1–2; 2 Kings 23:15–16, 19–20). A man of God came to Bethel to deliver God’s pronouncement. Angered, Jeroboam demanded his arrest, but God immediately withered the king’s hand and destroyed the altar that he was using for pagan sacrifice. Jeroboam’s plea to God that his hand be restored was granted, but even this dramatic intervention did not change his long-term commitment to idolatry: “After this event Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but again he made priests from every class of people for the high places; whoever wished, he consecrated him, and he became one of the priests of the high places” (1 Kings 13:33).

Jeroboam is remembered in biblical tradition as the king who led Israel to sin, setting the new nation on its fateful course of decline and fall.”

C.D. Evans, “Jeroboam (Person),” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary

When Jeroboam’s son became ill, the king sent his wife in disguise to the prophet Ahijah to enquire about the prospects for the boy’s health (14:1–3). God appeared to Ahijah ahead of the visit and let him know that the queen was coming and what he should say to her: because of Jeroboam’s departure from following God, the son who was sick would soon die. Ahijah then prophesied that the northern tribes would be uprooted and scattered “beyond the River [Euphrates], because they have made their wooden images [Hebrew: Asherim, Canaanite deities], provoking the Lord to anger. And He will give Israel up because of the sins of Jeroboam, who sinned and who made Israel sin” (verses 15–16). When the queen arrived home, her son died. The rest of the prophecy would be fulfilled about two hundred years later, when the northern tribes would be conquered and taken captive to Assyria.

A Pattern Emerges

In the southern kingdom of Judah, Rehoboam reigned for 17 years, during which time he and Jeroboam were constantly at war. Rehoboam was part Ammonite and allowed a form of idolatry that involved prostitution in the name of religion. In his fifth year the Egyptians invaded, plundering the temple and the king’s treasures, including gold shields from Solomon’s time.

Rehoboam’s son Abijam, who was the great-grandson of Absalom, succeeded him. His three-year rule was marked by continued war with Jeroboam and the same lack of loyalty to God as his father had shown (15:1–8). His death brought his son Asa to the throne. After several kings who had refused to follow God’s way, Asa ruled righteously for 41 years. He purged idolaters and idolatry and removed his grandmother from being queen mother for her part in the worship.

Jeroboam died soon after Asa’s accession in the south. He was succeeded on the northern throne by his son Nadab, who was assassinated after two years by Baasha of the tribe of Issachar. Baasha became king and was quick to kill all the descendants of Jeroboam, fulfilling the prophecy spoken by Ahijah (verses 25–30; 14:10–11).

Baasha ruled for more than 20 years, often at war with Asa. On one occasion Asa formed an alliance with the Aramean Ben-Hadad, king of Syria, to offset an attempt by Baasha to control Judah’s northern border by reinforcing the town of Ramah. When the Syrians responded by attacking several northern Israelite cities, Baasha withdrew from Ramah (15:16–21).

But like Jeroboam, Baasha was an unrighteous king. God sent the prophet Jehu to him to explain that his downfall would soon come. His line ended in the same way as Jeroboam’s because he had murdered and led Israel astray (16:1–7).

His son Elah succeeded him but two years later was murdered by his commander Zimri, who went on to kill all the house of Baasha. This pattern of idolatry, intrigue and murder was well established in Israel by this time. Zimri ruled for a mere seven days before perishing in a fire, to be succeeded after a brief internecine struggle by Omri. His 12-year reign was evil in that he, too, followed in the footsteps of Jeroboam. He founded the capital of the north, Samaria, and was succeeded by his son Ahab, one of Israel’s most evil kings (verses 8–28).

Enter Elijah

Ahab’s interaction with the prophet Elijah was a central part of his reign. Elijah prophesied a lengthy drought in Israel and was directed by God to stay by a small stream in a wilderness area east of the Jordan River, where ravens miraculously supplied him with bread and meat. When the water supply began to dwindle, God instructed him to stay with a widow at Zarephath, on the Mediterranean coast. Not only did God perform a miracle in regularly providing flour and oil for the widow, her son and Elijah, He also revived the child after his sudden death (chapter 17).

Elijah said, ‘See, your son lives!’ Then the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now by this I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is the truth.’”

1 Kings 17:23–24

After three years God sent Elijah to Ahab to announce the end of the drought. On his way he met the king’s steward, Obadiah, a God-fearing man who had hidden some of the faithful prophets during a purge ordered by the queen, Jezebel. Elijah instructed him to tell the king that he was waiting for him with a message. But Obadiah feared for his life, knowing that the king had been pursuing Elijah for a long time and would not take it well if Elijah should disappear. When Elijah promised to be available that day, Obadiah brought the king the news (18:1–16).

The meeting took place within hours. The king accused the prophet of troubling Israel, to which Elijah replied that it was Ahab who was the source of distress. He told the king to assemble his pagan prophets and the people on Mount Carmel. There he explained to Israel that they needed to choose between the God of Israel and the idolatry of Jezebel. They gave no answer. Elijah was one man against 850 false teachers (verses 17–22).

Now came the showdown, when Elijah invited the prophets of Baal and Asherah to call on their gods to ignite their sacrificial animal on its altar, but to no avail. Then Elijah called on God to ignite his water-soaked offering on an altar that included 12 stones representing the sons of Jacob: “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that You are the Lord God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again” (verses 36–37). At this point fire fell from heaven, showing who was the true God. Elijah quickly called for the seizing of the false prophets and for their immediate execution by the River Kishon.

God’s Judgment on Mount Carmel by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, pen and brush drawing (ca. 1645–1650); based on Elijah’s challenge to the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:30–38)

This miraculous intervention from God also signaled the end of the drought. Telling Ahab to eat and drink in anticipation of rain, Elijah went up on Mount Carmel to await incoming clouds from the Mediterranean. His servant, having been instructed seven times by Elijah to look for any sign of rain, finally announced the appearance of a small cloud rising from the sea. Elijah sent the servant to Ahab with the message that he should leave before heavy rain prevented travel. The king set off for Jezreel before the storm hit (verses 41–45).

When he got to the gates, Elijah had already arrived. Ahab then told his wife Jezebel that the prophet had executed all of her prophets. She angrily threatened Elijah by messenger, saying, “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time” (19:1–2).

This caused the prophet to flee for his life to Beersheba, where he left his servant and went a day’s journey into the wilderness. Undoubtedly at his lowest ebb, he sat down under a tree and prayed to die, and then fell asleep. Wakened by an angel, he ate the food that had been prepared and was instructed to take a longer journey. The sustenance lasted him 40 days and nights until he reached Mount Horeb in the Sinai, “the mountain of God.” He took refuge in a cave, where he heard God ask him why he had come. He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.” God then appeared to him on the mountain and passed by, accompanied successively by wind, earthquake, fire and “a still small voice.” God was present only in the whispered voice (verses 3–12). This is a much-debated passage, though most would understand that God was now signaling a quieter way of speaking to His people through the prophets.

Elijah went and stood in the cave’s entrance, when God’s voice came to him again, asking why he had come. The prophet repeated his earlier despondent statement about being completely alone and persecuted (verse 14). At this, God instructed him to go to Syria and anoint Hazael (also known as Ben-Hadad) king. He was to perform the same in Israel with Ahab’s eventual successor Jehu, and to anoint Elisha to succeed himself as prophet. These three would be involved in the deaths of many, but God told Elijah that he had reserved 7,000 faithful people that the prophet, in his dejection, had failed to recognize. Coming to Elisha’s village, he made him his servant and now continued his work (verses 15–21).

Elijah’s abandonment of ministry and surrender of life is overcome by the straightforward commission with which this narrative ends. Doubts will cease and misgivings vanish when God puts him to work.”

Simon J. DeVries, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 12: 1 Kings

There Was No One Like Ahab”

War ensued between Syria/Aram and Israel, with Ahab defeating his neighbors with God’s blessing and Israel gaining trading access to Damascus (20:1–34). But Ahab went on to make a treaty with the defeated Ben-Hadad. God then sent a prophet to warn him that this was a mistake, since He had given his enemy into his hand: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Because you have let slip out of your hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people’” (verses 35–42).

Ahab’s sullenness over this judgment now displayed itself toward a humble Israelite landowner, Naboth, whose vineyard the king desired. When the man refused to give up his land, the king became peevish and complained to his wife Jezebel about the incident. Taking matters into her own hands, the queen conspired against Naboth: she had him falsely accused of blasphemy against God and king, and killed by stoning (21:1–16). Now Ahab could possess the vineyard.

As a result, God sent Elijah to the king to prophesy against him yet again and tell him of his and his wife’s eventual tragic deaths and the end of his dynasty (verses 17–24). But because he responded with a humbled attitude, fasting and mourning, God spared his household for a little longer.

After three years of peace with Syria, Ahab implored Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, to help him take back the northeastern Israelite city of Ramoth Gilead from Ben-Hadad (22:1–4). Ahab’s false prophets encouraged the plan, but Jehoshaphat asked if there was not one of God’s prophets left to consult. “So the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘There is still one man, Micaiah the son of Imlah, by whom we may inquire of the Lord; but I hate him, because he does not prophesy good concerning me, but evil” (verse 8).

When this prophet was consulted, he explained that Ahab would fail in his attempt, despite his prophets’ words: “The Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the Lord has declared disaster against you’” (verse 23). Immediately Ahab gave instructions for Micaiah’s imprisonment until his safe return. But as prophesied, Ahab was severely wounded in the battle against Ben-Hadad, dying later in the day in his bloodstained chariot. When it was being cleaned back in Samaria, the dogs licked up his blood as Elijah had prophesied (verse 38; 21:19).

Ahab’s obituary, as the Bible states it, is anything but complimentary: “There was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do wickedness in the sight of the Lord, because Jezebel his wife stirred him up” (21:25). As for Jezebel, her ignominious end would not come for several more years, in the days of Elisha.

Jehoshaphat, on the other hand, remained aligned with God during his reign. Though he did not rid the land entirely of idolatrous worship, he was considered one who otherwise did “right in the eyes of the Lord” (22:43). This could not be said of the line of Ahab, whose two sons’ reigns overlapped with that of Jehoshaphat; both Ahaziah and Jehoram (or Joram) persisted in the ways of their father and of Jeroboam.

Next time, we’ll continue with the work of Elijah and Elisha.