One of the boldest and best examples of what faith looks like in our day comes in the form of an obscure “man of God,” named Shemaiah. This prophet appears sporadically during the reign of King Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, but nowhere is his presence more critical than in the early days of Rehoboam’s rule. The son of Solomon did not glean much from his daddy’s wisdom, choosing to stroke his own ego rather than listen to wise counsel. (1 Kgs 12:1–15) A rash decision, some harsh words, and divergence from sage advice left the kingdom of God’s chosen people at a crossroads, with tribal considerations taking precedent over national interests. (1 Kgs 12:16–19) Rehoboam flees to Jerusalem to lick his wounds in the wake of his Davidic failure. He along with the tribes of Judah and Benjamin begin concocting a plan and marshaling soldiers to launch a counter-offensive to quell the revolution from the house of Israel. (1 Kgs 12:20–21) And such is when the most unlikely character imaginable comes onto the scene, bearing, perhaps, an equally unlikely message.
Shemaiah the prophet enters Rehoboam’s war room declaring he has a word from the Lord. “This is what the Lord says: You are not to march up and fight against your brothers, the Israelites. Each of you return home, for this situation is from me.” (1 Kgs 12:24) These words pierce the hearts of those in earshot, leading to an unforeseen concession by Rehoboam and his men. “They listened to the word of the Lord and went back according to the word of the Lord,” the historian tells us. (1 Kgs 12:25) For some reason, I picture that scene at the end of the 1938 version of the legend of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn, where everyone throws their swords into a massive heap in the middle of the room.
This moment is dumbfounding. Rehoboam bafflingly makes a wise decision, finally choosing to listen to sound reason. (Easily the best decision he makes in the whole narrative.) But, perhaps, even more stunning is the mere fact of Shemaiah’s presence. This “man of God” audaciously declares a message that runs directly opposed to the prevailing nationalistic interest of the moment. He acts a deterrent to the popular sentiment that Rehoboam’s throne ought to be fought for and reclaimed by its rightful owner. Instead of exacerbating the conflict, Shemaiah’s errand was to lay it to rest. He is less concerned with the house of Judah’s interests than he is with God’s — indeed, God’s Word alone is first on his lips.
The xenophobic fervor that reverberated in those halls was deafened by the lone voice of a “man of God,” who punted on any rhetoric that might win him communal favor in order that he might uphold what mattered most: the words of the Lord. Shemaiah threw himself on the sword of public opinion because of his particular belief that the ultimate measure of public opinion was infinitesimal when compared to the sovereign providence and wisdom of God. In my mind, there is no other explanation for Shemaiah’s actions than this.
I cannot escape the notion that more Christians ought to take their cue from Shemaiah. Rather than treading the heels of popular social reasoning and plunging ourselves into untold constructs and conflicts, there is wisdom to be found in standing for the truth. Instead of embroiling ourselves in the sensationalistic skirmishes of our day, wisdom says “this turn of events is from the Lord to carry out his word.” (1 Kgs 12:15) This is not to suggest that the current skirmishes in the court of public opinion do not matter. They do. Neither am I insinuating that we sit on our hands as injustice and iniquity escalate. But there is a difference between seeing those contests as the “war to end all wars” as opposed to our generation’s crucible of faith.
Far too often, we sensationalize our times as though we are living in the most crucial moment in the history of the world — and if we don’t get this right, we are spelling the ruination of the entire human race. Christians are especially prone to this attitude, as if the establishment of the heavenly kingdom is riding on our shoulders. In short, it’s not. (Ps 145:10–13) But I won’t try and pretend that it is not incredibly difficult to believe that sometimes. More often than not, it appears as though this world is going to “hell in a hand-basket.” And while that may be true, to a certain degree, perhaps we should just admit that we are awful at interpreting the present.
Acclaimed essayist Tim Kreider once wrote:
We’re very unreliable interpreters of the present; what we think is happening is — though we may not realize it till years later — not what’s really going on at all. We don’t know what the present is for, any more than I know what an essay is going to turn out to be about when I start writing it.
I think there is a lot of truth to that. It is nigh impossible to place current events into proper historical context. We melodramatically presume ours is the generation that will finally incite the apocalypse. We sensationalize our present in hopes of steering the ultimate narrative of our life story. But such is the upside-down logic of grace, which tells us that it is only as we give up the “narrative writing grip” of our lives — and entrust that prerogative to the true and better Author and Finisher of every story — that our lives become what they were created to be. When the Creator of all is the One filling in the pages of our story, our sensationalized hagiography becomes a biography of grace, a tapestry of his sovereignty. The ink that makes up this story is nothing but the blood of Golgotha’s cross. The threads that comprise this cloth are intricately woven moments when God’s goodness is all but camouflaged.
There is nothing seemingly good about the events of 1 Kings 12. A kingdom is fractured by the garish display of self-absorption of all involved. The entire narrative is, to imbibe Rev. Alexander Maclaren’s estimation of it, nothing but “a wretched story of folly and selfishness wrecking a nation.”1 But the outlook on this chapter is turned on its head by a single phrase. Notice:
Wherefore the king hearkened not unto the people; for the cause was from the Lord, that he might perform his saying, which the Lord spake by Ahijah the Shilonite unto Jeroboam the son of Nebat. (1 Kgs 12:15)
Or as God himself says: “This situation is from me.” (1 Kgs 12:24) What appeared to be the setting for more inglorious records of human failure and folly was really just a stage for divine sovereignty to be revealed. Yes, Rehoboam, et al, demonstrate rampant foolishness at every turn. But over and above the foolishness and stubbornness of human arrogance is the steady hand of God’s providence. “This thing is from me,” he definitively declares. This seemingly random confluence of events is not random at all. Rather, it is all occurring that the spectacle of omnipotent grace might have occasion to be seen by all. “This turn of events came from the Lord to carry out his word.” (1 Kgs 12:15; cf. 11:29–39) I have to imagine that Shemaiah understood that. However feebly, he knew, in the end, providence would win out over pandemonium, as much as that might seem impossible in the moment. But he wasn’t called to interpret the present. He was called to proclaim God’s Word.
I wonder how we might be misunderstanding this moment in history. Some see it as the crumbling of democracy or the devastation of evangelicalism or what have you. But how blind are we to God’s involvement in “this turn of events”?
You know, they say that “hindsight is 20/20.” I would say that, for the Christian, hindsight is God’s goodness. His goodness is always understood better in hindsight, and is always better than we remember it. (Ps 145:17) We, the church universal, are part of the chorus that sings the anthem of God’s great generation-spanning goodness — precisely because ours is a God who can, and does, perform jaw-dropping wonders in and with the wretchedness of our sin and strife. (Ps 145:4–9) Notwithstanding the horrific debris that is left behind in the wake of our wayward living, the Lord our God remains unshaken. His purposes and plans remain perennially successful. Our folly cannot foil his plans. Our rebellion cannot derail his redemption. Our sin cannot overpower his grace. “Human hubris,” says Dale Ralph Davis, “never catches Yahweh by surprise.”2 He is not caught off guard by a single ounce of man’s depravity. In fact, it is only in the smoldering crater of mankind’s depravity and delinquency and devastation that God’s work of deliverance begins.
In the putrid aftermath of this moment in Israel’s history, God was still keeping his word. Still preserving a remnant. (1 Kgs 12:20, 23) Still executing his purposes. Still fulfilling his plans. (1 Kgs 12:15, 24) And the same is still true in our day, too. However camouflaged our present is, there is a sovereign behind the clouds, orchestrating all things to work together for good according to his purposes. (Rom 8:28)
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944), 2:2.216.
Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020), 129.