This article was originally written for 1517.
First Kings 12 continues the historian’s accounting of Judah’s and Israel’s blundering of leadership by relaying a particularly egregious miscalculation on the part of King Jeroboam. The newly crowned monarch of Israel immediately sets about fortifying his new domain, building up the dwelling places of Shechem and Penuel (1 Kings 12:25). By strengthening the defenses of these key strategic positions, Israel would be able to thwart any invading party from the southern kingdom of Judah. But these locations weren’t merely tactical bastions; they were historical landmarks that possessed an abundance of meaning and significance to the people of Israel. Indeed, it is very likely that Jeroboam targeted these sites for fortification in order to curry popular favor with his new subjects. But that’s not all he does.
And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom may return to the house of David: If these people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn back to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and go back to Rehoboam king of Judah.” (1 Kings 12:26–27)
Jeroboam reckons that this new throne of his is a volatile thing, therefore, he must work to preserve it. It is not as though his thought process is unsound or illogical. It actually makes sense. Jeroboam anticipated a problem with the center of Israelite religious life revolving in and around the Temple, which was now located in enemy territory. His fear was that worshipers would be swayed to turn against him if they were constantly having to return to Jerusalem “to offer sacrifices in the house of the Lord.” Such close proximity to Rehoboam and the Judah propaganda mob meant bad news for Jeroboam’s longevity as king of Israel. Except that’s not entirely true.
Jeroboam’s concern, while valid to a certain degree, is entirely unfounded — precisely because he had already been informed by God himself how his throne would be preserved (1 Kings 11:26–38). “Then it shall be,” says the Lord through the prophet Ahijah, “if you heed all that I command you, walk in My ways, and do what is right in My sight, to keep My statutes and My commandments, as My servant David did, then I will be with you and build for you an enduring house, as I built for David, and will give Israel to you” (1 Kings 11:38). Even as the Lord pronounced judgment on the house of David, he upheld his faithfulness to his people.
“I will be with you,” was his word to Jeroboam. Thus, as long as he submitted and surrendered to the will of Yahweh, his kingdom would be preserved. Jeroboam’s worry is not so innocent, then. “That word, that promise, was not enough for Jeroboam,” notes Dale Ralph Davis. “He must have something more secure than Yahweh’s word.”1 Rather than adhere to the promises of the Lord as his sense of security, he seeks a better guarantee, a superior certainty of his future as Israel’s supreme leader. He punts on God’s words to him and takes matters into his own hands. But as is always the case, we always make things worse when we take matters into our own hands. Notice:
Therefore the king asked advice, made two calves of gold, and said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” And he set up one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. (1 Kings 12:28–29)
At this point, flashing red alarm bells ought to be going off! Jeroboam has reasoned with himself and received counsel on how to handle this predicament. And what has he devised as a solution to the problem of religious fidelity leading to political mutiny? None other than the forging of two religious bulls. He made “two calves of gold,” which constitutes a regression of Israelite religious life by nearly 500 years.
He couched this new religious order as a matter of convenience. “Be done with going up to Jerusalem,” he says in effect, establishing two new religious centers, one in Bethel and the other in Dan. These new houses of worship were not chosen at random. They were not only places of geographical convenience but were places of liturgical and historical significance. Consequently, this new chapter of Israelite religious life was being rendered as a recovery of Israel’s historic past. Jeroboam not only mimicked the golden calf of Sinai, he copied the entire scene, down to quoting Aaron verbatim (1 Kings 12:28; cf. Exod. 32:4).
Jeroboam perverted and plundered the past in order to safeguard the present. He devised a new religious system and framed it as a movement of “historical improvement” in order to establish his reign and safeguard his newfound authority. And the “two calves of gold” were just the beginning. He replaced everything! (1 Kings 12:21–33). The places reserved for worship were moved from the Temple to the “high places which he had made.” The personnel who conducted the worship were transferred from the Levitical priests to those of his own choosing, “from every class of people.” Even the period designated for worship itself was altered, from the “tenth day of the seventh month” — according to God’s decree (Lev. 16:29–31) — to the “fifteenth day of the eighth month.” In every way, Jeroboam fabricated a “bootleg religion” in order to protect and preserve what God had given him.
Interestingly, some commentators have attempted to reframe Jeroboam’s actions as though they were the recovery of Israelite orthodoxy. They jump through interpretive hoops in order to make the case that Jeroboam’s “religious reform” was actually a positive thing. But this is a silly exercise. The Word is clear: “this thing became a sin” (1 Kings 12:30). Indeed, God himself did not at all look favorably on Jeroboam’s religious posturing (1 Kings 14:9). There is, therefore, no “contextualizing” Jeroboam’s religious and political maneuverings. They were thoroughly self-serving and idolatrous, motivated only by a desire to save his own skin.
In Jeroboam’s mind, he functioned as both monarch and patriarch, as royal overseer and religious head. He did not bow or submit to some religious authority. He was the religious authority. You could make the argument that what he really enshrined in those new “high places” was not Yahweh, it was himself. Such is why, I think, we are told of all things Jeroboam “made” (1 Kings 12:28–33).2 Religion to him was a malleable thing, able to rearranged according to his needs. “Religion for Jeroboam was not a ‘given’,” Davis comments, “but something pliable to be massaged and shaped as one prefers.”3 “He had devised in his own heart” prevails as the historian’s most scathing indictment of Jeroboam’s reign (1 Kings 12:33). Instead of choosing to walk by faith, Jeroboam chose to walk by sight. He determined that his personal and political safety was up to him. He saw what he thought to be the impending ruin of the domain he had only just began to rule. And instead of trusting in God’s words, he trusted in what he could see, what he could control.
If you were to examine your own life, you’d likely have to admit that you are a frequent disciple of Jeroboam’s “bootleg religion,” and so am I. We frequently choose to walk by sight and not by faith (2 Cor. 5:7). When God seems hidden, when it appears as though he is not going to “come through,” we often resort to worshiping gods of our own making. This, I’d say, is our country’s biggest problem today.
We are told that this is the most non-religious generation in the history of the United States. The emergence of the “religious nones” have led to no shortage of “doom-and-gloom” outlooks for the continuance of the church at large. And while there is some truth to those sentiments, I believe we are actually more religious than we’ve ever been. “Our religious crisis today is not that religion is on the wane,” writes Mockingbird director David Zahl, “but that we are more religious than ever, and about too many things.”4 Ours is still a religious nation — only it is the religion of mankind’s own choosing, of his own making. Where past generations looked to the church as the primary religious center, folks today are finding the perceived “benefits” of religion in an array of outlets, each with their own liturgy and creed.5
But while every “secular religious system” is framed as a reasonable source for hope, community, belonging, meaning, and purpose, each of them lack one key element. Indeed, they fail to offer the quintessential element that makes the religion of the Word of God so incredibly otherworldly. Namely, those other religions do not have Jesus, the One who offers complete and total “remission of sins.” No other system of religion offers forgiveness as a free gift. In fact, as prominent evangelical pastor Tim Keller notes, forgiveness is seen as an “increasingly problematic” paradigm, and retribution and anger “seen as more authentic.” That being the case, none of these other religions affords their adherents what is necessary for true change. Maybe you agree with that train of thought but think it a stretch to be pulling it out of a passage like 1 Kings 12. “Where, and why, and how are you bringing Christ into all this?” I’m glad you asked.
I don’t think it is a minor thing that Jeroboam moved the feast of sacrifice to a new time (1 Kings 12:32–33). As previously noted, Jeroboam moved the traditional feast to one month later than what was divinely appointed. He wanted something that was “like the feast that was in Judah,” but decidedly his own thing. Which begs the question, What feast was he copying? None other than the feast which memorialized the Day of Atonement, which is a categorical prefigurement of what Christ himself would come and accomplish. And so it is that in Jeroboam’s forsaking of the divinely appointed day, he forsook the divinely appointed sacrificial system, along with the sacrifice itself. In short, he rejected the very means by which God’s people were shown their God-given Redeemer.
Jeroboam “devised in his own heart” a better way for his people to practice their religion. But in so doing, he lost, entirely, what made Israel’s religion so profound in the first place. “Jeroboam’s religion,” Davis asserts, “is Jeroboam’s concoction. Concoctions should not be taken seriously.”6 The religion of Yahweh is not contingent upon what we make of it in our heart. It is not a system of relativity. A religion of our own making, our own devising, our own conjuring is malleable, able to be molded according to standards we devise. However, it is also incredibly volatile, only remaining as sturdy as our current bout of devotion. This, assuredly, is not the system of religion which is made known by the Word of God.
Ours is not a flexible faith that bends according to our whims and fancies. We are not at liberty to mold it to fit what is most convenient to us. Rather, ours is a faith which is found in — and only in — what God himself has declared and ordained. The religion of God is a religion of God’s Word, which is “settled in heaven” forever (Ps. 119:89; cf. Isa. 40:8; Matt. 24:35). It is a faith which is founded and preserved and strengthened and championed by the Word of God himself, who comes and dwells with us himself (John 1:1–5, 14; Heb. 12:1–2). “We do not invent God,” writes Father Stephen Freeman, “nor can we simply remake Him at our own whim. Theology is, rightly, only a seeking to know.” Such is the true nature of religion, which is not about what we give but what we receive.
The religion of the Word is not a system of conveniences that adjusts according to our impulses. The religion of God is found in what God in Christ has done, in what he himself has finished. We do not need another religion of our own making. We need one that is solid to the core. One that is sturdy and steadfast, able to withstand the rising tide of sin’s squalor. One that offers genuine forgiveness. And there is only one place where such a religion is found: the Word of God which reveals the One who is the Word; who has already shouldered the worst that sin can offer and left it behind in the grave; who instead of asking you and I to find, make, or work for hope, community, belonging, meaning, and purpose, gives all those things to us by giving us himself. He extends in grace what we incessantly yearn for by grit. His invitation is still just as true and free as it ever was:
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matt. 11:28–30)
Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.
Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020), 138.
The Hebrew word ʿāśâ, translated here as either “made” or “ordained,” appears approximately nine times throughout 1 Kings 12:28–33.
Dave Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019), 185.
Such is the premise for Dave’s 2019 masterpiece, Seculosity (cited above), which I cannot recommend to you earnestly enough.