"Jeroboam, who did sin, and who made Israel to sin." -- 1 KINGS xiv.16.
Jeroboam's character is worthy of serious study, not only because it influenced the destiny of God's ancient people, but because it suggests lessons of the utmost value to His people still. He may be fairly regarded as a type of those who are successful men of the world. He was not an example of piety, for he had none -- nor of lofty principle, for he was an opportunist who made expediency the law of his life throughout. Yet he was permitted to win all that he could have hoped for, and reached the very zenith of his ambition, though he went down to the grave at last, defeated and dishonoured, with this as his record -- he was the man "who made Israel to sin."
Such a life as his throws a flood of light on our possibilities and perils, showing unscrupulous men both what they may possibly win, and what they will certainly lose.
Jeroboam appears to have been a man of lowly origin. Of his father Nebat, whose name is so often linked with his own, we know nothing, although an old Jewish tradition, preserved by Jerome, identifies him with Shimei, who was the first to insult David in his flight, and the first of all the house of Joseph to congratulate him on his return. All we know with certainty is that he belonged to the powerful tribe of Ephraim, which was always jealous of the supremacy of Judah, and therefore hated David, Solomon, and Rehoboam. It was this feeling of which Jeroboam skilfully availed himself when he split the kingdom of David in twain.
In the Book of Kings, this remarkable man first appears as an ordinary workman, or possibly as a foreman of the masons who were engaged in building Fort Millo, one of the chief defences of the citadel of Zion, guarding its weakest point, and making it almost impregnable. Under the system of forced labour then in vogue, the workmen would be inclined to shirk their toil, and among them Jeroboam stood out in conspicuous contrast, by reason of his eagerness and industry. Solomon the king, who always had a keen eye for capacity, saw the young man that he was industrious, and after making some inquiries about him, raised him to the remunerative post of superintendent of the tribute payable by the tribe of Ephraim. It was, no doubt, a difficult office to fill, for the tribe was restive and powerful, but it would be very profitable, because the system on which taxes were collected, as is still usual in Eastern countries, gave immense opportunities for enrichment to an unscrupulous man. We may be sure, therefore, that Jeroboam quickly became wealthy. At the same time he won influence with the tribe, by expressing secret sympathy with his fellow-tribesmen, and he stealthily fostered their discontent until the opportunity came for asserting himself as a more successful Wat Tyler, in the kingdom which by that time Solomon had left to his foolish son, Rehoboam. Little did Solomon imagine that when he advanced Jeroboam he was preparing the instrument of his son's ruin, and that this Ephraimite would prove to be like the viper Aesop tells of, which a kind-hearted man took in from the cold, but which when roused by warmth from its torpor, killed its benefactor.
1. In looking for the elements which contributed to Jeroboam's rapidly-won success, we must certainly credit him with remarkable natural ability.
No one can read his biography carefully without noticing his shrewdness in seeing his chance when it came, and his boldness and promptitude in seizing it. He possessed such self-control that he kept his plans absolutely to himself until the critical moment, and then he made a daring dash for power, and won it. And these characteristics of his were gifts from God, as Ahijah the prophet emphatically declared.
We are far too timid in the maintenance of our professed belief that physical and mental gifts are divine in their origin. Mediaeval theology, which was largely tinged by Pagan philosophy, sometimes went so far as to attribute exceptional beauty, or talent, to evil powers; and we are apt to trace them to a merely human source. But keen perception, sound judgment, a retentive memory, a vigorous imagination, and, not least, good common-sense, are among the talents entrusted to us by God Himself, who will by-and-bye take account of His servants.
This is regarded by many as an old-fashioned and effete theory. They assume that the doctrine of evolution has conclusively shown that no man is a new creation, but is a necessary product of preceding lives; that his lineaments and talents may be traced to parentage, that the brilliance of the Cecils and the solid sense of the Cavendishes, for example, are simply a matter of heritage. But even admitting this to be largely true, it does not invalidate the statement that our gifts are of God -- He is the Father of all the "families" of the earth, as well as of individuals. He does not rule over one year only, but over all the generations. Time and change, of which we make much, are nothing to Him. The theory of evolution, therefore, merely extends our conceptions of the range of His power and forethought. Whether a child presents a striking contrast to his parents, or whether he seems to be a re-incarnation of their talents, it is equally true that all things are of God, and that for Him and by Him all things consist. Natural abilities are Divine trusts.
There is startling unevenness in the distribution of these gifts. Not only do two families differ widely in their talents and possessions, but children of the same parents are often strangely unlike, physically and mentally. One is radiantly beautiful, and another has no charm in appearance or in manners. One is physically vigorous, and another is frail as a hothouse flower. One is so quick that lessons are no trouble at all, and another wearily plods over them till ready to give up in despair. Evidences of this unevenness of distribution meet us everywhere. One man will make a fortune where another would not suspect a chance. One remains a third-rate salesman all his days, and would spend even his holidays in looking into shop windows, for his soul does not rise beyond them; while his comrade is brimful of talent, and the world will ring at last with his name and fame. We say "it is in them"; but what is in them is of God, and these very differences between men are intended by Him to elicit mutual consideration and mutual helpfulness; for we are members one of another, and the deficiencies of one are to be supplemented by the superabundance of another.
2. The most brilliant gifts are of no great value apart from personal diligence, such as distinguished Jeroboam.
He did thoroughly the work which lay to his hand, whether as mason, tax-collector, or king. Such diligence often rectifies the balance between two men of unequal ability. The plodding tortoise still beats the hare, who believes herself to be so swift that she can afford time to sleep. Any one who looks back on his classmates will see that the cleverest have not proved the most successful, but that the prizes of life have usually gone to those who diligently developed to the utmost what they had. Scripture is crowded with examples of this. Jacob laboured night and day, and therefore he prospered, even under Laban, unjust and exacting though Laban was. Joseph won his way to the front, though an exile and a slave, for he made himself indispensable in prison, and in the kingdom. "Seest thou a man diligent in business? he shall stand before kings, he shall not stand before mean men." And because this is a Divine law, it prevails in higher spheres also. If a Christian uses, in the service of his heavenly Master, the gifts he possesses, faith in God, knowledge of truth, power in prayer, persuasive speech -- his five talents will become ten, or his two will gain other two. "To him that hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have abundance."
3. It may be said that talent and diligence combined do not always win success, and so far as this world is concerned, it is true. Possibly Jeroboam would never have come to the front if Solomon had not happened to notice him. But if we read the interviews which Ahijah the prophet had with Jeroboam, and with his mother, we shall learn to recognise the control of God in this also.
If God over-rules anything he must over-rule everything, because what appears to be the most trivial incident, often has the most far-reaching results on human character and destiny. Trifles are often turning-points in one's history. A casual word spoken in our favour may bring about the introduction which leads to a happy marriage, or to a prosperous business career. It may not have been known to us at the time, nor thought of again by the friend who spoke about us, but back of his friendly utterance God was. In life we are not infrequently like a passenger on board ship, who chats to those about him, but pays no regard to the wheel, or to the seaman who controls it, still less to the officer who gives the man his instructions; and yet the turning of that wheel, in this direction or in that, involves safety, or wreck. God keeps control -- unseen -- over the lives of men, and it was more than a lucky chance which led Solomon to notice the smart, stalwart worker at Millo, and raise him to a higher post.
The wise king showed his wisdom in rewarding as he did, fidelity and diligence. It is because this is often not done in offices and warehouses that there is so little mutual goodwill between servants and masters. An employer will often treat his people as mere "hands," who are to sell his goods and do his bidding, but directly work is slack, he will turn them adrift without scruple or ruth; or if they remain for years in his service, will give no increase of wage or salary proportioned to capacity and diligence. A Christian employer, at least, should follow a more excellent way, and advance a diligent servant, not because he cannot be done without, or because it is for the good of the firm to retain his services, but because his promotion is right and richly deserved. It would be a woful thing if God treated us exactly as we treat our fellows.
But whatever the immediate result, fidelity and industry are called for from us all. Our Lord Himself said, "It is My meat and My drink to do the will of My Father in heaven," and this He felt to be as true of His work at the carpenter's bench as in the precincts of the Temple. Whether in the business, or in the household, or in the Church, the King is ever watching His servants, and of His grace will raise every faithful one to higher service and larger possibilities. "The Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly," and His reward will come not only in loftier position but in ennobled character --
"Toil is no thorny crown of pain,
"O God, who workest hitherto,
Jeroboam's defects in character, and indeed his actual sins, were many and great.
1. His ingratitude to his benefactor was a disgrace to him.
He fostered and used, as far as he dared, the discontent which smouldered in the tribe of Ephraim, as the result partly of jealousy of Judah, and partly of restiveness under extravagant expenditure and increasing taxation, and this treachery went on until he was expelled the country by Solomon, and driven out as an exile into Egypt, where, however, he still carried out his ambitious schemes, till his chance came under Rehoboam.
Many a man kicks away the ladder by which he rose to fortune. He likes to divest himself of the past wherein he needed help, for it was a time of humiliation, and by cutting off association with former friends, would fain lead people to believe that his success was entirely due to his own cleverness. Even his own parents are sometimes neglected and ignored, and these, to whom he owed his life, who cared for him in his helpless infancy and wayward youth, are left unhelped. "Cursed is the man who setteth light by his father or mother."
But though we naturally cry "shame" upon such an one, it is possible that we ourselves are acting an unfilial part towards our Heavenly Father. And the more He prospers us the greater is the danger of our forgetting Him, who crowns us with loving-kindness and tender mercies.
2. Jeroboam's sin against Solomon was as nothing compared with his sin against God.
From the first he seems to have been an irreligious man. He regarded religion as a kind of restraint on the lower orders, and therefore useful in government. Priests and prophets constituted, in his opinion, the vanguard of the police, and they should, therefore, be supported and encouraged by the State. As to the form religion assumed, he was not particular. In Egypt he had become accustomed to the ritual of Apis and Mnevis, which was by no means so gross and demoralising as the idolatry of the Canaanites, and he evidently could not see why the worship of Jehovah could not be carried on by those who believed in Him through the use of emblems, and, if need be, of idols. Therefore he set about the establishment of the cult of Apis, and "made two calves of gold, and set the one in Bethel and the other put he in Dan." This was the sin for which he was condemned again and again with almost wearisome iteration. He was by no means a fanatical idolater, and this act of his was simply the dictate of his worldly policy. He was engaged in the establishment of the separate kingdom of Israel, which for many a long year was to exist side by side with the kingdom of Judah. But this policy of separation would be impossible so long as there was the old spirit of unity in the nation. And this unity was expressed and fostered most of all by the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, the common centre to which all the tribes resorted, and from which all government emanated. If this continued so to be, it was evident that the nation would sooner or later reassert its unity. The men of Ephraim were just now exasperated by the taxation imposed by Solomon, and increased by Rehoboam, and they still resented the precedence and supremacy of the rival tribe of Judah; but this feeling might prove transient, it might be some day dissipated by the statesmanship of a wiser king, and then the separated kingdom would die out, and all God's people would appear as one. To prevent this was Jeroboam's aim in the erection of the golden calves.
It was a policy which would naturally appeal to the jealous people, who were told that they ought not to be dependent for their means of worship on Judah, nor send up their tribute for the support of the Temple in Jerusalem. And they would welcome a scheme which brought worship within easier range, and saved the cost of leaving business and undertaking a wearisome journey in order to keep the feasts. Thus, without deliberate choice, they swiftly glided down into idolatry and national ruin.
Jeroboam thus led the people to a violation of one of the fundamental laws in the Decalogue. For if the first command was not disobeyed by all the people, the second was, and these laws are still obligatory, nor can they be broken with impunity. With fatal facility those who worshipped Jeroboam's golden calf became identified with the heathen, and the kingdom thus set upon a false foundation was at last utterly destroyed. And as surely as the tide flows in upon the shore, so surely will the laws of God bring retribution on all who are impenitent. To every man the choice is proffered between the false and the true ideal of life. On the one side the tempter points to wealth and position, which may often be won, as Jeroboam won it, by unscrupulousness; and on the other side stands the Son of God, who, though rejected and crucified, was nevertheless the Victor over sin, and who now from His heavenly throne exclaims, "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My Father in His throne."