Politics for Dummies
The man was a political rookie. His father and grandfather had been in government for decades, but this man had never governed. Now he was on the brink of leading a nation. He figured he couldn’t lose. He had a lot going for him. People admired his family, appreciated the family’s role in building the nation, and were inclined to think the best of the new guy. They didn’t know where he stood on the issues, but public opinion was positive.
Still, before closing the deal to make him the new head of government, people wanted to know what approach he would take. The mood of the country favored smaller government. The previous administration had been good in many ways but had placed heavy demands on the people. They were getting tired of big government. They wanted a tax cut and less government interference. How did the rookie politician respond to the situation? By making one of the biggest blunders in the history of politics.
The man’s name was Rehoboam. Rehoboam came from a family of brilliant leaders. His father, King Solomon, and his grandfather, King David, ruled Israel for forty years each, and that eighty-year period was Israel’s golden age. Solomon was the most brilliant politician who ever lived. He built a thriving economy and strengthened the military. He made Israel powerful and prosperous by centralizing power, expanding government programs, raising taxes, limiting freedoms, and drafting people to work on massive building projects and military bases. That was okay up to a point. Solomon wasn’t just doing it for himself. He was a nation-builder, and most Israelites understood that. Most were grateful for increased security and prosperity. They respected Solomon and appreciated what he achieved for the nation. But now that someone else would be taking over, people wanted changes.
That’s the ebb and flow of politics. There are times when it seems necessary to expand the role of government, but at some point government gets too big, taxes get too high, and most people start thinking it’s time to cut the size of government. After a period of great projects and nation-building, there comes a time to lighten the tax burden and get government off people’s backs. Big government had done some great things under Solomon, but now people wanted the era of big government to end.
A Boneheaded Decision
The Israelites gathered together make 41-year-old Rehoboam their new king, but before they went ahead with the inauguration ceremony, they first wanted to know where he stood. A man named Jeroboam became their spokesman. Jeroboam understood taxpayers and working people and was popular with them. In 1 Kings 12 the Bible tells how the delegation went to Rehoboam.
“Your father was a hard master,” they said. “Lighten the harsh labor demands and heavy taxes that your father imposed on us. Then we will be your loyal subjects.”
Rehoboam replied, “Give me three days to think this over. Then come back for my answer.” So the people went away. (12:4-5 NLT)
Rehoboam couldn’t make up his mind right away. If a politician can’t give a direct answer to a basic question about his approach to governing, he’s got a problem. Rehoboam obviously had no real conviction or any compassion for the people. Otherwise he would have shown his concern so right away. Instead he said, “Don’t rush me. Come back in a few days.”
Then King Rehoboam went to discuss the matter with the older men who had counseled his father Solomon. “What is your advice?” he asked. “How should I answer these people?”
The older counselors replied, “If you are willing to serve the people today and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your loyal subjects.”
But Rehoboam rejected the advice of the elders and instead asked the opinion of the young men who had grown up with him and were now his advisers.
“What is your advice,” he asked them. “How should I answer these people who want me to lighten the burdens imposed by my father?”
The young men answered, “This is what you should tell those complainers: ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist—if you think he was hard on you, just wait and see what I’ll be like! Yes, my father was harsh on you, but I’ll be even harsher! My father used whips on you, but I’ll use scorpions!”
Boneheaded Rehoboam made his decision: he’d rather go on a power trip than make himself a servant for the public good. Rather than listen to the senior statesmen, he followed his buddies’ advice.
Many politicians make a similar mistake. They govern on the advice of their campaign team, their cheerleaders, their yes-men. They believe their own propaganda and assume everybody will think the newly designated leader is Mr. Wonderful no matter what he does. They don’t realize that respect is something you earn by serving well, not something that comes from forceful speeches.
Rehoboam’s speechwriters produced some really biting sound bites, and Rehoboam followed the script. When the people gathered to hear him, he said, “You think my father Solomon was powerful? His belt would be too small to fit around my pinky! You think my father placed heavy burdens on you? I’ll make them even heavier. You think he drove you hard? If he beat you with whips, I’ll flog you with scorpions–bullwhips spiked with metal!”
Rehoboam was a legend in his own mind. He and his cronies thought he was smarter and stronger than Solomon. But in fact his brain was tiny compare to his father’s giant intellect, and his power was puny compared to the authority Solomon had amassed over the years. It seldom works to speak loudly and carry a small stick, to talk big when everybody (but you) knows you can’t back it up. Rehoboam saw himself as unquestionably kingly, and he assumed everyone else would see him that way. But they didn’t.
The Israelites weren’t afraid of him, and after hearing his speech, they decided they didn’t like him. When they saw that Rehoboam was full of himself and wouldn’t listen to them, they lost all respect for him and told him he could forget about being their king. They decided they would rather have the tax-cutter Jeroboam as their king, and they crowned Jeroboam instead of Rehoboam. Of the twelve tribes of Israel, only Rehoboam’s own tribe of Judah, plus the tiny tribe of Benjamin, remained loyal to him. The other ten tribes wanted nothing to do with him.
It had taken David and Solomon 80 years to built the unified kingdom and make it great. It took Rehoboam about 80 seconds to rip it apart. What a dummy!
Why did Rehoboam get no respect? Because he showed no respect. He showed no respect for history, no respect for his father, no respect for experienced advisers, no respect for the high office he was about to hold, no respect for the people he was about to govern, no respect for God. Instead of respecting history, he acted like nothing important happened before he and his youthful buddies were born. Instead of respecting his father—the greatest genius ever to rule a nation—Rehoboam thought himself greater than Solomon. Instead of respecting the wisdom of experienced elders, he thought he and his buddies knew best. Instead of respecting the office of king as a high calling, he saw it as a power trip. Instead of respecting people and governing for their well-being, he wanted to exploit them. Instead of respecting God and depending on him, he acted like he could play god himself. Rehoboam showed no respect for anybody or anything, and as a result the people did not respect him and would not accept him as their king.
Rehoboam was like some loudmouth athletes of today. You know the kind. These guys might only be rookies, but if they make one decent play, they strut as though they belong in the hall of fame. If they manage to win a game (no matter how unimportant), they brag as though they had won a trophy case full of championships. The truly great athletes don’t need to brag. Their achievements speak for themselves. But blowhard rookies don’t respect the game, the traditions, or achievements of the past, and they end up not getting much respect.
Rehoboam the rookie was a self-promoting, overconfident loudmouth. He was all hot air, no achievement. He thought he could easily replace the most skillful ruler ever. Rehoboam’s attitude was totally different from the attitude of his father and grandfather.
His grandfather, David, was a great hero and ruler, but even after years as king, David was humble before God. David always felt that being king was an undeserved privilege and an awesome responsibility. David said, “Who am I, O Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far” (1 Samuel 7:18).
When David died, Solomon became king. As a young ruler just getting started, Solomon felt overwhelmed. He prayed to God and said, “O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” (1 Kings 3:7-9)
When Solomon took over for David, Solomon felt like a small man trying to fill big shoes and govern a great people. But when Rehoboam took over for Solomon, Rehoboam felt like a big man ready to fill small shoes and boss around a bunch of people who didn’t count for all that much. Solomon felt small and became great; Rehoboam felt important and lost most of his kingdom.
The best leaders are not those feel large and in charge, who love the perks of power and brag of their own brilliance. The best leaders are those who know they don’t have what it takes to lead a great nation, who depend on God for help and guidance.
Behind the Scenes
From what we’ve heard so far, it sounds like Solomon was brilliant, Rehoboam was a bonehead, and Jeroboam was a clever leader who believed in limited government. After Solomon’s death, when the ten tribes rejected Rehoboam and chose Jeroboam as king, they picked the right man and lived happily ever after, right? Not exactly. We haven’t heard the whole story. There was more going on behind the scenes.
Scripture says of Rehoboam, “The king did not listen to the people, for this turn of events was from the Lord” (1 Kings 12:15). God was up to something in all this. There was more to the story than Rehoboam’s bungling. God was involved. By arranging for the kingdom to break up, the Lord was carrying through on a threat and keeping a promise. The threat he had made to Solomon; the promise he had made to Jeroboam.
Earlier we saw Solomon’s greatness as a ruler and how, at the beginning of his reign, he humbly prayed for God to give him wisdom. He was more concerned with wisdom and justice than with wealth, honor, or any other privilege of being king. Somewhere along the line, though, Solomon lost his perspective and his priorities. He remained a shrewd, successful king all his life, but pleasure and power became more important to him than God.
Solomon wasn’t satisfied with just one woman; he wanted many—and he wasn’t choosy about their religious background. He only cared whether a woman turned him on and whether having her would help him politically. In that time it was common for kings to strengthen alliances with other nations by adding women from other royal families to his harem. Solomon ignored God’s original plan for marriage for one man and one woman, and he ignored God’s command not to marry anyone who didn’t worship the Lord.
Solomon loved many foreign women… He married them even though the Lord had commanded the Israelites not to intermarry with these people, because they would cause the Israelites to give their loyalty to other gods… They made him turn away from God, and by the time he was old they had led him into the worship of foreign gods (1 Kings 11:1-4).
Solomon began his reign by building the great temple of the Lord, but later he built temples for various gods of his wives. Solomon never said the Lord wasn’t God; he just started acting like all religions were equally true. It seemed like smart politics, but it lit the fuse that blew his kingdom apart.
The Lord was angry with Solomon and said to him, “Because you have deliberately broken your covenant with me and disobeyed my commands, I promise that I will take the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your officials.”
1 Kings 11:10-11
God said that for the sake of faithful King David, this would not happen in Solomon’s lifetime but during his son’s reign. Also, God said that one tribe (Judah, plus the mini-tribe of Benjamin) would stay faithful to kings from David’s line, because of promises God had made to David. It must have troubled Solomon to hear that the great nation he had built would be shattered and that his son would inherit only a small fraction of his power.
After the Lord delivered that grim news to Solomon, God sent a messenger to Jeroboam, who at that time was a promising young official in Solomon’s administration. The Lord told Jeroboam,
“I will take the kingdom away from Solomon’s son and will give you ten tribes… If you obey me completely, live by my laws, and win my approval by doing what I command, as my servant David did, I will always be with you. I will make you king of Israel and make sure that your descendants rule after you.” 1 Kings 11:35-38
So when the ten tribes left Solomon’s son Rehoboam and crowned Jeroboam instead, it wasn’t just the result of a politician’s rookie mistake. The Lord himself was working behind the scenes, carrying through on what he had told Solomon and Jeroboam years earlier. Rehoboam was responsible for his own stupidity, but at the same time his bungling was used to fulfill God’s purposes.
Still today, it’s important to realize that behind the latest headlines and political developments, God is at work. We may not see how, we may not understand exactly what he’s doing, but events in government—and all other events—are included in God’s plan and are related to his promises of blessing and his threats of judgment. God is always working behind the scenes. This means that the long-term success of a nation or ruler depends more on following God than on political shrewdness.
The Leaders We Deserve
Politicians aren’t the only ones who need to know this. So do ordinary citizens. We’ve said quite a bit about Solomon, Rehoboam, and Jeroboam, the leaders in the story. But what about the people? They supported major government projects under Solomon but eventually found the size of government too big and burdensome and wanted a change. When Rehoboam stood for making government even bigger and more dominant, the ten tribes chose Jeroboam, the champion of limited government, lower taxes, and greater freedom. That may sound sensible, but notice: the people never breathed a word about God. They complained that government under Solomon had grown too big, but they never said a word about Solomon’s pagan wives and the temples he had built for pagan gods. They were concerned about their freedoms and their economy, but God didn’t matter to many.
They saw things from a political and economic standpoint but ignored the spiritual. They saw Jeroboam as the man to lead them into a bright new era. They ended up with exactly the kind of ruler they deserved: a man who put politics ahead of faith.
Jeroboam had heard God’s promise that if he lived in faith and obedience, his kingship would be secure, and his family dynasty would last. But Jeroboam didn’t live by God’s promise. Instead, he tried to guarantee his own political future by taking matters into his own hands.
Jeroboam had one big worry. The Lord’s temple was located in Jerusalem, in the land of Judah. Judah and Jerusalem remained loyal to Rehoboam. Jeroboam feared that if people from the ten tribes kept going to the Jerusalem temple to worship God there, they might also end up going back to serving the king of Judah. So, to prevent that from happening, Jeroboam set up two major shrines in his territory and made two golden calves (one for each shrine) as gods for the people to worship. The people worshiped these idols, ignored the invisible God of Moses and David and the prophets—and lost interest in the temple at Jerusalem. Jeroboam’s plan worked. It seemed like a brilliant political move that consolidated his kingdom and guaranteed his grip on power.
There was just one problem—it made the Lord furious. God judged Jeroboam, and he judged the ten tribes. The Lord wiped out Jeroboam’s family line, and the ten tribes who followed Jeroboam into idolatry were eventually conquered by Assyria, sent into exile, and ceased to exist as a nation. What had seemed like a smart political move turned out to be their destruction.
Jeroboam’s state-approved religion seemed reasonable. It made so much sense to do it the new way. Clever Jeroboam made the place of worship more convenient. He picked priests well suited for political convenient. He offered more convenient times. Everything was convenient and user-friendly. There was just one inconvenience: it resulted in judgment, death, and hell. That’s where man-made religions of convenience always lead.
King of Kings
There’s a sobering lesson here for all of us. Whether we’re political leaders or ordinary citizens, it is deadly to be more concerned about material things than spiritual things. It is fatal to put politics or economics ahead of faith in the Lord. We may argue whether we need more government programs or less, higher taxes or lower taxes, but there is no single one-size-fits-all system which will work in every time and every place. Sometimes more government is needed, sometimes less, and it’s healthy to debate and try to understand what the situation calls for at a given moment. But beyond any political issues, there is the supreme issue of where we stand in relation to the living God. If we ignore that, then we’re going to end up in trouble no matter how smart or stupid our governing officials might be, no matter what tax policy or economic program they favor.
Rehoboam the rookie was dumb to listen to his inexperienced buddies after he had asked the wise old veterans, but dumber still was his decision not to ask God at all. As a result, he lost most of his kingdom.
Solomon and Jeroboam were both smarter politicians than Rehoboam, but their smarts were wasted when their hearts wandered from God. Solomon was brilliant in his use of big government, but his immorality and idolatry brought God’s judgment. Jeroboam was brilliant in his use of smaller government, but his immorality and idolatry brought God’s judgment.
Meanwhile, the people held political gatherings and took sides, ignoring God all the while. They thought all they needed was a leader who understood them and knew how to rule. But they forgot the only Ruler who could understand them completely and rule them perfectly—the Lord God himself.
Let’s not make that mistake. It’s okay to have political aims, but let’s not put our ultimate trust in a political philosophy or party or in some particular leader as the key to our future. The Bible says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save” (Psalm 146:3). “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Psalm 118:9).
God taught his people some hard lessons about not trusting in politics or princes, but that’s not all he did. God in his justice often gives us the leaders we deserve—but God in his mercy also sent us one leader far better than we deserve. God sent his own Son to earth, born into the kingly line of David, Solomon, and Rehoboam. Jesus is the good king we don’t deserve.
When Rehoboam claimed to be greater than Solomon, he was blowing hot air. But when Jesus said of himself, “One greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42), he was telling the truth. Jesus had more wisdom, power, and goodness than any other ruler. He didn’t come with a big army or with a grand economic plan to implement. Jesus came to conquer our hearts, to pay for our sins with his blood, to turn us back to God, to give us eternal life in a kingdom that never ends. Jesus now reigns as King of kings. He wins hearts by his love and truth, not by cleverness or force. Jesus captures our trust and commands our obedience.
As we consider this lesson in politics for dummies, what is God’s message for you and me right now? The strength of a nation depends not so much on the programs of its politicians as on the prayers of its people. And your destiny as an individual depends not on who happens to be in the halls of government but on whether Jesus is on the throne of your heart.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.