Sadly, Jeroboam’s name has bad connotations. Once the Scripture concludes the two narratives of his life his name occurs just a further 25 times, usually in the context of the bad pattern he set for all the kings of Israel (except the last, Hoshea, 2 Kings 17:2) who followed him: “Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin”.

Background to Jeroboam

Jeroboam enters the record in 1 Kings 11:26 with the important detail that he was from the tribe of Ephraim, the leading tribe of the ten, the tribe promoted to be firstborn by Jacob. It was his jealousy of the pre-eminence of Judah and specifically Jerusalem which caused him so much trouble. Jeroboam’s name means “the people will contend” and sadly he lived up to this name. The other detail about his background was that his mother was a widow. Being the son of a widow perhaps gives us some insights into a poor family where there was no father to guide the family; the poor circumstances of his childhood were the opposite of wealth and the palace which he came to possess.

Jeroboam was a man of great capability, and had found his way into a responsible position in the service of Solomon in Jerusalem. But the very first thing mentioned about his behaviour is that he lifted up his hand against the king (1 Kings 11:26–27). Although the phrase is occasionally used in a good sense (eg Gen 14:22), it appears here to be an act of defiance against the king. The reason for his contention was that he believed that there was too much taxation from Ephraim and too high a demand on free labourers from Ephraim. The word “charge” (v28) means “a gang or body of forced labourers, task-workers” (Brown-Driver-Briggs). Once the Temple was complete Solomon had maintained taxes on people and money and had built Millo, a fortress in Jerusalem, whereas Jeroboam thought Ephraim was exploited with heavy taxes and perhaps he was jealous of the expenditure on Jerusalem.

While verse 28 explains his capability it makes no mention of his spirituality; in all the records of his life there is barely a hint of a spiritually attuned person. If we wonder why God gave them a king without faith we observe in the Scriptures that God will allow us to have our wish. Just as Saul was the sort of king the people wanted so was Jeroboam the type of king that Ephraim desired, a mighty man of force. Solomon knew that he was industrious (v28); one who knew how “to execute a work” (roth). Jeroboam was hard-working, capable and effective as a manager; as a result Solomon made him ruler over the charge (the numbering) of the house of Joseph. This was indeed the basis for his subsequent revolt – he would claim that the amount that he had to charge was too high.

Ahijah’s prophecy

Jeroboam left Jerusalem for reasons which are not clear (v29). In God’s plan he was found by the prophet Ahijah whose prophecy was very clear – God would give ten tribes to him. David had also been promised that God would give him the kingdom (1 Sam 15:28) but David waited patiently for it to happen. Ahijah explained to Jeroboam that Yahweh was still focused on Jerusalem (v32) the city which He had chosen. This was something that Jeroboam could never adjust to, and contributed to his downfall when he became king. Solomon’s focus on Jerusalem was good, in principle; Jerusalem was the city of the great king. Jeroboam needed to understand the importance of Jerusalem in God’s feelings and the importance of the vision for that city. He could never strengthen the ten tribes if he fought against Yahweh’s purpose in Jerusalem.

Ahijah gave him a warning about avoiding Solomon’s failure. Solomon had been rejected for taking many wives and incorporating the worship of their gods (Ashtoreth and Milcom) into Israel. So God would take the kingdom out of Solomon’s son’s hand and give it to Jeroboam (v35). There was no need for him to seize it, for Yahweh would give it to him. Jerusalem was the place that God had chosen to put His name and Jeroboam must focus on the Temple and its worship. If Jeroboam would hearken unto all that God commanded, like David, then God would build for him a sure house just as He did for David (v38). Ahijah was promising, on God’s behalf, an enduring and powerful dynasty built on God. Jeroboam was not modest enough to keep quiet and the matter became known. He left for Egypt to get away from Solomon and made alliances with Shishak king of Egypt who was a poor partner and later attacked Judah (2 Chron 12:9).

Jeroboam becomes king

We know that after Solomon’s death Jeroboam left Egypt and became the spokesman for the northern tribes to demand that Rehoboam cut the taxation. Jeroboam led the whole nation in what appeared, for Rehoboam, to be a ‘no-win’ situation. Years of resentment focused in Jeroboam’s demand. Although both choices looked poor, Rehoboam listened to the worst advice and Jeroboam exploited his failure. He became king and left Rehoboam with just two tribes. Despite Jeroboam’s unwillingness to wait for Yahweh to “give” him the kingdom, as David had done, we do know that the events were of Yahweh to fulfil His will.

Then Jeroboam built Shechem in mount Ephraim (1 Kings 12:25), an important connection with the fathers, and the centre of Ephraim in the days of Gideon’s sons (Judges 9). In 1 Kings 12:1 it was clearly seen as a place of focus for the northern tribes. So it was that Jeroboam set up his capital in Shechem, the place of decision, but he did not make the right ones. He did think strategically and crossed Jordan to build Penuel to secure the inheritance of Ephraim on the east side of Jordan (1 Kings 12:25).

Jeroboam’s lack of faith

Then he said in his heart, “Now shall the kingdom return” (v26). Jeroboam just did not have the faith. He said, “If” this people go to worship in Jerusalem. Jeroboam should have had no doubts that they would worship. Sadly he did not include himself; he did not say: “When we go…”. Rather than worship being a blessing he saw it as a curse. If they went, their heart could return to their “lord” Rehoboam. He had forgotten that he was their lord by God’s plan – he lacked confidence in God to keep His promise. Despite Ahijah’s assurance he said: “they shall kill me” (v27). Without faith it is impossible to please God. Jeroboam displayed none. He simply could not trust in the words of Ahijah.

Jeroboam’s next mistake was to copy Aaron’s error of the calf 500 years before, repeating Aaron’s actions and words (Exod 32:4). If he thought there was some justification for his own conduct then he should have found out the whole of that story – 3,000 men had died by the hands of the Levites. There is a great warning for us here, for poor patterns of behaviour are often replicated. This sudden mistake of Aaron’s was really no excuse for Jeroboam.

Jeroboam’s explanation was that it was too hard to go to Jerusalem to worship – let’s make worship easier. He set up worship in Dan and Beth-el. Bethel (“the house of God”) was later called by Hosea ‘Beth-aven’ (“the house of vanity”), for that which should have honoured Yahweh was really the centre of the flesh. Dan had been a centre of false worship for hundreds of years from the days of Jonathan, Moses’ grandson (Judges 18 and 19). The people did not rebel against this false worship. Instead of ignoring it and worshipping Yahweh they flocked to these false gods. If whole cities of the northern tribes had gone to the Temple in Jerusalem then Jeroboam would have been powerless. There are clear lessons for us. We cannot just accede to false worship and false practice. We are called not to be ‘lemmings’ who follow bad examples to our own destruction, but brothers and sisters who focus on the pattern of Christ. At the judgment seat none of us will be able to make excuse to Christ that we worshipped the gods of the age because everybody else in our ecclesia did. We only follow the example of others inasmuch as they follow Christ (1 Cor 11:1).

Jeroboam’s corrupt worship extended to:

  • the wrong place – a house of high places (1 Kings 12:31)
  • the wrong priests – priests of the lowest of the people, not of the sons of Aaron (verse 31), but someone who had sufficient assets to bring a young bullock and seven rams (2 Chron 13:9)
  • the wrong date for the feast – he moved Tabernacles a month later and only celebrated Tabernacles, a time of joy and festivity
  • the wrong offering – the predominant offering was incense – no need for sin and trespass offerings as the idea of sin was being expunged with the conscience of the people.

This false worship was to spread like leaven through the nation because the example of Jeroboam was to be perpetuated in every king who succeeded him except the last (2 Kings 16). Take some examples:

  • Nadab “did evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of his father, and in his sin wherewith he made Israel to sin” (1 Kings 15:26)
  • Omri “walked in all the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and in his sin wherewith he made Israel to sin, to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger with their vanities” (1 Kings 16:26)
  • Ahab: “as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat … he took to wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Zidonians” (1 Kings 16:31).
  • Jehoram: “Nevertheless he cleaved unto the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which made Israel to sin; he departed not therefrom” (2 Kings 3:3).

By finding a more comfortable, flesh-pleasing worship he degraded the spirituality of the nation. The Father sent the prophets to bring them back. When they would not hear He took them away and their idols. God’s summary of Israel’s failure (2 Kings 17:21–23) puts special blame on Jeroboam: “Jeroboam drave Israel from following the Lord, and made them sin a great sin. For the children of Israel walked in all the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they departed not from them; until Yahweh removed Israel out of his sight, as he had said by all his servants the prophets. So was Israel carried away out of their own land to Assyria unto this day.”