Power Hungry

November 15, 2020/I Kings 12:1-17, 25-29

No one among the Hebrews should have been surprised at the state of affairs in the kingdom.  Samuel tried to warn them, after all.  Back then, they had begged for a king, so they could be like other nations.  Upset over their desire to have someone other than YHWH rule over them, Samuel warned:

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.  He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.  He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.  He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.[1]

Saul had proved the truth of Samuel’s words.  Sure, things were better under David and Solomon – they seemed to have the people’s best interests at heart.  But something about the title, or the power it brought with it, must have gone to their heads.  Both of them ended up forgetting about the God who had anointed them.  Solomon went so far as to worship the pagan gods of his foreign wives.  Their policies were “not in keeping with the expectations that the king would be the one who ‘delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper, has pity on the weak and the needy,’” and redeems their life from oppression and violence.[2]

And now, with Saul, David, and Solomon all dead, the crown seemed destined for Solomon’s son Rehoboam.  He seemed unaware that God had delivered a prophecy to Jeroboam – a servant in Solomon’s court.  The prophet Ahijah reported God’s judgment on Solomon, that he would tear the kingdom apart, delivering a portion to Jeroboam to rule.  It would be Jeroboam, not Rehoboam, who would be called to work in covenant with God.

Rehoboam pretty quickly illustrates why God may have overlooked him when searching for an heir to Solomon.  When Jeroboam approached in good faith and asked him to lighten the heavy burden of forced labor and taxation levied by Solomon, Rehoboam wasn’t interested in exhibiting kindness or concern to the people.  He made a play of asking for advice – first from his father’s contemporaries and then from his own – but it seems clear he wanted only to wave his scepter and gloat over his newfound power.  The elders offered him sound advice – “if he showed kindness and a servant’s heart to the people, they would love and serve him forever.”[3]  But Rehoboam didn’t listen, instead flexing his power and promising an even harder time under his reign.

The result should have been obvious.  The text tells us, “So Israel went away to their tents.”  The kingdom was divided.  Jeroboam became king of the ten tribes of Israel, while Rehoboam was left to lead two tribes of Judah.  Neither kingdom followed God.  Both kings were more interested in their own power and self-satisfaction than in serving the people as God desired.  “This breaking up of the kingdom of Solomon into two parts was the result of Solomon’s sin and Rehoboam’s folly; yet God was in it.”[4]  Even Jeroboam fell into the trap of power, creating idols for the people to worship as a way of binding them to himself.  He “became an example of a political leader who shapes religion for his own purpose.”[5]  If you read the rest of I and 2 Kings, you’ll quickly see what followed was a revolving door of egocentric, power-hungry kings, each serving for a brief period before being overthrown by a successor.  The two kingdoms did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.  Ultimately both fell under the control of outside forces, and the Hebrew people became exiles under the Babylonians and Assyrians.

In the verses before those we read this morning from the Gospel of Mark, James and John approach Jesus and ask if they can have the best seats, the seats of honor.  “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they say.  When the other ten disciples learn what these two have asked for, they are livid.  Probably because they didn’t think to ask first.  But listen again to the words Jesus has for all of them: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44).

Most of us still haven’t learned that lesson.  We still want to be in control, to be able to dictate how, where, when things are done.  We see others wielding power, and we covet that power for ourselves.  The story of Rehoboam and Jeroboam reminds us in the strongest terms of the damage our power hungry natures can cause.  We are not called to be powerful or influential or important.  We are called to be servants in God’s kingdom.

Amen.


[1] I Samuel 8:11-17

[2] Elna K. Solvang, “Commentary on I Kings 12:1-17, 25-29,” workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4214, accessed 11/9/2020

[3] “Rehoboam and Jeroboam,” enduringword.com/bible-commentary/1-kings-12

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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