REHOBOAM AND ABIJAH: THE IMPORTANCE OF RITUAL
2 Chronicles 10:1-19; 2 Chronicles 11:1-23; 2 Chronicles 12:1-16; 2 Chronicles 13:1-22
THE transition from Solomon to Rehoboam brings to light a serious drawback of the chronicler’s principle of selection. In the history of Solomon we read of nothing but wealth, splendor, unchallenged dominion, and superhuman wisdom; and yet the breath is hardly out of the body of the wisest and greatest king of Israel before his empire falls to pieces. We are told, as in the book of Kings, that the people met Rehoboam with a demand for release from "the grievous service of thy father," and yet we were expressly told only two chapters before that "of the children of Israel did Solomon make no servants for his work; but they were men of war, and chief of his captains, and rulers of his chariots and of his horsemen." (2 Chronicles 8:9) Rehoboam apparently had been left by the wisdom of his father to the companionship of headstrong and featherbrained youths; he followed their advice rather than that of Solomon’s grey-headed counselors, with the result that the ten tribes successfully revolted and chose Jeroboam for their king. Rehoboam assembled an army to re-conquer his lost territory, but Jehovah through the prophet Shemaiah forbade him to make war against Jeroboam.
The chronicler here and elsewhere shows his anxiety not to perplex simple minds with unnecessary difficulties. They might be harassed and disturbed by the discovery that the king, who built the Temple and was specially endowed with Divine wisdom, had fallen into grievous sin and been visited with condign punishment. Accordingly everything that discredits Solomon and detracts from his glory is omitted. The general principle is sound; an earnest teacher, alive to his responsibilities, will not wantonly obtrude difficulties upon his hearers; when silence does not involve disloyalty to truth, he will be willing that they should remain in ignorance of some of the more mysterious dealings of God in nature and history. But silence was more possible and less dangerous in the chronicler’s time than in the nineteenth century. He could count upon a docile and submissive spirit in his readers; they would not inquire beyond what they were told: they would not discover the difficulties for themselves. Jewish youths were not exposed to the attacks of eager and militant skeptics, who would force these difficulties upon their notice in an exaggerated form, and at once demand that they should cease to believe in anything human or Divine.
And yet, though the chronicler had great advantages in this matter, his own narrative illustrates the narrow limits within which the principle of the suppression of difficulties can be safely applied. His silence as to Solomon’s sins and misfortunes makes the revolt of the ten tribes utterly inexplicable. After the account of the perfect wisdom, peace, and prosperity of Solomon’s reign, the revolt comes upon an intelligent reader with a shock of surprise and almost of incredulity. If he could not test the chronicles narrative by that of the book of Kings and it was no part of the chronicler’s purpose that his history should be thus tested-the violent transition from Solomon’s unbroken prosperity to the catastrophe of the disruption would leave the reader quite uncertain as to the general credibility of Chronicles. In avoiding Scylla, our author has fallen into Charybdis; he has suppressed one set of difficulties only to create others. If we wish to help intelligent inquirers and to aid them to form an independent judgment, our safest plan will often be to tell them all we know ourselves and to believe that difficulties, which have no way marred our spiritual life, will not destroy their faith.
In the next section the chronicler tells how for three years Rehoboam administered his diminished kingdom with wisdom and success; he and his people walked in the way of David and Solomon, and his kingdom was established, and he was strong. He fortified fifteen cities in Judah and Benjamin, and put captains in them, and store of victuals, and oil and wine, and shields and spears, and made them exceeding strong. Rehoboam was further strengthened by deserters from the Northern Kingdom. Though the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua assigned to the priests and Levites cities in the territory held by Jeroboam, yet their intimate association with the Temple rendered it impossible for them to remain citizens of a state hostile to Jerusalem. The chronicler indeed tells us that "Jeroboam and his sons cast them off, that they should not execute the priest’s office unto Jehovah, and appointed others to be priests for the high places and the he-goats and for the calves which he had." It is difficult to understand what the chronicler means by this statement. On the face of it, we should suppose that Jeroboam refused to employ the house of Aaron and the tribe of Levi for the worship of his he-goats and calves, but the chronicler could not describe such action as casting "them off that they should not execute the priest’s office unto Jehovah." The passage has been explained to mean that Jeroboam sought to hinder them from exercising their functions at the Temple by preventing them from visiting Judah; but to confine the priests and Levites to his own kingdom would have been a. strange way of casting them off. However, whether driven out by Jeroboam or escaping from him, they came to Jerusalem and brought with them from among the ten tribes other pious Israelites, who were attached to the worship of the Temple. Judah and Jerusalem became the home of all true worshippers of Jehovah; and those who remained in the Northern Kingdom were given up to idolatry or the degenerate and corrupt worship of the high places. The chronicler then gives us some account of Rehoboam’s harem and children, and tells that he dealt wisely, and dispersed his twenty-eight sons "throughout all the lands of Judah and Benjamin, unto every fenced city." He gave them the means of maintaining a luxurious table, and provided them with numerous wives, and trusted that, being thus happily circumstanced, they would lack leisure, energy, and ambition to imitate Absalom and Adonijah.
Prosperity and security turned the head of Rehoboam as they had done that of David: "He forsook the law of Jehovah, and all Israel with him." "All Israel" means all the subjects of Rehoboam; the chronicler treats the ten tribes as cut off from Israel. The faithful worshippers of Jehovah in Judah had been reinforced by the priests, Levites, and all other pious Israelites from the Northern Kingdom; and yet in three years they forsook the cause for which they had left their country and their father’s house. Punishment was not long delayed, for Shishak, king of Egypt, invaded Judah with an immense host and took away the treasures of the house of Jehovah and of the king’s house.
The chronicler explains why Rehoboam was not more severely punished. Shishak appeared before Jerusalem with his immense host: Ethiopians, Lubim or Lybians, and Sukiim, a mysterious people only mentioned here. The LXX and Vulgate translate Sukiim "Troglodytes," apparently identifying them with the cave-dwellers on the western or Ethiopian coast of the Red Sea. In order to find safety from these strange and barbarous enemies, Rehoboam and his princes were gathered together in Jerusalem. Shemaiah the prophet appeared before them and declared that the invasion was Jehovah’s punishment for their sin, whereupon they humbled themselves, and Jehovah accepted their penitent submission. He would not destroy Jerusalem, but the Jews should serve Shishak, "that they may know My service and the service of the kingdoms of the countries." When they threw off the yoke of Jehovah, they sold themselves into a worse bondage. There is no freedom to be gained by repudiating the restraints of morality and religion. If we do not choose to be the servants of obedience unto righteousness, our only alternative is to become the slaves "of sin unto death." The repentant sinner may return to his true allegiance, and yet he may still be allowed to taste something of the bitterness and humiliation of the bondage of sin. His Shishak may be some evil habit or propensity or special liability to temptation, that is permitted to harass him without destroying his spiritual life. In time the chastening of the Lord works out the peaceable fruits of righteousness, and the Christian is weaned forever from the unprofitable service of sin.
Unhappily the repentance inspired by trouble and distress is not always real and permanent. Many will humble themselves before the Lord in order to avert imminent ruin, and will forsake Him when the danger has passed away. Apparently Rehoboam soon fell away again into sin, for the final judgment upon him is, "He did that which was evil, because he set not his heart to seek Jehovah." David in his last prayer had asked for a "perfect heart" for Solomon, but he had not been able to secure this blessing for his grandson, and Rehoboam was "the foolishness of the people, one that had no understanding, who turned away the people through his counsel." (Sirach 47:23)
Rehoboam was succeeded by his son Abijah, concerning whom we are told in the book of Kings that "he walked in all the sins of his father, which he had done before him; and his heart was not perfect with Jehovah his God, as the heart of David his father." The chronicler omits this unfavorable verdict; he does not indeed classify Abijah among the good kings by the usual formal statement that "he did that which was good and right in the eyes of Jehovah," but Abijah delivers a hortatory speech and by Divine assistance obtains a great victory over Jeroboam. There is not a suggestion of any evil-doing on the part of Abijah; and yet we gather from the history of Asa that in Abijah’s reign the cities of Judah were given up to idolatry, with all its paraphernalia of "strange altars, high places, Asherim, and sun-images." As in the case of Solomon, so here, the chronicler has sacrificed even the consistency of his own narrative to his care for the reputation of the house of David. How the verdict of ancient history upon Abijah came to be set aside we do not know. The charitable work of whitewashing the bad characters of history has always had an attraction for enterprising annalists; and Abijah was a more promising subject than Nero, Tiberius, or Henry VIII The chronicler would rejoice to discover one more good king of Judah; but yet why should the record of Abijah’s sins be expunged, while Ahaziah and Amon were still held up to the execration of posterity?
Probably the chronicler was anxious that nothing should mar the effect of his narrative of Abijah’s victory. If his later sources had recorded anything equally creditable of Ahaziah and Amon, be might have ignored the judgment of the book of Kings in their case also.
The section to which the chronicler attaches so much importance describes a striking episode in the chronic warfare between Judah and Israel. Here Israel is used, as in the older history, to mean the Northern Kingdom, and does not denote the spiritual Israel-i.e., Judah-as in the previous chapter. This perplexing variation in the use of the term "Israel" shows how far Chronicles has departed from the religious ideas of the book of Kings, and reminds us that the chronicler has only partially and imperfectly assimilated his older material.
Abijah and Jeroboam had each gathered an immense army, but the army of Israel was twice as large as that of Judah: Jeroboam had eight hundred thousand to Abijah’s four hundred thousand. Jeroboam advanced, confident in his overwhelming superiority and happy in the belief that Providence sides with the strongest battalions. Abijah, however, was nothing dismayed by the odds against him; his confidence was m Jehovah. The two armies met in the neighborhood of Mount Zemaraim, upon which Abijah fixed his camp. Mount Zemaraim was in the hill-country of Ephraim, but its position cannot be determined with certainty; it was probably near the border of the two kingdoms. Possibly it was the site of the Benjamite city of the same name mentioned in the book of Joshua in close connection with Bethel. [Joshua 18:22] If so, we should look for it in the neighborhood of Bethel, a position which would suit the few indications of place given by the narrative.
Before the battle, Abijah made an effort to induce his enemies to depart in peace. From the vantage-ground of his mountain camp he addressed Jeroboam and his army as Jotham had addressed the men of Shechem from Mount Gerizim. [ 9:8] Abijah reminded the rebels-for as such he regarded them-that Jehovah, the God of Israel, had given the kingdom over Israel to David forever, even to him and to his sons, by a covenant of salt, by a charter as solemn and unalterable as that by which the heave-offerings had been given to the sons of Aaron. [Numbers 18:19] The obligation of an Arab host to the guest who had sat at meat with him and eaten of his salt was not more binding than the Divine decree which had given the throne of Israel to the house of David. And yet Jeroboam the son of Nebat had dared to infringe the sacred rights of the elect dynasty. He, the slave of Solomon, had risen up and rebelled against his master.
The indignant prince of the house of David not unnaturally forgets that the disruption was Jehovah’s own work, and that Jeroboam rose up against his master, not at the instigation of Satan, but by the command of the prophet Abijah. [2 Chronicles 10:15] The advocates of sacred causes even in inspired moments are apt to be one-sided in their statements of fact.
While Abijah is severe upon Jeroboam and his accomplices and calls them "vain men, sons of Belial," he shows a filial tenderness for the memory of Rehoboam. That unfortunate king had been taken at a disadvantage, when he was young and tender-hearted and unable to deal sternly with rebels. The tenderness which could threaten to chastise his people with scorpions must have been of the kind-
"That dared to look on torture and could not look on war";
it only appears in the history in Rehoboam’s headlong flight to Jerusalem. No one, however, will censure Abijah for taking an unduly favorable view of his father’s character.
But whatever advantage Jeroboam may have found in his first revolt, Abijah warns him that now he need not think to withstand the kingdom of Jehovah in the hands of the sons of David. He is no longer opposed to an unseasoned youth, but to men who know their overwhelming advantage. Jeroboam need not think to supplement and complete his former achievements by adding Judah and Benjamin to his kingdom. Against his superiority of four hundred thousand soldiers Abijah can set a Divine alliance, attested by the presence of priests and Levites and the regular performance of the pentateuchal ritual, whilst the alienation of Israel from Jehovah is clearly shown by the irregular orders of their priests. But let Abijah speak for himself:
"Ye be a great multitude, and there are with you the golden calves which Jeroboam made you for gods." Possibly Abijah was able to point to Bethel, where the royal sanctuary of the golden calf was visible to both armies: "Have ye not driven out the priests of Jehovah, the sons of Aaron and the Levites, and made for yourselves priests in heathen fashion? When any one comes to consecrate himself with a young bullock and seven rams, ye make him a priest of them that are no gods. But as for us, Jehovah is our God, and we have not forsaken Him; and we have priests, the sons of Aaron, ministering unto Jehovah, and the Levites, doing their appointed work: and they burn unto Jehovah morning and evening burnt offerings and sweet incense: the shewbread also they set in order upon the table that is kept free from all uncleanness; and we have the candlestick of gold, with its lamps, to burn every evening; for we observe the ordinances of Jehovah our God; but ye have forsaken Him. And, behold, God is with us at our head, and His priests, with the trumpets of alarm, to sound an alarm against you. O children of Israel, fight ye not against Jehovah, the God of your fathers; for ye shall not prosper."
This speech, we are told, "has been much admired. It was well suited to its object, and exhibits correct notions of the theocratical institutions." But like much other admirable eloquence, in the House of Commons and elsewhere, Abijah’s speech had no effect upon those to whom it was addressed. Jeroboam apparently utilized the interval to plant an ambush in the rear of the Jewish army.
Abijah’s speech is unique. There have been other instances in which commanders have tried to make oratory take the place of arms, and, like Abijah, they have mostly been unsuccessful; but they have usually appealed to lower motives. Sennacherib’s envoys tried ineffectually to seduce the garrison of Jerusalem from their allegiance to Hezekiah, but they relied on threats of destruction and promises of "a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of oil olive and honey." There is, however, a parallel instance of more successful persuasion. When Octavian was at war with his fellow-triumvir Lepidus, he made a daring attempt to win over his enemy’s army. He did not address them from the safe elevation of a neighboring mountain, but rode openly into the hostile camp. He appealed to the soldiers by motives as lofty as those urged by Abijah, and called upon them to save their country from civil war by deserting Lepidus. At the moment his appeal failed, and he only escaped with a wound in his breast; but after a while his enemy’s soldiers came over to him in detachments, and eventually Lepidus was compelled to surrender to his rival. But the deserters were not altogether influenced by pure patriotism. Octavian had carefully prepared the way for his dramatic appearance in the camp of Lepidus, and had used grosser means of persuasion than arguments addressed to patriotic feeling.
Another instance of a successful appeal to a hostile force is found in the history of the first Napoleon, when he was marching on Paris after his return from Elba. Near Grenoble he was met by a body of royal troops. He at once advanced to the front, and exposing his breast, exclaiming to the opposing ranks, "Here is your emperor; if any one would kill me, let him fire." The detachment, which had been sent to arrest his progress, at once deserted to their old commander. Abijah’s task was less hopeful: the soldiers whom Octavian and Napoleon won over had known these generals as lawful commanders of Roman and French armies respectively, but Abijah could not appeal to any old associations in the minds of Jeroboam’s army; the Israelites were animated by ancient tribal jealousies, and Jeroboam was made of sterner stuff than Lepidus or Louis XVIII Abijah’s appeal is a monument of his humanity, faith, and devotion; and if it failed to influence the enemy, doubtless served to inspirit his own army.
At first, however, things went badly with Judah. They were outgeneraled as well as outnumbered: Jeroboam’s main body attacked them in front, and the ambush assailed their rear. Like the men of Ai, "when Judah looked back, behold, the battle was before and behind them." But Jehovah, who fought against Ai, was fighting for Judah, and they cried unto Jehovah; and then, as at Jericho, "the men of Judah gave a shout, and when they shouted, God smote Jeroboam and all Israel before Abijah and Judah." The rout was complete, and was accompanied by terrible slaughter. No fewer than five hundred thousand Israelites were slain by the men of Judah. The latter pressed their advantage, and took the neighboring city of Bethel and other Israelite towns. For the time Israel was "brought under," and did not recover from its tremendous losses during the three years of Abijah’s reign. As for Jeroboam, Jehovah smote him, and he died; but "Abijah waxed mighty, and took unto himself fourteen wives, and begat twenty-and-two sons and sixteen daughters." His history closes with the record of these proofs of Divine favor, and he "slept with his fathers, and they buried him in the city of David, and Asa his son reigned in his stead."
The lesson which the chronicler intends to teach by his narrative is obviously the importance of ritual, not the importance of ritual apart from the worship of the true God; he emphasizes the presence of Jehovah with Judah, in contrast to the Israelite worship of calves and those that are no gods. The chronicler dwells upon the maintenance of the legitimate priesthood and the prescribed ritual as the natural expression and clear proof of the devotion of the men of Judah to their God.
It may help us to realize the significance of Abijah’s speech, if we try to construct an appeal in the same spirit for a Catholic general in the Thirty Years’ War addressing a hostile Protestant army. Imagine Wallenstein or Tilly, moved by some unwonted spirit of pious oratory, addressing the soldiers of Gustavus Adolphus:-
"We have a pope who sits in Peter’s chair, bishops and priests ministering unto the Lord, in the true apostolical succession. The sacrifice of the Mass is daily offered; matins, lauds, vespers; and compline are all duly celebrated; our churches are fragrant with incense and glorious with stained glass and images; we have crucifixes, and lamps, and candles; and our priests are fitly clothed in ecclesiastical vestments; for we observe the traditions of the Church, but ye have forsaken the Divine order. Behold, God is with us at our head; and we have banners blessed by the Pope. O ye Swedes, ye fight against God; ye shall not prosper."
As Protestants we may find it difficult to sympathies with the feelings of a devout Romanist or even with those of a faithful observer of the complicated Mosaic ritual. We could not construct so close a parallel to Abijah’s speech in terms of any Protestant order of service, and yet the objections which any modern denomination feels to departures from its own forms of worship rest on the same principles as those of Abijah. In the abstract the speech teaches two main lessons: the importance of an official and duly accredited ministry and of a suitable and authoritative ritual. These principles are perfectly general, and are not confined to what is usually known as sacerdotalism and ritualism. Every Church has in practice some official ministry, even those Churches that profess to owe their separate existence to the necessity for protesting against an official ministry. Men whose chief occupation is to denounce priestcraft may themselves be saturated with the sacerdotal spirit. Every Church too, has its ritual. The silence of a Friends’ meeting is as much a rite as the most elaborate genuflection before a highly ornamented altar. To regard either the absence or presence of rites as essential is equally ritualistic. The man who leaves his wonted place of worship because "Amen" is sung at the end of a hymn is as bigoted a ritualist as his brother who dare not pass an altar without crossing himself. Let us then consider the chronicler’s two principles in this broad sense. The official ministry of Israel consisted of the priests and Levites, and the chronicler counted it a proof of the piety of the Jews that they adhered to this ministry and did not admit to the priesthood any one who could bring a young bullock and seven rams. The alternative was not between a hereditary priesthood and one open to any aspirant with special spiritual qualifications, but between a duly trained and qualified ministry on the one hand and a motley crew of the forerunners of Simon Magus on the other. It is impossible not to sympathies with the chronicler. To begin with, the property qualification was too low. If livings are to be purchased at all, they should bear a price commensurate with the dignity and responsibility of the sacred office. A mere entrance fee, so to speak, of a young bullock and seven rams must have flooded Jeroboam’s priesthood with a host of adventurers, to whom the assumption of the office was a matter of social or commercial speculation. The private adventure system of providing for the ministry of the word scarcely tends to either the dignity or the efficiency of the Church. But, in any case, it is not desirable that mere worldly gifts, money, social position, or even intellect should be made the sole passports to Christian service; even the traditions and education of a hereditary priesthood would be more probable channels of spiritual qualifications.
Another point that the chronicler objects to in Jeroboam’s priests is the want of any other than a property qualification. Any one who chose could be a priest. Such a system combined what might seem opposite vices. It preserved an artificial ministry; these self-appointed priests formed a clerical order; and yet it gave no guarantee whatever of either fitness or devotion. The chronicler, on the other hand, by the importance he attaches to the Levitical priesthood, recognizes the necessity of an official ministry, but is anxious that it should be guarded with jealous care against the intrusion of unsuitable persons. A conclusive argument for an official ministry is to be found in its formal adoption by most Churches and its uninvited appearance in the rest. We should not now be contented with the safeguards against unsuitable ministers to be found in hereditary succession; the system of the Pentateuch would be neither acceptable nor possible in the nineteenth century: and yet, if it had been perfectly administered, the Jewish priesthood would have been worthy of its high office, nor were the times ripe for the substitution of any better system. Many of the considerations which justify hereditary succession in a constitutional monarchy might be adduced in defense of a hereditary priesthood. Even now, without any pressure of law or custom, there is a certain tendency towards hereditary succession in the ministerial office. It would be easy to name distinguished ministers who were inspired for the high calling by their fathers’ devoted service, and who received an invaluable preparation for their life-work from the Christian enthusiasm of a clerical household. The clerical ancestry of the Wesleys is only one among many illustrations of an inherited genius for the ministry.
But though the best method of obtaining a suitable ministry varies with changing circumstances, the chronicler’s main principle is of permanent and universal application. The Church has always felt a just concern that the official representatives of its faith and order should commend themselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. The prophet needs neither testimonials nor official status: the word of the Lord can have free course without either; but the appointment or election to ecclesiastical office entrusts the official with the honor of the Church and in a measure of its Master.
The chronicler’s other principle is the importance of a suitable and authoritative ritual. We have already noticed that any order of service that is fixed by the constitution or custom of a Church involves the principle of ritual. Abijah’s speech does not insist that only the established ritual should be tolerated; such questions had not come within the chronicler’s horizon. The merit of Judah lay in possessing and practicing a legitimate ritual, that is to say in observing the Pauline injunction to do all things decently and in order: The present generation is not inclined to enforce any very stringent obedience to Paul’s teaching, and finds it difficult to sympathize with Abijah’s enthusiasm for the symbolism of worship. But men today are not radically different from the chronicler’s contemporaries, and it is as legitimate to appeal to spiritual sensibility through the eye as through the ear; architecture and decoration are neither more nor less spiritual than an attractive voice and impressive elocution. Novelty and variety have, or should have, their legitimate place in public worship; but the Church has its obligations to those who have more regular spiritual wants. Most of us find much of the helpfulness of public worship in the influence of old and familiar spiritual associations, which can only be maintained by a measure of permanence and fixity in Divine service. The symbolism of the Lord’s Supper never loses its freshness, and yet it is restful because familiar and impressive because ancient. On the other hand, the maintenance of this ritual is a constant testimony to the continuity of Christian life and faith. Moreover, in this rite the great bulk of Christendom finds the outward and visible sign of its unity.
Ritual, too, has its negative value. By observing the Levitical ordinances the Jews were protected from the vagaries of any ambitious owner of a young bullock and seven rams. While we grant liberty to all to use the form of worship in which they find most spiritual profit, we need to have Churches whose ritual will be comparatively fixed. Christians who find themselves most helped by the more quiet and regular methods of devotion naturally look to a settled order of service to protect them from undue and distracting excitement.
In spite of the wide interval that separates the modern Church from Judaism, we can still discern a unity of principle, and are glad to confirm the judgment of Christian experience from the lessons of an older and different dispensation. But we should do injustice to the chronicler’s teaching if we forgot that for his own times his teaching was capable of much more definite and forcible application. Christianity and Islam have purified religious worship throughout Europe, America, and a large portion of Asia. We are no longer tempted by the cruel, loathsome rites of heathenism. The Jews knew the wild extravagance, gross immorality, and ruthless cruelty of Phoenician and Syrian worship. If we had lived in the chronicler’s age and had shared his experience of idolatrous rites, we should have also shared his enthusiasm for the pure and lofty ritual of the Pentateuch. We should have regarded it as a Divine barrier between Israel and the abominations of heathenism, and should have been jealous for its strict observance.
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Chronicles 13". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany