CHAPTER 25. —REVOLT OF THE TEN TRIBES—MISSION OF ELIJAH
The apostasy of Solomon bore bitter fruit in the succeeding reign. It had been divinely intimated that retribution would befall the house of David in the form of political rupture—the secession of ten of the tribes from their allegiance. How this was brought about in the manipulation of natural causes we have already considered in The Ways of Providence. We have nothing now to do with that phase of the matter. Our business is to scan the new situation for glimpses of the visible hand of God.
And we get one glimpse at once. When the ten tribes (repulsed by Rehoboam’s unconciliatoriness of speech) had fairly revolted and shown the seriousness of their revolt by stoning his representative, Adoram, Rehoboam took the course natural to all sovereigns in all history in such circumstances. He assembled and equipped an immense army to put down the rebellion. With this army he was on the point of marching, when “THE WORD OF THE LORD CAME TO SHEMAIAH, THE MAN OF GOD,” ordering the abandonment of the enterprise:
“Ye shall not go up nor fight against your brethren, the children of Israel. Return every man to his house: for THIS THING IS FROM ME” (1 Kings 12: 24).
Here was a phenomenon, unheard of in modern experience, but not new in the history of Israel. The history of Israel has been one of divine direction from the beginning—direction suspended since the work of Christ in their midst, as foretold, as necessitated by the situation, but suspended only for a while as explained in the same word, to be renewed when the Lord takes hold of the nation again, at the return of Christ, for His own glorious ends, which will involve the highest blessing to all mankind. It was no piece of political advice that Shemaiah gave. As mere advice, it was to be scouted on every ground of political expediency. Shemaiah, as a courtier, had he been such, never could have had the temerity to volunteer it. As a mere inhabitant of Jerusalem, it was contrary to all experience of human nature that he should have counselled a course so opposed to the heated impulse of a war-bent community. It was a divine mandate he delivered—a command from the eternal throne, to desist. Nothing but such could have averted the needless effusion of blood impending; nothing but such, or some other miracle, could have averted the frustration of the divine purpose—that the ten tribes should become separate; for there is little doubt that, in their then unprepared state, the ten tribes could have made little stand against the disciplined army of Rehoboam. The mandate was effectual. Rehoboam recognised the divine voice, and dispersed his army, and allowed the ten tribes to organise themselves in peace under Jeroboam.
Jeroboam’s position, prospects, and career we have also had to look at (in the book before referred to) in the light of the ways of Providence. It is the miraculous element we are now in search of. Therefore, we pass over the absurdities of his irrational reign, and ask only for those points and cases in which the hand of God was visibly manifested. God did not at once desert the ten tribes, although the ten tribes, under the barbarous policy of Jeroboam, entirely deserted Him (in their national capacity, at least). His hand was visibly shown in their midst for two centuries to come. Indeed, during that period there is more recorded exhibition of the visible hand of God in the midst of the ten tribes than in the midst of the kingdom of Judah, though, on the other hand, the visible hand of God continued (intermittently) in the midst of Judah for nearly 800 years after the ten tribes disappeared from the stage of history in regions beyond the Euphrates. We will hurriedly survey those exhibitions in the midst of the ten tribes during the comparatively short duration of their kingdom, and then return to the current of Judah’s history—a history glorious yet in this respect, as we have said, for nearly 800 years, and ending with a blaze which all the world has seen (from the hills of Nazareth) but which, through the combined effects of a travestied theology and misdirected science (on some points) is getting very dim and almost invisible to the world’s vision. Let us have patience: the darkness was in the programme. We read it there. The light is coming again, and this time, never to go out upon earth.
“The glory of Yahweh shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
“The glory of Yahweh shall rise upon thee, O Israel, and the Gentiles shall come to thy light and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”
The first exhibition of the visible hand of God in the midst of the ten tribes was of a peculiar character. It occurred in connection with a divine protest against the enormities of Jeroboam, Jeroboam had established idolatry at two centres, Dan and Bethel, as the religion of the new kingdom, and had appointed national feasts on dates “devised of his own heart.” On one of such dates, Jeroboam himself attended at Bethel to conduct the idolatrous ceremonies. There was peculiar sacrilege in the practice of idolatry in this place, which had been named THE HOUSE OF GOD—(Beth-el)—by Jacob on the occasion of Yahweh manifesting Himself by the angels of His power. In the height of the ceremonies, while Jeroboam, standing by the altar, was about to offer incense, a voice from the spectators near the altar apostrophised the altar in this strange and impressive way:
“O altar, altar! Thus saith Yahweh, Behold, a child shall be born unto the house of David, Josiah by name; and upon thee shall he offer the priests of the high places that burn incense upon thee, and men’s bones shall be burnt upon thee.”
Everybody pricked up their ears, we may imagine, Jeroboam, looking sharply round, picked out the offender with his eye, and holding his hand threateningly towards him, ordered his attendants to lay hold of the person who had dared such contempt. His attendants no doubt were quick to obey the command, but before they could carry it out, the king himself became the subject of their solicitude. His arm remained outstretched. What a spectacle! What a humiliation! There stood the King, his impulse subsided, but his arm extended like a lifeless piece of carpentry. It had been suddenly paralysed in the act of threatening the bearer of a divine message. A further token was given to all, that the message was divine. The deliverer of the message added:
“This is the sign that the Lord hath spoken: Behold, the altar shall be rent and the ashes that are upon it shall be poured out”:
And the narrative informs us that—
“The altar was rent and the ashes poured out from the altar according to the sign which the man of God had given by the word of Yahweh.”
The king could not resist the evidence of his senses: his dried up arm—the shattered altar. He recognised the hand of God, and besought the man of God to entreat Yahweh that his hand might be restored; though this was about the whole extent of the king’s solicitude; for we do not read that he took to heart the lesson against his idolatrous ways:
“And the man of God besought Yahweh and the king’s hand was restored him again, and became as it was before.”
Then the king was disposed to be very courteous, and invited the man of God home, and offered to be liberal to him. But the man declined.
The man of God was from Judah. He had received orders from Yahweh to attend the feast at Bethel, and to deliver his message against the altar, and then to come away at once and depart on his homeward journey southwards without so much as eating and drinking in the place. The act of eating and drinking is naturally a sign of peace and friendship, and there were to be neither with a community (though originally called of God) who had declined from ways acceptable to God—a lesson not without its modern applications. The man apprised the king of this command he had received, and at once set out on his return journey, by a different road from that which he took in coming (as he was also commanded). His departure was observed by certain young men who had witnessed the whole transaction with no small degree of interest, as probably thousands of others had done. These young men, on returning home, narrated to their father all that had happened. Their father was an old man, but lively, and felt a deep interest in this prophet from Judah, he having at one time been a prophet himself. Ascertaining which way the prophet from Judah had gone, he mounted his ass—(a very different animal in the East from his much-laughed-at comrade in western countries)—and went in pursuit. Coming up by and by with the prophet from Judah—(whom he found resting under an oak)—he asked him to come back with him, and partake of his hospitality. The prophet of Judah repeated what he had said to Jeroboam—that he dared not; that his instructions to the contrary were clear and explicit. Then the old man, remarking, “I am a prophet as thou art,” lied to him to the effect that God had ordered him to bring him back to his house. To this the prophet from Judah ought not to have listened. He knew what his instructions were: and he ought not from any human mouth have taken the countermand of those instructions, especially knowing as he did that God does not vary like man. But probably the idea of going back was agreeable to him. He was tired: he had a long way to go: he was all by himself: and he was naturally very accessible to the idea of rest and company. And he chose to think it might be the Lord’s will, and he went back—in direct opposition to what he had been commanded. Comfortably housed and enjoying the hospitalities of the lively old man (“a prophet as thou art”), he was sitting at table with him, when the Spirit of the Lord came upon his entertainer, and compelled him to address his guest there and then in words very much out of place under one’s own roof, according to the rules of human etiquette:
“Thus saith Yahweh, Forasmuch as thou hast disobeyed the words of Yahweh, and hast not kept the commandment which Yahweh thy Elohim commanded thee, but camest back and hast eaten bread and drunk water in the place of which the Lord did say to thee, Eat no bread and drink no water, thy carcase shall not come unto the sepulchre of thy fathers” (1 Kings 13: 21).
What a confounding of both host and guest. When the meal was finished, the prophet from Judah sorrowfully resumed his journey on the back of an ass which his host saddled for him. He had not gone far when, in a solitary part of the road, a lion leapt forth from the thicket and tore him from the ass’s back and killed him. The lion did not mangle his body, nor did it touch the ass upon which he rode. The fact is, the lion had an unconscious commission. The Spirit of God controlled its movements, and beyond the will of the Spirit it could not go. It stood beside the ass and the dead body—a spectacle to all who passed by—which they probably would do quickly. The news soon got to Bethel and the old man—no longer lively—recognised the meaning of the report, and rode to the spot, and lifted the carcase of the prophet from Judah on to his own beast, and carried it back to the city “to mourn and to bury him.”
The whole case is melancholy to human feeling, as are a thousand other woes that have come from the breach of the simple but blessed and essential law of obedience. It was probably transacted and written with a view to illustrate (among many other illustrations) the imperative nature of this law; for Paul informs us that—
“Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning.”
It is a lesson that could not be illustrated unambiguously without the direct unveiling of the divine hand in miracle. It is a lesson which has lost all power in the present age of the world, but which will shortly be renewed by more terrible things than the tragic death of a prophet by the roadside. A whole world has to be afflicted when Christ has returned, as it never has been afflicted, before the glory of Yahweh fills the earth, as it will, to its utmost bounds.
The visible hand of God was again shown well on in Jeroboam’s reign. Jeroboam’s son fell sick. Jeroboam was anxious about his recovery. Who could tell whether he would get better? He remembered the prophet who had informed him, during Solomon’s reign, of his coming elevation to the kingdom of the ten tribes. If he could only speak with him, he felt sure he would learn what he wanted. But he felt it incompatible with his dignity, and with his relation to the kingdom of Judah, that he should enquire directly. In fact, he would not let it be known that he had anything to do with such an application. His wife was not known by face outside the palace. He would try and get the information through her.
“Arise,” said he to her, “Disguise thyself that thou be not known to be the wife of Jeroboam, and get thee to Shiloh. Behold! There is Ahijah, the prophet, who told me that I should be king over this people. . . . He shall tell thee what shall become of the child.”
Jeroboam’s wife did so, and duly arrived at Shiloh. But before her arrival, Ahijah, though blind with age, was aware of her journey and its object. Yahweh, by the spirit, had informed him of both, and that she was coming in disguise, and He put a message in his mouth for her. Ahijah watched for her coming. In due time, he heard the sound of her approaching footsteps. She presented herself at the door, having maintained her disguise successfully to this point, and was doubtless ready with her presents and some ingenious profession, by which to extract from the prophet the information wanted, without the discovery of who she was. Alas! who can be concealed from God? It was a long time before the generality of the people understood the greatness of the God who revealed Himself by Moses and the prophets, and wrought wonders among them by the hands of His angels. They little understood that, though dwellers in the far-distant heavens, He was everywhere present by Hi spirit, and that the most trifling circumstances cannot occur without His knowledge and permission.
“Come in,” said Ahijah, “thou wife of Jeroboam,” scattering her careful plans at one stroke; “why feignest thou thyself to be another? I am sent to thee with heavy tidings.”
Jeroboam’s wife was doubtless astounded at this sudden breaking through of her disguise. She might have expected such a thing if she were capable of reflection. She expected the prophet to know about her sick son, and whether he would get better—she might have surmised that the power equal to discernment of such a thing would be equal to the discernment of the individuality of the woman who came to enquire. This apparently had not occurred to her; so there she stood in helpless amazement, dropping her disguise, and waiting to hear the heavy tidings. These first concerned her husband’s uncircumcised behaviour, and the dreadful consequences that were in store for him and his house (1 Kings 14: 7-11). Then, as to her child, the prophet told her to go home, adding this calamitous information:
“When thy feet enter into the city, the child shall die.”
We can easily imagine the dejected state of mind in which Jeroboam’s wife would make that journey homewards, after such a message. She had got nothing by coming but woe. It would have been better not to have known what was coming. The ignorance in which Jeroboam sent her forth was bliss by comparison with the doleful knowledge which, though she were a queen, the prophet (no courtier) had communicated to her. Her own part was made specially bitter by the fact that she would never see her son alive again, and that her own arrival home would be the signal for his death.
“The ways of transgressors are hard.”
The whole world’s history is proof of the fact, and Jeroboam’s queen and partner in iniquity could not hope to be an exception while she trudged northward with heavy heart, full of the heavy tidings for which her lord was waiting. She arrived in due course at Tirzah, where Jeroboam dwelt, “and when she came to the threshold of the door, the child died.” There was no magic in this junction of circumstances. It was the careful adjustment of events by the all-brooding and all-perceiving and all-controlling Spirit of God, whose intents in the case had been communicated to the prophet Ahijah.
It was a good many years before there was any further exhibition of the visible hand of God in the midst of the ten tribes. Affairs took the course indicated in the message by Ahijah. Disaster befell the house of Jeroboam; and the ways of Israel did not improve under his successor. He had not been in his grave two years when a military conspiracy assassinated his son, and elevated a captain, Baasha, to the vacant throne—a man who, following the insane example of Jeroboam, in a reign of twenty-four years, had his dynasty disposed of in the same way in the person of his son, Elah. This youth, proving a monster of profligacy, was put to death by his servant, Zimri, who also slaughtered all his friends. This Zimri, who had been a military captain, like Baasha, got himself made king: but it was only for a few days. Omri, the general of the army, disposed of Zimri and his adherents, and also of Tibni, another aspirant to the throne, who took advantage of the confusion of the times to push his personal ambitions. Omri, quenching all rivals, was himself made king, and reigned twelve years, leaving the throne to his son, Ahab, in whose reign it was that there occurred that memorable exhibition of the visible hand of God that made up the life of Elijah, and that gave to the world some of the most signal illustrations of the possibilities of a state of spirit gift.
The immediate occasion and character of the work of Elijah, like all the prophets, was that of rebuke. The ten tribes, who, though separate from Judah, were still a part of God’s chosen seed of Israel, had for several generations abandoned themselves to the grossest forms of disobedience. They had suspended the laws and institutions Mosaically enjoined, and adopted the ways of the heathen around them. The result of such a course had been plainly foretold by Moses in his sublime address to them on coming out of Egypt, and that result was about to come upon them in fulfilment of the message to Jeroboam’s wife; to whom, on the occasion above referred to, Ahijah had said:
“Yahweh shall root up Israel out of this good land which He gave to their fathers, and shall scatter them beyond the river.”
The time was not very far off for this gathering cloud of judgment to break over Israel’s head. But, as was His merciful wont, Yahweh was also about to engage in a final expostulation with His people, in a form that could leave them no excuse. He was about to raise them up the prophet Elijah, with a successor, Elisha, in both of whom the power and the expostulation of Israel’s God were to be manifest as they had rarely been in previous messengers of His rebuke and mercy. It will be interesting to follow the incidents of their remarkable careers. They afford glimpses behind the scenes at some points—liftings of the curtain that divide the inner universe of divine operations from the perceptions of merely animal and sinful men, and show us some things to which we may stand related in futurity, should it be our happy portion to be chosen of the Lord for a place in that glorious family, which for ages He has been preparing for the perpetual habitation of the globe.
Of Elijah, we know nothing in a personal sense beyond the fact that he was “of the inhabitants of Gilead”—a region lying on the eastern side of the Jordan, which, was allotted to the tribes of Reuben and Gad by Moses, before the crossing of the Jordan. He was called “the Tishbite,” probably from the name of the village or town to which he belonged, a style of description of which there are numerous illustrations in the course of the Scriptures. We suffer no disadvantage from ignorance of Elijah’s family antecedents, as the whole interest of his case centres in what God did by him. He was a man of exceptionally faithful character, in the divine sense. He was “very jealous for the Lord of Hosts” (1 Kings 19: 10), which must have been a very notable thing in a country which Jeroboam and his successors had turned entirely aside from the worship of the God of Israel. There probably were others scattered here and there throughout the hills and valleys of the trans-Jordanic tribes who had preserved a memory of Yahweh’s dealings and a knowledge of Yahweh’s testimonies, and who stood aloof from the almost universal idolatry that prevailed. There is, indeed, a very pointed declaration of the existence of such a class in God’s communications with Elijah, at a certain stage of his work; when Elijah having said, “I am left alone,” Yahweh replied,
“I have reserved unto myself seven thousand men that have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal.”
Still, of their existence Elijah was unaware. Elijah imagined he stood alone, which, undoubtedly, in his particular neighbourhood, he did. It was this solitariness of his position that made his faithful jealousy for God so noticeable. It was this faithful jealousy that fitted him to be the vehicle of such a signal display of power as took place in him, and to be honoured as Moses even himself was not honoured—honoured by translation that he should not see death—waiting in a living reservation for the further and far more effective work that Yahweh has in store for him with the same people, the same ten tribes, who were duly rooted out of the good land, as threatened, and scattered in hopeless exile to this day, from which they never have returned, but from which it is in the purpose of God to bring them, under Elijah’s leadership, certainly at a later, if not an earlier, stage of their restoration.
Ahab, having married the daughter of the most idolatrous of all the idolatrous sections of the Canaanitish residuum (disobediently left unexterminated in the land of Israel after Joshua’s conquest), Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Zidonians, gave himself the fullest rein in a line of things which had been established ready to his hand by a long line of kings before him. He plunged entirely into idolatry in all its phases—omitting no opulence, no enormity, no extravagance. He erected a temple to Baal, the god of the Zidonians, in the very capital of his dominions—Samaria, and in his temple he reared an altar, travestying and outraging the divine appointment by Moses. He also made a grove for those open-air carousals which it was customary to hold under the name of feasts to their god—degrading orgies, in which licentious delights were an essential ingredient in the ceremonies of worship. He went to extreme lengths. He gave the priests of Baal a high place at his court, and carefully excluded from his surroundings every person and thing who stood in any way related to the God of Israel.
“He did more,” we are told, “to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before.”
It was not as the result of any great energy of character that he did so; for, on the whole, he proved a weak man. It was his complete subservience to a bad wife that led him to such excesses. But his having such a wife was itself a sin against God; for as a son of Abraham, and a descendant of the men brought out of Egypt by Moses, he was bound to make no alliance with the women of the Canaanites. The case was bad altogether; and God was about to show His anger by the hand of Elijah the Tishbite.