7 Go, tell Jeroboam, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: “Because I exalted you from among the people and made you leader over my people Israel 8 and tore the kingdom away from the house of David and gave it to you, and yet you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart, doing only that which was right in my eyes, 9 but you have done evil above all who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods and metal images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back, 10 therefore behold, I will bring harm upon the house of Jeroboam and will cut off from Jeroboam every male, both bond and free in Israel, and will burn up the house of Jeroboam, as a man burns up dung until it is all gone. 11 Anyone belonging to Jeroboam who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone who dies in the open country the birds of the heavens shall eat, for the Lord has spoken it.”’ 12 Arise therefore, go to your house. When your feet enter the city, the child shall die. 13 And all Israel shall mourn for him and bury him, for he only of Jeroboam shall come to the grave, because in him there is found something pleasing to the Lord, the God of Israel, in the house of Jeroboam. 14 Moreover, the Lord will raise up for himself a king over Israel who shall cut off the house of Jeroboam today. And henceforth, 15 the Lord will strike Israel as a reed is shaken in the water, and root up Israel out of this good land that he gave to their fathers and scatter them beyond the Euphrates, because they have made their Asherim, provoking the Lord to anger. 16 And he will give Israel up because of the sins of Jeroboam, which he sinned and made Israel to sin.”
17 Then Jeroboam’s wife arose and departed and came to Tirzah. And as she came to the threshold of the house, the child died. 18 And all Israel buried him and mourned for him, according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke by his servant Ahijah the prophet. (1 Kings 14:7-18 ESV)
Last year, sometime, I was arguing with someone on Facebook — something I have resolved to do no more — about the allegations of Russian involvement on behalf of the Trump campaign in the 2016 presidential election.
Basically, I said that if the Russians had interfered (because I’ve read lots of assertions but seen little hard evidence), it was something we have earned, given our interference in the elections and governance of others going back father than anyone of us could remember.
My respondent said it was still wrong — justice would perfect if Iranians, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans et al could interfere in our elections. That would be justice.
And I said God doesn’t work that way.
Because God doesn’t.
And in today’s reading, we have an example of the terrible justice of God. Perhaps we can call it the unjust justice of God.
Jereboam is the rebel who has become king of the northern Kingdom of Israel after breaking away from Judah. It was a revolt over taxes and conscription, which Solomon had levied hard upon Israel to support his magnificent court, large standing army, and expansive empire. Jereboam had led a delegation asking for lower taxes following the death of Solomon, and the wise king’s son and successor, Reheboam, promises to increase their burden and up the violence. “My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.”
And so, the northerners, led by Jereboam, rebel. “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse!” The north goes its own way, Jereboam builds two temples complete with Golden calves — “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” — in Dan and Bethel.
Which gets us to this prophesy we have today against Jereboam. He has sinned, and his sin is idolatry. And because of that sin, his people will pay. Not Jereboam, who “sleeps with his fathers,” but his people. His descendants. His family will come to naught and the nation he governs will eventually cease to exist, conquered and scattered.
I suspect this strikes many of us as unjust. The man who sins should pay for his own. But in ruling Israel as he does, in rejecting David and God’s promises to and through him, and in worshiping false gods, he has set Israel on a trajectory for failure, a failure he himself will never live to see.
That is how Israel understands its history. When Israel demands its very own king back in 1 Samuel 8, Samuel warns Israel what it will mean — the king will take wealth, sons, and daughters, to support his army and his court. “You shall be his slaves,” Samuel says, and there will be no deliverance.
Foundational to Israel’s power and wealth, the magnificence of Solomon’s empire so celebrated in the early chapters of 1 Kings, is this promise. The very sources of Israel’s success are also its undoing. The people whose sin creates the conditions for catastrophic failure are also those who rode high that success.
We are never inheritors of a blank slate. We live in a world of circumstances we did not create. It is wonderful to be alive at the time of David or Solomon, to live in a peaceful, powerful, influential state, and it stinks to live at a time when the Assyrians and the Babylonians are pounding on the city walls as the long-promised judgment of God.
And all the time, the poor — no matter faithful they are — pay the price for how badly they are governed.
The best I can say it that it is the way of things.
There is no perfect justice. Nebuchadnezzar was a deeply flawed instrument enacting God’s judgement upon God’s people. But he was that instrument, and his empire too would face judgment. If Israelite history is human history writ small, then the righteous justice of God is frequently meted out by the unjust upon the underserving. Jereboam deserved to pay, and not his people, and certainly not a future generation that had no choice in erecting ashteroth and golden calves. But he set into motion things no one could undo, and God chooses (generally) not to step into human history to unmake things. God works with and in the history we have and the humanity we are, and we need to remember that.
The best we can do, in times like these, is to keep our eyes on the promise of God that is bigger than our incompetent, cruel, and idolatrous rulers and horrific situations they have created. We will be redeemed. And we do have a portion in the son of Jesse.