Rehoboam’s Syndrome: The Loss of Unity in Israel and Lessons for Fruitful Negotiations between the Government and Special Interest Groups
WCIU Journal: Leadership Topic
June 4, 2019
by Moussa Bongoyok
Our contemporary societies have beaten all the speed records of previous generations. However, these apparent achievements hide a weakness that deserves attention: the slowness to draw lessons from the past in order to prevent or solve social conflicts. Yet King Solomon, whose wisdom is legendary, seems to continue pointing his finger at a salutary path through this profound verse: "What has been, that is what will be, and what has been done is what will happen, there is nothing new under the Sun.” (Eccl. 1:9).
Let us examine together one case, drawn from among many others, on which the Bible speaks powerfully: the hesitation of Rehoboam, described in 1 Kings 12:1-24, which resulted in the division of the kingdom that he inherited from his father. It is full of lessons for our contemporary communities. We will approach this story from three angles: first, we will revisit the historical facts narrated by the Bible, then we will identify some principles, and finally, we will propose some avenues of application with particular emphasis on the negotiations between the government and corporatist groups.
I. The Turbulent History of Kingship in Israel
From the outset, it should be noted that the depth of the narrative of 1 Kings 12:1-24 cannot be understood without placing it in its historical context. It all begins with the special relationship that God established with Abraham. He believed God and the sincerity of his faith allowed him to enjoy divine favor. It is also because of his trust in God that he answered the divine call and undertook a long journey away from his homeland, to an unknown destination (Heb. 11:8). In spite of his weaknesses, he maintained a profound intimacy with God to the point where he was called “friend of God” (cf. Isa. 41:8; James 2:23). It is in this context of faith and intimacy with the Lord that it pleased the Creator God to bless Abraham in a special way: “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:2-3).
It is important to emphasize that Abraham was not blessed so that he could selfishly enjoy the fruits of the blessing, but to be a channel of blessing for all mankind. Blessed to bless, this is the fundamental principle of the Abrahamic blessing. Moreover, this blessing is far from being confined to the spiritual realm. It is rather holistic when one examines the diversity of the areas of blessings that God himself spreads before the people of Israel just before entering the promised land (cf. Deut. 28:1-14).
It must be pointed out that later, in blessing his son Jacob (Israel) just before his escape to Paddam-Aram following the conflict with his brother Esau, Isaac passes on Abraham’s blessing: “May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now reside as a foreigner, the land God gave to Abraham!” (Gen. 28:4). So, it is in the rich and blessed heritage of the Abrahamic blessing that the people of Israel are rooted. Israel, like its ancestor Abraham, was chosen to be a source of blessing and a light to the nations (cf. Isa. 49:6; Acts 13:47). God drew the attention of the Israelites to the necessity of defending and providing for the needs of the poor, the destitute, the widows, the orphans, the unfortunate, the oppressed, and even the immigrants within the nation (cf. Lev. 19:9-10 ; 25:35-37; Deut. 15:7-11; Prov. 22:22; Isa. 58-1-14; Amos 2:6-7; Mal. 3:5 etc.). God himself is the defender of widows and orphans (Ps. 68:5; Deut. 10:18) and, by implication, of all those who are in similar conditions.
According to the original plan, God was to be the only King of Israel. Unfortunately, as Samuel saw, Israel rejected divine lordship and requested a human king, desiring to resemble the surrounding nations (see 1 Sam. 8). Samuel soon shed a prophetic light on the abyss into which the people of Israel had thrown themselves. Blinded, the Israelites could not see the dangers and traps that hid behind the beautiful “royal dress.” He described in detail the rights of kings by placing particular emphasis on egocentrism and abuses. Alas, the people had no ear to listen. Finally, God intervened and asked Samuel to act in accordance with the will of the people. Saul was appointed king to the great satisfaction of the people. He had, humanly speaking, everything that a king needed to succeed. Unfortunately, his disobedience to God (1 Sam. 13:1-15 ; 15:1-35) led to his eventual rejection and fall.
God appointed David to succeed Saul. Despite the weaknesses of the new king, he revealed himself very early as an excellent leader. His noble character earned him the prestigious title of “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14; Act. 13:22). Despite some turmoil, his reign was so great that he became a reference. All the kings who followed were judged according to the quality of their walk in the footsteps of David. And to top it all, the Messiah—whose reign is eternal—is of the lineage of David. This is a clear indication that the Lord can use kings or queens, presidents or government officials (as well as other human leaders) to lead His people with excellence, provided they live and act in the respectful fear of the Master of the universe and everything it contains.
After David, his son Solomon ascended to the throne. Under Solomonic reign (from 970 to 930 B.C.), Israel reached its peak. Solomon’s Kingdom stretched far beyond the limits of the territory over which David ruled. Peace reigned there. The riches were immense. The country's influence crossed the continents (cf. 1 Kings chapters 4–10). Solomon was known for his wisdom, his erudition, his works, his diplomatic and political talents but, also deplorably, for the very large number of his wives (700 wives and 300 concubines) who eventually led him into idolatry in the evening of his life (1 Kings 11:4-8). This drew upon him the judgment of God who, in the aftermath, announced to him the next division of his kingdom (1 Kings 11:9-12). To this, it should be added with DeVries (2004, xxiii) that “in many respects, Solomon's reign violated the principles of Israel's social heritage.” The tribes of the North, jealous of the increasingly important power of the tribe of Judah, resisted the development of the monarchy that eroded their rights and freedom (Brindle 1984, 224-25, Vasantharao 2003, 46).
However, when Rehoboam succeeded his father around 729 B.C., he had everything at his disposal to bring Israel to a higher level or, at the very least, preserve the national achievements and thus maintain a very high level of peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, in spite of the apparent political and socio-economic achievements, a social cancer threatened the health of the nation. One of the root causes of that problem was that Solomon had subjected the people to enormous taxes (1 Kings 4:19) to maintain the lifestyle of the palace and the monarchy. In addition, the construction work required abundant and binding labor for the nation (1 Kings 5:13-14 and 11:28). Thus, it is easy to understand why the population came to Rehoboam with a precise grievance: “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you” (1 Kings 12:4). The demand seems justified and reasonable. The people did not ask for a cancellation of the taxes or the works but just for a lightening of the load. Moreover, the Kingdom could well reduce taxes and labor because Solomon had amassed enormous wealth.
The reaction of King Rehoboam to the population’s petition is somewhat paradoxical. Initially, he made steps in the right direction by asking for a time of reflection, proposing a precise chronogram, and asking for advice. However, this last point proved to be a stumbling block, as he found himself in front of two diametrically opposed points of view. The older counselors of his father, experienced and aware of the real difficulties of the people, wisely advised Rehoboam to accede to the demand of the people. Young people, who were not very knowledgeable, had a different perspective as they saw the population’s request only as an attempt to despise the king's youth. They pushed King Rehoboam to decline the legitimate demand of the population. He fell into the trap of those of his age, and the consequence was dramatic because the kingdom was divided immediately. It was a heavy loss for Rehoboam since ten out of twelve tribes definitively detached themselves from his leadership to form another kingdom (the Northern Kingdom) under the direction of Jeroboam, who had his own political ambitions long before this national appeal (cf. Frisch 2000, 19). This schism proved to be fateful for the northern tribes (grouped within the Kingdom of Israel) as they would be forever distant from the sanctuary of Zion (Cazelles 1968, 153). Only the tribe of Judah and that of Benjamin remained loyal to Rehoboam under a new appellation, the Kingdom of Judah. What are we learning from this vertiginous fall?
II. Important Principles from Rehoboam’s Failure to Meet the Felt Needs of the Population and Its Dramatic Consequence
By carefully reviewing this story while situating it in its broad context, several principles seem to emerge. Given the length of this article, we are limiting ourselves to four principles. The first point that stands out in this story is the fact that, faced with a delicate situation, Rehoboam immediately turned to human advisors. This is not bad in itself as it is written in Proverbs 11:14: “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers. ” However, human advisors, even good ones, will never replace the very source of true wisdom, God himself (cf. Ex. 31:3; Job 12:13, 38:36; Ps. 19:7; James 1:5, 3:17). King Rehoboam did not consult the Holy Scriptures where God commands His people to defend the oppressed as we have noted above. Furthermore, he did not seek the Lord's face in prayer before answering the people. Instead, he rushed to his fellow humans. Did he quickly forget the prayer of his own father at the beginning of his reign and in which he implored divine wisdom (cf. 2 Chron. 1:10; 1 Kings 3:9-10)?
The first principle that emerges through this text is that human wisdom has limits and human councils can be contradictory. It is always wise to seek divine wisdom first and foremost. God will answer by His word or by other channels, or even guide those who pray towards good advisors. It will then be easy for them to discern God’s will and the way forward in the face of conflicting dilemmas or opinions as is the case in this narrative.
The second principle that emerges from this negotiation that went wrong is that leaders must place the interests of their populations before their own. In referring to the aforementioned blessing of Abraham which can be summed in the formula “being blessed to bless,” it is clear that Rehoboam was characterized by egocentrism. In the logic of the Abrahamic blessing, God raised up King Rehoboam among his many brothers and sisters, so that he would be a source of blessing for the people. In Rehoboam’s logic, the king’s honor came first. Responding favorably to the demand of the people would, in his eyes, carry a hard blow to his self-esteem, to his greatness. Yet, a spiritual law forcefully emphasizes that pride precedes a fall, but humility precedes glory (Ps. 18:27; Prov. 15:33, 16:18; Is. 2:11; James 4:10; 1 Pet. 5; 5). If Rehoboam had humbly considered himself a simple instrument that God wanted to use to bless his people and the surrounding peoples, he would have kept his Kingdom.
The third principle offered for our meditation is that, in the face of such a situation, it is important to go beyond appearances by doing a thorough study of the root causes of social problems, not just their symptoms. Here, King Rehoboam superficially perceived an appearance of contempt motivated by the lack of respect for the younger generation. But the problem was much deeper and was based on real facts. A bit of hindsight, analysis, and a thorough research might have allowed the young King to avoid a bad decision.
Today, as in the past, the same trap awaits rulers. Those who surround the leaders of nations are sometimes more anxious to preserve their own interests and do not speak the truth to the highest authority in their respective countries. The situation seems to be getting worse today because of rampant lies and distortions of truth. The abundance of information (both true and false) propagated by social media and other channels of communication is such that the rulers must make great efforts to unravel the truth from falsehood and to understand, as objectively as possible, the root causes of social discontentment in order to remedy it effectively.
The last principle we would like to emphasize here is that it is extremely important to measure the consequences of a decision before making it. Perhaps King Rehoboam thought that by answering the people harshly he would strengthen his authority. If he had known that his answer would cause the irreparable division of the Kingdom, he would certainly have tried to avoid that. Sometimes leaders forget that they occupy their positions because at one point the people elected them, or had confidence in them, or even allowed the government to act, with the hope that it would turn in favor of all the population. But if a population realizes that their suffering persists or worsens, if they reach the point of despair, their revolt can take proportions that are as difficult to master as the waters of a dam that breaks. The consequences of such uprising are often immediate with the potential of threatening the peace and its corollary which is unity, thus undermining the development of the nation and aggravating the misery of the population.
Unfortunately, the last sentence seems to paint the picture of several countries and regions across the planet today. Yet, the most ardent wish of a population, and of responsible leaders, is to build a social framework where peace, unity in diversity, harmony, development in its various facets, and the joy of living together are realized. What lessons can be learned from the case of King Rehoboam in order to better reach this ideal?
III. Lessons for Fruitful Negotiations between the Government and Large Interest Groups Today
Conflict is a societal phenomenon that is present in all countries in various forms. A simple look at the news across the world is enough to make it clear that no community is immune to the demands or tensions between corporations, special interest groups, and the governments of their respective countries. Even countries ranked among the most developed in the world do not escape this reality. The movement of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) that shakes France at the moment is in this regard illustrative. So, we can imagine what can happen in countries with a more fragile economy. What lessons can we learn from the history of the lost unity of Israel in order to better cope with this kind of phenomena?
This story is rich in lessons that we can divide into two categories: those that are preventive in nature and those that have a curative character. In terms of prevention, Rehoboam's failures are a mine of inspiration. We note that choosing national leaders (members of Parliament, Congress, other government officials), who fear God, live in humility, and know how to place the interest of the population before their own, is an important foundation to prevent chaos. Such leaders will be able to listen to the real needs of the people, go to the root of the problems, and make the necessary arrangements before the situation becomes worrying. They will be able to communicate with the people, weigh the consequences of major socio-political decisions, and exercise social justice that will benefit both believers and non believers. But what should be done if, despite all the efforts made, social tensions erupt and make negotiations inevitable?
Here, the curative approach must be seen from two angles: that of the corporatist/special interest groups and that of the government. Based on the strengths and weaknesses of the dialogue between the population and King Rehoboam, some important lessons emerge first for the corporatist groups. In particular, it is important that they begin by asking God for the necessary wisdom and favor in the eyes of the authorities. Then it is appropriate for them to clearly identify the problem (or problems), to propose a realistic solution (or solutions), and to determine the appropriate and effective communication framework and channel. In some cases, direct contact between the highest government authority concerned with the problem or issues raised and the corporatist groups is possible. Elsewhere, it is more practical to choose reliable and loyal representatives who will initiate talks with the government on behalf of the special interest groups. As far as possible, these groups would be responsible to make a faithful report to the base and to consider the opinion of the majority.
As far as the government is concerned, it is in its interest to avoid the Rehoboam syndrome. Above all, the government (especially Christians within the government) will benefit from asking God for the necessary wisdom and favor in the eyes of the people. Then, the leaders of the nation will be in a better position to listen to the problems submitted by special interest groups, or their populations with empathy and respect, to examine the grievances or suggestions as quickly as possible, while paying close attention to the real roots of problems. This is all the more important because “the same causes will always reproduce the same effects as long as we do not tackle the root causes, the real determinants of conflict and crises” (Vettovaginlia 2015, 3). This may lead the government to accept the solutions proposed by the corporatist groups or to find new reasoned and realistic solutions.
In the second case, negotiations involving people who are honest and respected by the corporatist groups are necessary. The honor of the members of the government must never come before the search for a sustainable solution to the grievances of the groups representing the population’s needs because an unresolved problem has the potential to blow up the leadership position of the executives or leaders or to harm the peace, concord, and prosperity within the nation. This supposes a great deal of wisdom, vigilance, delicacy, gentleness, clarity in communication, and genuine love. Sometimes the problem is so heavy that it is appropriate to proceed methodically in the spirit of the African proverb that says, “You cannot swallow an elephant, but you can eat it entirely if you cut it into small pieces, ” as Linthicum (2003, 102) made it clear in his book. The observance of the chronogram established or modified by mutual agreement with the corporatist groups ought to be rigorous, as well as the taking of measures in the direction of calming tensions and satisfying the real needs of the population in all honesty and transparency, even if it implies changes and sacrifices. Of course, it is not enough to decide. Implementing the solutions by following a clear, realistic, and effective action plan is even more decisive. Here, fallacious promises must be banned because they would make the situation worse and dangerously undermine the trust capital.
It can happen that difficulties arise in the course of implementation of the action plan. In this case, the government will communicate clearly and regularly any unforeseen difficulties encountered using appropriate language (cf. Jaffe 2010, 206-23) and will propose new solutions equally effective to remedy them. The government will finally be able to make an ultimate assessment and report to the public by providing evidence that the problems raised were effectively resolved in line with the agreement with the corporatist groups. This will reassure the national and international communities and increase the confidence of the population.
As this paper comes to the close, it should be highlighted that no human society is perfect. Difficulties, discontentment, and cries of distress can arise in any context and even at the most unexpected moment. So, let us reaffirm, at the end of our analysis, the need to learn from the past in order to better address the challenges of the present and those of the future. Clearly, a thorough analysis of the phenomena that shake our societies will reveal points of convergence, similar occurrences in history, and how the predecessors have responded to them and obtained happy or unfortunate results based on the circumstances or the nature of the strategies they adopted. The case of Rehoboam, which was at the heart of this study, is a good illustration. May this be a source of inspiration for the multiplication of good approaches in the search for solutions to the various problems that have shaken mankind since the dawn of time. They come in various shapes and colors but retain a similar nature. While giving God the first place He deserves, governments and special interest groups would then learn to plunge into the waters of the past in order to fish for the resources necessary to tackle the many problems that threaten our societies, namely abuses, social injustices, and various other vices.
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