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By Rev. Justin Smoot, for Wausau Pilot & Review
The people of Israel didn’t have a king on earth. They had priests and Levites. The Levites were descended from the son of Israel named Levi and consecrated for religious service. Moses and Aaron were both from this tribe and family, but Aaron’s descendants were ordained as priests to conduct the sacrifices and service as intercessors for the people. The people of Israel had Judges to protect them like Deborah, Gideon, and, despite his flaws, Samson. There were also prophets like Moses and Samuel who brought God’s word to them. There was no tribe called to political leadership, no royal lineage to look to. God was their king.
As is endemic of the people of Israel, they rejected God’s kingship and demanded a king. There was nothing behind this desire save that they would be like the other nations. The Judge and Prophet Samuel was the closest thing to a national leader, who the people demanded anoint a king for them. God comforted Samuel that the people were not rejecting him, but they were rejecting God’s kingship. God gave Samuel the authority to anoint a king after giving the people a warning as to what a king would take from them. (1 Samuel 8)
A man from Benjamin named Saul was anointed King. Strong and handsome, he led Israel and fought their battles. He did well until he became impatient and overstepped his authority. On the eve of a battle, Saul could not wait for Samuel to perform the proscribed sacrifice. (1 Samuel 13) His impatience led to rash actions that were not his to take, and God took the kingdom from him and gave it to David.
After Saul’s death, David unified the kingdom by extending grace and mercy to Saul’s tribe of Benjamin. Any one of Saul’s remaining children, grandchildren, brothers, or cousins could have claimed the throne by right of their relationship to Saul. Historically, new kings sought to purge any and all who could challenge their claim to the throne. Yet, David cared for Saul’s people, especially the crippled grandson of Saul. (2 Samuel 9) The gracious actions of David marked his reign as the beginning golden age of the Kingdom of Israel. Another is because of his covenant faithfulness and humility before God. (2 Samuel 7) This is also why God made a promise to David that one of his defendants would always rule Israel.
David’s reign was not without trials. His children raped, murdered, and fought one another, and David was too filled with grief and regret to reluctant to be the king and father they needed. As he was dying, David gave Solomon a list of people to kill to secure his throne. (1 Kings 2) God gave Solomon the wisdom to rule the people, (1 Kings 3) and Solomn outshined his father: building the Temple that David intended to build, gaining wives and concubines from many nations as treaties of peace, and presiding over the most prosperous time in Israel’s history. Yet, he fell into trap of celebrity and idolatry. (1 Kings 11) After his death, Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, looked to his own desires without thought of God. He wanted to show the world that his “little finger was bigger than his father’s loins.” (1 Kings 12)
God did not preserve the people from the sins of their king and divided the kingdom between Rehoboam, Solomon’s Son, and Jeroboam, an official in Solomon’s court who was known and respected by many. Rehoboam was left with only 2 tribes: Judah and Benjamin. The rest remained the Kingdom of Israel, also called the Northern Kingdom, or sometime Ephraim, the name of the largest half-tribe. The capital of which became the city of Samaria.
Afraid that the people would continue to worship in Solomon’s Temple and reject his rule, Jeroboam built two golden calves and encouraged the people to worship at the former high places, like Bethel, where they worshiped before Solomon’s Temple was constructed. (2 Kings 12) He thought his own ingenuity would keep the Kingdom of Israel in his hands, forgetting that God had given them to him in the first place. This was a curse that Jeroboam and the Kings who followed him visited upon the Kingdom of Israel, as 1st and 2nd Kings continually reminds us.
The tribes of Judah and Benjamin became known as the Kingdom of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, or simply Judah. The capital remained in Jerusalem, and unlike the various dynasties of the Northern Kingdom, all it’s kings were related to David in some way. They had their struggles, their trial, and suffered under faithless kings and corruption. The presence of the Temple and the Davidic lineage did not confer any benefit unless it was paired with covenant faithfulness. Whenever it waivered, the cycle of suffering, confession, and forgiveness began again.
Next Week: Israel in the Bible: Prophetic Wrath and Hope
Rev. Justin Smoot
Rev. Justin Smoot is one of the pastors at Saint Andrew Lutheran Church in Rib Mountain. He is always on the lookout for how God’s story turns our lives upside down and draws us closer together.