But [Rehoboam] forsook the counsel of the old men which they had given him, and took counsel with the young men that were grown up with him, that stood before him (1 Kings 12:8).
The hearer or reader of the narrative in 1 Kings knows what is about to happen; in 1 Kings 11:26-40 Ahijah’s prophetic declaration to Jeroboam that he will rule over ten of Israel’s tribes is recorded. How the division would come about is what is left to make known, and its story is found in 1 Kings 12:1-19.
All Israel meets with Rehoboam at Shechem to install and affirm him as king, and there Jeroboam spoke to him on behalf of all Israel asking for relief from the heavy yoke of Solomon upon the land (1 Kings 12:1-3). Rehoboam asked for three days to get counsel; he began with the older men who had served his father, and they told him to be the people’s servant and speak good words to them and they would serve him as they had Solomon (1 Kings 12:4-7). Yet Rehoboam did not listen to their counsel; he turned to his peers, those young men who grew up with him, and they suggest that he ought to magnify himself over the people, declaring that his little finger is thicker than his father’s “loins,” most likely a crude sexual reference, a way of trying to proclaim that he is much more of a man than his father was, and that whereas Solomon disciplined with whips, he would discipline with scorpions (1 Kings 12:9-11). Rehoboam speaks as the young men suggest, and Israel predictably rebels, and the United Monarchy is dissolved into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah (1 Kings 12:12-19).
Rehoboam commits the ultimate folly of politics: he told people he was going to add to their burdens and demand more from them and did so in a most immature and off-putting way. No one leaves this narrative wondering why Israel would have wanted to not submit to Rehoboam’s yoke! How could Rehoboam have been so foolish?
The Kings author gives us the answer in 1 Kings 12:8: he forsook the counsel of the old men and took up the counsel of the young men who had grown up with him and surrounded him. We can certainly see that such is what took place, but we are easily left baffled as to why Rehoboam would have ever thought this was a good idea, and, for that matter, how wise Solomon, the author of Proverbs, could have allowed such a foolish son to follow him!
Yet the reasons for the folly are distressingly easy to see. Rehoboam took counsel from his peers; they had grown up together and had shared experiences. They likely saw the world in similar ways. They had lived in the palace complex in times of great prosperity and unity. The reader may know division is on the horizon, but it does not seem to have crossed Rehoboam’s mind. Rehoboam does not know what he doesn’t know, and because of that is led down the foolish path. Sure, there are men around who know some things that Rehoboam does not know, cannot know, and perhaps cannot even envision: the old men who gave counsel to his father Solomon. They knew how to massage the crowd; they may not have actually expected Rehoboam to be any more lenient than his father, but they knew better than to have him go out and say stupid things.
According to 1 Kings 14:21 Rehoboam is forty-one years old at this point in his life. He will reign for seventeen years; his son Abijah reigns for three; his grandson Asa then rules for forty-one (1 Kings 14:21, 15:1-2, 9-10). This tight time-frame between Rehoboam and Asa most likely means that Rehoboam is even already a father by the time he ascends to the throne of Judah. He is no teenager or even twenty-something; by every measure he should know better, both he and his associates. Yet they have lived in the palace and have almost no connection with the people over whom Rehoboam reigns. All they know is luxury and being served. Rehoboam lived for 40 years in the shadow of his highly successful father, and therefore Rehoboam’s desire to try to “one-up” his father is quite understandable. Yet it all comes crashing down. Rehoboam is not remembered for virtue or greatness; he’s remembered for his folly and for the dissolution of the United Monarchy.
Rehoboam’s folly is a cautionary tale for all of us. His story is normally used as a morality tale for young people to understand why they need to recognize the wisdom of those who have gone on before them, and for good reason. Young people do not know what they don’t know; it is understandable but is quite dangerous. Young people have a tendency to believe that things are “different” in their time, that somehow older people just can’t understand. It may be true that some experiences or technologies are different, but life is distressingly consistent (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:9). The wise young man will be willing to hear out older perspectives and consider their value even if they do not fully understand. Foolish is the young person who looks only or even primarily to his or her peers for counsel, guidance, and direction in life; how are they qualified to provide such counsel? Not a few young people have gone down the path of Rehoboam’s folly to tragic ends!
Yet it was not just that Rehoboam listened to his peers; he also listened only to those who would agree with him, wanted to flatter him, and who shared his general worldview and perspective. It is always easiest to get counsel from those who share your presuppositions, assumptions, and worldview; everyone likes hearing from yes-men. Yet Rehoboam’s father Solomon wisely declared that “in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14). It is hard to see one’s own blind sides, and if a group of people share blind sides, they cannot help each other see them. It requires a person with a different background and different experiences to point those things out. Yet that is an unpleasant task and not something people like to hear. It is always easier to be like Rehoboam, hear what you want to hear, associate with those like you who have similar experiences as you, and live in that bubble. Yet, at some point, as with Rehoboam, reality will intrude, and you will be exposed for the fool you have been by staying within the echo chamber.
One of the tragic ironies of Scripture is how the one to whom the Proverbs are ostensibly written, Solomon’s son Rehoboam, proves to be one of the biggest fools in Scripture’s pages. Let us not share in Rehoboam’s folly; let us recognize the wisdom of those who have more experience than we do in life, those who have different experiences in life, and above all entrust ourselves and our ways to God in Christ who is the Source of all wisdom (Proverbs 8:22-32), and thus be saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry