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You Can’t Tell Him Anything

Date: October 27, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
A crack in concrete.

Scripture: 1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29

Maybe Rehoboam would have done better if he’d had access to Twitter. (Okay, maybe not). But I can think of one Twitter user he might have done well to follow, if he could have.

The username is “Picard Tips”—a series of useful bits of advice presented as though they came from the captain of the Enterprise-D, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The tips cover a whole range of topics, from sleep to ethics.

Some of them are humorous: “Picard devops tip: No, you are not allowed to connect your brain to the computer. Learn to type like everyone else.”
Some are extremely relevant to today’s world, even if couched in Trekky language: “Picard diversity tip: The fact that a crewmember looks alien to you does not make them any less of a Starfleet officer.”

The ones I find most helpful are the “Picard management tips.” If you have ever watched the incarnation of Star Trek in which Jean-Luc Picard is the captain, you have seen an outstanding model of wise leadership.

He does have his weaknesses: he is very uncomfortable around children, and that discomfort tends to present itself as hostility; and he occasionally neglects his own need for rest and renewal, to the point that the doctor—the only person on the ship authorized to give the captain an order—has to command him to report for a checkup. But as a general rule he’s an excellent leader, the kind we should all aspire to be.

He’s a student of history, not just of his own people but of all the peoples who are part of the Federation partnership. He’s very well-read—he reads a lot, and prefers books made of paper to an electronic screen. When there is a decision to be made, Picard calls all of his senior crew members together and hears each one’s thoughts and cautions; then, having listened and thought the matter through, he reaches a conclusion. And everyone gets behind it, because they know they’ve been heard and their points of view respected, even if they have disagreed with him. He trusts his crew with his life—and they trust him with theirs.

I think anybody in a position of leadership—in any field—would do well to look at Picard’s management tips. It would have gone better for Rehoboam and for the entire people of Israel if he could have availed himself of some of them.

We’ll start with a little background, to get us from where we were last week to where we are this week.

Last week we heard about how David, having just been crowned king, moved the Ark of the Covenant, which was the visible symbol of God’s presence the people had carried with them from Mount Sinai on, into Jerusalem, his new capital. This week we have skipped the rest of David’s reign, and the reign of his son Solomon.

Both David and Solomon had employed a practice that’s apparently called corvée, in which citizens of their country were required to help with major building projects like the king’s palace and the temple in Jerusalem. Nowadays we generally pay our taxes, and then government entities hire people to do the work that needs to be done, like building roads. But in ancient Israel, when something needed built, the king would command his subjects to go and do it.

The practice really hit the big time with the building of Solomon’s Temple. And when the temple was finished, the forced labor didn’t end. Solomon kept making people leave their homes and their own work to go somewhere and do whatever he wanted done. And it seems that the people in the northern parts of the kingdom were bearing more than their fair share of the burden.

So when Solomon died and his son Rehoboam became king, the people in the north sent one Jeroboam son of Nebat to speak to Rehoboam, to ask him to lighten their yoke of forced service.

Now Rehoboam started out doing the right thing. He called in the men who had been his father’s advisers and asked them what they thought he should do. They gave him very wise counsel: Be a servant to them and lighten their burden now, and they will follow you to the ends of the earth.

It very much sounds like something Captain Picard might have said to a younger officer preparing to take his first command position. But apparently it’s not what Rehoboam wanted to hear. He shows himself as the sort of person who only listens to advice when it agrees with what he’s already made up his mind to do.

My dad has an expression for someone like that: “You can’t tell him anything.”

Instead, Rehoboam goes to his friends and gets their opinion, which is apparently closer to his own.

(Before we go any further I need to insert this regularly-scheduled reminder that the Bible is not rated G.)

His friends tell him, first, to insult his father’s manhood. We miss that in English versions, likely because the translators wanted to spare themselves—and us—the vulgarity of what Rehoboam actually said. “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins.” That word “finger” is not in the Hebrew—and the Hebrew expression is likely a euphemism for male private parts. It’s the kind of statement that is most often found in the mouths of men who are quite insecure about their own manhood and power.

And then Rehoboam’s friends tell him to tell Jeroboam and the northern tribes, “You want your load lightened, do you? Well, since you asked…I’m going to make it that much heavier.”

If you’ve ever seen or known someone who is on a serious power trip you might recognize this…You protest the unfairness of some punishment that has been imposed, and the one who imposed it doubles it because you talked back.

And Rehoboam said, “My father let the men who supervised your forced labor whip you with whips when you weren’t working hard enough or fast enough. But I’m going to let them use scorpions.”

That’d tempt me to apply a flamethrower to this Bible passage—I can tolerate a pretty big wolf spider hanging out in my laundry room, but if it were a stingin’ scorpion, as Gram used to say, it’d be a totally different matter. I hate scorpions.

But commentators say Rehoboam was probably not threatening the people with actual, literal stingin’ scorpions. (Probably a good thing, because I suspect a preacher burning Bibles wouldn’t make for very good optics, as the politicians say.) Instead, it’s more likely that he was saying his overseers would use something more like a cat o’nine tails—a whip with something sharp attached to its ends, to make its bite that much more painful.

The response of Jeroboam and the northern people was pretty predictable. They left, and the ten northern tribes of Israel seceded from the kingdom.

The prophets of the time, and the historian, interpret this as God’s will, indeed God’s punishment for Solomon’s having worshiped and tolerated the worship of foreign gods brought into the kingdom by his foreign wives. But we also need to remember the lesson of the book of Jonah: if a prophet warns a people about upcoming punishment, and the people repent and get on the right path, God is ready to relent from punishing.

Maybe if Rehoboam had absorbed the wise counsel of his father’s advisers, who’d been with Solomon through thick and thin, had seen the results of his decisions, both right and wrong, God might have relented from the punishment announced by the prophet Abijah. It’s impossible to know for sure, of course; but I think we who are leaders might do well to pay attention, and we who are followers have the responsibility to hold our leaders to account if they do not lead wisely.

Many times in the Bible—and we find this in other cultures in the Ancient Near East, too—it’s made clear that the people’s rulers are called to be shepherds. It wasn’t just a coincidence that King David started his life as a shepherd. That’s the kind of ruler God prefers. That’s the kind of ruler God is.

Remember the example of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, God’s very essence made flesh and living among us. When Paul’s beloved church in Philippi started having problems, conflict threatening to tear the congregation apart, he reminded them of Jesus’ example by quoting what was to them a familiar hymn:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
‘who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death’—even death on a cross.”

-Philippians 2:5-8

Rehoboam wasn’t that kind of leader. He didn’t listen to the wisdom of his advisors, and made decisions that tore others down to raise himself up. He could have used some “Picard management tips”—or better yet, maybe some of his grandfather’s management tips; for though David made some big mistakes, he started out as a shepherd and understood that a king after God’s own heart ought to be a shepherd.

Maybe if he’d tried to be more of a shepherd instead of a brutal tyrant, he’d have ended up with an intact kingdom, instead of two little tribes centered around Jerusalem while his rival, Jeroboam son of Nebat, took the other ten and led them down a road of both freedom from Rehoboam’s scorpions and near total abandonment of the God of their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah.

We who are leaders do well to make sure we’re following the example of the One who emptied himself for our sake, not the one who promised not just harder service, but outright cruelty to his subjects. And we who have leaders, especially in a democratic society, have the responsibility to speak up when our leaders, both inside and outside the church, are not leading wisely.