We have here the beginning of the reign of Jeroboam. He built Shechem first and then Penuel—beautified and fortified them, and probably had a palace in each of them for himself (1 Kgs. 12:25), the former in Ephraim, the latter in Gad, on the other side Jordan. This might be proper; but he formed another project for the establishing of his kingdom which was fatal to the interests of religion in it.
I. That which he designed was by some effectual means to secure those to himself who had now chosen him for their king, and to prevent their return to the house of David, 1 Kgs. 12:26, 27. It seems, 1. He was jealous of the people, afraid that, some time or other, they would kill him and go again to Rehoboam. Many that have been advanced in one tumult have been hurled down in another. Jeroboam could not put any confidence in the affections of his people, though now they seemed extremely fond of him; for what is got by wrong and usurpation cannot be enjoyed nor kept with any security or satisfaction. 2. He was distrustful of the promise of God, could not take his word that, if he would keep close to his duty, God would build him a sure house (1 Kgs. 11:38); but he would contrive ways and means, and sinful ones too, for his own safety. A practical disbelief of God’s all-sufficiency is at the bottom of all our treacherous departures from him.
II. The way he took to do this was by keeping the people from going up to Jerusalem to worship. That was the place God had chosen, to put his name there. Solomon’s temple was there, which God had, in the sight of all Israel, and in the memory of many now living, taken solemn possession of in a cloud of glory. At the altar there the priest of the Lord attended, there all Israel were to keep the feasts, and thither they were to bring their sacrifices. Now,
1. Jeroboam apprehended that, if the people continued to do this, they would in time return to the house of David, allured by the magnificence both of the court and of the temple. If they cleave to their old religion, they will go back to their old king. We may suppose, if he had treated with Rehoboam for the safe conduct of himself and his people to and from Jerusalem at the times appointed for their solemn feasts, it would not have been denied him; therefore he fears not their being driven back by force, but their going back voluntarily to Rehoboam.
2. He therefore dissuaded them from going up to Jerusalem, pretending to consult their ease: “It is too much for you to go so far to worship God, 1 Kgs. 12:28. It is a heavy yoke, and it is time to shake it off; you have gone long enough to Jerusalem” (so some read it); “the temple, now that you are used to it, does not appear so glorious and sacred as it did at first” (sensible glories wither by degrees in men’s estimation); “you have greed yourselves from other burdens, free yourselves from this: why should we now be tied to one place any more than in Samuel’s time?”
3. He provided for the assistance of their devotion at home. Upon consultation with some of his politicians, he came to this resolve, to set up two golden calves, as tokens or signs of the divine presence, and persuade the people that they might as well stay at home and offer sacrifice to those as go to Jerusalem to worship before the ark: and some are so charitable as to think they were 2123 made to represent the mercy-seat and the cherubim over the ark; but more probably he adopted the idolatry of the Egyptians, in whose land he had sojourned for some time and who worshipped their god Apis under the similitude of a bull or calf. (1.) He would not be at the charge of building a golden temple, as Solomon had done; two golden calves are the most that he can afford. (2.) He intended, no doubt, by these to represent, or rather make present, not any false god, as Moloch or Chemosh, but the true God only, the God of Israel, the God that brought them up out of the land of Egypt, as he declares, 1 Kgs. 12:28. So that it was no violation of the first commandment, but the second. And he chose thus to engage the people’s devotion because he knew there were many among them so in love with images that for the sake of the calves they would willingly quit God’s temple, where all images were forbidden. (3.) He set up two, by degrees to break people off from the belief of the unity of the godhead, which would pave the way to the polytheism of the Pagans. He set up these two at Dan and Beth-el (one the utmost border of his country northward), the other southward, as if they were the guardians and protectors of the kingdom. Beth-el lay close to Judah. He set up one there, to tempt those of Rehoboam’s subjects over to him who were inclined to image-worship, in lieu of those of his subjects that would continue to go to Jerusalem. He set up the other at Dan, for the convenience of those that lay most remote, and because Micah’s images had been set up there, and great veneration paid to them for many ages, Jdg. 18:30, 31. Beth-el signifies the house of God, which gave some colour to the superstition; but the prophet called it Beth-aven, the house of vanity, or iniquity.
4. The people complied with him herein, and were fond enough of the novelty: They went to worship before the one, even unto Dan (1 Kgs. 12:30), to that at Dan first because it was first set up, or even to that at Dan, though it lay such a great way off. Those that thought it much to go to Jerusalem, to worship God according to his institution, made no difficulty of going twice as far, to Dan, to worship him according to their own inventions. Or they are said to go to one of the calves at Dan because Abijah, king of Judah, within twenty years, recovered Beth-el (2 Chron. 13:19), and it is likely removed the golden calf, or forbade the use of it, and then they had only that at Dan to go to. This became a sin; and a great sin it was, against the express letter of the second commandment. God had sometimes dispensed with the law concerning worshipping in one place, but never allowed the worship of him by images. Hereby they justified their fathers in making the calf at Horeb, though God had so fully shown his displeasure against them for it and threatened to visit for it in the day of visitation (Exod. 32:34), so that it was as great a contempt of God’s wrath as it was of his law; and thus they added sin to sin. Bishop Patrick quotes a saying of the Jews, That till Jeroboam’s time the Israelites sucked but one calf, but from that time they sucked two.
5. Having set up the gods, he fitted up accommodations for them; and wherein he varied from the divine appointment we are here told, which intimates that in other things he imitated what was done in Judah (1 Kgs. 12:32) as well as he could. See how one error multiplied into many. (1.) He made a house of high-places, or of altars, one temple at Dan, we may suppose, and another at Beth-el (1 Kgs. 12:31), and in each many altars, probably complaining of it as an inconvenience that in the temple at Jerusalem there was but one. The multiplying of altars passed with some for a piece of devotion, but God, by the prophet, puts another construction upon it, Hos. 8:11. Ephraim has made many altars to sin. (2.) He made priests of the lowest of the people; and the lowest of the people were good enough to be priests to his calves, and too good. He made priests from the extremest parts of the people, that is, some out of every corner of the country, whom he ordered to reside among their neighbours, to instruct them in his appointments and reconcile them to them. Thus were they dispersed as the Levites, but were not of the sons of Levi. But the priests of the high-laces, or altars, he ordered to reside in Beth-el, as the priests at Jerusalem (1 Kgs. 12:32), to attend the public service. (3.) The feast of tabernacles, which God had appointed on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, he adjourned to the fifteenth day of the eighth month (1 Kgs. 12:32), the month which he devised of his own heart, to show his power in ecclesiastical matters, 1 Kgs. 12:33. The passover and pentecost he observed in their proper season, or did not observe them at all, or with little solemnity in comparison with this. (4.) He himself assuming a power to make priests, no marvel if he undertook to do the priests’ work with his own hands: He offered upon the altar. This is twice mentioned (1 Kgs. 12:32, 33), as also that he burnt incense. This was connived at in him because it was of a piece with the rest of his irregularities; but in king Uzziah it was immediately punished with the plague of leprosy. He did it himself, to make himself look great among the people and to get the reputation of a devout man, also to grace the solemnity of his new festival, with which, it is likely, at this time he joined the feast of the dedication of his altar. And thus, [1.] Jeroboam sinned himself, yet perhaps excused himself to the world and his own conscience with this, that he did not do so ill as Solomon did, who worshipped other gods. [2.] He made Israel to sin, drew them off from the worship of God and entailed idolatry upon their seed. And hereby they were punished for deserting the thrones of the house of David. The learned Mr. Whiston, in his chronology, for the adjusting of the annals of the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel, supposes that Jeroboam changed the calculation of the year and made it to contain but eleven months, and that by those years the reigns of the kings of Israel are measured till Jehu’s revolution and no longer, so that during this interval eleven years of the annals of Judah answer to twelve in those of Israel.