But Jehu was not careful to walk in the law of the Lord God of Israel with all his heart,
for he did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam, who caused Israel to sin. In those days
the Lord began to cut Israel short. Hazael defeated them on all Israel's borders from
Jordan eastward, all the land of Gilead, the tribes of Gad and Reuben and Manasseh, from
Aroer which is by the river Arnon, and Bashan.
II Kings 10:31f.
The story of the Divided Kingdom is not all that easy to follow. As it is told in First
and Second Kings, it skips back and forth between Israel in the north and Judah in the
south until the northern kingdom falls. This makes it hard to get any real sense of
continuity--it is a little like reading two stories at once.
One aspect of the narrative is very simple, though. A kind of summary judgment is passed
on every king at the end of his reign, and the same criterion is applied to all. Kings are
good to the extent that they enforce the centralization of worship in the temple in
Jerusalem. They are bad to the extent that they allow sacrifices to be offered elsewhere,
worse if they encourage this, and of course terrible if they allow or encourage the
worship of other gods.
By this criterion, all the kings of Israel, the northern kingdom, are found guilty. A
little background may help. The nation had never been as "united" as it might seem. David
had ruled the southern tribes for seven years before the northern tribes chose him as
their king after the death of Saul's son Ishbosheth. When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam
automatically became king over the southern tribes, but the northern tribes felt that they
had every right to reject him, and did so. The fact that he had been crowned in Jerusalem
was, in their view, irrelevant.
The northern tribes, known collectively as Israel, then chose Jeroboam as their king. He
could not very well allow his subjects to keep going to the temple in the capital city of
a rival nation and hearing that God had chosen the line of David for eternal kingship. So
one of the first things he did was to establish temples near the northern and southern
borders of his land, in Dan and in Bethel. This was "the sin of Jeroboam, who caused
Israel to sin." It violated the criterion I mentioned earlier, the centralization of
sacrificial worship in Jerusalem.
There is a closely related second theme in the story of the Divided Kingdom, namely that
good kings are rewarded and evil kings are punished. The summary comments at the death of
each king include a very brief synopsis of his success or failure and a kind of
theological explanation. In our text, for example, Israel's losses at the hands of Hazael
are attributed to Jehu's failure to "depart from the sins of Jeroboam"--that is, to his
maintenance of the temples at Dan and Beersheba.
This is rather hard on Jehu. He had been designated as king by Elisha, one of the Lord's
own prophets. He was a reformer, by the criterion of our narrative one of the kings most
loyal to the Lord God of Israel. Our Old Testament reading described only the last phase
of his massive (and bloody) efforts to eliminate the worship of Baal. He exterminated the
whole family of Ahab and Jezebel, those monarchs who stand as the very worst of all. Yet
during his reign, the nation suffered disastrous setbacks.
That is not all. Israel's fortunes remained at a low ebb until the rule of Jehu's
great-grandson Jeroboam II. He is described simply as having done evil, not departing from
the sins of the first Jeroboam, and yet he restored the borders of Israel to their
original extent and apparently even extended them. He went on to rule for forty-one years,
by far longer than any other king of Israel, making this apparently the most prosperous
and stable period in the history of the northern kingdom. The theological explanation of
the success of this evil king is that the Lord saw how the nation was suffering, and used
this evil king to bring relief.
In fact, if we read the story of the Divided Kingdom with care, we find that time and
again "good" kings encounter failure and "evil" kings find success, and that every such
instance is explained by a kind of transfer process. When an evil king of Judah prospers,
it is because the Lord remembered David. When a good king of Judah suffers, it is because
the sins of his father or his grandfather were so great. When an evil king of Israel
prospers, it is because of the Lord's compassion for the people. When one of Israel's
better kings suffers, the "sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat" are always there to bear the
There are several levels on which we could approach this strange situation. One is simply
literal--we may presume that the human author of the narrative wants the reader to believe
that the nation's security depends on the centralization of sacrificial worship in
Jerusalem, and uses the only device available to deal with facts that keep refusing to
agree with the theory. This is a fairly familiar practice. We ourselves believe that God
is just, and when the better people suffer or the worse ones prosper, we look for hidden
causes, for hidden connections. We may even go as far as the Biblical text does and claim
to have found them.
On a slightly deeper level, we may presume that the author is fully aware of the
discrepancy between outward appearance and inner causes. In this case, we may be looking
at an effort to face the reader with the fact of injustice. Good kings may suffer, and bad
kings may prosper. There is justice, but it is not as simplistic as we might want to
believe. We are caught up in the history of a community and bear the consequences of that
history regardless of our own virtues or vices. We make a difference, but that difference
may not show up during our own lifetime.
On this level, the author is probably right in choosing centralization as a cardinal
virtue. The Promised Land is a little more than a bottleneck between the Nile valley
region and Mesopotamia. It is dwarfed by those much larger and more fertile areas.
Geographically, it has about as much warrant for independence as the Brooklyn Bridge. Its
only long term hope would lie in its unity. Once it divided, the handwriting was on the
wall. Israel, through which the main trade routes ran, would be the first to fall. Judah,
more mountainous and decidedly off the beaten track, could hold out longer, but not
forever. Not instantly but inevitably, disunion would exact its toll.
Our theology, though, would point us to a still deeper level. When we look beyond the
human authors of Scripture to Scripture as the Word of God, this entails the belief that
there is a depth of meaning beyond the conscious intent of the human authors. This need
not be miraculous, for after all, we ourselves often "say" more than we intend, more than
we know we are saying. There is a kind of transparency to the community from which the Old
Testament emerged which makes it a natural microcosm of human attitudes and behavior. It
is not at all hard to see ourselves reflected in it.
Swedenborg's doctrine of correspondences offers us a disciplined way to look at this
reflection. It is not a magic decoder, but involves rather an appreciation of the way in
which our inner and outer worlds relate to each other. If we are to use it appropriately,
we need to look first at the most basic relationships, and move from there toward details.
How might this work if applied to the story of the Divided Kingdom? We would begin with
the obvious, the effort to explain all the ups and downs of that confusing period in terms
of a single simple criterion, the centralization of sacrificial worship at Jerusalem.
Before we go any further, we can look at our own lives for similar impulses and find an
embarrassment of riches. Again and again, we find ourselves trying to find the one clue to
the puzzle, the one answer to our problems. We may lay the collective blame on socialism
or patriarchy, on materialism or idealism. We really do not want to face up to the actual
complexity of the world we live in.
If we visualize for a moment how much is happening that we do not know about even in the
relatively small community outside these walls or even in the lives of the people in this
room, it begins to look as though the field of our knowledge is rather smaller than the
field of our ignorance. If we extend our view beyond these nearer boundaries, to the state
or the nation or the world--which itself is a rather small one in an incomprehensibly vast
universe--the field of our knowledge does not get all that much bigger, and the field of
our ignorance seems to have no limits at all.
So we simplify, trusting that what we do know is a reasonably fair sample, that the vast
field of our ignorance is not all that different from the minute field of our knowledge.
We simplify, we oversimplify, we fall in love with our simplifications, and then struggle
to understand the events that refuse to fit the pattern.
Strange as it may seem at first glance, we are not all that much more knowledgeable about
ourselves. Long before Freud wrote about "the unconscious," Swedenborg published extensive
descriptions of deeper levels of our own being, levels of which we are normally unaware.
Through much of our adult life, we are of two minds about a great many things, no more
"united" than the Divided Kingdom. We keep looking for the key, for a focus to our lives,
for a sense of identity and purpose--for a sense of meaning.
Through the more active years of our adulthood, we tend to look for this meaning in our
achievements, whether as parents or professionals or both. We take an image of the "doer"
we believe we ought to be and set it up as our "central sanctuary." We struggle to live up
to it. We do our best to interpret the ups and downs of our lives as effects of our
fidelity or infidelity to that ideal.
We are not completely wrong in this regard. The effort to live up to our self-image does
guide us fairly consistently toward constructive relationships and actions. We reject any
number of impulses on the grounds that we don't want to be that kind of person, we don't
want even to think of ourselves as that kind of person. Swedenborg speaks of our being
restrained by our fears of what others will think of us--we are restrained also by our
fears of what we might think of ourselves.
For all its virtues, though, the criterion of living up to our ideal self-image can carry
us only so far. Every time we surprise ourselves, for better or for worse, we are faced
with the possibility that our self-image is not completely accurate. We are called to stop
trying to force an explanation on the facts, and let the facts speak for themselves.
Actually, the facts do not always speak all that clearly. We move into an area of
uncertainty--or rather, we begin to recognize the boundaries of our knowledge and the vast
scope of our ignorance.
This, at last, is the point at which our religion takes on new depth and centrality. It is
only when we recognize our ignorance that we begin to appreciate and trust the Lord's
wisdom. Am I "saved?" Only the Lord really knows. I don't really need to. All I can do is
try to be the person I am created to be in the situations in which I find myself.
Everything else is in the hands of a Providence which is infinitely loving and wise--much
more trustworthy than I.