On the “virtue” of tolerance

Jeroboam is one of the men in the Bible who’s been saddled with a reputation as a godless idolater. Throughout the books of 1st and 2nd Kings, the phrase appears like an ominous drumbeat with the description of almost every kingly reign; “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit.“ What a terrible legacy to carry down throughout the ages!

And yet Jeroboam had once known the favor of God’s hand, in a way that few ever had. Like David, he had been anointed as king over Israel by one of the Lord’s own prophets, and his ascendancy was promised at a time when it must have seemed impossible. Solomon was a powerful king, the greatest leader Israel had known in its history; he was rich, his armies were strong, and his kingdom was at peace with all the surrounding neighbors. Considering his seven hundred royal wives, he certainly could not have lacked for royal heirs. The thought of Jeroboam succeeding to the greater part of his kingdom would have no doubt seemed laughable, except for the promise of God.

Nor did the prophet Ahijah leave Jeroboam in any doubt as to why God was going to take most of the kingdom away from Solomon. “…because they have forsaken me and worshipped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of the Moabites, and Molech the god of the Ammonites….” Jeroboam knew, long before he became the king of Israel, why the Lord had withdrawn his favor from Solomon’s line, and what he had to do if he wanted to found a dynasty that would endure. “…do whatever I command you and walk in my ways and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statutes and commands….”

So it seems like truly epic stupidity for Jeroboam to go and build the golden calves at Bethel and Dan right after the prophesied events came to pass. Why would he turn to the worship of the pagan gods almost immediately after witnessing the power of the Lord’s hand bringing the prophecy to completion right before his eyes? The answer is that he didn’t.

Jeroboam’s first sin was a lack of faith. Despite the accuracy with which the prophecies of Ahijah had come to pass, Jeroboam still feared that the people of Israel would revert to their previous loyalties if they continued to go to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices to the Lord. So he made it easier for them, by building the two golden calves at Bethel and Dan, intending that the people could go there to worship the Lord instead of to the Temple. The calves were not intended to represent any foreign god, they were a symbol of strength and fertility, and in the pagan religions, served as a foundation upon which the idols of the pagan gods would stand. Jeroboam did not build an idol to any of these gods, and in building only the calves, was attempting to abide by the commandment not to represent the Lord as an idol. The foundational symbols of paganism were there, but not the pagan gods nor their worship.

Building a new place of worship to the Lord outside of the Temple could not have seemed like a transgression to the people of Israel at the time. In all the years from Joshua’s leadership until the end of David’s reign, they had freely offered sacrifices to the Lord in many places, subject only to the command not to sacrifice on the “high places”, where the pagan Canaanites worshipped their unholy gods. Jeroboam was only continuing in the older tradition, which must have seemed more familiar to many people, and easier since it didn’t involve a trip into what was now enemy territory. But Jeroboam did violate the Lord’s commands by building shrines on the high places, and appointing priests from tribes other than the Levites. Nevetheless, it must be remembered that these shrines were to the Lord, and these priests were dedicated to the Lord as well. His second sin was of disobedience, not the worship of the pagan gods.

That Jeroboam thought he was still faithful to the Lord is indicated by two things. First, the name of his son Abijah is translated as “My Father is the Lord”. Also, throughout the book of 2nd Kings, a clear distinction is made between kings who did evil in the eyes of the Lord by worshipping pagan gods, as Ahab, king of Israel, did by setting up altars for Baal and Asherah, and those kings, such as Azariah, king of Judah, who did what was right, but still failed to remove the altars to the Lord that were located in the forbidden high places. Of all the kings, only Hezekiah, king of Judah, did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, “just as his father David had done. He removed the high places” and even “broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made,” because the people had been burning incense to it. So Jeroboam’s sins, though serious enough to justify the eradication of his line and forfeiture of all that God had promised him, did not consist of the return to paganism that most people assume.

But what do Jeroboam’s sins have to do with us today? More than one would think, because the root cause of his sins is a temptation faced by most Christians today. Tolerance is a byword for virtue these days, but it was Jeroboam’s tolerance for that which was wrong which led to his disobedience, and ultimately culminated in the kingdom’s full-blown rejection of the Lord God of Israel. The Israelites did not immediately turn to Baal and Asherah, indeed, it took them many years to reach that state of apostasy. But the seeds of evil had already been sown by Jeroboam, in his willingness to tolerate forms of worship that God had expressly forbidden.

It is wrong and misleading to suggest, as many do, that Jesus Christ preached tolerance. He did not. “He who is not for me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters.” One finds no call to tolerance in this teaching. Jesus preached forgiveness, for all men, but first he called for the repentance of sin. Tolerance is not the same thing as love; the Christian must love the sinner, but neither tolerate nor condone the evil that the sinner commits.

Even in the oft-referenced case of the woman about to be stoned, Jesus told her, “Go forth and sin no more.” It is not for the Christian to judge, as Jesus himself refused to judge while on Earth, but we have been given our commands, just as Jeroboam was given his – to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

It is not easy to do this in a world where even those who claim to be Christian leaders dare to criticize those who would attempt to follow Jesus Christ’s commands, call them intolerant and accuse them of somehow perpetrating hate. But Jesus told his disciples that they would be blessed when the men of the world hated them, and called them evil. If the world labels us intolerant because we preach that there is no way to the Father but through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, we should rejoice and continue to speak the truth, not cower in fear and silence. And yet most of us fail to do as we have been told; we show the same lack of faith and obedience to the words of Jesus Christ that Jeroboam had for the commands of the Lord God of Israel.

The sins of Jeroboam make it clear that it is no virtue to be tolerant in a world of evil, and that it is no vice to be called intolerant by those who reject the Son of God. Jeroboam feared men, not God, and so brought down upon his house a devastating curse of death and destruction. Instead of following his example, let us emulate instead that of the Apostle Paul, who fearlessly preached the good news of Jesus Christ to all mankind.