National unity was essential to the accomplishment of the Divine purpose in the chosen people. As Jehovah was the one God, so in all His appointments, civil and ecclesiastical, should a witness be borne to His unity before the world. In one place only would He dwell: there was one Holy City, one Temple, one Altar, one High Priest, and one King. To this unity the formation of two rival and hostile kingdoms was, as it proved, a fatal blow. If two kingdoms, then two Kings, two Capitals, and, following speedily, two Altars and two Priesthoods. It was, indeed, possible that the political division might have taken place, and yet the people have remained ecclesiastically united, the people of the Northern kingdom continuing to worship at Jerusalem. And it was counted as the special sin of Jeroboam, that he did not permit his people "to go up and do sacrifice in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem." (1 Kings xii. 26, etc.) But neither he, nor any subsequent king, was willing that the ten tribes should do this; and, to guard against it, altars were set up at Bethel and Dan, the two extremities of the kingdom; and new priests, not of the house of Aaron, ministered at them. The interests of the two kingdoms became more and more antagonistic, and the chasm between them broader and deeper. Often they were at open war, and though for political ends there were occasional treaties of amity, and attempts at reconciliation, these were but transient. That God would have overruled the evil consequences of division, and restored unity under a king of the house of David, had there been a true spirit of repentance, we may believe; but there was no such repentance, and all expectation of the restoration of national unity under the Davidic family soon passed away.
The position of each of the two kingdoms had its peculiar features. The kings of Israel, not being of the house of David, had no covenant right to the throne, and should have looked upon themselves as holding it at the Divine pleasure; God using them as His instru ments to punish the sins of that house. But this position they did not accept. They desired to make the national division permanent, and thus establish the permanence of their own thrones; and, therefore, put every obstacle possible in the way of a re-union. There was not for a time an open denial of Jehovah as the theocratic Ruler by the Northern tribes, nor was His worship wholly set aside, yet His authority was practically denied. The ecclesiastical was entirely subordinated to the civil: the priesthood was made by the State, and used for political ends. (1 Kings xiii. 33.)
That the ten tribes would become more and more alienated from the Theocracy, was almost inevitable. We may note two stages of their decline: the first was the institution of the worship of the golden calves by Jeroboam. We may believe, that, as in the case of the calf made by Aaron, these were symbols of Jehovah taken from the Cherubim of old; but the thing was greatly offensive to Jehovah, both as contrary to His commands, and as opening the way to all idolatrous practices. Second, the introduction of the worship of the Phoenician deities, Baal and Ashtaroth, under Ahab and Jezebel, in union with the worship of Jehovah. This king built a temple for Baal at Samaria, his new capital, and his queen a chapel for Ashtaroth at her palace in Jezreel. There were, as we are told, of the prophets of Baal, four hundred and fifty; and of the prophets of the grove, four hundred. With this open establishment of idolatry was joined the persecution and slaughter of the prophets of Jehovah. The efforts of Elijah, and afterwards of Elisha, checked for a little while this idolatrous tendency; but the heart of the people was corrupted, and a few only retained their integrity. Elijah thought himself the sole witness to the Lord in Israel, but was assured by God that there were seven thousand that had not bowed the knee to Baal. (1 Kings xix. 18.)
Thus, so far as the acts of the rulers could effect it, and not without the assent of a large part of the people (1 Kings xix. 10), the ten tribes were put without the pale of the covenant; and it is to be noticed, that they are never called by the prophets God's people. Idolatry had taken such deep root, that even the sanguinary measures of Jehu wrought but a transient and imperfect reformation. The spirit of heathenism had penetrated so deeply into the national life, that it could not be purged out by judgments. (2 Kings x. 20-31.)
The situation of the Southern kingdom was unlike that of the Northern in two most important particulars: it was ruled over by the house of David, and within its borders were the Holy City and the Temple. It was, therefore, not disturbed by dynastic changes, no ambitious chiefs of other families daring to claim the throne; and the established worship was supported by a strong body of priests and Levites, both those within its borders at the time of the division, and those who left the Northera kingdom to dwell in Judaea. It was thus saved from the corruption of public morals which civil dissension inevitably brings with it, and also from those temptations to idolatry to which the worship of the calves at Bethel and Dan opened the way. But Judah, nevertheless, was not faithful to Jehovah. Solomon and Rehoboam his son permitted their wives to offer idolatrous worship, and tolerated the building of pillars to Baal, and consecration of groves to Ashtaroth. (1 Kings xii., xiv.) The punishment quickly came. Jehovah gave Jerusalem into the hands of Shishak, king of Egypt, who "took away the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king's house; he even took away all." (1 Kings xiv. 25, 26.) How soon was the temple builded by Solomon, and at its dedication filled with the glory of the Lord, pillaged and desecrated by heathen hands! But this was not for destruction: it was to show the people that Jehovah was their true King, and that all transgressions against Him would be punished. (2 Chron. xii. 5-12.) It is impossible to follow the history of the kingdom of Judah in detail. It is sufficient to say, that at no time during its continuance, or from the time of the division to its overthrow (975-586 B.C.), was there a full and faithful keeping of the covenant. There were able and pious kings who attempted, and in a measure effected, religious reforms, and under whom there was prosperity at home, and honor abroad; but the general religious tendency was steadily downward. Attempts were early made to establish friendly relations between the two kingdoms, as by the inter-marriage of the royal families of Jehoshaphat and Ahab; but these relations were not permanent. Each kingdom looked upon the other as an enemy, and was ready to enter into alliances with the heathen nations around it to gratify its hate. Neither God's
heavy judgments upon Judah, nor His wonderful acts of deliverance, brought the people to repentance and to obedience. None of David's descendants had an equal measure of faith, and with like zeal kept the Divine commandments: none of them realized that the fear of the Lord was their true protection. Even the best of the kings trusted more in their armies and confederacies, and in the help of the heathen, than in the arm of Jehovah. The introduction of idolatry into Israel, and its open establishment by Ahab and Jezebel, may probably be regarded as the turning-point in the destiny of that kingdom. It was the sin unto national death. And perhaps the same significance may be ascribed to the reign of Jehoram in Judah, of whom it is said, "He walked in the way of the kings of Israel, like as did the house of Ahab; for he had the daughter of Ahab to wife: and he wrought that which was evil in the eyes of the Lord." (2 Chron. xxi. 6.) Not only did he make high places in the mountains of Judah, and compel the inhabitants of Judah to commit fornication, but built, also, in Jerusalem a temple to Baal with altars and images, where worship was carried on. Of Jehoram it is said, also, that he marked his accession to the throne by the murder of his brothers. The Divine punishment speedily came. Jehoram perished miserably of sickness, and was unhonored in his burial. Athaliah his wife, daughter of Jezebel, seating herself on the throne, attempted to "destroy all the seed royal," — all of the house of David (2 Kings xi. 1); and, like her mother, she made use of her power to establish idolatry; she dared not, indeed, wholly shut up the temple of Jehovah, but she did all that was possible to break up the house of God, and to bestow upon Baalim all the dedicated things of the house of the Lord. (2 Chron. xxiv. 7.) Her rule continued six years; and it seemed for a time as if Jehovah were to be banished from His own city, the family of David to be rooted out, and the heathen to triumph in Judah as in Israel.
From this miserable apostasy and fall there was, as we shall see in its place, no real recovery. We may look upon the inter-marriage of the house of David, followed by the establishment of idolatry in Judah, the reign of Athaliah, and the almost total extirpation of David's line, as a turning-point in its history. The idolatrous worship then publicly set up, never afterwards lost its hold upon a large part both of the chiefs and people. A strong heathen party enters now as a permanent element into all its history. It is to be noted as a sign of the times, that the two kings following Athaliah—Joashand Amaziah—both died by the hands of conspirators, showing how little reverence was felt for them regarded as Jehovah's kings, His representatives.