Altars of Convenience (1 Kings 12)

Entrance to Tel Dan, in the northernmost part of Israel. About 243km from Jerusalem
“And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their Lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one. He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites. And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made. He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings.”
‭‭1 Kings‬ ‭12:26-28, 30-33‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Today we visited Tel Dan, in the northern part of Israel. We walked to the site of Jeroboam’s altar, mentioned in the passage above from 1 Kings 12. They have constructed a metal framework of the altar to give you a sense of the size of the thing. It must have been quite impressive.

Yair, our guide, explaining the Tel Dan site

1 Kings makes it pretty clear what Jeroboam’s motivations were for building an altar. He was afraid that if people continued to go to Jerusalem three times a year for the annual feasts, he would lose control over them (v 26).

So notice how he sells the people on his alternative altar: “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough” (v 28).

It occurred to me that Jeroboam didn’t make a command. He didn’t forbid people to go to Jerusalem. He just gave them an easier, more convenient alternative.

I can imagine the sales job: “Aren’t you tired of having to pack up your whole family three times a year and going all the way to Jerusalem? It’s a long journey, filled with peril. Wouldn’t you rather stay home? After all, it doesn’t really matter where you are worshiping, so long as your heart is in the right place, right?”

So Jeroboam builds a substitute altar. He appoints substitute priests. He creates a substitute feast week, “after the day he devised in his own heart” (v 33).

He did this not just in one place, but in two. And the people flocked to these altars (see verse 30). They seem to have loved getting six weeks of their lives back. It’s easy for me to imagine them saying, “This is so much easier! I can just stay home and worship. I don’t have to worry about getting the kids ready. I don’t have to fight the traffic. I’m still worshiping, right?

Sound familiar? How many of us have said the exact same things about our own church, ever since we all went online after Covid?

There was just one little problem. Maybe because it was just so convenient, the people didn’t seem to notice…

  • That the priests weren’t Levites, like they were supposed to be (verse 31; see also Numbers 8).
  • That the feast week wasn’t on the fifteenth day of the SEVENTH month, like Leviticus 23:39 specifies. It’s a month later (v 32).
  • That there was a FREAKING GOLDEN CALF on the altar (verse 28). Did they learn NOTHING from their own history (see Exodus 32).

But this is what happens when we decide we can approach God on our own terms. In yesterday’s post, I talked about the temptation of compromise (see Woe to You, Chorazin!). Today, we saw what happens when we yield to the temptation of convenience. We neglect the object of our worship when we start rearranging it because of what is convenient to us.

It was never supposed to be about what fits our schedules, or which church in our town has the most to offer our family, or what church is most convenient to our neighborhood.

It is about authentic, biblical worship of the sovereign, holy God. And if any other factor is the determining factor for where or whether you attend church, then you are no longer worshiping God. That golden calf up on the altar?

It’s name is convenience.

Author: James

I pastor Glynwood Baptist Church in Prattville, Alabama. I read a lot, write a little, and drink lots of coffee. I have three callings in life: surrender to Christ, be a husband to Trish, and be the best father/grandfather I can be. Everything else is an assignment, because everything else can be done by someone else.

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