1 Kings 12 is a tragic chapter in the Bible, an episode in which terrible choices are made that lead to very devastating consequences.
It centers around King Rehoboam and his bad decision. A little background here: prior to Rehoboam's reign, Israel had just lived through its Golden Age. David had served as king and then David's son Solomon reigned. Through this period Israel was prosperous and successful, they had godly leadership (although Solomon is a case study in not finishing well), and all the people of God were united in one kingdom. It really was the best of times.
Enter Rehoboam. He is the son of Solomon and becomes the king after Solomon's death. While Solomon was king, he worked the people hard in order to build the Temple and king's palace. So the people thought that they might be able to have their burden lightened with the new administration. Jeroboam brings this request to Rehoboam on behalf of the people of Israel. After the request has been made, King Rehoboam asks for 3 days to consider the request.
Rehoboam first gets the advice of the wise old men who had served with Solomon, and they counsel him to be gracious to the people. They say, "If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever" (1 Kings 12:7). Sounds very wise; at this point they could have all lived happily ever after. But then Rehoboam runs after the input of his young friends, and they give him the opposite advice--they goad him into being even harsher to the people than his father had been. They tell him to respond, "And now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions" (12:11). Rehoboam foolishly decides to go down this path.
Tragic. Immediately after this decision, the country is split in two. The northern tribes of Israel break away from Judah, and they will never be reunited again. It is easy to look at Rehoboam and think, "Why did you do that? You made a very foolish decision, and your harshness had devastating consequences." It could have been so easy, but Rehoboam choose the path of sin, and sin always leads to bad consequences.
That sounds like the end of the story. The passage tells the full story, and we would expect it to be over, but then this one more verse is inserted. "So the king did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the LORD that he might fulfill his word, which the LORD spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat" (12:15). God is not mentioned at all in this story before this point; it looks as if this is just a situation in the human realm: human requests, human advice, human actions. It looks as if God is uninvolved with what is going on. But God is always involved. And he wants to make it clear that this situation was not outside of his jurisdiction and involvement. He wants to make it clear that we understand that even though on the surface it may look like Rehoboam is frustrating the plan of God, it is actually nothing but the outworking of God's plan. God had earlier decided to take most of the kingdom away from the line of Solomon because of Solomon's sin (1 Kings 11:31-38). The decisions of Rehoboam were simply God's way of bringing that about.
So who is responsible for Rehoboam's unwise decision? It is obvious that Rehoboam freely chose the path of sin in this situation, and he bears guilt. Yet the passage is also clear that God was sovereignly accomplishing his purposes through the sinful choice of Rehoboam. So it is a both/and, not an either/or. As so often happens in the Bible, God accomplishes his purposes through the sinful, free choices of individuals. What is clear is that God hardened the heart of Rehoboam, just as he had done centuries before to Pharaoh (Exodus 4-14).
So why would I expend all these words retelling you this story that happened thousands of years ago? Well, I think it can give some direction to our prayers. When we speak about free will, we almost exclusively use the term to refer to human beings. But the Bible is clear that only God is ultimately and truly free. As it says it Romans 9:19, "So then [God] has mercy on whomever he will, and he hardens whomever he wills." This comes right after Paul quotes Exodus 33:19, where the LORD says, "And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy." See that? God is fully and entirely free to give mercy or withhold mercy to whomever he so chooses. As Jesus said in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?" (Matthew 20:15). Since all of God's kindness towards us is based on grace and not obligation, he is fully free to extend grace or withhold grace. He is fully free to soften or to harden. Our free will is incompetent apart from the sovereign free will of God.
Here's how this has impacted me: I am spending more time in prayer asking for Jesus to be merciful to me, begging him to soften my heart. We see this type of prayer given in the Psalms 35 times (for example, see Psalm 30:10, 40:11, 51:1, 57:1), and Jesus himself tells us that this type of prayer is what led to the tax collector going home justified (Luke 18:13). This prayer confesses our position of absolute dependence upon Jesus and casts our lot upon the God who is merciful. The good news is that this prayer asks Jesus to do what he delights to do.
"Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge." Psalm 57:1