Adoniram was a man for our time.
His name is mentioned five times in Scripture, and each time the refrain is the same: “Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor” (1 Kg 5:14). He was a slave driver; if politics is always the use of force against people, Adoniram was the ultimate political operative.
We first meet him in the reign of David: “Adoniram was in charge of forced labor” (1 Sa 20:24). That’s all we hear, but the author may have been describing Adoniram’s character by placing his name between those of generalissimo Joab and the priests Zadok and Abiathar, all of whom were in good standing at the time but eventually met ignominious ends. But in David’s day, the only forced laborers on record were Canaanites whom God had not allowed the Israelites to exterminate (Jos 16:10; 17:13; Jdg 1: 28, 30, 33, 35), so so far so good.
Adoniram was still supervising forced labor when Solomon became king (1 Kg 4:6). But before long came the fulfillment of Samuel’s prophecy that Israel’s king would reduce them to slavery (1 Sa 8:11-17). No longer were Canaanites the only slaves: “King Solomon conscripted laborers from all Israel—thirty thousand men. He sent them off to Lebanon in shifts of ten thousand a month, so that they spent one month in Lebanon and two months at home.” (1 Kg 5:13-14). The freedom of the golden years of David’s reign was now up for grabs—hey, it could have been worse, right?—but one thing stayed the same: “Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor.”
We learn later that this forced labor was used for the Temple, certainly a violation of the principle that the offerings God values most are those voluntarily given (Mt 10:8; 2 Co 9:7) and the precedent of Moses’ day, when the people gave so much voluntarily that the leaders had to tell them to stop giving (Ex 36:6-7; ). If that weren’t bad enough, Solomon consumed twice the forced labor to build his own house that he used to build the Temple. Even the wisest man in the world became living proof that “public goods” are always the private goods of those in power. And Adoniram, ever the loyal servant, supervised the whole operation.
Eventually Solomon died, and the people held their collective breath expectantly: would Solomon’s son give them relief from the heavy load of taxation and conscription that Solomon had placed on them?
Of course not. Rehoboam figured that if his father had gotten away with demanding X, he could get away with demanding X2. More importantly, he ignored the words of the Lord’s prophet Ahijah, who had said to Jereboam, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘See, I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon's hand and give you ten tribes’” (1 Kg 11:31). An ungodly, selfish king was openly defying the God who had given Israel life and whom Israel existed to glorify.
And so, when the people of Israel fulfilled the word of the Lord by seceding from Rehoboam, the limit of godly authority had been clearly drawn: Rehoboam was no longer the king of Israel, only of Judah and Benjamin. So when Rehoboam commanded Adoniram to conscript labor from Israel (1 Kg 12:18), he was openly rebelling against God. But Adoniram, whose job was not to make policy, obeyed anyway, and he was stoned for his trouble. No doubt the media of the day called him a hero, but the Bible withholds such adulation.
In our day, we have a government few call good and fewer call godly. Under the prevailing model of the “unitary executive,” we are at the mercy of a man who kills infants halfway around the world and thinks nothing of killing the unborn at home or saddling them with crushing debt, jails people for activities he admits engaging in with impunity, and breaks campaign promises one wonders if he ever intended to keep. A nation that formerly called the world to freedom and some semblance of Christian society now prides itself in perverse entertainment, as well as the preventive detention, torture, random searches, no-knock arrests, asset forfeiture, licensure, and endless taxes, forms, hearings, and other essential ingredients of the police state.
Yet the Christian church in the US still sends its children off to fight Rehoboam’s wars as though they are defending what the Bible calls freedom. And Adoniram dutifully goes off as though he were only conscripting Canaanites. And when he dies, some call him a hero.