Reuben was the firstborn of Jacob and should have been in every way the leader of the tribes of Israel. He was a man who meant well, but seemed more apt to follow his carnal lusts than his good intentions. His father described him as “unstable as water.” The double portion of his father’s inheritance which by right was Reuben’s, went instead to Joseph, his second youngest brother. The headship of the tribes went to Judah and the spiritual leadership to Levi. Reuben was a loser on all counts.
Before he died Jacob prophesied that Judah should be the ruler of the tribes of Israel, “until Shiloh comes” which we understand to mean the Messiah. He also foretold that Simeon and Levi would not inherit with their brethren. Many years later, when Joshua divided the land, he allotted to Simeon lands that were within the boundaries of the inheritance of Judah. The Levites by this time had become the priests and they were given cities scattered through all the tribes. They were able to have gardens and goats for milk, but the bilk of their livelihood would come from the tithes given to the tabernacle, and later the temple.
Later yet, David, of the tribe of Judah, became king and God promised an everlasting throne for his sons. The kingdom of God of the Old Testament was both a political kingdom and a spiritual kingdom. This kingdom reached its highest point during the reign of Solomon. He reigned over all the land that had been promised to Israel and his reign was peaceful and glorious. He built the temple, the place which was God’s earthly habitation, to which all the peoples of the earth could come to worship and be blessed.
This glorious kingdom of the son of David was just a foretaste of what God had planned for His people. Such an earthly kingdom could not last among people who were for the most part only natural descendents of Abraham and not spiritual descendents. God foretold that the kingdom would be split in two after the death of Solomon.
The division of the kingdom was God’s plan. His perfect will would have been for all the tribes of Israel to continue to worship at Jerusalem, even though they were divided in their earthly citizenship. But Jeroboam, the first king of the breakaway kingdom feared that such an arrangement would undermine his political authority. He built a new temple at Bethel and another one in the north on his kingdom and appointed a new priesthood. It was for this division of the church of God that Jeroboam is forever after referred to as “Jeroboam the son of Neat who made Israel to sin.”
Thereupon all the Levites living among the northern tribes moved south to the kingdom of Judah. People often speak of the “ten lost tribes.” That does not add up. The southern kingdom now included Judah, Simeon, Benjamin and Levi, leaving nine tribes in the north (counting Joseph as two tribes: Ephraim and Manasseh).
Immediately, God began sending missionaries to the northern kingdom. The entire ministry of both Elijah and Elisha was to the people of the apostate northern kingdom of Israel. The ministry of Hosea and Amos was also exclusively to the people of Israel. We read of the schools of the prophets, some are explicitly linked to Elisha, probably they all were under his leadership. Thus men were continually being trained and sent out to preach the Word of God to the people in this apostate setting.
What were the results of this great mission effort? Even after Jezebel had made the worship in the temple at Bethel openly idolatrous, God told Elijah that there were still 7,000 people, “even in Israel” who had not bowed down to Baal. Seven is a complete number, a symbolic number, it could well mean many thousands.
It is recorded in 2 Chronicles 11 that after Jeroboam set up new temples in Israel people from all the tribes came to Jerusalem to sacrifice unto God and they strengthened the kingdom of Rehoboam. Chapter 15 tells that during the reign of Asa there were some from Ephraim and Manasseh who came to Jerusalem to worship and renew their covenant with God. Much later, both Hezekiah and Josiah sent invitations to the tribes of Israel to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.
It would seem that by the time of the Babylonian captivity the kingdom of Judah included a godly remnant from all the tribes. We tend to assume that all those from the northern tribes had vanished by the time of Jesus. We read much about the Levites, Joseph and Mary were of the tribe of Judah, Paul of the tribe of Benjamin, but where were the others? Just when we think we have it all figured out, we discover that the Bible has dropped a little hint that our assumptions may not be true. Luke 2:36 tells us that Anna the prophetess was of the tribe of Asher. If there was one person who could be identified as coming from one of the formerly apostate tribes might there not have been many more?
The New Testament speaks of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Who were they? It is evident that God’s heart yearned after those who were of the natural seed of Abraham, but were separated from the true worship of God. Before the captivity that meant all those from the northern kingdom where the only form of worship available was in the apostate temples. Yet even in such a situation there were many whose heart was still attached to God and not turned away to idolatry. By Jesus’ time it would seem that all those in Judea and Galilee were considered lost sheep, since the worship in the temple at Jerusalem had descended into mere form and pharisaism.
Who are the lost sheep today? Wouldn’t they be those who are the true spiritual children of Abraham, born-again children of God, alone in their faith or worshipping in a setting where some are true Christians, others are not, and most are unable to tell the difference? There are some who do see. Years ago a minster told me he thought there were seven or eight real Christians in his congregation. Someone told me recently of a minister who thought that perhaps 20% of his congregation were born-again. There are many kinds of mission fields, is this one that we are missing?