The Wisdom and Folly of Solomon

The name of Solomon still conjures images of majesty for us. Jesus speaks of “Solomon in all his splendor.” Modern day dilemmas still require “the wisdom of Solomon”. Gorgeous love poetry is still compared to the “Song of Solomon.” Solomon, 3000 years after his death, is the great icon of sagacity and kingly glory. And yet, his name is also associated with a kind of sad hopelessness and worldly futility which we moderns also understand all too well. Who was this man who seems so ancient and so modern?

He was born around 1050 BC of the most famous parents in Israel: David and Bathsheba. His elder brother had died in infancy as punishment for the adultery and murder his father had committed against Uriah the Hittite. Yet now that Uriah was dead, David was responsible to take care of Bathsheba as his wife. And so their second union produced Solomon, whom the Prophet Nathan named “Jedidiah” or “Beloved of the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:24-25).

Solomon grew up in the midst of court intrigue and terrible pain. As 2 Samuel 13:18 relates, his formative years saw the rape of his stepsister, Tamar by his stepbrother Amnon, the murder of Amnon by another brother, Absalom, Absalom’s subsequent rebellion against David, the near overthrow of David, the death of Absalom, and David’s crippling grief at this loss.

Solomon, then, was no stranger to the mortal danger of ancient Near Eastern political life, nor was his mother Bathsheba. When his step-brother Adonijah attempted to have himself crowned as David lay dying, she and the Prophet Nathan realized their lives were at stake and appealed to David, reminding him of his promise to make Solomon king. Upon receiving David’s blessing, she and Nathan quickly set Solomon on his father’s mule, staged a triumphal entry into Jerusalem and mustered an enthusiastic rally to cheer Solomon’s accession to the throne (1 Kings 1).

Solomon’s first acts as king (recorded in 1 Kings 2) remind us vividly that we are looking at a monarch with a decidedly pre-Christian conception of morality. His father takes him aside and urges him to both govern justly and to settle old scores. Solomon obeys his father in every particular, worshipping Yahweh while rubbing out the enemies of the House of David (and his half-brother Adonijah when he attempts to subvert his throne). Modern people are inclined to see hypocrisy here, but Solomon is unaware of any moral conflict. He is doing his part to fulfill the messianic promise given to David by God which assured him that a member of the David’s house will always sit on the throne (2 Samuel 7). The command to love enemies is still a thousand years in the future.

Given this pre-Christian conception of morality, what is remarkable about Solomon is the way in which he reigns when his throne is secure. The Assyrian kings who will reign just to the north of him will use their power for unprecedented displays of cruelty to every conquered nation. The Philistines will establish a civilization built on child sacrifice. Egypt’s entire population exists to work like ants and die like flies as they build the tomb of a single god-man.

In contrast, the rule of Solomon begins with a remarkable request. Solomon asks, not for long life for himself, nor for riches, nor for the death of his enemies, but for wisdom. And God is pleased to grant it. “God,” says Scripture, “gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and largeness of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all other men.”(1 Kings 4:29-31)

Indeed, the first ten chapters of 1 Kings positively ache with nostalgia for the reign of Solomon. Here is presented the Golden Age of Israel in all its splendor. Solomon goes from glory to glory and from one magnificent achievement to the next. His wealth is the envy of the world, his kingdom and dominions are happy and prosperous, his house is secure, and his devotion unparalleled. He it is who builds a splendid palace for the House of David. He it is who builds the glorious Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. He it is who secures peace on Israel’s borders and sees to it that “Judah and Israel dwelt in safety, from Dan even to Beer-Sheba [that is, from north to south], every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon” (1 Kings 4:25). When the nations (represented by the Queen of Sheba) behold Israel they are simply flabbergasted at the glory of it all. This is as good as it gets.

Which is, Scripture implies, exactly the problem. Solomon was as good as it got. And he was not good enough to make it last. For Solomon’s greatness is, in the end, only a human greatness, and therefore doomed. The first hints of this doom show themselves in the very building programs by which he seeks to establish Israel in greatness. He “raises levies of forced labor out of all Israel.” (1 Kings 4:13). In other words, he begins to act like Pharaoh. To secure peace, he enters into a great many alliances with surrounding nations. And this leads to the central problem. For he enters into these alliances via marriage. “Solomon loved many foreign women” and so “his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and he was not wholly true to the Lord his God” (1 Kings 11:1, 4). His worship at the Temple he built continues, but he also begins to worship Ashtoreth, Chemosh and Moloch and to indulge in the rites of the surrounding nations. The rot has set in.

And so the Lord says to Solomon, “Since this has been your mind and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant” (1 Kings 11:11). All the earthly beauty he has acquired will come to nothing. Not surprisingly, it is Solomon whom Jewish tradition will associate with the author of Ecclesiastes, which is perhaps the coldest, hardest look at earthly fortune ever written. “Vanity of vanities” cries the “son of David, king in Jerusalem” and he goes on to chronicle his near despair at the realization that “all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl 1:1-2; 2:17).

The prophecies come true, of course. Solomon’s Kingdom is torn apart by civil war after his death. All his earthly glory passes away. The doom pronounced on his house leads ultimately to the downfall of all the political hopes of Israel. But another prophecy given to David remains as well: God’s promise that “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body… and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever” (2 Samuel 7:12-14). A thousand years after Solomon’s death, one of his heirs, the Son of David, will again enter Jerusalem on a mule and, after his suffering and passion, enter on his reign as King of Kings in a way unforeseen even by the wisdom of Solomon.

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