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WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland

Chapter 8: THE WISDOM OF KING SOLOMON

In 961 B.C., Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba, became the third king of Israel and under his leadership the wealth and prestige of his country steadily increased. He ruled a kingdom whose borders stretched from the River Euphrates to Philistia and the Egyptian border. Historians refer to this time as the high point of the Golden Age of Israel.

The Bible characterizes Solomon as being richer and wiser than any other king and the story of how he came to be so wise is repeated in every generation. Solomon had a dream in which he said the Lord appeared to him and asked “What would you like me to give you?”[1] After thanking God “for letting me succeed my father, David,”[2] he said “give me wisdom I need to rule your people with justice and to know the difference between good and evil.”[3]

This request shows a certain degree of self-awareness and good sense on the part of the young Solomon. Up to this point, he seems to have had a problem distinguishing between good and evil. It was not the Lord who allowed him to succeed his father; it was the crime of fratricide that insured his reign. He had ordered the murder of his brother, Adonijah, who as David’s eldest son had a legitimate claim to the throne.

Although it was not the custom to debate the merits of heredity versus environment in biblical times, a retrospective evaluation of Solomon’s life makes a good case for both points of view. He secured the throne by having another man murdered, just as his father acquired Bathsheba by having her first husband killed. For King Solomon, killing those who got in your way may well have been a learned behavior.

Like his father, Solomon maintained a harem. But David’s collection of women had been a modest establishment; he kept only ten women there. By contrast, Solomon’s harem was a model of conspicuous consumption, housing 300 women. He also had 700 wives, a definite breach of Mosaic Law which said that the King was not to have many wives.[4] Some commentators try to attribute this surfeit of females to the need for political alliances, but the scriptures, quite frankly, report that “Solomon loved many foreign women.”[5] And although the Bible accepts the scribal claim that Solomon had a God-given wisdom which exceeded that of all other men, they later blamed the women in his life for “turning his heart to other gods.”[6]

In our own generation, when all religious paths are supposed to lead to the same Divinity, Solomon’s worship of other gods may not seem problematic. However, in his own time it was considered idolatrous: a violation of the first commandment. But even his contemporaries do not seem to have been particularly disturbed by his religious practices. This laissez-faire attitude towards the King of Israel is all the more surprising since his worship of other gods included Chemosh and Molech. They were deities who were especially pleased by the sacrifice of children. Solomon built shrines to these gods “east of Jerusalem”[7] and there he offered “incense and sacrifices.”[8]  But when the story of Solomon is told, his practice of pagan sacrificial rites is ignored although he set in motion a renegade practice among the Jewish people that took hundreds of years to eradicate.

Once again, Solomon had followed in the footsteps of his father, only on a much grander scale. Although David did not build altars to other gods; he did have several men killed as a sacrificial offering to the God of Israel, hoping that those deaths would end a disastrous drought that was plaguing the land.[9] (The Bible reports that those human sacrifices brought about the desired result.)

Building altars to worship foreign God’s was not Solomon’s only questionable activity. His policy of forcing his own people into slave labor camps eventually led to civil war. The King’s ongoing building projects necessitated a huge working force and for the most part, Solomon‘s was a peaceful reign. Consequently, large numbers of captives, the usual source of such workers, were not available. So the King began to conscript long-term laborers from his own tribe, the tribe of Judah: he conscripted them from the northern tribes.

Had he used those slave laborers only for the construction of the Jerusalem Temple, his policies might not have caused so much bitterness among the northern tribes. But Solomon used forced labor teams to construct lavish palaces for his wives and himself and to erect the temples for Chemosh and Molech. For thirteen years, laborers worked to complete a palace for the king;  it had taken only seven years to build the Temple of the Lord. The king’s fabled copper and iron mines also necessitated enormous numbers of workers.

Of course, all those building projects were costly. So were the retinues of courtiers and servers who attended the thousand women that Solomon supported, in varying degrees of opulence.  All this necessitated the levying of enormous taxes, which also contributed to a growing dissatisfaction among the Hebrews. Those whose taxes and slave labor supported the lavish lifestyle of their king would have been astonished to know that the men who later wrote the record of that time, would attribute Solomon’s great wealth to God’s special favor rather than to the crushing burdens he laid upon his own people.

The king’s extravagant lifestyle ended only with his death. As soon as he died men from the northern tribes came to his son, King Rehoboam, asking for some relief from massive taxes and the harsh life of slave labor gangs.  They said to him, “Your father gave us a heavy burden to bear; lighten your father’s harsh tyranny now, and the weight of the burden he laid on us, and we will serve you.” [10] The new king asked for three days in which to consider this request. Then he gave his answer: “My father made you bear a heavy burden, but I will make it heavier still. My father beat you with whips; I am going to beat you with loaded scourges.”[11]

He never got the chance to put a heavier burden on the people. The Northern tribes withdrew all support from the king and formed the separate kingdom of Israel. And when Rohoboam still tried to force the people into subjection, it caused a civil war that lasted for decades and created a separation between the Northern and Southern tribes that was never resolved. The United Kingdom had become the separate nations of Israel and Judah. Each had their own king and each had their own Temple of worship and sacrifice.

For those who read the stories of men like Solomon only in the abridgements of Sunday school lessons or in the popular and sanitized rewrites that are endlessly churned out by religious presses, ignorance of the facts is a bulwark against confusion. A book of Bible stories for young readers typifies the redeemed-by-rewrite approach to the life of Solomon.  “King Solomon exceeded all the kings of the earth for riches and wisdom and all the earth  sought him to hear the wisdom which God had put in his heart . . .When they came they brought him presents. Each year the presents grew in size. And Solomon gave freely to the people so that everyone prospered.”[12]

It is not just the Protestant press that revises and sanitizes the story of Solomon; the Catholic Encyclopedia gives this version his life. His successful reign of forty years speaks well for his intelligence, ability and statesmanship. “His successful reign of forty years speaks well for his intelligence, ability and statesmanship . . . It was almost entirely devoid of incident and was marked by none of the vicissitudes of fortune which were so notable a feature in the career of David . . . (Solomon) gave much attention to the administration of justice, the development of trade and the erection of a national temple to the Almighty.”

These revised versions of Solomon’s life are written by those men, past and present, who are so impressed by the king’s wealth and power that they are willing to overlook his many sins: “Solomon bought much glory, honor, influence and fame to the kingdom of Israel.”[13]

However, many commentators do find one aspect of his reign worthy of censure: generations of ministers have felt it their Christian duty to remind the members of their congregations how Solomon fell prey to the wiles of women. And they warn the faithful to be on their guard lest they, like the king, succumb to the evil influence of females who “led him astray.”  His admirers quote the biblical scribe who wrote “As Solomon grew old his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God.”[14]

Of course, in order to perpetuate this fantasy of the female as the cause of Solomon’s sinfulness, religious teachers have to ignore the many vices he managed to indulge before he grew old and was influenced by his wives. But modern commentators, like their ancient counter parts, are equal to the task: they uphold a narrow tradition that defines sinfulness in sexual terms. By those standards, they are able to ignore Solomon’s sins of fratricide, the enslavement of his people and the offering of human sacrifices.

C. H. Spurgeon, a Baptist preacher of great renown, revered by men like Billy Graham and a host of other religious luminaries, had this to say about King Solomon: “He was a marvelous man. Earth has not seen his like.” Of course every person is entitled to the kind of subjective evaluation that allows him to decide who his heroes will be.  But the Reverend Spurgeon, like so many other religious leaders, goes beyond that subjectivity and misrepresents historical facts in order to bolster his position. The biblical records of the crushing burdens that Solomon placed on the people of his kingdom are purged from consciousness and another scenario takes its place. This allows someone like Spurgeon to write that King Solomon was “the prince of peace” and during his reign “every man throughout Israel sat under his own vine and fig tree and no man was afraid. Those were the halcyon days for all Israel when Solomon reigned.”[15]

The kind of censorship that lauds Solomon for being a great man by ignoring the excesses and injustices of his reign and blaming his failings on women, also finds a voice in the Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, “Solomon brought much glory, honor, influence and fame to the kingdom of Israel . . . His incomparable wisdom, as well as the heritage of his father David, and the messages he received directly from the Lord, however, were not sufficient to offset his love for idolatrous women and his desire to please them.”[16]

The Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible also applauds Solomon’s reign, going so far as to say that “his kingdom was a type of the Messiah’s in which all its subjects would enjoy a “holy security.”[17]  Solomon is variously described as being a type of Christ, the wisest man whoever lived and the anointed of God.  Paeans to his great-ness seem inexhaustible and his life validates the cliché that nothing succeeds like success: “no descendant of Sarah and Abraham was richer or more powerful than Solomon.”[18]

His life and accomplishments continue to be celebrated by those who regard his enormous wealth and power as God’s seal-of-approval on his reign. But in order to maintain that belief they must overlook the kind of policies Solomon implemented in his pursuit of greatness and that can be done only if the reader has no moral compass by which to judge those actions. It can only be done if the claim of each biblical scribe is accepted at face value, without reference to Mosaic Law, the oracles of the Latter Prophets or the teachings of Christ. When that kind of moral vacuum is created things like hiring contract killers to dispose of enemies or family and the enslavement of your own people, can be viewed as regrettable or necessary evils - - or even as the foibles of an otherwise great man.


[1]  I Kings 3:5    TEV

[2]  I Kings 3:7    TEV

[3]  I Kings 3:9    TEV

[4]  Deut. 17:17   TEV

[5]  1 Kings 11:1 TEV

[6]  1 Kings 11:4   NIV

[7]  1 Kings 11:7   NIV

[8]  1 Kings 11:8   NIV

[9]  2 Saml  21:9   NIV

[10]  1 Kings 12:4     JB

[11]  1 Kings 12:14  JB

[12A Child’s Bible. Anne Edwards, Paulist Press, NY 1978

[13]  Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, p. 243

[14]  1 Kings 11:4   NIV

[15Christ In The Old Testament,   C.H. Spurgeon, AMG Publishers. Chattanooga, TN   1994,   p. 112

[16]  Evangelical Commentary on the Bible,  Ed.  Walter A. Elwell. Baker Book House Co.  1989,  p. 243

[17]  Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible.  Matthew Henry, Moody Press, Chicago, IL 1992,  p. 254

[18]  Do note re: 2 Chronicles 9:13 - 28 which lists many of his assets, including about 25 tons of gold.

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