I often cringe when I hear Sunday School teachers talk about characters from the Old Testament as moral examples we can look up to. I remember a well-meaning children’s pastor once saying to a group of small children, “if someone in the Bible does it, that means we should probably do it too.” That might be the worst advice you could give someone. Yes, that suggestion probably was intended to encourage young believers to trust the character of God, but if we apply that advice to the entire Bible, it could lead to murder, lying, and a host of other unhealthy and sinful situations. When we look at the people described in the Bible, there is only one perfect example of what it looks like to be human: Jesus. The others are examples of the fallen state of humanity. Though we should not follow their examples in many cases, we have as much to learn from their failures as we do from their successes. King Solomon is a great example of this.
Recently Helen and I had the great privilege of team-teaching the books of 1 & 2 Kings to a School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in Nepal. We approached the team-teaching in a tag-team style, with Helen and I covering material in different areas, particularly looking at different themes in the books. One of the areas I (Michael) looked at, was King Solomon. In the inductive method of Bible study that we teach on SBS, we look at the structure of the different books of the Bible. One type of structure is called “principality.” Principality states that when an author focuses much of the text on something or someone, that thing or person is of increased importance to the overall message of what is being written. In the case of Kings, no other king gets the coverage Solomon does – eleven chapters in all. Clearly, the author sees Solomon as a key to the main message of the book. Stated simply, I believe the reason the author wrote Kings was to show the Israelites why they find themselves exiled in Babylon: the kings and the people did not trust God and did not obey the covenant. Additionally, I believe the author wanted his readers to understand that they are called to walk in obedience to God and the covenant, especially when the exile ends and they return to their land. If Solomon is so important to this message, he must then be an example of both a good king (one who trusted God, as the audience is urged to), and a bad king (one who failed to trust God, contributing to the reason why the audience is in exile). In Solomon we get an archetype of what it looks like both to succeed and fail in trusting God as a king of Israel.
Throughout the author’s description of the reign of Solomon, we seem to be getting a mixed message. Right from the beginning, things are not exactly right with Solomon’s rise to power. The prophet Nathan has to go out of his way to remind David that he had promised Solomon the throne after Adonijah made claim to it; not exactly the dominant rise to power one would expect of such a prominent king in Israel’s history. Many would say that the picture of Solomon’s life we get in Kings is one that starts well but ends poorly. I, however, see the seeds of the poor finish from the beginning. 1 Kings 3 is such a great picture of Solomon’s humility and God’s blessing that humility, but it starts with a very interesting statement:
Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt. He took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David until he had finished building his own house and the house of the Lord and the wall around Jerusalem. The people were sacrificing at the high places, however, because no house had yet been built for the name of the Lord. Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father, only he sacrificed and made offerings at the high places (1 Kings 3:1-3).
The statement that Solomon loved the Lord and walked in the statues of David his father communicates that Solomon desired to obey the covenant. Right before this, however, the reader sees clear violations of the covenant in Solomon’s making an alliance with Egypt (an image of a return to slavery) by marrying a foreign woman and then sacrificing not at the tabernacle, but on the high places where idols were customarily worshiped. The tension between these statements is not an accident. The author wants that nagging feeling of things not being completely right to be in the back of his readers’ minds. After receiving wisdom from God, however, the first thing Solomon does is to correct his wrong worship practices, going before the ark of the covenant to offer sacrifices.
Before finishing my thoughts on Solomon, allow me to go on a bit of rabbit trail about wisdom. The first thing that most of us know of Solomon is that he was the wisest man on earth. I often picture him as a combination of the greatest minds of our time. Regardless of what this actually looked like, the author makes a point to say, “God gave Solomon wisdom.” The great minds of my time acquired their wisdom from dedication to study and learning. They earned their wisdom for themselves. Solomon’s wisdom was a gift from God. That’s not to say that learning was not involved, but the author wants to highlight God’s role in this wisdom. We see this idea elsewhere. For example, in Daniel 1:17 we read of Daniel and his friends, “As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom.” My point in all of this is that wisdom from God is a gift. That gift may be received through study and that gift might come through revelation of the Holy Spirit, but in both cases it is gift with its ultimate source being found in God. My encouragement here is that many of us may feel foolish in the eyes of the world, but in our fear of God, we have access to the same gift of wisdom that made Solomon the wisest man on earth.
In addition to Solomon’s alliance with Egypt and his worship on the high places, I want to highlight one more example of the author foreshadowing Solomon’s failure as a king. In the middle of describing Solomon’s great act of devotion in building the temple of God we see that it took him seven years to build the temple (1 Kings 6:38). This information is immediately followed with the statement that it took Solomon 13 years to build his own house (7:1). Once again, the tension is intentional, and it should cause the reader to not be surprised when s/he sees the undoing of Solomon in 1 Kings 11. All along we get glimpses of the seeds of Solomon’s fail.
The story of Solomon is bookended with the statement “Solomon loved.” In the beginning of this story we see that he loved the Lord (3:3); in the end we see that he loved many foreign women (11:1). Before we end up in the unfortunate place of blaming women for the faithlessness of men, let me emphasize that the women are not the problem here. The problem is that Solomon was not wholly devoted to God. When Solomon walked in humility before God, he and the nation were blessed. As arrogance led to trusting in things other than God, both Solomon and the nation suffered. Throughout the rest of Kings, the reader will see that when the kings are humble before God and trust in Him they receive blessings; the moment they are arrogant and trust in things other than God, they suffer. The message is that God’s people need to walk humbly and trust God if they are to enjoy the blessing of relationship with God. This is true for me as a reader of Kings today. The blessings may not look physical, as they did for Israel under the Old Covenant, but the blessing of relationship with God is still dependent on my willingness to walk humbly and trust in God. I am so glad that my hope is not in imperfect people like Solomon, but in a perfect God who put on flesh and died so I might have relationship with Him.