Solomon’s reign is recounted in I Kings chapters1-11 and II Chronicles chapters 1-9 (tradition holds that the author of the latter was Ezra, by the way). The accounts overlap substantially but not completely, and where they describe the same events they do so in ways that are consistent but not identical — even, disconcertingly, in quoted material.
We don’t have to rely on Kings and Chronicles for our portrait of Solomon: We have the three wisdom books he authored, namely Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, and Solomon is also credited with writing two Psalms (72 and 127). In the New Testament, by the way, Jesus refers to “Solomon in all his glory” (Matthew 6:29) and the “wisdom of Solomon” (Matthew 12:42).
What can we learn from the life of King Solomon?
For starters, and to paraphrase the motto of Faber College, “Wisdom is good.” On the importance of wisdom, see the post on this blog site regarding the book of Proverbs. God is obviously pleased that this is what Solomon asks for, and it is not obvious now — and certainly would not have been then — that this is the number-one quality a ruler should request. Croesus did not, and one doubts Beowulf would have either: Riches and fame are perhaps the more obvious choices. So an important lesson is taught here, and one that fits in well with the West’s legacy from not only Athens but also Jerusalem.
While wisdom is clearly to be valued and sought more than riches or fame, in the Scriptural narratives here there’s apparently nothing wrong with them either, and indeed it’s at least implicit that they are nice things to have. Note, by the way, the the references in 1:11-12 to “wisdom and knowledge,” recognizing that the two are not the same thing.
Here’s the description of Solomon’s wisdom (I Kings 4:29-34):
29 God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. 30 Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than anyone else, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Kalkol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. 32 He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. 34 From all nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.
But King Solomon was not perfect. In his prayer dedicating the temple he built, Solomon himself acknowledges that “there is no one who does not sin” (I Kings 8:46 and 2 Chronicles 6:36).
In particular, he had too many idol-worshiping wives — he was too often not “evenly yoked,” to use the New Testament’s phrase. See 1 Kings 1:1-11. This had bad consequences, for his country and for his own faith. And why did he make this mistake? The logical suspects are lust and desiring temporal power too much (presumably at least some of the marriages were politically motivated). Even if he was aware of these dangers, Solomon might have been overconfident in his ability to resist them; smart guys tend to get cocky.
He also raised taxes and conscripted people for labor, which ought to offend people on both sides of the political aisle. And his son Rehoboam was a lousy king.
What are we to make of the great attention given the building of the temple, which was such a huge public works project? My NIV study Bible gives these reasons: It was a symbol of religious authority, of God’s holiness, of God’s covenant with Israel, and of God’s forgiveness; and it prepared the people for the Messiah, was a testimony to human effort and creativity, and was a place of prayer. Still, I must say that all this effort and expense seems odd to a Protestant, even without “sacrificing so many sheep and cattle that they could not be recorded or counted” (2 Chronicles 5:6). The latter suggests that part of what’s at work here is satisfying an innate human longing of some sort or other; and to be fair such a longing might be satisfied in both a good (building a temple) and bad (worshiping an idol) way; the hole in our soul that drives some to God might might drive others to become Marxists.
The excruciating detail here suggests to me veracity, at least in the temple’s existence and general splendor.
Some other notes:
- Solomon offers a prayer, mostly of supplication, at the temple’s dedication (2 Chronicles 6:14-42 and I Kings 8:22-53) that God — apparently quite a bit later — answers (2 Chronicles 7:12-22 and I Kings 9:3-9). It’s interesting that in his answer God makes clear that what He will do is contingent on what the Jews and Solomon and his heirs do, which seems to me to be a rather stark declaration that we have free will.
- Re I Kings 11:41 — Nothing is known of “the book of the annals of Solomon,” according to my NIV study Bible.
- There’s a reference to a guy named Ben-Hur (!) at I Kings 4:8.
- There is a parallel of sorts between the two Tiger Moms, Rebecca and Bathsheba, both of whom fight for the succession rights of a younger son over an older one.
- Is it just a coincidence that the Revelation-famous number 666 is also found in I Kings 10:14 and II Chronicles 9:13 (in measuring the weight of the gold that Solomon received yearly)?
- Your Sunday school version of Solomon’s cut-the-baby-in-two story might not have mentioned that the two women involved were prostitutes and that the one’s baby died because she rolled over onto him in her sleep. I Kings 3:16, 19.