The first reading at Mass this past week (17th Sunday cycle A) focused on the kingship of Solomon. Perhaps the high point of his life when he was given the opportunity to ask anything whatsoever from God and chose not gold or glory but wisdom. On Wednesday we read about the visit of the Queen of Sheba, complete with a description of Solomon’s court and kingdom in all its glory.
His early years presented a portrait of a man deeply rooted in God, but later in his life Solomon’s infidelity led to a divided kingdom. It is a moral tale that contains a warning for us all. Let’s review the basics of Solomon’s life and ponder the lessons to be learned.
Solomon was Israel’s third king. He was also known as Jedidiah (beloved of the Lord). His forty-year reign is regarded as Israel’s golden age, an age of prosperity and national unity. But, his reign ended disastrously: he began to oppress the people, took many wives, and introduced pagan worship.
Solomon was the second son of David and Bathsheba, but the 17th of David’s 19 sons. (David had other wives, and sons by them.) This hardly made him the most likely son to succeed his father as king. However, through the court intrigues of his mother and the support of Nathan the prophet, both of whom took advantage of David in his old age, Solomon was named king in 961 B.C. instead of his half-brother Adonijah (David’s eldest living son and presumed successor). Solomon swiftly and ruthlessly established his power over Adonijah, having him executed on a pretext. This act, along with the execution or banishment of Adonijah’s supporters in the military had repercussions throughout Solomon’s reign. It created military rivalries on the northern edge of Israel that were something of a nuisance and may explain why Solomon raised such a large army.
Despite all this, Solomon experienced a vision from God early in his reign. He was at the altar of Gibeon offering extensive sacrifices to God:
In Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream at night. God said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” Solomon answered: “You have shown great favor to your servant, my father David, because he behaved faithfully toward you, with justice and an upright heart; and you have continued this great favor toward him, even today, seating a son of his on his throne. O LORD, my God, you have made me, your servant, King to succeed my father David; but I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act. I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong. For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?” The LORD was pleased that Solomon made this request. So God said to him: “Because you have asked for this—not for a long life for yourself, nor for riches, nor for the life of your enemies, but for understanding so that you may know what is right—I do as you requested. I give you a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you (1 Kings 3:5-12).
The Lord did indeed grant Solomon great wisdom. 1 Kings 5:10-12 notes that his wisdom surpassed all the people of the east and Egypt, and credits Solomon with 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs. Many of these have come down to us in the biblical books he authored (Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Wisdom) as well as Ecclesiastes, which he may have edited. Leaders from throughout the world (most notably the Queen of Sheba) sought out Solomon for his wisdom and counsel.
Solomon was also noted as a superb statesman who had a great ability to forge trading relationships with foreign leaders. Trade expanded widely during his reign.
These foreign relationships may well have been the first sign of trouble, though, for they led him to take many wives. This was a common practice of kings in those days, despite this warning from the Book of Deuteronomy:
The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold (Deut 17:16-17).
Solomon ended up breaking all three of these commands:
1. He took many wives – Solomon took many of his wives from the surrounding pagan territories. His wives included Hittites, Maobites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Amorites. They were from nations about which the LORD had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love (1 Kings 11:2). In the end he had 700 wives and 300 concubines (see 1 Kings 11:3).
This not only demonstrates his lust but also his foreign entanglements. These pagan women brought with them their pagan deities and, in the end, they negatively influenced Solomon’s own faith. At the dedication of the Temple, God warned Solomon,
But if you or your sons turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. Israel will then become a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples (1 Kings 9:6-7).
Solomon failed to heed this warning and through lust, greed for trade, and fascination with things foreign and pagan, he turned away from the Lord and began to allow pagan worship, to permit pagan altars to be built in Israel, and even to build such altars himself (1 Kings 11). Of all his sins this was clearly the most egregious and according to the author of 1 Kings, was the main reason God turned his favor from Israel:
So the LORD said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates. Nevertheless, for the sake of David your father, I will not do it during your lifetime. I will tear it out of the hand of your son. Yet I will not tear the whole kingdom from him, but will give him one tribe for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen” (1 Kings 11:11-13).
2. He accumulated gold and silver – Solomon solidified a large central government that cut across tribal boundaries. He also engaged in a massive building campaign that included a large royal complex, a palace, fortifications, and the Temple. The buildings he ordered constructed were large and opulent.
The combination of a large central government, an extravagant palace life, and extensive building projects weakened the national economy through high taxes and conscripted labor. The queen of Sheba, who was fabulously wealthy herself, remarked upon visiting Solomon: Your wisdom and prosperity surpass any report of which I have heard (1 Kings 10:7).
Not only did the high taxes cause resentment, but the growing centralized government offended against the Jewish tribal system, which was more local. Increasingly, Solomon offended against subsidiarity by interfering in local affairs through his officials.
3. He acquired great numbers of horses – This is a Jewish expression for amassing a large army. In taking the kingship away from Adonijah, Solomon had made inveterate enemies of the military commanders who had supported Adonijah. They camped in the north and often harassed Israel. Perhaps for this reason, but more likely due to pride, Solomon amassed a huge army including 12,000 horsemen and 1,400 charioteers. All this despite never going to war during his reign. Not only was a large army expensive to maintain, but it also required a draft to conscript men into service. This caused resentment among some and led to the absence of large numbers of men from their families and work.
Consequences – As God told Solomon, the result of his turning away was a divided kingdom. On the succession of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, he announced his intention to continue his father’s oppressive policies. The ten tribes in the north had had enough and the Kingdom of Israel split from Judah. The great unified Davidic Kingdom had ended and within less than 200 years Israel (in 721 B.C.) and later Judah (in 587 B.C.) were invaded and destroyed.
Of Solomon’s sad end Scripture says,
How wise you were when you were young, overflowing with instruction, like the Nile in flood! Your understanding covered the whole earth, and, like a sea, filled it with knowledge. Your fame reached distant coasts, and you were beloved for your peaceful reign…. But you abandoned yourself to women and gave them dominion over your body. You brought a stain upon your glory, shame upon your marriage bed, Wrath upon your descendants, and groaning upon your deathbed. Thus two governments came into being (Sirach 47:14-21).
The story of Solomon is a sad object lesson, a moral tale. Failing to listen to God brings destruction—and Solomon continually failed to heed God’s warnings.
What turned Solomon from the right path? Was it greed? Yes. Was it the foreign entanglements encouraged by that greed and desire for power? Yes. Was it corruption by the world that greed, foreign entanglements, and admiration of foreign ways caused? Yes. Was it lust? Yes. Was it the inappropriate relationships and marriages that the lust caused? Yes. Did Solomon come to love the world more than God? Yes. Did lust and greed cause him to make steady compromises with the world? Yes. Ever so slowly, perhaps imperceptibly at first, Solomon began to turn away from God.
Solomon’s story could be the story of any of us if we are not careful to persevere in the ways of God. Lust, greed, and fascination with the world are human problems. I have seen people who were close to the Lord drift away due to worldly preoccupations, harmful relationships, the dominance of career over vocation, and the accumulation of bad influences from the television and the Internet. Time for prayer begins to dwindle. Mass attendance decreases. Immoral behavior is excused. Ever so subtly they turn less often to God and more often to the gods of this world.
This is the road that Solomon trod. The great and wise Solomon, once close to God’s heart and preferring nothing of the world to God’s wisdom, went down that road. He died smothered in wealth, sex, and power; he died a man whose heart was turned from God.
- Call no man happy before his death, for by how he ends, a man is known (Sirach 11:28).
- Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place (Rev 2:4-5).
- But he who stands firm to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).