The name of Solomon is still evocative today. He is a striking picture of a man who possesses. In fact, his name is most familiar to us as a possessive adjective—Solomon’s wisdom, Solomon’s mines, Solomon’s wives, Solomon’s wealth, Solomon’s temple. And this characteristic of possession is the basis of the story we must tell about him.
He had all these possessions because of the goodness of God poured out upon him. He truly was beloved of the Lord, and in some measure he kept all the gifts he was given to the very end of his life. But in another sense, he was history’s greatest example of the tragedy of lost opportunities. God gave him a promise, and that promise was fulfilled—but not in the way that it could have been. For all his possessions, Solomon fell short of possessing what could have been his.
Solomon was the son of David the king, and Bathsheba, the former wife of Uriah. The fact that God chose this union to perpetuate the Davidic name and line, down to the Lord Jesus, is a good example of how God’s ways of righteousness are not the same as our ways of righteousness.
The name Solomon probably means peaceful, which is a good description of his reign. Solomon undertook no significant military campaigns to speak of. The conquering was all done by his father. Solomon was qualified to build the Temple because he was not a man of blood as his father was.
Nathan the prophet had given him another name, Jedidiah (2 Sam. 12:25), which means "beloved of the Lord." Solomon was born early in David’s reign in Jerusalem (2 Sam. 5:14), but he does not enter the story of the Davidic dynasty as an active participant until very late in David’s reign. This meant of course that he did not assume the throne as a young man, but rather as one approaching middle age, a man of some experience. He no doubt had had some practice in lying low while his older brother Absalom was scheming for the throne.
So what was the nature of Solomon's rise to power? Absalom’s revolt against his father had come to nothing, but then Absalom’s opposition to his father was carried on by the next oldest son, a man named Adonijah. One of the greatest blessings a household can have—loyalty—was tragically missing from the household of David. But this should not be a surprise—David had not shown the loyalty he was capable of (think of his loyalty to Saul!) to Uriah, for example.
So Adonijah got the endorsements of Joab the general, and Abiathar, who was an influential priest. Adonijah went so far as to hold a coronation feast at a place called Enrogel. But by this time, Solomon was in a position to contest what was happening, and Solomon had powerful allies at court—Benaiah, son of Jehoida, wanted to be general of the armed forces, and Zadok wanted to be priest. The most influential individual in this group was Nathan the prophet, and of course, we cannot leave out Bathsheba, the queen. David had promised that Solomon would be king, and when reminded of this by Bathsheba, he established Solomon on the throne before his own death. It is highly significant that Bathsheba still had influence at court when Solomon was a middle-aged man, and it is still more significant that the stern prophet and the wife who had been unfaithful appear to have had a close working relationship.
Nathan and Bathsheba orchestrated this request at a time when they had to act. Because of his old age, David was not able to lead the nation, and Adonijah was trying to capture a sense of momentum that would make his ascent to the throne inevitable. But momentum is a tricky thing, and when David, still alive, appointed Solomon to rule with him, the support for Adonijah quickly collapsed. All Adonijah’s guests at his coronation were afraid and left—not only because Solomon was made king, but because of the acclaim and noise that resulted from it. The report came to them that even David himself bowed himself upon his bed, acknowledging the new king. Adonijah was afraid for his life, and went and took hold of the horns upon the altar. Solomon promised him that his life would be spared if he stayed away from wickedness, but otherwise, he would die.
Now the pattern of this story is that of a man who starts out very well, is gradually corrupted by the fruit of his faithfulness, and who repents at the last. But the late repentance is a repentance granted to Solomon himself—and tragically not to those throughout all Israel who were stumbled by him. But he nevertheless started well. Solomon came to the throne without a prior physical anointing from God, unlike his father and Saul. But he received an anointing at Gibeon (1 Kings 3:5), when God gave him a choice of gifts. Knowing the enormity of his responsibilities, Solomon asked for an "understanding heart." Because he had not asked for all the things a man in his position might have asked for, God was pleased with him. So God gave him what he asked for, an understanding heart, and added countless other blessings to him as well. And Solomon became the patron of Israel’s golden age of wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon). Two psalms are his as well (72 and 127). Israel never knew a time of greater glory, and never knew a time when all the kings of the earth looked up to her in deference and respect.
The ability to rule is a mysterious thing indeed, and the Bible teaches that it is a gift from God. The gift of such anointing for government should be described as majesty. "And the LORD magnified Solomon exceedingly in the sight of all Israel, and bestowed upon him such royal majesty as had not been on any king before him in Israel"(1 Chron. 29:25).
Before David died, he solemnly charged Solomon with certain duties. So Solomon began his consolidation of power by settling some scores for his father—with Joab, and with Shimei. This is not an instance of David being vindictive; the charge began with David telling Solomon to keep the charge of the Lord his God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, commandments, judgments and testimonies. This is not a preamble to a godless and malicious assignment. David was honoring God on his deathbed.
The first man Solomon had to contend with was David’s erstwhile ally and adversary, Joab. Joab’s story was tangled up with David’s in countless ways. Joab was David’s nephew, and had become his chief general. He was an extremely competent man, and throughout his life, Joab showed himself as possessing a strange mixture of military skill, ruthlessness, opportunism, cunning, cruelty, and shrewdness. It was Joab who killed Uriah, doing David’s dirty work for him—and which meant, incidentally, that David was in no position to tell Joab to obey the law of God. It was Joab who killed Absalom, contrary to David’s orders. It was Joab who killed Abner, when Abner finally deserted the house of Saul. This was ostensibly to avenge the death of Asahel, Joab’s brother, but it should also be noted that Abner would have been a significant political rival to Joab.
But it was also Joab who (rightly) opposed the taking of the census. And it was Joab who saw how poorly David was treating his own troops after the victory over Absalom. But near the end of his life, the shrewdness of Joab failed him, and he finally bet on the wrong horse, throwing his support to Adonijah. David ordered Joab’s life to be taken, because of Joab’s murder of Abner. It is clear from this that David would have dealt with Joab if he had had the power, and he knew that Solomon would have the power. Indeed, Solomon would have to have the power to deal with Joab if he hoped to rule at all. In any case, Joab richly deserved to die, and David’s command was a righteous one.
The second person David ordered Solomon to "take down to the grave in blood" was Shimei, the Benjamite who had cursed David during the revolt of Absalom. David could have killed Shimei during his initial flight, but he had not because of the circumstances. Upon the defeat of Absalom, David showed clemency to Shimei, and had taken a vow not to put him to death. But in the interim, Shimei had apparently behaved in such a way as to show he would present a real problem to Solomon, and so David told Solomon to arrange for something to happen to Shimei. This Solomon did in wisdom, and without violating any principles of justice. He gave Shimei a very fair probationary status in Israel, and when Shimei violated it, he was executed. These actions of Solomon’s should not be seen as settled personal scores. They were matters of fundamental justice, and were necessary for Solomon’s throne to be established in justice.
Of course, the last person Solomon had to deal with Adonijah, his half brother. Adonijah’s life was spared so long as he behaved, but it soon became clear that he was not about to do that. Near the end of David’s life, one of his courtiers had suggested that they find a beautiful young woman to sleep with David—not sexually, but to serve as sort of a human hot water bottle. They found Abishag the Shunnamite, and after David’s death, Adonijah asked Bathsheba if she could arrange for Solomon to give him Abishag as a wife. Bathsheba did not see through this, and so she brought the request to Solomon. But Solomon saw what Adonijah was doing right away, and saw that to do this would be to give the entire kingdom over to his older brother. And so it was that Adonijah and Joab died, and Abiathar the priest was deposed.
Solomon did some things administratively to consolidate his reign as well. Solomon replaced tribal boundaries with administrative districts (1 Kings 4:7). Each district had to provide the food for the palace for a month, which was no small burden (vv. 22ff). This centralization and increased taxation were "tolerable" because of the widespread prosperity (v. 25). Two percent of not very much is a pressing burden, while forty percent of staggering wealth is thought (for a time) to be only reasonable. But the story of Solomon’s expansion of government is a textbook case of how to set the stage for a tax revolt in the next generation.
Early in his reign, Solomon married the daughter of Pharaoh, and brought her to the city of David. There was no Temple in Jerusalem, and so the people sacrificed in the high places still. We are told that in the beginning of his reign, even after marrying the daughter of Pharaoh, Solomon loved the Lord and walked in the statutes of his father David. The only complaint the prophet writing the narrative had was that Solomon sacrificed and burnt incense in the high places too. This was not quite right, but God was nevertheless kind to him. There was no other place to honor the Lord, and doing it this way was better than not at all.
When Solomon sacrificed a thousand burnt offerings on the altar at Gibeon, the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and told him to ask for anything. Solomon asked for wisdom, which pleased the Lord greatly. And so God blessed him greatly, beyond all reckoning (1 Kings 3:11-12).
It was right after this that the famous incident with the two harlots occurred, and this established Solomon’s reputation for sagacity in the kingdom. Two prostitutes were quarreling over two babies, one alive and one dead. They both claimed the living child, and Solomon suggested the expedient of chopping the living baby in two. At this, the true mother offered to give up the child, while the deceitful woman thought the suggestion was quite equitable. Who was the true mother was evident to all Israel, and to every generation since. It was evident, in fact, to everyone except for her, which is what sin does to you. When the people heard this judgment, they feared the king, and they saw that the wisdom of God was truly with him.
There may have been some scoffers who said that such a story might be adequate to awe the peasants, but it hardly qualifies someone to be considered the wisest man who ever lived. But Solomon’s wisdom was truly stupendous—in an age when men knew a great deal. Solomon’s wisdom exceeded that of the Egyptians.
And Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was in all nations round about. And he spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five. And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes. And there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom (1 Kings 4:30-34)
Those who came to hear him included the famous visit from the Queen of Sheba. And recall that Jesus Himself noted that her visit was in search of a wisdom which she found (Matt. 12:42).
And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to prove him with hard questions. And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart. And Solomon told her all her questions: there was not any thing hid from the king, which he told her not. And when the queen of Sheba had seen all Solomon’s wisdom, and the house that he had built, And the meat of his table, and the sitting of his servants, and the attendance of his ministers, and their apparel, and his cupbearers, and his ascent by which he went up unto the house of the LORD; there was no more spirit in her (1 Kings 10:1-5).
She noted everything, but particularly how he worshipped the Lord. She had come in an adversarial frame of mind—"no one can answer these questions"—and she left having come to faith.
As Solomon consolidated his position on the "land bridge" between Asia and Africa, he gained control of town called Ezion-geber, located on the Gulf of Aqabah. This gave Israel access to the Indian Ocean, away to the south and east. Solomon was not slow to make a treaty with the Phoenecians, a sea-going people, but a people who had no real access to the waterways of the east. But Solomon built a fleet of ships at Ezion-geber in concert with the Phoenicians, and they began bringing gold back from a mysterious place called Ophir (1 Kings. 9:26-28). The round trip there was three years in length (1 Kings 10:22). The phrase "ships of Tarshish" is probably best translated as "refinery ships," ships equipped to carry smelted ore. In my view, the land of Ophir was most probably Central America. And the annual weight of gold that would come to Solomon was 666 talents (1 Kings 10:14), the number of a man.
One of modern man’s besetting sins is that of underestimating the capacities of ancient men. We do this, even in the teeth of the evidence. The Phoenicians understood the arts of navigation well, and had sailed remarkable distances. They had tin mines as far north as Norway, and we know that they circumnavigated Africa by 600 B.C. or so. Yes, the objector says, but this is just coastal hopping. Anyone can coastal hop. We have no evidence that ancient men knew how to navigate across oceans, the objection continues, particularly an ocean like the Pacific, which is enormous.
Consider this argument objectively for a moment. When modern man finally figured out how to navigate across oceans (hooray for us!), and when Captain Cook came to the Hawaiian Islands, what did he find there? Well, he found people. It appears (to me, at any rate) that some ancient men knew how to sail across the Pacific; otherwise, they wouldn’t have done it. They didn’t float out there on a coconut. And when Cortez began his march across Mexico, what was he encountering? Massive civilizations, that’s what. Moreover, he was encountering cultures and civilizations that had quite a bit in common with the ancient civilizations of the Middle East. This fits in quite naturally with what Scripture tells us.
The Phoenicians had made it to New England across the Atlantic, and they gave Solomon the expertise he needed to establish staging areas across Polynesia, and then mining colonies in Central America. This was the main source of Solomon’s fabulous wealth. The lines of communication with these colonies broke down later, with Jehoshaphat attempting to reestablish them, but unsuccessfully, and so the colonists had to fend for themselves until the arrival of the Spanish.
So banish from your minds all the quaint superstitions that Enlightenment scholars have told you about ancient man—that they believed the earth was flat, and other such nonsense. Ancient men knew the earth was a globe, they had calculated (with a fair degree of accuracy) what the size of that globe was, they knew that people lived on the other side of that globe (calling that region the Antipodes, which means that their feet were sticking the opposite way ours were), and they had done a fair amount of exploring this globe. Never forget that the evidence for this is that the entire world was inhabited by people— long before Columbus, long before Leif Erickson, and long before St. Brendan, God bless them all.
It wasn’t that long ago that erudite scholars were suggesting that Moses couldn’t have written the Pentateuch because Moses was illiterate and couldn’t write anything. It would be more to the point to say that modern erudite scholars don’t know how to read in a more important sense.
But for all Solomon's glory, there was a flaw near the center. Solomon’s great problem was not sensuality, despite the number of his wives. His great problem was political—he did not limit the power of the state in the way that the law of God required a king of Israel to do. The law prohibited the multiplication of wives and horses, silver and gold (Deut. 17:16-17). Solomon failed at all three points. At certain times, disobedience seems like it is a cultural or practical necessity. In fact, when disobedience is not a real temptation, it can be dismissed as ludicrous. But just at the point where obedience is most necessary, it often seems least realistic. And this is something that Solomon, for all his wisdom, did not see. He did not see that wisdom cannot be divorced from obedience and remain true to itself. Suggested obedience at such times of crisis is dismissed as "impractical" or "unrealistic." But the fulfillment of God’s promises to Solomon were not contingent upon him departing from the law of God. The promises were fulfilled—after a measure—despite Solomon’s disobedience. God was willing to show us through a type the glory of the coming kingdom of God. But had Solomon obeyed completely, the glory of the fulfillment would have been even greater.
At the same time, we cannot dismiss Solomon as a simple apostate. Christ Himself speaks favorably of his wisdom (Luke 11:31-32). And the wisdom that he had really was a gift from God (1 Kings 10:24). Even his disobedience was conducted with wisdom, as he says in Ecclesiastes. This appears to have been a way of saying that he sinned with his eyes open, reflecting on what he was doing. And having looked over the precipice, he comes back to tell us that there is nothing better than to fear God and to keep His commandments. "Do not do what I did" is better than "go ahead and do it." But there is a better way than both.