No other king of Israel, not even David himself, ascended a higher pinnacle of worldly splendor. Solomon’s vast building program, his fabulous wealth and large harem, his far-flung commercial enterprises, his up-to-date military program, his patronage of wisdom and the arts, all were admired with open-eyed wonder by his subjects and by visitors from afar like the Queen of Sheba.
Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba. But David’s other wives and other sons were part of the intrigue of ascendancy. Who would be the next king? The oldest? Or the favorite? Before David died, he used some of his last energies to seat Solomon on the throne.
There is a lovely story told in both the Kings and the Chronicles traditions. Soon after his crowning, God came to Solomon in a dream. “What do you want me to do for you?” the mysterious YHWH asked. “Only give me wisdom so that I may rule your people well,” was Solomon’s pious reply.
1 Kings 3
11 God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. 14 If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”
1 Chronicles 1
God answered Solomon, “Because this was in your heart, and you have not asked for possessions, wealth, honor, or the life of those who hate you, and have not even asked for long life, but have asked for wisdom and knowledge for yourself that you may rule my people over whom I have made you king, 12 wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like.”
It is a lovely story but the history of Solomon’s reign actually shows very little wisdom as it turns out. His practices and policies seeded revolt and soon after his death, the ten northern tribes seceded. Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and the royal city of Jerusalem carried the legacy of the once great nation of Israel.
But the royal city and the Temple were still amazing. As you recall, David wanted to build God a “house” but YHWH gave that task to Solomon instead. It took seven years to build Solomon’s Temple, ushering in the First Temple period.
Then it took thirteen years to build Solomon’s palace complete with elaborate royal rooms, governmental buildings and harems for his 700 wives and 300 concubines. (That many wives doesn’t sound very wise to me!)
These elaborate building projects required the back breaking labor of thousands of captured slaves and conscripted citizens. “They felled the great cedars of Lebanon, floated them down the Phoenician coast to Joppa, and thence hauled them over the hills to Jerusalem. Eighty thousand Israelites were reported to have been put to work in the stone quarries, and 70,000 toiled as burden bearers. Thus the great Temple was completed at a cost far greater than the financial outlay – the cost of the life and liberty of exploited people.”
Even so, Solomon is seen as the founder of Israel’s Wisdom Tradition. His story tells of one gifted with wisdom, empowered as sage, given insight about correct human behavior and the divine order of creation. Many of the Proverbs are attributed to Solomon. The enigmatic cynicisms of Ecclesiastes are said to be his work. And the erotic Song of Songs is also known as the Song of Solomon. His story describes both a deeply spiritual and a decidedly secular man.
For all his faults, Solomon bequeathed to Israel both the Temple and the tradition of Wisdom. He is surely a study in contrasts.
Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (1986: fourth edition), Prentice Hall.