Solomon has always been an enigma to me. If he were the wisest man of his time, why couldn’t he have avoided the poor choices that caused his life to take such a bad turn? Whether he was even righteous in God’s eyes is also not clear. Wisdom appears to have been of little value to Solomon. While studying 1 Kings, however, I discovered a narrative that makes sense of Solomon’s life and his wisdom.
Recapping Solomon’s Life
I will begin by recapping the major events in Solomon’s life, as described in 1 Kings, and then develop and explore the narrative. When Solomon was a young man, he loved the Lord and walked in the statutes of David his father (1 Kings 3). While sacrificing at Gibeon because the temple was not yet completed, God came to Solomon in a dream and said, “Ask what I shall give you,” and Solomon chose wisdom. God commended Solomon’s choice, rewarded him with riches and honor, and told him that He would “lengthen his days” if Solomon walked in His ways. Solomon’s wisdom was made known when he discerned which of two women was the mother of a baby (1 Kings 3), and it was also described in terms of his vast creative output (proverbs and songs) and his vast knowledge of nature (1 Kings 4).
In the fourth year of his reign (1 Kings 6), Solomon was blessed with the opportunity to begin building the temple, which took seven years to build, and also to build an elaborate house for himself and his family, which took thirteen years to build (1 Kings 7). When the temple was complete, Solomon presided over its dedication and Israel’s sacrifices to God (1 Kings 8). After the construction of the temple and the king’s house, God came to Solomon a second time and told him again that if he would walk in the ways of the Lord, then He would establish Solomon’s throne over Israel forever. If not, then Israel would be cast out and the temple destroyed.
1 Kings 10 describes the visit of the Queen of Sheba. Having “heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions.” She acknowledges Solomon’s wisdom after he answers all her questions. One chapter later in 1 Kings 11, Solomon, who had become very wealthy, is described as having acquired 700 wives and 300 concubines. Many of these women were foreign, even though this was prohibited by God, and Solomon built altars and offered sacrifices to his wives’ foreign gods. As a result of his not walking in the ways of the Lord, God became angry and took the throne of a united Israel away from Solomon’s son. (God did not take the throne away from Solomon because of His promise to David). The last event in Solomon’s life that 1 Kings records is his attempt to kill Jeroboam, whom God had chosen to receive the tribes He would take from Solomon’s son (1 Kings 11).
Exploring the Narrative
Solomon’s life story is very disturbing. Reconciling his “wisdom” with the events of his life is difficult. Why did his life go so wrong if he were so wise? Looking more closely at the narrative of his life may help provide an answer. We’ll start with Solomon telling God what gift he desired:
“And you shall give to your servant [Solomon] a heart to hear and to judge your people in righteousness, to discern between good and evil, for who will be able to judge the weighty things of your people?”
And it was pleasing before the LORD that Solomon requested this thing. And the LORD said to him, “Because you have requested this thing from me and did not request for yourself many days and did not request riches and did not request the souls of your enemies but requested for yourself understanding to listen to cases, behold, I have done according to your word; behold, I have given you a wise heart and skill. There has not been a man like you nor a man like you to come.” (1 Kings 3:8-12, Septuagint, translation mine)
What Solomon had in mind was the ability to be a discerning king, one who had the ability to make difficult judgements. The example of Solomon discerning which of two women was the mother of a child is a paradigm case of this type of discernment (1 Kings 3:16-28).
We also have another description of Solomon’s wisdom in 1 Kings 4:29-33:
And the LORD gave to Solomon judgment and great wisdom and a large heart, as the sands along the sea. And Solomon’s wisdom was being multiplied beyond the ancient wisdom and beyond the wisdom of Egypt.… Solomon spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 5,000, and he spoke of wood from the Cedars of Lebanon and when the hyssop comes out through the walls, and he spoke concerning animals: winged animals, creeping animals, and fish. (Septuagint, translation mine)
Here Solomon’s wisdom is described in terms of his vast creative output (proverbs and songs) and his vast knowledge of nature. This seems strange, however, as if the Bible is only saying that Solomon was smart—that is, he knew a lot. But how was that knowledge considered wisdom?
So far, we’ve seen that Solomon’s wisdom consisted of knowledge and the ability to discern and make judgements in court. Apparently, this wisdom did not serve him well, however. He took hundreds of foreign wives and concubines, built altars to their gods, and sacrificed to their gods. Clearly, he was not walking with God, and both he and the nation of Israel suffered greatly.
The key to putting together the narrative is to recognize that Solomon’s life paralleled Israel’s history. Both were given commandments and statutes and asked to walk in the ways of the Lord. Both did not, and God punished them.
Throughout the Torah, we see a recurring theme in the history of Israel. God gives them commandments and statues to follow, and they do not follow them. Then God punishes them. They particularly succumb to marrying foreign wives and sacrificing to foreign gods, both of which were strictly prohibited.
In Deuteronomy 30:11-14, after Moses had finished reading numerous commandments to the people, he anticipates the people’s reaction:
For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” (ESV)
Moses knew the people believed that what he had laid out was really complicated. In their minds, they needed someone to remind them of it all. They believed that if they could remember all of it, then they would do it. Moses was telling them, “You know what God is asking. You are either oriented toward God or you are not. If you are oriented toward God, then you will keep the law.” Soon after, just before he died, God told Moses that Israel would go after foreign gods and break the covenant with Him (Deuteronomy 31:16-17). And they did just that.
Like Israel, something other than knowledge of the law was necessary to keep Solomon walking in the ways of the Lord. He was a Davidic king, David’s son, and the wisest man alive, but that was not enough to keep him walking in the ways of the Lord. While he started out walking in the ways of the Lord, later we find him with hundreds of wives and concubines and sacrificing to their gods. Clearly, his wisdom was not enough to keep him walking in the ways of the Lord. Something else was necessary.
The fundamental point of Solomon’s narrative, I think, is this: knowledge and wisdom are not enough to ensure that the wisest man alive walks in the ways of the Lord. Solomon even acknowledged this in his dedication of the temple when he prayed that God would incline his and the people’s hearts to Him, to walk in His ways (1 Kings 8:58). Solomon and Israel are supposed to realize that it is God who authors each person’s history, who changes each person’s heart, for His purposes.
The “something else” that both the people of Israel and Solomon needed was for God to orient their hearts towards Him. Only then would they keep the commandments. Even though the people of Israel continued to fail again and again, God promised them that one day he would write the commandments on their hearts, and they would keep them. But what about Solomon? While the parallel between Israel’s and Solomon’s narratives makes sense of many of the various descriptions of Solomon’s life, it does not address him as an individual, nor does it address the role of wisdom in his life. It would appear that he failed to continue walking with the Lord until he died. If so, then his wisdom did not play much of a role in his ultimate destiny; it did not serve him well. While I find this narrative of Solomon’s life possible, something seems lacking. Another possibility is worth considering.
A more plausible narrative entails a richer concept of wisdom than we have discussed so far. The young man Solomon asked for wisdom, and God granted him both a sharp mind that accumulated lots of knowledge and a high level of discernment. What Solomon lacked, however, was life experience. Wisdom is a lifelong process, but that aspect is missing from the 1 King’s account. Maybe Solomon came to a fuller understanding of wisdom in his old age by reflecting on the life he had lived and, as a result, saw that both he and Israel had suffered greatly because of his choices. Maybe he turned toward God instead of continuing to be a rebel. That would be a mark of true, mature wisdom.
Many songs and stories have been written in this vein. In Bob Dylan’s song, “Trying to Get to Heaven,” an old man reflects on his life:
I’ve been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down
Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door
The man in this song strikes me as someone who has lived a lot of life, trying to grab it for all it was worth, but who has not been satisfied by what it had to offer. However, the process of grabbing and failing to find satisfaction has led the man to wisdom about what is valuable and what is not.
Maybe Solomon’s life went similarly. After all, Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes, and it looks like an old man’s book. Solomon is clearly reflecting on the life that he has lived and the decisions that he has made. Ecclesiastes certainly contains an element of regret, but is Solomon turning to God instead of away from God? The last two verses of Ecclesiastes seem to be the key:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, ESV)
In his old age, Solomon had at least concluded intellectually that the whole duty of man is to fear God and to keep His commandments, which is ironic since, probably as a younger man, he wrote in Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (ESV). Even though Solomon’s wisdom was partially described in terms of his authoring many proverbs and songs, I suspect that when he authored Ecclesiastes he had a much deeper knowledge and understanding than when he wrote Proverbs 1.
There are two possible conclusions for Solomon: one, that while he regretted the decisions of his life, he remained a rebel against God; or two, he not only regretted his life decisions but also repented and turned toward God. 1 Kings 3:8 gives us an additional clue: God said that he was giving Solomon a “wise and discerning heart” (NASB). The term wise here is ambiguous, but I would like to believe that God meant truly wise. In the end, only God can judge Solomon’s heart and determine his destiny, but I would like to think that Solomon ultimately did become truly wise and repented.
In this article, I have endeavored to present a plausible narrative to account for Solomon’s life and wisdom. The key to understanding his life is to see that wisdom was not enough to keep him walking with the Lord. Rather, God is authoring history, and He authored Solomon’s life, which paralleled Israel’s history of failing to walk in the ways of God. The parallel, however, does little to make sense of Solomon’s wisdom as an individual. Solomon’s “wisdom” may have been a lifelong process that culminated in his writing Ecclesiastes. Gaining true wisdom entails suffering and bowing the knee to one’s Creator. Whether or not Solomon repented, I cannot say with any certainty. That is in God’s hands.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Colloquy, Gutenberg College’s free quarterly newsletter. Subscribe here.