Solomon followed David as the third recognised king of united Israel. He was anointed king in difficult circumstances with David seemingly bed ridden and ineffectual. Adonijah launched a soft coup based on his primogeniture but Solomon, with the aid of his mother and Nathan the prophet secured David’s approval to take the crown as recorded in 1 Kings 1. Solomon inherited a tremendously strong kingdom. As a new king, Solomon had:
- A secure military position and stable international position. David had overseen a period of significant military success and had a standing army with celebrated (and well-practiced) warriors.
- A unified nation. Under David’s reign the tribes had commenced the transition to a national unified identity. This contrasts the decentralised tribal identities and loyalties which characterised the period of the judges and continued in Saul’s reign.
- The process of centralising worship in Jerusalem had begun when David moved the ark of the covenant. Historically the nation had worshipped anywhere they wanted (1 Kings 3:2). This usually meant co-opting previous high places the Canaanites used. While this process wasn’t completed, David had significantly advanced it.
- A stockpile of financial and material resources. David had saved a large amount of plunder for the construction of the future temple (1 Chron 29).
The success of Solomon
Solomon made a fine start to his reign and the record in 1 Kings is at pains to highlight his success.
The king was blest with heavenly wisdom (1 King 3) and demonstrated it for the benefit of the people. Solomon is credited with the writing of much of the book of Proverbs, Song of Solomon and (often) Ecclesiastes. Recent research has yielded abundant evidence of wisdom literature throughout the ancient world, some of which has a distinct resemblance to parts of Proverbs.1 Solomon seemingly collected knowledge on distant flora and fauna (see 1 Kings 4:33) as well as the wisdom of surrounding cultures, some of which were repackaged into an Israelitish context and theology.
Solomon’s success seems to have extended into initial diplomatic gains. In 1 Kings 3:1 remarkably we read Solomon married a daughter of Pharaoh. While the Egyptians were content to take wives from other countries consistent with usual diplomatic purposes, they famously refused to reciprocate with princesses of their own, even to Babylon,2 although in one case at least they offered up the daughter of the past Pharaoh.3 Unsurprisingly the record then presents this as one of Solomon’s early and great triumphs. It is not until 1 Kings 9:16 that we read the marriage happened with Pharaoh invading and destroying Gezer.
Gezer had a strategic position near the Via Maris – the great trading route from Egypt through to the fertile crescent. The town was a military target in Pharaoh Merneptah’s invasion as recorded on the Merneptah Stele (circa 1209BC – a record which has the first non-biblical mention of Israel as an entity). The town was under Canaanite control, probably Philistines, who were long enemies of Egypt. Did Pharaoh destroy the town to assist Solomon as a wedding present or did he attack his Philistine enemies, get surprised by Solomon’s power and retreat without his daughter? The record is unclear, but from what we know of Egyptian culture it is unlikely that the marriage would have been voluntary. Further to this victory, Solomon “collected” numerous wives from surrounding nations 1 Kings 11:1, consistent with the cultural practice of the times where such marriages were essentially peace-keeping arrangements.4 This played a part in the peace which the emergent kingdom enjoyed, at least initially.
The infant nation in Solomon had an organiser and a builder. In both 1 Kings 4 and 9 we get detailed accounts of his officials and building project arrangements. Some of these are highlighted – the towns of Gezer, Hazor and Megiddo in 1 Kings 9:15-16. Archaeology has confirmed the existence of similar defensive structures seemingly dating to the time of Solomon.5 It should be noted that these discoveries have been challenged by Finkelstein and others,6 but later discoveries seem to be turning the tide back to be broadly supportive of the biblical record (eg Michael Hasel’s comments on Khirbet Qeiyafa).7
In addition to wisdom, Solomon is well known for his wealth. He exploited the strategic geography of Israel that straddles both the Via Maris (the coastal trading route) and the Kings Highway (the North-South route situated on the Trans-Jordanian plateau). Notably, the towns Solomon fortified were strategically important checkpoints on the Via Maris. In 1 Kings 9:26-28 Solomon extended his economic significance by controlling the Red Sea port of Elat – a major trading port at another critical juncture in the ancient Near Eastern trade routes. Solomon leveraged his position and relationship with Tyre to undertake long distance maritime trade (1 Kings 10:22). He was the regional arms dealer in horse and chariots (1 Kings 10:28-29). The link between Solomon’s building and trading enterprises is demonstrated on the following map from the Holman Bible Atlas.8
Solomon’s reign is initially presented in glowing terms. He built the temple, essentially focusing the worship of Yahweh at Jerusalem with an organised religious infrastructure. Individual economic security was high (“everyone sat under his own vine and fig tree” 1 Kings 4:25), gold and silver were abundant (1 Kings 10:21) and Solomon was an internationally significant king (1 Kings 10:24-25). The borders of his control are described in terms which echo the promises to Abraham (compare Gen 12:3 with 1 Kings 4:24).
This initial reporting is clearly done (deliberately) through rose-tinted glasses as a demonstration of the national benefits of a king faithfully serving the God of Israel. For example, the reported borders of Solomon’s reign are more likely indicative of his influence versus sovereignty. This is demonstrated by the relationship with Tyre, who is the senior partner in the relationship. Tyre’s resources and skills are essential to the joint venture in the deep southern port of Elat. More significantly, when a trade imbalance needed redressing, Solomon has to cede 20 villages of northern Israel to Tyre (1 Kings 11:12-14). Certainly, towards the end of his reign, Syria was an enemy (1 Kings 11:25).
Despite this note of caution, it is little wonder that later prophets, when speaking of future restoration and the promised Messiah, found their language continuously harking back to Solomon’s reign.
A downwards spiral
It was a little too good to be true, and so it proved to be. Towards the end of Solomon’s reign, the narrator of Kings reveals issues which had been brewing.
Solomon had, deliberately or otherwise, arranged the kingdom on geographic rather than tribal lines. This is evidence in the tax arrangements in 1 Kings 4:7-19. As is true in every age, while things were good everyone was happy but as the tax burden to fund Solomon’s building projects mounted up, people began to identify with the “good old days”. Hence when the rebellion came (both in Solomon’s time and ultimately in the reign of his son) the split was on tribal lines.
Solomon’s building projects were significant and required more resources than the country had – hence the importing of timber from Tyre. The territorial concessions made to Tyre demonstrate for all the income Solomon was collecting, he was spending it too quickly. The building also required significant gangs of conscripted labour. While at first this was made up of non-Jewish men, eventually this policy changed and everyone seems to have been vulnerable to this service. This was the specific flashpoint which triggered the initial unsuccessful resistance of Jeroboam (1 Kings 11:27-28). The same man would eventually wrest control of the northern tribes from Solomon’s son. Consequently, while the complaint of the people to his son was centred on taxes in 1 Kings 12, forced labour also played a part.
As Solomon aged we are told his wives took his heart away resulting in him indulging in the idol worship of his foreign wives, specifically the gods of Sidon, Ammon and Moab (1 Kings 11:4-8). When we read the expression “they took his heart” we misinterpret the record as suggesting Solomon was romantically inclined to his wives. The writer didn’t mean this – love is not the issue. The heart was the place of thought. His wives changed his thinking and he turned to foreign gods. Tellingly it was not Canaanite gods but the idols of the nations on his borders. Solomon’s once strong political position was weakened. Consistent with the diplomatic protocols of the day, he begins to honour the foreign gods of his diplomatic/treaty wives from the immediately surrounding nations to better secure his borders. The narrator wants us to understand that this attempt to rely on diplomacy based on idolatry had the opposite effect. The writer informs us of the judgements of God because of this change.
However, some of this opposition had clearly been building through his reign. Egypt was, if not unfriendly, certainly not completely aligned with Solomon – sheltering his enemies from Edom who dated from the time of David (1 Kings 11:18). This threat from Edom was realised throughout Solomon’s reign, not just at the end (1 Kings 11:22). Similarly the established threat and raiding from Syria may have increased but the individuals involved were long-time enemies of Solomon (1 Kings 11:25). God brought the pressure and Solomon’s response was not exactly a faithful call to Yahweh for aid….
A foolish son
Solomon started with everything. His warrior-king father had carved out a politically independent nation with the seeds of national identity emerging focussed in a strong political and religious capital. The initial reign seemed to be a realisation of the potential; a golden age forever doted on by poets and prophets as emblematic of what a righteous Davidic ruler could be. However, the end of Solomon’s reign sees an undoing of any progress and a squandering of the advantages he inherited:
- Strong enemies to the north, east, and south threatened the kingdom
- Tribal loyalties were inflamed by resentment against the oppressive demands of the centralised monarchy
- While the temple continued, the king publicly endorsed the use of high places for idolatry
- The nation was financially exhausted by the extravagant building projects of Solomon
The writer of Ecclesiastes in Eccl 2:18-21 laments the reality that he must leave all his accumulated good work to another, “and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity”. While it true that Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, was the one who through his foolish words fostered the rebellion and split in the kingdom, it was Solomon who sowed the seeds of this national disaster.
Ironically it was the wisest of all men who made the stupidest of mistakes that would destroy the kingdom his father labored to create. Vanity indeed.
- Murphy, R. E. (1998). Proverbs (Vol. 22, p. xxvii). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
- See “Letter from Kadashman Enlil I, king of Babylon, to Amenhotep III” http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/kadashman_enlil.htm visited 25 June 2017
- Athenaios The Deipnosophists, Book XIII, Translated by Charles Burton Gulick for the Loeb Classical Library, 1937
- Matthews, V. H., Chavalas, M. W., & Walton, J. H. (2000). The IVP Bible background commentary: Old Testament (electronic ed., 1 Ki 11:1–3). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- DeVries, S. J. (2003). 1 Kings (2nd ed, Vol. 12, p. 132). Dallas: Word, Inc.
- Eg see Finkelstein (2001) “The Bible Uneartherd Unearthed; Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts” Touchstone Books London UK
- Hoffmeier, J. M., Dennis. (2012). Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith. Crossway, Wheaton Illinois
- Brisco, T. V. (1998). Holman Bible atlas (p. 108). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.