It is very interesting that in the account of Solomon’s reign as we have it in Chronicles we move directly from the account of Solomon’s great wealth, as we read that in 1 Kings 10:14-29, to the account of his death as we will read it in 1 Kings 11:41-43. The spiritual decline and fall of Solomon and the troubles that befell him in the later part of his reign as a result are omitted entirely (2 Chron. 9:13-31). But not in Kings. We’ll consider this difference later, but it is a reminder, and I think an important one, both that one’s life story can be told with more or less detail and that even dramatic or important events in such a life may not affect the main story of that life. That is, one can tell the story of Solomon honestly and fairly and not mention his sinful decline. We know that because a book of the Bible does precisely that. In the same way one can tell the story of Manasseh, Judah’s very evil king, and not tell the story of his end of life repentance, which, though wonderful on the personal level, had virtually no effect on the life and history of Judah as a whole. Chronicles tells us about Manasseh’s repentance; Kings does not. Kings gives us an account of Solomon’s decline spiritually, Chronicles does not. The historians have different purposes and chose the material they would include according to different principles. When we are in heaven I am sure we are going to learn of many wonderful and important things and perhaps sobering things about the life of King Solomon that we didn’t learn from either of these two narratives, concise as they are.
Large harems were a feature of ancient near-eastern royal life and the larger the kingdom the larger the harem. Many of the wives would have been married as the seal of some political alliance with a neighboring state. Still these numbers, round as they are, suggest exaggeration for effect, hyperbole. In Song of Songs 6:8-9 we read of Solomon’s 60 queens and 80 concubines. The point is that everything Solomon did, including the wrong things, he did in a big way. [Provan, 93] By hyperbole the point is also made that Solomon had too many wives!
Throughout Kings, King David will be the standard against which his official descendants in Israel and actual descendants in Judah will be judged.
The index of Solomon’s spiritual decline was not merely that he permitted his wives to worship their idols, but that he worshipped them as well!
We will hear of many other kings of Israel who “did evil in the sight of the Lord.” It is Solomon’s dubious honor to be the first among them.
He built a shrine for Molech on the hill the NT refers to as the Mount of Olives, immediately opposite and looking at the temple! This was brazen on Solomon’s part. And it is not at all difficult to imagine the influence all of this had on the people of God. Idolatry was always a terrible temptation because everyone else in the ANE had idolatrous forms of worship. It was sensual, it was interesting, it was dramatic; and only Israel was forbidden, and now their king had effectively opened the door to the practice.
He not only permitted idol worship in his kingdom, with all of its moral perversion, but actually facilitated it with state funds! David, for all his faults, never did anything remotely like this.
The narrator leaves us in no doubt about what all of this meant. Solomon’s heart was no longer fully devoted to the Lord; he had turned away from the Lord. These are not innocent blunders but symptomatic of a spiritual rebellion on Solomon’s part. Solomon had become an idolater, even if not entirely so. He has become a polytheist, even though, no doubt, Yahweh remained his “chief” god.
But the Lord will remain true to his promise to David even though that covenant had been broken by Solomon and, by rights, could have been nullified entirely by the Lord. Solomon may remain on the throne by God’s mercy, but that does not mean he will not suffer certain consequences of his infidelity and it doesn’t mean that his descendants are not going to suffer more.
We are accustomed to think of the southern kingdom, after the division of Israel, as containing two tribes, not one: Judah and Benjamin. Judah was the principal tribe. Benjamin was something of a swing tribe, now with Judah, now with Israel. In any case you get the point; Solomon’s divided heart will lead to a divided kingdom. [Provan, 94]
There was obviously going to be a great deal of bitterness in Edom toward Israel and the royal house.
Any reader would immediately notice the strange similarity between Hadad’s story and Israel’s own. She too had gone to Egypt for protection and had been received warmly by Pharaoh. She too had had an important child weaned in Pharaoh’s house. She too had asked Pharaoh to let her go. This same Pharaoh who sent Hadad back to Israel, in all likelihood, was the father of Solomon’s wife! Hadad apparently returned to Edom planning to begin fomenting rebellion against Israel relatively early in Solomon’s reign. The Lord was placing enemies around Solomon in anticipation of the day when Israel would have to be punished for her sins. All of this intrigue was simply the outworking of a divine plan to punish Solomon for his unfaithfulness. Solomon had said in 5:4 that he had no adversaries. That situation came quickly to an end upon his unfaithfulness to God.
Rezon is mentioned in part because he was to Solomon’s north as Hadad was to his south. Hence Solomon had adversaries all around.
After identifying two enemies who would cause trouble for Solomon at the periphery of his kingdom, the narrator moves to introduce the far greater threat to Solomon’s kingdom that arose from within.
Millo is a term for supporting terraces which are part of the superstructure of Solomon’s lovely temple and palace complex and the wall of the city.
So Solomon himself promoted and made prominent the man who would eventually take most of the kingdom from Solomon’s son and heir Rehoboam.
Again we have ten tribes in the north and one in the south, eleven tribes instead of twelve. But it will be made clear in chapter 12 that, even though the southern kingdom is described as Judah and even as one tribe, the division is in fact ten and two (12:21; cf. 15:22): Judah and Benjamin remaining with the Davidic monarchy. It isn’t entirely clear why Benjamin is not counted here and in a few other places.
In any case, by retaining two tribes for David’s heirs the Lord is more gracious than we might have expected. Solomon deserved to lose them all.
In some ways it is astonishing that the Lord made the same promise to Jeroboam, who was not a descendant of David, that he made to Solomon: to grant him a perpetual dynasty and a kingdom forever. There could have been, in other words, two God-fearing kingdoms, if only Jeroboam had kept his word. What will be referred to repeatedly in the rest of Kings as the “sin of Jeroboam, son of Nebat” is his failure to abide by the Word of God and to honor him in obedience.
A very important statement. God’s covenant with David will not and cannot completely fail, no matter the unfaithfulness of David’s descendants on the throne. The punishment that must be inflicted is not final. Generations may be lost, but the people of God cannot be.
Somehow Solomon learned of the promise that God had made to Jeroboam and, as further evidence of the state of his heart, instead of that leading him to repentance, he sought Jeroboam’s life, the Lord’s anointed. This Pharaoh is not Solomon’s father-in-law, but the king who succeeded him and who is not as friendly as his predecessor.
A feature of Holy Scripture that separates it from so many other ancient narratives and from the holy books of other religions is its brutal honesty about even its greatest and most heroic figures. We have been treated to a description of Solomon’s wisdom and the glory of his kingdom, but the narrator does not scruple to tell us that Solomon squandered God’s gifts to him and ruined the kingdom he handed on to his son. He had sealed the doom of his kingdom by the time he died by his own foolishness and sensuality. [Blair in Wiseman, 139]
Now in the total context of Kings this is important as the beginning of the account of Israel’s spiritual decline that will take us, seemingly inexorably, to catastrophe at the end: the end of the Davidic dynasty, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and the exile of the people. Here in the narrative of Solomon’s rise and fall the theological explanation of Israel’s decline and fall is given in the clearest and most emphatic terms. The Lord’s blessing would attend the nation and the nation’s royal house if and only if they remained faithful to the Lord’s covenant. Should they prove unfaithful, all the indignities and losses that Israel eventually suffered would be visited upon her as punishment. That is said again and again in the material concerning the covenant God made with Solomon. It is, of course, simply the repetition of the conditions, promises and warnings of the covenant that we find already in Deuteronomy and 2 Samuel 7.
But for us, the existential problem posed by Solomon’s history is how a man so favored and so wise could have become so careless of God’s law and God’s favor that he should have been given the kingdom and had it taken from him in a single lifetime. How could this have happened? How could a wise man have been so foolish? How could a believing man come so completely to act the part of an unbeliever?
I do not say that Solomon was not a believing man by the end of his life. It seems very clear that he remained a believing man or, as we would say in the terminology of the New Testament, that he remained a real, a genuine Christian to the end of his life. The compliments paid to him in the rest of the Bible and even in the New Testament further seem to confirm this conclusion. He is the author of significant parts of at least one book of the Bible, perhaps of several. He is the author of Psalm 72. I think we can safely conclude that Solomon is now in heaven. But what a tragedy the second half of his reign. He is the perfect exemplar of that man of whom Paul speaks in 1 Cor. 3 whose work is burned up but he himself is saved, but only as through fire.
We want to know why and how this happened: such a grand beginning wasted so terribly. There is no comprehensive explanation of this spiritual tragedy in the narrative itself. And, of course, we encounter this mystery of the spiritual life ourselves from time to time and must admit that we are baffled. Why does one who begins so well not continue? Or, why does a Christian who serves the Lord so faithfully early on in his Christian life, peter out at the end? It happens not infrequently, but we can say only so much in explanation. Obviously most Christians never apostatize and many faithful servants of the Lord continue in that faithfulness to their life’s end. A great many, indeed, are more faithful at the end than even they were in the middle or at the beginning.
But if we cannot provide a comprehensive explanation for what remains obviously a deep mystery, there are things that we are shown here and things that we can say about Solomon’s decline and the reason for it.
But first it is clear that what we cannot say is that there was any defect in or lack of divine provision in Solomon’s case. To be sure, Solomon’s spiritual decline at the end of his reign was the will of God in that ultimate sense that everything that happens is the will of God. But the very last thing the Bible ever permits us to do is to blame such infidelity on Solomon’s part on God. Our text is one elaborate protest against any such thinking. Solomon had everything from God that a man could possibly hope for. God had appeared to him twice. God had made marvelous promises to this man – unparalleled promises really – and then fulfilled them, making Solomon the wisest, the wealthiest, and the most powerful man in at least that part of the world if not the entire world of his day. Solomon had been distinctly favored by the Lord. Blessing had been lavished on him.
What is more, Solomon had the law of God and knew precisely how God expected him to live and to rule. Twice we have heard the Lord speak to Solomon and assure him of his continued blessing if Solomon remained faithful to God’s law and threaten him with punishments should he not. David had told his son all of this before he died. The Lord had repeated it to Solomon himself. And Solomon knew all of this and had so wonderfully internalized it that in his prayer at the dedication of the temple he as much repeated all of that back to the Lord. There is an “if…then” over Solomon’s life and Solomon knew it very well. If he is faithful the Lord will continue to make him and his kingdom great. Solomon had everything: he had the Lord’s blessing already in extraordinary measure and he knew precisely how to ensure the continuance of that blessing. We have read all of that most recently in 9:3-9.
There is no lack here, nothing that the Lord might have or could have done for Solomon that he had not done. I know people, I talked to one not long ago, who do not believe and do not walk with the Lord because they feel strongly that the Lord does not love them, or that he has not treated them fairly, or that there is nothing to be gained by trusting in him. But Solomon could have offered no such excuse. There is no other way that the Bible permits us to explain Solomon’s spiritual collapse than as a failure on Solomon’s part to be faithful to the Lord, a foolish, inexplicable, ungrateful, and headstrong failure. Solomon wanted what he wanted and he reaped the whirlwind.
But we can say more about the particular nature of Solomon’s failure and what contributed to his failure of faith and obedience. And, what makes this information so valuable is that we find it everywhere else in the Bible where we are taught what temptations Christians must strive first to avoid and then, when necessary, to overcome if we are to remain faithful to the Lord.
- First, we find in Solomon’s case an obvious willingness to compromise with his culture. If we love the world, John says, the love of the father is not in us. What Solomon did, after all, was commonplace in the ANE of his time especially for a king.
The fact of the matter is that large harems were de rigueur for an ANE king. You weren’t much of a king if you didn’t have many wives and concubines. What is more, such marriages were a standard way of confirming treaties and so important to the maintenance of peace and harmony with countries with which one’s nation might otherwise be at war. There was, therefore, a lot to commend Solomon’s marrying so many women.
But there were obvious problems. The first is that Solomon was forbidden in the law of God to marry Canaanite women. In other words, in order to conform to the accepted standards of royal behavior Solomon had to violate God’s commandments. The second is that in so marrying these women Solomon violated the specific commandment of God’s law regarding royal marriages. In Deuteronomy 17:17 the law concerning Israel’s king reads:
“He shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away.”
So to do what he did required Solomon to break the law with respect to two obvious and specific requirements, one concerning his life as an Israelite man, the other his life as Israel’s king. The third problem is that the rationale for God’s commandments is clear and is precisely that such marriages corrupt a faithful and obedient life. The law itself contains the rationale. Solomon was, in effect, throwing caution to the wind. He was more concerned to behave as kings were expected to behave than to protect himself against the inroads of pagan thought and behavior that these wives represented in his own life and in his kingdom.
Who can deny that the problem we face is the same as Solomon faced? We live in an aggressively anti-Christian culture. We are part of that culture. It works its way with us every moment of every day. Its influence is insidious, relentless, and profound. In some ways, of course, that influence is not baneful. We wear the clothes we wear, we eat the food we eat, we drive the cars we drive, we listen to the music we listen to, we follow the sports that we follow and on and on because we are part of this particular culture in which we have been raised. Our lives would change in many interesting but not particularly morally important ways if we were transplanted to another part of the world. That was true in Solomon’s time as well. Many aspects of the culture were embraced by Israelites with no harm done to their fidelity to God.
But cultures invariably harbor an animus toward God and toward his law. It is inevitable because cultures are the expressions of human thought and life and man is a rebel against God by nature. In every culture there are ideas and practices and institutions and artifacts that cannot be harmonized with a life lived in faithfulness to God and especially in faithfulness to God’s law. In Solomon’s case one instance of that was a king marrying many wives.
In Solomon’s case as in ours another instance of a culture’s toxic effect on faithfulness to God was pluralism. Many imagine nowadays that the acceptance of the fact that there are many philosophies and many religions in the world amounts to a startlingly new insight of modern life. Hardly. Solomon’s world was fully as pluralistic as our own, if not more so. So was the world of the New Testament. Pluralism, of course, is not simply the recognition that there are a lot of different religions in the world. Pluralism is the philosophy that the existence of those many different religions is itself proof of the validity of all of them or at least the validity of many of them. The Bible is well aware that many people worship what they imagine to be gods. But the Bible teaches that such worship is vain, idle, and worthless because the gods do not actually exist. They are nothing. But Solomon had many wives who did not believe that and who were committed to the worship of their gods and over time Solomon fell prey to that constant pressure and began to take seriously the very idol worship the law of God categorically condemns as a high offense against the one, true and living God. Solomon became a pluralist because of the influence of his culture and pluralism was his great sin!
Solomon was seduced by his culture and that made compromise with it very much easier and that was a compromise he never should have made. And that is what is happening in Christian lives every day. What is ordinary thinking and behavior in our culture becomes at last acceptable even to Christian believers, no matter that it is plainly, emphatically, and repeatedly forbidden in the Word of God.
Solomon was wise enough to realize both that there came a point at which there could be no compromise with ANE culture or political custom if he were to remain faithful to Yahweh. But the dulling effect of culture weakened his resolve. Solomon needed to be willing to be an infidel to his culture so that he could be loyal to God’s covenant. He couldn’t be loyal to both. But he chose his culture instead of Yahweh! A good way of putting the issue to ourselves, “Are we infidels in this culture?”
- Second, the attractions of the culture were strengthened by the lusts of the flesh.
No matter the culture, believing men (and believing women in their way) have always been endangered by the lure of sexual attraction. And that seems to be the case here. The way Solomon’s attraction to his wives is described in 11:1-2 suggests that the man loved women and loved having women. Indeed, as we read, he clung to these women. The verb is the same used in Deuteronomy to describe the way Israelites are to cling to God. What we have so often in human life and clearly here is a contest of loves, of desires. Solomon loved God. We know he did because we read that he did in 3:3. But he loved women as well, and as a king he was able to collect them. And they became a great part of the pleasure of his life. And it was because he had such an attraction for these women that he was willing eventually to make these horrible sacrifices on their behalf.
I’m sure Solomon told himself at one point that to marry a desirable woman was only what a king was supposed to do. It was good politics. It revealed him to be the great king that his people expected him to be. But he was wise enough to know that he was deceiving himself. He wanted women; all the rest was window dressing. Today it is the same. Men are not kings, but the internet and other technology makes it possible for them to have, at least in some way, lots of women, an enormous harem. Christian men who succumb to this temptation certainly do not do so thinking that they are eventually going to become idolaters as a result. They certainly are not facing the fact that they are running a very great risk of ruining the lives of their children. They just want women, as Solomon did.
But God didn’t forbid men from enjoying more than one woman because he was a spoilsport. He forbad it because the practice is evil and because it is evil it is destructive; it erodes the character that is essential to a happy and holy life and it is a practice that is inevitably increasingly destructive as the generations come and go. The sin of promiscuity is bad in one generation, it is worse in the next, and worse still in the one that follows that. Promiscuous cultures do not endure and their death is inevitably painful. It would prove so in Israel’s case. It will prove so in ours. You cannot love both God and money; you cannot love both God and sex with many women. It is impossible; a thing that can’t be done. Solomon learned that the hard way to the destruction of his kingdom.
There is an either/or in life. God expects his children to obey him come wind, come weather. He is quite aware that disobedience is often enticing, attractive, and charming. But it is also destructive. He has told us that and we cannot claim to be ignorant. Follow your pleasures if you will, but don’t expect to escape God’s judgment if you do. Or, if you largely escape them, don’t expect your children to.
- Third, the commission of some sins inured Solomon to the commission of others far worse.
This is one reason why obedience and holiness are so important from the very beginning and through the entire course of a believing life. We have already noted that Solomon broke some of God’s commandments – the importing of horses from Egypt, the massing of horses, the accumulation of great wealth; all things the king of Israel was explicitly forbidden to do in the law of God – and it seems reasonable, if not inevitable that breaching that barrier, blatantly disobeying in those ways made it easier and easier for Solomon to break other, still more vital commandments of God’s law.
I am quite sure that earlier in his reign Solomon would have deeply resented, would have laughed at the suggestion that one day he was going to introduce various ANE idolatries into Israel, even pay to build shrines to Chemosh and Molech on the Mount of Olives. He would never do such a thing! But he did. The practice of sin unrepented of becomes a habit and the devil, once he has seen that habit form, will never leave your disobedience at the periphery of the law of God. He will work at you and on you until you are betraying it at its heart!
Imagine Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, an idolater! David would never have believed this about his son. One thing they knew in Jerusalem was that there was but one living and true God. And now comes Solomon having other gods besides Yahweh! What was the man thinking? Well, such is the insidious grip of sin. It is ever reaching for more. Every sin you commit would be, if it could be, the rejection of God and the surrender of your life to the Devil.
But Solomon did not get there all at once. He got there by steps. First horses, then gold, then many wives, then Molech.
You are well aware of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Its exact definition you remember from school – the increase of entropy and all that – but even more its practical effect. As one clever scientist puts it:
“Things fall apart. Energy, like talent, tends to squander itself. Liquids go from hot to lukewarm. And so does love. Disorder and despair overwhelm the human enterprise, filling our rooms and our lives with clutter. Decay is unyielding. Things go from bad to worse. And overall, they go only from bad to worse.” [David Berlinski, The Deniable Darwin, 47-48]
Well, allowed to, so does the spiritual life. Once it becomes part of this world it, too, is subject to that law of decline. And especially will the spiritual life do so if it is encouraged in the way in which Solomon’s life was encouraged in decline. Solomon survived his terrible sins, but his descendants did not and his kingdom did not. In Deut. 7:4 we read that foreign women will cause the spiritual death of a man’s sons. So it was in Solomon’s case. He wasn’t anticipating that result, to be sure, because he had grown soft and dull and spiritually stupid, this once so wise man. He had stopped thinking about his soul and the soul of his children altogether.
His divided heart led to a weakened kingdom and then, at last to the death of that kingdom. There is, therefore, but one lesson that any truly interested reader of this history can take from it: my heart must not be divided toward the Lord and there is no other way to test the integrity of my loyalty to God than the scrupulousness with which I obey his commandments.