(This post is inspired by a conversation I had with my wife, Jen, this morning in the car. Thank, babe.)
We all know his story.
God asked him what he most wanted, and he (wisely) choose wisdom with which to rule the people. God declared he hit the jackpot with that answer and give him not JUST wisdom, but riches, power, peace. Just about everything a king could ever want. Solomon did it all, experienced everything the ancient world had to offer. And at the end of his life he said it was all “vanity” (worthless) compared to knowing God, compared to having a relationship with Him.
According to the scriptures, Solomon made some bad mistakes that resulted in the Kingdom being taken from his son’s hands, broken, and the people eventually going into captivity. This was said to be a punishment for falling away and worshiping other gods besides Jehovah. And eventually, when they learned their lesson, many, MANY years later, they were allowed to come back to the land and restore it. This is the story of a LARGE portion of the OT. Most of the history books, some of the poetry and several of the prophetic books are concerning this time period.
So, quick recap. Solomon becomes king. Asks God for wisdom. Gets it “all”. Experiences it “all”. Part of the all is “other gods”. Solomon declares all the all worthless. The kingdom is taken from his son and broken. Israel goes into captivity. They “learn their lesson” and eventually return to restore “God’s ways”. That’s the basic narrative.
When reading ANY book, especially a book filled with history, it’s important to remember who is writing the narrative. No matter who it is, they are BOUND to be biased. There’s an old saying that, “The winners write the history books.” and it’s pretty true. When you are the writer, you will likely spin the story however you want to make your nation/tribe “the hero” (sometimes even when you lose). You can see this even in our OWN history books, and we tend to favor scientific objectivity over everything else. Not so in the ancient world.
Now most scholars agree that much of the historical writings of Israel were written during their time of exile. Sure, they had bits and pieces and records here and there, but a large portion up until that time was oral tradition passed down to each generation. One reason was because, well, writing was just starting to take off during Solomon’s time. In Moses’ time, they still wrote things on stone blocks (Ten Commandments) if they wanted them to last for awhile. They simply didn’t have a way to record huge amounts of text on “paper” (especially since it hadn’t been invented yet). So, Moses didn’t “write the Bible” (sorry, Keith Green). Israel’s early history was passed via oral traditions. I know to US it seem incredible that SO much information as is included in Leviticus, Numbers, etc. could be memorized and reproduced orally, but that was the “way it was done” back then. Besides doing the necessary things for survival, they didn’t have very much else TO do except learn to recite their traditions.
However, by the time they get to the exile, they want, they NEED, to not lose their tribal identity (something the Babylonians very much tried to take from them – hence the new names, customs, etc.), and so they began to write down their traditions in EARNEST as a way to safeguard it for future generations So a great work of gathering, cataloging and writing down their history to that point (along with other writings – prophecies, poetry, songs, etc.) was begun and probably took a great many years. It may have even been done by different groups working independently. Hence the reason we have Kings AND Chronicles. Both these tell about the same time period, but have both the same and different things going on in them. They tell the story from different perspectives. Still, it’s amazing how strikingly similar they are. A testament to those who came before them.
So, let’s go back to the PURPOSE again for these writings. It was to establish a NATIONAL IDENTITY for the people of Israel. To help them remember “who they are” and their unique relationship with God. It was this history that they took back with them in order to reestablish Jerusalem, the wall, the temple and everything around that. This was their “guidebook” for who they were as a people.
So, their “agenda” was not 100% historical accuracy, but to establish identity and solidarity with the one true God. That doesn’t mean they LIED on purpose to make themselves look good. They didn’t THINK along those lines. They weren’t “historians” as we would understand that term. They didn’t think scientifically and empirically. They thought TRIBALISTICALLY and ONTOLOGICALLY (‘big picture’ truths). They NEEDED to be different, set apart, special and uniquely “in touch” with God.
It’s important to recognize this when you read the Bible so you understand what’s going on in the head of the writers. They’re not trying to tell you “the truth”, but who they ARE in their writings. They are imparting their identity to their children and children’s children. They are saying “Look, this is what you come from. Live accordingly.” All ancient cultures do this in their writings, stories, traditions. It’s the story of the PEOPLE, not the FACTS, that is MOST important.
OK, Ken, are you EVER going to get to the POINT of this post?
Why, yes, I believe I am. ALL of the proceeding we now need to keep in mind as we read the story and writings concerning Solomon.
So, Solomon is approached BY GOD. (That’s important to them, God speaks to THEM.) and asked what he most wants. He answers to rule the PEOPLE wisely. Again, see right from the beginning how it’s about the PEOPLE, the TRIBE. God grants him this desire and also blesses him with all the rest, the wealth, the status, the women, etc., etc. and a wonderful time of peace for Israel. This was their “glory years”, when they were the envy of much of the world. Princes and princesses, kings and queens visited, leaving tribute and Solomon welcomed them all. He was the great gatherer, of both people (probably marrying into MANY royal lines) and ideas. He promoted the sharing of ideas and peace in the world. Even God said he would be a man of peace. He opened the country to foreigners and allowed them to not just stay but to worship their OWN gods if they so chose. How scandalous. How WRONG.
Oh, but WAIT!
Isn’t Solomon supposed to be WISE, by God’s granting? If it was SO unwise for him to be this “open” with his people and his country, why would he have made this decision? Did God take BACK his wisdom? If so, why didn’t He take back all the REST of the gifts. Why allow Solomon to be “foolish” and allow such “inclusion” to become the practice in the land?
Remember, the “goal” of the writings of this time was to solidify the connection between the one true God and the people. To keep them “free” and “pure” of any other outside influences (“other gods”). The only way to do this is to make Solomon’s ideas to be “idolatry”, to be “wrong”. and ultimately to be the reason why God “punished” Israel with captivity.
Oh, but you say, “Solomon said all the stuff he did was worthless, which would include the other gods/religions/etc., right?”
Yes, BUT we need to see the CONTEXT of his proclamation. He said they were all vain in COMPARISON to knowing God. That doesn’t mean they have NO value. It means knowing God, understanding God, having a relationship with God is the MOST important which makes the rest pale by comparison. So, Solomon ALWAYS had his priorities right. He knew God was the MOST important thing. So, was Solomon still wise? I think so. So was he wise when he promoted inclusivity and peace throughout the world, especially within his own borders? I have to say, “yes”. So was this why Israel was “punished” with captivity? I’m thinking probably not. To THEM, yes, of course, it probably SEEMED that way. I’m sure their were many who SAID God was going to punish them for their “liberal ways” (just as we hear a lot about now). And we humans have always tried to see the reasons behind everything that happens to us, generally laying the “blame” at God’s feet as the ultimate bringer of both good and bad. So, if “God” did it, He had to have a reason, and those naysayers must have been right after all. We do the same things today.
But, let’s recall, Solomon ran his country PEACEFULLY with the world, bringing peoples together in harmony. But he was ALSO highly respected (not FEARED, but respected) by the rest of the world for his great wisdom. But after he died, that respect did not transfer to his son. They were a people who no longer knew war, who desired that everyone just get along and share. But after the kingdom split they became directionless and weak, militarily speaking. As an empire “ripe” from many years of peace, it was only a matter of time before somebody came in and picked the fruit and they were easily taken over and away by the Babylonian and later, the Assyrian empires
At that point, the cry for inclusivity (led by Solomon) turned to one of EXCLUSIVITY. God is for US. We are for God. We are united as a people due to our exclusive covenant with God. The rest of the world is “evil”. Peace became a dead dream of the past and Israel’s driving passion became to be a military power again someday, like it was under the “good ole days” of David. And so it continued till the days of Christ.
However, it’s interesting to note how, in all their time of exile, they continued to bring the light of God to other empires (even those like Darius, who already knew there MUST be a one, true God, but just didn’t understand Him). God used their captivity to do the SAME thing that Solomon did during HIS reign, to SHARE their knowledge of God with the world and to learn to live and work with “foreigners” (even while they cried for exclusivity in their writings).
Now, what will you take away from this. I think you will probably take away whatever you already come to this article with.
If you see God as exclusive, only “saving” those who believe the right way about Him, and that being INCLUSIVE is dangerous, makes God angry and invites His punishment, then you will see this story from the “traditional” viewpoint. The viewpoint it was arguably written from, in order to sell a particular tribalistic way of thinking.
However, if you see God as inclusive, arms open, wanting the people of the world to unite, taking the best from every culture, every religion (but not abandoning God – just as Solomon never did) and using it all for the betterment of mankind, to wisely alleviate suffering and bring peace to the world, then you might see this story differently than you ever have before.
Did Solomon lose his wisdom? No, I don’t think so. But have WE (humanity) lost his wisdom, and, I think, the same wisdom that Christ shared? I very much think so.