[Note: This is the prepared text for a split sermon given to the United Church of Congregation in the Dalles on Sabbath, January 9, 2021.]
Our first impression of Solomon is generally a positive one. Perhaps most notably among these early impressions of Solomon as a wise king is what it says about Solomon and his request for wisdom in 1 Kings 3:1-15. Let us turn there now. 1 Kings 3:1-15 reads: “Now Solomon made a treaty with Pharaoh king of Egypt, and married Pharaoh’s daughter; then he brought her to the City of David until he had finished building his own house, and the house of the Lord, and the wall all around Jerusalem. Meanwhile the people sacrificed at the high places, because there was no house built for the name of the Lord until those days. And Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David, except that he sacrificed and burned incense at the high places. Now the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place: Solomon offered a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask! What shall I give you?” And Solomon said: “You have shown great mercy to Your servant David my father, because he walked before You in truth, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart with You; You have continued this great kindness for him, and You have given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is this day. Now, O Lord my God, You have made Your servant king instead of my father David, but I am a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And Your servant is in the midst of Your people whom You have chosen, a great people, too numerous to be numbered or counted. Therefore give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours?” The speech pleased the Lord, that Solomon had asked this thing. Then God said to him: “Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked long life for yourself, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have asked the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern justice, behold, I have done according to your words; see, I have given you a wise and understanding heart, so that there has not been anyone like you before you, nor shall any like you arise after you. And I have also given you what you have not asked: both riches and honor, so that there shall not be anyone like you among the kings all your days. So if you walk in My ways, to keep My statutes and My commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.” Then Solomon awoke; and indeed it had been a dream. And he came to Jerusalem and stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord, offered up burnt offerings, offered peace offerings, and made a feast for all his servants.”
Already, at the beginning of Solomon’s reign, despite the positive response that God has to Solomon’s request for wisdom and the ability to judge God’s people and to discern between right and wrong, there are a couple of ominous notes present. First, the Bible says that Solomon had made a treaty with Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and had married his daughter. Second, the Bible says that Solomon walked in the statutes of his father David except in the matter of the high places where he sacrificed and burned incense. Third, the passage shows God promising to Solomon long life if Solomon kept His statutes and His commandments and walked according to the way that David walked. As we well know, Solomon did not do that, though it seems to come to most readers as a bit of a shock. When we her about the verdict on Solomon’s reign, the negative outcome seems somewhat surprising. This verdict can be found in 1 Kings 11:9-13. 1 Kings 11:9-13 reads: “So the Lord became angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned from the Lord God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he did not keep what the Lord had commanded. Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, “Because you have done this, and have not kept My covenant and My statutes, which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant. Nevertheless I will not do it in your days, for the sake of your father David; I will tear it out of the hand of your son. However I will not tear away the whole kingdom; I will give one tribe to your son for the sake of My servant David, and for the sake of Jerusalem which I have chosen.””
How did things go wrong? Was there in fact a warning sign, before 1 Kings 11 that Solomon was headed down the wrong path when it came to living according to the ways of his father David? And are there lessons for us in Solomon’s failure as far as it concerns the question of how it is that authorities should behave? As human beings we both live under authority in our lives and also live in expectation of being, as Exodus 19 and 1 Peter 2 tells us, part of a kingdom of priests and a holy nation in the world to come. And so it is therefore in our best interests to know how it is that kings should behave according to God’s word, because, as these passages that we have read in 1 Kings make plain, God greatly values obedience to His commandments. What commandments are there of particular interest regarding kings?
As it happens, there is one commandment above all that stands out as being particularly relevant to kings. We find that commandment present in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. This particular passage of laws relating to kingship, is of great interest to us in evaluating Solomon’s behavior. Deuteronomy 17:14-20 reads: “When you come to the land which the Lord your God is giving you, and possess it and dwell in it, and say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations that are around me,’ you shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses; one from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not set a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. But he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, for the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall not return that way again.’ Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself. “Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left, and that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children in the midst of Israel.”
Was Solomon obedient to this law? Definitely not. In fact, we can find in the book of 1 Kings that Solomon disobeyed every single aspect of this law, one after another, until it was after breaking the last of these commandments that God pronounced his judgment in 1 Kings 11. Let us therefore look at how it was that Solomon broke all of these commandments, comparing the laws in Deuteronomy 17 with how Solomon broke them in 1 Kings. And after we look at that, we will look at why it is that God requires these particular things out of kings. The commandments of God, after all, exist for good reasons, and we can learn from Solomon’s failure to better look at how leaders behave.
The first part of the law of kings tells us that we shall not set up a foreigner over us to rule but rather one among our brethren. Did Solomon alienate his kingdom, or part of his kingdom, to foreigners? Indeed he did. We read of this in 1 Kings 9:10-14. Here we find that Solomon attempted to place a foreigner over certain number of cities in Israel. 1 Kings 9:10-14 reads: “Now it happened at the end of twenty years, when Solomon had built the two houses, the house of the Lord and the king’s house (Hiram the king of Tyre had supplied Solomon with cedar and cypress and gold, as much as he desired), that King Solomon then gave Hiram twenty cities in the land of Galilee. Then Hiram went from Tyre to see the cities which Solomon had given him, but they did not please him. So he said, “What kind of cities are these which you have given me, my brother?” And he called them the land of Cabul, as they are to this day. Then Hiram sent the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold.” Here we see that Solomon attempted to alienate part of the land of Galilee to Hiram of Tyre as payment for the materials provided for the Temple and other buildings, but that Hiram was not impressed with the quality of the Galilean cities that Solomon had tried to give him, perhaps the first, but not the last, slander of the area of Galilee that we can find in the scriptures.
The second part of the law of kings tells us that we shall not multiply horses for ourselves or return to Egypt to multiply horses for ourselves. Did Solomon multiply horses or go to Egypt to do so Indeed he did. We read of this in 1 Kings 10:28-29, which briefly tells us that he both multiplied horses and went to Egypt to do so, both of them strictly forbidden for Israelite kings. 1 Kings 10:28-29 reads: “Also Solomon had horses imported from Egypt and Keveh; the king’s merchants bought them in Keveh at the current price. Now a chariot that was imported from Egypt cost six hundred shekels of silver, and a horse one hundred and fifty; and thus, through their agents, they exported them to all the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Syria.” Here we find that among the ways that Solomon made money for himself and for his kingdom was to be an arms trader in trading horses from Egypt and Keveh, the region of Cilicia in what is now Southern Turkey (in fact, the same region where Tarsus is where Paul was born) and marking up prices as a middleman to then sell to various small nation-states in and around Syria. However profitable it was to be an ancient arms dealer, going to Egypt to multiply horses was something that was forbidden in God’s law for a king of Israel, and it was a commandment that Solomon flagrantly and cavalierly broke.
The third part of the law of kings tells us that a king shall not multiply wives to himself. Did Solomon multiply wives to himself? Indeed he did. Solomon is, in fact, quite proverbially famous for multiplying wives to himself, as it is written in 1 Kings 11:1-8. This passage is before the passage that we read at the beginning of the message about God’s judgment. 1 Kings 11:1-8 reads: “But King Solomon loved many foreign women, as well as the daughter of Pharaoh: women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites—from the nations of whom the Lord had said to the children of Israel, “You shall not intermarry with them, nor they with you. Surely they will turn away your hearts after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not fully follow the Lord, as did his father David. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, on the hill that is east of Jerusalem, and for Molech the abomination of the people of Ammon. And he did likewise for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods.” Here we find it stated for certain that Solomon’s heart was not loyal to God in the way that David’s was, with the result that Solomon did not have a long life and that his kingdom and his glory did not long endure.
The fourth part of the law of kings tells us that a king should not multiply silver or gold to himself. Did Solomon multiply gold and silver for himself? Indeed he did, as we read of this in 1 Kings 10:14-27. Here we find a detailed discussion of Solomon’s wealth, as it is written in 1 Kings 10:14-27: “The weight of gold that came to Solomon yearly was six hundred and sixty-six talents of gold, besides that from the traveling merchants, from the income of traders, from all the kings of Arabia, and from the governors of the country. And King Solomon made two hundred large shields of hammered gold; six hundred shekels of gold went into each shield. He also made three hundred shields of hammered gold; three minas of gold went into each shield. The king put them in the House of the Forest of Lebanon. Moreover the king made a great throne of ivory, and overlaid it with pure gold. The throne had six steps, and the top of the throne was round at the back; there were armrests on either side of the place of the seat, and two lions stood beside the armrests. Twelve lions stood there, one on each side of the six steps; nothing like this had been made for any other kingdom. All King Solomon’s drinking vessels were gold, and all the vessels of the House of the Forest of Lebanon were pure gold. Not one was silver, for this was accounted as nothing in the days of Solomon. For the king had merchant ships at sea with the fleet of Hiram. Once every three years the merchant ships came bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and monkeys. So King Solomon surpassed all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom. Now all the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put in his heart. Each man brought his present: articles of silver and gold, garments, armor, spices, horses, and mules, at a set rate year by year. And Solomon gathered chariots and horsemen; he had one thousand four hundred chariots and twelve thousand horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king at Jerusalem. The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and he made cedar trees as abundant as the sycamores which are in the lowland.” The fact that Solomon received six-hundred and sixty-six talents of Gold per year suggests, in light of that number’s meaning elsewhere in scripture, that perhaps the gold and silver that Solomon received was not ultimately for his spiritual and eternal benefit.
When one reads about Solomon’s behavior as a king in 1 Kings in light of the laws of Deuteronomy 17, it is no surprise at all that Solomon’s heart was not loyal to God’s in the way that David’s had been. For all of Solomon’s wisdom, it was clear that he did not follow the commandment of Deuteronomy 17:14-20 to write a copy of the law for himself and to read it all the days of his life and to observe it as God commanded. Indeed, it is likely that the author of 1 Kings intentionally wished for the reader to be aware of the violations of this commandment, so as to make God’s negative judgment about Solomon’s reign and his lack of loyalty to God unsurprising once all of the parts of that law have been demonstrated to be broken. And this story of Solomon and the ultimate futility of his reign ought to be a cautionary tale for us as well not to overvalue wisdom and intellect, for simply being a knowledgeable and shrewd and intelligent person does not, alas, make our behavior obedient to God’s laws nor does it make our hearts loyal to God’s ways or compassionate to God’s people. Just as Solomon’s head was turned by wealth and praise and he thought himself clever and intelligent enough that he did not need to be reminded of God’s laws over and over again, such a fate can befall any of us if we allow ourselves to be caught unaware of the darker sides of our nature and of the threats we face as a result of our conspicuous blessings.
The experience of Solomon and the lamentable consequences of his breaking of God’s laws which were written for and specifically which apply to rulership of God’s people are deeply relevant to us, both in terms of how it is that we view those in authority as well as how it is that we hold ourselves to the standard of God’s laws and ways. How, then, is Deuteronomy 17:14-20 relevant to us. Let us go through it part by part to see what it contains. First, let us remember that this law forbids us from setting up over ourselves a foreigner, but instead commanding us to set over ourselves one of our brethren. It is vitally important that rulers be viewed not as elites and strangers but as fellow brethren living under the same laws and standards that we do. No one who is not committed to the same ways and who lives under the same rules is fit to rule over others. Next, let us remember that the law forbids us from multiplying horses to ourselves, which reminds us not to trust in military equipment to save us from God’s judgment, for all of Solomon’s horses and chariots could not protect his regime from that judgment. Third, a ruler should not multiply wives for themselves. Rulers can multiply wives for themselves either through the acquisition of a harem of wives and/or girlfriends and mistresses, or sequentially through a series of marriages and divorces, and we have seen many leaders who have failed to follow God in both of those ways. God’s ideal is for men to be a one-woman man, and for a woman to be a one-man woman. Fourth, a ruler is forbidden from multiplying gold and silver to himself, lest he or she trust in riches and wealth to deliver them from God’s wrath and judgment. This cautions us about the vanity of wealth and riches as a source of security and safety. Finally, Deuteronomy 17:14-20 commands rulers to write their own copy of the law–the better to remember it because they have written out its commands in their own hand–and to read it and follow it all the days of their lives, so that they are continually reminded of what God expects out of leaders. And since we aspire to be leaders in God’s kingdom ourselves, to say nothing of our fondness for critiquing those who are in authority over us, this is obviously something we ought to remember as well. God will not bless those leaders who do not serve Him, and no amount of wealth or power in this world can save a leader from judgment both in history and in the world to come. Let Solomon’s failures spur us, and those who lead us, to greater loyalty to God and obedience to His ways.