The reign of King Solomon represents the high water mark of the Old Testament.
For centuries, faithful Jews looked back to the time of Solomon and his father, King David, as a kind of Golden Age.
Solomon was a remarkable person. He is credited with composing 1,005 songs, authoring more than 3,000 proverbs, and expanding the boundaries of Israel to create a nation three times larger than its modern-day counterpart. Some of the stone walls built during his administration are still standing three millennia later.
In a moment resembling a real-life Aladdin story, God appeared to Solomon and said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” The king of the universe was offering him anything.
Solomon asks for wisdom. God is so impressed with his request – that he asks for wisdom instead of a bottomless bank account, or perfect abs, or a personal super-power worthy of a Marvel Comics character – that God also gives him, along with matchless discernment, virtually every other worldly blessing. He will become known as the wisest and richest king in the world, and people will travel hundreds of miles just to experience the opulence of his court.
Things begin so well.
If this is where Solomon’s story ended, he would be regarded as one of the Bible’s brightest lights. But when it comes to following God, it’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.
Over the course of just a handful of chapters in the book of I Kings, Solomon goes from extreme wisdom to extreme stupidity. How in the world does this happen? The answer is…slowly. That’s always how erosion takes place.
Solomon’s spiritual disintegration can be tracked by three words that show up at important intersections in his story.
The first appears in I Kings 3:3: “Solomon showed his love for the Lord by walking according to the statutes of his father David, except that he offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places.” The king of Israel, in other words, leaves some wiggle room in his commitment.
“High places” were local hilltops that attracted pagan sex-and-religion cults. Offering sacrifices and burning incense on a high place was a serious spiritual compromise. The word “except” is evidence that Solomon’s heart, unlike the heart of his father David, does not fully belong to God.
When it comes to spirituality, exceptions are dangerous. “I will serve you, Lord – except if you ask me to give up a lot of my free time. I will obey you, Jesus – except for my dating life on weekends. I promise to be your person, Father – except for secretly undercutting my supervisor, which is something she richly deserves.”
When it comes to finishing strong, half-heartedness won’t cut it. “Except” can’t be in our vocabulary.
The second word appears a few chapters later. I Kings 6:38 tells us that “…the temple was finished in all its details, according to its specifications. [Solomon] had spent seven years building it.” Continuing to the next chapter, “It took Solomon thirteen years, however, to complete the construction of his palace.”
There’s a warning light flashing here. Solomon’s palace turns out to be twice the size of the temple. He allocates twice as much time and twice as many resources building his own house as he invests in God’s house.
What are you currently attempting to build – and for whose sake?
If I want to know what I really believe in, I need to ask myself a trio of questions: What shows up most often on my calendar? What dominates my VISA bill? What do I daydream about?
We may say we’re all-in for the things of God. But is there an all-about-me “however” lurking at the center of our lives?
We arrive, finally, at I Kings 11:3, which is one of the most staggering verses in the Bible: “[Solomon] had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines.” Apparently the king doesn’t know how reality shows work. During the last episode, he’s supposed to give a single rose to the woman of his choice – a lady who is one in a thousand. Instead, Solomon passes out a thousand roses. And this is the wisest man in the world?
Unfortunately for Israel, Solomon’s radically conflicted domestic life turns his heart away from God.
God had stated clearly, ‘You must not [marry women from nearby pagan cultures], because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.’ Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.” (I Kings 11:2)
“Nevertheless” is a tragic word. God says, “Don’t do this.” But Solomon decides he knows better. Having been given every advantage and every opportunity, he now charts his own path. The very man who has overseen the construction of the ultimate monument to God, the Jerusalem temple, turns his own heart into a shopping mall for phony religions.
Except. However. Nevertheless.
These are the words that will ultimately determine whether our personal spiritual Golden Age is behind us, or is still to come.
It’s worth noting that nobody awards a gold medal to the winner of the 98-meter dash.
That’s because it’s not how you start.
It’s how you finish.