Solomon: A Life Lesson

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Throughout July we’re taking an in-depth look at Proverbs, the Bible’s one-of-a-kind book about our never-ending need for wisdom.

“The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel…”

With those opening words, the reader of the book of Proverbs is immediately transported to the Golden Age of ancient Israel.

Things were never better for God’s people than about a thousand years before Christ.  Israel’s two greatest kings – David and Solomon – had finally managed to take possession of every square foot of the original Promised Land.  The economy was humming.  Military foes had been beaten back.  Israel’s brand new temple was at last standing in Jerusalem. 

Here’s how I Kings 4:20 summarizes this high water mark in Jewish history:  “The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank, and they were happy.” 

Solomon was unquestionably a remarkable person.  He is credited with composing 1,005 songs and at least 3,000 proverbs (many more than appear in the Old Testament book).  Remnants of some of his construction projects are still standing in Israel today. 

His greatness is powerfully associated with a real-life Aladdin moment early in his reign.  God offers him anything.  He famously replies, “Give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” (I Kings 3:9)  Because Solomon asks for wisdom instead of a bottomless bank account or perfect abs or opinion polls that are always in his favor, God throws in every worldly blessing as a kind of bonus.   

He will soon become known as the wisest king in the world – something that should bring a smile to every wisdom-seeker opening the book of Proverbs.

But the name of Solomon, unfortunately, also makes us wince. 

If the king’s narrative ended with his prayer for wisdom, his spiritual legacy would be second only to that of Jesus.  But when it comes to the things of God, it’s not how you start.  It’s how you finish.  And Solomon goes from extraordinary wisdom to mind-bending stupidity. 

How in the world does this happen?  The answer is…slowly. 

That’s always how erosion takes place. 

When the British luxury liner Queen Mary was retired from regular passenger service in 1967, she had made 1,001 Atlantic Ocean crossings.  After safely journeying to her final harbor spot in the port of Long Beach, California, her three massive smoke stacks (each over 60 feet tall) were temporarily removed for maintenance.

The restoration crew was shocked when all three of them crumbled on the docks.  They had been made of sheets of steel over an inch thick.  Over the years, each had been slathered with at least 30 coats of black and orange paint.  Those layers of paint were all that remained.  The steel had long ago rusted away under the influence of extreme heat and moisture. 

The exterior of Solomon’s reign may have looked magnificent.  But in the end it was little more than paint on an empty shell.

As we have noted in the past, the king’s spiritual disintegration can be tracked by three words that appear at various junctures in his story.

The first of those words is found in I Kings 3:3, which provides a preliminary assessment of Solomon’s relationship with God:  “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 leaves some wiggle room in his inner life.

What were these high places?  According to the spirituality practiced by the original inhabitants of the land of Canaan, the tops of the highest hills were generally reserved for idolatry, ritual sacrifice, and a kind of religiously sanctioned prostitution.  To burn incense there was spiritual compromise.  The word “except” is evidence that Solomon’s heart did not fully belong to God.

Soon we encounter the next word that signifies Solomon’s struggles.  We read in I Kings 6:38, “The temple was finished in all its details, according to its specifications.  He had spent seven years building it.”  Continuing to the next chapter, “It took Solomon thirteen years, however, to complete the construction of his palace.”  We learn elsewhere that this palace is approximately twice the size of the temple.

There’s a warning light flashing here.  Solomon allocates twice as much time and twice as many resources toward his own comfort as he invests in the kingdom of God. 

If your calendar and your checkbook were held to the same standard today, what would you discover about the nature of your investments?  What are you currently attempting to build – and for whose sake?

This is not to say that Solomon was wrong to build a palace for himself.  But his priorities are clearly unbalanced.  A “however” is lurking at the center of his walk with God.

Finally, during the time of Moses, God had made it clear that future kings of Israel would be powerfully tempted to cut corners when it came to spiritual priorities.  In Deuteronomy 17 there is even a list of warning signs for Israel’s leaders.

Deuteronomy 17:16 says, “The king must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself…” I Kings 10:26 reports, “Solomon accumulated chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses.”  God had said through Moses that the king must not make the people return to Egypt to get more horses.  But look at I Kings 10:28:  “Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt…”

That’s bad.  Then it gets worse. 

God had warned the people through Moses, “He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray” (Deuteronomy 17:17).  I Kings 11:3 is calculated to raise eyebrows:  “[Solomon] had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines.”  And this is the wisest man in the world? 

You know how this is supposed to work.  During the last show, Solomon is supposed to give a single rose to the woman of his choice – a lady who is one in a thousand.  Instead, he passes out a thousand roses. 

Unfortunately for Israel, this is not a reality show.  This is reality.  In I Kings 11:1 we read, “King Solomon…loved many foreign women… They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, ‘You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.’ Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.” 

That “nevertheless” is a tragic word.  God says, “Don’t do this.”  But Solomon assumes that he knows better.  The very man who oversaw the construction of the ultimate monument to Yahweh, the temple of the God of Israel, turns his own court into a veritable shopping mall for phony religions.

“Here’s the beginning of wisdom: Get wisdom!” (Proverbs 4:7)

Solomon never spoke a truer word.  But the except, however, and nevertheless of his own faith took him down a different path.

The first lesson of Proverbs, therefore, is simple and important:  If things can go sideways for the guy who gets top billing in the first verse, it can happen to us, too.

We don’t want our lives to become bright paint that covers an empty shell.

It’s not how you start.  It’s how you finish.