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Twilight Musings: “The Tragedy of Solomon”

By Elton Higgs 

Recently I reread the account of King Solomon’s reign (I Kings, chapters 3-11) and was once again impressed with the tragic story of a man who began exceedingly well but ended disastrously. The story of his rise and decline is marked by the three appearances of God to him at the beginning, middle, and end of his long life as king. These messages from the Lord to Solomon occur at the humble and noble beginning of his reign (3:3-14), at the vulnerable middle when he was at the peak of his success (9:1-9), and at the shabby end (11:9-13), after he had succumbed to the temptations of lust and self-indulgence. God’s very best blessings to Solomon turned out to be snares to him. Therein we have the essential elements of a literary tragedy: the story of a man with heroic virtues whose gifts are pursued to excess and lead to the destruction of both himself and the people who have benefited from his virtuous actions.

The seeds of Solomon’s fall are there even before God appears to him the first time. In I Kings 3:1, we read, “Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt. He took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David until he had finished building his own house and the house of the Lord and the wall around Jerusalem.” This youthful marriage to a pagan bride is a foreshadowing cloud the size of a man’s hand that eventually matures into a veritable storm of apostasy by Solomon. It is ironic that reference is made to it just before the heart-warming story of the initial appearance of God to the young king, in which he pleases God by humbly asking only for “an understanding mind to govern your people” (3:9). God then assures him that he will receive not only what he has requested, but riches and honor as well (3:13), and his marriage outside of God’s people is pushed to the background.

The effect of this act works away like a dormant disease which will break out to pollute Solomon’s great achievements. Even though he must have known that he had violated God’s command not to intermarry with pagan foreigners, perhaps he rationalized that by bringing her to Jerusalem to live, her exposure to the holy project of building the Temple would temper her pagan upbringing. But far from being influenced for good by Solomon, his Egyptian wife progressively separated herself from him. First, he built her a house attached to his own, but separate (7:8), and afterward she moved even farther away, going “up from the city of David to her own house that Solomon had built for her” (9:25). The building of a separate house by Solomon for his Egyptian wife prefigures his building pagan shrines for the 700 wives and 300 concubines who led him astray at the end of his life (11:1-8).

But there is no direct reference to this shadow in the account of the celebratory events (8:1-11) leading up to the Lord’s second appearance to Solomon. The wise king is at the height of his glory and success, having just completed the building of the Temple and being at rest from all of Israel’s enemies. The whole tone of the occasion was triumphal, with the procession of the priests carrying the ark of the covenant to the Holy of Holies in the Temple, accompanied by all the treasures accumulated by David in his preparations for the building of God’s house. Moreover, there were sacrifices of “so many sheep and oxen that they could not be counted or numbered” (v.7). These actions were followed by Solomon’s magnificent dedicatory prayer (8:12-61), which stands at the peak of his success and constitutes the crux of his career, looking both backward to what has been accomplished, and forward to what will come.

It begins by acknowledging that the God who enabled Solomon to build the House of God is too great to be contained within it (in contrast to pagan idols); but embedded in the prayer were repeated references to the future sins of the people and their need for forgiveness. The primary focus in the prayer was not, as might be expected, on the physical splendor of the edifice, nor even the acts of worship that would be carried out daily there, but on the various circumstances by which the Israelites in the future would be separated from the Temple and would need to repent and pray for forgiveness. I suspect that Solomon did not realize that he was prophetically projecting the future rebellions and infidelities of God’s people, nor that these would spring from his own turning away from the Lord.

Solomon begins the body of his prayer (8:22) with three positive petitions, based on God’s faithfulness to His promises and His covenant with David and the people of Israel: (1) that God will perpetuate the placing of a descendent of David on the throne of Israel; (2) that God will honor His promise to manifest His Presence in the Temple built for Him according to His specifications; (3) and that God would always hear the prayers of His people toward this Temple, wherever they may be. This first section of the prayer is concluded by the general request, “And listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive” (8:30). This concern with God’s forgiving the sins of the people is echoed repeatedly in the following seven specific requests for God to hear and respond to the people’s prayers, four of them explicitly mentioning sins against God and His covenant that require God’s forgiveness before the people can be restored. (The remaining three reaffirm God’s intent to defend the righteous among His people and to punish those who mistreat them.) Thus, Solomon’s petitions are weighted toward the likelihood that God’s people will need to pray for and receive forgiveness for straying from God’s covenant.

In view of this cautionary tone of Solomon’s prayer, what the Lord says to the king when He appears to him a second time (9:1ff) is especially poignant, for Solomon is then at his maximum vulnerability to pride, having just completed both the Lord’s house and his own magnificent palace (the building of which, by the way, took twice as long as for the Temple; see 6:38-7:1). He is renowned for the wisdom God gave him, and he has been freed from any threat from his enemies (see I Kings 4). He has every human reason to assume that he is in good standing with the Lord. At this point,

“the Lord appeared to Solomon a second time, as He had appeared to him at Gibeon. And the Lord said to him, “I have heard your prayer and your plea, which you have made before me. I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. . . . And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked with integrity of heart and uprightness . . . , then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever . . .. But if you turn aside from following me . . . and do not keep my commandments . . . but go and serve other gods and worship them . . . then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight . . . .” (9:2-7).

 

As is typical in literary tragedy, the hero is given warnings that, if they had been seen and heeded, would have enabled the great man to avoid the errors that led to his downfall. The writer of I Kings has revealed these warnings to the reader, but they are unperceived by the hero, for he is caught up in the apparent security of his successes and is ripe for his fall. In the aftermath of God’s second appearance to Solomon, a good deal of text is devoted to picturing the opulence and glory of Solomon’s reign, including the visit from the Queen of Sheba, who further fuels Solomon’s blind pride by declaring that his wealth and wisdom exceeded all that she had heard about him (10:6-7). All of this description of Solomon’s magnificence makes abruptly shocking what comes next in the narrative.

By the time God appeared to Solomon the third time (11:9-13), he had fallen into the twin pits of lust and degenerate idolatry. We are told that “when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God,” for he built high places for the worship of abominable deities “for all his foreign wives” (I Kings 11:1-8). The story of this most favored king of Israel coming to so wretched an end, in spite of his great God-given wisdom, should raise the elements of pity and fear that great tragedy evokes: pity that Solomon allowed his blessings to become pitfalls, and fear lest we do the same.

Image:Idolatry of Solomon by Sebastiano Conca. Public Domain.

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