“And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the 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 commanded. ”
The story of Solomon is a literary tragedy worthy of the greatest of poets. As the son of David he comes to the throne of Israel in fulfilment of the promise of Yahweh to his father: that he would never lack one of his offspring to rule the kingdom of Israel (2 Sam 7:12, cf. 1 Kgs 3:6). Shortly after he consolidates the kingdom, Yahweh appears to him in a dream and offers him whatever he desires (1 Kgs 3:4-15), and Solomon requests an “understanding mind” so that he might rule rightly, and discern between good and evil (3:9). This request pleases God, and because he asked for this rather than fame, fortune or military victory, Yahweh promises him all of these other things as well. He gives him a wise and discerning mind, such that “none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you” (3:12).
The following seven chapters narrate his impressive accomplishments. Solomon succeeds in everything he undertakes: judicially, economically and militarily. He builds the temple of Yahweh and numerous palaces, he collects so much wealth that silver was “as common as stone” (10:27), he subjugates the surrounding empires, bringing rest for the people (5:4), his trade network stretches from Spain to India (10:11, 22), and his reputation for wisdom goes before him even to Sheba. Meanwhile the people of Israel become as “many as the sand by the sea. They ate and drank and were happy.” (4:20, cf. Gen 22:17)
One wonders how someone so blessed could possibly fail, and so Solomon’s apostasy in chapter 11 initially comes as something of a shock. We are told that the thousand or so women in Solomon’s life “turned away his heart” from the Lord (11:3) and Solomon worshipped other gods. As a result of his disobedience, God tears apart the kingdom (11:9-10). His son Rehoboam is left with just two tribes—for the sake of God’s promise to David (11:36)—and the infamous Jeroboam son of Nebat becomes the northern Kingdom’s first monarch.
Solomon’s failure is just as perplexing as it is tragic. Why did he fail? Wasn’t marrying seven hundred women precisely the kind of mistake that divine wisdom should have prevented? There are really only two options. Perhaps Solomon ceased to be wise. Is this the tragic story of a man who lives his entire life in wise obedience only to stumble at the finish line? It is tempting to think this, but the narrative continually drives us away from this conclusion. The seeds of the demise of Solomon’s kingdom can be discerned throughout the entire story of his rule and long before we learn of his apostasy. His wisdom sanctioned the assassination of his political rivals (2:1‑21, esp. vv. 2, 9), conscription of forced labour (5:1-12, esp. vv. 7, 12), violation of the Deuteronomic norms of kingship (10:28 cf. Deut 17:14-17), and even dealing of arms to Israel’s enemies (10:29). This is the kind of kingdom Solomon, in his wisdom, builds; and it is the heavy burden that he imposes on his own people (rather than his many wives) that accounts politically for the kingdom’s downfall in the end (12:4).
The only other possibility, uncomfortable as it may be, is that Solomon failed because wisdom itself let him down. Could it be that Solomon remained wise even in the midst of abandoning the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom? Could it be that wisdom, even in the wisest of men, isn’t what is needed to build God’s kingdom?
We must be careful with this. Wisdom is never seen as something negative in the Bible. We are urged to treasure it more than gold or silver (Prov 16:16) and to seek it in prayer (Jas 1:5). And we are continually reminded, even in Solomon’s story, that it is a good gift from the Lord (e.g. 1 Kgs 10:23-24). But neither is wisdom in and of itself the solution to the dilemma of sin and death. It turns out we are quite capable of wisely building apostate kingdoms for ourselves, and every time we do they look remarkably like Solomon’s (cf. Ezek 28:1-10).
Perhaps what God’s kingdom needs is another kind of wisdom altogether. It might sound like foolishness at first, to treasure the weak things instead of the strong, to choose the foolish things to shame the wise. But could it be that there is a secret, hidden kind of wisdom in God, which the rulers of this world don’t understand? A wisdom that must be spiritually discerned—the foolishness of God, Christ humbled and crucified as the servant king of God’s kingdom, who has become for us wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption (1 Cor 1:30)? I sure hope so. Because Solomon’s wisdom failed. Solomon’s kingdom, in all of its wealth, splendour, power and glory—and wisdom—is the best that this world can offer. And where is it now?