It is too simple a statement to say that Solomon’s biggest problem was his thirst for women. However, that was not exactly the least of his problems either. According to the way his life is chronicled in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings, Solomon had 700 wives and princesses, not to mention 300 girlfriends. Kinda makes your eyes glaze over just thinking about it, doesn’t it?
I mean, relationships are hard enough, but c’mon… 700 wives and 300 concubines?! But then, that may explain a lot right there. You can’t have relationship with that many people. Not really. Perhaps you can usethat many people. And as I said, that may just tell us a great deal about Solomon right there. He was a master at using people. The question is, did he use God as well?
That may just be why his story begins and ends the same way… with apostasy. It could very well be that Solomon thought he could use God the way he did all those women who shared his bedroom. He could manipulate God into doing whatever he wanted and whenever he wanted it. You see, Solomon not only was weak when it came to his desire for women, he constantly gave devotion to the different religions of his foreign wives.
That also explains how he used his wives. Many of them were for his political gain. Nothing more, nothing less.
One of the ways Solomon managed to build up the wealth of his personal kingdom was by making political alliances with those who previously had been Israel’s enemies. Often, these alliances were based upon his marriage to the daughter of the other country’s leader. After all, it is less likely that a king would send his armies into battle with his daughter’s husband. It is not impossible, I suppose, but certainly less likely.
These arrangements proved to be politically helpful, perhaps, but the long-range effects were devastating. When Solomon accepted foreign wives, they brought with them more than just dowries. They brought their pagan religious practices. Solomon may have been wise, but he was weak (is that an oxymoron?), and compromises are seen early on his adult life.
We are told in 1 Kings that “Solomon loved the Lord” and walked “in the statutes of David his father,” only, he made his sacrifices to Yahweh “at the high places.” Did you understand that? Neither did I, so I did a little bit of digging, and I discovered that there’s a lot of meaning in that simple word “only”… “only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.” It seems that Solomon worshiped Yahweh, the one true God of Israel, at the places of worship which had been dedicated to foreign gods. Somehow, those don’t mix very well, not in that place and in that time, and not in ours as well.
Nevertheless, early in his kingship, Solomon had a dream. God appeared to him and kind of like the genies of the ancient fairy tales, offered Solomon a wish. Now, even when he was dreaming, Solomon was no dummy. He knew his father David had had a good track record with the Lord. So, the first thing he does is remind God of what good stock he comes from. “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and hast given him a son to sit on his throne today” (3:6). Pretty shrewd, huh?
Have you ever heard of politicians riding piggyback off the good fortunes of others? It is not unlike what Solomon is doing with his father’s reputation. He reminds God of what God had done for David, and then says, “Oh, and Lord, if you’ve forgotten who his son is, that happens to be me.” It is then that Solomon asks for wisdom. “An understanding mind to govern your people,” is the way it is worded.
And according to the way the story is told, God is pleased, not so much with Solomon’s knowing on which side his bread was buttered, but because he doesn’t ask for the world. After all, he had God in a pretty vulnerable position… if there is such a thing.
God had not put any conditions on his generosity. Solomon could have really taken advantage of the situation. Instead, he asks only for one thing: an understanding mind, the Bible says. Or – and I like this translation better – “a hearing heart.” You see, Jews in that day believed the bowels were the seat of the human emotions and the heart was the center, not of feelings as much as the ability to sort things out… the intellect.
And because Solomon didn’t ask for riches or power, God gave him the wisdom he asked for and the riches and power. So, the wisdom, which was supposed to have marked Solomon’s reign as king of Israel, was seen as a direct gift from God. Needless to say, Solomon started off his kingship with a long, dreamy sleep and a big bang.
Immediately, he is confronted with the situation of the baby with two women claiming to be the rightful mother. You’re familiar with the story aren’t you? Well, just in case…
Two women, who happened to be prostitutes, came to the king and stood before him. Let’s read a bit between the lines for a moment. First of all, how would a couple of prostitutes manage to have a direct audience with the king? Well, let’s go back to what we said earlier about Solomon’s problem with women. Could it be – and yes, it probably could – that Solomon knew these women, shall we say, rather intimately?
The women live in the same house – which probably belonged to Solomon – and both gave birth within three days of each other. One woman’s newborn son died in the night. She had inadvertently smothered him while sleeping. So, she got up in the middle of the night and swapped her dead child for the other woman’s living one.
Now, they may be prostitutes, but mothers are mothers, and mothers know their babies. The woman quickly figures out what has happened and confronts the one who has done this despicable thing. But she denies having anything to do with it. So, they bring their dispute before the king.
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Solomon calls for a sword, and is ready to cut the child in two, giving half to each of the women. One of them immediately pleads for him not do such a thing, but to spare the child. Even if it means giving up the baby, this woman is prepared to do it in order to save the child’s life. When she protests, Solomon knows immediately that it is this woman who is the child’s mother and so he awards the child to her. This bit of judicious ingenuity helped, shall we say, to spread Solomon’s reputation for wisdom.
But Solomon’s life story is not that clear-cut. When you read it in 1 Kings you are given the impression that everything was fine until he got old and then it all began to fall apart. But history informs us that Solomon’s rule was more like a ravel in the hem of a garment. It began early in his leadership of Israel, slowly and without much notice. But by the time his life was over, the garment was completely gone. Following the reign of King Solomon, his people knew 500 years of tyranny toward God, and it was his weak leadership that led to much of the troubles.
You see, it is an understatement to say that Solomon lived in excess. And in order to pay for all this high living, Solomon taxed the people heavily. He worked them hard, and as the years unfold their hearts grow as hard as the toil under which they lived. If this is the blessing of God, they want nothing to do with such a God. So, in the minds and hearts of the people, if God is going to honor Solomon in such a way, and then Solomon is going to turn around and treat them so callously, God must be like Solomon and Solomon must be like God.
Do you see how it all comes together in such a mess? God’s reputation gets dragged through the mud along with that of Solomon’s.
I said at the beginning that on the surface of things it might appear that it was his lust for women that got Solomon into trouble. But actually, it was the very thing that he asked of God that led him into sin. He asked for a hearing heart, a heart of wisdom. But the writer of 1 Kings says a bit later in the story (11:4), “For 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, as was the heart of David his father.”
The problem was with Solomon’s heart, not just his women. The problem, in a nutshell, was that Solomon had a divided heart.
The word “heart” is found time after time in regard to Solomon’s story. What was it they said of his father David? He was “a man after God’s own heart.” Because of his intimate relationship with the God of Israel, David had prayed to God that he might give to his son Solomon a perfect heart (1 Chronicles 29:19). But David’s spiritual legacy cannot save his son Solomon, for when it comes to a personal relationship with God – then and now – no one else, except for Christ, can give it to us. We have to have it in our hearts for such a thing to happen.
Why the contradiction? Why does it appear that Solomon has so much going for him, including the obvious blessing of God, but in the end it all went down the tubes? Because he tried to give his heart to two masters and we all know what Jesus said about the impossibility of serving two masters. It just cannot be done.
Early in my ministry I came upon a book of devotions written by Dag Hammarskjold, the former director of the United Nations. In his book entitled Markings, Hammarskjold says something that has stuck with me for almost forty years. “You cannot play with the animal in you without becoming wholly animal, play with falsehood without forfeiting your right to truth, play with cruelty without losing your sensitivity of mind. He who wants to keep his garden tidy doesn’t reserve a plot for weeds” (my emphasis).1
That is Solomon’s problem! He tried to keep his spiritual garden tidy by reserving a plot for weeds and you simply can’t do that. Solomon had a divided heart. So the gold began to tarnish, the wealth began to fade, and Solomon’s leadership went downhill. Even with his wisdom, the one thing he hadn’t counted on was his thirst for power which, I suppose, is indeed a contradiction.
Are you familiar with Paul’s “ladder of hope” in his epistle to the Romans? “Tribulation works patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope.” Solomon had a ladder of his own. His power turned into pride; and his pride, arrogance; and his arrogance, forgetfulness of God.2 And when all was said and done, Solomon found his ladder leaning against the wrong wall. Solomon simply couldn’t control his excesses in the end.
An old man bought a new car in Texas. Even though he had never been behind the wheel of a car, he proceeded to drive it home. All went reasonably well until he turned off the main road and headed down the lane toward his ranch. A closed gate stood in the distance. He froze. He didn’t know what to do. Finally, when he got close to the gate he pulled back on the steering wheel and hollered, “WHOA!”
Well, by the time you’re on top of the gate, it’s too late to holler “Whoa!” You’ve got to be ready before then. How? By preparing your heart. You can’t do that by letting your heart be divided. If you would keep your spiritual garden tidy, you can’t reserve a plot for weeds.
A single vision of faith is what Jesus called for time and time again. It is knowing what we must do, and by the grace and help of God, doing it! We cannot be spiritual fence-straddlers and expect to be blessed of God, however that blessing is measured.
Solomon’s reign as king of Israel began and ended in apostasy. Yet, because he did give some of his heart to God, his sin was not visited upon him. But perhaps even worse, his sin was visited upon his children. Because of that, Israel had to live with the consequences of his actions for many years to come. His children learned the hard way that, as Frederick Buechner puts it, “Wisdom is more than riddles and wisecracks and court-room techniques, and in most things that mattered King Solomon was one of the wisest fools who ever wore a crown.”3
It takes a single vision of faith for our spiritual dreams to bear fruit and not be empty like Solomon’s.
So how’s your heart? I’m not asking about your physical health, though that is important. The question has to do with your spiritual condition. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus says, “for they shall see God.”And that’s a whole lot more important than being wise.
Lord, gives us an undivided heart that we might serve you wholly. When we hunger, may it be for you. When we thirst, may it be for your kingdom. When we seek, may we find, and in our finding dwell with you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1Dag Hammarskjold, Markings (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), p. 15.
2Interpreter’s Bible, III: 101
3Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 161.
––Copyright 2006, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.