Solomon offered us an upside-down gift. His bold curiosity—part of his famous wisdom—led him to explore both good and evil. This quest led to his confused Bible profile: a man of vast wealth, intelligence, and privilege; but also a profligate and apostate soul. So a gift he offers is a warning … of what not to chase in life!
Let’s start with curiosity. It’s a life motor we all share—and Solomon had it in spades. Children ask why birds can fly and we can’t. Or how fish can breath underwater. Or how long it takes a hand in a flame to burn. Eventually they want to know what adults are talking about. And, like Solomon, whether disobedience is better than obedience. Solomon, in fact, wanted to know the full spectrum of good and evil by first hand experience.
We can pause here. The more curious we are, the more we learn. But certain dangers come with it. Some of the most curious among us—the great “explorers” in history—died in their quests. In the late 1940’s a number of flyers crashed as they tried to fly faster than the speed of sound. Some explorers were lost on trips into Arctic regions; or, more recently, on trips into space.
Now back to Solomon. I share the traditional view that he wrote Ecclesiastes; and with that his Bible biography and the theme of Ecclesiastes are a hand-in-glove match. As in the historical narratives his book reflects an avid mind searching every corner of life for a unique sense of fulfillment and gratification. He was an early existentialist—a prophet for Epicurean longings.
In Ecclesiastes Solomon saw the apparent circularity of life as a stifling boundary. The repeated seasons and rain cycles stay within predictable tracks. Even major insights about life and religion are only rediscoveries … so that no thought or action is truly original. And if that’s the case there’s no space for a creative soul—like Solomon—to make a difference.
Still, Solomon reviewed all of life but with more curious energy and persistence than others bring. He began with a positive goal: “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (1:13). One key insight soon emerged: human brokenness. So he pressed ahead: “I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly” (1:17).
Next he explored pleasure in a bold hedonistic plunge. “And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (2:10).
His conclusion is disappointing. At the end of his pursuits he reported that vanity—an absence of any meaning or satisfaction—is the end to every pathway he traveled. And fulfillment in life “is from the hand of God” and is granted to the “one who pleases” God (2:24-26).
The portrayal of Solomon’s life in the narrative Bible summaries mesh well with Ecclesiastes: he didn’t like boundaries. Very few men are willing to marry 700 wives while also collecting 300 concubines as Solomon did (1 Kings 11)! In part this represented his treaties with regional city-state rulers who provided a daughter as a treaty-bride to seal the deal. But still…!
The bottom line was that none of this helped Solomon grow closer to God: “And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel…” (1 Kings 11:9). And his failures were still a sore point much later, in Nehemiah 13:26-27—“Did not Solomon … sin on account of such women?”
So, you might be asking by now, “Where’s the gift in all of this?” Just this. He gives us a clearer view of what comes in worshiping the creation rather the Creator. We all learn best by direct experience. But we can also borrow from the experiences of others to build an extended version of experience through their lessons. Solomon gives us this benefit.
I’m thankful, for instance, that others have learned the lessons of flying so that by now, through the corporate experience of airlines, I regularly fly off to Europe or Africa without learning all the lessons of flight on my own. And when Solomon made it his goal to pursue wisdom, power, and wealth with as much gusto as possible, I can borrow his experience and say, with him, “It’s all vanity—folly and nonsense!” And then I can look in new directions!
So what’s left for us? Here’s an option. Take advantage of the gift of Solomon’s bad track record. You’ll be all the wiser for it. And see what God offers us as alternatives.
For instance, when I first met Jesus speaking through Matthew’s gospel, he invited me to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” I embraced the call and it’s been a great run so far. And I suspect there’s enough left to explore to last for eternity!