Solomon made a mess of things. God loved him and gave him unique privileges. As David’s favored son Solomon was made the head of an eternal kingdom. He became God’s inaugural temple-builder—what his father sought but had been denied. God appeared to Solomon twice and gave him special gifts of wisdom and wealth. Yet Solomon soon turned away from God’s love and loved foreign wives and their gods in place of Yahweh. This offended God and led, after Solomon death, to a near collapse of the kingdom.
What went wrong? Solomon was too much a Westerner. Or, to avoid the anachronism, we Westerners can look back to Solomon as both a foreshadowing of who we are; and a warning about where we might be headed.
What do we share with Solomon? A passionate pragmatism.
Solomon was a brilliant theologian if his prayer at the consecration of the temple tells us anything. His view of God was transcendent and captivating. He was also a remarkable builder with splendid new structures everywhere. It was both literally and figuratively Israel’s golden age. He was also an astute politician and national leader. And that, it seems, is where his pragmatism prospered most. He felt he needed to form some secure alliances with the other regional kings so he adopted the custom of his era: marriage treaties with regional kings and kingdoms.
The idea made practical sense. A good father-in-law was unlikely to have a war with his son-in-law, especially if a child and grandchild or two came on the scene. So kings agreed to set up bridal treaties with each other. A major coup for Solomon, then, was to marry one of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughters—given that Egypt posed the most immediate threat to Israel’s security. After that the ever practical Solomon was quick to find other royal brides: taking wives from Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and the Hittites (1 Kings 11:1).
What came with these treaty marriages? First a foreign bride needed a local home and freedom to worship her own gods. So a host of new worship centers for foreign deities were built just beyond the Jerusalem city limits. Why these outlying locations? Because God had forbidden any intermarriage with foreigners who worshiped other gods “for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods” (1 Kings 11:2).
Yet Solomon, it seems, felt that God’s demands were impractical. And as a king Solomon wanted to protect his kingdom, no matter what God said! So he “accepted” God’s prohibition by building any false temples outside the city limits. God could have his own space that way!
Solomon was also a man of passions. When his new wives came to town he was ready to do his duties: children were needed. We can guess, by the way, that the foreign wives told him that it was important to honor their gods in such sacred moments as the procreative act. It was, Solomon probably rationalized, a small but practical step to take. Could there be any harm in offering a pinch of incense in the pretense of worship to a non-existent deity? Certainly not.
What was the result? “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” (1 Kings 11:4). God’s response? He tore the kingdom apart, except for “one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant” (verse 13).
Today we are nothing if not passionately pragmatic, wholly in line with Solomon’s wisdom. God’s word? We’re happy to follow it as long as it makes sense to us. Yet God must never block our passionate pursuit of success. We need security, don’t we? And God needs to be more realistic by accepting the space in life we leave for him.
I wonder, though, if Solomon’s heritage might offer another lesson: that, unlike us, God is not a pragmatist. He quickly shattered Solomon’s well-laid plans as soon as his son and successor came to power.
So Solomon, for all his wisdom, had been a fool. True security only comes from an impractical passion for God who knows our needs better than we do. For true wisdom we need to seek first his kingdom and righteousness; then let him take it from there.