In two previous posts I wrote about why we should look to the Old Testament to find examples for us to follow, whether of things to avoid, or of things to emulate. My last post focused on the positive example of David in his battle with Goliath. In this post I want to look at Solomon, who early in his reign is a positive example of faith and wise-living, but who increasingly becomes a negative example of the dangers of wealth, power, and idolatry, among other things.
First, however, we need to jump back in time, to Moses' day. As the Israelites were on the verge of entering the Promised Land, Moses preached to them about what God would require of his people so that they would not be exiled from the land once they had taken possession of it. Deuteronomy, in fact, is largely comprised of Moses' sermons expressing God's commitment to Israel, and Israel's necessary response of faithfulness to God. Among the many things that Israel needs to know are the qualifications for its future kings, which are laid out for us in Deut 17:14-20. The king must be an Israelite (v. 15); he "must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses" (v. 16); he must "not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away" to idolatry (v. 17); he must not "acquire for himself excessive silver and gold" (v. 17); and finally, he must diligently and humbly keep God's law (v. 18). In sum, Israel's king must avoid trusting in earthly power (symbolized by horses), idolatry, resting in wealth, and neglecting God's commands.
How does Solomon fare when held up to the standard set out in Deuteronomy 17? Early in his kingdom, he does fairly well. At the beginning of his reign he is said to have "loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father" (1 Kings 3:3), although even at this early point in Solomon's kingship there are some worrying signs: he marries a daughter of Pharaoh (1 Kings 3:1; see Deut 17:17), and performs sacrifices and offerings "at the high places" (1 Kings 3:3). On the positive side, Solomon prays for wisdom, and expresses genuine humility in doing so (1 Kings 3:9-14).
When read in light of the kingly requirements of Deuteronomy 17, we soon see additional hints of problems that will emerge later in Solomon's life. 1 Kings 4:26, for example, notes that "Solomon had 40,000 stalls of horses for his chariots, and 12,000 horsemen" (see Deut 17:16). These large numbers are not necessarily sinful, but as Deuteronomy warns, such a large accumulation of horses will tempt Israel's kings to trust in their own military might, rather than in the power of God to save his people. Later in his reign, we receive an extensive account of the extravagant wealth of Solomon's court (1 Kings 10:14-29), which includes such exotic items as ivory, apes and peacocks (v. 22). We also once again read of the extremely large number of horses in his possession, and even more ominously, of how many of them were imported from Egypt (again see Deut 17:16: "he must not . . . cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses"). It is not coincidental that in the very next chapter (1 Kings 11) the narration turns to the beginnings of Solomon's downfall.
In 1 Kings 11 we read that Solomon "loved many foreign women" (v. 1), a statement that is surely meant to evoke Deut 17:17 (Israel's king must "not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away"). Solomon's love of these women violates God's warning to his people that they should "not enter into marriage with them, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods" (1 Kings 11:2, possibly alluding to texts like Exod 34:16). In his old age these wives "turned away [Solomon's] heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God" (v. 4). The rest of 1 Kings 11 is a sad tale of the increasing discipline of Solomon by God for his idolatry, and the havoc this discipline wreaks upon the entire nation of Israel.
What can Solomon's life teach believers today? Are there lessons we can learn? The first—and most foundational—thing we learn from Solomon's life (and repeated to varying degrees with all of Israel's kings) is that there is no hope for God's people unless a different kind of king arrives on the scene. The godly king of Deuteronomy 17, fully devoted to the Lord and to a perfect keeping of His law, never shows up in the Old Testament (which is true even of David, the "man after God's own heart"). Ultimately, Israel awaits a king who will guide and protect them and deliver them from all of their enemies (including their own sin, the enemy within).
Jesus Christ, of course, is that king. He is the one who has come as a "ruler who will shepherd my people Israel" (Matt 2:6, quoting Micah 5:2 and possibly alluding to Ezek 34:23). Jesus is the king whom God has raised up as "a horn of salvation" in "the house of his servant David . . . that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us" (Luke 1:69, 71). Jesus has come "to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins" (Luke 1:77). In short, we learn from Solomon's life to look elsewhere than to Israel's human kings to deliver us. It is God alone who saves.
How, then, does Solomon function as an example for believers? While there are positive lessons to learn from Solomon's life, there are also many negatives. Solomon, as a king, is very different from us, but as a sinner with divided loyalties and a propensity to turn away from God, he is all too like us today. In fact, we can see in his life many of the most pressing temptations that all believers face in every age, namely, the temptations that come along with money, power, and love, as well as the idolatry that so easily takes root in our hearts. Solomon's devotion to the Lord was primarily weakened because he "clung to [his wives] in love" (1 Kings 11:2) and allowed their pagan idolatry to turn his heart from God. Love is a powerful emotion, one that must be carefully guarded. The history of the world, and of the church, gives us story after story where the power of loving desire has led many to their ruin. God is love. That is why human love is such a powerful (and dangerous) thing: it easily becomes a false substitute for God's love. If our hearts are not fixed on our Lord, love for others will become all consuming, and as with Solomon, will easily lead our hearts away from God so that we too become "not wholly true to the Lord [our] God" (1 Kings 11:4). Similar things could be said of Solomon's trusting in his own wealth and military power.
Faithful biblical teaching and preaching attends to the heart. Its lays open before us and before God all of our many sins, so that we can see how desperately we need a savior. One way it does this is by pointing us to examples. We see in positive examples of faith a model for our own faith (the subject of my last post). However, negative examples are important too: we learn from these examples about the multitude of sinful desires that have been with us since Adam's fall, the sins "that so easily entangle" us (Heb 12:1) and lead us away from our loving heavenly Father. Instead of merely condemning the folly and rebellion of the saints and sinners we encounter in the Old Testament, let us examine our own hearts, lest those same sins entangle us too.
Dr. Ben C. Dunson is professor of New Testament at Reformation Bible College.