History Crash Course #19: King Solomon
King Solomon, the wisest of all men, built the Temple in Jerusalem and reigned over Israel's golden age.
Before David dies, he appoints as king his son Solomon, who is 12 years old at the time, with these words:
"I go the way of all the earth. You shall be strong, therefore, and show yourself a man, and keep the charge of the Lord your God to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes and His commandments and His testimonies. As it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn." (1 King 2:2-3)
This classic blessing is often quoted by fathers to their sons on the day of their Bar Mitzvah. It restates the cardinal rule that has guided the Jewish people from the time of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai: in order to prosper keep the Torah.
Shortly after Solomon is anointed king, God appears to him in a dream in which He invites Solomon to make a request for himself. Solomon answers:
"I am but a small child ... Give therefore your servant an understanding heart to judge your people..."
His request pleases God who tells him:
"Because you have not requested riches and honor but only that which would benefit all the people, I will give you not only an understanding heart like none other before or after you ... but also riches and honor like no other king in your days." (1 Kings 3:7-13)
Born in 848 BCE, Solomon dies at age 52 in 796 BCE, ruling as king for 40 years -- the best years in all of Israel's history -- 40 years of peace and prosperity. He is known as chacham mi'kol ha'adam, "wisest of all the men." The Bible relates that kings from all over the world came to hear his wisdom, which included not only Torah wisdom, but also wisdom in secular knowledge and science. 1
His fame spread through all the surrounding nations. He composed 3,000 parables, and 1,005 poems. He discoursed about trees, from the cedars of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows from the wall. He also discoursed about animals, birds, creeping things and fish. Men of all nations came to hear Solomon's wisdom, as did all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom. (1 Kings 5:11-14)
The crowning achievement of Solomon's reign is the building of the Temple which his father, King David, had dreamt about.
As we learned in the last installment in this series, King David brought the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem's Mount Moriah -- "the gate of heaven" -- but because he had been a warrior who had blood on his hands, he was not permitted by God to erect the Temple. However, this is left for his son to accomplish, which he does.
The Bible devotes several chapters (II Kings 5-7) to the construction of this most important building to the nation of Israel -- the place of communion between the Jewish people and God. It tells that the entire Temple both inside and outside, including floors and doors were overlaid with gold. Besides this there were bronze structures such as columns, an immersion tank, and basins. The magnificent structure took seven years to build.
When it is finished, Solomon dedicates the Temple:
"Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built? Yet have regard for the prayer of Your servant, and for his supplication, O Lord my God, to listen to the cry and to the prayer, which Your servant prays before You today; that Your eyes may be open toward this house night and day, toward the place of which You have said, 'My name shall be there,' that You may listen to the prayer ... of your people Israel ..." (1 Kings 8:27-29)
This is the pinnacle of Jewish history. Everyone is united. Their neighbors don't bother the Jews -- in fact, they come to learn from the Jews. There is peace and prosperity.
This is as good as it gets for Israel-the closest ancient Israel gets to achieving the Messianic ideal of creating an ideal nation that is alight to the nations. This is the zenith. So why doesn't this golden age last?
Solomon makes one serious mistake. In violation of the Torah's prohibition He takes too many wives. In fact, he has 700 wives and 300 concubines.
If we go back to the Book of Deuteronomy where the idea that Jews would one day want a king is first discussed, Moses warns that the king should not have too many horses or too many wives (Deut. 17:17). The great Torah commentator Rashi tells us that this means no more than 18, and that King David had only six.
The Torah placed limits on the number of wives and wealth the king could have so that he would stay focused on his responsibilities and not be distracted and corrupted by materialism and power. Solomon was certainly aware of these prohibitions, but felt that his great wisdom and spirituality would enable to handle these challenges and be an even greater king. Unfortunately, he did not foresee the problems that some of his many foreign wives would cause. 2
The first question is why did Solomon "need" so many wives? The answer has nothing to do with love. Throughout history the overwhelming reason for marriage amongst nobility and royalty was to create political alliances.
The Middle East in Solomon's time is made up of many city-states and all the kings of these city-states want to send their daughters to marry King Solomon and in this way form an alliance with him. Solomon may also have had an additional reason-his marriages to these foreign wives were his way of bringing these nations closer to God. 3
Before we can deal with the problems some of these wives caused, we have to deal with a bigger question. King Solomon married Gentile women? Obviously not. Before they married the king they had to convert to Judaism. But that leads to another question. The Talmud states:
We (the Jewish people) will not accept converts in the Messianic Era, similarly, they did not accept converts, neither during the time of [King] David, nor during the time of [King] Solomon. (Avodah Zarah 3b)
The motivation to convert should come solely out of a love of truth and a sincere desire to join the Jewish People despite the tremendous obligations that a Jewish lifestyle entails and the external dangers that the Jewish People have always faced. In short-the prospective convert must demonstrate total commitment in spite of any difficulties or danger. The past reign's of David and Solomon and especially the future Messianic Era are , idyllic periods when the Jewish people enjoy peace, prosperity and a leadership role amongst the nations. During these periods there were (and will be) many people who wished to join the Jewish People, not out a desire for truth, but rather for benefit. Such insincere conversions were not accepted, and will not be accepted in the future.
So how did King Solomon marry foreign women? The answer is that an exception was made for the future wives of the king and a special court was set up to handle their conversions. Since many of these weddings were arranged for political reasons it is certain that some of the conversion were not entirely sincere nor did all Solomon's wives completely abandon their idolatrous practices.
As with Moses and David, we again see the incredible level of accountability that these great leaders are held to. For a wife of King Solomon, prophet, wisest of all men, King of Israel, to worship idols is an inexcusable mistake that Solomon is held directly accountable for.
In his old age, his wives turned away Solomon's heart after other gods. (1 Kings 11:4-5).
This, of course, does not mean that King Solomon became an idolater, but the Bible uses these harsh words because he did not prevent his wives from carrying on their idolatrous practices. As a king, he is held responsible for the actions of those under his influence.
One of the greatest leaders of the Jewish people, a man on his spiritual level -- who wrote the Song of Songs, the Book of Ecclesiastes, and the Book of Proverbs -- must be suffering eternal pain in heaven knowing what has been written about him in the Bible.4
Not only is criticism of Solomon harsh, but as with other great Jewish leaders, so are the consequences of his mistakes. The Bible ends Solomon's story relating that God was angry with him and told him:
"Since you are guilty of this, and you have not kept My covenant and My laws ... I will tear the kingdom away from you ... But I will not do this in your time, for the sake of your father David. Instead, I will tear it away from your son ... I will give your son one tribe for the sake of My servant David, and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen." (1 Kings 11:9-13)
It is clear from this how much God loved King David and how completely He had forgiven him for his faults. It is also clear that hard times are coming for the Jewish people as the kingdom of Israel is about to be torn in half.
1) See Talmud, Eruvin 21b.
2) see: Talmud-Shabbat 56b; Sanhedrin 21b.
3) see: Midrash, Shir HaShirim Rabbah I, 1:10
4) For a detailed discussion of Solomon's wives see: Talmud-Shabbat 56b; Sanhedrin 21b. The Talmud especially criticizes Solomon's marriage to the Daughter of Pharaoh Necho of Egypt. While this marriage was a major political coup for Solomon, the princess's secret idolatrous activities would sew the seeds for many problems in the future.