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7-5-7 Solomon And Wisdom

Solomon's Attitude To True Wisdom

Proverbs has so very many examples of Solomon teaching the very wisdom which he himself so categorically refused to obey, not least in the area of the "strange [Gentile] woman". Solomon married "strange women" i.e. Gentiles (1 Kings 11:1) and was led astray by them. Yet at the very time he was marrying them, he wrote in his wisdom that the words of wisdom would preserve / keep / defend a Jewish man from being damaged by them (Prov. 2:16; 6:24; 7:5). The connection would seem to suggest that Solomon reasoned that because he had wisdom, because he had 'the truth', he could therefore enjoy these "strange women" without them corrupting his heart; because he had wisdom. Thus he thought that mere possession of Divine truth was some kind of insurance policy against moral sin being counted to him. And so many have gone down this road; so many who knew more true theology than many have at the same time made an awful mess of their personal lives, just as Solomon did. This is why the higher one goes in the echelons of Christian organizations, the greater the learning and knowledge a person has, the more powerful is the tendency towards gross hypocrisy in moral terms. The point is, of course, that all the knowledge of God which we quite rightly seek after must be personally applied. The very possession of it and teaching of it to others can of itself make a man or woman demotivated to personally apply it. He foretold that the people would sign when a wicked man ruled them (Prov. 29:2 RV)- and they did "sigh" because of the heavy burdens he placed upon them (1 Kings 12:4). He imposed the "yoke" of tribute upon the people (2 Chron. 10:4), whereas he himself had warned that a king that imposes tribute on his people "overthrows" a country (Prov. 29:4 RV mg.). He saw it all as true- and yet it was far from him personally.

Solomon forgot that his wisdom was a gift from God; he speaks in Ecc. 1:16 of how “I have gotten me great wisdom” (RV). His possession of truth led him to the assumption that this was a reward for his own diligence; whereas it was a gift by grace. Yet he himself knew that the wisdom given by God brings joy, whereas human wisdom leads to the grief and depression which afflicted Solomon (Ecc. 1:18 cp. 2:26). Solomon  'had  the truth', he knew so deeply the true principles of  Yahweh  worship.  But  like  us,  he scarcely considered the enormity  of the gap between the theory he knew and the practice of  it  in  his  own  heart  and living. We too have a tendency to build up masses of Biblical and spiritual knowledge, and to let the mere acquisition of it stop us from practicing it. He flouted the explicit commandments  not to get horses from Egypt, not to marry Gentile women,  and  not  to multiply silver and gold (Dt. 17:17,18 cp. 1 Kings  10:21-29).  At  the  end  of his days, he recognized that although  he  had  loved  the  theory  of wisdom, the image of a spiritual  life, the wisdom of God had never really impacted his soul: " I said, I will be wise (referring back to his request for wisdom  in  1  Kings 3); but it was far from me" (Ecc. 7:23). His request  for wisdom had only been so that he could do the job of leading  Israel, living out the parental expectation of his father, whom he admits in Proverbs 4 had taught him to ask for wisdom.  In Prov. 19:12 he speaks as if his own wisdom was like the dew coming down- as if he felt that the mere possession of wisdom made him the Messiah figure which his father had so hoped for him to be in Ps. 72:6). And he says as much in Prov. 29:3: “Whoso loveth wisdom [exactly what Solomon was commended for doing] rejoiceth his father”. He saw his wisdom and knowledge as some sort of a reward in themselves: “the prudent are crowned with knowledge” (Prov. 14:18). This is of course true in a sense, as all the Proverbs are. But Solomon surely had the idea that he, who was so renowned for his knowledge, was somehow thereby rewarded by having it. This assumption by Solomon was likely behind each of the many references he makes to the value of wisdom and the blessedness of the man who has it. It is rather like feeling that ‘we have the truth’ because somehow our correct understanding of doctrines is a reward for our righteousness, and mere possession of doctrinal truth means that we are acceptable to God.  

The description of the " largeness" of heart in 1 Kings 4:29 uses the  same word used about the largeness of the land of Israel in Ex. 3:8; Neh. 9:35; his wisdom was " as the sand that is on the sea shore"   (1  Kings  4:29)  as Israel were described in Gen. 22:17. Even  in  his  spiritual  collapse  at the time of Ecclesiastes, Solomon  still  taught  Israel  true  wisdom,  and organized his wisdom into more accessible books (Ecc. 12:9-12), giving himself the title “koheleth” (‘the preacher’). And yet he himself tried alcohol, wealth, women, indeed every addiction, in order to “see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven” (Ecc. 2:3). And yet he knew from childhood the conclusion of the matter- man’s duty is to fear God and be obedient (Ecc. 12:13). He who had been given wisdom started out in a search for it… showing clearly enough that what he knew was so much theory, but never touched his own heart. Solomon taught wisdom to the youngsters, but he gave himself over to search for some kind of vague philosophical truth outside of God. 

Having admitted his wisdom was " far from me" personally, Solomon then  recognized  that he was a mixture of wise saint in theory, and  utter sinner in practice: " God giveth to a man that is good in  his  sight  wisdom,  and  knowledge  and  joy  (as he did to Solomon,  Song  3:11)...but  to the sinner he giveth travail (as Solomon  complained  he  had  in Ecclesiastes, 1:13; 2:23; 3:10; 4:4),  to  gather  and  to  heap  up  (the same word is used re. Solomon's  " store  cities" )  "   (Ecc. 2:26).  Yet  Solomon wasn't bothered  to  do  anything  about  his  chronic 'little of both' syndrome- a temptation many of us must know keenly. He knew that he  had  been  given  Divine  wisdom, but the wonder of it meant little  to  him;  he  became  so  accustomed to using it for the benefit  of  others  and  sharing  it  with  them that it became meaningless for him personally. The way this wisdom was “far from me” is truly tragic to behold in Solomon. He had spoken by that wisdom in Proverbs of bringing up a child in the way he should go; whereas by the time of Ecc. 2:19 and his experience with his own children, he comments about his heir: “Who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool?”. He simply didn’t see the relevance of his wisdom to his own personal family life. Yet he proudly insisted: “Who is as the wise man?”, as if the possession of theoretical truth and wisdom was the ultimate possession; and he then goes on to say that this made him beyond criticism (Ecc. 8:2-4). This surely must be a danger for any community or individual who considers they have “the truth” and who considers the possession of it to be of the utmost importance. 

" What  hath  the  wise  more than the fool?" (Ecc. 6:8) shows how effectively he despised his wisdom; he lost sight of the Kingdom which  it  led to ultimately, and the God manifestation which it could  enable in this life. He had written in his Proverbs that the ruler who lacks wisdom will oppress his people (28:16); and although his wisdom remained with him right to the end, in terms of knowledge (Ecc. 2:9; 12:10), yet at the end end of his reign Solomon was the ruler who did oppress his people. And he had gone on in Prov. 28:16 to warn against covetousness in a ruler, even though he went ahead with practicing every conceivable form of it in Ecc. 2. “Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh” (Ecc. 11:10) Solomon taught- and yet Solomon in Ecclesiastes is the very picture of such a person.  Like the lung cancer specialist who smokes, the experienced pilot who takes off with frozen wings and then crashes, so Solomon’s very wisdom somehow disinclined him to living it out in practice. This is the perversity of our nature- the higher we may rise, the deeper we are inclined to fall. Further than all this, Solomon even seems to have come close to despising the wisdom he had been given. He refers to himself when he writes at the end of his life of the man whose labour is in wisdom [cp. his labouring to write out so many Proverbs], and yet it is all pointless in that he will leave it all to a fool after him- he had already seen the unspirituality of his children (Ecc. 2:21). This thinking reflects a perception that his wisdom was totally irrelevant to himself- he wrote it all down for others, but not for himself. Right at the end of Ecclesiastes he chuffles that he still preaches his wisdom to the youth, although he himself has the attitude that it is all meaningless. This is one explanation of the paradox within Ecclesiastes- the teaching of Divine truth, whilst lamenting the pointlessness of it.  

The blasphemy of those statements in Ecclesiastes  that  wisdom is meaningless is hard to plumb. Deep within  his  heart, Solomon's attitude was that " As it happeneth to  the  fool,  so it happeneth even to me (the man made wise by God);  and why was I then more wise?" (Ecc.2:15). Ecc.7:16 is in similar  vein: " Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over  wise" -  even  though wisdom and righteousness are what God desires  from  us  above  all!  This despising of wisdom and the truly  spiritually  ambitious  life was due to Solomon's lack of faith in a resurrection; he had his kingdom in this life, and he failed to see the blinding necessity of a resurrection, judgment and  change  of nature. In the end, Solomon felt that for himself, it was as well to be righteous as to be wicked, for in death there was no further difference (Ecc. 9:2,5,9). He knows judgment will come (Ecc. 11:9), at least for the young people, but he reasons as if it won’t- at least not for him. He knows, but he doesn’t know on the personal, experiential level. This is why there are apparently contradictory statements in Ecclesiastes. For example, the wise dies as the fool, with no more eternal remembrance than the fool (Ecc. 2:15,16). This, Solomon, says, is what he himself believes in his own heart. But in 7:12 he says that wisdom gives life to those who have it. But then again in 9:16-18 he observes that although wisdom can help, it’s benefits are easily undone, so easily as to make it useless. I don’t see these different perspectives as being the difference between life in the world and life in the spiritual realm. They are all spoken with conviction by Solomon, which, to my mind, ruins the idea that he himself believed the Truth but was simply outlining what life is like without God. He advocates both ways. My resolution of this is that he knew and preached God’s Truth, but for him personally, it meant nothing at all. And therefore in practice he advocated the life of self-enjoyment, acting as if all the other truth of wisdom was not operative in practice. His final reccommendation in Ecc. 12 is for young people to go the way of wisdom, as this is their duty. He had evidently minimized the coming of judgment, as his obsession with himself being the Messiah had lead him to minimize the reality of the coming of Christ. How deeply do we struggle with our own humanity,  and  deeply long for the second coming? Has our materialism made the  Hope  of  the  Kingdom  mean practically nothing? Solomon's complaint  at  the  pointlessness  of  wisdom in Ecc. 2:15-20 is liberally sprinkled with personal pronouns; his self-centredness was  part  of  his materialism and lack of faith in the Kingdom. And  for  us  too,  familiarity  with the glorious principles of Divine  Truth  with  which we have been entrusted can lead us to the  blasphemy  of  saying, in effect, that those principles are unimportant;  they  come  to  mean  little to us personally, and thereby we effectively deny their value and worth.

Because of all this, despite having such knowledge and wisdom with which to rule Israel (for this was the primary purpose of the gift of wisdom to him), Solomon oppressed his people. With evident reference to himself, he commented: “Becauze the king’s word hath power, who may say unto him, What doest thou?” (Ecc. 8:4 RV). It is only God who cannot be questioned in this way. But Solomon felt that because he possessed God’s wisdom, he could therefore act as God: “I counsel thee, Keep the King’s command, and that in regard of the oath of God” (Ecc. 8:2) could suggest that he thought that his commandments were in fact God’s. So the possession of Truth, which we too have, can lead to an incredible arrogance, a lack of openness to others’ comments upon us, and a certainty that we are right in all that we do and are beyond criticism. The hardness of a man is changed by true wisdom (Ecc. 8:1 RV), but knowing this, Solomon became hard hearted. He had the wisdom- but as he said, it was far from him personally.  

Solomon made the classic mistake of assuming that his will and word were effectively equivalent to the word of God. In Prov. 6:21 he speaks of the need to bind the law about your heart and neck; but in Song 8:6 he asks his Gentile lover to “set ME as a seal upon thine heart” and arm. And often in Proverbs he uses the language of the blessings for keeping God’s law and turns them into the blessings for keeping his law; e.g.  “My son, keep my words, and lay up my commandments with thee. Keep my commandments, and live; and my law as the apple of thine eye. Bind them upon thy fingers, write them upon the table of thine heart” (Prov. 7:1,2). And we all do the same in essence, whenever we assume that our consciences are effectively the will of God; when we ‘play God’ by allowing our words and will to count as if they are His word. Even early on, Solomon had a way of spinning things, even God’s word, in his own selfish way. David had insisted that God had told him that he couldn’t build the temple because he had shed so much blood in war (1 Chron. 22:8). But Solomon just slightly spins this when he asks Hiram to come and help him build the temple, because, he says, his father David hadn’t had the time to get around to the job because of being busy fighting wars (1 Kings 5:3). He says nothing about David shedding blood; the moral aspect of it all is nicely ignored by Solomon.  

Theory And Practice

Dt. 17:17-20 is a warning to the King of Israel not to multiply horses and wives, lest his heart be turned away. It’s a conscious prediction of Solomon’s apostasy. But one result of such behaviour would be that the King’s heart would be “lifted up” above his brethren (Dt. 17:20)- and this is exactly what happened to Solomon. He came to see himself as somehow above the rest of humanity, to the extent that he was convinced that he was acceptable to God, and that he could abuse his brethren because…he had wisdom. Significantly, Solomon uses the same Hebrew word translated “lifted up” in Dt. 17:20 in Prov. 4:8, when he speaks of how the possession of wisdom will “exalt” or lift up a person. He came to think that his mere possession of true wisdom gave him a superiority over others, and thus he was lifted up above his brethren. There are major warnings here for us, who for generations have possessed more Bible truth than any other church on earth. It has , sadly, led to a lifting up of many of our hearts above our fellow man and even our fellow brethren… Yet this doesn’t take away from the wonderful truth of it all.

For Solomon, his "wisdom" was merely knowledge. The promises to David, the hope of the Kingdom, had no personal bite for him. He muses that "there is a time" for everything (Ecc. 3:1-7), as if his nihilism led him conclude that all behaviour is somehow predestined, all is cyclical, nothing is ultimately new, and even God is caught up in this- for "God seeks again that which He has driven away" (Ecc. 3:15). As water goes around the water cycle (Ecc. 1:7), so everything repeats, things just happen to us (Ecc. 3:1-8), there will be no resurrection, no coming back (Ecc. 3:22 RV); and there is therefore no real point in endeavour (Ecc. 3:9). This attitude reveals a pathetic failure to let the knowledge of God dynamically impact daily life; there's no appreciation of the Spirit, of God's radical life co-joining with human life, of His mind meeting that of man. Leaving knowledge as mere theory, as so much Bible study can too easily remain, is a dangerous thing. And Solomon is the parade example of it.

Solomon's Attitude To The Bible

Solomon's lack of sensitivity to God's word led him to be tragically insenitive to people; in short, he showed no love. The way Solomon raised a "levy" or tribute from Israel, whereby the men of Israel had to serve him one month out of three and 'bear burdens', with 3,300 taskmasters over them (1 Kings 5:13-15), who 'bore rule' over (Heb. 'trampled down') the people (1 Kings 5:16)... is all reminiscent of Samuel's warning about the kind of King which Israel would have. And the language also recalls their bondage in Egypt; note that the levy was also in order to build treasure cities for Solomon, just as Pharaoh did (1 Kings 9:19). The Hebrew word for "levy" in 1 Kings 5:13 strictly means 'a burden causing to faint', and is rendered "taskmaster" in the record of Israel's suffering in Egypt (Ex. 1:11). One even wonders if Solomon's father-in-law- who also happened to be a Pharaoh of Egypt- influenced him (consciously or unconsciously) to act like the Exodus Pharaoh.

This levy was evidently one of the reasons which led the next generation to complain that Solomon had chastised the people with whips (1 Kings 12:11; the happiness of the people which the Queen of Sheba observed in 1 Kings 10:8 was therefore just an impression Solomon arranged for her to receive). Yet "this is the reason of the levy which king Solomon raised: in order to build the house of the Lord, and his own house..." (1 Kings 9:15). Solomon justified his zest for power and control by saying it was in order to do the Lord's work, to build His house... and yet had he listened to God's word more carefully, he would have realized that the true house of Yahweh was in fact people... yet Solomon abused people in order to build a visible house for God. And so very often religious people have gone down the same path- devaluing the meaning and value of persons, because they want to be seen as achieving something visible for God, no matter how many people they abuse on the way. The ends simply don't justify the means; Solomon told himself that they did, and he ended up as bad as Saul and Pharaoh, who are alluded to in the records of his levy of slaves from Israel. And yet the 1 Kings record gives the impression of all happily working together to create a great temple for God. When we probe deeper, we find this was far from the case. The huge amount of labour required- 80,000 men hewing stone alone (1 Kings 5:15)- was nothing more than Solomon acting like Pharaoh, using taskmasters to trample down / rule over the people to achieve his quotas and enable his building fantasies to become reality. The Hebrew word translated "bear rule over' (Heb. 'to trample down') in 1 Kings 5:16 is that which we find in the Law's prohibition of this in Lev. 25:46: "But over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule over one another with rigour". Solomon knew the Law, and he rambles on in Proverbs about the need to read, love and obey that law. And yet he thought that he could give that one a miss, 'because I am doing God's work and building His house'. And how many a believer has ended up missing the entire point of God's law, the very essence of Christianity, because of their obsession with serving God in a form which is effectively merely serving themselves, excusing their fantasies in the name of doing God service. It's the process of Solomon's apostacy which is so instructive; for he justified himself by saying that he was doing God's work. He didn't simply quit on God.

David had prophesied that his great son would "have dominion from sea to sea" (Ps. 72:8). 'Have dominion' is again the Hebrew word translated 'rule over' in 1 Kings 5:15. David's vision of his Messianic son having a world-wide Kingdom, in which all people blessed him for his grace and benificence, was abused by Solomon into justifying 'having dominion' over people as his personal slaves; and they certainly didn't bless him for it but rather complained (1 Kings 12:11). It's as if Solomon grabbed the word 'rule over / have dominion', wrenched it out of context, and used it to justify his actions, giving a quasi-Biblical justification to his pure selfishness. This is where knowledge of God's word can be a dangerous thing; leading people into a stronger self-justification than they would otherwise have had if they were guided by self-recognized greed alone. And so in this context we read that whilst Solomon was madly building the temple, "the word of the LORD came to Solomon, saying, Concerning this house which thou art in building, if thou wilt walk in my statutes, and execute my judgments, and keep all my commandments to walk in them; then will I establish my word with thee, which I spake unto David thy father" (1 Kings 6:11,12). There appears no particular need for the phrase "Concerning this house which thou art in building"- it appears somewhat redundant, until we realize that God is saying 'OK I see you are building this house, thinking you are so obedient to my word; well, get on and keep my word in reality, and then the promises to David will apply to you'. Activity supposedly in God's service can lead us to think that of course we are being obedient to His word... when the very obsession of the activity may be blinding us to the fact that we aren't at all. There's no record that Solomon responded positively to God's warning words- 1 Kings 6:14 states that "So Solomon built the house, and finished it". We are expecting to hear Solomon respond to God- but instead, he gets on with building again.

There was no sense in Solomon that he might have the possibility of failure, of rejection by God. The promises to David were conditional- David pointed this out to Solomon in 1 Kings 2: 4: "If thy children take heed to their way...". But Solomon misquotes this in 1 Kings 8:25: "Now therefore, O LORD, the God of Israel, keep with thy servant David my father that which thou hast promised him, saying, There shall not fail thee a man in my sight to sit on the throne of Israel; so that thy children take heed to their way to walk before me as thou hast walked before me". Some translations offer paraphrases of the difficult "so that" phrase. But there's no getting around it. Solomon is saying 'Give me what you promised me, without conditions, so that I will fulfil those conditions... it's not possible for anyone to fulfil those conditions unless you first give them what you conditionally promised'. The logic is all upside down, and is very demanding upon God, implying that any failure to "take heed to the way" would be because God hadn't given what He promised. It's a telling insight into Solomon's mind. It was all about him, rather than all about God and glorifying Him.

Note that all this happened at the very start of Solomon's reign; it seems to me that he was always on the wrong track, rather than as it were 'going wrong' later on.