King Solomon: white hat or black?

by on August 9, 2012

This is day 8 for me of writing 15 min/day (day 9 for people who started on time). I’m busy with a lot of things, but among them preparing a hermeneutics course I teach this fall. So I’m thinking a lot about biblical interpretation, and the importance of both reading widely and reading closely.

On that note, here is a question for you: In the Bible, is King Solomon a good guy or a bad guy? Perhaps you remember him from Sunday school as the wisest king the world has ever known, the son of David that God named “Jedidiah” (beloved of the Lord), the one with whom we associate the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel. Things went sour at the end of his life, I guess, if you ever read that far in 1 Kings, but that is apparently the fault of his wives, right? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The narrative about Solomon I want to focus on is in 1 Kings 2–11. There we read about the end of David’s reign, his transfer of the kingdom to his son, another son’s stab at the throne, righting of wrongs done to David (or during his reign) that for one reason or another were left up to Solomon, a God-given gift of wise rule, an incredibly extravagant temple, two appearances of the Lord to Solomon, and many more things. The reader is floored by the wealth, the wisdom, the women… Wait a minute…

It doesn’t take a Marxist to do a double-take at the opulence. But careful readers of scripture do more than a double-take: they begin to shake their heads.

First Kings is a part of what is called the Deuteronomistic History. Now, there are all kinds of ways to get lost from the main point here, about the crazy reigning opinion that Deuteronomy was “found” at (i.e., written for) the time of Josiah’s religious reforms. But forget that nonsense (unless you’re reading for comps like me). The upshot is that the narrators of the history that runs from Joshua to the end of 2 Kings assess that history in terms of the theology of Deuteronomy.

With that in mind, and with a finger in 1 Kgs 10 and 11, flip over to Deut 17:14–20. We are in the middle of the longest sermon ever preached on the 10 Commandments, and Moses is laying out the Lord’s instructions for a king. Now read this section side-by side with the description of Solomon’s reign in 1 Kgs 10–11. What do you see?


The king must be a fellow Israelite: check. He must not accumulate horses, and specifically must not go back to Egypt to get them. Oops. What about lots of wives, and lots of silver and gold? Oh, dear.

On a first pass, with Deuteronomy far from your mind, Solomon’s reign is pretty stinking impressive, I admit. But with a little digging, and a little more attention to the text, and what do you get? The narrator is subtly (or maybe not so subtly) undermining the last and greatest leader of the united monarchy, and setting you up for the division of Israel into north and south, and the eventual destruction of the temple and exile of the people of God. Despite his reputation for wisdom, Solomon is a wise guy sporting a jet black hat.

This is why hermeneutics—even at the most elementary level of sticking close to a text and knowing your English Bible—is important.

With thanks to my seminary prof Miles V. Van Pelt, who first brought the interplay of these passages to my attention a few years ago.


Deut 17: 16“Moreover, he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor shall he cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses

1 Kings 3:1Then Solomon formed a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt, and took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her to the city of David until he had finished building his own house and the house of the LORD and the wall around Jerusalem
…3Now Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David, except he sacrificed and burned incense on the high places.

1 Kings 4:. 26Solomon had 40,000 stalls of horses for his chariots, and 12,000 horsemen.

Hmm, I wonder where he got those horses. But he wasn’t supposed to multiply horses for himself, period.

And then:
6:37In the fourth year the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid, in the month of Ziv. 38In the eleventh year, in the month of Bul, which is the eighth month, the house was finished throughout all its parts and according to all its plans. So he was seven years in building it.
7:1Now Solomon was building his own house thirteen years, and he finished all his house.

He spent almost twice as long building his palace as the Temple.

6: 2As for the house which King Solomon built for the LORD, its length was sixty cubits and its width twenty cubits and its height thirty cubits.
7: 2He built the house of the forest of Lebanon; its length was 100 cubits and its width 50 cubits and its height 30 cubits, on four rows of cedar pillars with cedar beams on the pillars

If you’re keeping score at home, the Temple is 36000 cubic cubits and his palace is 150000. Ground floorspace is 1200 square cubits for the Temple and 5000 for his palace.

Yeah, black hat.

Thanks for the fleshing out of detail Alan!! :)

Isn’t it ironic though that the Lord blessed this man with such wisdom? Doesn’t sound very wise to scorn the Giver of such a gift.