King Solomon and the Iron WorkerChristian Schussele (1863)
The popular view of Solomon is that he was one of the wisest men that ever lived. The Bible says that “people came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (1 Kings 4:34). Solomon was known as a famous author. Solomon “composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five”(1 Kings 4:32). Solomon was also a good businessman. “Solomon had a fleet of ships of Tarshish at sea with the fleet of Hiram. Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks” (1 Kings 10:22). Through his business ventures, Solomon became a very rich man (1 Kings 10:23).
The biblical story of Solomon presents a contradictory picture of Solomon as king. After Solomon was anointed king of Israel, Solomon went to the high place at Gibeon to seek God’s blessing upon his kingdom. At Gibeon, God appeared to Solomon in a dream by night and said to him, “Ask what I should give you” (1 Kings 3:5). Solomon prayed, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9). God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, . . . I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you” (1 Kings 3:11, 13).
Solomon began his reign with God’s promise of success but ended his reign with the disapproval of God, “the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the LORD” (1 Kings 11:9). A detailed study of Solomon’s reign reveals that Solomon became perverted by greed and success, and in so doing, disregarded the very promise which God had given him to wisely govern his people.
Solomon was the son of David with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, the woman with whom David had an illicit affair. Solomon was born during a time when the kingdom was very powerful and had few enemies. Solomon’s birth occurred after the tragic death of David’s and Bathsheba’s first child. When Solomon was born, “the LORD loved him” (2 Samuel 12:24). The LORD sent a message to David by the prophet Nathan to name the child “Jedidiah,” “Beloved of the Lord.” Probably Jedidiah was the real name of the child, and that Solomon was his throne name.
Solomon is not mentioned again until the old age of David and the struggle for David’s throne. Adonijah, David’s eldest son, had proclaimed himself king after his father David, but David declared that Solomon would be king after his death. At the command of David, “the priest Zadok, the prophet Nathan, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites, went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule, and led him to Gihon. There the priest Zadok took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon” (1 Kings 1:38–39). Solomon became the first king of the dynasty of David which survived until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE.
As King David lay dying, David left Solomon with these last words of advice; “My time to die is near. Be a good and strong leader. Obey the Lord your God. Follow him by obeying his demands, his commands, his laws, and his rules…If you obey the Lord, he will keep the promise he made to me” (1 Kings 2:2–4). After Solomon eliminated all threats to his throne, including Joab, the commander of David’s army, and Adonijah, David’s eldest son, Solomon moved to establish his throne and promote the prosperity of his kingdom.
Solomon turned his full attention to enlarge the economy of his kingdom and to develop an extensive building program that would become the symbol of the unity and greatness of his kingdom. It is the process of establishing his kingdom that provides a glimpse of the problems Solomon would face throughout his reign. Solomon struggled with maintaining his faithfulness to Yahweh while at the same time yielding so much personal power. Solomon struggled between being a faithful follower of Yahweh and a ruthless oppressor of his people.
The beginning of Solomon’s reign (1 Kings 3–9) is considered the golden age of Israel’s past, a time when a good king was on the throne of Israel, blessed by God with wisdom, wealth, and an empire that stretched from the Egyptian frontier to the Euphrates. This “Golden Age” presents a successful king who is bringing prosperity to his kingdom and a nation that is growing and expanding its influence throughout the region, “People from every nation came to consult him and to hear the wisdom God had given him” (1 Kings 10:24 NIV).
The prosperity of Solomon and his kingdom was possible because of God’s promise to Solomon, “I will give you a wise and discerning heart. I give you . . . both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you” (1 Kings 3:12–13). But, as Fretheim writes, “As the reader will shortly learn, to be gifted with wisdom is one thing; to use it well is another. Good starts-and that is the basic, if not entirely unambiguous assessment of Solomon- may not be sustained … gifts can be misused and abused so that their effects cease to be blessings.”
The greatness and prosperity of Solomon’s kingdom was only possible because of his oppressive policies. The economic basis for the prosperity of Solomon’s kingdom was a program of taxation imposed on all the nations which were under Solomon’s control, “Solomon ruled all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the country of the Philistines and as far as the Egyptian border. These kingdoms paid taxes and were subject to Solomon as long as he lived” (1 Kings 4:21). Solomon had a large harem. He had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (1 Kings 11:3). In addition, Solomon had many attendants, courtiers and other officials who served in his government.
To maintain such a large harem and a huge bureaucracy, Solomon had to develop a system of taxation to sustain his government. In order to generate revenue for the kingdom, Solomon divided Israel into twelve districts for taxation purposes. The purpose of each of the twelve district officials was to facilitate the collection of taxes and to supply the needs of the court. Each of the twelve officials was responsible for supplying the court for one month each year.
According to the writer of the book of Kings, Solomon’s provision for one day was huge: 80 bushels of flour, 360 bushels of coarse flour, ten head of stall-fed cattle, twenty of pasture-fed cattle and a hundred sheep and goats, as well as deer, gazelles, roebucks and fatted geese (1 Kings 4:22–23).
Solomon’s taxation program exempted Judah from paying taxes. The tax burden rested totally on the northern tribes. Solomon’s taxation program was a huge burden on people who were probably already struggling to just take care of their own needs. This disparity sowed the seeds of discontent that eventually became the primary reason for the division of the united kingdom after Solomon’s death.
The most oppressive policy Solomon established in Israel was the result of his massive building programs. Solomon desired to build a magnificent temple, a temple which would bring glory to the God of Israel and be the permanent residency for the Ark of the Covenant. However, the people of Israel did not have the technology nor the materials to build the temple. Solomon made an agreement with Hiram, king of Tyre, who supplied Solomon with workers and the material needed for his building projects. With this agreement, Solomon was able to purchase the raw materials and the precious metals from Hiram. Hiram’s men would provide the lumber and transport it to the coast of Palestine, and Solomon’s men would remove it and take it to the location of the temple.
Solomon agreed to pay Hiram “twenty thousand cors of wheat… and twenty cors of fine oil” (1 Kings 5:11) for helping him with his building projects. The amount of grain paid to Hiram was equal to the amount consumed annually by Solomon’s court. Solomon’s payment to Hiram increased the grain tax which the people paid to support Solomon’s court. This extra burden forced the people of Israel to increase the production of grain which increased the burden Solomon imposed on the average farmer. After twenty years, at the end of Solomon’s building projects, which included the temple and the palace complex, Solomon was highly indebted to Hiram. In order to pay his obligation to Hiram, Solomon was forced to give Hiram twenty towns in the region of Galilee (1 Kings 9:11).
The number of conscripted laborers Solomon raised from all Israel was huge. That number included seventy thousand common laborers and eighty thousand stone-cutters who quarried stone in the mountains of Israel. These laborers were the remnant of the Canaanite people, the descendants of the nations whom the people of Israel had not completely destroyed. “So Solomon conscripted them for his labor force, and they serve in the labor force to this day” (1 Kings 9:20–21 NIV). Solomon had three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work.
In addition, Solomon also conscripted thirty thousand men from the tribes of Israel to do forced labor in building the temple. These men were sent to Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in Lebanon and two months at home (1 Kings 5:13–14). Solomon’s builders and Hiram’s builders did the stone-cutting and prepared the timber and the stone to build the house of God in Jerusalem (1 Kings 5:18).
In describing life during Solomon’s reign, the author of the book of Kings wrote, “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25).
In his article, “‘Vine and Fig Tree’: A Case Study in Imagination and Criticism,” Walter Brueggemann said that the “peace and prosperity system of Solomon is surely a system of exploitation.” Brueggemann wrote that “prosperity and abundance in such extravagance are based on slave-labor policy. It could not be otherwise. Affluence and security are linked to oppression and domination. Some share the dream fulfilled. Others pay for it. And it does not matter greatly if these others are Israelites. Such a consuming enterprise with such a gargantuan appetite is not likely to discriminate” (Brueggemann 1981: 196).
Brueggemann said that the claim that many people in Judah and Israel were happy, eating and drinking in abundance was the claim “ for a high standard of living. But we know there is only so much material, energy, and consumer goods. And when some have so much, someone else is paying. So ‘Judah and Israel were happy.’ But, we may ask, ‘Which ones?’ ‘Which citizens?’ ‘Which Judahites and which Israelites?’ Certainly not all. When some live so extravagantly, others must have paid. And, of course, the benefactors are the ones in the royal system, the ones regarded as first-class citizens” (Brueggemann 1981:196).
Solomon was a king who oppressed his people by the unjust and cruel exercise of authority. Solomon used his power to impose heavy burdens on his people. The excesses of Solomon’s lifestyle and building projects demanded great sacrifice from his people for which they received no satisfaction. Solomon’s oppressive policies led to the oppressive sense of injustice that the people of Israel were forced to bear.
The posts on Solomon listed below explore in detail many of the oppressive policies of Solomon and various aspects of his reign.
Walter Brueggemann, “‘Vine and Fig Tree’: A Case Study in Imagination and Criticism,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 no 2 (1981): 188–204.
STUDIES ON SOLOMON
Claude MariottiniEmeritus Professor of Old TestamentNorthern Baptist Seminary
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Republished with permission from Blogs.crossmap.com, featuring inspiring Bible verses about Solomon, King of Israel.