According to the Bible, was Solomon a good or a bad king?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
With the political challenges afflicting the leaders of Britain, France, Israel, Nigeria, Ukraine, the U.S., and other nations, it’s interesting to look back to the rulers in the Bible even though their ancient monarchies were radically different. Among them King Solomon, whose 40-year reign began 2,993 years ago, ranks with his father David in significance.
This ever-fascinating figure, portrayed onscreen by the likes of Yul Brynner (1959) and Ben Cross (1997), led Israel to its zenith of peace, prosperity, cultural sophistication and international stature. And yet a 2011 biography by Wheaton College President Philip Ryken demeans him with the title “King Solomon: The Temptations of Money, Sex, and Power.” Various Jewish legends outside the Bible both exaggerate his magnificence and the opposite, claiming his subjects rejected him and he died penniless.
I Kings 1 – 11 and parallels in II Chronicles 1 – 9 are the primary sources on his career (here using the Jewish Publication Society translation). King David and Bathsheba lost their first child, a son, as divine retribution for the adultery, homicide and deceit that led to their marriage. Solomon (whose name meant “peace” or “wholeness,” also named Jedidiah, meaning “beloved of the Lord”) became their oldest son and favorite.
David had prior sons by other polygamous wives and the oldest, Adonijah, had a strong dynastic claim to the throne, but the aging David had instead designated Solomon, who was probably age 14 when he took charge. The young king mastered palace intrigue and eventually executed Adonijah and his key supporters. “Thus the kingdom was secured in Solomon’s hands.”
Despite that turbulent start, Solomon like his father was devoted to the one true God and his commandments as the foundation of the regime. A crucial moment occurred several years into Solomon’s reign. God appeared to the king in a dream and asked what gift he desired. Solomon replied that he was “a young lad with no experience in leadership” and therefore needed most “an understanding mind to judge your people, to distinguish between good and bad.” God was pleased that Solomon above all sought wisdom and justice, not riches or military power, and Solomon was to also receive those other gifts in abundance.
Solomon’s military buildup produced a relatively peaceful era, while business acumen and diplomacy fostered international trade and resulting wealth. John Van Seters of the University of North Carolina was notably skeptical about the history in the Jewish Bible, for instance questioning that Solomon’s realm actually stretched from Mesopotamia’s Euphrates River down to Egypt. But he said the commercial gains under Solomon are “attested by a marked rise” in material culture documented by archaeologists.
The Bible says Solomon’s intelligence dazzled Arabia’s Queen of Sheba and that he created a vast collection of songs and proverbs. His mystique was so compelling that non-biblical lore would later portray fantastical events, described at length in the Jewish Encyclopedia here: https://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13842-solomon/.
A further aspect, too complex to examine in this article, is scholars’ vigorous discussion about Solomon’s role in the composition and compilation of the biblical “wisdom” books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon (a.k.a. Song of Songs or Canticles), and several of the Psalms. These words became his most lasting heritage.
The king was also renowned for lavish building projects, especially the long-promised Temple as the focus for worship. David informed Solomon that he would build the Temple because God had told David that as a warrior in “great battles . . . you have shed much blood on the earth in My sight,” whereas under Solomon God would “confer peace and quiet on Israel” (I Chronicles 22:7-9).
David also ordered up a grand royal palace for himself, new city walls, and general beautification. Inevitably, these public works imposed heavy burdens on the populace, such that II Chronicles 10:3-4 reports “all Israel” protested forced “harsh labor” and the “heavy yoke” (i.e. taxes). Sounds like modern-day political strife.
According to I Kings chapter 11 (material that the parallel history in II Chronicles omits), Israel later experienced spiritual disintegration as Solomon’s devotion to the one God eroded. The Bible recounts that foreign wives “turned away Solomon’s heart after other gods” and he “did not remain loyal to the Lord like his father David.”
This narrative tells us Solomon took “700 royal wives and 300 concubines”! Some of the marriages doubtless established valuable political alliances, as was common with ancient regimes. Whether those sensational numbers were literal or symbolized regal authority, Solomon clearly spurned God and his admonition (in Deuteronomy 17:17) that Israel’s king “shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray, nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.” The materialistic sins of Solomon are echoed by today’s dictators.
The result of all this was that when Solomon died the kingdom was already on a path to civil rebellion that under his successors ended the golden age. This permanently destroyed the united kingdom and produced the ruinous conflict between the northern kingdom of Israel over against southern Judah.