1 Kings 9-12 - Kingdom of Contradictions: Life in the Solomonic Era
Nearly 3,000 years ago, Solomon, King of Israel, brought his kingdom into a “golden age” greater than anything the nation had seen before or would see after. Even by the standards of the day, the kingdom was a great power, its reputation spread far and wide. Yet the seeds of decay were already being sown. Solomon’s kingdom, like the life of the king himself, was a realm of contradictions. You can read about it in more detail in 1 Kings 1-11 and 1 Chronicles 29- 2 Chronicles 9. For now, we will simply try to sketch what life was like for God’s people during this time.
An age of prosperity
In 1 Kings 10:23, we are told that “King Solomon became greater than all kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom.” Under Solomon, gold and silver, ivory, spices, valuable timber and other precious goods came flooding into Israel. He achieved this by a combination of industry, trade, tax-reform and excellent administration, and by conscription of labourers. Of course, David had laid the foundations by conquest. David had even laid the foundation for short-term conscription on a rotational basis (1 Chronicles 27, concerning military conscription). But Solomon consolidated. Judging by the description of the Queen of Sheba’s visit (1 Kings 10, 2 Chronicles 9), Solomon’s love of luxury grew as time went by.
In terms of trade, Solomon had the area’s trade-routes in a strangle-hold. He made significant trade-alliances – most notably with Hiram of Tyre (the Phoenicians). With Hiram’s help, he even established Israel’s first trade-fleet, which did regular runs to Tarshish (Spain) and elsewhere. The king made Israel an exporter of horses and chariots (1 Kings 10:26-29).
In terms of “tax-reform,” the king reorganized the nation into twelve tax-districts, under deputies (1 Kings 4:7-19). These districts did not pay direct tax, but they did each provide for the court’s needs for one month in a year, on a rotational basis.
There is also evidence that iron-tipped ploughs were introduced to Israel at this time, increasing productivity on the land. At the same time, the size and number of cities grew. The labour-conscription resulted in increasing urbanisation. Improvements of buildings within these cities shows that overall, the standard of living increased considerably. However, the gap between the rich and the poor also increased.
Those were the human means. Ultimately, however, God was the Source of all this wealth. He was keeping His covenant with David, that He would bless David’s sons if they walked in His ways (2 Samuel 7). Moreover, he had chosen Solomon as a “type” or foreshadowing of Christ, with respect to the peace and prosperity of His reign. Solomon’s name even means “peace.”
However, the Lord’s aim was not to establish an earthly kingdom that permanently wallowed in luxury. Such luxury comes with a price-tag. The Lord used the growing cost to bring an end to the material prosperity. Warning signs were already evident before Solomon’s death. In order to maintain the extravagant life-style, Solomon was forced to sell border-cities to Hiram to raise extra funds (1 Kings 9:10-14). It also appears that conscription for labour may have increased with time. Certainly, by Rehoboam’s time, the people were complaining that Solomon had made their yoke heavy with “hard service” (1 Kings 12:4).
Stability and peace
The empire did not increase dramatically in size from David’s time. But it did increase in stability and peace. From the start of his reign, Solomon was quite ruthless in removing possible threats – having received some encouragement from his father (1 Kings 2:1-9). Adonijah, Joab and Shimei were quickly dealt with. Rebellion became a problem only in the latter part of Solomon’s reign, as part of the Lord’s chastisement (1 Kings 11).
Again, the reign of peace was ultimately due to God’s blessing, but Solomon used secondary means to establish and maintain it. In addition to removing internal threats, he fortified many strategic border towns. He “amassed” horses and chariots for military purposes (2 Chronicles 1:14). He increased the size of the army as well.
Obviously, the building of the beautiful and costly temple in Jerusalem indicates a growth in architecture under Solomon’s reign. But that was only the beginning. Solomon had a new palace built for himself, another for pharaoh’s daughter. He built a judgement hall and other municipal buildings, and apartments for his officials. The temple mount had to be terraced to support the buildings on it. The standard of housing improved, at least for the rich. But these structures were built by slave labour – by descendants of the Canaanites (1 Kings 5: 13-18), under Jewish supervisors, often with Hiram’s men advising. Jewish labourers were conscripted, but only for a limited time, and not usually for the more menial tasks.
Under Solomon, literature and the arts flourished, along with science and technology. The growth in bureaucracy went hand-in-hand with the development of elaborate record-keeping. Solomon also encouraged music, poetry and wisdom literature (1 Kings 4:32). His love of wisdom meant that he encouraged all kinds of knowledge and science (1 Kings 4:33).
As mentioned, Solomon was blessed by God in fulfilment of 2 Samuel 7 and because God had chosen him as a type of Christ. God gave to Solomon the great task David had conceived, the building of the Temple. In many ways, the temple merely continued the religious life Israel had known from the time of the Exodus on. The Temple essentially maintained the religious system that used to be centred on the Tabernacle and on other sanctuaries in Israel. But of course, under Solomon it was all done on a much grander scale (1 Kings 8:62 66). Moreover, the Temple now centralized things more in Jerusalem. The days of wandering were well and truly over.
Solomon’s wisdom – the gift he requested from God (1 Kings 3:6f) – was also of religious significance. It helped him lead and judge God’s people well. It appears to have been one of the chief things that increased Solomon’s fame as a witness to God (1 Kings 10). It led to some of the wisdom literature in the Bible. It also foreshadowed the wisdom of Christ.
Solomon’s request for wisdom, along with his words and prayer at the Temple-dedication (1 Kings 8) show a man who had a deep understanding of the things of the Lord. The king also showed great zeal in faithfully observing the OT system with numerous sacrifices and offerings during his reign. The Lord was pleased to appear to him twice and to covenant with him (1 Kings 9:1-9).
The seeds of decay
However, it is also religious factors that brought about the collapse of Solomon’s empire after his death – the contradiction in Solomon’s life and faith. Solomon married many foreign women – 700 “wives, princesses and 300 concubines” from the Gentile nations (1 Kings 11:1f). This was a common way for rulers then to show their great power and to cement political alliances. The king built shrines for their idol-gods, and “his wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God” – especially in his old age. We are not told that Solomon himself actually worshipped at these shrines. But at the least, he facilitated and condoned idolatry, contrary to the covenant. It was this above all that led to the later rebellions and eventually to the division of the kingdom and the failure of Solomon’s son (1 Kings 11-12). It contributed to the eventual destruction of the Northern Kingdom, which followed the path of idolatry without repentance.
Solomon’s fame, trade and building-projects, also saw a dramatic increase in foreign influence and close contact with Gentiles in Israel. This also, no doubt, contributed to a growing tolerance of idolatry.
Not only was this contrary to the express terms of God’s covenant with David (2 Samuel 7), with Solomon himself (1 Kings 9:6-9), but also to the earlier warnings of Deuteronomy 17:14 20. There, the Lord had expressly forbidden the kings to multiply horses, wives and wealth. Closely connected to that, they were not to lift themselves up, in their own estimation, above their countrymen.
This growing tendency of Solomon to lift the monarchy up above the people bore evil fruit under Rehoboam. Younger members of the court had, by this stage, begun to see the State as the ultimate authority and the people as mere subjects to be ordered around at the king’s whim. Previously, God was seen as the ultimate authority, governing even the rule of kings by His covenant.
The primary application of this is the message to the church, that our leaders must serve the Lord and obey the terms of his covenant – rather than “lording it over” others (Lk. 22:24-27). We are also taught here to value even more the Headship of Jesus Christ. He is the rightful Lord of all, who far from “lording it over” us, humbled Himself so we could be called His “brethren.” He brings true and lasting peace, prosperity, stability and wisdom – a King and a Kingdom without contradiction.
As a secondary application, we may also note that military might, political stability and material wealth do not guarantee either godliness or the continuation of a nation. Wherever God’s covenant is rejected and idolatry flourishes, the seeds of decay are being sown. Nations of this kind may have their day, but they will not last.