Friday, July 11
First Kings 3: Certain unpleasant executions out of the way, Solomon turns his mind to governing.
First mentioned is his marriage to an Egyptian princess (verses 1-2), which forestalls any problems from that part of the world. The wedding is expensive; to supply the bride’s dowry, her father–something of a cheapskate, it appears—destroys a Philistine city (cf. 9:16).
This unnamed pharaoh reigns toward the end of the XXIst Dynasty. It will be replaced by the much stronger XXIInd Dynasty toward the end of Solomon’s time on the throne.
Next comes the account of Solomon’s prayer and mystic dream at Gibeon (verses 3-15), a city and shrine (cf. First Chronicles 16:39) six miles northwest of Jerusalem. (Josephus speaks of two such dreams of Solomon [Antiquities 8.4.6].) Egyptologists mention similar stories of dream-revelations made to various pharaohs, and Holy Scripture gives other examples (Jacob, Joseph, Daniel, et alii). Especially pertinent are the dreams of the pharaoh in the Joseph story and of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel; these, like Solomon’s, are “royal dreams.”
The wisdom sought by Solomon is, literally translated, “a hearing heart to judge.” That is to say, it is a practical wisdom, which makes prudent decisions in governing and deciding both policies and cases. A first example of the latter is the famous episode of the two women and the one living baby in verses 16-28.
Solomon’s wisdom, the answer to his prayer, causes him to stand at the beginning of Israel’s Wisdom Literature. He is credited with the earliest collection of Wisdom sayings that came to fullness in the Book of Proverbs.
Prayer is the first step in the attainment of Wisdom: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). In the scene at Gibeon, Solomon may be regarded as the living embodiment of the quest described in the Book of Proverbs:
Yes, if you cry out for discernment, / ?And lift up your voice for understanding, / If you seek her as silver,? / And search for her as for hidden treasures; / Then you will understand the fear of the Lord,? / And find the knowledge of God. / For the Lord gives wisdom;? / From His mouth come knowledge and understanding (Proverbs 2:3-6).
Saturday, July 12
First Kings 4: In this chapter the reader discerns a variety of “voices” in the description of Solomon’s reign. There is a voice of satisfaction, for example, in the description of the king’s wisdom in verses 29-34. There is also, however, a hint of dissatisfaction in the voice in several other verses that speak of the imposition of compelled labor and services on the people (cf. also 5:13-18).
There are two major differences between the political apparatus of the reigns of David and Solomon. First, that of Solomon is more complex; there are new offices, which reflect the more extensive commercial and geopolitical activities of a new order.
Second, the government of Solomon’s reign is more centralized. Whereas David had relied on the traditional tribal arrangement, Solomon imposes geographical divisions less reliant on tribal borders, and over the sundry territories established by these divisions he appoints royal representatives answerable to the central government at Jerusalem. Thus, the largely amphictyonic kingdom governed by David is replaced by a highly unified political system. That is to say, Solomon replaces a political tradition with a political theory.
Thus, taxes in support of the monarch—and the monarch’s growing interest in public works—are no longer collected from the tribes; they are paid to tax collectors who operate outside of tribal authority and control. Extensive levies of goods and services—forced labor!—are directly laid on the population by district governors appointed from Jerusalem. The function of these governors is largely fiscal.
Solomon makes a slight effort to disguise this new political format by maintaining a division of the kingdom into twelve regions. Since this was the traditional number of Israel’s tribes, the king hopes, perhaps. no one will notice the new arrangement! Any careful observer, however, may observe that the new territorial precincts do not coincide with the traditional tribal boundaries. In addition, it is instructive to observe that two of these governors are sons-in-law to the king (verses 11 and 15).
In his imposition of forced labor on the population, particularly with respect to his extensive building projects, Solomon resembles no one so much as the pharaoh encountered by Moses in the Book of Exodus. And the reader recalls Samuel’s prophecy that such an imposition would be the lot of Israel if ever they established a monarchy.
Because of the feeble political systems at either end of the Fertile Crescent (Egypt and Babylon), Solomon enjoyed the freedom to extend his influence, largely through commerce, eastward toward the Euphrates and southward through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. His father, David, had subdued all the kingdoms in the region that might otherwise have challenged Solomon’s hegemony over much of the Fertile Crescent.
Sunday, July 13
First Kings 5: We come now to several chapters descriptive of the Solomonic prosperity of Israel in the mid-tenth century. David, Solomon’s father, taking advantage of the decline of Babylon at the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent and the geopolitical vacuum created by the lackluster Twenty-first Dynasty of Egypt at its western end, had carved out a small empire for himself, subduing the Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Syrians, and making mercantile arrangements with the seagoing Phoenicians to the north.
To all of this fortune Solomon falls heir when David dies in 961. It is possible that in all of history Solomon has no equal in his ability to read both maps and ledgers. His father having incorporated the Edomites to the south, Solomon controls the port and Gulf of Aqaba (Elath) and the Red Sea. This extensive waterway affords access to ports along the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula, the east of Africa, and, through the Indian Ocean, a thousand other places. To the north Israel is bordered by the Phoenicians, whose shipping merchants are delivering and picking up cargo at ports all around the Mediterranean basin.
Looking at this picture, Solomon decides to go into business, serving as the middleman between the Phoenician markets in the Mediterranean and the sundry mercantile opportunities around the Red Sea. It proves to be a time of booming material affluence.
Besides the favorable geopolitical situation, several other recent developments aid the prosperity attendant on Solomon’s reign: First is the beginning of the Iron Age in that part of the world, with its greatly improved axes, hoes, scythes, plowshares, and other tools and farming implements, leading to less labor and increased productivity.
Second is the greater use of calcium oxide to seal cisterns and wells allowing for improved water conservation and, in turn, greatly increasing agricultural yields.
Third is the adoption of a common alphabet in the eastern Mediterranean world, permitting more efficient bookkeeping, uniform bills of lading, invoices, and other forms of written communication essential to commerce.
Fourth is the greater use of the camel. This animal, already important in the economy of the Fertile Crescent, serves as Solomon’s chief vehicle of commerce along the overland trade routes extending north-south between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Phoenician ports of Tyre and Sidon. Solomon’s reign is, therefore, a period of enormous prosperity, in describing which the Bible speaks repeatedly of gold.
Besides being a time of economic prosperity, however, Solomon’s reign is also a period of several attendant social changes that will prove significant, though not invariably beneficent, as time goes on. First, the prosperity itself, especially the agricultural productivity, enhances the people’s diet, lengthening the average life expectancy, lowering the age of puberty and menarche, and thus increasing the population.
Second, the need for labor in the commercial sector draws many farmers from the land to enjoy the less onerous life of merchants, caravan drivers, and so forth.
This means fewer and larger farms, now rendered more productive by better tools and a greater water supply. At the same time, with fewer farms, fewer people are now able to control the food market—and prices. These higher prices, along with the lower wages inevitably prompted by the swelling of the urban labor force, become subjects on which the prophets of the coming centuries will venture a remark or two, consistently negative.
Fourth, the centralization of commerce under Solomon’s political control leads to higher taxes and a breakdown of local tribal loyalties that have served, up to this point, to provide traditional stability to the people.
Fifth, and related to the higher taxes, among the northern tribes there will be a growing discontent with the south, especially the royal and priestly establishment at Jerusalem. The better farmland and the bulk of the nation’s wealth are found in the north; yet the king and his capital are in the south, at Jerusalem.
Finally, Solomon’s economic and political ties with Phoenicia eventually lead to the deep religious and moral infidelities symbolically associated with the most famous of these Phoenicians, a lady named Jezebel.
The present chapter makes clear the mutual dependence of Israel and Phoenicia. Until the reign of David, the Philistines (known in Egyptian sources as “the sea peoples”) were able sharply to curtail the mercantile enterprises of the Phoenicians. Once David quelled the Philistines, however, Phoenician trade regained its strength in the eastern Mediterranean. As long as Israel controls the coasts of the Levant, the Phoenicians are free to rule the seas.
Moreover, Israel is the necessary link between Phoenicia and the further markets south of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. That is to say, the Phoenicians need Israel and are glad to be part of a large mercantile alliance that has Solomon at its center.
A pact between the Phoenician king, Hiram, and King Solomon makes possible the construction of the temple at Jerusalem. The Phoenicians have the building materials and the engineering talent Solomon needs for this project, and Solomon has the money to pay for it.
Monday, July 14
First Kings 6: The account of the temple’s construction, which occupies the next two chapters, includes a section that speaks of other building projects: Solomon’s palace, the judgment hall (the particularly important “hall of pillars,” where the king also oversees forensic cases), and a palace for the daughter of pharaoh, the king’s chief wife.
The construction of the temple begins in April of 957 B.C., identified as the 480th year after the Exodus (verse 1). In its general layout, Solomon’s temple consists of two inner rooms that form the sanctuary, and a vestibule, or porch. On three sides, it is surrounded by auxiliary chambers. The central room of the structure is the sanctuary, or holy place.
The farther, inner room, cubic in shape, is the most holy place (“holy of holies”), the throne room of God. It is overlaid with gold (verse 20). Within it are placed two images of angelic guardians, which are called the Cherubim. These are winged figures resembling the Egyptian sphinx. From what we know of other such figures archeology has uncovered in the region, they often serve as the supporting parts of a throne. Hence, they apparently represent the throne of God, who “thrones upon the Cherubim.” These figures are about fifteen feet high; their wings spread from wall to wall on a north-south axis.
In front of this inner sanctuary stands an altar of cedar wood, overlaid with gold. Although the temple is constructed of stone, no stone is visible within it, being overlaid with paneling of cedar wood, on which there are intricate carvings of gourds and open flowers.
Corresponding to the seven days of Creation, the temple’s construction requires seven years. In this respect it is instructive to note how often these two chapters use the verb “finish” (kalah—6:9,14,38; 7:1,40), the very word used in Genesis 2:1 to speak of the completion of God’s creative work.
The temple has other features associated with the original garden in which the first man was placed and over which he was appointed as caretaker and vice-regent. These features include the images of vegetation and animals on the interior wooden paneling (verses 14-18).
A parallel account in Second Chronicles 3 specifies that the temple is constructed on Mount Moriah, the scene where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
Tuesday, July 15
First Kings 7: The material in this chapter is disparate, with interruptions in the narrative of the temple’s construction.
First, there are eight verses that speak of the two royal palaces (for the king and his chief consort) and the hall of judgment.
As the Lord’s son (verse 14), Solomon wants his own house close to the Lord’s. This physical proximity of the two “dwellings” is sustained throughout the successive generations of monarchy, when the precincts of the temple are extended to the royal palace and other official buildings of the realm. That is to say, the Lord’s own kingship over the people—the principle that made them, in fact, His own people—includes the king as the Lord’s viceroy.
The political effect of this inclusion is two-fold. It enhances the legitimacy of the royal house, established by the Lord’s covenant with David, and it serves as a reminder to the king that his occupation of the throne is a matter of stewardship; he is answerable to the judgment of the One who inaugurated that covenant.
Second, there is a description of the masonry (verses 9-12) in the temple. Before the narrator goes on to describe the metal work in the temple, however, he wants to speak of the chief artisan of this work.
Third, he introduces a second Hiram (called Huram in Chronicles), an expert sheet metal worker, who is probably named after Solomon’s collaborator, the king of Tyre. His mother is described as the “widow of the tribe of Naphtali.” This perhaps means she is the widow of a member the tribe of Naphtali, since we are elsewhere told that the lady herself is a Danite (Second Chronicles 2:14). (Josephus claims that this artisan is a full-blooded Israelite—cf. Antiquities 8.3.4). In respect to this Hiram, the reader recalls that Moses, in the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness, made use of another charismatic artist, Bezalel (cf. Exodus 31:2-5).
Fourth, the story proceeds to tell of Hiram’s work on the brazen pillars (verses 15-22), the molten sea (verses 23-26), the various stands and lavers (verses 26-29), and the other utensils (verses 40-47) and vessels (verses 48-51) needed for the appointment of Israel’s prescribed services of worship.
Wednesday, July 16
First Kings 8: The description of the temple’s dedicatory services fills the text from 8:1 to 9:9.
First, the Ark of the Covenant must be moved to its new residence (verses 1-9), as David had desired many years ago. It is the Ark—containing the two tablets of the covenant—that makes this temple a holy place and ties it to Israel’s ancient and defining history.
Second, as a mark of the Lord’s approval of the Ark’s transfer to Solomon’s temple, the cloud of the divine presence descends upon the place (verses 10-11). As though to emphasize the Ark’s disappearance into the inner part of the temple, Solomon begins his benedictory prayer by reference to the Lord’s resolve to “dwell in thick darkness” (verse 12). This reference aligns the darkness of the windowless Holy of Holies with the darkness on the top of Mount Sinai when the Torah was given (Exodus 20:18; Psalms 18 [Greek 17]:10-11).
Once the Ark disappears into the Holy of Holies, it effectively disappears from history. The Book of Kings never again speaks of it. It remains concealed forever, nor can we say what finally became of it.
The eventual loss of the Ark, which is not—curiously—lamented anywhere in the Bible, may be regarded as an indication of its transitory place in history. The Christian reader will regard its disappearance as initial evidence, at least, that God does not dwell in buildings made with hands, which are “the figures of the true.”
Third, Solomon’s benediction over the people (verses 12-21) refers to two covenants, the covenant with David and the prior covenant with Israel. The linking of these two certainly strengthens the legitimacy of the Davidic covenant. Whereas the Christian reader takes the joining of these two covenants as a matter of theological fact, Israel’s subsequent history indicates that the conjunction was not so obvious to all of Solomon’s contemporaries. Within a short time of the king’s death in 622, most Israelites decisively abandoned the house of David.
Fourth, Solomon begins his dedicatory prayer (verses 22-30) by speaking once more of the divine promise to David. The Chronicler’s account indicates that the king, who began the prayer standing, then ascended a bronze platform placed in the court of the temple and knelt down on that platform, continuing to pray with arms outstretched to heaven (Second Chronicles 6:13).
Fifth, the dedicatory prayer continues, and attention is given to a series of hypothetical circumstances in which all future prayers of believers are to be directed toward the temple (verses 31-53). The reader will recall—from Daniel’s prayer in exile—that prayer in the direction of the temple was continued, even after the temple was destroyed.
Sixth, Solomon concludes the dedicatory prayer by invoking, once again, a blessing over the assembled people (verses 54-61), and consecratory sacrifices are offered over a period of days. In the Massoretic text of Kings and in Josephus (Antiquities 8.4.6), this rite is continued for fourteen days, whereas the Greek text speaks of just seven days, a feature reminiscent of the Creation account in Genesis 1.
Thursday, July 17
First Kings 9: There are several distinguishable components in the present chapter:
First, the Lord responds to Solomon’s dedicatory prayer by speaking to him again, as He did at Gibeon (verse 2). This divine response clearly takes place at Jerusalem, perhaps indicating that the new capital has replaced Gibeon as the proper locale for divine messages (cf. Acts 22:17).
This response contains both a promise of divine fidelity and a warning of divine sanction. Josephus (Antiquities 8.4.6) regarded the latter as a forewarning of what was to take place in the temple’s later destruction, when Jerusalem became, in fact, “a heap of ruins” (verse 8; cf. Micah 3:12; Jeremiah 26:18).
Second, we learn how Solomon finances these building projects in Jerusalem (verses 10-14). In payment for all this largesse poured out on the southern tribe, Judah, he sells twenty northern cities! He is following the earlier example of his pharaoh father-in-law, who paid his daughter’s dowry by stealing from the Philistines (cf. verse 16). In this story, we begin to gain an inkling of why there is, among the northern tribes, a growing discontent that Solomon fails to address. His son, Rehoboam, will eventually pay for this neglect.
Third, we learn of more building projects, and it is instructive to observe that they essentially consist, in fact, of military installations (verses 15-22). That is to say, they are walled fortresses that stand guard along a large road connecting the western end of the Fertile Crescent to Mesopotamia in the east. Solomon’s extensive commercial connections make use of this road, and he wants to protect that trade from the Bedouin marauders always active in the Middle East. Among these fortresses, a special prominence attaches to Megiddo, which serves as a storage facility. Archeology has uncovered there the stables built by Solomon to house the horses he brought from Arabia, scheduled for delivery to sundry Mediterranean ports—all the way to Spain—by means of Phoenician transport ships.
For the construction of these fortresses, Solomon uses slave labor from the remnants of the earlier Canaanite peoples who still live in the land (verses 20-21).
Fourth, we learn that Solomon himself “offered burnt offerings and peace offerings on the altar which he had built for the Lord, and he burned incense with them before the Lord” (verse 25).
Finally, we learn of Solomon’s southern fleet, without which his mercantile enterprise would have come to nothing (verses 26-28). Because the Israelites are not a sea-going people, Solomon makes use of the skills and experience of Phoenician sailors. Since this commerce includes ivory and two species of monkeys (cf. 10:22—where the Hebrew word probably means baboons, rather than peacocks), Solomon is certainly dealing with the east coast of Africa. The jewels and sandalwood referenced later (10:11-12) indicate trade with India.
This summary of Solomon’s southern maritime activity serves to introduce one of the Bible’s most intriguing characters—Jesus spoke of her!—the royal lady who makes her appearance in the next chapter.
Friday, July 18
First Kings 10: The realm of Sheba—or Saba as the place is called in ancient Assyrian documents—was situated at the extreme southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, the area now known as Yemen. From those same Assyrian texts, as well as from inscriptions found at Sheba’s capital city, Mâreb, we know a thing or two about the history of the place during the first millennium before Christ.
First, we know that Sheba flourished most of that time as a major mercantile link between the Far East and the southern Mediterranean, and a glance at a map of the area quickly explains why this should be the case. Sitting on both sides of the corner formed by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Sheba dominated the narrow Straits of Bab el Mandeb by which these two waters are joined. This meant that Sheba could effectively control the traffic coming down from those twin horns formed at the north of the Red Sea by the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba.
Likewise, through the Gulf of Aden, Sheba was open to shipping on the
Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and places beyond.
Thus, with respect to sea travel Sheba was the tangent point of two great mercantile spheres.
Some of the business, in fact, stood nearby. Immediately to the north of Sheba was Ophir, probably to be identified with Havila, a region celebrated for its gold (e.g., see Genesis 2:11; Job 22:24; 28:16). Over to the west lay Ethiopia, or Cush, a kingdom sufficiently imposing to control Egypt for some periods, and, from the south, there extended the horn of Somalia. As Asia’s vital southern link with Africa, then, Sheba was in a position to gain, hold, and control great wealth.
Second, we also know the names of five of the queens of Sheba. As all of these lived in the eighth and seventh centuries, however, none of them can be identified with that Queen of Sheba who came to visit Solomon in the mid-tenth century before Christ. A pity, in truth, for some of us would dearly like to know the lady’s name.
Doubtless her appearance in Solomon’s court was related to the latter’s recent entrance into the powerful circles of international commerce. Through his extensive dealings with the Phoenicians, whose ships docked in harbors on all three continents bordering the Mediterranean basin, Solomon’s port at Elath on the Gulf of Aqaba became an important link in a new mercantile chain that now stretched from Ceylon in the southeast to Gibraltar in the northwest. The queen’s arrival at his court, then, was clear evidence that Solomon had become a “player” on the big scene.
The event surely signified more, however. After all, Solomon was still far from being the queen’s equal in the world of international commerce. Indeed, his recently gained status in this respect depended entirely on his hegemony over the land of Edom, which contained the port of Elath, for this was Solomon’s sole connection with the Gulf of Aqaba. If royal visitations, therefore, depended on “rank” among the international powers, we would expect Solomon to be visiting the Queen of Sheba rather than vice versa.
Holy Scripture is clear that this was not the case. We are told that the Queen of Sheba, who could have handled her commercial relationship with Solomon through the usual business channels, was prompted solely by a desire to see for herself whether this new king was as wise and discerning as his reputation proclaimed. Nor was the lady disappointed at what she saw: “I did not believe the words until I came and saw with my own eyes; and indeed the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity exceed the fame of which I heard” (1 Kings 10:7).
In the Gospels of Matthew (12:42) and Luke (11:31) this royal Gentile, “the Queen of the South,” becomes a type of the true seeker and believer. In both places she is contrasted with the Lord’s enemies, the unbelievers who refuse to recognize that “a greater than Solomon is here.” Accordingly, Sheba’s magnificent lady is made a figure of Mother Church, standing rapturously in the presence of the wiser Solomon. We make our own her praise and proclamation before the throne of Christ: “Happy are your men and happy are these your servants, who stand continually before you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God, who delighted in you, setting you on the throne of Israel!” (1 Kings 10:8–9).