King Solomon and Temptation
Ronald J. Gaudio
When we think of Solomon, we think of wisdom. After all, the Bible tells us that he was the wisest man who had ever lived (1 Kings 4:29-31). We also think of a king who ruled Israel at the height of her glory. When we think of Solomon, we normally don't think of a man who battled temptation. On closer look, though, we see a man who battled temptations that are common to us all.
After becoming king, Solomon subdued several enemies to usher in an era of peace in Israel. After consolidating his rule, Solomon prayed to the Lord for wisdom when the Lord appeared to him at Gibeon. God gave him wisdom "like the sand that is on the seashore" (1 Kings 4:29). Israel marveled as Solomon judged wisely between the two prostitutes who appeared before him, arguing over an infant.
As King Solomon became established, he started making alliances with foreign kings, such as Hiram, king of Tyre. This alliance was economically very beneficial; Solomon received building materials for his massive building projects. As he reached out to other nations, like Egypt, he made stronger alliances through marriage. His marriage to Pharaoh's daughter was one of his most famous. In fact, he built a large palace for her. In the ancient world, it was standard practice to form alliances through marriage. This type of alliance came with an important provision, though. The king had to provide an altar, shrine, or temple for his new bride to be able to worship her gods. He was not obligated to present these gods to his nation, so long as she was able to worship (1 Kings 11:7-8). For most nations, this was not a problem, but Solomon should have known better.
Solomon made alliances with nations that the Lord commanded him not to makesuch nations as Egypt, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and the Hittites. An alliance itself was bad enough, but by marrying women from these nations, he was now obligated to set up their shrines in Israel. Why did Solomon endanger Israel by marrying these foreign women? The Bible tells us that he loved many foreign women. He ended up with 700 wives and 300 concubines. It was because of his inordinate desire for women, especially foreign ones, that he became caught in a snare. As he grew older, he turned toward other gods, and was not fully devoted to the Lord, as his father David had been. Thus he brought judgment down on Israel.
Warnings from the Law of God
The Law of Moses gave instructions to the king to make a copy of the Law for himself that "shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law" (Deut. 17:19). That same passage tells us that "neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away" (vs. 17). Solomon's normal and natural desire for women became excessive. Normal desires that become excessive and cause us to violate God's commandments can be considered lust.
Deuteronomy 17 also teaches that the king shall not "multiply horses for himself, nor shall he cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never again return that way'" (vs. 16). What could be the harm of amassing horses?
In the ancient world, both horses and donkeys were used. Donkeys were considered humble animals, and horses were considered stately animals. In the book of Judges, God's judges went from place to place on donkeys (Judg. 12:14). The ultimate Judge of Israel came riding on a donkey as well (Matt. 21:5; Zech. 9:9). Horses were indicative of power. Egypt had very elegant Arabian horses that were a symbol of status and wealth. Horses were not ridden, but were used to pull chariots, and so were also a symbol of military might. Egypt had a complex series of stables, many of which have been unearthed by archaeologists. Egypt used to give horses as gifts to the surrounding nations.
A nation possessing many horses would be set apart from the rest of the nations. With this valuable animal came the temptation of pride. Scripture warns of pride and false security in trusting in the strength of horses (Pss. 20:7; 33:17; 147:10). Solomon himself wrote a proverb to this effect (Prov. 21:31). He should have known that the strength of a nation is found in the Lord, and not in military might. After all, Israel's deliverance out of Egypt was accomplished by the pursuing horses and riders being thrown into the sea (Ex. 15:1, 21).
How foolish it is for a nation, begun by the overthrow of earthly power, to trust in that very power for victory. The New Testament expresses this principle in Galatians 3:3, "Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" To return to Egypt is to return to the power of the flesh. "Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, and rely on horses, and trust in chariots because they are many, and in horsemen because they are very strong, but they do not look to the Holy One of Israel, nor seek the Lord" (Isa. 31:1).
Warnings about Wealth
Finally, Deuteronomy warned the future king that he should not "greatly increase silver and gold for himself" (17:17). Yet Solomon did amass silver and gold. In one year, he received 666 talents of gold, and he made silver as common as stones (1 Kings 10:14, 27). Like horses and chariots, riches can give a false sense of security, as Solomon himself wrote in Proverbs 11:28.
In Proverbs, Solomon also wrote about wisdom, righteousness, and a good reputation being more valuable than riches. God did promise Solomon that he would have more wisdom and riches than any of the other kings of the earth (2 Chron. 1:12; 9:22). But in Ecclesiastes 2:8 Solomon confessed that he had amassed silver and gold for himself in order to test the vanity of this earthly life. Yet, even though God blessed him with great riches and honor, he may have inordinately set his heart upon them. Possibly he wasn't satisfied with his riches and sought to get more (1 Kings 10:22). We can sometimes turn the very gifts that God gives to us into idols (Ps. 62:10).
We know that Solomon's wives turned his heart away from God. Is it possible that Solomon also fell into a trap by trusting in the strength of horses and chariots, as well as being overly enamored with silver and gold? The passage in Deuteronomy 17 does warn future kings against these three snaresforeign wives, silver and gold, and horses, especially from Egypt. Matthew Henry summarizes these three temptations as "riches, honors, and pleasures."
We don't have to be as wealthy as Solomon to struggle with these temptations. In fact, these temptations are common to us all. They originated in the garden of Eden, where there were elements of all these temptations: "When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate" (Gen. 3:6). The apostle John also warns us about this: "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world" (1 John 2:16).
Solomon, the wisest man on earth, turned away from God toward the end of his life. If this happened to Solomon, then this should be a lesson for us that we are all vulnerable. We have a more complete revelation than Solomon ever had. Through the Scriptures, we see Christ in his fullness. The apostle Paul states that we have the mind and wisdom of Christ. In the Reformed faith, we have the deep and rich tradition of the Westminster standards and other Puritan theological works. We should be thankful for these great blessings of the faith. Yet we would be foolish to think that merely being in possession of such treasures is enough to guard us as individuals or as a denomination from turning away from the Lord and falling into error in life or doctrine. James says that we are to be doers of the word and not merely hearers. We are not to be like the man who looks at himself in the mirror and then forgets what he looks like after he turns away (James 1:22-24). We need to receive and obey God's truth, not merely look upon it.
We should not be discouraged when we are tempted to sin in these ways. Sometimes the temptations can be overwhelming. When we think about Jesus' three temptations recorded for us in Luke 4, we can be encouraged. Jesus is able to sympathize with us and to come to our aid, since he himself endured and overcame temptation. We, like Solomon, are weak people. The means of grace given to us are not ends in themselves; they alone cannot save. They are merely instruments that lead us to the living Savior, who, unlike Solomon, was a faithful son and a victorious king over the household of God.
The author is a ruling elder at Grace Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ohio. He quotes the NASB. New Horizons, December 2010.