The Wisdom of Solomon
Judgement of Solomon by Raphael (1483 – 1520), fresco (1509-1511) Stanze e Loggia di Raffaello, Vatican City
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson June 20–26; 2 Samuel 5–7; 11–12; 1 Kings 3; 8; 11
The most famous, and only story of King Solomon’s wisdom is found in 1 Kings 3:16–28:
“Then came there two women, that were harlots, unto the king, and stood before him. And the one woman said, O my lord, I and this woman dwell in one house; and I was delivered of a child with her in the house. And it came to pass the third day after that I was delivered, that this woman was delivered also: and we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house, save we two in the house. And this woman’s child died in the night; because she overlaid it. And she arose at midnight, and took my son from beside me, while thine handmaid slept, and laid it in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom. And when I rose in the morning to give my child suck, behold, it was dead: but when I had considered it in the morning, behold, it was not my son, which I did bear. And the other woman said, Nay; but the living is my son, and the dead is thy son. And this said, No; but the dead is thy son, and the living is my son. Thus they spake before the king. Then said the king, The one saith, This is my son that liveth, and thy son is the dead: and the other saith, Nay; but thy son is the dead, and my son is the living. And the king said, Bring me a sword. And they brought a sword before the king. And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other. Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it. Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof. And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.”
We read in 1 Kings 4:32-34 “And he spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five. And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes. And there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom.” Verse 32 does not say that Solomon composed three thousand proverbs, only that he “spake” that many.
Proverbs 1:1-4 states, “The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel; To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding; To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity; To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.”
The Old Testament Seminary Teacher Manual (churchofjesuschrist.org) states, “Some of the book of Proverbs is attributed to ‘Solomon the son of David, the king of Israel’ (see Proverbs 1:1; 10:1; 25:1…). However, while Solomon is considered an author of many of the proverbs, it is best to think of the book of Proverbs as a library of the wisdom of the Israelites…We do not know exactly when or where the book of Proverbs was written, but the initial compilation of Proverbs is traditionally thought to have taken place during the reign of King Solomon in Jerusalem, between 1015 and 975 B.C. It is likely that many of the proverbs came from oral traditions that existed before Solomon’s time. Also, some proverbs were added after Solomon’s time: chapters 25–29 were added in the days of King Hezekiah of Judah (see Proverbs 25:1). It is unknown when the book reached its final form.”
Therefore, Solomon may have been the original compiler of what would become the book of Proverbs. He may have been a collector of wise sayings and added some of his own. Based on 1 Kings 4:32, he may have liked to employ mashalic statements in his regular conversations. Although the King James authors chose the word “Proverbs,” the Hebrew mashal has a broader meaning, as a “comparison” or “similitude.” The Hebrew word also means “maxims,” “aphorisms,” or “wise counsels.” (Pulpit Commentary, biblehub.com)
No matter who composed a specific proverb, my favorite scripture of all the scriptures is Proverbs 4:7: “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.”
But how wise was Solomon, really? The title of the lesson in the Old Testament Student Manual Kings-Malachi for 1 Kings 1-11 is: “Solomon: Man of Wisdom, Man of Foolishness.” The lesson states: “At the beginning of his reign, Solomon loved the God of Israel and covenanted with God that he would walk in obedience throughout his administration as king of Israel. Solomon was promised wisdom, riches, honor, and long life if he would continue in righteousness before the Lord…” However, “Early in his reign Solomon elected to marry the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh…Solomon apparently considered it important to neutralize any hostility on the part of Egypt, for Egypt had been accustomed to using Canaan as a base for military operations. Marriages between royal families were often politically motivated; such a marriage was a way of signing a treaty between two countries. Nevertheless, the marriage of Solomon to the daughter of the pharaoh showed a lack of faith in the Lord, who had promised to defend Israel and fight her battles (see Deuteronomy 20:4; Joshua 23:10). Later, this marriage and other marriages to foreign wives proved to be a major factor in the downfall of Israel, for Solomon began worshiping the false gods of these other nations and was condemned by the Lord (see 1 Kings 11:1–9).”
The Old Testament Student Manual lesson continues, “The Song of Solomon, which the Prophet Joseph Smith said is not an inspired writing…, is only one of many songs written by Solomon.” The literal subject of the Song of Solomon is sexual love and longing between a man and a woman, and it has little, or nothing, to do with the relationship between God and Israel or God and the church. However, it was canonized in the Hebrew Bible because of its supposed authorship by Solomon and based on an allegorical reading where the subject matter was taken to be not sexual desire but God's love for Israel. The early Christians followed suit. Beginning with Origen, they considered it to be an analogy of the love between God and the church (Norris, Richard Alfred, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, Eerdmans, 2003, Grand Rapids, Michigan)
The Old Testament Student Manual lesson further states, “Though Solomon’s remarkable building projects became world famous, they created serious problems in his own kingdom. He taxed the people heavily and used forced labor to complete his massive projects…Part of his wealth came through trading and international commerce, but much of it came through the economic oppression of the people…Like Saul and David who preceded him, Solomon began his reign in favor with God and man, but he soon let the power of the throne turn his heart away from God. Just as Saul’s and David’s had, Solomon’s promise turned into tragedy…After Solomon had directly disobeyed the Lord by going after the gods of his heathen wives, the Lord told him that the kingdom would be taken from him and given to one of his servants...”
It is true that Solomon built the House of the Lord (1 Kings 6:1), “…the length thereof was threescore [sixty] cubits, and the breadth thereof twenty cubits, and the height thereof thirty cubits.” (1 Kings 6:2) But his own palace complex was much, much larger. Just one of the buildings in the palace complex, “…the house of the forest of Lebanon; the length thereof was an hundred cubits, and the breadth thereof fifty cubits, and the height thereof thirty cubits…” (1 Kings 7:2) How wise is that – especially when it was built upon the backs of his people?
It is great to speak words of wisdom, but it is much better to act wisely. It appears that Solomon failed to act wisely even from very early in his reign.
And how well known was Solomon’s “great wisdom?” We are told in 1 Kings 4:31: “For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol [whoever they were]: and his fame was in all nations round about.”
However, according to Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, archaeologists who have studied Israel for years, in their book, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (Simon & Schuster, New York, p. 133), at the time of King Solomon, Jerusalem was populated by no more than a few hundred residents, which is insufficient for the capital of an empire stretching from the Euphrates to Eilath. (1 Kings 4:20-21) They further proposed that the “archaeological evidence suggests that the kingdom of Israel at the time of Solomon was little more than a small city state.”
This evidence suggests that perhaps Solomon was only wise in his own mind, which is not a very good place to be wise. Another of my favorite scriptures is 2 Nephi 9:28-29, “O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.”
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD