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Solomon Wasn't So Smart - a warning in 1 Kings 11:1-13

Be careful not to overestimate yourself.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Kings 11:1-13

In this sudden and ignominious end to Solomon's story, we learn that he had a huge harem and allowed them to turn his heart away to their peoples' gods. It's simple and sad (for a man who should have known better). We learn that sin has incredible consequences, but we're also reminded to be very watchful of our own weaknesses and temptations.

When Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away to follow other gods. (11:4)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Father's Day!

Sometimes, the calendar helps me decide on an opening topic. Because this passage is such a downer, I think it would be better to start light.

What's "dad's" favorite thing to do on Father's Day? (If you're a member at FBC, it had better be "telling kids about Jesus" because VBS starts this evening.) Actually, maybe I had better rephrase that -- "What's dad's favorite thing to do as a dad?" I like to watch movies and play board games with my family. We're to the point where Micah beats me pretty consistently, so that's a problem, but it doesn't reduce my enjoyment. How about in your household?

And then here's the transition -- "What's everyone's most effective way to manipulate dad?" (If my kids haven't figured that out, I'm sure not going to help them.) Dads have a weak spot somewhere. What is it?

Here's the depressing transition -- Solomon had a lot of wives, and they knew how to manipulate him. It was simple, really. He actually loved them. (Which is good?) And they would play off of that love to get him to join them in their cultural practices, which mostly meant family religion. Solomon wanted to please them, and he built altars for them. The Bible specifically mentions that Solomon was "old", so that might have something to do with it. Those of you who are grandfathers have readily admitted that you are easier to manipulate as a grandpa than you were as a dad. Maybe that's the idea? (It's really not a good look for Solomon.) (I dive into the question "What was Solomon thinking?" at the very bottom of the post.)


This Week's Big Idea: The Gods of Canaan

In this week's passage, we are introduced to "Ashtoreth" and "Molek" and "Chemosh". Those are some of the gods worshiped by the people of Canaan. To be completely honest, the details really aren't that important (don't tell any biblical archeologist I just said that). A false god is a false god is a false god, and humans tend to be repetitive in the gods they create for themselves. So, let me put some details here, that way you have them if you want them. But I won't clog the commentary with all of this stuff.

The first name mentioned is Ashtoreth ("Ashtaroth" is the plural form of the name -- the Bible uses that form when speaking of the collective fertility gods). The tribes living around the Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia, Canaan, Egypt, etc.) had been there for thousands of years. They had intermarried and intermingled, so it would only make sense that they would have a common background mythology that took on local flair. So, when we see parallels between the Canaanite gods Ashtoreth and Asherah, the Babylonian god Ishtar, and the god in Greek records called Astarte, it's probably because they are all based on the same ancient mythology. Ashtoreth was the fertility god (the female side; her male counterpart was Baal).

Canaanites (and most others in the region) worshipped nature. In pagan theology, there's not much more important than sun and rain -- the literal bringers of life to the natural world. That's why sun gods and rain gods (or, more generally, fertility gods) tend to rank very high in pagan pantheons. That's why Baal (who was both) and Ashtoreth (god of life and/or birth) are so prominent in the records. In representation, their idols are consistently voluptuous (often obscenely so), and their worship tended to be sexual in nature. (Point of historical interest: in some ancient mythologies, the original gods were El and Asherah, and Baal and Ashtoreth were two of their children. Baal eventually outsmarted El, and Ashtoreth just kinda blended into Asherah. Lots of incest. At least 70 other god-children. Remember that the word "El" was the common word for "god". It was used of Yahweh because it was the appropriate word; the Hebrews used modifiers (like El-Shaddai) to help distinguish Yahweh from other gods.)

You might remember "Asherah pole". That was apparently one common representation for her (and for obvious reasons, wooden poles haven't survived 3-4,000 years for us to know for sure what they looked like). It could be that trees were symbols of life and provision, and so they would mark trees to identify them as a place to worship Asherah/Ashtoreth.

Worship practices. As strange as this sounds, apparently a lot of ancient worship was acting out the action one wanted the god to perform ("sympathetic magic"). And since this usually meant production or reproduction, sex was a common feature of Canaanite worship. This is where we hear of "cult prostitutes/sacred prostitutes" (both male and female -- see the warning in Deut 23:17).

And of course, idol worship was a big thing, which is why God had to be so clear about not making idols. This week's passage mentions "burning incense" and "offering sacrifices". Worshipers would build a shrine, set up an idol in it, and perform their worship actions there in front of the idol (supposing that the idol represented the god, so the god would see what they did there). The incense was intended to soothe the god, and the sacrifices were intended to appease the god. A golden calf (and we will hear more about these in the weeks to come) was a common idol. Bulls were seen as particularly virulent, and so a favorite representation of the fertility gods (often Baal). Baal and Asherah worship are going to appear throughout 1/2 Kings. Here's a paragraph from near the very end of the book:

4 Then the king commanded the high priest Hilkiah and the priests of the second rank and the doorkeepers to bring out of the Lord’s sanctuary all the articles made for Baal, Asherah, and all the stars in the sky. He burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron and carried their ashes to Bethel. 5 Then he did away with the idolatrous priests the kings of Judah had appointed to burn incense at the high places in the cities of Judah and in the areas surrounding Jerusalem. They had burned incense to Baal, and to the sun, moon, constellations, and all the stars in the sky. 6 He brought out the Asherah pole from the Lord’s temple to the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem. He burned it at the Kidron Valley, beat it to dust, and threw its dust on the graves of the common people. 7 He also tore down the houses of the male cult prostitutes that were in the Lord’s temple, in which the women were weaving tapestries for Asherah. (2 Ki 23)

Molech and Chemosh. In short, Chemosh was the Moabite god of war. Molech was a god of the underworld who was appeased by child sacrifice. There is some debate whether Milcom/Molek/Molech are actually the same name. Remember that in ancient Hebrew, only the consonants were written. "mlk" is the Hebrew word for king, so Milcom/Molech could simply be the generic name of a pantheon's leader.

God has always been fully justified in being jealous for His worship simply because, well, all of these other gods are fake. Their worship is a lie. But when we learn about what people did as worshipers, we realize that God was also protecting them from sin.


This Week's Bonus Big Idea: Interfaith Marriages

This can be a very touchy subject, which is why I'm giving it its own section. Marriages between people of different religions (or religious traditions) are called "interfaith marriages". They are common. A big survey came out a few months ago

indicating that only about half of marriages in the last decade were between two people of the same faith. That's significantly down from the 80% it had been for the previous century.

There's plenty of variety in the numbers:

  • 87% of Mormons marry Mormons

  • 83% of evangelical Protestants marry evangelicals

  • 72% for mainline Protestants, 65% for Catholics, 59% for Jews

[Note: they consider Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and mainline Protestants to be "different faiths".] But I want to focus on some other findings. I'll just quote them:

Americans in religiously mixed marriages are far less likely to attend services regularly than those married to someone who has the same religious commitments. Forty-four percent of Americans with a spouse who shares their religious affiliation attend services at least once a week. In contrast, 16 percent of Americans in interfaith marriages attend formal worships services weekly or more often, while just 1 percent of Americans in secular marriages—in which neither person identifies with a religious tradition—report attending weekly services. More than eight in 10 (81 percent) Americans in secular marriages say they never attend religious services.
Formal religious membership is also less common among those in interfaith marriages. A majority (61 percent) of Americans with a spouse who shares their religious affiliation say they are a member of a church or religious organization, compared to roughly a third (36 percent) of religious Americans whose spouse has a different religious background. Similarly, more Americans in religiously homogenous marriages (30 percent) say they are members of a prayer or bible study group, compared to 12 percent of religious Americans in interfaith marriages.

[Asides. Here's something that floored me: Americans are much more likely to marry someone with their same political orientation (80%) than their same faith tradition (52% see above). According to survey responses, they value "values" more than faith, as if those two can be separated. Also -- about "cohabiting". These numbers are going to be skewed by the fact that people who are "less religious" are less likely to get married in the first place. My guess -- and there is a lot of chatter about this on the internet -- is that if we could include couples who were cohabiting, the number of interfaith relationships would be even higher. For example, a Jew might be more likely to marry another Jew but might be more likely to cohabit with a non-Jew.]

So, what does this matter?

Well, as we will learn in our passage this week, God was very clear with the Jews in the Old Testament that they should only marry other Jews. And the New Testament carries this theme as well:

  • A wife is bound as long as her husband is living. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to anyone she wants—only in the Lord. (1 Cor 7:39)

  • Do not be yoked together with those who do not believe. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness? (2 Cor 6:14)

The "unequally yoked" passage is not focused on marriage. But if that is a general truth for Christians to observe in their relationships, how much more important would that be to observe in their most important relationship!

Note: the most common situation in the New Testament was that a person would become a follower of Jesus as an adult and already married. They are not to pursue a divorce in those circumstances (1 Cor 7 is the main chapter on marriage).

At some point in your discussion, this topic is going to come up. There are a number of questions you'll want to talk through as a group.

  • Why did God insist that Jews only marry Jews?

  • Why does the New Testament encourage Christians to marry other Christians?

  • What does modern experience tell us about "interfaith marriages"?

  • What does this suggest we say to single Christians who are dating?

[Note: some talking heads are convinced that churches preach against interfaith marriages because it reduces church attendance. I hope your discussion moves beyond that!]

Certainly, you can see how this topic gets so touchy. But it's important to talk about! Even if everyone in your group is married, you probably have kids and grandkids who need a calm and reasoned explanation why they should focus on relationships with Christians (preferably Christians who are equally committed to their faith in Jesus!).

At First Baptist Thomson, we just heard a sermon on the family, focused on Ephesians 5. In that sermon, we were reminded that a wife submits to her husband as a Christian submits to Jesus, and a husband loves his wife as Jesus loves all Christians. Those are the rules for husbands and wives. And they don't make a lot of sense if one of the two doesn't believe in Jesus.

Hear me on this: any marriage can work. And if we're married to someone who doesn't share our religious convictions, we need to do everything we can to make it work. (And we've all heard stories of unbelieving spouses who came to faith in Jesus.) But for our own good and protection, God wants us to be in a relationship with someone committed to Jesus. Someone who can lift us up even as we lift them up.


Where We are in 1 Kings

This is the last lesson on Solomon. His story ends at the end of this chapter!

In chapters 9 and 10, we learn how Solomon made slaves of Israel's neighbors. (Sorry this map is so fuzzy, but it's the simplest I could find.) Israel proper is the dark pink. The orange-ish regions are Edom, Moab, Ammon, and Aram, all of which Solomon subjugated. There's also a dark aside in which Pharaoh wiped out an entire region and then gave the territory as a wedding gift for his daughter to Solomon. Solomon constructed a trading empire and grew rich from it. He received an absurd amount of gold in tribute each year and used it to create an ever-more-opulent lifestyle for himself and his court. We are supposed to recoil from Solomon's self-centeredness.

The end of chapter 11 is an avalanche. We learn of foreign adversaries who hated Solomon (Hadad and Rezon), and the most important adversary -- one of Solomon's own officials, Jeroboam. We learn that Solomon's disobedience to God will result in the kingdom being divided (see 11:29-39). Importantly, God offers Jeroboam the opportunity to be faithful and prosper. (Spoiler: he won't.) We will learn more about this next week.


Part 1: Warning Ignored (1 Kings 11:1-3)

1 King Solomon loved many foreign women in addition to Pharaoh’s daughter: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women 2 from the nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, and they must not intermarry with you, because they will turn your heart away to follow their gods.” To these women Solomon was deeply attached in love. 3 He had seven hundred wives who were princesses and three hundred who were concubines, and they turned his heart away.

God had been clear with the Israelites about intermarriage (see Deut 7 and Josh 23). He knew the hearts of His people -- how prone they were to wander. Even Solomon, the wisest Jew of them all, fell into this trap.

It's possible (but not defensible) that Solomon started down this road of polygamy for the purpose of politics. We are introduced to Pharaoh's daughter back in chapter 9, and that relationship was definitely about an alliance. Most of those place names appear on the small map above -- they were Israel's neighbors, and Solomon had power over them. Political marriages were common, a way to demonstrate solidarity, and also a de facto captive.

Solomon's harem has been an endless source of fiction (none of it good) and tasteless defenses of polygamy and multiple partners. (God's design for marriage has always been one-man-one-woman; we should see the prevalence of polygamy in ancient male-dominated cultures as evidence of sin, not something to emulate.)

I've certainly wondered what these women did with their time. If they used their time to scheme to turn Solomon's heart away from God, I couldn't blame them; it must be dehumanizing to be put in that situation. You can read the book of Esther for more detail on how one king's harem spent their time.

[Uncomfortable aside about concubines. They were slaves. These women were Solomon's property. They were slightly elevated in status from other slaves -- if the right to have sex with the king could be considered elevated -- but they did not have the rights of wives. Saul had a concubine (2 Sam 3:7), and David had many concubines (2 Sam 5:13). (David's concubines came from Jerusalem, so I don't know how that worked. There was a law against enslaving Jews.) Every biblical episode involving a concubine ends in some kind of tragedy or violence.]

The Bible points out that Solomon "loved" these women. The Hebrew phrase literally means "he clung to them in love". That's vague. Perhaps he genuinely cared for these women (I guess that would be good? It certainly couldn't be "love" in the New Testament marriage sense). Or perhaps he just needed them -- needed them to make him feel powerful or virile, needed them to fill an emotional void (seriously, read Ecclesiastes again), or needed them to keep his mind occupied at all times (again, seriously, read Ecclesiastes; the man had problems).

Unfortunately, they turned his heart away from God. (We'll read about the "how" in the next section.) We've talked a lot about peer pressure/"bad company corrupts good character", and there's certainly some of that going on here. But Solomon was the one with the most power in this scenario, so we can't blame all of it on peer pressure. Rather, I think it might be as simple as him deciding that he was above God's laws.

God gave laws for a reason. In the case of the marriage laws, He spelled that reason out -- spouses will indulge their spouse's religion as part of relationship-building. And any religion that's not the worship of the One True God is by definition taking someone away from God -- "drifting away from God" so to speak.

Those of you who are clever with illustrations might come up with a way to use the idea of an eddy current. Think of God as a fixed point on the bank of a river, and the flow of water is all of the forces of culture rushing away from God. If you stay close enough to the shore, the eddies will help keep bringing you back to the shore. But once you get into the main current, you will be swept away. Perhaps we can think of God's laws like an eddy current, keeping us to the safety of the shore. But everything we do to violate God's laws (like marrying someone outside of God's will) is like a shove into the river. Enough shoves (like 1,000?) will push us all the way into the current -- where the real danger is.

But let's move to the next section for a little more context.


Part 2: A Divided Heart (1 Kings 11:4-8)

4 When Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away to follow other gods. He was not wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord his God, as his father David had been. 5 Solomon followed Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom, the abhorrent idol of the Ammonites. 6 Solomon did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, and unlike his father David, he did not remain loyal to the Lord. 7 At that time, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh, the abhorrent idol of Moab, and for Milcom, the abhorrent idol of the Ammonites, on the hill across from Jerusalem. 8 He did the same for all his foreign wives, who were burning incense and offering sacrifices to their gods.

The comment about "old" could have several intents.

  • His faculties were failing, making him easier to manipulate

  • His self-image was eroding, making him more desperate to please

  • He'd been around long enough to have gotten comfortable with this situation

I think it's the latter. I think he had lived this way for so long and accumulated so many women that his heart was numb to it, his conscience was seared.

Think of a time you had put up with or lived in a sinful circumstance for a long time -- didn't it become easier to excuse the longer you lived with it?

David had concubines, but they didn't turn his heart from God. The difference? David's heart was devoted to God, and Solomon's heart wasn't. The Hebrew literally means "his heart was not complete with the Lord". That word for "complete" is "shalom", which to the Jew meant wholeness. Solomon was not wholly devoted to God.

Having a harem might not be your sinful situation (although in all seriousness, statistics show that more than 1/3 (!) of all marriages have endured an affair of some kind, so let no one think they are above the temptation to cheat). But we all have some kind of a weakness that can be exploited to turn us away from God.

It's tough to be honest about this (we like to think that we can police ourselves), but that honesty is critical to accountability. You remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: "you cannot serve both God and money" (Matt 6:24). His point was that you cannot split your devotion between two things that demand absolute devotion. (And if you don't believe that the things of this world are actively seeking your wholehearted devotion, you are naive.) Anything that takes your attention or devotion from God (and thus leads you into temptation) is an idol that must be destroyed. Solomon apparently had a weakness for women. What are your weaknesses? Does a push for more money interfere with your relationship with God? How about hobbies? Or friends? Or choices in entertainment? What tends to take you away from God?

Our passage actually describes the process with Solomon, and it's very believable. He had some kind of affection for his women, and he wanted then to be happy. But because they had come from very different cultures that Jewish, they wanted "a taste of home". And Solomon wanted to indulge that for them. (Incidentally, that's the primary legend behind the Hanging Gardens of Babylon -- the king wanted to please his transplanted wife). But part of that taste of home (as God warned) included worshiping the gods of their ancestors according to their ancestral tradition. And so Solomon indulged that, building shrines and idols for them to make them happy. And even though the Bible doesn't say this explicitly, it is hinted that Solomon even joined them in their practice ("thank you for building this shrine -- now come see we what we do in here!").

The way the Bible describes this situation, it's extremely obvious what Solomon was doing and why it was wrong and how it would end in disaster. But when it happens in our own lives, it's not always so obvious. Earlier, we asked about our weaknesses -- those things that take us away from God. What warning signs do you have that you are drifting the wrong way? Perhaps you tend to be angrier, or use harsh language? Perhaps you tend to be more anxious or unsettled? Perhaps you stop caring about things like praying or going to church? What are those warning signs for you? And most importantly, when you notice them, what do you do to stop the drift?

Note that idol worship would be a scourge for Israel for the rest of its existence and a central part of the reason why God had to allow its destruction. It can't have helped for its wisest king to have so prominently supported idol worship, establishing a pattern for the next rulers to follow, eroding the foundation of the kingdom before it would even be set.

[Possible discussion if you have time: is it harder to recover from sinful patterns established at the beginning of a situation (like a marriage or a business) or that pop up later in the situation? I'm actually not sure -- both scenarios can be equally devastating. But I've always been told that it's better to start your climb by not digging yourself a hole.]


Part 3: Discipline Promised (1 Kings 11:9-13)

9 The Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. 10 He had commanded him about this, so that he would not follow other gods, but Solomon did not do what the Lord had commanded. 11 Then the Lord said to Solomon, “Since you have done this and did not keep my covenant and my statutes, which I commanded you, I will tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant. 12 However, I will not do it during your lifetime for the sake of your father David; I will tear it out of your son’s hand. 13 Yet I will not tear the entire kingdom away from him. I will give one tribe to your son for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem that I chose.”

This is the key passage for the rest of 1/2 Kings. The failures of the people, the division of the kingdom, all of that can be traced to Solomon's idolatry with his harem.

[Note: I want to make sure that we spread the blame around fully! David had a huge hand in creating the environment that would make Solomon's failure so much easier. But Solomon was fully responsible for his own actions.]

Solomon had the blessing of speaking with God twice. He should have known to take God seriously at His word. (Of course, we've also noted that the people who walked and talked with Jesus still doubted Him; our nature is to doubt God.) God was very clear about His rules for marriage; Solomon knew them and deliberately violated them.

[Sneaky obvious application: if we would all just follow God's rules for behavior and how to treat people, we could save ourselves a lot of heartache.]

I recommend letting that be the end of the study. Next week, we are going to read about Solomon's son Rehoboam and how the kingdom was divided, so let's save that talk for then.

This is a great passage about sin and consequences. Solomon is such a powerful cautionary tale -- the wisest man to live acted like a fool. Who are we to think we can take care of ourselves without God's help and guidance?


Closing Thoughts: How Did Solomon Get Here?

I've often wondered this, as I'm sure you have. Solomon was the wisest person ever to live. How did he fall into such an obvious trap? As we observed, God was very clear about marriages to "foreign women". Solomon's behavior did not seem wise at all.

What happened?

Well, realize that we don't really know that much about Solomon. His story comes to an end in the chapter we're reading this week. That's it for him. A few chapters of biography, and most is actually about the temple. The rest isn't that flattering. There is a little about his wisdom. Most is about his wealth and power. Solomon is a man who grew up in the midst of palace intrigue, survived and became king, and was very successful. Without saying it in so many words, the Bible paints a picture of a man who let his wealth and power go to his head, who always thought that he was the smartest guy in the room. He surrounded himself with luxury, he congratulated himself on his clever alliances. And the whole time, he was pretty empty inside.

When we studied Ecclesiastes,

I suggested that Solomon wrote it. It was written by a man who had it all but couldn't find meaning in any of it. He "knew" that fearing God and keeping God's commands were the chief end of life, but he could not be content with that. Based on what we read in our passage this week, it would seem that Solomon tried to find happiness in his wives. Maybe he thought he was so smart that he could find truth in all of their religions (haven't we heard that before?). He thought he could handle himself, so he didn't need to worry about God's laws and warnings. An old man, trapped in his own hubris and perhaps getting a little desperate. A recipe for disaster.

Last week, we said that there's a difference between having wisdom and acting on it. Solomon, I believe, is the case-in-point.

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