We are pleased to offer a new book on the life and writings of Solomon, entitled:
and the Song of Songs
From Wisdom to Despair:
A Tragic Life, Conflicting Writings,
and a Ray of Hope
You can read the Introduction below, and download the book for free by clicking HERE.
A tragic life producing conflicting writings.
Solomon is one of the most fascinating men in the Bible. His life plays out like a Greek Tragedy, and the writings attributed to him are a conflicting mixture of great wisdom (Proverbs), faithless conclusions (Ecclesiastes), and a ray of unexpected hope (The Song of Songs). Both Solomon’s life and writings are often misunderstood, and to truly grasp them requires mature reflection on Scripture as a whole.
The arc of Solomon’s life.
Solomon’s father was David, the second and greatest king of Israel (until Jesus), described as a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22) But his mother was Bathsheba, the woman involved in David’s greatest sin, where a night of adulterous lust leads to the murder of Bathsheba’s noble husband, a Hittite named Uriah who was one of David’s best soldiers.
David ultimately marries Bathsheba, who bears him Solomon. But the child grows up in the royal house under a cloud of infamy, as the son of the woman central to David’s most disgraceful episode, which nearly cost him the throne. Solomon also grows up in an unspeakably dysfunctional family. His father was a polygamist, with several wives all bearing sons. As his half-brothers vie for the throne, one rapes a half-sister and another murders the rapist and ultimately leads a rebellion against David.
Yet (for reasons we will consider) during Solomon’s youth God chose him to be not only David’s heir, but also the builder of the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for a young man likely still in his teens, bearing an equally extraordinary responsibility – to emerge from his father’s enormous shadow as his own man, lead God’s nation, and build God’s Temple.
Despite the infamy and disfunction of his childhood and the inexperience of his youth, Solomon has the humility to discern the tasks before him are too great and he cannot accomplish them on his own strength. When God offers him literally anything, Solomon humbly asks for the wisdom to rule wisely. God is so pleased with Solomon’s prayer, He grants Solomon not only the wisdom he desires, but also all he could have asked for but didn’t – health, wealth, fame, and peace.
This is the pinnacle of Solomon’s spiritual life. It’s a triumph resulting from his humility. But then Solomon becomes the most wealthy, famous, and powerful king of his day, and despite his blessings (or perhaps because of them), he begins to defy God, withholding his devotion in two areas – politics and sex.
Solomon enters into one political marriage with the daughter of Pharaoh (the king of Egypt), in an attempt to secure his border. Then he enters into 999 sexual unions with the daughters of the Canaanites (the pagan nations that were supposed to be driven from Israel), in an attempt to satisfy his lust. Solomon takes a total of 700 wives and 300 concubines – 1,000 pagan women. Not one of them was Jewish.
This is the pit of Solomon’s spiritual life. It’s a tragedy resulting from his pride. God’s Law expressly prohibited political alliances with Egypt, marriage with pagans, and taking many wives. Yet Solomon defiantly married Pharaoh’s daughter and took 999 other Canaanite spouses and concubines.
Under the influence of these 1,000 foreign women, king Solomon the wise, who built the Temple of God on earth, ends his rein building thousands of places of worship for the detestable gods of Canaan, which centered around temple prostitution and human sacrifice, ordinarily an infant burned alive on a brazen altar. The horror this brings to Israel is beyond imagination, and it leads to God dividing the nation into a Northern Kingdom of ten tribes who reject Solomon’s heir, and a Southern Kingdom of two tribes faithful to the line of David.
As Solomon’s life ebbs away, he slips into despair. His defiance of God creates fear in his heart, and he ends his reign committing acts of hatred against both God and other men. Even though God graciously promises Solomon’s heir will sit on the throne of the Southern Kingdom, Solomon’s last recorded deed is the attempted murder of the man God chose to rule the Northern Kingdom. It’s an evil and vindictive act, meant to defeat the plan of the One who has been so good to him.
From wisdom to despair.
In this brief summary, we see the general arc of Solomon’s life. Although he is privileged to be in the royal household, it’s still a rough start. He’s looked down upon as the offspring of the woman with whom David sinned so spectacularly. His half-brothers plot to succeed their father, while afflicting the royal house with rape, murder, and insurrection.
And yet when chosen to reign after David and build God’s Temple, Solomon rises to the occasion magnificently. He demonstrates extraordinary humility when given the opportunity to ask the Creator of the universe for anything, and prays for what he needs to fulfill God’s purpose. Would you or I do the same?
But as blessings reign down upon him, a fatal flaw is revealed in his character. He is not willing to trust God completely and defies God in two areas. He seeks security in political scheming and pleasure in promiscuous sex. This is his undoing.
As we shall see, the women he brings into his bed provide neither security nor pleasure. But they do lead him down a very dark path to ruin, not only for himself, but also for the entire nation of Israel.
Because of his humble request, Solomon rises to the highest heights of wisdom. Yet wisdom is not obedience. And because of his prideful defiance, he descends into the deepest pits of misery and despair.
The conflict within the writings.
Discerning the arc of Solomon’s life is vital in order to understand the content of the writings attributed to him and the conflict between their themes. Each of the three books belong to different periods within Solomon’s volatile life, as he rises to wisdom then falls to despair, so it’s only natural both the spiritual and earthly perspectives of these books would shift according to their position along the curve.
The book of Proverbs is a compilation of the sayings of several authors, including Solomon. His proverbs are filled with tremendous insight and artistry. They are brilliant bursts of common sense. Yet when we consider the words of Solomon’s proverbs against the canvas of Solomon’s life, the bitter irony we realize is: Solomon completely ignored the proverbs he wrote. In his wisdom he eloquently expressed truth, but in his pride he chose to defy it. This suggests Solomon’s proverbs were likely written towards the beginning of his life, relatively soon after he humbly asked God for wisdom, when his life was full of promise and before he chose a path diametrically opposed to principles he exalted.
By contrast, Ecclesiastes was likely written towards the end of Solomon’s life, when the inevitable despair resulting from a descent into defiance, fear, and hate consumed him. The critical thing to recognize about Ecclesiastes is: The sayings of the Qohelet (a Hebrew word often translated “preacher” representing Solomon) are made up of two distinct parts: (1) insightful observations about the harsh realities of life, and (2) ridiculous conclusions arising from a breathtaking lack of faith. This is not usually the way Ecclesiastes is interpreted, but it will leap off the page as we compare the conclusions of Solomon with the conclusions of the other authors of Scripture and Jesus Himself.
This leaves us with the final book attributed to Solomon, the Song of Songs. It’s a ray of hope shining through the gloom of Solomon’s disastrous life, because it’s not really about him. It’s about a young, common woman of Israel, who has what Solomon lacks – humility and faith. She’s not rich, famous, or powerful (in the worldly sense), but she has far more integrity than Solomon. She demonstrates this by choosing whether to give her love to Solomon or a shepherd, and her choices light the way for all of us to follow if we wish to avoid the tragedy that is the life of Solomon.
The conflict in these writings will become apparent as we review them. Proverbs makes bold claims about all the good things we can expect when we trust God. Then Ecclesiastes wrongly suggests these good choices are meaningless. And unless you consider very carefully what is truly going on in the Song of Songs, it can look like an account of Solomon seducing one of his 1,000 pagan wives and concubines, when it truth it’s about the one Jewish woman who refused him.
Careful consideration of these three books against the backdrop of Scripture a whole, along with a commonsense emphasis on the holy and loving character of God, brings the true meaning of the books into focus.
- Proverbs is about life principles, which Solomon understood but ultimately chose not to follow.
- Ecclesiastes is about life realities, about which Solomon draws self-absorbed, faithless conclusions.
- And the Song of Songs is about life choices, not by Solomon, but rather by a woman who rejects him for a shepherd.
Together these books present a multifaceted look at the mysteries of life in a fallen world, while also serving as a three-act portrayal of the dramatic arc of Solomon’s life.
- Act One – Proverbs represents the hopeful beginning of Solomon’s life, showing us how to live, through life principles worth following.
- Act Two – The Song of Songs represents the defiant middle of Solomon’s life, showing us what to reject (the descent of Solomon), through life choices worth emulating (those of the young woman); and
- Act Three – Ecclesiastes represents the tragic end of Solomon’s life, showing us what we will become (as miserable as Solomon), if we meet life realities without faith in the One who created us.
A cautionary tale with a ray of hope.
In a sense, Solomon is the “Michael Corleone” of the Bible. If you know the Godfather movies, even though Michael grew up in an infamous and dysfunctional family, he started out doing all the right things. He refused to enter the “family business” of organized crime. He served heroically in the military during wartime. He found a woman to love and with whom to raise a family. But when someone tries to murder his father, a fatal flaw in his character is revealed. He gives in to the temptation to take revenge, kills those responsible for the attempted murder of his father, and starts down a dark and ruinous path, eventually losing everything he held most dear.
Solomon’s life is like that. He starts out great. Despite coming from a family scarred by polygamy, incestuous rape, fratricide, and insurrection, Solomon does the right thing. He humbly prays for the wisdom to lead God’s people well. God answers his prayer and then blesses him beyond imagination. Yet Solomon refuses to fully trust God and turns to politics for security and polygamy for pleasure. But these two indulgences eventually cost him everything. Instead of leading God’s people well, he leads them into the absolute savagery of pagan idolatry and causes the nation to be ripped in two.
Solomon’s writings reflect this tragic arc. His proverbs demonstrate undeniable, God-given wisdom. His refusal to heed his own proverbs leads to the deep despair reflected in the faithless conclusions drawn throughout Ecclesiastes. But against this dark backdrop, God provides us with the light of a different path, taken not by Solomon, but by an honorable young woman, which is extraordinarily fitting.
Solomon’s life is a cautionary tale. It’s not one to emulate, but rather one to learn from and avoid repeating. We discover all the material things the world has to offer can’t make us happy. They are at best temporary distractions from unhappiness. And all the wisdom in the world in not enough to make us a success. Being wise is not the same as being faithful.
Happiness (in the biblical sense of Joy “inexpressible” and Peace “surpassing comprehension”) and success (in the sense of discovering and fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives) only come from humbly choosing a life of faith, hope, and love, as we shall see as we consider Solomon, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs.
1 Peter 1:3-8 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope… and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory,” (NASB)
Philippians 4:6,7 “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (NASB)
Ephesians 2:10 “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (NIV – 1984 ed.)
Philippians 2:13 “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (NIV)