King Solomon, we read in Scripture, possessed wisdom that “excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was the wisest of all men.” In modern parlance, he was, “the smartest guy in the room.”
At least for a while – threatening to cut up the baby to discover the real mother, etc. He was big on government and public works projects as well, and good at them (not just the Temple, though back then you didn’t have to make the case that they were shovel-ready, since you could commandeer the wealth of the nation and had an inexhaustible supply of slave labor.) By the end of his reign, Israel had been transformed into a great nation, Jerusalem into a city of conspicuous wealth and, as a result, not a few problems.
Not least, the king himself. Later in life, he “had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned his heart away. For when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.” From a purely human point of view, having 1000 women around, competing for your attention, isn’t the smartest move a guy can make.
David, Solomon’s father, got himself into hot water over only one, Solomon’s mother Bathsheba. When Matthew wrote Christ’s genealogy, he puts Solomon’s parentage delicately ex ea, quae fuit Uriae, as the Vulgate reads. Poor Uriah. If he had gone home when he was on leave instead of drinking with his army buddies and sleeping in barracks, things might have been different. (You have to wonder why he didn’t, if Bathsheba was such a looker that, even at a distance, she caught David’s eye.)
There are in these stories multiple opportunities for exegesis of a kind I rarely see. A commentary I just looked at speaks of the division into social classes during Solomon’s reign, as if growing income inequality in 10th-century B.C. Palestine were the worst thing to come out of this family soap opera. The Bible itself speaks of Israel’s unfaithfulness, division after Solomon – not into classes, but Northern Kingdom (Israel) and Southern (Judah) – leading to social chaos, foreign misadventures, captivity (Babylon), and dissolution.
Of course, in God’s Providence, Christ also lay at the end of the story, who was a very different kind of king.
All this might lead in multiple directions. But what does it mean to be, really, “the wisest of men”? Perhaps, not much, since even Solomon descended quickly into self-destructive luxury and infidelity. A sad commentary on human nature, and a useful lesson about humility. Still, what was the wisdom that made Solomon wise, so to speak, when he was at the top of his game?
Some saw it in the Song of Songs. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a commentary on it still brilliant after 800 years. Thomas Aquinas was working on one when he died. They saw in that love poem that love of God – not only fear – is wisdom.
Solomon meets the Queen of Sheba
by Piero della Francesca, c. 1460
Modern scholars say that the Song of Songs, Proverbs, the Book of Wisdom, Ecclesiastes weren’t written until centuries after Solomon. Though they form part of the wisdom tradition – they have little to do with Solomon.
We’re on firmer ground in the first Book of Kings, when Solomon asked God for “a heart to understand how to discern between good and evil.” That’s what must have impressed the visiting Queen of Sheba, and many others.
And what makes his apostasy so disturbing. When he dedicates the Temple, he prays that God will forgive when the people sin – and turn back to Him – and that God will be with and uphold Israel “so that all the peoples of the earth may come to know Yahweh is God indeed, and that there is no other.”
Not much later, he turned to Astarte, the goddess of love, and Moloch, he who demanded the sacrifice of children. No doubt international opinion in his day praised him for his tolerance toward other cultures and openness to women’s perspectives, the wisdom of the world.
The title of Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot refers to the Christ-like character, Prince Myshkin, who puzzles the other Russians busy getting government posts, seeking money, arranging advantageous marriages. To them, Myshkin (and by implication Jesus) looks like an idiot because he isn’t in that business, though he understands it quite well.
Yet one of the beautiful women who’s being sought in marriage in his social circle says to him one day: “your real mind is far better than all theirs put together. Such a mind as they have never even DREAMED of; because really, there are TWO minds – the kind that matters, and the kind that doesn’t matter.”
We, too, seem to think that the smartest guy in the room is also the best person. There’s a tremendous confusion in our world – fueled I think by the tremendous power modern technologies provide – between smart and good. If you ask somebody whether some geek like Bill Gates or the late Steve Jobs would make a good president, they’d laugh. But for some reason we believe that highly credentialed technocrats – who often know little of human nature and certainly haven’t asked God humbly for wisdom – know what’s best.
So what’s the mind that matters? Plato and the younger Solomon agree: “it is not the life of knowledge, not even if included all the sciences, that creates happiness and well-being, but a single branch of knowledge – the science of good and evil. If you exclude this from the other branches, medicine will be able to give health, and shoe-making shoes, and weaving clothes. Seamanship will still save life at sea and strategy win battles. But without the knowledge of good and evil, the use and excellence of these sciences will be found to have failed us.” (Charmides 174)