It’s no secret around here that I love the book of Proverbs and consider it my “home page” in the Bible. I read through Proverbs at least once a year and, whenever I’m not sure what else to read, I turn to it. And while I love Proverbs and envy the wisdom of Solomon I find something really sobering about his life. Whenever I consider Solomon, I am faced with the question of how a man of such great wisdom and discernment could end his life so far from the Lord. How did such a wise man become so foolish? How did such a discerning man stray so far?
I’m far from the only person who has wondered this. Just last week I received an email from a friend and reader of this site who had just finished reading The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. He asked a question that went something like this: If Solomon was the most discerning man who ever lived (besides Jesus, of course), and discernment is the application of wisdom, then how do we account for his spiritual digression? How can a truly discerning man be disobedient?” I’ve written about this a little bit in the past but it seemed like a good chance to say something more. How did Solomon, who was so wise and so discerning, end up so far from the Lord?
Solomon’s wisdom is unparalleled by any other human. The Bible tells us that the Queen of Sheba once came to Solomon, having heard of his great wisdom, and “told him all that was on her mind.” There was nothing she asked that he could not answer, for “Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her.” We know that “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all other men…” In the history of mankind, there was no one like Solomon. He was extraordinarily gifted by God.
“Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.” He was richly blessed, with wealth and power beyond measure. “He had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem. And the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah. And Solomon’s import of horses was from Egypt and Kue, and the king’s traders received them from Kue at a price. A chariot could be imported from Egypt for 600 shekels of silver and a horse for 150, and so through the king’s traders they were exported to all the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Syria.”
When the Queen of Sheba witnessed Solomon’s wisdom and gazed at all his wealth, the Bible tells us that there was no more breath in her. She was completely overwhelmed. I have felt the same as I’ve read about his life and have read his proverbs. The man’s wisdom and discernment is clearly unsurpassed (except by Jesus). And yet there is more to the story.
It is always a shock to turn to the tenth chapter of 1 Kings and to read about Solomon’s downfall. It is awful to hear how a man with such wisdom strayed so far from God. “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, ‘You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.’ Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart.” I find the next verse instructive. “For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.” His wives turned away his heart so that it was not wholly true to the Lord his God. Solomon’s heart was at first divided between women and God, but it soon turned away altogether. He allowed the lust of his heart to overcome and overwhelm his love for God.
This is sobering, is it not? A man with the wisdom of Solomon, a man who had had the Lord appear to him twice and who had heard the Lord directly command him not to turn after other gods, turned away nonetheless. Though a wise man, the Lord told him “you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you.” How could this happen?
Ironically, I believe that we can find the key to Solomon’s downfall in one of his own proverbs. In Proverbs 19:27 we read “Cease to hear instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge.” There are some proverbs that are multi-layered and which require great thought. This is not that kind. That meaning of this one is plain. Those who cease to listen to wise instruction, instruction based on the fear of the Lord, will quickly stray. While we cannot know for certain, I am increasingly convinced that this is what happened to Solomon. While he was young, he was visited by God and was endowed with great wisdom and discernment. When he was only a young man, but still a king, he called out to God in what seems to be a healthy apprehension of the difficulties he would face as king:
At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you. And you have kept for him this great and steadfast love and have given him a son to sit on his throne this day. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”
God was pleased with Solomon’s request, replying “I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.” Solomon knew his weakness and, in humility, cried out to God and asked for His strength. As a little child cries to his father for help Solomon cried out in dependence on God. God was pleased to hear, pleased to answer, and pleased to give to Solomon far more than he asked. Solomon asked for discernment, but was also given great wisdom, great wealth, and great power. God lavished gifts upon him.
But as Solomon grew older, he began to depend less on God. I believe he began to depend on his own wisdom and to stray ever-further from God’s instruction. Where there was once humble dependence on God, there was now dependence on himself. In so doing, he strayed from words of knowledge, and strayed from God Himself. John Anderson once preached a sermon in which he said, “Erring from the words of knowledge is direct rebellion against the authority of God, whose law binds us to believe whatever he reveals. The language of obstinate error is, I prefer my own wisdom and my own will in such a particular to the wisdom and will of God himself.” Solomon preferred his wisdom to God’s wisdom, his ways to God’s ways. The whole earth once “sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.” But I believe Solomon soon allowed his own earthly wisdom to overtake his mind. He ceased hearing instruction and strayed from words of knowledge. He strayed from wisdom. He strayed from God.
Wisdom and discernment, then, are character traits that, like the moon, can wax and wane. They are gifts of God, but gifts that we can throw away. They are gifts that need to be nurtured and maintained. We cannot take them for granted, taking refuge in the fact that we may be wise and discerning right now. We need to continue to strive after them and to seek them. We need to learn from Solomon that even the wisest man today may be the greatest fool tomorrow. We depend on grace, even to sustain our wisdom and discernment.
If Solomon could stray so far from the Lord, I know that I can too. This is a sobering thought. This is a terrifying thought, even. But the solution to avoiding the folly of Solomon is clear. I need to take care that I never cease to hear instruction. I must live with an intense focus on God’s Word, never believing that I have learned enough, never believing that I’ve arrived. I must know that from this day to the day I die, I need to maintain a humble dependence on God. I must trust that His words of instruction will continue to edify and strengthen me, protecting me from straying from the words of knowledge. I will never outgrow my need for His sustaining grace.