1 Kings 10: The Queen of Sheba, Solomon’s Great Wealth
The overall message of this chapter is of Israel at the height of its glory and power, under the rulership of Solomon.
This is first illustrated in verses 1–13 by a visit from a foreign leader: the Queen of Sheba. According to the ESV Study Bible notes, Sheba (or Saba) roughly corresponds to modern day Yemen, and was known for trading luxury goods from East Africa and India. We’re told that she specifically came to test Solomon with hard questions, because she’d heard of his fame. She got more than she had expected:
Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan—with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones—she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at the temple of the LORD, she was overwhelmed. (verses 2–5)
She confirms to him that, yes, everything she was told about his wisdom was true—in fact, she wasn’t told even half of it! In fact, she assumes Solomon’s people must be happy just to be able to stand in his presence and hear his wisdom—in fact, she assumes that the LORD made Solomon ruler because He loves His people, and wanted them to have a good leader. (Which is not wrong, but it’s not not wrong either…)
She then gives Solomon 120 talents of gold (that is, about 9,000 pounds, or 4,080 kilograms), along with more spices than had ever been seen.
Which is a lot, no question. Except that the author takes time for an aside to mention that Hiram is also still bringing Solomon gold, precious stones, and “almug wood” (whatever that is). In a few verses we’ll come to tributes Solomon is receiving from others; the amount of tribute the Queen of Sheba gives him is huge, and yet it’s still tiny compared to what Solomon already has (and continually receives).
We’re then told that Solomon gave back to the queen “all that she desired” (verse 13), though we’re not told what that was (other than being allowed to hear his wisdom), whereupon she returned back to her own land.
In verses 14–29 we’re told about the rest of Solomon’s wealth. I won’t go into all of the details—it would simply be listing things that are called out in the text—but the text mentions that Solomon is receiving 666 talents of gold in tribute every year, more than five times what the Queen of Sheba brought him. He’s got so much gold he doesn’t know what to do with it; as the ESV Study Bible notes say:
1 Kings 10:14–25 weight of gold. The accumulation of gold continues; it is mentioned no fewer than 11 times in vv. 14, 16–18, 21–22, 25. Solomon decorates his palace with it (v. 16); overlays the finest throne ever seen with it (vv. 18–20); and makes household items with it (v. 21). It arrives in Israel by various means, including ships of Tarshish (v. 22), ships capable of a journey to such a far-flung western port (see Isa. 66:19; Ezek. 27:12–15; Jonah 1:3). These ships are said to have sailed to lands so distant that it took three years to return with their extraordinary cargo.
We’re also told that the Queen of Sheba wasn’t the only foreign ruler who came to Solomon to hear his wisdom:
King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth. The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart. Year after year, everyone who came brought a gift—articles of silver and gold, robes, weapons and spices, and horses and mules. (verses 23–25)
And finally, for the things that I’m pointing out, we’re told about all of Solomon’s chariots and horsemen, which always strikes me because of the explicit prohibition from God against Israelite kings accumulating horses.
We often talk about the fact that Israel is at the zenith of its glory under Solomon, and I’d argue that they’re specifically at the height of their zenith in this exact chapter. This is Israel at its very highest point: from the time of King David up until this chapter Israel has been more and more blessed by God, but in the next chapter (spoiler alert) we’ll see the beginning of the downfall. After this passage Israel will never be at this height again. (Technically Solomon’s wealth isn’t going to go away immediately, but the seeds of the nation’s destruction will start in the next chapter, along with the beginning of God pulling back His blessing of His people.)
God Loves His People
In verse 9 the Queen says this:
“Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the LORD’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.”
I said above that this is sort of true but sort of not true. It’s true God loved His people, and it’s true that He put in place the right king at the right time. It’s even true that he particularly put Solomon in place to execute justice and righteousness. (Despite Solomon’s faults with being led astray from God, I don’t recall major faults in the areas of justice and righteousness. I suppose straying from God is itself unrighteous, but I don’t think that’s the kind of “righteousness” the Queen was referring to.)
The only thing I don’t like about this is that it makes a common bad assumption around cause and effect: that Solomon was a very wise man, and therefore God recognized that wisdom and therefore decided to make Solomon king. The truth is that God wanted to put in place a wise king so He created one by giving Solomon wisdom.
It’s worth talking about the subject of tribute, since it’s not a concept we typically see in the modern world. I’ll be lazy and simply quote from Wikipedia on what tribute is:
A tribute (/ˈtrɪbjuːt/; from Latin tributum, “contribution”) is wealth, often in kind, that a party gives to another as a sign of submission, allegiance or respect. Various ancient states exacted tribute from the rulers of land which the state conquered or otherwise threatened to conquer. In case of alliances, lesser parties may pay tribute to more powerful parties as a sign of allegiance and often in order to finance projects that would benefit both parties. To be called “tribute” a recognition by the payer of political submission to the payee is normally required; the large sums, essentially protection money, paid by the later Roman and Byzantine Empires to barbarian peoples to prevent them attacking imperial territory, would not usually be termed “tribute” as the Empire accepted no inferior political position. Payments by a superior political entity to an inferior one, made for various purposes, are described by terms including “subsidy”.
Again, it’s not a concept we see in today’s world, and I specifically included the part about protection money not being the same thing; tribute seems to be more of a gift from a lesser nation/ruler to a greater nation/ruler. It may be implied that the lesser ruler is hoping the tribute will prevent the greater ruler from conquering them—maybe Solomon won’t feel the need to conquer Tyre (for example) if he’s already getting so much wealth from the nation without having to lift a finger—but I don’t get the impression it’s that explicit. At the same time, the idea that Hiram is giving Solomon all of this wealth simply because Solomon is so awesome would also be an oversimplification; it’s not that kind of “gift.” I think it’s much more nuanced. In the last passage we saw that Hiram was unhappy with a gift of twenty towns Solomon had given him, yet here we see mention of his tribute again in this chapter.
We’ll see a lot of this in the Old Testament Scriptures; we’ve already seen it a bit in the life of King David and it’s at its zenith1 under King Solomon; for the rest of the Old Testament, however, when we see tribute it will be flowing the other way: Israel and Judah will be paying tribute to more powerful nations for much of the rest of their history.
And, as mentioned, the Queen of Sheba’s tribute to Solomon is huge—and yet, not when you compare it to what he already has! From the ESV Study Bible notes:
1 Kings 10:10–13 The queen’s gift of 120 talents of gold … is a remarkably large amount, yet in context it does not compare with Solomon’s wealth. Solomon was already receiving much more gold than this (notice that her gift is exactly the same size as Hiram’s first installment in 9:14, now superseded by his second in 9:28), as well as unparalleled amounts of valuable almug wood. Solomon was a vastly wealthier person than the queen, something that is underlined in 10:13. What she gives to him pales in relation to what he gives to her.
No mention is made in the passage of Solomon giving the Queen anything physical, so I assume the ESV Study Bible writer(s) are referring to his wisdom, which is, after all, what she’d come for in the first place.
Wait… 666 talents of gold? Does that mean–
No. I don’t see the number 666 as being significant. I don’t think this is the author trying to sneak in a secret message about Solomon being evil or anything like that. Sometimes a number is just a number. I could be wrong—the number 666 sounds overly precise—but I’m not reading into this number in any way.
I don’t know why I’m hitting the word “zenith” so hard in this post. It fits, but it’s not exactly a word I use often… ↩︎