Monday, June 13, 2022

1 Kings 11:1-13

1 Kings 11:1–13: Solomon’s Wives


A pivotal passage in the life of Solomon—and in the history of God’s people. In the last chapter we read about Solomon at the zenith of his wisdom and wealth—and therefore the zenith of the wealth of the nation of Israel. In fact, all of the story of Solomon’s life up to this point had been building and building to that high point; there were some troubling things and a bit of foreshadowing along the way, but for the most part the LORD has been blessing Solomon more and more and more. In the next passage we’ll see it starting to come crashing down, with not just one but numerous adversaries to the house of David/Solomon getting ready to rise up against Solomon.

And all because of these eight verses:

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the LORD had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD; he did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done.

On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods.

(verses 1–8)

Because of this, God becomes angry with Solomon for turning away from Him. However, God also remembers His promises, so he’s not going to abandon the line of David altogether:

So the LORD said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates. Nevertheless, for the sake of David your father, I will not do it during your lifetime. I will tear it out of the hand of your son. Yet I will not tear the whole kingdom from him, but will give him one tribe for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen.” (verses 11–13)


The first thing that strikes me about this passage—especially the first eight verses—is the repetition. Not word-for-word, but the author(s) seem to have so much trouble finding a way to articulate how terrible this is that they resort to just saying it a number of times. Three times, in these eight verses, we’re told that Solomon had a lot of wives, and seven times we’re told that he went after other gods or told about specific gods he worshipped. (When I say seven, I’m not counting the spot in verse 2 where we’re reminded that the LORD had commanded the Israelites not to take foreign wives because this exact thing would happen: they’d worship foreign gods.)

I think a lot of people are really focused on the numbers here: 700 wives and 300 concubines. Yes, it’s a lot! But as an aside, those numbers also seem backwards to me: more than twice as many wives as concubines? Wouldn’t it usually be the other way around? Doesn’t a king usually have few wives—or just one—and multiple concubines? In private conversations over the years lots of my friends have pointed out that a lot of this is obviously ceremonial: Solomon doesn’t actively have and take care of and spend quality time with 1,000 women! There are probably wives that he met once when they got “married” and then rarely saw again; I’m sure most of the wives are political marriages, as opposed to 700 women that Solomon married “for love.” But even aside from that, I don’t recall anyone mentioning that the number of wives as a ratio to concubines seems backwards.

Regardless, let’s go back to those huge numbers: 1,000 women. And sure, those numbers are probably rounded off; the numbers 700 and 300 seem too neat and tidy, so it probably wasn’t exactly 700 and 300. But it was clearly a lot! It’s not like Solomon had 4 wives and 2 concubines and the author(s) rounded it up to 700 and 300; whatever the actual, concrete number was, it was huge. And I think too many people focus on that huge number and make that the lesson of the story: “the lesson we learn from Solomon’s life is that polygamy is wrong!” I’m not trying to push polygamy, but that’s not the lesson in this particular story. The lesson is that Solomon valued something—anything—more than he valued the LORD his God.

If we read this passage carefully, it’s not faulting Solomon for the number of partners but for the kind of partners. The first 2 verses are focused on the fact that his wives were foreign: Egyptian, Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite—the very nations the Israelites were forbidden from inter-marrying with! Then the middle talks about the ways in which Solomon strayed from the LORD, and verse 8 calls it out again: he had foreign wives, who sacrificed to their own gods, and he followed suit. My guess would be that there were Israelite partners, too, but they’re not mentioned in the passage because they weren’t leading Solomon’s heart astray from the LORD.

There are large portions of the Old Testament where God’s dealings with His chosen people might seem racist at first glance. “You’re my people, they aren’t. You’re not to intermarry with them. You’re not to mingle with them. You’re not allowed to even make treaties with some of them. In some cases, those ‘other’ people are allowed to become Israelites and worship me, but people from some nations in particular aren’t even allowed to do that.” When our focus is human-centric it feels very exclusionary; very nationalistic; very racist. “Why are the Israelites any better than anyone else?” we think.

But that’s the point: God makes it clear that the Israelites aren’t better than anyone else! Remember what God had told the Israelites in Deuteronomy:

The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7–8)

It sounds tautological; “God didn’t choose you because you were a greater nation than others; He chose you because… He chose you.” But the point is that the story of the Old Testament—the story of all of the Bible—is not about humans, it’s about God. If God had chosen a powerful nation to be His people it wouldn’t have meant much; a powerful people that conquers and becomes even more powerful? Lots of examples of that in history1. He chose a small nation, and when they did well it was clear to everyone (foreign and domestic) that it wasn’t by their own power, it was by their God’s power. In other words, God chose the Israelites as a means of demonstrating His own might and authority. “You think you’re worshipping ‘gods,’” He tells the other nations, “but they’re not really ‘gods.’ They have no power against Me. I AM the one, true, living God. I created the world, and I have authority to do whatever I want anywhere in it—not just within the borders of one particular nation. I AM the God of all the world.”

The Bible is full of warnings about the dangers of wealth and Solomon was probably the richest person who ever lived so it’s no wonder that he succumbed to the danger of forgetting about his God. Yet worshipping the LORD was supposed to be the most important thing to him! Not just as the leader of the Israelites, but as an Israelite period.

But that also raises another point that sometimes gets raised to “religious” people, especially Jews, Christians, and Muslims: “Why is God so jealous? Isn’t that kind of petty? Is God insecure? Why is it a problem if other nations (or the Israelites themselves) are worshipping other ‘gods,’ especially if they aren’t real gods—shouldn’t God be ‘the bigger man’ and just be content with the fact that He’s real and the others aren’t?” And if God were any being other than God, these would be valid points! Definitely, if we were talking about a human ruler who was trying to act like God is acting, that person wouldn’t just be petty, they’d be outright delusional! But God is God. (Speaking of tautological…) There isn’t another being in the universe anything like Him, by a large margin. The closest is humans, who are made in His image, but the longer we study God the more we realize that even we are a long, long way away from actually being like Him.

Christians sometimes talk about the times when they’re really experiencing God. Those periods in their lives2 when everything is clicking: they’ve been pretty much sin-free, they’ve been reading their Bibles and praying, their worship has been powerful, and then they hear a sermon or read a particular passage and they just… feel it! Like they’re right there, in the presence of God. Experiencing Him in a way that’s unusually powerful. And even in those times, what they’re getting is only a glimpse of who God is. God wants us to worship Him because he should be worshipped. It’s not just that He deserves to be worshipped—though He does—it’s deeper than just deservedness: it’s what we were created for.

We think of jealousy as a bad thing but it’s not always bad; sometimes jealousy is the proper and good response to a situation! Look at two illustrative examples:

Bad Jealousy (what we usually think of) Good Jealousy
I see my wife talking to another man and get jealous. This is petty and sinful. I cheat on my wife and she gets jealous. This would be the correct and right response to my sin. I’ve taken something that is supposed to be hers and given it to someone else; it’s not right for me to share myself with anyone else. Maybe we’d patch things up, and even if we didn’t she would eventually have to forgive me, as a Christian; divorce might be a consequence of my actions, and maybe we’d never be together again, but forgiveness would still be necessary for her own sake. But none of that changes the fact that my actions of taking what belongs to her and giving it to someone else should provoke the righteous response of jealousy from her. It’s not petty; it’s not small-minded; it’s a godly response.

We should worship God. It’s what we were created for. When we don’t—especially people who should know better, such as His people in the Old Testament or Christians today—jealousy is the correct response from Him3. In fact, look up the word “jealous” in the Bible; a search of the exact phrase “a jealous God” in the ESV version turns up six results with that exact wording, not to mention the other examples where the concept is called out.

An illustrative example comes in Exodus:

“Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.” (Exodus 34:11–16, God speaking, emphasis added)

This is a good illustrative example because, as is often the case, the concept of God’s jealousy is paired with a demand to keep away from the nations who would ensnare the Israelites away from worship of Him. He’s constantly warning His people in the Old Testament about the dangers of being ensnared by other gods—or mixing too much with other nations, the people of which will lead the Israelites into worship of other gods. In fact, when I quoted Deuteronomy 7 above (calling out that God chose the Israelites because they were not a powerful nation), the main point of that chapter was that the dangers of the nations with which they were in danger of inter-mingling (along with a reminder that He would enable them to do what was necessary, He wasn’t just leaving them alone and hoping for the best).

We tend to focus on Solomon’s wisdom and wealth, but accumulating wealth was not his main job as the King of Israel; his main job was to worship God, and lead his people in worship of God. He failed in that, and his failure started the entire downward trend of the rest of the history of the nation.

And so what is God’s response? Does he abandon His people? After all, He made a deal with them, and they didn’t keep it! Except that wasn’t the full deal; it’s clear, even in the books of Moses, that the covenant God makes with His people is more than a simple matter of “do good and I’ll bless you, do bad and I’ll curse you.” That’s definitely in there, but it’s also much more than that. Because it’s also clear, even in the law, that God is in control, and that God is a loving and forgiving God. Yes, the rules and regulations did include a form of “do well and I’ll bless you, sin and I’ll curse you,” but it also included a lot of foreshadowing that God knew all along the Israelites wouldn’t obey Him perfectly—sometimes they’d be very far from being perfect!—but that He would forgive them, and be patient with them. It’s very clear, way back in the times of Moses, that the nation was going to fail, over and over, and God would continue to forgive them, pick them back up, and re-apply His blessings… until the next time they fail. The entire book of Judges was that sequence being played out over and over, but the rest of the Old Testament will continue that pattern.

So no, God doesn’t decide to abandon Solomon, or the house of David, or the nation of Israel. He tells Solomon that He made a promise to David, and He is going to keep that promise; He is going to keep the line of David going. Very soon the nation of Israel is going to be split into two nations, Israel and Judah, and the line of David will only be ruling the smaller nation of Judah, but they will be ruling. And then there will be a break, in which there isn’t a nation left to rule; and then we’ll get the final and ultimate king from the line of David: Jesus.

  1. At least… to a point. All of those large, powerful nations or empires also ended up failing. Humans can sometimes go very far on their own, but God can still pull the plug whenever He so chooses and bring those empires down. ↩︎

  2. I refuse to say “seasons.” ↩︎

  3. I’m uncomfortable typing that something God does is “correct,” as if my opinion on the matter has bearing, but I think people get my point. ↩︎

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