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The Song of Solomon

Updated on February 23, 2010

Ruler of the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Solomon was renowned for his wisdom and great wealth, and he is mentioned numerous times in the Old and New Testaments (for example, Matthew 6:29). The story of Solomon's offer to split a babe in two with a sword, by which ruse he ascertained who was its real mother (I Kings 3:16-28), has been frequently used as a popular example of his wisdom. The books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Song of Songs have been traditionally attributed to him. The account of his reign, which began about 961 B.C., is found in the Old Testament in I Kings, chapters 1 to 11.

Early Years

Solomon, son of King David and Bathsheba (II Samuel 12:24), grew up in David's court in Jerusalem. The exact date of his birth is unknown. One of the court circles chose him as its candidate for the eventual successor of David. In David's last years, Solomon's backers obtained David's approval of their candidate, and he was annointed king (I Kings 1) about 961 B.C. After his father's death, Solomon had the leaders of the rival court faction executed or exiled (2:13-46).

Foreign Affairs

Solomon inherited a stable kingdom, comprising Israel and Judah, together with vassal states and conquered kingdoms, that stretched from the Red Sea to the Euphrates River (4:24). Early in his reign, however, the more inaccessible areas of Edom on the southeast (11:14-22) and the city of Damascus to the northeast (11:23-24) were lost. Solomon made no move to retake these territories, concentrating instead on ensuring the security of Israel and Judah by the fortification of key cities (9:15-19; 11:27) and the creation of a large chariot force (10:26). The hostility of Damascus and Edom appears to have been little more than a nuisance to Solomon (11:25) and had little adverse effect on the prestige of his kingdom.

Under Solomon the nation entered into agreements with the Phoenician maritime trading center of Tyre (5:12), probably with the south Arabian state of Saba (10:1 ff), and with the weak 21st dynasty of Egypt, whose Pharaoh gave Solomon one of his daughters as a wife (7:8; 9:16). The presence in Solomon's large harem (11:1) of women from other countries indicates either that he had diplomatic ties with those nations or that they were his vassals. It was through such a network of agreements, rather than by resorting to military force, that Solomon sought both to maintain and expand Israel's sphere of influence.

Building Program

One of the fruits of the alliance with Tyre was the importation of cedar (5:7-10) and of skilled artisans (5:18; 7:13-14). This enabled Solomon to undertake an extensive program of construction designed to increase the glory of the monarchy and nation. Most notable was the expansion of Jerusalem north of the old City of David. There 13 years were spent in building a palace complex (7:1-12) and the Temple, intended to serve both as royal chapel and as chief shrine of the united kingdoms, as its center (6; 7:15-51). Evidence of Solomonic building in other cities of Israel and Judah has been uncovered by archaeologists.

Commerce and Industry

A second fruit of the alliance with Tyre was the availability to Solomon of sailors and shipbuilders. These he used to create a merchant fleet, so that he could trade with the countries along the shores of the Red Sea (9:26-28; 10:11, 12). Since all caravan routes between states in the south and in the north went through his territory, Solomon also controlled all land trade from Arabia. Thus we find the Queen of Sheba (Saba) visiting Solomon on what was apparently a trade mission (10:1-10, 13).

Among Solomon's other commercial enterprises was the export of agricultural produce to Tyre in exchange for cedar (5:11). His merchants also acted as middlemen, supplying horses and chariots from Egypt and CUicia to the kings of the small states in northern Syria (10:28-29). Stimulated by this trade and by Solomon's building program, local industry thrived. Most important was the mining and smelting of copper ore from the hills bordering the Arabah, a depression running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqabah.

Cultural Activity

The prosperity that commerce had brought to the nation and the absence of external threats to its security made possible the rise of an urban leisure class with time for intellectual and artistic pursuits. To Solomon himself, whose "wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt" (4:30), was attributed the composition of numerous proverbs and songs (4:32). Whatever the precise content of Solomon's own works may have been, it seems likely that Israelite wisdom literature had its origin in his court. Nor were the literary productions of his reign confined to imitation of the wisdom literature of the ancient Middle East. The "Court History" (II Samuel 9-20; I Kings 1-2), one of the best examples of historical writing from the ancient world, and probably "J," the earliest literary stratum of the Pentateuch, were written at this time. The liturgical needs of the new Temple may have inspired the composition of psalms. Music (I Kings 10:12) and the plastic arts (7:15-46; 10:18-20) also seem to have flourished.

Administration and Finance

A comparison of the list of the chief officials of Solomon's court (4:2-6) with lists from David's (II Samuel 8:16-18; 20:23-26) shows that as the kingdom increased in complexity, so did the apparatus necessary for its administration. The cost of this administrative establishment, combined with that of the army, court, and building programs, proved too great for the income derived from the royal monopoly on trade (I Kings 10:15), lands owned outright by the crown, and gifts from foreign states (10: 24-25). Solomon therefore divided Israel into 12 administrative districts, each responsible for provisioning the court one month of the year (4:7-19). Economic necessity also forced Solomon to cede to Tyre certain towns in northern Israel (9:11-14).

The large amount of provisions required by court and army (4:22-23, 28) caused a considerable drain on the agricultural resources of the kingdom, already strained by the demand on them for export. In addition, the need for a large labor force to work on his building programs led Solomon to draft free citizens for compulsory labor on royal projects (5:13; 9:20-21). These demands caused discontent among the people and led in at least one case to an unsuccessful attempt at rebellion (11:26).

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