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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture
1 Kings 11

 

 

Verses 4-13

1 Kings

THE FALL OF SOLOMON

1 Kings 11:4 - 1 Kings 11:13.

Scripture never blinks the defects of its heroes. Its portraits do not smooth out wrinkles, but, with absolute fidelity, give all faults. That pitiless truthfulness is no small proof of its inspiration. If these historical books were simply fragments of national records, owning no higher source than patriotism, they would never have blurted out the errors and sins of David and Solomon as they do. Where else are there national histories of which the very central idea is the laying bare of national sins and chastisements? or where else are there legends of the people’s heroes which tell their sins without apology or reticence? The difference in tone augurs a different origin. The Old Testament histories are not written to tell Israel’s glories, or even, we may say, to recount its history, but to tell God’s dealings with Israel,-a very different theme, and one which finds its material equally in the glories and in the miseries, which respectively follow its obedience and disobedience. So Solomon’s fall is told in the same frank way as his wisdom and wealth; for what is of importance is not Solomon so much as God’s dealings with Solomon, when his heart was turned away. We are told that the narrative of Solomon’s reign is an ideal picture. Strange idealising which leaves the ideal king wallowing in a sty of sensuality and an apostate from Jehovah!

Here we are simply told of the two things,-his sin, and the divine judgment which it drew after it.

I. 1 Kings 11:4 - 1 Kings 11:8 tell the black story of Solomon’s apostasy. What was its extent? Did he himself take part in idolatrous worship, or simply, with the foolish fondness of an old sensualist, let these foreign women have their shrines? The darker supposition seems correct. The expression that he ‘went after other gods’ is commonly used to mean actual idolatry; and his wives could scarcely have been said to have ‘turned away his heart,’ if all that he did was to wink at, or even to facilitate, their worship. But, on the other hand, he does not seem to have abandoned Jehovah’s worship. The charge against him is that ‘his heart was not perfect,’ or wholly devoted to the Lord, or, as 1 Kings 11:6 puts it, that he ‘went not fully’ after the Lord. His was a case of halting between two opinions, or rather, of trying to hold both at once. He wanted to be a worshipper of Jehovah and of these idols also.

Was his apostasy final? Yes, so far as we can gather from the narrative. Not only is there no statement of his repentance, but the silence with which he receives the divine announcement of retribution is suspicious; and the prophecy of Ahijah to Jeroboam, which obviously comes later in time than the threatenings of the text, treats the idolatry as still existing [1 Kings 11:33]. Further, we learn from 2 Kings 23:13 that the shrines which he built stood till Josiah’s time. If Solomon had ever abandoned his idolatry, he would not have left them standing. So we seem to have in him a case of a fall which knew no recovery, an eclipse which did not pass. The Book of Ecclesiastes, if of his composition, would somewhat lighten the darkness of such an end; but his authorship of it is now all but universally given up.

So there, on Olivet’s southern ridge, right opposite the Temple, stood the three altars, and there the king worshipped; and, if he did, he would have a crowd of imitators. The lessons of such a fall are many. First, it teaches the destructive effect of yielding to sensual indulgence. Solomon’s unbridled and monstrous polygamy sapped his manhood and his principle, darkened his clear spirit, blinded his keen eye, and turned a youth of noble aspiration and a manhood of noble accomplishment into an old age without dignity, reverence, or calm. All his wisdom was worth little if it could not keep him master of himself. A young man who lets his passions run away with him is less to be condemned than an old sensualist. God means that reason should govern impulses and desires, and that conscience should govern all and be governed by His will. The vessel is sure to be wrecked when the officers are sent below and the mutineers get hold of the helm.

Second, it warns us that till the very end of life a fall is possible. This ship went down when the voyage was nearly over. In sight of port it struck, and that not for want of beacons. What pathetic warning lies in that phrase, ‘when Solomon was old’! After so many years of high aims, so many temptations overcome, with such habits of wisdom and kingly nobility, after such prayers and visions, he fell; and, if he fell, who can be sure of standing? No length of life spent in holy thoughts and service secures us against the possibility of disastrous fall. Only one thing does,-’Hold Thou me up, and I shall be safe!’ John Bunyan saw a door opening down to hell hard by the gates of the Celestial City. When a man that has been had in reputation for wisdom and honour shames the record of his life by a great splash of mud on the white page, near its end, he seldom returns. An old apostate is usually finally an apostate.

Third, may we not venture to see a warning here against marriages in which there is not unity in the deepest things, and a common faith? ‘When you run in double harness, take a good look at the other horse.’ If a young Christian man or woman enters on such a union with one who is not a Christian, it is a great deal more probable that, in the end, there will be two unbelievers than that there will be two Christians.

We have nothing to do with pronouncing on Solomon’s final condition, But he stands on the page of this history, a sad, enigmatical figure, a warning to all young people to take heed that the attrition of the world does not rub off the bloom of early religion, or make them cynically ashamed of the unselfishness of their early desires. There is no sadder sight than an old man whose youthful enthusiasm for goodness and belief in the super-excellency of wisdom have withered, leaving him a hard worldling or a gross sensualist. Better the early days, when he was obscure and poor, and believed in wisdom and in the God of wisdom, than the late ones, when worldly success has spoiled him!

II. 1 Kings 11:9 - 1 Kings 11:13 give the divine retribution announced. The immediate connection of sin and punishment is the teaching intended by this close juxtaposition of these two halves of our narrative. However long the chastisement may be in bursting, the divine resolve to send it is instantaneously consequent on the crime. The chain that binds departure from God with loss of blessing may be of many or few links, but it is riveted on when the evil is done. How gravely, as with the voice of an indictment drawn in heaven, the aggravations of Solomon’s crime are set out, in that he had sinned against ‘the Lord’ who had appeared to him twice {once in his youthful vision, and once after the completion of the Temple}, ‘and had commanded him concerning’ the very sin that he had done. Sin is made more heinous by the abundance of God’s favours and the plainness of His commands. If we would remember God’s appearances to us and for us, and meditate on His revealed will, we should be more impregnable to the assaults of temptation.

We do not learn how the Lord said this to Solomon. Possibly it was by the same prophet who afterwards announced to Jeroboam his destiny; but, however announced, it seems to have been received in sullen silence, and to have wrought no softening nor change. Like all God’s threatenings, it was spoken that it might not be inflicted. Solomon was threatened before the prophet spoke to Jeroboam; and if Solomon had repented, Jeroboam would never have been spoken to. But he is too far gone to be stopped, though he has God’s own word for it that he is ruining his kingdom by his sin. We have as clear declarations of worse results from ours; but they do not stop some of us. How strange it is that men will put out their hands to grasp their sins, even though they have to stretch across the smoke of the pit for them!

Note how forbearance delays and diminishes retribution. The separation of the kingdom is deferred, and one tribe is left to the Davidic house; probably Judah is meant, and Benjamin is omitted as being small. Observe, too, how we have a double instance of the law of God’s providence which visits the father’s deeds on the children. The consequences of David’s goodness fall on Solomon, and the consequences of Solomon’s evil fall on Rehoboam. Stated in the language of the secular historian, that is to say that the consequences of great national virtues or crimes are seldom reaped by the generation that sowed the seed and did the deed, but take time to mature and work themselves out. Stated in the language of Scripture, it is, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ The separation of the kingdom was not brought about by miracle, but came in the natural course of things. A people ground down by heavy taxation and forced labour, to keep up the luxury of a court containing all that disgusting crowd of wives and concubines, was ripe for revolt, and when the sceptre fell into the hands of a headstrong fool, and there was a capable leader on the other side, discontent soon became rebellion, and rebellion soon became triumphant. It all flowed as naturally as possible from the same fountain as the idolatry of which it was the punishment; and so it teaches once more the great truth that ‘the world’s history is the world’s judgment,’ and that the so-called ‘natural consequences’ of our deeds are, even here and now, God’s retribution for our deeds.

What a lesson as to God’s great patience is here! What a solemn glimpse into man’s power to counterwork God’s purpose! So soon after its establishment did the house of David prove unworthy, and the experiment fail. Yet that long-suffering purpose is not turned aside, but persistently and patiently goes on its way, altering its methods, but keeping its end unaltered, bending even sin to minister to its design, pitying and warning the sinner ere it strikes the blow that the sinner has made needful.

Behind the figure of Solomon we see another. The wisest of men fell shamefully, captured by coarse lust, and apparently steeled against all remonstrances from Heaven. ‘A greater than Solomon is here.’ The faults of the human kings of Israel prophesy of the true King, who is to be the substance of which they were but faint shadows, and whose manhood was stained by no flaw, nor His kingdom ever rent from His pure hands. Solomon was wise, but Christ is ‘Wisdom.’ Solomon built a Temple, but also altars to false gods overtopping it across the valley; and his Temple was burned with fire. But Christ is the true Temple as well as Priest and Sacrifice. Solomon was by name ‘the peaceful,’ and his land had outward rest, darkened at the last by war and rebellion. But Christ is the Prince of Peace, and of His dominion there shall be no end. Solomon is the great example of the sad truth that the loftiest and wisest share in the universal sinfulness. Christ is the one flawless Man, who makes those who take Him for their King wise and peaceful, prosperous, and in due time sinless, like Himself.


Verses 26-43

1 Kings

THE NEW GARMENT RENT

1 Kings 11:26 - 1 Kings 11:43.

Solomon falls into the background in the last part of the story of his reign, and his enemies are more prominent than himself. So long as he walked with God, he was of importance for the historian; but as soon as he forsook God, and was consequently forsaken of His wisdom, he becomes as insignificant as an empty vessel which has once held sweet perfume, or a piece of carbon through which the electric current has ceased to flow. The sunbeam has left that peak, and shines on other summits. Never was there a sadder eclipse.

We are here told first how the instrument for shattering Solomon’s kingdom was shaped by himself. It is the old story of a young man of mark, attracting the eyes of the king, being promoted to offices of trust, which at once stir ambition, and give prominence and influence which seem to afford a possibility of gratifying it. The passion for building, so common in Eastern kings, and the cause of so much misery to their subjects, had grown on Solomon; and as his later days were harassed by war, and he had lost the safe defence of God’s arm, Jerusalem had to be enclosed by a wall. His father had been able to leave a ‘breach’ because the Lord was a wall round him and his city; and if Solomon had kept in his paths, he would have had no need to add to the fortifications. The preservation of ancestral piety is for nations and individuals a surer protection than the improvement of ancestral outward defences. Jeroboam made himself conspicuous by his energy {for that rather than ‘valour’ must be the meaning of the word}, and so got promotion. It was natural, but at the same time dangerous, to put him in command of the forced labour of his own tribe, as the narrative shows us was done; for ‘the house of Joseph’ is the tribe of Ephraim, to which, according to the correct translation of 1 Kings 11:26, he belonged. In such an office he would be thrown among his kinsmen, and would at once gain influence and learn to sympathise with their discontent, or, at any rate, to know where the sore places were, if he ever wanted to inflame them. One can easily fancy the grumblings of the Ephraimites dragged up to Jerusalem to the hated labour, which Samuel had predicted [1 Samuel 8:16], and how facile it would be for the officer in charge to fan discontent or to win friends by judicious indulgence. How long this went on we do not know, but the fire had smouldered for some time under the unconscious king’s very eyes, when it was fanned into a flame by Ahijah’s breath.

That is the second stage in the story,-the spark on the tinder. We have heard nothing of prophets during Solomon’s reign; but now this man from Shiloh, the ancient seat of the Tabernacle, meets the ambitious young officer in some solitary spot, with the message which answered to his secret thoughts and made his heart beat fast. The symbolic action preceding the spoken word, as usual, supplied the text, of which the word was the explanation and expansion. How pathetic is the newness of the garment! Unworn, strong, and fresh, it yet is rent in pieces. So the kingdom is so recent, with such possibilities of duration, and yet it must be shattered! Thus quickly has the experiment broken down! It is little more than a century since Saul’s anointing, little more than seventy years since the choice of David, and already the fabric, which had such fair promise of perpetuity, is ready to vanish away. If we may say so, that ‘new garment’ represents the divine disappointment and sorrow over the swift corruption of the kingdom. It was probably merely some loose square of cloth which Ahijah tore, with violence proportioned to its newness, into twelve pieces, ten of which he thrust into the astonished Jeroboam’s hands. The commentary followed.

Ahijah’s prophecy is substantially the same as the previous threatenings to Solomon, which had done no good. Their incipient fulfilment in the wars with Edom and Syria had been equally futile; and therefore God, who never strikes without warning, and never warns without striking if men do not heed, now drops the message into ears that were only too ready to hear. The seed fell on prepared soil, and Jeroboam’s half-formed plans would be consolidated and fixed. The scene is like that in which the witches foretell to Macbeth his dignity. Slumbering ambitions are stirred, and a half-inclined will is finally determined by the glimpse into the future. How easily men are persuaded that God speaks, and how willing they are to obey, when their inclinations jump with Heaven’s commandments! The prophet’s message makes the separation of the kingdoms a direct divine act, and yet it was the breaking up of a divine institution. God’s dealings have to be shaped according to facts, and He changes His methods, and lets the feebleness of His creatures and their sins mould His august procedure. The divine Potter, like mere human artisans, has His spoiled pieces of work, and, with infinite resource and patience as infinite, re-shapes the clay into other forms. The separation of the kingdoms was a divine act, and yet it is treated often in the later books as a crime and rebellion. God works out His purposes through men’s deeds, and their motives determine whether their acts are sins or obedience. A man may be a rebel while he is doing the will of God, if what he does be done at the bidding of his own selfishness. The separation of the kingdoms was God’s doing, but it was brought about by the free action of men obeying most secular impulses of political discontent, and led by a cunning, self-seeking schemer.

Note that the prophecy is in three parts. First, 1 Kings 11:31 - 1 Kings 11:33 announce the punishment, with the reservation of a dwindled dominion to the Davidic house, for the sake of their great ancestor and of God’s choice of Jerusalem, and solemnly charge on the people the idolatry which the king had introduced. The second part [1 Kings 11:34 - 1 Kings 11:36] postpones the execution of the sentence till after Solomon’s death, and assigns the same two reasons for this further forbearance. The third part [1 Kings 11:37 - 1 Kings 11:39] promises Jeroboam the kingdom, and lays down the conditions on which the favours promised to David and his house may be his. The whole closes with the assurance that the affliction of the seed of David is not to be for ever.

The punishment was heavy; for the disruption of the kingdom meant the wreck of all the prosperity of Solomon’s earlier days, the hopeless weakness of the divided tribes as against the formidable powers that pressed in on them from north and south, frequent intestine wars, bitter hatred instead of amity. Yet there was another side to it; for the very failure of the human kings made the Messianic hope the more bright, like a light glowing in the deepening darkness, and tumult and oppression might teach those whom prosperity and peace had only corrupted. The great lesson for us is the ruin which follows on departure from God. We do not see national sins followed with equal plainness or swiftness by national judgments; but the history of Israel is meant to show on a large scale what is always true, in the long run, both for nations and for individuals, that ‘it is an evil thing and a bitter’ to depart from the living God.

Mark, too, that the judgment is wrought out by perfectly natural causes. The separation follows old lines of cleavage. The strength of David’s kingdom lay in the south; and Ephraim was too powerful a tribe and too proud of its ancient glories, to acquiesce cheerfully in the pre-eminence of Judah. The oppression of forced labour and heavy taxation was put forward as the reason for the revolt, and, no doubt, was the reason for the readiness with which the ten tribes rallied to Jeroboam’s flag. There are two ways of writing history. You can either leave God out, or trace all to Him. The former way calls itself ‘scientific’ and ‘positive.’ The latter is the Bible way. Perhaps, if modern history were written on the same principles as the Books of Kings, the divine hand would be as plainly visible,-only it requires an inspired historian to do it. The way of bringing about the judgment for departing from God has changed, but the judgment remains the same to-day as when Ahijah rent his garment.

Between 1 Kings 11:39 - 1 Kings 11:40 we must suppose an attempt at armed rebellion by Jeroboam. That is implied by the expression that he ‘lifted his hand against the king’ [1 Kings 11:26 - 1 Kings 11:27]. That attempt must have been put down by Solomon. And that it should have been made shows how little Jeroboam was influenced by religious motives. The prophet’s words had set him all afire with ambitious hopes, and he paid no heed to the distinct assurance that Solomon was to be ‘prince all the days of his life.’ He stretched out a rash, self-willed hand to snatch the promised crown, and broke God’s commandment even while he pretended to be keeping it. How different David’s conduct in like circumstances! He took no steps to bring about the fulfilment of Samuel’s promise at his anointing, but patiently waited for God to do as He had said, in His own time, and meantime continued his lowly work. God’s time is the best time; and he who greedily grasps at a premature fulfilment of promised good will have to pay for it by defeat and exile from the modest good that he had.

Jeroboam’s flight to Egypt brings that ill-omened name on the page for the first time since the Exodus. It has given occasion to an extraordinary addition to the Septuagint, professing to tell his adventures there,-how he was high in Shishak’s favour, and married a princess. That is apparently pure legend; but his residence there was important, as the beginning of Egypt’s interference in Israel’s affairs. It is an old trick of aggressive nations to side with a pretender to the throne of a country which they covet, and benevolently to strengthen him that he may weaken it. No doubt it was as Jeroboam’s ally that Shishak invaded Judah in the fifth year of Rehoboam, and plundered the Temple and the palace. It was a bad beginning for a king of Israel to be a pensioner of Egypt.

The narrative closes with the sad, reticent formula which ends each reign, and in Solomon’s case hides so much that is tragic and dark. This was all that could be said about the end of a career that had begun so nobly. If more had been said, the record would have been sadder; and so the pitying narrative casts the veil of the stereotyped summary over the miserable story. There are many instances in history of lives of genius and enthusiasm, of high promise and partial accomplishment, marred and flung away, but none which present the great tragedy of wasted gifts, and blossoms never fruited, in a sharper, more striking form than the life of the wise king of Israel, who ‘in his latter days’ was ‘a fool.’ The goodliest vessel may be shipwrecked in sight of port. Solomon was not an old man, as we count age, when he died; for he reigned forty years, and was somewhere about twenty when he became king. But it was ‘when he was old’ that he fell, and that through passion which should have been well under control long before. The sun went down in a thick bank of clouds, which rose from undrained marshes in his soul, and stretched high up in the western horizon. His career, in its glory and its shame, preaches the great lesson which the Book of Ecclesiastes puts into his mouth as ‘the conclusion of the whole matter’: ‘Fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.’

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on 1 Kings 11:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/1-kings-11.html.

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