Phil Ryken | Interview by: Collin Hansen
We read in 1 Kings about the extravagant reign of King Solomon, a divine blessing in response to his prayer for wisdom (1 Kings 3:10-13). Rich enough to build an ornate temple and ostentatious palace, he became famous, earning the envy of his monarch peers. While these buildings have been long since demolished, Solomon's renowned wisdom has been preserved in the Book of Proverbs. Yet we see in another wisdom book, Ecclesiastes, that this king has become disenchanted with life, even one of such extraordinary privilege. What do we make of this king who honored God with his prayer for wisdom and yet disobeyed the Lord so spectacularly by worshiping the gods of his foreign wives? How does this Solomon teach us to understand and follow the Christ? For help in answering these questions I looked to Philip Graham Ryken—author of King Solomon: The Temptations of Money, Sex, and Power—as part of our effort to preach Christ from the wisdom books of the Old Testament.
How does understanding the life of Solomon help us understand his contribution to the biblical canon in the wisdom literature?
The life of Solomon is very compelling in its own right: his ascension to rule the world's most important dynasty, his world-famous wisdom, his golden empire, and of course his spectacular downfall into dishonor and disgrace. We can read all about it in 1 Kings and a few other places in the Bible. It all takes on an added dimension, though, when we read Solomon’s literature in the context of his life story. The books of the Bible generally do not come with title pages that list the author, but from the clues given in Scripture, it appears that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, most of Proverbs, and a couple of Psalms. Although each of these writings stands on its own, Solomon’s biography enriches our understanding. For example, Psalm 72 may be understood as a prayer that comes from early in Solomon’s reign. We find answers to the psalm’s petitions for wealth, fame, and international influence in the pages of 1 Kings. By contrast, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes comes much later in Solomon’s life, after he has learned the vanity of pursuing earthly pleasures apart from the blessing of God. Knowing the back story to Ecclesiastes adds poignancy and depth to our understanding of Solomon’s philosophizing.
How can we relate to Solomon, a king whose wealth and wisdom surpassed all others in his day?
Most people probably think first of the contrasts between Solomon and their own experience. After all, the famous king was wiser and wealthier than we will ever be. Yet I think the similarities are more important. For starters, the wealth of many Christians in America and the West rivals if not surpasses the glories of Solomon’s kingdom. Considering the vast array of rich foods that are available in our grocery stores, the wide assortment of music that we are able to listen to, the climate-controlled buildings that most of us live and work in, we would be the envy of Solomon. Perhaps our circumstances are not so different after all. In any case, we surely face many if not all of the same temptations that Solomon faced: money, sex, and power. Like Solomon, we are tempted to live in luxury, sometimes at the expense of the poor. Solomon had a thousand sexual partners; through the poison of pornography, we can have just as many virtual liaisons. And even if we are not kings (or queens), we are still tempted to abuse whatever power we have by using it for our own advantage instead of serving other people. If we can see our temptations for what they really are, we will not find it hard to relate to King Solomon as a fellow-sinner.
What was Jesus teaching when he said, “Something greater than Solomon is here” (Luke 11:31)?
In saying this, Jesus was assuming that his hearers were familiar with the biblical background of Solomon’s life and at the same time affirming the glories of Solomon’s kingdom. The comparison Jesus makes is premised on Solomon’s greatness. This is indicated in the immediate context by the reference Jesus makes to the Queen of Sheba, who traveled a great distance to test Solomon’s vaunted wisdom for herself. It is also confirmed elsewhere in the Gospels, such as the reference Jesus makes to “Solomon in all his glory” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:29). Jesus believed that there was something great about Solomon, and so did his hearers. Jesus also believed—rightly, and not immodestly—that he was greater than Solomon. He does not specify in what ways he is greater than Solomon, however, which invites us to draw some of our own conclusions. Jesus is greater in the mere fact of his deity; whereas Solomon was only human, Jesus is also divine. Jesus is greater in his superior wisdom, which is infinite in its knowledge of the truth. Jesus is greater in his vast wealth; as the Lord of heaven and earth, he owns everything. Jesus is greater in the extent of his kingdom, which spans the entire universe. And so on: these are only the most obvious examples. Put simply, Jesus is greater than Solomon in every way. By making this comparison, Jesus was inviting his hearers to acknowledge his supreme and kingly majesty. If the Queen of Sheba acknowledged Solomon as a superior sovereign, how much more we should give Jesus the honor of our praise and the loyalty of our obedience.
How does Solomon both foreshadow Jesus Christ and also point to our need for the redemption he accomplished?
At his best, Solomon shows us the glories of the kingdom of Jesus Christ by dim comparison. Jesus of Nazareth stands in the line of Solomon as the heir of David’s throne. Solomon’s kingdom thus points us to Christ and his kingdom. But Jesus is greater in every respect. His kingdom spans the entire world, not just greater Palestine. His dominion will last forever, not just a few short decades. And so on. Whatever good we see in Solomon’s kingdom helps us to anticipate the greater glories of Jesus Christ. At the same time, Solomon’s failings help us understand our need for Jesus Christ. The deeper we go into Solomon’s biography, the more we see the tragedy of his depravity. Solomon’s kingship was marred by materialism, hedonism, and other forms of idolatry. If we had thought that perhaps he could be the son who would establish David’s eternal kingdom, eventually we see that we were mistaken. Like the other fallen heroes of the Old Testament, Solomon heightens our desire for a perfect Savior.
In what ways does Solomon’s wisdom writing help us understand Jesus as a wisdom teacher?
This question deserves a better answer than I can give it. To begin with, though, a solid familiarity with Solomon’s writings gives us a feel for what wisdom literature is (and isn’t). This helps us to read what Jesus says in the Gospels with greater sensitivity. For example, wisdom literature typically does not give us laws to follow or rules to obey. Instead, it gives us examples of the right way (as opposed to the wrong way) to live, together with principles for life that it takes wisdom to apply. A good deal of the teaching we receive from Jesus in the Gospels has the same character. Many of his aphorisms and parables confront us with a choice between the right way and the wrong way to live—a choice that we then have to learn to apply in the varied situations of life. Another important connection to make is to recognize that Jesus is the fulfillment of Solomon’s quest for wisdom. In Proverbs Solomon frequently personifies wisdom. That is to say, he attributes to wisdom the qualities and characteristics of a human person. For example, when Solomon writes, “For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord” (Prov. 8:35), he is giving wisdom a living voice. What wisdom says should sound familiar to us, because it is the same claim that Jesus makes about himself, namely, that he is the way to life (e.g. John 14: 6). Jesus proves to be the only person who fully measures up to Solomon’s portrait of wisdom. So everything that Solomon says about wisdom helps us to understand the character of Christ as wisdom personified.