1 Kings 11 is a disturbing chapter. No, it does not contain brutality or conquest that offends our modern sensibilities. It is worse than that. It challenges our notion that education is the way to human flourishing. This chapter tells us of how Solomon’s 700 wives and 300 concubines led him astray. Then we receive God’s response.
And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods. But he did not keep what the LORD commanded.
1 Kings 11:9-10 (ESV)
The judgement is for the kingdom to be divided after Solomon’s death, between Israel and Judah. This is troubling because Solomon seems to make the right choice early in his reign.
Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”
1 Kings 3:9 (ESV)
God is pleased by this request and throws in riches and peace. Solomon seems to have been set up for life. Yet, he wandered from God and set Israel on a course of continued self-destruction from which it never fully recovered. How could this happen?
We seem to believe as a society, and a church, that education is all that is needed to solve our problems. If there is some social ill we want to combat, we seek to raise awareness. We have campaigns to educate. Yet, we are all educated far beyond our level of obedience.
If you are in the Army, you are all too familiar with 350-1 training. The number refers to a regulation that lists all of the mandatory annual, semi-annual, and quarterly training soldiers must endure (or receive). None of the topics are irrelevant, they are merely over-trained. Yet, somehow, the army still has soldiers who get in trouble for not following the training they receive in all of these areas. How is that possible?
The same way Solomon drifted into syncretism. It is dangerous to ascribe motives to the dead, but it seems that while Solomon possessed enough humility to ask for wisdom, he seemed to lose that humility over time. Between chapter 3 and chapter 11 of First Kings, we witness Solomon embarking on a massive building campaign. He not only built a temple to God, but a new house for himself and another on top of that. Other cities and fortresses are also mentioned.
This is a pattern followed by kings and princes ever since. As I’ve traveled Europe, I have seen many of the palaces and castles that the nobility erected in order to demonstrate their power and prestige. King Ludwig II of Bavaria is one such example, beginning three palaces, yet completing only one of them before his early death. Ludwig, by all accounts, was self-absorbed.
Humility is difficult, and it is even harder when one occupies a position of some power or notoriety. Cardinal Vaughan provides the following advice in his introduction to Humility of Heart.
…if you are receiving public homage and addresses in circumstances of unusual pomp and ceremony; or if you happen to be, from your position, the object of any other special veneration, and certain noxious fumes of vanity or self-complacency be found ascending for a moment to your head an obvious remedy is to reflect that it is not yourself but your office that is receiving such special honor, and that anyone else occupying the same position would be the object of just the same respect. But better still than this will it be to call yourself quietly over by the twelve names drawn from your moral qualities and tendencies. The noxious gas is then extinguished; the decked-out worm that you are is crushed in its own exuding slime beneath your feet; and you realize at once that you are playing a part which receives honor due to your official, not to your private character.
Pride is the root of sin, because through it we can imagine ourselves as knowing better than God. This is the height of arrogance and yet we can find ourselves doing it easily—even though we know better. This is the lesson of 1 Kings 11.