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Solomon’s Wisdom


Where does Solomon’s wisdom come from and how does it unfold (1Kgs 3-11)?

The first book of Kings portrays Solomon as an extraordinarily wise king. At the beginning of Solomon’s reign, God appears to him in a dream and grants him a wish. In his response, Solomon asks for a listening heart to carry out his royal duties, and he receives a wise and understanding mind (1Kgs 3:5-14). Immediately thereafter, Solomon demonstrates his skill by making a wise decision in a seemingly insoluble legal dispute (1Kgs 3:16-28). Once his wisdom is established, the following stories in 1 Kings present Solomon’s kingship as a consequence of that wisdom. He is portrayed as the ideal king who provides justice, righteousness, and stability, leading to prosperity and happiness for all people (1Kgs 4:20; 1Kgs 5:5; 1Kgs 8:65-66). Moreover, he is famous for his erudition (1Kgs 5:12-13) and sovereigns from all over the world come to hear his wisdom (1Kgs 5:14; 1Kgs 10:1-12). The most elaborate example of such a visit is the story of the Queen of Sheba travelling to Jerusalem to test Solomon with her riddles (1Kgs 10:1-12). Nevertheless, Solomon’s wisdom is not unchallenged. While he is able to reach an acknowledged verdict as a judge (1Kgs 3:28) and to answer the riddles of the Queen of Sheba (1Kgs 10:3), his trade agreement with Hiram, king of Tyre, does not show great negotiating skills and brings disadvantages for his people (1Kgs 5; 1Kgs 9:11-13). At the end of the story Solomon is even depicted as a fool who does not remain faithful to Israel’s God but turns to other deities whom his foreign wives worship (1Kgs 11:4-8).

How do other biblical books treat Solomon’s wisdom?

This portrait of the wise king is continued in later biblical books. Second Chronicles retells the stories of 1 Kings, but without the critical aspects. Thus Solomon’s wisdom remains unchallenged. The book of Proverbs echoes the image of Solomon as a teacher of wisdom, attributing to him several collections of sayings (Prov 1:1, Prov 10:1, Prov 25:1). In Wis 7, an anonymous speaker, who bears a striking resemblance to Solomon, looks back on his youth and his experience with wisdom, revealing himself as a truly wise man. The book of Ecclesiastes also alludes to king Solomon. When Qohelet (which is not a proper name but means “assembler”) introduces himself, he claims to be “a son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Eccl 1:1). In this way, the well-known image of the wise king is used to attribute more significance to this book. As the text unfolds, it also draws on the image of wisdom as a royal ideal while also putting critical reflections on wisdom into the wise king’s mouth; he is presented as a doubting, if brooding figure. Here wisdom is no longer presented as a guarantee for a successful life but as something ephemeral, which is all humans may ever accomplish (Eccl 1:2-11).

Together, the images of Solomon in the different biblical books offer a complex portrait of the king: both wise but prone to doubt and error. This provides a rich pool of themes and motifs for later traditions, which pick up and embellished these images. Soon Solomon was credited as the author of a number of noncanonical writings (e.g., Odes of Solomon), which attributed to him the knowledge of animal languages and extended his wisdom into the realm of magic. He was even said to have power over demons (e.g., Testamentum Salomonis).

How do artists draw inspiration from the stories of Solomon’s wisdom?

As the prototype of a wise king, Solomon also lives on in works of art throughout the centuries. He is remembered as a wise judge in numerous artistic representations in public buildings (city halls, courthouses) and churches. His legendary judgment lives on in oratorios as well as in numerous novels and dramas (e.g., the oratoria “Salomo” by Georg F. Händel [1749], or the drama “The Judgement of Solomon” by Royall Tyler [1800]). As a doubting and brooding king, he served poets as a model for a tragic human figure (e.g., Friedrich G. Klopstock, “Salomo” [1764]). And even today, the motif of the wise king who engages in profound conversations with queens can still be found in novels (e.g. Inge Merkel, Sie kam zu König Salomo [2001]; India Edghill, Wisdom’s Daughter: A Novel of Solomon and Sheba [2004]; Jay Williams, Solomon and Sheba: A Novel [1959]).

  • Gillmayr-Bucher-Susanne

    Susanne Gillmayr-Bucher is Professor of Biblical Studies / Old Testament at the Catholic Private University of Linz, Austria.