Solomon's Wisdom by Susanne Gillmayr-Bucher

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]).

Susanne Gillmayr-Bucher, "Solomon's Wisdom", n.p. [cited 30 Nov 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/solomons-wisdom

Contributors

Gillmayr-Bucher-Susanne

Susanne Gillmayr-Bucher
Professor of Biblical Studies / Old Testament , Catholic Private University

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

Evaluating its subject carefully, rigorously, and with minimal preconceptions. "Critical" religious scholarship contrasts with popular and sectarian studies.

Gods or goddesses; powerful supernatural figures worshipped by humans.

A recurring element or symbolism in artwork, literature, and other forms of expression.

Of or related to textual materials that are not part of the accepted biblical canon.

long musical works, often with a religious theme

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

1Kgs 3-11

Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11

1Kgs 3:5-14

5At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.”6And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast l ... View more

1Kgs 3:16-28

Solomon's Wisdom in Judgment
16Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him.17The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman an ... View more

1Kgs 4:20

Magnificence of Solomon's Rule
20Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy.

1Kgs 5:5

5So I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord said to my father David, ‘Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, sha ... View more

1Kgs 8:65-66

65 So Solomon held the festival at that time, and all Israel with him—a great assembly, people from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt—before the Lord our God, se ... View more

1Kgs 5:12-13

12 So the Lord gave Solomon wisdom, as he promised him. There was peace between Hiram and Solomon; and the two of them made a treaty.
13 King Solomon conscripte ... View more

1Kgs 5:14

14 He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home; Adoniram was in charge of the force ... View more

1Kgs 10:1-12

10 When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon (fame due to[a] the name of the Lord), she came to test him with hard questions. 2 She came to Jerusalem ... View more

1Kgs 10:1-12

10 When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon (fame due to[a] the name of the Lord), she came to test him with hard questions. 2 She came to Jerusalem ... View more

1Kgs 3:28

28All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to e ... View more

1Kgs 10:3

3 Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her.

1Kgs 5

Preparations and Materials for the Temple
1 Now King Hiram of Tyre sent his servants to Solomon, when he heard that they had anointed him king in place of his f ... View more

1Kgs 9:11-13

11 King Hiram of Tyre having supplied Solomon with cedar and cypress timber and gold, as much as he desired, King Solomon gave to Hiram twenty cities in the lan ... View more

1Kgs 11:4-8

4 For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father Dav ... View more

Prov 1:1

1The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:

Prov 10:1

Wise Sayings of Solomon
1The proverbs of Solomon.

A wise child makes a glad father,
but a foolish child is a mother's grief.

Prov 25:1

25 These are other proverbs of Solomon that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied.

Wis 7


7 I also am mortal, like everyone else,
a descendant of the first-formed child of earth;
and in the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh,
2 within the peri ... View more

Eccl 1:1

Reflections of a Royal Philosopher
1The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Eccl 1:2-11

2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,[a]
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
... View more

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