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SIMPLIFIED JOURNEY (16): Wisdom of Solomon


(The title of the post refers to the canonical books attributed to Solomon, not to the apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Solomon.)

One of the tragedies of Israel’s history was that Solomon did not live by the wisdom God had given him. I once preached a sermon on Solomon that I called The Foolish Wise Man.

He showed wisdom in his judicial decrees – as in discovering which of two women who claimed one baby was the real mother. Yet, his personal life was filled with foolish pursuit of destructive things. Commonly, commentators point to Ecclesiastes coming from Solomon’s pursuit of happiness through wealth, pleasure, power, etc. In all of these he found only futility, not happiness. In the end, he concluded that all is emptiness – except the fear of God and obedience to Him. This was a lesson he learned by hard experience. Maybe he wisdom is shown in the fact that he did learn the lesson – but too late to make much difference in the life of his son.

We attribute three books of the Old Testament (plus some of the Psalms) to Solomon. These are Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and The Song of Solomon.

Proverbs

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

for attaining wisdom and discipline;
for understanding words of insight;
for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young – let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance –
for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. – Proverbs 1:1-7

In this “Forward” to the book, Solomon sets forth its purpose: To provide a means for both the simple and the wise to gain wisdom to lead a prudent, disciplined life. In a very real sense, this is the purpose of all three of these books by Solomon.

The first nine chapters of Proverbs praise wisdom and denounce folly. Several examples of folly are given:

  • listening to the enticement of sinners who tempt you to join them in robbing some unsuspecting wayfarer (much like Shakespeare’s Falstaff tempted Prince Hal in King Richard IV. (Proverbs 1:8-19)
  • rejecting wisdom (Proverbs 1:20-33)
  • becoming prey to the adulteress, whose lips drip honey (Proverbs 5:1ff)
  • putting up security for another (Proverbs 6:1-5)
  • lusting after the wayward wife who tempts you (Proverbs 6:20-35)
  • being like the simple man who went after the woman “dressed like a prostitute (Proverbs 7:1-27)

Notice that several of these warnings have to do with the folly of becoming involved sexually with another man’s wife. Others have to do with financial matters. These two themes recur often in Proverbs.

He personifies both Wisdom and Folly as women who call out in the square, much like barkers at the carnival of life, each attempting to gain our attention and get us to “come in here” to eat of what each offers. Wisdom is a builder; Folly is loud, undisciplined, and ignorant. She says that “stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!” She offers delights that do not satisfy, but which lead to the grave.

Beginning in Chapter 10, Proverbs is a series of wise sayings in Hebrew couplets. These are parallel sayings where the second completes or contrasts with the first. For example, “Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs” (Proverbs 10:12). These continue through Chapter 22:16 and cover a wide variety of subjects and life-situations. Many themes recur again and again – for these are areas that have particular pitfalls for us humans.

Chapter 22:17 – 24:34 are “Sayings of the Wise,” apparently proverbs from others that Solomon collected.  Then in 25:1 – 29:27 are “More Proverbs of Solomon.”

Both of these sections have longer (more than a single verse) sayings, though the structure is similar to the earlier Proverbs. Here is a brief example:

Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them.

Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared.

Do not be a man who strikes hands in pledge or puts up security for debts; if you lack the means to pay, your very bed will be snatched from under you. (Proverbs 22:22-27)

Each of these couplets are two verses long, with each part of the couplet being a “pair” of sayings that complete the thought.

Here is a section that has an even longer discussion of a single thought, still expressed in a series of couplets:

I went past the field of the sluggard, past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment;
thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins.

I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw:

A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest –
and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man. (24:30-34)

The final two chapters are “Sayings of Agur, son of Jakeh” and “Sayings of King Lemuel.” We know nothing of who these two kings were. Speculation (without much, but perhaps some, support) says Agur was from Arabia and Lemuel was a Chaldean. Both of these nations were associated with Israel. Abraham was from Ur of the Chaldees, and the Arabians were descended from Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar. These chapters do not come from the pen of Solomon, but were likely added to the collection of Solomon’s proverbs in the time of Hezekiah.

Each adds material that is significant for us, and the general tenor of what is here is in keeping with the previous “Sayings of the Wise” and “Proverbs of Solomon.”

Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes literally means The Teacher or Leader of the Assembly (ft. nt. to NIV). He was the son of David (1:1) and king over Israel in Jerusalem (1:12). Hence, this was Solomon.

Many find this book difficult to understand because he seems to say there is no point in life. What you need to understand is that Solomon describes his pursuit of happiness – but that he found none until he looked to God.

He, though the wisest man, found no joy in wisdom. He sampled all the pleasures of the world, but did not find joy or happiness there. He worked hard, but labor alone did not bring joy.

It is only when we remember our Creator that we find what life is all about. At the end, he declared:

Not all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. – 12:12-13

The KJV has the word duty in the whole duty of man in italics. This means it is a word added by the translators. The NIV also marks this word as added to the text. Without this word, Solomon says, “fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole of man.” Man is incomplete without God. That is why wealth, pleasure, wisdom, and religion – without God – is meaningless.

Song of Solomon

Also known as Song of Songs, this book is a poem to sensual, married love. There was a time when church people thought this was an allegory of Christ and the Church, but there is nothing in the text to really lead us to believe this. It becomes very “stretched” to say the least.

This book speaks of the joy of sex long before it was popular to write best-selling books about sexual fulfillment. The focus, though, is not on the details of the sexual encounters (though they are certainly described in highly symbolic language – see, for example, chapter 4 as the lover describes his beloved as a garden and the beloved invites him to feast). The emphasis is on the devotion between the lover and his beloved.

It should not surprise us that this book is in the Canon of Scripture, since sex is such an important part of human life. Proverbs gave us many warnings against illicit sex (while also telling us to be satisfied with the waters from your own cistern (Proverbs 5:15-20). The Song of Songs elaborates on the theme of how joyful that can be.

With a harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines, no one could accuse Solomon of being inexperienced when it comes to sexual matters. With all of those women, this song of love between the Shulammite and her lover expresses his view of the purity of sex between lovers who are true to each other.

I question whether Solomon is the lover, even as a young man. In 6:8, the lover speaks of 60 queens and 80 concubines with numberless virgins – but says his beloved is greater than all. Is this a man saying he, with his lovely bride, is better off than Solomon with his harem? I think so.

Some even believe that Solomon tempted this woman to become a part of his harem – but she ran away from the king to her beloved. That, I believe is a real possibility. If so, the story ends with the lovers together as she says “My own vineyard is mine to give” (8:12), and her last word is, “Come away, my lover, and be like a gazelle or like a young stag on the spice-laden mountains” (8:14).

NEXT (17): The Early Prophets

PREVIOUS (15): The Jewish Hymnal

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