Many people know the story about how Solomon, as he faced the task of ruling after the death of his father David, asked the Lord for wisdom. The author of 1 Kings records what happened (1 Kgs 3:1-15). Clearly, the Lord was pleased with Solomon and his request, and we are told Solomon loved the Lord and did the things He had commanded (3:3).
But there are a couple of things in the account that cause us to step back and ask what is going on. The story begins with a statement that Solomon married an Egyptian princess. Was that a good idea? He already had at least one wife (1 Kings 14:21-31) and had also acquired the concubines of his father David.
While the OT did allow for polygamy, didn’t Solomon see the danger of marrying a foreign woman? Later, we know that his foreign wives would lead him to worship their gods and to fall into idolatry. The marriage was one of political expediency as it made Egypt an ally of Israel. Some have even suggested, since Solomon is spoken of so highly in this passage, that the princess must have converted to Judaism. Even if that were the case–and there is no support for that view–shouldn’t Solomon have taken the position that he would trust in the Lord and not in an alliance with a foreign, pagan power?
Another potential problem in Solomon’s life was that he offered sacrifices at various high places. The Law of Moses said that one could only offer sacrifices at a particular place (Lev 17:8-9; Deut 12:11-13). Many have pointed out that this place, the temple, had not yet been built; what Solomon was doing was, therefore, not technically a sin. The bronze altar was in one place and the ark of the covenant was in another, so there really wasn’t a single place where sacrifices could be made (2 Chron 1:2-6). In addition, God had allowed sacrifices at other places on certain occasions (Exod 20:24-26; Judg 6:25-26; 13:19-21; 1 Sam 7:9-10; 1 Chron 21:26).
However, the author of 1 Kings does say there was a problem with what Solomon was doing. He notes that Solomon obeyed God, just as his father David had, except that he worshiped God at the high places (v 3). What do we make of such a statement? Was the issue that Solomon did it as a habit? Should he have done it at all? If this was a sin, why was he not rebuked by the prophet Nathan, who was nearby? Why did God bless him so richly here if he was walking in disobedience? How could it be said that Solomon loved the Lord while in such a state?
I wonder. I look at this passage and conclude that Solomon was not walking with the Lord. He had married a foreign woman and was trusting in the power of Egypt when he should have simply trusted in God. He was offering sacrifices in places other than the tabernacle. Later, these high places would become centers for worshiping the many gods of the land (2 Kings 17:7-10; 23:4-25). Solomon was doing things here that would eventually lead to the people’s captivity in Babylon.
In light of how highly the Scriptures speak of Solomon here, these things were not sinful. The Law only prohibited marrying Canaanite women, and Solomon was not doing that (Exod 34:10-16; Deut 7:1-3). Until the temple was built and the bronze altar and ark of the covenant were together in one place, God would overlook the use of other places to worship Him. At this time in Israel’s history, such practices as these were what we call neutral areas today.
But they needed to be mentioned. They would become the seeds from which destructive sins would grow. Solomon was operating as other kings operated. He married women who would help cement his power in the region. He offered sacrifices to the Lord in places where the pagans worshiped their gods because, well, that is what others did. He did not stop to think about how quickly the people–and he–would, in these places, combine the worship of the Lord with the worship of false gods.
The bottom line here is that Solomon was thinking like the pagan kings around him. But he was called to be different. He was to call his people to be different. He could have set an example. He should have trusted in the Lord instead of in foreign alliances. He should have only sacrificed where the bronze altar was located, reminding the people that the temple would soon be built and would be what God had commanded. These things would set the people of God apart from the surrounding nations.
His actions were not necessarily sinful, but they were not wise. Maybe these activities were recorded before God gave him the wisdom he asked for. Maybe his experiences here are a lesson for us.