Saturday, June 06, 2009

Solomon loved the Lord enough to walk in the ways of David, hero worship as a form of Christian idolatry

Contrary to the often glowing descriptions of Solomon's early reign 1 Kings suggests a man of blood. The time of peace and the man of peace who was to build the temple did not so much indicate that David could not build the Temple because he shed blood alone. We can point out that there was a practical, military, and political reason behind the divine delay of the building of the Lord's house--namely that it would not be until Solomon consolidated the kingdom during a peaceful time that it would be safe to begin work on the Temple without the threat of invasion.This hardly indicates that Solomon himself was necessarily a man who did not have blood on his hands!

Now I have been cruising through some discussions of Old Testament literature by V. Phillips Long and he points out that one way you can render the passage about Solomon's love for the Lord is that he loved the Lord enough to walk in the ways of his father David. David urged Solomon to keep the covenant so that the house of David would be forever established. There is more than just a whiff of "Do good, boy, so we can always have this royal dynasty." It isn't necessarily all bad but it does read a bit curiously. David tells his son to act in the wisdom he has and then we see Solomon doing that, killing political threats from the old dynastic period and those who might oppose a fully united kingdom. It is probably Solomon believed over time that how he handled things was not good or he would not have told the Lord he needed a discerning heart and wisdom because he didn't know how to do his job.

Now in the Sunday school version of things we hear that Solomon asked for wisdom and God was pleased. We are not told about the bloodshed of Solomon's early years. We are also not told that he did not swiftly tackle the issue of building the Lord's house and that because of this worship in high places persisted. People were not worshipping idols, perhaps, but they were still not worshipping in a way sanctioned by the Mosaic law. After killing potential threats Solomon goes and marries an Egyptian and sacrifices at the high places, neither particularly promising things. He also seems to understand God's faithfulness as contingent on the obedience of his father and his righteousness. This is an admittedly curious though partly true observation since David said and did a great deal that was hardly righteous at all.

We may observe, if we read Samuel and Kings as a whole, that there is a great deal of foreshadowing of Solomon's demise. Even at the beginning of his reign his capacity for harshness, for crushing adversaries, and for making marriage a matter of loving a foreign woman and opening up alliances that run counter to the Law all point toward his grim end. Certain fanciful notions about Solomon and Abishag sitting in a tree withstanding, Solomon's reign begins inauspiciously. Solomon acts in his wisdom, the wisdom his father David observed he had, but it was arguably a worldly sort of wisdom. As Iain Provan put it, Solomon was also able to "interpret" promises so as to make them favorable to him. This way of interpreting conditions allows Solomon to get what he wants even after he has overlooked the core of an agreed on element.

Christians seem to want to have it both ways with Solomon. We want to hold him up as this wise and good king when it comes to the wisdom literature but then ignore him regarding women. I have heard Christians say that a guy who had a thousand wives probably doesn't have the best advice about marriage or gender relations. Well, you can say that, but then why take seriously what he collected elsewhere? This suggests a an approach to the wisdom literature that discounts what we are plainly told in Proverbs and in Ecclesiastes, that Solomon collected proverbs and wise sayings. Having the capacity to recognize wisdom, collate it, collect it, and make observations about it is not the same thing as living by it. A man may have wisdom from God and use it for foolishness. There is more than one kind of wisdom and it is arguably part of the narrative in Kings to invite us to consider what kind of wisdom Solomon is acting from when he makes this or that decision.

The scriptures do not whitewash David or Saul or Solomon so each man presents us with a problem. David did many things that were more heinous than what Saul did yet what was a man after God's own heart. Saul had the spirit of the Lord overwhelm him and cause him to do many heroic acts but he took credit for victories his son accomplished and finally revealed that he did not trust or obey the Lord and was cut off. Solomon was an apostate who was loved by God, whose final fate we infer came to a positive end out of Solomonic attribution for Ecclesiastes, which even many conservative scholars are not universally agreed upon. Scripture presents us with ambiguous men who have, nevertheless, unambiguous hearts (except maybe for Solomon).

What inspires us as Christians to simplify the biblical narratives? Do we wish to see ourselves in certain OT figures? A book like Ezra/Nehemiah invites that sort of moral simplification. It would be easy to read through Nehemiah and either think the authors are jerks or to take their side without considering the very one-sided account they give. Now that doesn't make the account of no value, but as Long once put it, Ezra/Nehemiah presents things in starker black and white terms than the rest of the narrative books of the Bible. For people who want to bottom line things and see themselves as in the right even when they're wrong Nehemiah is a useful book. The most compelling question left open at the end of Nehemiah is why the presence of the Lord did not descend on the re-established city of God or worship. Was it because of sin? Not even Nehemiah discusses why the presence of the Lord was not with them, if you look through his writings.

But it seems that even with other narrative books the propensity to see in black and white terms what the Spirit through Scriptures reveals in shades of lighter and darker gray is hard to resist. At the risk of pointing out the obvious it is too tempting to see ourselves in biblical figures we like when we like them and too easy to see our "enemies" or frenemies in the people we don't like when we don't like them in a biblical narrative. Cultivating the capacity to see our own weaknesses in the men and women revealed in the Bible is difficult. It is difficult to see David at the end of his life loathe to rebuke his children even in their most blatant and self-serving sin whether it's Absalom or Adonijah. It is distressing to see David's advice to his son Solomon on his death bed be that of killing without mercy people who might prevent the unified kingdom and to settle old grievances. This is one of the heroes of the faith.

And we must be cautious in ripping on Solomon without a proper understanding that God loved Solomon and that Solomon's legacy gave us Proverbs, the song named after him and, if traditional ascription to him is true, Ecclesiastes. We want Solomon to be either good or bad depending on what agendas we push without recognizing how deeply flawed the sinners are who have been saved by the grace of Christ.

It has stuck with me that in evangelical Protestant circles a man like David, let alone a man like Solomon, would be denounced today. The multiple wives, the abject failure to produce children, by and large, of godly character, and even the best of his mentioned children ended up being a killer, a man prone to marry foreign women, and lapsed into apostasy before repenting late in life (which itself may be subject to some debate depending on how solid the case for Solomonic attribute of Ecclesiastes is but I set that aside as the tangent it so obviously is), these all suggest that many people would consider David unfit to lead God's people.

In fact that's what we see, a number of people saying that because David was a man of bloodshed he wasn't fit to lead God's people. Of course a few of these people were partisans of Saul, who killed a few people he wasn't supposed to kill and DIDN'T kill people he was supposed to annihilate. Yet Scripture attests that despite this many, many flaws that David was, nevertheless a man after God's own heart. There is a sense in which we, as Christians, are tempted to think we need spiritual leaders who are, in a phrase, too good. We want a level of quality in them we would not expect of ourselves ... or perhaps expect of ourselves without warrant.

Solomon, it seems, loved the Lord enough to walk in the ways of his father David. That might be the most brutal observation that can be made about anyone in Scripture, in a way, that a person loves the Lord enough to walk in the ways of a father like David. We know that David was in many respects both a great and terrible man. What might seem like a complement of Solomon's love of the Lord at first turns out to be a foreshadowing of a pending tragedy in the house of David.

If you love the Lord enough to emulate the example of another Christian, no matter how good that Christian may be, the seeds of an apostasy may be even in there for the growing but may not bear fruit until later in life. There are reasons Jesus said that in order to follow Him you must hate your father and mother and family. If you love Him enough to follow Him the way anyone you love does or did that's not good enough. You will eventually leave Him when you have the option to do so, as Solomon eventually did long after the death of David.

That David to your Solomon might be a father, a mother, a brother, a husband, a wife, a sister, an aunt, a pastor, a friend, anyone you consider a hero to you not simply for their faith but altogether. Now David did write that as for the saints in the land they were the excellent ones in whom was all his delight, but that is after he first delights in God Himself. "You are my refuge, I have no good apart from You" comes before delighting in the saints of the land.

We can and should delight in the saints God places in our lives because they do not exist apart from Christ, but even these saints have been and are those apt to sin. David himself sinned and was apt to sin yet that does not mean we cannot look to him as a guide for both what to do and not to do. What we must do, as David did, is to delight in Christ first and THEN delight in those whom He gives us. To everything there is a season and it is right to delight in the one in whom we should delight first before delighting in those lesser but still real goods we receive from His hand.

As I grow older I consider a variety of ways in which I loved the Lord enough to emulate the example of Christians I have admired. That is good, really, but it alone will not be the same as being a man after God's own heart. My prayer is that I will not simply be like Solomon loving the Lord enough to walk in the ways of the Davids in my life but to, like David, have a heart that loves God first, is grateful to Christ first, and then delights in the saints of the land, so that when the Davids in my life are taken from me I am still able to walk with the Lord and seek Him.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Ecclesiastes 3:4, a personal reflection after coming home from a wedding

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance ...

On Saturday May 30, 2009 Ry and Mi got married. This is not a reflection on Scripture that involves my usual lengthy ramble. No, this is where I share that sometimes you can go your whole life not appreciating what a simple verse means until you come to a moment where God in His kindness illuminates it. I am not a dancer and I am not likely to ever be one. But I have prayed for Ry and Mi for a couple of years and their friends have prayed and they have prayed and yesterday they got married and as the bride so eloquently put it, you can ultimately be surprised by the kindness and love of God.

While I would never describe myself as a dancer and normally avoid dancing and prefer to be the wallflower on the sidelines this was, finally, not one of those times. Seeing the faithfulness and love of Christ in answered prayers and in the joy of yesterday's wedding I realized that there comes a point when words are not enough and thankfulness as an internal state is not enough and joy as a feeling is not enough. There comes, as the Preacher puts it, a time to dance. Yesterday was that time not just for the other wedding guests but also, perhaps most surpriing of all to me, for me. No one in cyberspace may really understand or appreciate how surprising this is for me.

Thanks to Ry and Mi and the rest of the friends I met with on the day of their wedding, for showing me through your lives and friendship what I did not understand in the Scriptures, that there is a time to dance. May the blessings of the Lord be with you.