The offense of going after other gods.

One of the prevailing takeaways the savvy Bible-reader will recoup after examining 1 Kings 4—11 is the overwhelming sense of optimism that pervades the historian’s words. Most of the narratives are presented without editorial comment, nor does he deviate into overly patriotic or exaggerated rhetoric. Instead, the inspired material is put forward in a very matter-of-fact manner, narrating Israel as she used to be.

Akin to the modern re-tellings of Britain’s “crown,” the historian of the Books of Kings relays the particulars of Israel’s own “game of thrones.” In 1 Kings 1—2, he narrates the story of how Israel’s throne was protected. In chapter 3, he relays the story of how Israel’s throne was blessed. In chapter 4, he tells the story of how Israel’s throne was organized. Chapters 5—8 repeat the story of how Israel built a house in which the Lord of hosts could dwell. In 1 Kings 9—10, the historian extols Israel’s far-reaching influence. Again, these are all positive aspects of kingdom that is thriving. There are no tongue-in-cheek implications. And such is what makes the first nine verses of 1 Kings 9, however, stand out in stark contrast.

When Solomon finished building the temple of the Lord, the royal palace, and all that Solomon desired to do,the Lord appeared to Solomon a second time just as he had appeared to him at Gibeon. The Lord said to him: I have heard your prayer and petition you have made before me. I have consecrated this temple you have built, to put my name there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there at all times.

As for you, if you walk before me as your father David walked, with a heart of integrity and in what is right, doing everything I have commanded you, and if you keep my statutes and ordinances, I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised your father David: You will never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.

If you or your sons turn away from following me and do not keep my commands — my statutes that I have set before you — and if you go and serve other gods and bow in worship to them, I will cut off Israel from the land I gave them, and I will reject the temple I have sanctified for my name. Israel will become an object of scorn and ridicule among all the peoples. Though this temple is now exalted, everyone who passes by will be appalled and will scoff. They will say, “Why did the Lord do this to this land and this temple?”Then they will say, “Because they abandoned the Lord their God who brought their ancestors out of the land of Egypt. They held on to other gods and bowed in worship to them and served them. Because of this, the Lord brought all this ruin on them.” (1 Kgs 9:1–9)

Here, the Lord appears before Solomon for a “second time,” just as he did at Gibeon. (1 Kgs 9:1–2; cf. 3:5) But whereas that appearance was all about God’s profuse blessing, this appearance is all about God’s perilous warning. In contrast to the glowing historical narratives stand these words of caution from the Lord himself. And while God recognizes Solomon’s efforts to pay due honor to the Almighty (1 Kgs 3:3), the overriding tenor of these words are an omen particularizing what’s at stake if he is forsaken.

God is impressing upon Solomon (and all of Israel) to remember the first commandment: “Do not have other gods besides me.” (Ex 20:3) If that were to happen — if Solomon and Israel “go and serve other gods and bow in worship to them” — the results would be catastrophic. God would turn his chosen nation into “an object of scorn and ridicule among all the peoples,” a devastating portrait of the high price for spiritual infidelity. (1 Kgs 9:7–9) The price tag for a compromised faith meant that Israel’s turf, Temple, and throne would all be lost.1 Such would be the consequences if Israel lost her first love, if she disregarded her Deliverer.

Certainly, these verses reverberate with more ominous tones because we know how the story unfolds. Israel does “go and serve other gods.” She is ripped out of the land of promise. Therefore, these words from God are more of a foreshadowing than a forewarning. Imagine, then, hearing this chain of events as an exiled Israelite when your present experience is precisely what God warned Solomon about all those ages ago. Wouldn’t that crush you? Wouldn’t that pierce your heart? Wouldn’t that sting you to the core? “Oh, how far we’ve fallen!” might have rightly been the cry. But even we, too, in 2021 ought to be stung by the lessons of Solomon’s fall. For they remind us of the array of “other gods” that can swiftly cause us to lose sight of our First Love.

A lesson about prosperity.

The colloquial image of Solomon and his extravagant lifestyle is, for the most part, true. He loved luxury and living in opulence. The amenities for a single day in his court seem outrageous, even by ancient standards. (1 Kgs 4:22–28) Solomon’s Israel was a vast domain, which sat atop the world as the political, social, spiritual, and military authority. First Kings 10:14–23 details even more hard-to-believe features of Israel’s prosperity realized under Solomon’s rule, complete with solid gold weaponry and dinnerware.

These are not overstated remarks. Solomon was a king inordinately blessed “in riches and in wisdom” above all “kings of the world.” (1 Kgs 10:23) But what is crucial to this story is to remember Who it was that blessed him with those things. Namely, the Lord God Jehovah. (1 Kgs 3:11–12) The prosperity that Israel experienced was less about Solomon’s economic acumen than it was about God’s sovereign choice. He chose to bless Israel; he had covenanted to do so. In a sense, it was God’s prerogative to show off what it looked like for a nation to be blessed by the One True God. Israel’s successes are not really about them. They are always about the God behind them, underneath them. Therefore, when we read those ominous words in 1 Kings 11:9–10 regarding God’s plan to “tear the kingdom away” from Solomon’s hands, it is evident that among the “other gods” that had stolen Solomon’s heart was the god of prosperity.

The historian’s recounting of Solomon’s successes almost read as a résumé of self-sufficiency. King Solomon was analogous to the proverbial King Midas, with everything he touched seemingly turning golden. At any rate, the path is woefully short between the heights of prosperity and the depths of self-reliance. It is easy to trace all the business decisions made during Solomon’s reign, however practical or logical, and, likewise, trace Solomon’s burgeoning independence. His reign looked tragically more self-reliant than it should have for one who knew what it meant and what it looked like to rely on the Lord. (Prv 11:14; 15:12)

A lesson about prestige.

Word of Solomon’s wisdom traveled fast in the ancient world, eventually bringing kings and peoples from all over the earth to hear his wisdom. (1 Kgs 4:29–34) Folks were traveling from the furthest reaches of the known world to listen to Solomon’s wise counsel. Such is what the beginning of chapter 10 is all about.

The queen of Sheba heard about Solomon’s fame connected with the name of the Lord and came to test him with difficult questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very large entourage, with camels bearing spices, gold in great abundance, and precious stones. She came to Solomon and spoke to him about everything that was on her mind. So Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too difficult for the king to explain to her. When the queen of Sheba observed all of Solomon’s wisdom, the palace he had built, the food at his table, his servants’ residence, his attendants’ service and their attire, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he offered at the Lord’s temple, it took her breath away.

She said to the king, “The report I heard in my own country about your words and about your wisdom is true.But I didn’t believe the reports until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, I was not even told half. Your wisdom and prosperity far exceed the report I heard.How happy are your men. How happy are these servants of yours, who always stand in your presence hearing your wisdom. Blessed be the Lord your God! He delighted in you and put you on the throne of Israel, because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel. He has made you king to carry out justice and righteousness.” Then she gave the king four and a half tons of gold, a great quantity of spices, and precious stones. Never again did such a quantity of spices arrive as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. (1 Kgs 10:1–10)

This account of the queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon’s court is undoubtedly present to verify the historian’s claims as to the extent of Solomon’s renown. This queen, who hails from over one thousand miles away, hears of Israel’s king’s sagacity and comes to see if the rumors are true. (1 Kgs 10:6–7) After pressing him with many “difficult questions,” she is so impressed both by how Solomon responded and by what she sees that she is driven to give one of the best testimonies of God’s blessings on Israel. “Blessed be the Lord your God!” she exclaims. “He delighted in you and put you on the throne of Israel, because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel.” (1 Kgs 10:9) And all this from a Gentile monarch, no less.

Perhaps this is conjecture, but knowing the human heart as I do, I am certain that the popularity and prestige Solomon experienced affected him. The more he was sought after to impart wisdom, the easier it was to drift away from utter dependence on God. To that end, it is curious to note that throughout Solomon’s reign there is never any mention of a prophet’s counsel. It is believed that Nathan was still filling that role while Solomon sat on the throne. Yet, we are never given a scene of Solomon seeking after wisdom. Rather, he’s always the one giving it. In a sense, then, he had become “the wise one.” But in thinking that, he became the fool. (Prv 12:15; 1 Cor 3:18)

A lesson about power.

The historian is adamant that whoever reads his account be aware of the awesome power of Israel during these days. He goes to great lengths to astound the reader with the grandeur of Solomon’s empire. “You have no idea how magnificent this place was!” he seems to report. Her citizens were “eating, drinking, and rejoicing” in an unparalleled era of peace, as  surrounding nations were paying homage to her king. (1 Kgs 4:20–21; 5:4) Israel was a world-power with which few dared to quarrel, which isn’t surprising considering the massive army of chariots and armada of ships Solomon amassed. (1 Kgs 4:26–27; 10:16–23, 26–29)

But the fact of the matter is, Solomon’s splendor belied the fact that he had already compromised his faith. Notice:

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, take possession of it, live in it, and say, “I will set a king over me like all the nations around me,” you are to appoint over you the king the Lord your God chooses. Appoint a king from your brothers. You are not to set a foreigner over you, or one who is not of your people. However, he must not acquire many horses for himself or send the people back to Egypt to acquire many horses, for the Lord has told you, “You are never to go back that way again.” He must not acquire many wives for himself so that his heart won’t go astray. He must not acquire very large amounts of silver and gold for himself. When he is seated on his royal throne, he is to write a copy of this instruction for himself on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. It is to remain with him, and he is to read from it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to observe all the words of this instruction, and to do these statutes. Then his heart will not be exalted above his countrymen, he will not turn from this command to the right or the left, and he and his sons will continue reigning many years in Israel. (Dt 17:14–20)

(I encourage you to do a mental scorecard of how many of those injunctions Solomon violated throughout his reign.)

Israel had degenerated into a “white sepulcher,” with gold and ivory gilding nearly every surface of the kingdom. Yet, within Israel’s heart was a corpse. “During Solomon’s reign,” notes the late Warren Weirsbe, “the outward splendor and wealth of Israel only masked an inward decay that led eventually to division and then destruction.”2 The decay of Israel under Solomon’s reign was a slow, gradual deterioration. Bit by bit, Solomon entertained more and more of the world’s philosophies, occupations, and pleasures until, suddenly, he is introduced as almost a shell of himself in chapter 11.

A lesson about pleasure.

King Solomon loved many foreign women in addition to Pharaoh’s daughter: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite womenfrom the nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, and they must not intermarry with you, because they will turn your heart away to follow their gods.” To these women Solomon was deeply attached in love. (1 Kgs 11:1–2)

Right away, the historian puts this moment in its proper historical and spiritual context, editorializing Solomon’s desire with what he should have known. The warning of what these relationships would do to him went unheeded. And it’s not just that he was intermarrying with other nations whom God had expressly forbidden, but that these relationships had changed him negatively. (1 Kgs 11:3–8) His lust for “many foreign women” led him to compromise his devotion to the One True God. And it is not as though he wasn’t warned. (1 Kgs 6:12; 9:4; 11:4) He happily cast himself into the arms of pleasure, thereby “turning away,” bending his adoration towards these “other gods.” (1 Kgs 11:2–4) Such was Solomon’s truest downfall. (Prv 16:18)

You see, King Solomon is the Bible’s great oxymoron. He lived as the wisest fool to ever wear a crown. “He was obviously a man of great astuteness,” writes John Bright insightfully, “who was able to realize to the fullest the economic potentialities of the empire created by David. At the same time, he exhibited in other areas a blindness, not to say a stupidity, that hastened that empire toward disintegration.”3 He who was blessed with such profound wisdom was not wise enough to heed it himself. He was not even wise enough to master his own passions. (Prv 19:3) What, then, is the use for all that wisdom? What did all that wealth afford Solomon? In the end, nothing but ruin. “All his wisdom was worth little,” Rev. Alexander Maclaren says, “if it could not keep him master of himself.”4 Indeed, Solomon was his own worst enemy.

The enterprises and entertainments that led to the fall of Solomon’s empire were not evil, in and of themselves. The prosperity, prestige, power, and pleasure from which God’s people benefited were not inherently iniquitous. In fact, these things came about precisely because the Lord graced Solomon with untold wisdom and blessing. (1 Kgs 3:12–13) God gave him these things. Nonetheless, the opulence in which Solomon and Israel relished was intended to function as a signpost for all to see pointing them to the goodness of the preeminent Giver. Israel’s glory was meant to be a mirror that reflected the glory of God himself, steering all surrounding nations to recognize that there is no other God except Jehovah. (1 Kgs 8:23, 60)5

Tragically, Israel’s story ends much differently than, perhaps, you and I might first expect. (1 Kgs 11:9–11) The affluence and extravagance ended up plunging Israel into division and disruption. What was given as a blessing became the catalyst for the disintegration of God’s chosen people. The point, then, is that when “good things” become “ultimate things,” they become the very gods that the Lord warned about. (1 Kgs 9:6–7) Whatever measure of success we experience, whatever stage of life in which you find yourself, the outcome ought always to be one of increased gratefulness. You are where you are by divine appointment. God is the one who deserves all the credit. The gifts we have been given and blessings we enjoy have nothing to do with us. They are all about the King of kings who loves to lavish his children in grace. He wants the world to see what a giving God he is. But so long as we focus on the gifts at the expense of showing gratitude to the Giver, we offend him.

I wonder where you and I might be “serving other gods” in our own lives? Where might we have left our First Love for the company and comfort of something else? I would hasten to say that we are all too seldom conscious of the serious the offense is for sidelining our Heavenly Father for “other gods,” be they what they may.

Perhaps in your context and mine, the implications of God’s involvement in our lives doesn’t mean that our kingdoms, per se, are at risk for being taken away. But maybe something of equal value in which we put our hopes and dreams is. Like our freedoms, or our comforts — the things in which we have grown so accustomed to relishing. If the pandemic has revealed anything, perhaps it’s that the American Church is miserably prone to “serve other gods.” Comfort and convenience are the supreme deities of the moment. Our courage has been put in the crucible of heartache and has been proven wanting. Perhaps, then, this tragic season of life might not end so tragically after all if it gets the Church to wake up to the other lesser gods to whom they’ve been paying homage for far too long. 

Therefore, may we remember the One in whom “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) May we all worship the One True God and King, Christ alone. Amen.

1

Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020), 96.

2

Warren Wiersbe, Be Responsible: Being Good Stewards of God’s Gifts (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2002), 35.

3

John Bright, A History of Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 211.

4

Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944), 2:2.204.

5

See also Deuteronomy 4:35,39; 6:4; Isaiah 37:20; 43:10; 44:6; 45:21.