Four hundred eighty years after the Exodus from Egypt – in the ninth century before the Common Era – the Jewish Commonwealth reached its zenith. Economically, imperially (including the land it controlled directly and the alliances it had), militarily and intellectually it was the center of civilization. The entire world beat a path to Jerusalem.
And it happened under the reign of Solomon, son of King David.
The problem with reaching the zenith is that the only way to go is down. At the beginning of Solomon’s life, the dreams and promises of the Bible had been fulfilled, including the building of the Temple. By its end, the prediction that the Jewish people would not be able to handle success was fulfilled: “Jeshurun [the Jewish people] waxed fat, and started to kick” (Deuteronomy 32:15). Success is a heady wine. Even an individual as great as Solomon, and a people as great as the Jewish people, were unable to sustain their success.
Complex and Contradictory
Solomon was an immensely complex and layered personality. For that reason, both the Biblical Record as well as the Oral Tradition exhibit ambivalence toward him unlike that toward anyone else. Solomon is both heroic and anti-heroic. He represents grandeur, nobility, wisdom and piety at the same time he represents base desires, pettiness and self-destructive tendencies.
Solomon was twelve when he succeeded to the throne. He reigned forty years and died at the age of 52. The first four years were the best years of his reign. That was when he asked for the gift of wisdom that God bestowed upon him (I Kings 3:5, 9).
“My son, if your heart is wise, My heart too shall rejoice” (Proverbs 23:15). “I also rejoice in your wisdom,” God said of Solomon.
His wisdom was not merely intellectual. He intuitively understood things and could smell the charlatan, as in the famous case of two women claiming to be the mother of the same child (I Kings 3:16-28).
Tradition teaches that the “wise men of Athens,” the Greeks, were indirect disciples of Solomon. He taught them mathematics, engineering, philosophy and other abstract, theoretical, esoteric subjects that the Greeks later became famous for.
Solomon had a profound influence upon everyone that came to meet him. Monarchs arrived from all over the world to seek his advice and test his wisdom. The Queen of Sheba was one of them. She traveled from far away to ask him to solve three riddles, which he promptly did (I Kings 10:1-3). Even as a teen, Solomon was recognized as the world’s preeminent man of ideas and thoughts.
The problem with such greatness is that it causes one to believe in oneself.
Downfall & the Daughter of Pharaoh
The beginning of his demise came after four years as king when he married the daughter of the Pharaoh (I Kings 3:1). It was a politically expedient move, as many of the marriages in the ancient world were, but it was spiritually a disaster despite the fact that she converted and was herself was a great person (Shabbos 56b).
Tradition many times describes how things were “before the daughter of Pharaoh” and “after the daughter of Pharaoh.” Before the marriage, his wisdom was all good. Afterward, it undid him. “Do not be too wise,” he wrote in reference to himself (Ecclesiastes 7:16).
One of the effects of having too much knowledge was that he saw himself above the law. The Torah says that a king should not accumulate too much money for himself (Deuteronomy 17:17). Solomon accumulated it anyway (Ecclesiastes 2:8). The Bible said that a king should not have too many wives (Deuteronomy 17:17). Solomon took a thousand wives.
The Bible also said that the king should not have too many horses (Deuteronomy 17:16), which was another way of saying not to have too big of an army. Military expenditures tend to take on a life of their own and become self-perpetuating. The same verse concludes, “And do not lead to people back to Egypt” (Deuteronomy 17:17). Even after its decline, Egypt retained its natural wealth and thus served as the symbol of overindulgence in materialism. God wanted to keep the Jewish people far from the allures of Egypt. Among its allures, Egypt was the horse-breeding capital of the ancient world. Any investment in a military would perforce lead to nation back to Egypt in the sense of trade and compromises, if not physically as well.
“No, not me,” Solomon said. I can deal with Egypt.
He could not deal with Egypt. He ended up having to marry the daughter of the king of Egypt and accepting all the compromises and alliances that went along with it.
Because Solomon acted as if he was greater than the law the law eventually caught up to him.
Song of Songs, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes
After all is weighed in the balance, although Solomon had faults he is counted among the greats of the Jewish people. At least part of that can be attributed to the three remarkable books he left to posterity: Song of Songs, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. The Temple he built was destroyed, the empire he built was destroyed, his palace was destroyed, the wealth he accumulated was plundered – but his books live on forever.
Song of Songs is one of the most magnificent pieces of human poetry ever put to paper. Although on the surface it is a love duet between a man and woman, in the deeper sense it is an allegory of the love between God and the Jewish people. The only way that relationship can even reach a metaphorical state is to represent it in the love between a man and a woman. The great Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva said — and the rest of the Talmudic sages agreed — that if all of the Torah is holy, then Song of Songs is the “holy of holies.” It is the ultimate expression of longing for the Divine. The gift of Song of Songs alone assured Solomon immortality.
The second book he wrote was Proverbs. It is a combination of philosophy, wisdom, social science and good common sense.
Solomon’s third book was Ecclesiastes. It is his most problematic. It is so difficult that the Talmud reports how there were sages who wanted to exclude it from the biblical canon. On the surface, the book has many contradictions. If one takes verses out of context it sounds like he says things that are heretical. The book has to be taken as a whole or it is easily misunderstood.
It can be said that Ecclesiastes is the first book of Jewish philosophy. It takes all the other philosophies present at the time – e.g. Hedonism, Fatalism and even what later on would be called Epicureanism – and draws them out to their ultimate illogical conclusion. Even the best philosophy is good only up to a point. Philosophy is like a blanket that is too small. A person tries to cover himself and moves it to one part of his body. But then he exposes a different part. He moves it to cover that part but exposes something else. No matter what he does the blanket is always too small to cover everything. Something is always sticking out. That is philosophy. Even the best ones.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes Solomon plays the devil’s advocate, so to speak, for every philosophical theory. He describes it and sometimes may even seem to indulge in it. Nevertheless, then he points out its weakness, its fatal flaw, and concludes that it is vain and empty.
The last line reads: “The end of the matter, after all has been heard, fear God, and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). After we have considered everything, Solomon concludes, we are left with faith. There no philosophy that answers everything. A person has to have faith. We are not privy to all of God’s ways or answers.
At the end of Solomon’s life the Jewish empire began to split. He lost control and his wives took over. According to Jewish Tradition he was driven from the throne and replaced by a pretender for years while he wandered in exile.
His end was not heroic. In that regard, his life story served as the forerunner of the impending doom awaiting the Jewish Commonwealth. The Jewish people never again attained the stature – either spiritually or materialistically – that they attained at the beginning of Solomon’s reign. Instead of becoming strong and united the Jewish kingdom became weak and divided — until its ultimate destruction.
That was Solomon. He frittered away virtually all of his earthly gains. Yet, even as his body “returned to the dust it was… his spirit returned to God” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). His memory is a blessing through the efficacy of his legendary wisdom, his brilliant writings and the legacy of his great accomplishments.
 The Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b) says that one of the distinguishes traits of the Messiah is that he will be able to “smell” right from wrong, i.e. he will not be deceived by things others are deceived by: “Rava said: He [the Messiah] smells and judges, as it is written, ‘And he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears, but with righteousness shall he judge the poor (Isaiah 11:3-4).’”