As Wise as Solomon: The Powerful King Who Magically Ruled Israel
King Solomon was the fourth (or third) ruler of the United Kingdom of Israel. He is remembered primarily for his wisdom (hence the English idiom ‘as wise as Solomon’), though he was also a wealthy and powerful king. Solomon is highly revered in the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), the Quran, and the Hadiths. In addition, various legends grew around the figure of Solomon in later times, which further elevated his already larger-than-life character.
Yet, the story of Solomon ends as a tragedy, as his kingdom fragments into two after his death – the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. This has been regarded to be God’s punishment for the king’s descent into sin, and therefore the story of Solomon may be read as a morality tale as well.
The majority of what we know about King Solomon’s life and reign is found in the Hebrew Bible, in particular, the first 11 chapters of the First Book of Kings, and the first nine chapters of the Second Book of Chronicles. In the Hebrew Bible, we are told that Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba. Solomon’s mother had been the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s generals.
According to the Hebrew Bible, Uriah was on a mission abroad, when David, from a rooftop, saw Bathsheba bathing. Consumed by lust, David had Bathsheba brought to him and got her pregnant. Having learned that Bathsheba was Uriah’s wife, David desired to hide his misdeed and resolved to have his general killed. He did so by deliberately placing Uriah on the front lines and had his comrades desert him in the thick of battle.
David seducing Bathsheba. (FA2010 / Public Domain)
Once Uriah was killed by the enemy, David married Bathsheba. The death of the couple’s first child is regarded to have been God’s punishment for David’s sins. The king later repented and Solomon was born.
Solomon Takes the Throne
Although Solomon was not David’s eldest son, and therefore not the natural heir apparent, he succeeded his father as king. As David approached death, his court was divided regarding the issue of succession, and the two main contenders to the throne were Solomon and his older half-brother, Adonijah, David’s heir apparent. Adonijah had powerful supporters, the two main ones being the army commander, Joab, and the High Priest, Abiathar.
As David was on his deathbed, Adonijah announced his claim to the throne. One of Solomon’s supporters was the prophet Nathan, who warned Bathsheba about Adonijah’s actions. Bathsheba and Nathan conspired to have David proclaim Solomon king. Their plan worked and when Adonijah’s supporters heard of the news, they fled at once.
Adonijah himself sought refuge in the tent housing the Ark of the Covenant and was pardoned by his brother. Later on, however, Adonijah was put to death. Solomon ruthlessly purged his opponents and put his supporters in positions of power, thereby consolidating his own position.
Once Solomon had secured his throne, he was able to turn his attention to matters outside his kingdom. One of the first things he did was to form an alliance with Egypt and sealed it by making the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh as his primary wife. In addition to diplomacy, Solomon could rely on the kingdom’s military might.
Solomon is anointed as king. (2A02A03F / Public Domain)
He is recorded to have owned over 40,000 stalls for horses and chariots, as well as 12,000 mounted cavalry. Thus, military operations were carried out in Syria, so as to gain control of the overland trading route. Instead of merely occupying the area with a military force, Solomon pursued a policy of colonization and established civilian colonies in the conquered area.
In the Hebrew Bible, Solomon is described as a powerful king ruling over a vast kingdom, “and Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt”. In addition, he is said to have received a tribute of 666 talents (about 18,000 kilograms) of gold in a single year. Furthermore, the kingdom prospered as a result of trade.
The great wealth amassed by Solomon, along with the relative peace of his reign, allowed the king to carry out monumental building projects in Jerusalem. Solomon built a magnificent palace for himself and expanded the city’s walls.
King Solomon’s Temple
Solomon’s most ambitious building project, however, was the Temple, known also as Solomon’s Temple or the First Temple. This monument not only served as the permanent home for God and the Ark of the Covenant but was also the symbol of unity for the Jewish people. This Temple was later destroyed when Jerusalem was conquered in 587 BC by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II.
The construction of the Temple took seven years to complete and the resources required for the project reflects once again Solomon’s power as a monarch. Building material for the Temple (as well as Solomon’s other construction projects) were contributed by Hiram I, the Phoenician king of Tyre. In return, Solomon sent large allotments of food to the city each year.
Solomon and the plan for the First Temple. (Dauster / Public Domain)
As for manpower, Solomon conscripted slaves from non-Israelite tribes, including the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. When the Temple was completed and the Ark of the Covenant placed within the Holy of Holies, Solomon celebrated by offering a sacrifice of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep. After that, there was a feast lasting 14 days.
Considering the Temple was an architectural marvel, it is no wonder that some of the later legends about Solomon revolve around it, one of which being the king’s use of demons for its construction. The story of how Solomon gained the power to control demons can be found in a pseudepigraphic work known as the Testament of Solomon.
King Solomon and Demon Legends
In this work, which is falsely attributed to Solomon himself, the king’s chief overseer is said to have been plagued by a demon, who stole half his wages and food, and drained his life by sucking the thumb of his right hand. Not knowing what to do, Solomon prayed to God for help, and was given a magical ring by the archangel Michael. This ring had the seal of God (in the shape of a pentagram) and gave Solomon the power to control demons.
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Solomon’s magical ring had the Seal of Solomon on it, which is often considered to be the Star of David. (Pitoutom / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Once Solomon used the ring to subdue the demon harassing his chief overseer, the king had him bring Beelzebub, the chief of the demons, before him. Using his ring, Solomon controlled Beelzebub and commanded him to bring another demon. This went on, until a large number of demons were assembled before Solomon.
The king proceeded to interrogate the demons one by one and learned from each of them their name, place of abode (especially the star it is associated with), its origin, i.e. which angel they were originally, their malefic functions, which angels had power over them, and, in certain cases, the word which could drive them away. Needless to say, the Testament of Solomon is a book on demonology, a genre quite popular during the 1st millennium AD.
There are many other stories about Solomon’s dealings with demons. As already mentioned, in the legends, Solomon is claimed to have used demons to construct the Temple. The huge stones are said to have rose and settled in their respective places on their own, a sign that they were being moved by the demons under Solomon’s control.
Another legend speaks of the shamir, an object / creature that had the power to alter stone, iron, and even diamond. As metal was considered to be an item of war, metal tools were prohibited in the construction of the Temple. Therefore, Solomon desired to obtain the shamir.
According to one version of the story, it was the demon Ashmedai (Asmodeus) who revealed the shamir’s location to Solomon. In another, it was Solomon’s eagle who brought it from paradise. In a third, the shamir was entrusted by the prince of the sea to a mountain cock, who was sworn to guard it.
When Solomon’s men found the cock’s nest, they covered it with glass. The bird used the shamir to break the glass and Solomon’s men scared the bird, causing it to drop the shamir and allowing them to capture it. The shamir is often described as a worm, although in some versions, it is said to be an object, perhaps with radioactive properties.
In another legend, Solomon asked the Ashmedai what could make demons powerful over men. The demon requests Solomon’s ring in order to demonstrate, which the king assents to. Once Ashmedai got his hands on the ring, however, he threw it into the sea where it was swallowed by a fish.
The demon then swallowed Solomon and spat him out across a great distance. As a result, Solomon was reduced to a pauper far away from his own kingdom and was forced to wander from city to city. Eventually, Solomon arrived in an Ammonite city and found work in the king’s kitchens. One day, Solomon prepared a meal for the king, who found it so delicious that he had Solomon replace the previous cook.
In time, the king’s daughter, Na’amah, fell in love with Solomon. The king, however, disapproved of this, as he thought that Solomon was a commoner and therefore had the couple banished. The pair wandered until they arrived in a coastal city, where they bought a fish to eat. As Solomon prepared the meal, he found his magic ring in the fish’s belly, thereby regaining his throne.
The Wisdom of King Solomon
Returning to the Biblical sources, Solomon is described as a wise king. In the First Book of Kings, God appears to Solomon in a dream, offering the king whatever he wanted. Solomon asks for wisdom, which pleased God so much that he not only granted this wish, but also gave him wealth, power, and prosperity. The story that follows is arguably the best-known story about Solomon’s wisdom.
In this Biblical tale, two women came before Solomon with their babies, one alive and the other dead. Each woman claimed to be the mother of the living child. Solomon ordered the child to be brought before him and commanded his guard to cut the child in two, so that each woman could have an equal piece.
One of the women renounced her claim as mother of the child, so as to save the child. By this means, Solomon concluded that this woman was the real mother.
Solomon’s wisdom spread far and wide and drew many visitors to his court. One of the most famous of these was the Queen of Sheba, who ruled a kingdom in what is today Ethiopia and Yemen. In the Biblical account, the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon in Jerusalem and brought with her gifts of gold and spices. In return, Solomon offered the queen all that she desired.
According to Ethiopian tradition, the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon’s court resulted in a child, the future Menilek I, the founder of Ethiopia’s Solomonic dynasty. This dynasty ruled over Ethiopia until its last emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed in 1974.
The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. (Rsberzerker / Public Domain)
King Solomon’s Downfall
As Solomon’s reign progressed, however, the king began to drift away from God. In Solomon’s 20th year as king, God appeared to the king in a dream once more. Again, God promised the king wisdom, wealth, and power.
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God promises Solomon wisdom in a dream. (Jonund / Public Domain)
At the same time, Solomon was issued a warning. If he or his descendants should turn away from God, and worshipped other gods, they would be cut away from the land of Israel and the Temple rejected by God. For all his wisdom, Solomon seems to have failed to heed God’s warning.
Solomon is recorded to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines, many of whom were non-Israelites. These women brought their gods with them and Solomon is said to have been led astray by them. Solomon began to commit idolatry and worshipped these foreign deities.
An alternate view is that Solomon’s marriages were aimed at forming alliances with neighboring non-Israelite tribes, and by worshipping these foreign gods, Solomon was improving his relationship with his allies. In any case, this greatly displeased God and chaos ensued in Israel.
After Solomon’s death, the United Kingdom of Israel was divided into two. The northern kingdom, known as the Kingdom of Israel, was established by Jeroboam, one of Solomon’s officials who rebelled, while the southern one, the Kingdom of Judah, was ruled by Rehoboam, Solomon’s son.
After Solomon’s death the United Kingdom of Israel split apart into the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah. (Malus Catulus / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Solomon ruled for a total of 40 years and the Hebrew Bible states that he died of natural causes. An interesting account of Solomon’s death is found in the Quran. According to this source, Solomon died before the Temple was completed. As the king was leaning on his staff when he died, the demons (or in this case, the djinns) who were working for him did not know of his death, and therefore continued to build the temple.
At the same time, a worm was eating its way through the staff. A year later, the staff was hollowed out, causing Solomon’s body to collapse and his death known to all. By that time, the Temple was completed.
Top image: King Solomon is most famous for his wisdom in the story of The Judgment of Solomon. Source: Dcastor / CC BY-SA 3.0.
By Wu Mingren
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