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THE GREAT GAIN OF GODLINESS
‘And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all the days of Solomon. 26. And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen. 27. And those officers provided victual for king Solomon, and for all that came unto king Solomon’s table, every man in his month: they lacked nothing. 28. Barley also and straw for the horses and dromedaries brought they unto the place where the officers were, every man according to his charge. 29. And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore. 30. And Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was in all nations round about. 32. And he spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five. 33. And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl and of creeping things, and of fishes. 34. And there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom.’—1 KINGS iv. 25-34.
The glories of Solomon’s reign kindle the writer of this Book of Kings to patriotic enthusiasm, all the more touching if, as is probable, he wrote during Israel’s exile. The fair vision of the past would make the sad present still sadder. But it is not patriotism only which guides his pen; he recognises that Solomon’s glory was the result of Solomon’s religion, and by portraying it he would teach the eternal truth that godliness hath ‘promise of the life that now is’ as well as ‘of that which is to come.’ The passage brings out three characteristics of Solomon’s reign and character: the peace enjoyed by Israel during his time, his wealth, and his wisdom.
I. That beautiful phrase for a time of secure enjoyment of modest, material good in a simple state of agricultural society, ‘dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree’ occurs frequently in the Old Testament, and breathes the very essence of a calm life of rural felicity and restful enjoyment of wholesome joys. How different from the feverish ideal predominant in our great cities to-day! Which is the nobler and the more likely to yield abiding content and to be the ally of high and serious thought—this antique picture of leisurely, unambitious lives, or the scramble for wealth which destroys repose, and is so busy getting that it has no time either rightly to enjoy, or nobly to expend, its wealth? Those who have their country’s truest prosperity at heart may well sigh for the return of the vanished ideal of Solomon’s days; and those who would make the most of themselves must in some measure seek to conform their own lives to it.
But another view may be taken of this picture of national prosperity. Remember the time at which it was painted,—a time when the prosperity of a nation was thought to consist in conquest, and when the arts of peace were despised. How far beyond his era was the king who set his highest glory in securing for his people tranquil lives on their fertile homesteads, and condemned the vulgar glory of the conqueror! How far beyond his era was the writer who felt that the fairest page in his book was not that which told of battles and triumphs, but that which portrayed a peaceful reign, when swords were turned into ploughshares! The world has not yet learned that the highest function of government is to promote individual prosperity. The vulgar, wicked notion of ‘glory’ bewitches the nations still. A Europe, armed to the teeth and staggering under the weight of its weapons, has need to go to school to this old Hebrew ideal. ‘They didn’t know everything down in Judee,’ but they knew that peace has nobler victories than war has. The people who see nothing in the world’s history but natural evolution have a hard nut to crack in accounting for the singular fact that the Jew somehow or other had got hold of a truth to which the most advanced nations to-day have scarcely grown up.
II. The wealth of Solomon is illustrated by his large equipment of chariots and horsemen. The older habits of the nation had not favoured the use of either, and their employment by Solomon was a sign of growing luxury, which had the seeds of evil in it. But the novelty was characteristic of the change coming over Israel in his day, and of its closer intercourse with other nations. The number of forty thousand for the stalls of the horses is an evident clerical error, which is corrected in the parallel passage in 2 Chronicles ix. 25 to the more probable number of four thousand. A well-organised staff looked after provisioning the cavalry and chariot horses wherever they were quartered. This one instance of Solomon’s resources should be connected with the other details of these. The intention of all is, not only to magnify his wealth, but to bring out the fulfilment of the promise made to him as part of the reward of his prayer for wisdom, that he should have the inferior good which he had not asked, ‘both riches and honour.’
The principle which the writer of this book would confirm and exemplify is, that to the man who seeks first the kingdom of God and His righteousness all these things shall be added. Now the whole order of supernatural providences in the Old Testament was directed to making material prosperity depend on obedience to God. And we cannot assert that the New Testament order has the same purpose in view. ‘Prosperity was the blessing of the Old Testament; adversity is the blessing of the New.’ But even in Old Testament times outward prosperity did not always follow godliness, and the problem which has tortured all generations had already been raised, as the Book of Job and Psalm lxxiii show.
Undoubtedly, religion does contribute to prosperity. The natural tendency of the course of life which Christianity enjoins is to lead to moderate, modest success in a worldly point of view. Not many millionaires owe their millions to the practice of Christian virtues, but many a man owes his elevation from poverty to modest competence to the character and habits which his religion has stamped on him. People who get converted in the slums soon get out of the slums.
But, whether Christianity helps a man to worldly success or not, it helps him to get all the good out of the world that the world can give. It may, or may not, give dainties, but it will make brown bread sweet. It may, or may not, give wealth, but it will make the ‘little that a righteous man hath better than the riches of many wicked.’ They who know no higher good than earth can yield know not the highest good of earth; they who put worldly prosperity and treasure second find them far more precious and sweet than when they ranked them as first.
III. But the crown of Solomon’s gifts was his wisdom. And his elevation of intellectual and moral endowments above material good is as remarkable as his similar elevation of peace above warlike fame, and suggests the same questions as to the source of ideas so far ahead of what was then the world’s point of view. Observe that Solomon’s ‘wisdom’ in all its departments is traced to God its giver. Observe, too, that expression ‘largeness of heart,’ by which is meant, not width of quick sympathy or generosity, but what we should call comprehensive intellect. The ‘heart’ is the centre of the personal being, from which thoughts as well as affections flow, and the phrase here points to thoughts rather than to affections.
Solomon, then, was a many-sided student, and his ‘genius’ showed itself in very various forms. He lived before the days of specialists. The region of knowledge was so limited that a man could be master in many departments. Nowadays the mass has become so unmanageable that, to know one subject thoroughly, we have to be ignorant of many, like the scholar who had given his life to the study of the Greek noun, and, dying, lamented that he had not confined himself to the dative case! Practical wisdom, which had its field In doing justice between his subjects; shrewd observation of life, with wit to discern resemblances and to put wisdom into homely, short sayings; poetic sensibility and the gift of melodious speech; and, added to these manifold endowments, interest in, and rudimentary knowledge of, natural history and botany, make the points specified as Solomon’s wisdom.
‘A man so various that he seemed to be
Not one, but all mankind’s epitome,’—
the first and greatest of the few students or philosophers who have sat on thrones.
But the main thing to notice is that in Solomon we see exemplified the normal relation between religion and intellectual power and learning. Judge, artist, scientist, and all other thinkers and students, draw their power from God, and should use it for Him. And, on the other hand, Solomon’s example is a rebuke to those narrow-minded Christians who look askance at men of learning, letters, or science, as well as to those still more narrow-minded men of intellectual ability who think that science and religion must be sworn foes. If our religion is what it should be, it will widen our understanding all round.
‘Let knowledge grow from more to more, But more of reverence in us dwell.’
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