Solomon : Glory of The Monarchy – Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets by John Lord
Abraham : Religious Faith
Joseph : Israel in Egypt
Moses : Jewish Jurisprudence
Samuel : Israel Under Judges
David : Israelitish Conquests
Solomon : Glory of The Monarchy
Elijah : Division of The Kingdom
Isaiah : National Degeneracy
Jeremiah : Fall of Jerusalem
Judas Maccabaeus : Restoration of The Jewish Commonwealth
Saint Paul : The Spread of Christianity
Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets
Early years of Solomon
His first acts as monarch
The prosperity of his kingdom
Glory of Solomon
His marriage with an Egyptian princess
Building of the Temple
The treasures accumulated in it
The sacrifices in its honor
Extraordinary celebration of the Festivals
The royal palace in Jerusalem
The royal palace on Mount Lebanon
Excessive taxation of the people
Change of habits and pursuits
Solomon’s effeminacy and luxury
His latter days of shame
Influence of his reign
Their great value
Praises of wisdom and knowledge
Ecclesiastes contrasted with Proverbs
Cynicism of Ecclesiastes
Hidden meaning of the book
The writing of Solomon rich in moral wisdom
His wisdom confirmed by experience
Lessons to be learned by the career of Solomon
Solomon : Glory of The Monarchy
ABOUT 993-953 B.C.
We associate with Solomon the culmination of the Jewish monarchy, and a reign of unexampled prosperity and glory. He not only surpassed all his predecessors and successors in those things which strike the imagination as brilliant and imposing, but he had such extraordinary intellectual gifts that he has passed into history as the wisest of ancient kings, and one of the most favored of mortals.
Amid the evils which saddened the latter days of his father David, this remarkable man grew up. His interests were protected by his mother Bathsheba, an intriguing, ambitious, and beautiful woman, and his education was directed by the prophet Nathan. He was ten years of age when his elder brother Absalom rebelled, and a youth of fifteen to twenty when he was placed upon the throne, during the lifetime of his father and with his sanction, aided by the cabals of his mother, the connivance of the high-priest Zadok, the spiritual authority of Nathan, and the political ascendency of Benaiah, the most valiant of the captains of Israel after Joab. He became king in a great national crisis, when unfilial rebellion had undermined the throne of David, and Adonijah, next in age to Absalom, had sought to steal the royal sceptre, supported by the veteran Joab and Abiathar, the elder high-priest.
Solomon’s first acts as monarch were to remove the great enemies of his father and the various heads of faction, not sparing even Joab, the most successful general that ever brought lustre on the Jewish arms. With Abiathar, who died in exile, expired the last glory of the house of Eli; and with Shimei, who was slain with Adonijah, passed away the last representative of the royal family of Saul. Soon after Solomon repaired to the heights of Gibeon, six miles from Jerusalem,–a lofty eminence which overlooks Judaea, and where stood the Tabernacle of the Congregation, the original Tent of the Wanderings, in front of which was the brazen altar on which the young king, as a royal holocaust, offered the sacrifice of one thousand victims. It was on the night of that sacrificial offering that, in a dream, a divine voice offered to the youthful king whatsoever his heart should crave. He prayed for wisdom, which was granted,–the first evidence of which was his celebrated judgment between the two women who claimed the living child, which made a powerful impression on the whole nation, and doubtless strengthened his throne.
The kingdom which Solomon inherited was probably at that time the most powerful in western Asia, the fruit of the conquests of Saul and David, of Abner and Joab. It was bounded by Lebanon on the north, the Euphrates on the east, Egypt on the south, and the Mediterranean on the west. Its territorial extent was small compared with the Assyrian or Persian empire; but it had already defeated the surrounding nations,–the Philistines, the Edomites, the Syrians, and the Ammonites. It hemmed in Phoenicia on the sea-coast, and controlled the great trade-routes to the East, which made it politic for the King of Tyre to cultivate the friendship of both David and Solomon. If Palestine was small in extent, it was then exceedingly fertile, and sustained a large population. Its hills were crested with fortresses, and covered with cedars and oaks. The land was favorable to both tillage and pasture, abounding in grapes, figs, olives, dates, and every species of grain; the numerous springs and streams favored a perfect system of irrigation, so that the country presented a picture in striking contrast to its present blasted and dreary desolation. The nation was also enriched by commerce as well as by agriculture. Caravans brought from Eastern cities the most valuable of their manufactures. From Tarshish in Spain ships brought gold and silver; Egypt sent chariots and fine linen; Syria sold her purple cloths and robes of varied colors; Arabia furnished horses and costly trappings. All the luxuries and riches which Tyre had collected in her warehouses found their way to Jerusalem. Even silver was as plenty as the stones in the streets. Long voyages to the mouth of the Indus resulted in a vast accumulation of treasure,–gold, ivory, spices, gums, perfumes, and precious stones. The nations and tribes subject to Solomon from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates, and from Syria to the Red Sea, paid a fixed tribute, while their kings and princes sent rich presents,–vessels of gold and silver, costly arms and armor, rich garments and robes, horses and mules, perfumes and spices.
But the prosperity of the realm was not altogether inherited; it was firmly and prudently promoted by the young king. Solomon made alliances with Egypt and Syria, as well as with Phoenicia, and peace and plenty enriched all classes, so that every man sat under his own vine and fig-tree in perfect security. Never was such prosperity seen in Israel before or since. Strong fortresses were built on Lebanon to protect the caravans, and Tadmor in the wilderness to the east became a great centre of trade, and ultimately a splendid city under Zenobia. The royal stables contained forty thousand horses and fourteen hundred chariots. The royal palace glistened with plates of gold, and the parks and gardens were watered from immense reservoirs. “When the youthful monarch repaired to these gardens in his gorgeous chariot, he was attended,” says Stanley, “by nobles whose robes of purple floated in the wind, and whose long black hair, powdered with gold dust, glistened in the sun, while he himself, clothed in white, blazing with jewels, scented with perfumes, wearing both crown and sceptre, presented a scene of gladness and glory. When he travelled, he was borne on a splendid litter of precious woods, inlaid with gold and hung with purple curtains, preceded by mounted guards, with princes for his companions, and women for his idolaters, so that all Israel rejoiced in him.”
We infer that Solomon reigned for several years in justice and equity, without striking faults,–a wise and benevolent prince, who feared God and sought from him wisdom, which was bestowed in such a remarkable degree that princes came from remote countries to see him, including the famous Queen of Sheba, who was both dazzled and enchanted.
Yet while he was, on the whole, loyal to the God of his fathers, and was the pride and admiration of his subjects, especially for his wisdom and knowledge, Solomon was not exempted from grave mistakes. He was scarcely seated on his throne before he married an Egyptian princess, doubtless with the view of strengthening his political power. But while this splendid alliance brought wealth and influence, and secured chariots and horses, it violated one of the settled principles of the Jewish commonwealth, and prevented that isolation which was so necessary to keep uncorrupted the manners and habits of the people. The alliance doubtless favored commerce, and in one sense enlarged the minds of his subjects, removing from them many prejudices; but the nation was not intended by the divine founder to be politically or commercially great, but rather to preserve the worship of Jehovah. Moreover, the daughter of Pharaoh was an idolater, and her influence, so far as it went, tended to wean the king from his religious duties,–at least to make him tolerant of false gods.
The enlargement of the king’s harem was another mistake, for although polygamy was not condemned, and was practised even by David, it made Solomon prominent among Eastern monarchs for an absurd ostentation, allied with enervating effeminacy, and thus gradually undermined the healthy tone of his character. It may have prepared the way for the apostasy of his later years, and certainly led to a great increase of the royal expenses. The support of seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines must have been a scandal and a burden for which the nation was not prepared. The pomp in which he lived presupposes a change in the government itself, even to an absolute monarchy and a grinding despotism, fatal to the liberties which the Israelites had enjoyed under Saul and David. The predictions and warnings of Samuel were realized for the first time in the reign of Solomon, so that wealth, prosperity, and luxury were but a poor exchange for that ancient religious ardor and intense patriotism which had led the Hebrew nation to victory over surrounding idolatrous nations. The heroic ages of Jewish history passed away when ships navigated by Phoenician sailors brought gold from Ophir and silver from Tarshish, and did not return until the Maccabees rallied the hunted and decimated tribes of Israel against the armies of the Syrian kings.
Solomon’s peaceful and prosperous reign of forty years was, however, favorable to one grand enterprise which David had longed to accomplish, but to whom it was denied. This was the building of the Temple, for so long a time identified with the glory of Jerusalem, and common interest in which might have bound the twelve tribes together but for the excessive taxation which the extravagance and ostentation of the monarch had rendered necessary.
We can form but an inadequate idea of the magnificence of this Temple from its description in the sacred annals. An edifice which taxed the mighty resources of Solomon and consumed the spoils of forty years’ successful warfare, must have been in that age without a parallel in splendor and beauty. If the figures are not exaggerated, it required the constant labors of ten thousand men in the mountains of Lebanon alone to cut down and hew the timber, and this for a period of eleven years. Of ordinary laborers there were seventy thousand; and of those who worked in the quarries and squared the stones there were eighty thousand more, besides overseers. It took three years to prepare the foundations. As Mount Moriah, on which the Temple was built, did not furnish level space enough, a wall of solid masonry was erected on the eastern and southern sides nearly three hundred feet in height, the stones of which, in some instances, were more than twenty feet long and six feet thick, so perfectly squared that no mortar was required. The buried foundations for the courts of the Temple and the vast treasure-houses still remain to attest the strength and solidity of the work, seemingly as indestructible as are the pyramids of Egypt, and only paralleled by the uncovered ruins of the palaces of the Caesars on the Palatine Hill at Rome, which fill all travellers with astonishment. Vast cisterns also had to be hewn in the rocks to supply water for the sacrifices, capable of holding ten millions of gallons. The Temple proper was small compared with the Egyptian temples, or with mediaeval cathedrals; but the courts which surrounded it were vast, enclosing a quadrangle larger than the area on which St. Peter’s Church at Rome is built. It was, however, the richness of the decorations and of the sacred vessels and the altars for sacrifice, which consumed immense quantities of gold, silver, and brass, that made the Temple especially remarkable. The treasures alone which David collected were so enormous that we think there must be errors in the calculation,–thirteen million pounds Troy of gold, and one hundred and twenty-seven million pounds of silver,–an amount not easy to estimate. But the plates of gold which overlaid the building, and the cherubim or symbolical winged figures, the precious woods, the rich hangings and curtains of crimson and purple, the brazen altars, the lamps, the sacred vessels of solid gold and silver, the elaborate carvings and castings, the rare gems,–these all together must have required a greater expenditure than is seen in the most famous temples of Greece or Asia Minor, whose value and beauty chiefly consisted in their exquisite proportions and their marble pillars and figures of men or animals. But no representation of man, no statue to the Deity, was seen in the Temple of Solomon; no idol or sacred animal profaned it. There was no symbol to indicate even the presence of Jehovah, whose dwelling-place was in the heavens, and whom the heaven of heavens could not contain. There were rites and sacrifices, but these were offered to an unseen divinity, whose presence was everywhere, and who alone reigned as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, forever and forever. The Temple, however, with its courts and porticos, its vast foundations of stones squared in distant quarries, and the immense treasures everywhere displayed, impressed both the senses and the imagination of a people never distinguished for art or science. And not only so, but Fergusson says: “The whole Mohammedan world look to it as the foundation of all architectural knowledge, and the Jews still recall its glories, and sigh over their loss with a constant tenacity unmatched by that of any other people to any other building of the ancient world.” Whether or not we are able to explain the architecture of the Temple, or are in error respecting its size, or the amount of gold and silver expended, or the number of men employed, we know that it was the pride and glory of that age, and was large enough, with its enclosures, to contain a representation of five millions of people, the heads of all the families and tribes of the nation, such as were collected together at its dedication.
As the great event of David’s reign was the removal of the Ark to Jerusalem, so the culminating glory of Solomon was the dedication of the Temple he had built to the worship of Jehovah. The ceremony equalled in brilliancy the glories of a Roman triumph, and infinitely surpassed them in popular enthusiasm. The whole population of the kingdom,–some four or five millions,–or their picked representatives, came to Jerusalem to witness or to take part in it. “And as the long array of dignitaries, with thousands of musicians clothed in white, and the monarch himself arrayed in pontifical robes, and the royal household in embroidered mantles, and the guards with their golden shields, and the priests bearing the sacred but tattered tabernacle, with the ark and the cherubim, and the altar of sacrifice, and the golden candlesticks and table of shew bread, and the brazen serpent of the wilderness and the venerated tables of stone on which were engraved by the hand of God himself the ten commandments,”–as this splendid procession swept along the road, strewed with flowers and fragrant with incense, how must the hearts of the people have been lifted up! Then the royal pontiff arose from the brazen scaffold on which he had seated himself, and amid clouds of incense and the smoke of burning sacrifice offered unto God the tribute of national praise, and implored His divine protection. And then, rising from his knees, with hands outstretched to heaven, he blessed the congregation, saying with a loud voice, “Let the Lord our God be with us as he was with our fathers, so that all the earth may know that Jehovah is God and that there is none else!”
Then followed the sacrifices for this grand occasion,–twenty thousand oxen and one hundred and twenty thousand sheep and goats were offered up on successive days. Only a portion of these animals was actually consumed on the altar by the officiating priests: the greater part furnished meat for the assembled multitude. The Festival of the Dedication lasted a week, and this was succeeded by the Feast of the Tabernacles; and from that time the Temple became the pride and glory of the nation. To see it periodically and worship in its courts became the intensest desire of every Hebrew. Three times a year some great festival was held, attended by a vast concourse of the people. The command was that every male Israelite should “appear before the Lord” and make his offering; but this of course had its necessary exceptions, as multitudes of women and children could not go, and had to be cared for at home. We cannot easily understand how on any other supposition they were all accommodated, spacious as were the various courts of the Temple; and we conclude that only a large representation of the tribes and families took place, for how could four or five millions of people assemble together at any festival?
Contemporaneous with the building of the Temple, or immediately after it was dedicated, were other gigantic works, including the royal palace, which it took thirteen years to complete, and upon which, as upon the Sacred House, Syrian artists and workmen were employed. The principal building was only one hundred and fifty feet long, seventy-five broad, and forty-five feet high, in three stories, with a grand porch supported on lofty pillars; but connected with the palace were other edifices to support the magnificence in which the king lived with his court and his harem. Around the tower of the House of David were hung the famous golden shields, one thousand in number, which had been made for the body-guard, with other glittering ornaments, which were likened by the poets to the neck of a bride decked with rays of golden coins. In the great Judgment Hall, built of cedar and squared stone, was the throne of the monarch, made of ivory, inlaid with gold. A special mansion was erected for Solomon’s Egyptian queen, of squared stones twelve to fifteen feet in length. Connected with these various palaces were extensive gardens constructed at great expense, filled with all the triumphs of horticultural art, and watered by streams from vast reservoirs. In these the luxurious king and court could wander among beds of spices and flowers and fruits. But these did not content the royal family. A summer palace was erected on the heights of Mount Lebanon, having gardens filled with everything which could delight the eye or captivate the senses. Here, surrounded with learned men, women, and courtiers, with bands of music, costly litters, horses and chariots, and every luxury which unbounded means could command, the magnificent monarch beguiled his leisure hours, abandoned equally to pleasure and study,–for his inquiring mind sought to master all the knowledge that was known, especially in the realm of natural history, since “he was wiser than all men, and spake of trees, from the cedar-tree that is on Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall.” We can get some idea of the expenses of his household, in the fact that it daily consumed sixty measures of flour and meal and thirty oxen and one hundred sheep, besides venison, game, and fatted fowls. The king never appeared in public except with crown and sceptre, in royal robes redolent of the richest perfumes of India and Arabia, and sparkling with gold and gems. He lived in a constant blaze of splendor, whether travelling in his gorgeous litter, surrounded with his guards, or seated on his throne to dispense justice and equity, or feasting with his nobles to the sound of joyous music.
To keep up this regal splendor, to support seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines on the fattest of the land, and deck them all in robes of purple and gold; to build magnificent palaces, to dig canals, and construct gigantic reservoirs for parks and gardens; to maintain a large standing army in time of peace; to erect strong fortresses wherever caravans were in danger of pillage; to found cities in the wilderness; to level mountains and fill up valleys,–to accomplish all this even the resources of Solomon were insufficient. What were six hundred and sixty-six talents of gold, yearly received (thirty-five million dollars), besides the taxes on all merchants and travellers, and the vast gifts which flowed from kings and princes, when that constant drain on the royal treasury is considered! Even a Louis XIV. was impoverished by his court and palace building, though he controlled the fortunes of twenty-five millions of people. King Solomon, in all his glory, became embarrassed, and was obliged to make forced contributions,–to levy a heavy tribute on his own subjects from Dan to Beersheba, and make bondmen of all the people that were left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizites, Hivites, and Jebusites. The people were virtually enslaved to aggrandize a single person. The burdens laid on all classes and the excessive taxation at last alienated the nation. “The division of the whole country into twelve revenue districts was a serious grievance,–especially as the high official over each could make large profits from the excess of contributions demanded.” A poll-tax, from which the nation in the olden times was freed, was levied on Israelite and Canaanite alike. The virtual slave-labor by which the great public improvements were made, sapped the loyalty of the people and produced discontent. This forced labor was as fatal as war to the real property of the nation, for wealth is ever based on private industry, on farms and vineyards, rather than on the palaces of kings. Moreover, the friendly relations which Solomon established with the neighboring heathen nations disgusted the old religious leaders, while the tendency to Oriental luxury which outward prosperity favored alarmed the more thoughtful. It was not a pleasant sight for the princes of Israel to see the whole land overrun with Phoenicians, Arabs, Babylonians, Egyptians, caravan drivers, strangers and travellers, camels and dromedaries from Midian and Sheba, traders to the fairs, pedlers with their foreign cloths and trinkets, all spreading immorality and heresy, and filling the cities with strange customs and degrading dances.
Nor was there, in that absolute monarchy which Solomon centralized around his throne, any remedy for all this, save assassination or revolution. The king had become debauched and effeminate. The love of pomp and extravagance was followed by worldliness, luxury, and folly. From agricultural pursuits the people had passed to commercial; the Israelites had become merchants and traders, and the foul idolatries of Phoenicians and Syrians had overspread the land. The king having lost the respect and affection of the nation, the rebellion of Jeroboam was a logical sequence.
I have not read of any king who so belied the promises of his early days, and on whom prosperity produced so fatal an apostasy as Solomon. With all his wisdom and early piety, he became an egotist, a sensualist, and a tyrant. What vanity he displayed before the Queen of Sheba! What a slave he became to wicked women! How disgraceful was his toleration of the gods of Phoenicia and Egypt! How hard was the bondage to which he subjected his subjects! How different was his ordinary life from that of his illustrious father, with no repentance, no remorse, no self-abasement! He was a Nebuchadnezzar and a Sardanapalus combined, going from bad to worse. And he was not only a sensualist and a tyrant, an egotist, and to some extent an idolater, but he was a cynic, sceptical of all good, and of the very attainments which had made him famous. We read of no illustrious name whose glory passed through so dark an eclipse. The satiated, disenchanted, disappointed monarch, prematurely old, and worn out by self-indulgence, passed away without honor or regret, at the age of sixty, and was buried in the City of David; and Rehoboam, his son, reigned in his stead.
The Christian fathers and many subsequent theological writers have puzzled their brains with unsatisfactory speculations whether Solomon finally repented or not; but the Scriptures are silent on that point. We have no means of knowing at what period of his life his heart was weaned from the religion of David, or when he entered upon a life of pleasure. There are some passages in the Book of Ecclesiastes which lead us to suppose that before he died he came to himself, and was a preacher of righteousness. This is the more charitable and humane view to take; yet even so, his moral teachings and warnings are not imbued with the personal contrition that endeared David’s soul to God; they are unimpassioned, cold-hearted, intellectual, impersonal. Moreover, it may be that even in the midst of his follies he retained the perception of moral distinctions. His will was probably enslaved, so that he had not the power to restrain his passions, and his head may have become giddy in his high elevation. How few men could have resisted such powerful temptations as assailed Solomon on every side! The heart of the Christian world cannot but feel that so gifted a man, endowed with every intellectual attraction, who reigned for a time with so much wisdom, who recognized Jehovah as the guide and Lord of Israel, as especially appears at the dedication of the Temple, and who wrote such profound lessons of moral wisdom, would not be suffered to descend to the grave without the divine forgiveness. All that we know is that he was wise, and favored beyond all precedent, but that he adopted the habits and fell in with the vices of Oriental kings, and lost the affections of his people. He was exalted to the highest pinnacle of glory; he descended to an abyss of shame,–a sad example of the infirmity of human nature which all ages will lament.
In one sense Solomon left nothing to his nation but monuments of despotic power, and trophies of a material civilization which implied the decay of primitive virtues. He did not perpetuate his greatness; he did not even enlarge the boundaries of his kingdom. Like Louis XIV. he simply squandered a great inheritance. He did not leave his kingdom morally so strong as it was under David; it was even dismembered under his legitimate successor. The grand Temple indeed remained the pride of every Jew, but David had bequeathed the treasures to build it. The national resources had been wasted in palaces and in court festivities; and although these had contributed to a material civilization, especially the sums expended on fortresses, aqueducts, reservoirs, and roads for the caravans, this civilization, so highly and justly prized in our age, may–under the peculiar circumstances of the Jews, and the end for which, by the Mosaic dispensation, they were intended to be kept isolated–have weakened those simpler habits and sentiments which favored the establishment of their religion. It must never be lost sight of that the isolation of the Hebrew race, unfavorable to such developments of civilization as commerce and the arts, was providentially designed (as is evidenced by the fact of accomplishment in spite of all obstacles) to keep alive the worship of Jehovah until the fulness of time should come,–until the Messiah should appear to establish a new dispensation. The glory and grandeur of Solomon did not contribute to this end, but on the other hand favored idolatrous rites and corrupting foreign customs; and this is proved by the rapid decline of the Jews in religious life, patriotic ardor, and primitive virtues under the succeeding kings, both of Judah and Israel, which led ultimately to their captivity. Politically, Solomon may have added to the temporary power of the nation, but spiritually, and so fundamentally, he caused an eclipse of glory. And this is why his kingdom departed from his house, and he left a sullied name.
Nevertheless, in many important respects Solomon rendered great services to humanity, which redeemed his memory from shame and made him a truly immortal man, and even a great benefactor. He left writings which are still among the most treasured inheritances of his nation and of mankind. It is recorded that he spoke three thousand proverbs, and his songs were a thousand and five. Only a small portion of these have descended to us in the sacred writings, but they doubtless entered into the literature of the Jews. Enough remains, whenever they were compiled and collected, to establish his fame as one of the wisest and most gifted of mortals. And these writings, whatever may have been his backslidings, are pervaded with moral wisdom. Whether written in youth or in old age, on the summit of human glory or in the depths of despair, they are generally accepted as among the most precious gems of the Old Testament. His profound experience, conveyed to us in proverbs and songs, remains as a guide in life through all generations. The dignity of intellect shines triumphantly through all the obscuration of virtues. Thus do poets live even when buried in ignominious graves; thus do philosophers instruct the world even though, like Seneca, and possibly Bacon, their lives present a sad contrast to their precepts. Great thoughts emancipate the soul, from age to age, while he who uttered them may have been enslaved by vices. Who knows what the private life of Shakspeare and Goethe may have been, but who would part with the writings they have left us? How soon the personal peculiarities of Coleridge and Carlyle will be forgotten, yet how permanent and healthy their utterances! It is truth, rather than man, that lives and conquers and triumphs. Man is nothing, except as the instrument of almighty power.
Of the writings ascribed to Solomon, there are three books, each of which corresponds to the different periods of his life,–to his pious youth, to his prosperous manhood, and to his later years of cynicism and despair. They all alike blaze with moral truth, and appeal to universal experience. They present different features of human life, at different periods, and suggest sentiments which most people have realized at some time or another. And if in some cases they are apparently contradictory, like the Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, they are equally striking and convincing, and are not more inconsistent than the man himself. Who does not change, and yet remain individually the same? Is there not a change between youth and old age? Do not most great men utter sentiments hard to be reconciled with one another, yet with equal sincerity? Webster enforces free-trade at one time and a high tariff at another, as light or circumstances change. Gladstone was in youth and middle age a pillar of the aristocracy; later he was the oracle of the masses, yet a lofty realism underlay all his utterances. The writings of Solomon present life in different aspects, and yet they are alike true. They are not divine revelations, like the commandments given to Moses amid the lightnings of Sinai, or like the visions of the prophets respecting the future glories of the Church. They do not exalt the soul into inspiring ecstasies like the psalms of David, or kindle a holy awe like the lofty meditations of Job; but they are yet such impressive truths pertaining to human life that we invest them with more than human wisdom.
The Song of Songs, long ascribed to King Solomon, has been attended with some difficulty of explanation. It is a poem liable to be perverted by an unsanctified soul, since it is foreign to our modes of expression. For two hundred years it has been variously interpreted. It was the delight of Saint Bernard the ascetic, and a stumbling-block to Ewald the critic. To many German scholars, who have rendered great services by their learning and genius, it is only the expression of physical love, like the amatory songs of Greece. To others of more piety yet equal scholarship, like Origen, Grotius, and Bossuet, it is symbolic of the love which exists between Christ and the Church. It seems, at least, to be a contrast with the impure love of the heathen world. But whether it describes the ardent affection which Solomon bore to his young Egyptian bride; or the still more beautiful love of the innocent Shulamite maiden for her betrothed shepherd feeding his flock among the lilies, unseduced by all the influences of the royal court, and triumphant over the seductions of rank and power; or whether it is the rapt soul of the believer bursting out in holy transports of joy, like a Saint Theresa in the anticipated union with her divine Spouse,–it is still a noble tribute to what is most enchanting of the great certitudes on earth or in heaven; and it is expressed in language of exquisite and incomparable elegance. “Arise, my fair one, and come away! for the winter is past and gone, and the flowers appear upon the earth, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land. Make haste, my beloved! Be thou like a roe on the mountains of spices, for many waters cannot quench love, nor the floods drown it; yea, were a man to offer all that he hath for it, it would be utterly despised.” How tender, how innocent, how fervent, how beautiful, is this description of a lofty love, at rest in its happiness, in the society of the charmer, exultant in the certainty of that glorious sentiment which nothing can corrupt and nothing can destroy!
If this unique and beautiful Song was the work of Solomon in his early days of innocence and piety, the book of Proverbs seems to be the result of his profound observations when he was still uncorrupted by prosperity, ruling his kingdom with sagacity and amazing the world with his wisdom. How many of those acute sayings were uttered by Solomon we know not, but probably most of them are his, collected, it is supposed, during the reign of Hezekiah. They are written on almost every subject pertaining to ethics, to nature, to science, and to society. Some are allusions to God, and others to the duties between man and man. Many are devoted to the duties of women, applicable to the sex in all times. They are not on a level of the Psalms in piety, nor of the Prophecies in grandeur, but they recognize the immutable principles of moral obligation. In some cases they seem to be worldly-wise,–such as we might suppose to fall from the mouth of Benjamin Franklin or Cobbett,–recognizing worldly prosperity as the greatest of blessings. Sometimes they are witty, again ironical, but always forcible. In some of them there is awful solemnity.
There are no more terrific warnings and exhortations in the sacred writings than are found in the Proverbs of Solomon. The sins of idleness, of anger, of covetousness, of gossip, of falsehood, of oppression, of injustice, of intemperance, of unchastity, are uniformly denounced as leading to destruction; while prudence, temperance, chastity, obedience to parents, and loyalty to truth are enjoined with the earnestness of a man who believes in personal accountability to God. The ethics of the Proverbs are based on everlasting righteousness, and are imbued with the spirit of divine philosophy; their great peculiarity is the constant exhortation to wisdom and knowledge, to which young men are especially exhorted. Like Socrates, Solomon never separates wisdom from virtue, but makes one the foundation of the other. He shows the connection between virtue and happiness, vice and misery. The Proverbs are inexhaustible in moral force, and have universal application. There is nothing cynical or gloomy in them. They form a fitting study for youth and old age, an incentive to virtue and a terror to evil-doers, a thesaurus of moral wisdom; they speak in every line a lofty and comprehensive intellect, acquainted with all the experiences of life. Such moral wisdom would be imperishable in any literature. Such utterances go far to redeem all personal defects; they show how unclouded is a mind trained in equity, even when the will is enslaved by iniquity. What is still more remarkable, the Proverbs never apologize for the force of temptation, and never blend error with truth; they uniformly exalt wisdom, and declare that the beginning of it is the fear of the Lord. There is not one of them which seeks to cover up vice with sophistical excuses; they show that the author or authors of them love moral beauty and truth, and exalt the same,–as many great men, with questionable morals, give their testimony to the truths of Christianity, and utterly abhor those who poison the soul by plausible sophistries,–as Lord Brougham detested Rousseau. The famous writings of our modern times which nearest approach the Proverbs in love of truth and moral wisdom are those of Bacon and Shakspeare.
In striking contrast with the praises of knowledge which permeate the Proverbs, is the book of Ecclesiastes, supposed to have been written in the decline of Solomon’s life, when the pleasures of sin had saddened his soul, and filled his mind with cynicism. Unless the book of Ecclesiastes is to be interpreted as ironical, nothing can be more dreary than many of its declarations. It even seems to pour contempt on all knowledge and all enjoyments. “In much knowledge is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow…. What profit hath a man of all his labor?… There is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool…. There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink…. A man hath no pre-eminence over a beast; all go to the same place…. What hath the wise man more than the fool?… There is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in wickedness…. One man among a thousand have I found, but a woman among all those have I not found…. The race is not to the swift, the battle to the strong; neither bread to the wise, nor riches to the man of understanding…. On all things is written vanity.” Such are some of the dismal and cynical utterances of Solomon in his old age. The Ecclesiastes contrasted with the Proverbs is discouraging and sad, although there is great seriousness and even loftiness in many of its sayings. It seems to be the record of a disenchanted old man, to whom all things are a folly and vanity. There is a suppressed contempt expressed for what young men and the worldly regard as desirable, equalled only by a sort of proud disdain of success and fame. There is great bitterness in reference to women. Some of the sayings are as mournful jeremiads as any uttered by Carlyle, showing great scorn of what ninety-nine in one hundred are vain of, and pursue after, as all ending in vanity and vexation of spirit. We can understand how riches may prove a snare, how pleasure-seeking ends in disappointment, how the smiles of a deceitful woman may lead to the chamber of death, how little the treasures of wickedness profit, how sins will find out the transgressor, how the heart may be sad in the midst of laughter, how wine is a mocker, how ambition is Babel-building, how he who pursueth evil pursueth it to his death; we can understand how abundance will produce satiety, and satiety lead to disgust,–how disappointment attends our most cherished plans, and how all mortal pursuits fail to satisfy the cravings of an immortal soul. But why does the favored and princely Solomon, in sadness and bitterness, pronounce knowledge also to be a vanity like power and riches, especially when in his earlier writings he so highly commends it? Is it true that in much wisdom is much grief, and that the increase of knowledge is the increase of sorrow? Can it be that the book of Ecclesiastes is the mere record of the miserable experiences of an embittered and disappointed sensualist, or is it the profound and searching exposition of the vanities of this world as they appear to a lofty searcher after truth and God, measured by the realities of a future and endless life, which the soul emancipated from pollution pants and aspires after with all the intensity of a renovated nature? When I bear in mind the impressive lessons that are declared at the close of this remarkable book, the earnest exhortation to remember God before the dust shall return to the earth as it was, I cannot but feel that there are great moral truths underlying the sarcasm and irony in which the writer indulged. And these come with increased force from the mouth of a man who had tasted every mortal good, and found it all, when not properly used, a confirmation of the impossibility of earth to satisfy the soul of man. The writer calls himself “the preacher,” and surely a great preacher he was,–not to a throng of “fashionable worshippers” or a crowd of listless pleasure-seekers, but to all ages and nations. And if he really was a living speaker to the young men who caught the inspiration of his voice, how terribly eloquent he must have been!
I fancy that I can see that unhappy old man, worn out, saddened, embittered, yet at last rising above the decrepitude of age and the infirmities which sin had hastened, and speaking in tones that could never be forgotten. “Behold, ye young men! I have tasted every enjoyment of this earth; I have indulged in every pleasure forbidden or permitted. I have explored the world of thought and the realm of nature. I have been favored beyond any mortal that ever lived; I have been flattered and honored beyond all precedent; I have consumed the treasures of kings and princes. I builded me houses, I planted me vineyards; I made me gardens and orchards, I made me pools of water; I got me servants and maidens, I gathered me also silver and gold; I got me men-singers and women-singers and musical instruments; whatsoever my eyes desired I kept not from them; I withheld not my heart from any joy,–and now, lo! I solemnly declare unto you, with my fading strength and my eyes suffused with tears and my knees trembling with weakness, and in view of that future and higher life which I neglected to seek amid the dazzling glories of my throne, and the bewilderment of fascinating joys,–I now most earnestly declare unto you that all these things which men seek and prize are a vanity, a delusion, and a snare; that there is no wisdom but in the fear of God.”
So this saddest of books closes with lofty exhortations, and recognizes moral obligations which are in harmony with the great principle enforced in the Proverbs,–that there is no escape from the penalty of sin and folly; that whatsoever a man sows that shall he also reap. The last recorded words of the preacher are concerning the vanity of life,–that is, the hopeless failure of worldly pleasures and egotistical pursuits in themselves alone to secure happiness; the impossibility of lasting good disconnected with righteousness; the fact that even knowledge, the greatest possession and the highest joy which a man can have, does not satisfy the soul.
These final utterances of Solomon are not dogmas nor speculations, they are experiences,–the experiences of one of the most favored mortals who has lived upon our earth, and one of the wisest. If, measured by the eternal standards, his glory was less than that of the flower which withers in a day, what hope have ordinary men in the pursuit of pleasure, or gain, or honor? Utter vanity and vexation of spirit! Nothing brings a true reward but virtue,–unselfish labors for others, supreme loyalty to conscience, obedience to God. Hence, such profound experience so frankly published, such sad confessions uttered from the depths of the heart, and the summing up of the whole question of human life, enforced with the earnestness and eloquence of an old man soon to die, have peculiar force, and are among the greatest treasures of the Old Testament.
The fundamental truth to be deduced from the book of Ecclesiastes is that whatsoever is born of vanity must end in vanity. If vanity is the seed, so vanity is the fruit. It is, in fact, one of the most impressive of all the truths that appeal either to consciousness or experience. If a man builds a house from vanity, or makes a party from vanity, or gives a present from vanity, or writes a book from vanity, or seeks an office from vanity,–then, as certainly as the bite of an asp will poison the body, will the expected good be turned into a bitter disappointment. Self-love cannot be the basis of human action without alienation from God, without weariness, disgust, and ultimate sorrow. The soul can be fed only by divine certitudes; it can be enlarged only by walking according to the divine commandments.
Confucius, Socrates, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius declared the same truths, but not so impressively. Not for one’s self, not for friends, not even for children alone must one live. There is a higher law still which speaks to the universal conscience, asking, What is your duty? With this is identified all that is precious in life, on earth or in heaven, for time and eternity. Anything in this world which is sought as a good, whose end is selfish, is an impressive failure; so that self-aggrandizement becomes as absurd and fatal as self-indulgence. One can no more escape from the operation of this law than he can take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea. The commonest experiences of every-day life confirm the wisdom which Solomon uttered out of his lonely and saddened soul. If ye will not hear him, be instructed by your own broken friendships, your own dispelled illusions, your own fallen idols; by the heartlessness which too often lurks in the smiles of beauty, by the poison concealed in polished flatteries, by the deceitfulness hidden, beneath the warmest praises, by the demons of envy, jealousy, and pride which take from success itself its promised joys.
Who is happy with any amount of wealth? Who is free from corroding cares? Who can escape anxiety and fear? How hard to shake off the burdens which even a rich man is compelled to bear? There is a fly in every ointment, a skeleton in every closet, solitude in the midst of crowds, isolation in the joy of festivals. The wrecks of happiness are strewn in every path that the world has envied.
Read the lives of illustrious men; how melancholy often are the latter days of those who have climbed the highest! Caesar is stabbed when he has conquered the world. Diocletian retires in disgust from the government of an empire. Godfrey languishes in grief when he has taken Jerusalem. Charles V. shuts himself up in a convent. Galileo, whose spirit has roamed the heavens, is a prisoner of the Inquisition. Napoleon masters a continent, and expires on a rock in the ocean. Mirabeau dies of despair when he has kindled the torch of revolution. The poetic soul of Burns passes away in poverty and moral eclipse. Madness overtakes the cool satirist Swift, and mental degeneracy is the final condition of the fertile-minded Scott. The high-souled Hamilton perishes in a petty quarrel, and curses overwhelm Webster in the halls of his early triumphs. What a confirmation of the experience of Solomon! “Vanity of vanities” write on all walls, in all the chambers of pleasure, in all the palaces of pride!
This is the burden of the preaching of Solomon; but it is also the lesson which is taught by all the records of the past, and all the experiences of mankind. Yet it is not sad when one considers the dignity of the soul and its immortal destinies. It is sad only when the disenchantment of illusions is not followed by that holy fear which is the beginning of wisdom,–that exalted realism which we believe at last sustained the soul of the Preacher as he was hastening to that country from whose bourn no traveller returns.