Meditations in Meaning & Values 6: ….and Fortune
Eccles 1:8-9 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well–the delights of the heart of man. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
In the previous meditation we considered the subject of working for fame and then faced the truth that we may achieve some measure of fame on this earth, but we cant take it with us when we enter heaven, for heaven knows the reality of our lives. Fame and fortune go together. Very often it is riches that create the fame. Names such as Rockefeller and more recently Gates are known for their wealth. Times don’t change and so Solomon’s wealth and power (those two also so often go together) made him well known. In our verses above, even now in his jaded state, he is able to say, “I became greater by far that anyone in Jerusalem before me.”
The historical record of 1 Kings is equally clear: “King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth. The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart. Year after year, everyone who came brought a gift–articles of silver and gold, robes, weapons and spices, and horses and mules.” (1 Kings 10:23-25) I love the record earlier in that chapter of the coming of the Queen of Sheba. Note first of all the gifts she brought to him: “Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan–with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones–she came to Solomon” (1 Kings 10:2) and then, “And she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.” (1 Kings 10:10) She was one seriously rich Queen, but note her response when she saw what Solomon had: “When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at the temple of the LORD, she was overwhelmed.” (1 Kings 10:4,5) Such was his affluence that today we would say it blew her mind away! He was staggeringly rich and it was all because of the wisdom that the Lord had given him (see 1 Kings 3:10-14).
But then I have to face a simple verse with a terrible word in it: “King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter–Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the LORD had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.” (1 Kings 11:1,2) It’s that word, ‘however’. That says that despite all this, Solomon had a weakness and that weakness led him in a course of action that God had warned him against and that in turn led him away from the Lord so he ended up in this jaded state that we find here.
Now there are three things, I suggest, that this story we have been considering highlights, three subjects we need to think about. The first is wealth. It is clear from the accounts that Solomon’s wealth came as a result of God’s gift of wisdom. God is not against wealth but it is what we do with it and what it might do to us.
So first, what we do with it. It is clear from the Bible that God is for the poor and needy. The apostle James provides us with perhaps the most scathing warning the Bible about wrong uses of wealth and power: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.” (Jas 5:1-6) He warns the rich to beware God’s judgment that falls on those who use their wealth wrongly. He firstly criticizes them for storing it up and not making use of it for good (implied). He criticizes them for paying low wages and living an affluent life style while the workers live in poverty. They have used their power to oppress the weak and needy, the poor. It is this sort of behaviour that has caused revolutions around the world, and that is not surprising.
For Christians such behaviour is doubly abhorrent for the apostle John taught, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 Jn 3:17) It is difficult in a society that is a Welfare State that provides for those on low incomes, to know where there is real need. But when it comes to the poor of the world it is even harder to know how to act wisely to help the poor because often whatever we give will seem like a drop in the ocean and will in no way change the need that is there. We need the wisdom of God. How can I give so that it changes the life in the long-term, not merely for the moment? How will my giving help when the political situation in a foreign country is so bad it seems to prevent any change taking place? We need the wisdom of God.
The Bible says much about poverty and about seeking to alleviate it. Perhaps in the short space we have we might simply suggest it is something we should be thinking about. But what can wealth do to us? When Israel were getting ready to enter the Promised Land, Moses warned them, “When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you–a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant–then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Deut 6:10-12) Affluence means we can become complacent and forget that all the blessings we have came from the Lord. I believe it is true that we, the church of the twenty-first century, have yet to learn to live with affluence so that it does not weaken us spiritually.
The story of Solomon is partly about wealth and so as we conclude this meditation remember, God is not against it but we have a responsibility how we use what we have and we need to watch what it might be doing to us. Jesus warned that affluence can strangle us (Lk 8:14) He also warned about setting life priorities (Mt 6:19-21,24). The affluent West is a dangerous place to live! We’ll look at the other two subjects that Solomon’s story highlights in the next meditation.