(as published in the Jewish News http://jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/its-biblical-this-week-king-solomon/)
Venerated by Muslims and Masons, King Solomon is a magnificent biblical character. His early life is mired in sibling rivalry; his older brothers repeatedly tried to usurp his preference and grab the throne for themselves. It must have been overawing to be brought up in the fledgling empire of King David. Solomon was the son of beloved Bathsheba, but the story of how David married her is rather racy, and because of this Solomon was actually her second son.
His name means God's peace, and this is emblematic of his empire. David built the empire, and Solomon (Shlomo) consolidated it by extending trade networks and alliances.
King Solomon was crowned in the face of the rebellion of his brother Adonijah, who attempted to seize the throne for himself. He then purged those who had attempted the putsch including his father David's chief general Joab.
Solomon allied himself with Hiram of Tyre, and together they set to trading all over the known world. Solomon set up military and trading outposts. The Falash Mura Jews of Ethiopia are said by some to have been descended from one of his outposts.
This wealth and military prowess allowed Solomon to build the Temple to God which David his father had not. David had blood on his hands; Solomon was not a warrior king. He built it as a focal centre to the Kingdom of Israel (riven even then by tribal rivalry) and also as a house of universal worship and peace.
Solomon was renowned for his wisdom. Three books of the Bible are said to be his: in his youth, the romantic Song of Songs; in his middle age, after he prayed to God for wisdom, the Book of Proverbs; and in his older years the dour Ecclesiastes.
Solomon was granted wealth and power as well as wisdom. His fame spread so far that the Queen of Sheba visited him from the Deep South. His Temple was a wonder of the world.
Alas human frailty was present even in this wisest of monarchs. Solomon contracted marriages with many princesses from other countries and allowed them to erect temples to their deities. This resulted in great displeasure from God. However, Solomon was allowed to remain on the throne for forty years, for his father David's sake. It was only after his death that his weak son Reheboam managed to annoy people and permanently split the Kingdom.
His defects, levies, taxes, excessive women (1000 wives and concubines), too many horses and regal trappings, forced labour and incipient authoritarianism, were more than balanced by his peaceful, long and stable rule, his trade ties and prosperity, his creation of the national shrine on the Temple Mount, and his exceptional literary legacy. He and his father David are remembered with great fondness in our national consciousness.
To this day, it is above all his wisdom which is remembered. The Judgement of Solomon is a repeated subject of paintings, and reminds us of his ability (at the height of his power) to see the essential nature of human relationships.
Rabbi Zvi Solomons