Our sources for the study of the life, reign, and character of Solomon are 1 Kings 1-9; and 2 Chronicles 1-9. Solomon (Heb. "peaceful"), also called Jedidiah, i.e., "beloved of Yahweh", was the second son of David by his wife Bathsheba, and the acknowledged favourite of his father. This may have been due partly to the fact that he, as a late offspring, considerably younger than David's other sons, was born in his father's old age, and partly to the intense love of David for Bathsheba and the beautiful qualities of Solomon himself. Solomon was not the logical heir to the throne, but David conferred it upon him instead of his older brothers, and in doing so he committed no wrong according to Israelitish ideas. Solomon was eighteen years old when he ascended the throne, or at least no older than this, and his successful reign of forty years speaks well for his intelligence, ability, and statesmanship. His reign offers a striking contrast to that of his father. It was almost entirely devoid of incident, and was marked by none of the vicissitudes of fortune which were so notable a feature in the career of David. Enjoying for the most part peaceful relations with foreign powers, and set free from the troubles that menaced him at home, Solomon was enabled to devote himself fully to the internal organization of his kingdom and the embellishment of his Court. In particular he gave much attention to the defence of the country (including the construction of fortresses), the administration of justice, the development of trade, and the erection of a national temple to the Almighty.
The territory over which sovereignty is claimed for Solomon by the historian of 1 Kings extended from the Euphrates to the River of Egypt (el Arish), or, to name the cities at the limits of his realms, from Tiphsah (Thapsacus) to Gaza (1 Kings 4:24). The account of his reign shows that even his fathers dominions were not retained by him unimpaired. But if some of the outlying portions of David's empire, such as Damascus and Edom, were lost by Solomon, the integrity of the actual soil of Israel was secured alike by the erection of fortresses in strong positions (including Hazor, Megiddo, one or both of the Beth-horons, and Baalath) and by the maintenance of a large force of war-chariots. Of the cities selected for fortification Hazor guarded the northern frontier, Megiddo protected the plain of Esdraelon, whilst the Beth-horons, with Baalath, commanded the Valley of Aijalon, thus defending the capitol against an attack from the maritime plain. Additional security in this direction was obtained by the acquisition of Gezer. This city had hitherto been left in the hand of the Canaanites, and came into Solomon's power by a marriage alliance with Egypt. Under David, Israel had become a factor to be reckoned with in Eastern politics, and the Pharaoh found it prudent to secure its friendship. The Pharoah was probably Psieukhannit (Psebkhan) II, the last king of the 21st dynasty, who had his capitol at Zoan (Tanis), and ruled over the Delta. Solomon wedded his daughter; and the Egyptian sovereign, having attacked and burnt Gezer and destroyed the Canaanites inhabitants, bestowed it as a dowry upon the princess. It was now rebuilt and made a fortified city of Solomon. In Jerusalem itself additional defences were constructed, and the capitol was further adorned by the erection of the temple and the royal palaces described below. In view of the trade route to the Red Sea, which the possession of the ports of Edom gave to Israel, Tamara (perhaps Tamar) was likewise fortified. Cities had also to be built for the reception and support of the force of chariots and cavalry which the king maintained, and which he seems to have been the first to introduce into the armies of Israel. This force is stated to have consisted of 1400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen (1 Kings 10:26). The numbers of the foot-soldiery are not given, perhaps because, being a militia and not a standing army, it was only mustered when there was occasion for its services; but the levies available were, probably, not inferior to those which the nation could raise at the close of David's reign.
Solomon's foreign policy was one of international friendship and peace. His relation with the Pharaoh of Egypt has already been alluded to, and the same may be said of his relation with his other great neighbour, Hiram, King of Tyre, and lord of the Phoenician Riviera which lies between Lebanon and the sea. To him belonged the famous Cedar forests, and the no less famous artisans of Gabal were his subjects. Solomon formed with him a commercial treaty, surrendering certain towns on the northern frontier (1 Kings 9:11) in exchange for floats of timber conveyed to Jappa and skilled workmen lent him for wood-carving, stone-fashioning, and bronze-casting. What Solomon gained by the alliance was knowledge of the Phoenician manner of trading. As ruler of Edom he had possession of the port of Eloth, at the head of the Gulf of Akaba. Here he built ships and sent his own servants, under Phoenician masters, to trade with Arabia. The profits went into the king's coffers. As Arabia was a gold-producing country, we need not suppose that South Africa was reached by these fleets. Whether the commerce of India reached him by this route is not certain. The list of products imported has sometimes been interpreted in this sense. But one or two obscure words in a comparatively late text can hardly establish the conclusion. The money value of the importations, four hundred and twenty talents in a single voyage, must be viewed with suspicion.
Solomon's internal policy was one of justice and concentration of power and authority. In the administration of justice David's policy and reign of remissness and incoherence was improved upon by Solomon's stern administration and equanimity. He also took steps to make the royal authority stronger, more efficient, and more far-reaching, chiefly, as far as out records go, with a view to the collection of revenue and the maintenance of an army, which latter, apparently, he did not know how to use. We have a longer list of ministers. David's government included a commander-in-chief, a captain of the mercenary guard, a superintendent of forced labour, a recorder, a scribe and priests, and a "king's friend". In addition to these, Solomon had a superintendent of prefects and a master of the household. A more striking innovation was the division of the country into twelve districts, each under a royal representative or prefect, charged with the duty of provisioning the Court month by month. This division largely ignored the ancient tribes, and seems to show that the tribal system was passing away. Like most powerful rulers, Solomon signalized his reign by numerous splendid buildings, and for this purpose made extensive use of the corvee or forced labour. This again led to increased exertion of authority by the central government; and, incidentally, the complete subjugation of the Canaanites was shown by the fact that they had to bear the main portion of this burden. According to our present biblical data, Solomon went beyond any ancient monarch in the luxury of the harem. The enormous number of wives (700) and concubines (300) attributed to him must be made up by counting all the female slaves of the palace among the concubines. Even then the figure must be grossly exaggerated. Klostermann has wisely remarked that the two items are not in the right proportion, and he is inclined, and we think with good reason, to suspect that 70 wives and 300 concubines was the original statement of the sacred narrator.
The building operations of Solomon were on a large scale and of a remarkable magnitude and splendour. Besides the erection of a magnificent temple he succeeded in emulating the great kings of Western Asia and Egypt by building for himself in the city of Jerusalem, palaces, houses, and gardens. (See TEMPLE OF JERUSALEM.) In the erection of these, thirteen years were spent as well as a large sum of money, while thousands of labourers and craftsmen were employed. The royal residence embraced several distinct structures:
1. the house of the forest of Lebanon (so named from the quantity of cedar-wood used in it), which measured 100x50x30 cubits, and rested upon three rows (so Sept.) of pillars (each row being composed of fifteen columns) in addition to the external walls;
2. the porch of pillars, 50x30 cubits;
3. the porch of the throne (to which the last-mentioned may have served as an ante-chamber), forming a judgment hall where the king's throne of ivory and gold (1 Kings 10:18-20) was placed when he dispensed justice;
4. the palace of Pharaoh's daughter, probably included within the court just named.
All these were built of costly hewn stone, the wood employed being cedar. Of Solomon's closing years nothing further is recorded. His reign is stated to have lasted forty years; but it is probable that this is merely a round number employed to indicate a considerable period (perhaps a full generation) and the actual duration of his rule is unknown. The year of his death may be approximately fixed between 938 and 916 B. C., a date arrived at from a consideration of the number of years assigned by the Bible to his successors, corrected by the chronology of certain Assyrian inscriptions.
In the view of the Hebrew historian, Solomon was unsurpassed for sagacity and knowledge. On his accession to the throne, it is related that Jehovah appeared to him at Gibeon in a dream, and bade him choose a boon; and the young king, instead of asking for long life or riches or success in war, prayed to be endowed with an understanding heart that he might judge the people committed to him. His request was granted; ;and riches and honour were added thereto, with a promise of length of days if he kept Jehovah's commandments. In consequence of this endowment, he was reputed to be wiser than all men; people flocked from all quarters to hear his wisdom; and the Queen of Sheba, in particular, came to prove him with hard questions. He was at once a philosopher and a poet. He spake 3000 proverbs; his songs were 1005; and his utterances embraced references alike to the vegetable and the animal kingdoms. So great, indeed, was his reputation for practical insight that in later times the bulk of the Hebrew Gnomic literature was ascribed to him. In the light of after-events, it is impossible fully to endorse the historian's estimate of his sagacity, or even to clear his memory from imputations of criminal folly. To his oppressive exactions, in furtherance of his schemes of luxury and magnificence, was due the discontent which in the reign of his son broke his kingdom in two, and ultimately led to the destruction in detail of the Hebrew nation by the power of Assyria and Babylon. It is clear likewise that, besides being fond of display, he was voluptuous and sensual, and that he was led by his wives and concubines to worship strange gods.
The fact that Solomon's reign was passed in tranquillity, except for the attempts of Edom and Damascus to regain their independence, testifies to the care he displayed for the defence of the realm. That he showed no ambition to undertake foreign conquests redounds to his credit; after the exhausting wars of David the nation needed repose. And if he spent his people's wealth lavishly, his commercial policy may have helped to produce that wealth, and perhaps even given to the Jewish people that impulse towards trade which has been for centuries so marked a trait in their character. Nor can the indirect effects of the commerce he fostered be overlooked, inasmuch as it brought the people into closer contact with the outside world and so enlarged their intellectual horizon. And in two other respects he profoundly influenced his nation's after-history, and thereby mankind in general. In the first place, whatever the burdens which the construction of the temple entailed upon the generation that saw it erected, it eventually became the chief glory of the Jewish race. To it, its ritual, and its associations, was largely due the stronger hold which, after the disruption, the religion of Jehovah had upon Judah as contrasted with Northern Israel; and when Judah ceased to be a nation, the reconstructed temple became in a still higher degree the guardian of the Hebrew faith and hope. And secondly, the Book of Proverbs, though parts are expressly ascribed to other authors than Solomon, and even those sections which are attributed to him may be complex of origin, is nevertheless the product of Solomon's spirit and example, and much that it contains may actually have proceeded from him. And as Proverbs served as a model for many works of a similar character in later times, some of which, as has been said, were popularly ascribed to him (Ecclesiastes, Wisdom), the debt which the world of literature indirectly owes to the Hebrew king is considerable. The works named do not exhaust the list of productions with which Solomon's name is connected. The Song of Songs is attributed to him; two of the Canonical psalms are entitled his; and a book of Psalms of quite late date also goes by his name.