Solomon Succeeds David as King (1 Kings 1-11)
Upon succeeding David as king, Solomon faces the vastness of his duties (1 Kings 3:5-15). He is acutely aware that he is inadequate to the task (1 Chronicles 22:5). The work with which he is entrusted is immense. In addition to the temple project, he has a large, complex nation under his care, "a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted" (1 Kings 3:8). Even as he gains experience on the job, he realizes that it is so complex that he'll never be able to figure out the right course of action in every circumstance. He needs divine help: so he asks God, "Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil, for who can govern this, your great people?" (1 Kings 3:9). God answers his prayer and gives him “very great wisdom, discernment and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore” (1 Kings 4:29).
Solomon’s first major task it to build the Temple of the Lord. To achieve this architectural feat, Solomon employs professionals from all corners of his kingdom. Three chapters (1 Kings 5-7) are devoted to describing the work of building the Temple, of which we have space only for a small selection:
Solomon also had seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country, besides Solomon’s three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work. At the king’s command, they quarried out great, costly stones in order to lay the foundation of the house with dressed stones. (1 Kings 5:15–17)
He cast two pillars of bronze. Eighteen cubits was the height of the one, and a cord of twelve cubits would encircle it; the second pillar was the same. He also made two capitals of molten bronze, to set on the tops of the pillars; the height of the one capital was five cubits, and the height of the other capital was five cubits. There were nets of checker work with wreaths of chain work for the capitals on the tops of the pillars; seven for the one capital, and seven for the other capital. (1 Kings 7:15–17)
So Solomon made all the vessels that were in the house of the Lord: the golden altar, the golden table for the bread of the Presence, the lampstands of pure gold, five on the south side and five on the north, in front of the inner sanctuary; the flowers, the lamps, and the tongs, of gold; the cups, snuffers, basins, dishes for incense, and firepans, of pure gold; the sockets for the doors of the innermost part of the house, the most holy place, and for the doors of the nave of the temple, of gold. Thus all the work that King Solomon did on the house of the Lord was finished. Solomon brought in the things that his father David had dedicated, the silver, the gold, and the vessels, and stored them in the treasuries of the house of the Lord. (1 Kings 7:48–51)
From accomplished professionals to forced laborers, the people of the kingdom contribute their knowledge and skills to help build the Temple. In so doing, Solomon involves numerous people to help build and sustain his kingdom. Whether or not it is Solomon’s intention, employing so many people from all walks of life ensures that the vast majority of citizens hold personal investment in the political, religious, social, and economic well being of the kingdom.
The massive national effort needed to construct the Temple leaves Solomon the ruler of a powerful kingdom. During his reign Israel's military and economic might reach their peak, and the kingdom covers more territory than at any other time in Israel's history. He completes the centralization of the nation’s government, economic organization, and worship.
To assemble a large enough labor force, King Solomon conscripts workers out of all Israel. The levy numbers thirty thousand men (1 Kings 5:13-14). Solomon seems to have paid Israelites who were conscripted (1 Kings 9:22) in accordance with Leviticus 25:44-46, which forbids making slaves of Israelites. But resident aliens are simply enslaved (1 Kings 9:20-21). In addition, a multitude of workers are brought in from surrounding nations. Whatever their source, a wide variety of highly skilled professionals comes together, including the best artisans practicing at the time. The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles—primarily interested in the work of kingship—say little about these workers except as relates to the Temple. But they are visible in the background, making all of society possible.
Solomon sees that as the central government expands, it will need food for an increasingly large work force. Soldiers need rations (1 Kings 6:9-11), alongside the workers on all of Solomon's building projects. The growing bureaucracy also needs to be fed. So the king organizes the nation into twelve sectors and appoints a deputy as overseer of each sector. Each deputy is charged with providing all required food rations for one month each year. As a result, the nation’s daughters are conscripted into labor as "cooks and bakers" (1 Samuel 8:13). Israel becomes like other kingdoms with forced labor, heavy taxation, and a central elite wielding power over the rest of the country.
As Samuel had foretold, kings bring a greatly expanded military (1 Sam. 8:11-12). Militarization comes into full flower during Solomon's reign as the military becomes an essential component of the kingdom's stability. Soldiers of every rank from foot soldiers to generals all need weapons including javelins, spears, lances, bow and arrows, swords, daggers, knives, and slingshots. They need protective gear including shields, helmets, and body armor. To manage such a large scale army, a nationalized military organization must be maintained. In contrast to his father, David, Solomon is called "a man of peace," but the peace is ensured by the presence of a well organized and well-provisioned military force.
We see in Solomon’s story how society depends on the work of myriad people, coupled with structures and systems to organize large scale production and distribution. The human capacity to organize work is evidence of our creation in the image of a God who brings order out of chaos on a worldwide scale (Genesis 1). How fitting that the Bible portrays this ability through the construction of God’s meeting place with humanity. It takes a God-given ability to organize work on a scale large enough to build God’s house. Few of us would care to return to Solomon’s methods of organization—conscription, forced labor, and militarization—so we can be thankful that God leads us to fairer, more effective methods today. Perhaps what we take away from this episode is that God is intensely interested in the art of coordinating human work and creativity to accomplish God’s purposes in the world.