“Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? Yet among many nations was there no king like him, who was beloved of his God.” - Nehemiah 13:26
here is one study, my Christian brethren, which never can lose its interest for us so long as we are men, - and that is, the investigation of human character. The deep interest of Biography consists in this, - that it is in some measure the description to us of our own inner history. You can not unveil the secrets of another heart without at the same time finding, something, to correspond with, and perchance explain, the mysteries of your own. Heart answers here to heart. Between the wisest and the worst there are ten thousand points of marvelous resemblance; and so the trials, the frailties, the bitterness of any human soul, faithfully traced out, ever shadow out to us a portraiture of our own experience. Give but the inner heart history of the most elevated spirit that ever conquered in life’s struggle, and place it before the most despicable that ever failed, and you exhibit to him so much of the picture of his own very self, that you perforce command his deepest attention. Only let the inarticulate life of the peasant find for itself a distinct voice, and a true biographer; let the inward struggles which have agitated that rough frame be given faithfully to the world, and there is not a monarch whose soul will not be thrilled with those inner details of an existence with which outwardly he has not a single thought in common.
It is for this reason that Solomon’s life is full of painful interest. Far removed as he is, in some respects, above our sympathies, in others he peculiarly commands them. He was a monarch, and none of us know the sensations which belong to rule. He was proclaimed by God to be among the wisest of mankind, and few of us can even conceive the atmosphere in which such a gifted spirit moves, original, inquiring, comprehending, one to whom Nature has made her secret open. He lived in the infancy of the world’s society, and we live in its refined and civilized manhood. And yet, brethren, when we have turned away wearied from all those subjects in which the mind of Solomon expatiated, and try to look inward at the man, straightway we find ourselves at home. Just as in our own trifling, petty history, so we find in him, life with this same unabated, mysterious interest; the dust and the confusion of a battle, sublime longings, and low weaknesses, perplexity, struggle; and then the grave closing over all this, and leaving us to marvel in obscurity and silence over the strange destinies of man. Humbling, brethren, is all this, at the same time that it is most instructive. God’s strange dealings with the human heart, when shall they cease their interest for us? When shall it be that life, with all its mysteries, will tire us to look upon? When shall it be that the fate of man shall cease to wake up emotion in man’s bosom?
Now, we are to bear in mind that the career of Solomon is a problem which has perplexed many, and is by no means an easy one to solve. He belongs to the peculiar class of those who begin well, and then have the brightness of their lives obscured at last. His morning sun rose beautifully; it sank in the evening, clouded, and dark with earthy exhalations, - too dark to prophesy with certainty how it should rise on the morrow. Solomon’s life was not what religious existence ought to be. The Life of God in the soul of man ought to be a thing of perpetual development; it ought to be more bright, and its pulsations more vigorous every year. Such certainly, at least to all appearance, Solomon’s was not. It was excellence, at all events, marred with inconsistency. It was original uprightness disgraced by a fall, and that fall so prolonged and signal that it has always been a disputed question among commentators whether he ever rose from it again at all. But the passage which I have selected for the text, in connection with one or two others, seems to decide this question. “Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things?” that is, marriage with foreign wives? “Yet among many nations was there no king like him who was beloved of his God.” Now, there can be no doubt of the view given us in this verse. Six hundred years after Solomon had been sleeping in earthly dust, when all contemporaries were dead, and all personal feelings had passed away, when History could pronounce her calm verdict upon his existence as a whole, Nehemiah, in this passage, gave a summary of his character. He speaks to us of Solomon as a saint, - a saint in whom saintliness had been wonderfully defaced, - imperfect, tempted, fallen; but still ranked among those whom God’s love had pre-eminently distinguished.
Now let us compare with this the prophecy which had been uttered by Nathan before Solomon was born. Thus he spoke in God’s name to David of the son who was to succeed him on the throne (II Samuel 7:14): “I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men,” - i. e., the rod as a human being uses it, for correction, not everlasting destruction, - ”and with the stripes of the children of men. But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul.” In this we have a distinct covenant, made prophetically. God foretold Solomon’s terrible apostasy; and with it He foretold Solomon’s restoration. And there is one point especially remarkable. He parallels Solomon’s career with Saul’s. Saul began well, and Saul ended ill. Just so it was with Solomon. Here was the parallel. But farther than this, God distinctly warned, the parallel did not go. Saul’s deterioration from good was permanent. Solomon’s deterioration, dark as it was, had some point of essential difference. It was not forever. Saul’s life darkened from morning brightness into the gloom of everlasting night. Solomon’s life darkened too, but the curtain of clouds was rolled aside at last, and before the night set in the sun shone out in serene, calm brilliancy.
We take up, therefore, for our consideration to-day, the life of Solomon in these two particulars.
I. The wanderings of an erring spirit. “Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things.”
II. The guidance of that spirit, amidst all its wanderings, by God’s love. “There was no king like unto him who was beloved of his God.”
I. “Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things?” This is the first point for us to dwell on, - the wanderings of a frail and erring human spirit from the right way. That which lay at the bottom of all Solomon’s transgressions was his intimate partnership with foreigners. “Did not Solomon sin by these things?” that is, if we look to the context, marriage with foreign wives. The history of the text is this, - Nehemiah discovered that the nobles of Judah, during the captivity, when law and religious customs had been relaxed, had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab; and then, in his passionate expostulation with them, he reminds them that it was this very transgression which led to the fall of the monarch who had been most distinguished for God’s favor. In the whole Jewish system, no principle was more distinct than this, - the separation of God’s people from partnership with the world. Exclusiveness was the principle on which Judaism was built. The Israelites were not to mix with the nations: they were not to marry with them: they were not to join with them in religious fellowship or commercial partnership. Everything was to be distinct, - as distinct as God’s service and the world’s. And it was this principle which Solomon transgressed. He married a princess of Egypt. He connected himself with wives from idolatrous countries, - Moabites, Ammonites, Edommites, Sidonians, Hittites. And then Nehemiah’s argument, built on the eternal truth that friendship with the world is enmity with God, is this, - “Did not Solomon sin by these things?”
That Jewish law, my brethren, shadowed out an everlasting truth. God’s people are an exclusive nation; God’s Church is forever separated from the world. This is her charter, “Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” God’s people may break that charter, but they do it at their own peril. And we may be very sure of this, when a religious person begins to feel an inclination for intimate communion with the world, and begins to break down that barrier which is the line of safety, the first step is made of a series of long, dark wanderings from God. We are to be separate, brethren, from the world. Mistake not the meaning of that word. The world changes its complexion in every age. Solomon’s world was the nations of idolatry lying round Israel. Our world is not that. The world is that collection of men in every age who live only according to the maxims of their time. The world may be a profligate world, or it may be a moral world. All that is a matter of accident. Our world is a moral world. The sons of our world are not idolaters, they are not profligate they are, it may be, among the, most fascinating of mankind. Their society is more pleasing, more lively, more diversified in information than religious society. No marvel if a young and ardent heart feels the spell of the fascination. No wonder if it feels a relief in turning away from the dullness and the monotony of home life to the sparkling brilliancy of the world’s society. No marvel if Solomon felt the superior charms of the accomplished Egyptian and the wealthy Tyrian. His Jewish countrymen and countrywomen were but homely in comparison. What wonder if the young monarch felt it a relaxation to emancipate himself from the thraldom of a society which had little to interest his grasping and restless mind, and to throw himself upon a companionship which had more of refinement, and more of cultivation, and more of that enlargement of mind which his own gifted character was so fitted to enjoy?
It is no marvel, brethren. It is all most natural, all most intelligible, - a temptation which we feel ourselves every day. The brilliant, dazzling, accomplished world - what Christian with a mind polished like Solomon’s does not own its charms? And yet now, pause. Is it in wise Egypt that our highest blessedness lies? Is it in busy, restless Sidon? Is it in luxurious Moab? No, my Christian brethren. The Christian must leave the world alone. His blessedness lies in quiet work with the Israel of God. His home is in that deep, unruffled tranquility which belongs to those who are trying to know Christ. And when a Christian will not learn this; when he will not understand that in calmness, and home, and work, and love his soul must find its peace: when he will try keener and more exciting pleasures; when he says, I must taste what life is while I am young, its feverishness, its strange, delirious, maddening intoxication, he has just taken Solomon’s first step, and he must take the whole Solomon’s after and most bitter experience along with it.
The second step of Solomon’s wandering was the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure. And a man like Solomon cannot do any thing by halves. What he did, he did thoroughly. No man ever more heartily and systematically gave himself up to the pursuit. If he once made up his mind that pleasure was his aim, then for pleasure he lived. There are some men who are prudent in their Epicureanism. They put gayety aside when they begin to get palled with it, and then return to it moderately again. Men like Solomon cannot do that. No earnest man can. No! if blessedness lies in pleasure, he will drink the cup to the dregs. Listen to what he says, - “I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.” That was a pursuit of pleasure which was at least decided and systematic, - manly. Observe, brethren, we have none of the cool, cautious sipping of enjoyment there. We have none of the feeble, languid attempts to enjoy the world which make men venture ankle-deep into dissipation, and only long for courage to go a little further. It is the earnestness of an impassioned man, a man who has quitted God, and thrown himself, heart and soul, upon every thing that he tries, and says be will try it fairly and to the full.
“Let us see what the world is worth.” Perhaps some minds amongst us now are not altogether strangers to a feeling such as this. There is many a soul, formed for higher and better things, that has, at one time or another, lost its hold on God, and felt the impulse of its own desires urging it on forever, dissatisfied, restless, panting for a celestial fruit which seems forbidden, and half expecting to find that fruit in life’s excitement. These are the wanderings of an erring spirit. But, my brethren, let us mark the wanderings of an immortal soul infinite in its vastness. There is a moral to be learnt from the wildest worldliness. When we look on the madness of life, and are marveling at the terrible career of dissipation, let there be no contempt felt. It is an immortal spirit marring itself. It is an infinite soul, which nothing short of the Infinite can satisfy, plunging down to ruin and disappointment. Men of pleasure! whose hearts are as capable of an eternal blessedness as a Christian’s, that is the terrible meaning and moral of your dissipation. God in Christ is your only Eden, and out of Christ you can have nothing but the restlessness of Cain; you are blindly pursuing your destiny. That unquenched impetuosity within you might have led you up to God. You have chosen instead that your heart shall try to satisfy itself upon husks.
There was another form of Solomon’s worldliness. It was not worldliness in pleasure, but worldliness in occupation. He had entered deeply into commercial speculations. He had alternate fears and hopes about the return of his merchant ships on their perilous three-years’ voyage to India and to Spain. He had his mind occupied with plans for building. The architecture of the Temple, his own palace, the forts and towns of his now magnificent empire, all this filled for a time his soul. He had begun a system of national debt and ruinous taxation. He had become a slaveholder and a despot, who was compelled to keep his people down by armed force. Much of this was not wrong; but all of it was dangerous. It is a strange thing how business dulls the sharpness of the spiritual affections. It is strange how the harass of perpetual occupation shuts God out. It is strange how much mingling with the world, politics, and those thing’s which belong to advancing civilization, things which are very often in the way of our duty, deaden the delicate sense of right and wrong. Let Christians be on their guard by double prayerfulness when duty makes them men of business or calls them to posts of worldly activity. Solomon did things of questionable morality which he never would have done if he had not had the ambition to distinguish himself among the princes of this world. Business and worldliness dried up the springs of his spirituality. It was the climax of Solomon’s transgression that he suffered the establishment of idolatry in his dominions.
There are writers who have said that in this matter Solomon was in advance of his age, - enlightened beyond the narrowness of Judaism, and that this permission of idolatry was the earliest exhibition of that spirit which in modern times we call religious toleration. But, my brethren, Solomon went far beyond toleration. It is written, when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; for he went after Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. The truth seems to be, Solomon was getting indifferent about religion. He had got into light and worldly society, and the libertinism of his associations was beginning to make its impression upon him. He was beginning to ask, Is not one religion as good as another, so long as each man believes his own in earnest? He began to feel there is a great deal to be said for these different religions. After all, there is nothing certain; and why forbid men the quiet enjoyment of their own opinion? And so he became what men call liberal, and he took idolatry under his patronage. There are few signs in a soul’s state more alarming than that of religious indifference, that is, the spirit of thinking all religions equally true, - the real meaning of which is, that all religions are equally false.
II. We are to consider, in the last place, God’s loving guidance of Solomon in the midst of all his apostasy.
My Christian brethren, in the darkest, wildest wanderings, a man to whom God has shown his love in Christ is conscious still of the better way. In the very gloom of his remorse, there is an instinctive turning back to God. It is enumerated among the gifts that God bestowed on Solomon, that He granted to him “largeness of heart.” Now that largeness of heart which we call thoughtfulness and sensibility, generosity, high feeling, marks out, for the man who has it, a peculiar life. Life becomes an intense thing: if there be guilt, then his life will be desolating remorse; if love, then the very ecstasy of blessedness. But a cool, commonplace life he cannot have. According to Scripture phraseology, Solomon had a great heart; and therefore it was that for such an one the discipline which was to lead him back to God must needs be terrible. “If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men.” That was God’s covenant, and with tremendous fidelity was it kept.
You look to the life of Solomon, and there are no outward reverses there to speak of. His reign was a type of the reign of the power of peace. No war, no national disaster, interrupted the even flow of the current of his days. No loss of a child, like David’s, pouring cold desolation into his soul, - no pestilences nor famines. Prosperity and riches, and the internal development of the nation’s life, that was the reign of Solomon. And yet, brethren, with all this, was Solomon happy? Has God no arrows winged in heaven for the heart, except those which come in the shape of outward calamity? Is there no way that God has of making the heart gray and old before its time, without sending bereavement, or loss, or sickness? Has the Eternal Justice no mode of withering and drying up the inner springs of happiness, while all is green, and wild, and fresh outwardly? We look to the history of Solomon for the answer.
The first way in which his aberration from God treasured up for him chastisement, was by that weariness of existence which breathes through the whole book of Ecclesiastes. That book bears internal evidence of having been written after repentance and victory. It is the experience of a career of pleasure; and the tone which vibrates through the whole is disgust with the world, and mankind, and life, and self. I hold that book to be inspired. God put it into the heart of Solomon to make that experience public. But, my brethren, by “inspired,” I do not mean that all the feelings to which that book gives utterance are right or holy feelings. St. John could not have written that book. John, who had lived in the atmosphere of love, looking on this world as God looks on it, - calmly, with the deep peace of heaven in his soul, at peace with himself, and at peace with man, - could never have penned the book of Ecclesiastes. To have written the book of Ecclesiastes a man must have been qualified in a peculiar way. He must have been a man of intense feeling, - large in heart, as the Bible calls it. He must have been a man who had drunk deep of unlawful pleasure. He must have been a man in the upper ranks of society, with plenty of leisure and plenty of time to brood on self. Therefore, in saying it is an inspired book, I mean the inspired account of the workings of a guilty, erring, and yet, at last, conquering spirit. It is not written as a wise and calm Christian would write, but as a heart would write which was fevered with disappointment, jaded with passionate attempts in the pursuit of blessedness, and forced to God as the last resource.
My younger brethren, that saddest book in all the Bible stands before you as the beacon and the warning from a God who loves you, and would spare you bitterness if He could. Follow inclination now, put no restraint on feeling, - say that there is time enough to be religious by-and-by, - forget that now is the time to take Christ’s yoke upon you, and learn gradually and peacefully that serene control of heart which must be learnt at last by a painful wrench, - forget all that, and say that you trust in God’s love and mercy to bring all right, and then that book of Ecclesiastes is your history. The penalty that you pay for a youth of pleasure is, if you have anything good in you, an old age of weariness and remorseful dissatisfaction.
Another part of Solomon’s chastisement was doubt. Once more turn to the book of Ecclesiastes. “All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth and to him that sacrificeth not.” In this, brethren, you will observe the querulous complaint of a man who has ceased to feel that God is the Ruler of this world. A blind chance, or a dark destiny, seems to rule all earthly things. And that is the penalty of leaving God’s narrow path for sin’s wider and more flowery one. You lose your way; you get perplexed; doubt takes possession of your soul. And, my Christian brethren, if I speak to any such, you know that there is no suffering more severe than doubt. There is a loss of aim, and you know not what you have to live for. Life has lost its meaning and its infinite significance. There is a hollowness at the heart of your existence. There is a feeling of weakness, and a discontented loss of self-respect. God has hidden His face from you because you have been trying to do without Him or to serve Him with a divided heart.
But now, lastly, we have to remark, that the Love of God brought Solomon through all this to spiritual manhood. “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” In this, brethren, we have the evidence of his victory. Doubt and imprisonment and worldliness have passed away, and clear activity, belief, freedom, have taken their place. It was a terrible discipline, but God had made that discipline successful. Solomon struggled manfully to the end. The details of his life were dark, but the life itself was earnest; and after many a fall, repentance, with unconquerable purpose, began afresh. And so he struggled on, often baffled, often down, but never finally subdued; and still with tears and indomitable trust, returning to the conflict again. And so when we come to the end of his last earthly work, we find the sour smoke, which had so long been smouldering in his heart and choking his existence, changed into bright, clear flame. He has found the secret out at last, and it has filled his whole soul with blessedness. God is man’s happiness. “Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”
And now, brethren, let us come to the meaning and the personal application of all this. There is a way, - let us not shrink from saying it, - there is a way in which sin may be made to minister to holiness. “To whomsoever much is forgiven the same loveth much.” There was an everlasting truth in what our Messiah said to the moral Pharisees: “The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” Now these are Christ’s words; and we will not fear to boldly state the same truth, though it be liable to much misinterpretation. Past sin, brethren, may be made the stepping-stone to heaven. Let a man abuse that if he will by saying, “Then it is best to sin.” A man may make the doctrine absurd, even shocking, by that inference, but it is true for all that. “All things work together for good to them that love God.” All things, even sin. God can take even your sin, and make it work to your soul’s sanctification. He can let you down into such an abyss of self-loathing and disgust, such life-weariness and doubt and misery and disappointment, that if He ever raises you again by the invigorating experience of the Love of Christ, you will rise stronger from your very fall, and in a manner secured against apostasy again. Solomon, king of Israel, sinned, and, by the strange power of the cross of Christ, that sin gave him deeper knowledge of himself, deeper insight into the mystery of human life, more marvelous power of touching the souls of his brother men, than if he had not sinned. But forget not this, if ever a great sinner becomes a great saint, it will be through agonies which none but those who have sinned know.
Brethren, I speak to those among you who know something about what the world is worth, who have tasted its fruits, and found them like the Dead Sea apples, - hollowness and ashes. By those foretastes of coming misery which God has already given you, those lonely feelings of utter wretchedness and disappointment when you have returned home palled and satiated from the gaudy entertainment, and the truth has pressed itself icy cold upon your heart, “Vanity of vanities” - is this worth living for? By all that, be warned. Be true to your convictions. Be honest with yourselves. Be manly in working out your doubts, as Solomon was. Greatness, Goodness, Blessedness, lie not in the life that you are leading now. They lie in quite a different path: they lie in a life hid with Christ in God. Before God is compelled to write that upon your heart in disgust and disappointment, learn “what is that good for the sons of men which they should do” all the days of their life under the Heaven. Learn from the very greatness of your souls, which have a capacity for infinite agony, that you are in this world for a grander destiny than that of frittering away life in uselessness.
Lastly, let us learn from this subject the covenant love of God. There is such a thing as love which rebellion cannot weary, which ingratitude cannot cool. It is the Love of God to those whom He has redeemed in Christ. “Did not Solomon, King of Israel, sin? and yet there was no king like him who was beloved of his God.” Let that, my Christian brethren, be to us a truth not to teach carelessness, but thankfulness. Oh! trembling believer in Christ, are you looking into the dark future and fearing, not knowing what God will be to you at the last? Remember, Christ “having loved His own who are in the world loved them to to the end.” Your salvation is in the hands of Christ; the everlasting arms are beneath you. The rock on which your salvation is built is love, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against you.