His reign brought unmatched prestige and prosperity to his people and civilization. On the other hand, Solomon also represents a life of precipitous moral decline. The traditions that claim his authorship or inspiration mark a man who squandered his inheritance and ended up in dissolution and lechery. As the Jewish Bible might paraphrase the lesson, it was the best of times for Israel as a nation of might, the worst of times for Solomon as a man of character.
He was born as the son of King David, also called Jedidiah (the Lord’s beloved). He was the son of Bathsheba, the woman whom David scandalously took while her husband was away fighting David’s wars. Bathsheba’s first son by David died in infancy, and perhaps Solomon was the second.
After a period of court intrigue his mother succeeded in obtaining David’s choice of Solomon as his successor. His 40 years as king were marked by a burst of public works. His most famous effort was the construction of the Temple, confirming Jerusalem as the religious center of the kingdom.
Its beauty and its size were so touted by its pilgrims that it was eventually considered, like the Delphic oracle for the Greeks, as the center of the world. Solomon’s successors made the Temple a symbol of unity and hope in their less glorious times.
Other building projects that Solomon began or oversaw were the fortification of major cities around his territory. A whole host of fortresses and military stations went up in the desert to the south, protecting the flank of Israel against marauders coming from Egypt or the Arab lands.
Strategic cities like Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer became food storage cities to serve as refuges against invading armies from the north and northeast. They also prospered because they were on important trade routes.
Archaeological investigations confirm a higher standard of living for these times. Israel most likely served as a hub for trade coming from such places as Sheba (Yemen) in the south, Phoenicia (Lebanon) in the north, and in Aramaea (Syria and Turkey) in the northwest.
The Jewish Bible speaks of rulers of these lands paying homage to Solomon and of Solomon being involved with an extensive trade in horses, chariots, and timber. Remarkably, his kingdom invested in seafaring, something that ancient Israel invariably shied away from. The endeavor ended in failure, and Israel never tried again.
The moralizers who wrote about Solomon’s kingdom were not reticent to speak about his character. Solomon was supposedly endowed with divine wisdom in a dream shortly after he assumed the kingship. Then two women came to him and claimed the same child as their own. As proof of his wisdom he discerned who the true mother was by a test.
The legendary queen of Sheba also came to him seeking advice from the young king and went away marveling about his magnificence. Solomon’s name was associated with poetry, songs, scientific investigations, and even the occult; the Jewish Bible says that Solomon’s wisdom "surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt" (1 Kings 3).
Nonetheless, Solomon’s writers then describe his downfall: womanizing. He acquired 700 full wives and 300 concubines. No doubt many of these were for political alliances with foreign peoples—in fact his son and successor, Rehoboam, was born from an Ammonite woman, and Solomon is recorded as building a special home for pharaoh’s daughter.
Nonetheless, the judgment of his biographers is negative. The foreign women brought their foreign gods, and the king compromised his exclusive devotion to the Lord. Internal opposition emerged as Solomon’s projects required more and more taxation and national resources.
One critic, Jeroboam, later became an insurrectionist and self-appointed king of the northern tribes (called Israel or Samaria), who seceded from the southern tribes (called Judah). External opposition also challenged Israel’s temporary control of the region.
Among the many uplifting works attributed to him are the book of Proverbs and several psalms. The Songs of Solomon and Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) probably reflect darker days in Solomon’s life when he was carried away by hedonism, materialism, and cynicism. Other works associated with him are not part of the Jewish Bible canon but are viewed as possibly divinely inspired: the Psalms of Solomon and Testament of Solomon.
He seems to have been a role model for such later "good" kings of Judah as Hezekiah and Josiah. Even Byzantine emperor Justinian claimed that his famous church, the Hagia Sophia, made him the Solomon of his day. In later history Solomon is cited as a heroic figure by the major religious traditions.
Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth cites him as a wise man, and the Gospel of Matthew lists him as an ancestor of Jesus. Rabbinic Jews add to his lore their various tales, and the fathers of the church add to the lore surrounding him. Islam finds in him a good statesman and governor, and even the Ethiopian Christians of the Oriental Orthodox Church claim him as a full ethnic ancestor.