Solomon brought in 666 talents of gold each year (1 Kings 10:14). Innocent of the ominous use of that number in Revelation 13 (not to mention The Simpsons), the original readers might have said, “Way to go, Solomon! He’s filthy rich!” Plus, he’s got 500 gold shields (vv. 16-17), an incomparable throne (vv. 18-20), gold cups (v. 21) and ships that carry exotica into Israel (v. 22). There’s been no king like this ever before; he’s “greater than all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom” (v. 23).
Then we’re told that he had 1400 chariots and 12,000 horses (v. 26). An attentive reader might hear an alarm bell in his head. What about Deuteronomy 17, where kings are forbidden to multiple horses and chariots. Disquiet grows, and becomes deeper when we learn that the horses come from Egypt (vv. 28-29). Might we, perhaps, be heading back to slavery?
Only in 11:1-4 does text get explicit about Solomon’s unfaithfulness:
He marries many foreign women, from among the nations that God prohibited, and these “turned his heart away after other gods” (v. 4). Now we know that he’s fallen, and we can look back and see that this is what the text has been telling us all along: He’s done what kings are forbidden to do, multiplying gold, guns, and girls; wealth, weapons, women.
But when did the text shift? Maybe at the beginning of chapter 11. But once we get to chapter 11 and hear the echo of Deuteronomy 17, Solomon has already sunk deep. Chapter 11 brings a shock of recognition: That’s what’s been going on. Solomon has been defying God’s instructions to kings. By the time we recognize what’s happening, it’s nearly over, things are so far gone.
Which is just the point: No doubt, Israelites in Solomon’s day had the same experience. One day they are celebrating Solomon’s wealth, gold and chariots, and they wake up the next day to the sound of hammers as he starts building a temple to Ashtoreth or Milcom. Where did things go wrong? It’s hard to say. Solomon slipped into unfaithfulness, his very prosperity creating the conditions of his fall.
And the text does the same work on its readers, enticing us with stories of gold cups and ivory thrones and peacocks and chariots and horses and . . . foreign wives and concubines and idols and idolatrous temples. By the time we readers know exactly what’s going on, we’re too far steeped in it to turn back.