What if we are so smart and wise? What if we are so successful and prosperous? Can we say that we are happy and our lives are satisfactory?
In the modern-day marketplace it seems there are a lot of teachings everywhere for us to become smart and wise. All these things are only a few clicks and taps away, waiting for us to consume them in one way or another.
Life is short. How can we learn and consume all of them? Do we have to master all these things to become smart and wise? Do we have to practice them to become successful and prosperous? And in doing so and achieving them, can we be happy after all? Or, are we just selfish?
Of course, everyone likes to be happy. And we know that to be happy, it seems we have to become smart and wise, and successful and prosperous. Is that so?
These questions always remind me of the story of King Solomon. When Solomon was about to succeed on the throne from his father, King David, he got the following advice (Let me use the modern translation).
My son, I will soon die, as everyone must. But I want you to be strong and brave. Do what the LORD your God commands and follow his teachings. Obey everything written in the Law of Moses. Then you will be a success, no matter what you do or where you go.1 Kings 2:2-3
From his first-hand experience (struggles and successes), King David knew what should be the most important things in life. His advice also reminds us of the opening verses of Psalms:
God blesses those people who refuse evil advice and won’t follow sinners or join in sneering at God. Instead, the Law of the LORD makes them happy, and they think about it day and night. They are like trees growing beside a stream, trees that produce fruit in season and always have leaves. Those people succeed in everything they do.Psalm 1:1-3
First, you must be strong and brave, just like God advised Joshua. And then, obedience to God should always be the basis for everything as the primary foundation for our lives.
I’ve commanded you to be strong and brave. Don’t ever be afraid or discouraged! I am the LORD your God, and I will be there to help you wherever you go.Joshua 1:9
After accepting the throne from his father, young King Solomon had a chance to communicate with God in a dream. God was kind enough to listen to one wish from Solomon.
One night while Solomon was in Gibeon, the LORD God appeared to him in a dream and said, “Solomon, ask for anything you want, and I will give it to you.”1 Kings 3:5
At that time, King Solomon was still new and respected his father, former King David. He was humble enough to make the following wise answer.
My father David, your servant, was honest and did what you commanded. You were always loyal to him, and you gave him a son who is now king. LORD God, I’m your servant, and you’ve made me king in my father’s place. But I’m very young and know so little about being a leader. And now I must rule your chosen people, even though there are too many of them to count. Please make me wise and teach me the difference between right and wrong. Then I will know how to rule your people. If you don’t, there is no way I could rule this great nation of yours.1 Kings 3:6-9
Let me repeat the wish of young King Solomon.
Please make me wise and teach me the difference between right and wrong. Then I will know how to rule your people. If you don’t, there is no way I could rule this great nation of yours.1 Kings 3:9
His wish was humble, wise and fair enough. We usually pray for the same thing before any critical situation. We pray for God to guide us to the right path and make us wise for the right decisions. He didn’t ask for any material and worldly things. So, God answered:
Solomon, I’m pleased that you asked for this. You could have asked to live a long time or to be rich. Or you could have asked for your enemies to be destroyed. Instead, you asked for wisdom to make right decisions. So I’ll make you wiser than anyone who has ever lived or ever will live. I’ll also give you what you didn’t ask for. You’ll be rich and respected as long as you live, and you’ll be greater than any other king. If you obey me and follow my commands, as your father David did, I’ll let you live a long time.1 Kings 3:10-14
Thus, King Solomon became wiser than anyone else who has ever lived or ever will live. Not only that, God even promised him to become wealthy, respected, and greater than any other kings.
King Solomon was ready to be the greatest king ever. He became the wisest person ever. And history tells us all the successes that King Solomon achieved. He was also the author of Proverbs, which begins as follows:
These are the proverbs of King Solomon of Israel, the son of David. Proverbs will teach you wisdom and self-control and how to understand sayings with deep meanings. You will learn what is right and honest and fair. From these, an ordinary person can learn to be smart, and young people can gain knowledge and good sense.Proverbs 1:1-4
In the modern-day context, King Solomon was like a celebrity guru, business owner, and billionaire. We can easily imagine all those famous people to admire their lives, achievements, and special teachings to be shared in the marketplace. They are smart, wise, successful, wealthy, strong, and brave. King Solomon was indeed such a celebrity king.
Solomon wrote three thousand wise sayings and composed more than one thousand songs. He could talk about all kinds of plants, from large trees to small bushes, and he taught about animals, birds, reptiles, and fish. Kings all over the world heard about Solomon’s wisdom and sent people to listen to him teach.1 Kings 4:32-34
With all these achievements, how did he see himself? Perhaps, he tried his best to keep him humble and find time always to thank and obey God. But then, whether he likes or not, his life was no longer as simple as he imagined. With too many admirers and followers, the situation became beyond his control. Eventually, King Solomon could no longer control himself, even his desires. He became numb to everything and everyone around him.
Gradually and surely, his lifestyle became selfish and decadent. We can see a glimpse of it from these verses:
The LORD did not want the Israelites to worship foreign gods, so he had warned them not to marry anyone who was not from Israel. Solomon loved his wife, the daughter of the king of Egypt. But he also loved some women from Moab, Ammon, and Edom, and others from Sidon and the land of the Hittites. Seven hundred of his wives were daughters of kings, but he also married three hundred other women. As Solomon got older, some of his wives led him to worship their gods. He wasn’t like his father David, who had worshiped only the LORD God. Solomon also worshiped Astarte the goddess of Sidon, and Milcom the disgusting god of Ammon. Solomon’s father had obeyed the LORD with all his heart, but Solomon disobeyed and did what the LORD hated.1 Kings 11:1-6
He has seven hundred wives and three hundred mistresses. He also created other idols for worship. Some of his wives and other followers controlled him, and he couldn’t make wise decisions anymore. As he got older, he became a puppet for all the malicious people around him who wanted to take advantage of his authority. And even he was not able to prepare his predecessor wisely.
King Solomon died of natural causes in 931 BCE at the age of 80. In this regard, he enjoyed his long life. While his son, Rehoboam, inherited the throne due to a civil war, the United Kingdom of Israel ended in 930 BCE only after one year.
Did Solomon enjoy his life? Was he happy? Despite his wisdom from God, or perhaps because of it, his life was just like the life of everyone else. His struggle was so painful and perhaps not so different from ours. We can see his struggle, dilemma, even pessimistic nihilism in his book, Ecclesiastes. It starts as follows (Let me use the modern translation).
Nothing makes sense! Everything is nonsense. I have seen it all – nothing makes sense! What is there to show for all of our hard work here on this earth? People come, and people go, but still the world never changes.Ecclesiastes 1:2-4
King Solomon decided to make his life, and everything else happy and blessed with the power of his wisdom from God. It seems, however, the more he tried, the more his goals became elusive. And he became so desperate and eventually gave them up, saying everything is nonsense after he saw it all. He talked to himself:
I said to myself, “You are by far the wisest person who has ever lived in Jerusalem. You are eager to learn, and you have learned a lot.” Then I decided to find out all I could about wisdom and foolishness. Soon I realized that this too was as senseless as chasing the wind. The more you know, the more you hurt; the more you understand, the more you suffer.Ecclesiastes 1:16-18
Because he became the wisest person, the more he knows, the more he hurts; the more he understands, the more he suffers. For King Solomon, controlling life in the pursuit of happiness is just like “chasing the wind.” It’s so elusive.
Perhaps controlling life with wisdom would be too arrogant. Life is as it is. Only God sees Himself in Him.
Everything on earth has its own time and its own season. There is a time for birth and death, planting and reaping, for killing and healing, destroying and building, for crying and laughing, weeping and dancing, for throwing stones and gathering stones, embracing and parting. There is a time for finding and losing, keeping and giving, for tearing and sewing, listening and speaking. There is also a time for love and hate, for war and peace.Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
Even these words remind us of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return.
Everything that happens has happened before, and all that will be has already been – God does everything over and over again.Ecclesiastes 3:15
Like everyone else, including ourselves, Solomon shared the nihilistic insights.
I have seen everything during this senseless life of mine. I have seen good citizens die for doing the right thing, and I have seen criminals live to a ripe old age. So don’t destroy yourself by being too good or acting too smart! Don’t die before your time by being too evil or acting like a fool. Keep to the middle of the road. You can do this if you truly respect God.Ecclesiastes 7:15-18
Beyond Solomon’s Nihilism
In the later part of his days, King Solomon made the advice, saying, “Don’t destroy yourself by being too good or acting too smart!… Keep the middle of the road.”
So, do we have to forget about all the good things and the right paths to follow? Is there no more such a thing as righteousness and justice? Do we have to be pessimistic and nihilistic at the end of the days as Solomon seemingly became so upset?
I don’t think so. Solomon surely added one more sentence saying, “You can do this if you truly respect God.”
Ecclesiastes is not only a series of negative and pessimistic statements. Beyond all regrets and disappointments he made, it is the final hope and conviction that King Solomon had eventually achieved.
What is justice? What is righteousness? Often these questions are deceptive. We are not seeking them from God’s perspective, but only the indulgence of our selfishness and self-righteousness.
King Solomon believed that he was so smart and wise. He thought he could never make any mistakes in his judgment and decision. Consciously or unconsciously, then, King Solomon relied on himself alone. He had totally forgotten the very foundation of life. He had forgotten the very truth that God is everything. He alone is.
In Proverbs, King Solomon stated this critical statement. But he had forgotten it in the actuality of his life.
Respect and obey the LORD! This is the beginning of wisdom. To have understanding, you must know the Holy God.Proverbs 9:10
Can we become smart and wise enough so that we wouldn’t have to rely on God anymore? Can we be independent of Him? God forbid.
Ecclesiastes is not the book for lamentation but hopes to remind us again of what is the most important thing in life and haven.
King Solomon ended the book as follows:
Everything you were taught can be put into a few words: Respect and obey God! This is what life is all about. God will judge everything we do, even what is done in secret, whether good or bad.Ecclesiastes 12:13-14
God will judge everything, even those things that we thought of good selfishly. Jesus also put this point at the first of all the blessings, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
God blesses those people who depend only on him. They belong to the kingdom of heaven!Matthew 5:3
Image by Rudolfs Klintsons