Jesus’ appropriation of Solomon in the Sermon on the Mount

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May 17, 2013 by jmar198013

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith? Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matt 6.24-34 CEB, emphasis mine)

I want to begin by suggesting that there may be a playful allusion to the Song of Songs in Matt. 6.28-29: Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. Lilies in the field/lily of the valley. More to the point: Wouldn’t Jesus’ mention of Solomon’s splendor have elicited a definite response from his original audience? Beyond that, but closely related, how might Matthew’s intended audience have reacted to such a saying?

Derrett thinks that the image of Solomon signals someone who was blessed by God with material things because he trusted God (54). Betz says that the figure of Solomon represents the best of human achievement, but that God can surely clothe those in his circle of concern better than Solomon clothed himself (Sermon 478). Yet, we cannot escape the nagging apprehension that Jesus had something quite different in mind when he interjected the figure of Solomon into his teaching. It seems rather that “Solomon in all his splendor” (6.29) is actually a figure of decadence and exploitation (1 Kings 11.1-6).

Matt. 6.26-30 is an argument a minore ad maius: if God cares for birds, flowers, and grass, will he not care all the more for people? But while Derrett (54) and Betz (Sermon, 478) have seen a positive reference to Solomon in this context, Warren Carter sees a negative portrayal of the ancient king, contending that the audience is meant to perceive “a contrast between Solomon (how not to do it) and God and the flowers (how to do it)” (“Solomon,” 8). Note how Jesus introduces the figure of Solomon: he uses lego de humin (“But I tell you”). Elsewhere in Matt. 5-7, Jesus has used this very phrase to introduce a contrast (5.18, 20, 22, 26, 28, 32 et al). “In each instance the audience utilizes the phrase to formulate a contrast in which a particular practice or perspective is rejected and an alternative advocated” (Carter “Solomon,” 9).

Jesus does not mention any aspect of Solomon’s activity. He merely references him as “Solomon in all his splendor” (6.29). We are now left with the question of how the first recipients of this teaching would have evaluated the figure of Solomon in relation to Jesus’ illustration. In this context, is it assumed that Solomon procured his clothing and splendor by his own power, or were those things all given to him by God? Can we honestly say that Solomon got his clothing by hard work at the loom? Or is the figure of Solomon meant to signify someone who is anxious for their own security and comfort, and thus seeks to secure those things, even at the expense of forsaking God and exploiting others?

Solomon is mentioned by Matthew first in the genealogy, with a back-handed reference to David’s adultery and murder in conjunction with Solomon’s mother (1.6-7). Solomon himself is second in a list of fourteen kings mentioned by Matthew in a royal line known for its decadence, which ultimately ends in the exile to Babylon (1.6-11). “Such is the company of kings that Solomon keeps” (Carter, “Solomon” 11). The kings in this section of Matthew’s genealogy are not typically noted for their excessive toil, but for forsaking God in favor of idols, and in exploiting their subjects to serve their own selfish ends.

Another consideration for seeing the reference to Solomon in Matt. 6.29 as a negative one is that Jesus describes him en pase te doxe autou (“in all his splendor”). The last time Matthew’s audience has heard doxa was in Matt. 4.8, where the devil tempts Jesus with the offer to give him the kingdoms of the world in all their glory (pasas . . . doxan) if Jesus will worship him. Hagner takes this to mean “this world and all its wealth” or “all that this world has to offer” (68). Hence, the audience has already been conditioned to take a negative view of kingly wealth and splendor. It is set in contrast with the good works of the disciples which will glorify the Father (5.13-16), and implies exploitation and idolatry. The glory of the Lord had filled the temple when Solomon built it (1 Kings 8.10). In contrast, it was not the Lord’s glory which filled Solomon’s reign as a king, but a pursuit of self-glorification. From Matt. 4.8, Jesus’ followers have learned to reject this route to glory, as Jesus already has. There is some cultural conditioning on the part of Matthew’s audience in this regard, as well, for they lived in culture of truisms such as the concept of limited commodity. “[E]xcessive wealth gathered for one’s own honor not only deprives others of honor and material necessities, but indicates the means by which it was gotten, namely oppression and greed” (Carter, “Solomon” 16).


Finally, and perhaps most to the point, the audience’s evaluation of Solomon was conditioned by their knowledge of his character garnered from the Biblical account itself. Solomon built himself a house before even thinking of making one for the Lord, and sacrificed at the high places (1 Kings 3.2-3). 1 Kings 4-5 shows Solomon amassing wealth and honor through coerced labor, heavy taxation, military power, and bureaucracy. His own palace took thirteen years to build (1 Kings 7.1), while the Lord’s house was built in a mere seven (1 Kings 6.38).Thus, although God promised him wealth and honor in 1 Kings 3.13, the picture actually drawn for us of Solomon’s acquisition of his splendor is that Solomon got it on his own initiative, and not by God’s blessing. We should note here that God’s blessing of Solomon’s endeavors carries a specific set of qualifiers (1 Kings 3.11-14; 9.4-9). The continued blessings are conditioned upon Solomon’s loyalty to the Lord and his justice as a ruler. Since Solomon acquired his wealth by exploiting his subjects and ecological resources (1 Kings 4), and violated Deut. 7.3 and was seduced by his wives to follow after other gods (1 Kings 11), the verdict placed upon his reign by the text is an indictment. “The text tradition no longer has much interest in the celebration of Solomon as temple builder, wise man, or economic genius” (Brueggemann, Solomon 76). Noting the turmoil in the aftermath of Solomon’s reign (1 Kings 12), Carter concludes that “this model of oppressive and exploitative social, economic, and military power would produce, and be the object of, subsequent prophetic protest and critique” (“Solomon” 21).

When read in this way, Solomon’s appearance in Matt. 6.29 presents a perfect illustration of the scandal presented in 6.24c: You cannot serve God and wealth. Solomon’s reign serves as a clear illustration of this dilemma: “[T]he rhetoric serves to deconstruct Solomon, to suggest that his unparalleled wealth is in fact a pretentious, empty show that does nothing to relieve anxiety . . . the tradition of Matthew portrays Solomon as a model of failed life, defined by acquisitiveness that would not rely on the gracious gifts of the Creator” (Brueggemann, Solomon 246-47; cf. 222).

Jesus’ response to the failed life of Solomon was to tell his audience not to fret over material security (6.25), but to seek God’s reign and justice first (6.33). He reassured them that they would be taken care of when so acted by offering two more instructions, which each tell the audience to observe God’s care for his creation (6.26, 28). The reference to Solomon in 6.29 serves as a warning that seeking after one’s own comfort first, rather than God’s transforming reign, will bring disastrous consequences.

Works cited

Betz, Hans Dieter. A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Including the Sermon on the Plain. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

Brueggemann, Walter. Solomon: Israel’s Ironic Icon of Human Achievement. Columbia, SC: South Carolina, 2005.

Carter, Warren. “‘Solomon in All His Glory’: Intertextuality and Matthew 6.29.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 65 (1997): 3-25.

Derrett, J. Duncan M. The Ascetic Discourse: An Explanation of the Sermon on the Mount. Eilsbrunn: Ko’amar, 1989.

Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 1-13. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 33a. Dallas: Word, 1993.


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