Solomon appears in the Bible as the wealthiest and most accomplished of all the kings of Israel and Judah. He is the son of David and succeeds him as king, being the third king in Israel. He is credited, like David, with a 40-year reign (1 Kgs 11:42), but this is merely an ideal number. If his reign was historical (see below), he died around 930 to 925 BCE. The name ‘Solomon’ first appears in 2 Sam 5:4 in the Bible, in a list of David’s children who were born in Jerusalem. In 2 Sam 12:25 he is given the alternative name Jedidiah (beloved of YHWH). It could be that this was his personal name, and Solomon his throne name.
Solomon’s life according to the Bible
Solomon’s birth as the second and first surviving son of David and Bathsheba is related in 2 Sam 12:24-25, and the account of his reign is found in 1 Kgs 1–11 and 2 Chr 1–9.
He ascends the throne during David’s waning years after a failed coup attempt by his half-brother, Adonijah, as a result of the influence of the prophet Nathan and his mother Bathsheba on the ailing David (1 Kgs 1). He then secures his power by the murder of his rival Adonijah, Adonijah’s supporter Joab, and David’s enemy Shimei (1 Kgs 2).
The account in Kings tells of two sides to Solomon’s reign. It begins well: he is said to have been faithful to YHWH like David (1 Kgs 3:3), and when YHWH appears to him in a dream, he asks and receives the gift of wisdom (1 Kgs 3:4-15). We read of his marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh (3:1-2), the detail of his administration (4:1-19), the magnificence of his court and the strength of his army (4:22, 26-28), the prosperity and peace of Israel under his rule (4:20, 25), his domination of the surrounding kingdoms (4:21, 24), and the fame of his wisdom (4:29-34; see also 10:1-10). His principal achievement, the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, along with his own palace, is central to the account (1 Kgs 5–8). It is said to have been achieved with the assistance of Hiram, king of Tyre (ch. 5), and a vast levy of forced labour: conflicting texts say that the labour was recruited from ‘all Israel’ (5:13; see also 12:1-19) or from the remaining Canaanites only (9:20-23).
In 1 Kgs 11 (prepared for in 9:1-9), we see the reverse side. Solomon is here said to have been led astray by his many wives and concubines, through whom he is led into idolatry. YHWH responds by raising up enemies to him, both in the subject kingdoms and at home, which after his death leads to the breakup of the kingdom. He is succeeded by his son, Rehoboam, who loses most of Israel (1 Kgs 12).
The account in 2 Chr 1–9 reproduces most of the favourable material in Kings, but omits the story of Solomom’s succession and political murders and all of 1 Kgs 4 and the account of his idolatry in 1 Kgs 11.
The historicity of Solomon
Analysis of the account in Kings
It is evident that much of the biblical account of Solomon has the character of legend: e.g., the accounts of his magnificence and his wisdom in 1 Kgs 3:4-28; 4: 20-34; and ch.10. Other passages are theological, such as the account of the dedication of the Temple, with Solomon’s prayer, in ch. 8, YHWH’s warning in 9:1-9, and the account of Solomon’s sins in 11:1-13. The list of officials in 4:1-19 could be an extract from an archive, but it does not necessarily date in its entirety from Solomon’s time. Similarly, the description of the building of the Temple in chs. 6-7 may be considered a reliable account of the pre-exilic Temple, but it is unlikely to go back as far as Solomon’s time. The account as a whole is the work of the Deuteronomistic editors of Kings in the 6th century BCE, whatever earlier materials they may have employed. Thus there is not much in these chapters that can be seen as directly and reliably witnessing to the reign of Solomon.
Further, recent archaeological investigation has made it difficult to find a chronological place for the ‘united kingdom’ of David and Solomon. The material remains of the 10th century BCE in Jerusalem are scant, and regarded by many as inadequate to support the idea that it was the centre of a substantial kingdom. Buildings in other places that were formerly attributed to Solomon have now been redated to the 9th century.
Some scholars have drawn the conclusion that the kingdom of David and Solomon is entirely legendary, or even an invention of Judaean scribes after the fall of the (northern) kingdom of Israel, attempting to claim the heritage of Israel for Judah. Others would not go so far, suggesting that these kings could have existed, even if their reigns were neither as long nor as geographically extensive as the Bible suggests.
Solomon in the rest of the Bible
Solomon is generally characterised positively in the Old Testament. He is the recipient of God’s covenantal promise, originally given to David (2 Sam 7; 1 Kgs 2:3-4; 1 Chr 22:9-13; 28:5-10). Solomon’s devotion to God is clearly expressed in 1–2 Chronicles. Post-exilic narratives remember Solomon as one who institutionalised Israel’s worship (Ezra 2:58; Neh 12:45). Elsewhere, Solomon is pictured as the “bringer” of peace (Ps 72); the builder of God’s house (Ps 127:1); the sage (Prov 1:1; 10:1; 25:1), and the passionate lover (Song 1:1). Interestingly, the positive image of Solomon in the Old Testament (namely, his prosperity, wisdom, and work of building the Temple) is employed as an example for comparison to something/someone more superior in the New Testament (Matt 6:29; 12:42; Acts 7:47).
However, although Solomon’s name is not mentioned, it has often been thought that the kingship laws of Deut 17:14–20 result from reflection on his failures: a king should not multiply horses (see 1 Kgs 10: 26, 28), or wives (11:1-8) or else his heart will turn away from God; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.
Other texts associated with Solomon
A number of non-biblical texts are associated or attributed to Solomon. The Wisdom of Solomon, an exhortatory composition written in Greek, is dated to 2nd century BCE. Two other poetic works include the Odes of Solomon (ca. 1st to 3rd century CE) and the Psalms of Solomon (ca. 1st or 2nd century BCE).
Brueggemann, Walter. Solomon : Israel’s Ironic Icon of Human Achievement. Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 2005.
Grabbe, Lester L. Ancient Israel: What do we know and how do we know it? Rev. ed. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.
Grabbe, Lester L. 1 & 2 Kings: an Introduction and Study Guide: History and Story in Ancient Israel. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.
Handy, L. K. “Solomon.” Pages 921–29 in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Edited by Bill T. Arnold and Hugh G. M. Williamson. Downers Grove: IVP, 2006.