Solomon Sits on the Throne
The Book of Kings opens with a dramatic power struggle for the throne of the impotent King David. Chapter 1 raises the key question of who will sit upon the throne of David (vv. 20, 27) and then answers it decisively: “Long live King Solomon” (vv. 34, 39)!
At an earlier stage in its literary history, chapters 1–2 formed the conclusion of the throne succession story (II Sam. 9–20; see Jones, pp. 49–57). In the context of the Book of Kings, however, these chapters constitute a beginning rather than an ending. The former epoch of David has run its course. The enthronement of Solomon marks a new, auspicious start, the inauguration of an era of peace and prosperity. Chapter 1 has a dramatic plot that moves from exposition (vv. 1–10) to complication (vv. 11–27) through climax (vv. 28–40) to denouement (vv. 41–53). Its intention is clear—to explain how Solomon came to the throne and to do so in an entertaining way. It stands on its own as dramatic story, but it also makes important theological points.
In the exposition to follow, some explanatory details will be offered in order to make the story more understandable for the modern reader. Then will come an examination of the literary techniques used by the narrative to shift the story focus from David to Solomon. After this, we shall return to the narrative 15 itself for a detailed look at how the plot works. Then will follow the implications of this story for the Book of Kings and present-day readers.
Although the modern reader has no difficulty appreciating this story, some explanations are needed to bridge the gap between text and reader. For example, Abishag was sought out to resolve a constitutional crisis, not just to comfort the shivering old king. The physical and sexual vigor of a king was a matter of national concern. It was believed that there was a definite link between his natural powers and the power and effectiveness of his rule. David’s personal servants sought to renew his waning vigor by contact with the contagious vitality of a younger person, who moreover was a desirable virgin (NEB, NIV). Abishag became both a nurse for David’s failing health and the prescribed medicine for his impotence. David remains impotent, however, and this failure precipitates a political crisis to which first Adonijah and then Nathan respond. The ensuing conflict indicates that the succession of the oldest son was not yet an assured constitutional principle at the time of this narrative.
Adonijah’s public relations ploy (v. 5) is clear enough to modern readers, who recognize the importance of an entourage of limousines and security personnel for a political celebrity. Good looks (v. 6) were as important then as now (I Sam. 9:2; 16:12; II Sam. 14:25). Adonijah’s sacrifice meal was not necessarily the occasion for an unauthorized coronation, although the wily Nathan makes it out to be just that. It may have been only a way of building good will among his potential supporters. Although the narrator leaves our suspicions unconfirmed either way, most commentators have for some reason bought Nathan’s story at face value.
Nathan’s proposal (through Bathsheba, v. 20) was not for Solomon to replace David as king but for a co-regency. This political mechanism of an older and younger king reigning jointly helped assure dynastic stability. David would remain king with Solomon (vv. 43, 44, 47, 48).
Bathsheba’s exclamation in verse 31 is not really out of place, in spite of David’s advanced age, but is a generalized wish that the royal vitality be carried on by the present king and in his descendants. The picture of Solomon riding the royal mule (v. 33) fails to convey to us the intended impression of glory and dignity. The original readers would have recognized this as a potent symbol of ancient royal office (Zech. 9:9). Similarly, David’s use of the word nagid (v. 35; RSV “ruler”) harks back to leadership traditions from Israel’s pioneer past (I Sam. 9:16; 10:1).
The story delivers its point powerfully: Solomon was God’s choice as king, and he inaugurated a new era of peace and prosperity. The narrative makes its point through a skillful use of several literary techniques, one of which is spatial perspective. Spatially the reader is moved from David as center to Solomon as center. David is the passive spatial center at first. The reader begins at his bedside (vv. 1–4), then moves away to the outside (vv. 5–10), both spatially and in regard to narrative time (vv. 5–8). Next the reader is moved back through the palace (vv. 11–14) to the king’s chamber once more (vv. 15–27). David’s passivity is underlined by his inability to get warm, have sex, or control his son. He does not know what is going on outside the palace. Nathan and Bathsheba are the active ones. As Bathsheba begins her part of their plan, the reader is reminded once more of David’s helpless passivity by a parenthetical reminder about Abishag (v. 15).
Verse 27 marks a turning point. The passive center becomes the active center. Nathan’s speech and his penetrating questions rouse David to action. For the moment at least (vv. 28–37), David takes control. He summons his forces and issues orders. David’s orders take us back outside (vv. 38–40). As Solomon is made king, however, David fades into the background again, into the speech of Jonathan. David’s words and actions now take place off stage (vv. 43–44, 47–48). He is bedfast once more (v. 47). As the story moves from bedchamber to Gihon (vv. 38–40) to En-rogel (vv. 41–49) to the altar (v. 50), a change in center takes place. When we return to the palace (vv. 51–53), it is to discover a new center. Solomon has become the active center, into whose presence Adonijah comes and from whom he is ordered to go.
The narrative also uses other techniques to shift the reader from David to Solomon. Bathsheba and Nathan bow to David at the start (vv. 16, 23, 31). David himself bows to a blessing of Solomon in the middle (v. 47). At the narrative’s end, Adonijah does obeisance to Solomon, the new center (v. 53). This same movement is underscored by the way Solomon is named. He begins as brother to Adonijah and son to Bathsheba (vv. 10, 12, 13, 17, 21, 30), but the conspirators move to speak of him as David’s “servant” (vv. 19, 26). At the climax, David refers to Solomon as “my son” (v. 33). Then David (v. 34), all the people (v. 49), the messenger and Adonijah (v. 51), and finally the narrator (v. 53) call him “King Solomon.” By contrast, his rival is identified only as “Adonijah” or “Adonijah son of Haggith,” except in Nathan’s questionable assertion in verse 25. In a similar way, the stylized address of elevated courtly language is directed first to David (vv. 2, 17–21, 24–27, 31, 36–37) but at the end to Solomon by the subservient Adonijah (v. 51).
The narrative also focuses on Solomon by providing the reader with the viewpoints of several characters. We get an insight into Bathsheba’s inner perspective from her fearful words in verse 21. She and her son would be “offenders” (that is, “traitors,” II Kings 18:14) under Adonijah’s regime. Jonathan son of Abiathar reveals the point of view of public opinion. He is as omniscient as the narrator himself, reporting events at Gihon, in the throne room and even in David’s bed chamber. Through a subtle temporal distortion (he arrives at the moment of the trumpet blast, but reports the subsequent enthronement and blessing, vv. 46–48), Jonathan brings news to Adonijah’s potential supporters and to the readers as well. This causes Adonijah’s public support to evaporate, but Jonathan has already made the common citizen’s decision: “our lord King David has made Solomon king” (v. 43).
Things are especially interesting when the story is told from Adonijah’s point of view (vv. 5–10, 42, 50–51). Of all the characters, only his inner psychology is revealed. He begins as a spoiled royal brat (vv. 5–6). Most of the critical events happen in his absence, while he is celebrating unaware. We leave him at En-rogel in verse 9 and come back to him there in verse 41 after the climax. His statement in verse 42 now shows him as being uncertain and anxious, grasping at straws (cf. II Sam. 18:27). In the end he is fearful (v. 50). Again the narrative has gotten its point across effectively. Solomon is king.
Other effective literary techniques strike the careful reader. Repetition delays the action (vv. 34–35, 38–39, 44–45), emphasizes the division between the parties (vv. 7–8, 9–10, 19, 25–26), and hammers home important points (vv. 11 and 18; 13, 17, and 30; 20 and 27). Circumstantial details of local geography, court etiquette, and the exotic Cherethites and Pelethites add color and verisimilitude. Characters reveal themselves through their speech: Bathsheba as the frantic mother, Nathan as the wily manipulator, Benaiah as the loyal and obedient officer. Both David (v. 35a) and Benaiah (vv. 36–37) foreshadow future events in their speeches. There are effective contrasts between the old, cold David and his hot, aggressive son; between Nathan the crafty instigator and Bathsheba the fearful co-conspirator; between the impotent David and the David roused to decisive executive action. Irony pervades the narrative, but much of it depends on the assumption that the reader has already read Second Samuel. David who seduced Bathsheba now cannot “know” Abishag. Adonijah is skillfully tarred with Absalom’s brush (v. 5 and II Sam. 15:1; v. 6 and II Sam. 14:25). Nathan’s counter deception reminds us of Hushai’s (II Sam. 17:5–13).
In a well-crafted story, the exposition (vv. 1–10) sets the stage and tells us what is amiss. In this case what is amiss is David’s advanced age (vv. 1–4). The old order is on the way out. What will replace it? The robust, handsome Adonijah? Abishag’s introduction hints at certain romantic expectations (cf. Esther), but she soon turns out to be only a signal of David’s impotence and Bathsheba’s uncertain position. She will also provide a way to get rid of Adonijah in chapter 2. Adonijah provides an emphatic contrast to David’s powerlessness and proves to be a character of central importance. The general circumstances pertaining to Adonijah are given in verses 5–8. “I (rather than someone else [the emphatic pronoun is used]) will be king,” he has been thinking.
The action really begins with his feast in verse 9, the first event in the narrative present. The narrator drops comments into the exposition (vv. 6, 8, 10) hinting that Adonijah’s plan will not go smoothly. The last name on the list of those not invited is especially problematic for his hopes, “Solomon his brother.” The subtle invocation of Absalom’s ghost constrains us to see Adonijah’s moves in the worst possible light. We are led to view him as treasonous rather than simply prudent.
Verse 11 begins the complication (vv. 11–27) to Adonijah’s hopes. Conspiracy is met by counter-conspiracy, deception by deception. The Hebrew moves from circumstantial sentences into straight narrative tense. The plot moves from plan (vv. 11–14) to execution (vv. 15–27) to the desired result (vv. 28–37). Nathan insinuates by his question to Bathsheba that Adonijah already reigns, drops the name of her rival Haggith (v. 11), points out her mortal danger (v. 12), and outlines what Bathsheba should say. Repetition and some delaying business involving obeisance and entrances wrap the passive king into a web of half truths and motivations to take action.
Having read no such vow (v. 13) in Second Samuel, we suspect that Nathan is pulling a deception on the senile king, although the narrator cannily keeps us in the dark about this, as well as about Adonijah’s actual intentions at En-rogel. Bathsheba repeats Nathan’s unsubstantiated allegation about this gathering (v. 18). She motivates the king by invoking the expectations of his subjects, who look to him for leadership (v. 20), and the danger she and Solomon would face (v. 21).
Next it is Nathan’s turn. He mixes insinuating questions (vv. 24, 27) with what seems to be an outright lie (v. 25, “Long live King Adonijah”). He carefully implicates the supposed traitors, but makes it clear that both he and Solomon are David’s loyal servants (v. 26). Bathsheba’s focus had been Solomon. Nathan shifts the focus to the treachery of Adonijah by reversing (in feigned innocence) David’s alleged vow (v. 24) and concluding with an incredulous question (v. 27) that echoes Bathsheba’s statement (v. 20). Both conspirators emphasize David’s ignorance (vv. 11, 18), intent on rousing him to angry action. We are not quite taken in by Nathan, his memory of a vow called out of thin air, his half truths and unsubstantiated allegations, his deferential speech, or his contrived confirmation of Bathsheba’s words. But David is, and the throne passes to Solomon by a trick. Solomon, however, is kept carefully out of the conspiracy, unsullied by unsavory court politics.
The narrative reaches its climax in verses 28–40. The old king is roused to one last burst of decisive action. He believes that he has made the vow (vs. 30), recognizes the danger, and knows who is loyal and disloyal. He calls in his staff, snaps out crisp orders. He sets in motion the steps for a formal coronation (vv. 33–35): a procession to Gihon, anointing, acclamation by the populace, and enthronement. Three of these steps are described in verses 38–40; the enthronement will be reported by Jonathan. Solomon continues to be the passive object of all of this (vv. 38–40, 43–44). His throne rests solidly on David’s solemn oath (v. 30) and command (v. 35) and the support and acclamation of others (vv. 36–37, 39–40), which hyperbolically splits open the earth.
This noise provides a bridge back to En-rogel, where, in verse 9, we left Adonijah. The effects of the climax unfold in the denouement (vv. 41–53). The rising curve of Solomon reaches its apex on the throne; Adonijah’s falling curve hits bottom as he grasps the altar in terror, then bows before his rival. Jonathan’s report retells and then completes Solomon’s triumph. The piled up “moreovers” (vv. 46a, 47a, 48a; the same Hebrew word is translated by three different expressions in the NEB) strike repeated blows at Adonijah’s hopes. The guests scatter, in vivid contrast to Solomon’s solid support from the city, the king, and Yahweh (v. 48).
Adonijah’s panic and submission contrast effectively with his earlier self-assurance. Solomon appears for the first time as an active character in verses 51–53. Now he is king; his word is life and death. There is a reconciliation of sorts between the estranged brothers, but the future lies entirely in Solomon’s hands. Solomon responds to Adonijah’s simple plea with an ambiguous “maybe.” The condition imposed on Adonijah is deceptively simple, because Solomon alone will be the judge of worthiness. Adonijah goes home, but the story is clearly not over.
So “Solomon sits upon the royal throne” (v. 46). This is the narrative’s central message, recounted three times (vv. 32–35, 38–40, 41–48) for unmistakable emphasis. But Solomon himself had nothing to do with the tawdry deceptions that brought him there, or so the narrative wishes us to believe anyway. Perhaps the choice of Solomon seems arbitrary, almost immoral in the light of Adonijah’s priority. By whose will then was he enthroned? On one level it was by the will of David, who recognized his limits and voluntarily relinquished his throne to Solomon (vv. 47–48). David himself made the vow (v. 30) and the appointment (v. 35). Notice the repetition of “my” in verses 30, 35, 48 (cf. 13, 17, 24). Of course, on another level, David was only a pawn of Nathan and Bathsheba, and Solomon the unwitting beneficiary of their intrigue. Yet even this is not the whole story.
Benaiah wishes that Yahweh would second David’s initiative (v. 36), but David sees more deeply into what the story intends to reveal (v. 48). Yahweh has brought this about. Solomon was Yahweh’s choice for king. As is so often true in biblical literature, God’s transcendent will has operated behind unworthy human motives and plots (Gen. 50:20; Ruth 4:14; II Sam. 12:24–25; 17:14). Yahweh is an unindicted co-conspirator in this palace intrigue. As the Book of Kings unfolds, the reader will recognize Yahweh as a master of deception, with other tricks up the sleeve (Micaiah, Jehu, Huldah). Perhaps it is offensive that no moral judgments are made on these shady characters, or worse, that the God of universal history should be involved in a sleazy harem intrigue. So be it! This Yahweh will offend pious sensibilities more than once in the pages to follow. Yahweh’s plan and will must be effected, and for God, at least, the ends justify the means. The God of the Book of Kings seems willing to go to any extreme to bring about the divine will, even to the point of undercutting divine promises, destroying the temple, dismissing the beloved Davidic dynasty, and nearly liquidating the chosen people.
God’s involvement in the seamy world of politics seems problematic to the modern reader. Devious political machinations, the sudden coup, the establishment of absolutist power have all too often been justified on religious grounds. We may wish to pause and ponder the dark realities of power in our world. The good news is, however, that God is in charge even of the dark side, even of political intrigue. The political structures of this world are not running wild, outside of God’s control. They too are part of God’s rulership for the good of humanity (Rom. 13:1–7; I Peter 2:13–14). When governments fail to do justice and provide security, God will overthrow them (chap. 12; II Kings 9).
The good news is precisely that our God is singleminded, perhaps, if necessary, even devious, in bringing the divine will into being for us. In a sense, the cross shows us God at God’s most determined, most in control of the crooked plots of the politically powerful (Acts 4:27–28), working through human evil to save God’s people in the end (Gen. 50:20). The good news is that after the coup of Easter, God’s candidate now sits on the throne of the universe (Hebrews 1:3, 8–9, 13).
The accession of Solomon sets in motion a complex succession of events to follow in the Book of Kings. The theme of God’s promise to David receives its first fulfillment (v. 48). Adonijah’s is the first of many conspiracies to follow (Baasha, Zimri, Jehu, Athaliah and others). Solomon’s reign will be a glorious one (vv. 37, 47). He reigns explicitly over Israel and Judah (v. 35), but that unity will not last. Kings ends in tragic contrast to this hopeful beginning as a powerless descendant of David sits on a purely symbolic throne, the lackey and sycophant of a foreign monarch (II Kings 25:27–30). For the original readers, thus, the question of this first chapter remained an open one. Who shall now sit on David’s throne, if anyone? But we have been given fair warning. In all that follows, Yahweh will be in complete control of events. The will of God powers the dramatic action of the Book of Kings, and the plan of God shapes the course of its plot.
In the more immediate context, however, the focus will be on Solomon’s reign—its consolidation (v. 52 and chap. 2) and its unsurpassed peace and prosperity (v. 37 and chaps. 3–10). Solomon’s throne will be even greater than David’s (v. 47).