This month’s TextMessage is the second installment in a four-part series featuring the writing of seminary president Lynn Jost, as he shares some insights from his doctoral study on the book of 1 Kings.—Eds.
The thing that makes a punch line work is the element of surprise. We see things one way, then – surprise! – the story takes a funny twist.
The Bible also uses this kind of set-up. The most familiar story is in 2 Samuel 12, where the prophet Nathan tells David about a rich man eating his neighbour’s pet lamb. When David pronounces a verdict, Nathan replies, “You are the man!”
In 1 Kings 4:20–28, the storyteller also sets up readers for a surprise, though it’s often difficult to detect in English translations.
It begins in 1 Kings 3. We learn that Solomon dreams of being a king who practices justice. 1 Kings 3:16–28 narrates Solomon’s justice in action. Even marginal people, such as prostitutes, benefit from the wisdom of Solomon. A mother’s horror at the threatened death of her baby son is alleviated by the king’s brilliant ruling. All Israel hears Solomon’s justice and “[holds] the king in awe” (3:28).
But then, 1 Kings 4 shifts to Solomon’s wider “justice system.” It describes his governmental structure and philosophy, and hints briefly at some problems. In 1 Samuel 8:10–18, the prophet Samuel had warned Israel about royal justice (mishpat) – how taxes, conscription, and commandeering property would characterize the justice of Israel’s kings. While there is little evidence that Saul, who was crowned king immediately after this warning, ever acted in the way Samuel predicted, the incident seems to foreshadow Solomon’s justice system.
The land of Israel is divided into 12 judicial districts (1 Kings 4:1–19). But Judah (Solomon’s tribe) is exempt from the taxes. This nepotism is underlined by the fact that two of the district officials were the king’s sons-in-law.
Then it’s back to more propaganda about Solomon’s kingdom. In fact, 1 Kings 4:20–28 reads like a brochure for the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce. “The people of Judah and Israel [are] as numerous as the sand on the seashore,” fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:2). They eat, drink, and are happy. Everyone lives in safety under their own vine and fig tree. Israel and Judah enjoy peace and order, shalom. We’re being set up for the punch line.
The preparation continues with a report of the daily provisions of Solomon’s table. The court consumes a royal ransom in domestic livestock and wild game. The report also speaks in glorious tones of the empire’s expensive military-industrial complex – Solomon’s 40,000 horses (according to the Hebrew text) and 12,000 chariots.
The propaganda value of this report is twofold. First, it emphasizes the magnificence of Solomon’s kingdom, leaving no doubt that it’s the greatest in the world. Second, it suggests that the entire economy is built on tributes from defeated enemies and neighbouring lands.
But we’re being set up. Although the “voodoo economics” of verses 20–26 suggest that Solomon’s largesse costs the people nothing, verses 27–28 make it clear that it’s not an outside source supplying the royal stores.
In English, we read that the provisions are brought to Solomon’s table and stable by the 12 Israelite districts, according to their quotas. This sounds innocent enough. But the Hebrew conclusion – and punch line – ends with an ironic message: Israel’s officials brought provisions, each according to their mishpat (justice).
Justice indeed! The final word – mishpat – spits out like a venomous snake. We’ve been tricked! Solomon’s costly lifestyle and military machine are actually being funded by the people of Israel. Solomon’s justice is injustice, and his economy is breaking the backs of the people.
The deception by our contemporary economic system is equally vicious. Conspicuous consumption, we’re told, is a patriotic duty, necessary to keep the economy purring along perfectly. A luxury lifestyle is our entitlement for habits of hard work. We may be beneficiaries, but we’re also trapped.
The propaganda of the economic machine propels us forward like hamsters on a treadmill. While biblical justice calls us to the freedom of gracious generosity, the enemy’s economy traps us in the injustice of acquisition and greed. We are in danger of another set-up.
And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. These countries brought tribute and were Solomon’s subjects all his life. Solomon’s daily provisions were 30 cors of the finest flour and 60 cors of meal, 10 head of stall-fed cattle, 20 of pasture-fed cattle and 100 sheep and goats, as well as deer, gazelles, roebucks and choice fowl…. During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and fig tree. Solomon had 4,000 stalls for chariot horses, and 12,000 horses. The district governors, each in his month, supplied provisions for King Solomon and all who came to the king’s table. They saw to it that nothing was lacking. They also brought to the proper place their quotas of barley and straw for the chariot horses and the other horses.