Kings and Christian Leadership: Sin Brings Forth Death
This post will serve as the final installation in my series on the Old Testament book of Kings. The purpose throughout has been to apply King’s theology of leadership to modern Christian ministry. The previous post in this series considered Solomon’s ironic military success. From his example we learn that man’s measures of success in leadership may not necessarily align with God’s. Ministries, like kingdoms, may appear successful and mighty while failing to succeed in the ways that God has laid out. This final post will reiterate that point by reflecting on Sheba’s visit to Solomon, before sounding one final warning about succeeding in Christian ministry but failing as a follower of Christ. After all, Jesus tells us to be on guard against gaining the world but losing our souls. This, we can imagine, applies to building a successful church ministry and legacy while also becoming embroiled in sin and scandal.
What becomes apparent reading through 1 Kings 1-11 is Solomon’s remarkable success, in almost every realm. This was very likely the result of astute and ruthless political manoeuvring. But, as Walter Brueggemann comments on Sheba’s visit (1 Kings 10:1-13), “The chief claim of the wise Solomon is his economic prosperity.” Both Solomon and Israel had prospered tremendously during his reign (10:7). Solomon’s reputation was immense and the nation was great (10:6). Thus Sheba travelled to marvel and pay homage. Yet Brueggemann asks, “From the perspective of worldly powers, who would have asked for more?”
Of course Sheba would have been struck by Solomon’s success as a leader. He achieved all those things that the world pursues. But despite the shiny gloss on Solomon’s kingdom, this series has argued that glaring cracks were already showing. Sheba’s plaudits ring hollow and somewhat ironically. Immediately after her visit, the author reiterates Solomon’s staggering wealth (10:14-29). This, as we saw in the introduction to this series was forbidden by Yahweh. Shortly after that, Solomon’s devastating idolatry is explicitly narrated (11:1-8). His end is nigh.
At high school I studied Shakespeare. One of the dramatic devices Bill liberally employed was ‘appearance versus reality.’ Very simply, ‘appearance versus reality’ describes an ambiguous assessment of a situation or character. On the surface things appear one way. But in reality there is more going on. It just so happens, that biblical narratives also use this device, and not a small amount of irony. Thus many Old Testament scholars argue that 1 Kings 10 should be read on two levels. Sheba’s fawning admiration and praise appears to suggest that Solomon was truly blessed by Yahweh—a successful and faithful king. But the reality is that his reign is marked by a selfish centralisation project, excessive comfort at the expense of his people, and shameless as well as ruthless self-preservation. Sheba’s plaudits should be read in light of where they originate: worldly ambition. We need only note what she celebrates: power, prosperity, political might, and success.
But what about 10:9? “Because the Yahweh loved Israel forever, he has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness.” These are distinctly covenantal words. They are very similar to the reason Yahweh granted Solomon wisdom (3:28). At this point you will have to forgive my technical jargon, the Hebrew of 10:9 is a purpose clause rather than an indicative statement. In other words, Sheba is reminding Solomon what God’s purpose was in appointing him. However this was not necessarily what Solomon did. For example, speed limits exist with the purpose of creating safer roads. Yet this is only the case when those limits are obeyed. Likewise, Yahweh established Solomon to execute justice and righteousness. Whether he did or not is another question.
Yahweh made Solomon wise so that he might rule righteously and lead Israel to fidelity, unwavering worship of Yahweh. But Sheba describes the king’s court as a place where Solomon is eerily enshrined (10:8). He sits perched on an extravagant throne. The pagan queen is attracted to the things she longed for in her own kingdom. Therefore neither her nor Solomon pursue Yahweh’s vision for a distinctly other type of leader over God’s people.
Paying attention to these details and others like it in the Solomon narrative paints a slightly different picture to the simple rise and fall pattern—with Solomon supposedly starting well and finishing badly. Yes, the narrative pivots at 1 Kings 7, while the most explicitly damning narration begins at 11:1. Yet it is almost as if the narrator plays Solomon’s piety off against his pomp. We might try to excuse Solomon’s inconsistencies as marks of mere humanity: clay feet. Only we must not forget that this section of the Old Testament is acutely interested in leadership of God’s people. Thus Solomon’s failings are not condoned by appeals to his humanity. They serve as warnings about fraught and selfish leadership. Though the narrative reserves its most telling criticisms for 1 Kings 11, the seeds of Solomon’s ruin and its entailments for Israel were sown long before this climactic moment.
Writing in the first century, Paul exhorted a church elder to watch his life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16). In my tradition we champion the latter: precise and articulate doctrine. Yet more pastors fail in ministry because of immorality rather than the lure of theological liberalism. As we have seen, Solomon’s later indiscriminate idolatry is no surprise. It was the inevitable culmination of a life spent flirting with serious sin, dabbling in disobedience and ultimately creating a kingdom that centred on himself rather than Yahweh.
The almost endless string of high profile pastors being embroiled in sexual scandals or accused of spiritual abuse is telling. These were leaders whose doctrine was sound—their theology checked out. However, in many of these cases, it was unchecked vices and unchallenged sin that was given time to flourish. This is certainly a danger for Christian leaders deemed ‘too big to fail’ or indispensable, men and women with ministries named after them, who easily start to believe what they offer the church is more important than their obedience to Christ.
Life is full of surprises, isn’t it? But the cataclysmic fallout following years of unrepentant sin is not one of them. Haven’t you read James 1:15-16? “Sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived.” But sin is deceptive. And in the end it can be deadly. I’m not advocating for some kind of witch-hunt among Christian leaders. Nor am I browbeating those same leaders. Rather we should all remember, in the words of John Owen, “He that dares to dally with occasions of sin will dare to sin..If it have allowance for one step, it will take another.” Perhaps we are fewer steps from disqualifying and destructive sin than we realise.