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The Prudence of Solomon

Res Publica

August 2007

by Clint Leibolt

We hear about and argue about the prudence of great leaders in class, conversation, and life. Were the Founders wise in forming the Union upon the compromise of slavery? Was Lincoln prudent in his waging war and emancipating slaves? Was Churchill prudent in his foresight to defend Europe from Germany? The actions of these relatively modern and great men are analyzed to the finest detail in the quest to define the justice and prudence of these men.

Yet after many hours of this study, one must inevitably wonder why so much human energy is poured forth on such a pursuit. If one wants to see speed, look at the fastest being, if one wants to see love, look at the most loving being, and if one wants to see prudence, one ought to look at the most prudent. So I suppose that one ought to look at Solomon, the man who had “discernment and breadth of mind, like the sand that is on the seashore” (I Kings 4:29). Wiser than all men, Solomon’s life is the glass through which one can most clearly see wisdom and prudence. A peek into his early rule speaks volumes about the virtue of wisdom. As faith moves mountains, wisdom builds temples. From a glorious temple for the Lord to the wise decisions of justice, Solomon had the wealth and wonder of the world under his command. The reason for such greatness must be his wisdom.

Too often men take the idea of wisdom and claim that it is impractical. Solomon took the idea of the temple and made it a reality. He placed the orders and directed the building that took the gold, the cedar, and the cypress and formed them into the long awaited temple. Yet the planning, production, and completion of this was not enough. Solomon also directed the building of his palace, conspicuously larger than the temple. This project took thirteen years to form the finest materials into a kingly palace. Wisdom is not merely visionary, it is real. Solomon used his great wisdom to create masterful buildings that served the Lord, himself, and the people. In the absence of prudence, practical results can still be achieved through wisdom.

And Solomon’s wise mind knew justice. He knew the commands of the Lord and was able to comprehend the natural beauty and justice of the world. With the wisdom of the Lord in his heart, Solomon was the greatest philosopher possible. He took the ideas of justice and found wise ways to make them apply to his people. The most famous story of course is the two women who argued over the child. Solomon suggests cutting the child in two parts to make things fair so that the true mother relented to save her baby. He knew what was right, wanted to do it, and as a king, he found a way to help his people live justly.

Unfortunately, Solomon’s early reign of wisdom is not the complete story. Solomon’s fall from glory was as equally compelling as his rise. From numerous wives to numerous gods, he got off the path of justice despite his earlier wisdom. His actions led to war, enemies, and the eventual division of the kingdom. His reign was not just a triumph, but also a great tragedy that brought pain and death to the world. And in this respect, he is much like the leaders that we study today.

Why did Solomon fall? His wisdom should have prevented him from going down the wrong path. His story painfully illustrates the failures of supplanting God’s wisdom with man’s prudence. Solomon got caught up in his prudence and thought that he could do it all himself and for himself. He could make marriages, deals, and compromises that were easiest in the moment and that he judged to be fine. From the Garden of Eden, man has been tempted to place his prudence above God’s commands. Using our reason, we tell ourselves that we are breaking God’s small commands in search of a greater good. Certainly God will understand because if I eat this fruit, I will know good from evil and be like Him. Or if I marry this ungodly queen, I will be allied with her country and assure peace. Such ideas are the work of the Devil in our minds. Men lack the foresight to be able to predict the next second, much less see the effects of their actions years down the road. They only lie to themselves when they compromise with perfection in the claim of greater justice for the future. Man’s prudence should never abridge God’s wise justice.

This lie is the temptation of prudence—man’s reason that is uninspired by God. It is the virtue of putting our judgment ahead of God’s. It seems and is reasonable. It makes perfect sense to a man to deny God to save one’s own life. After all, a dead man cannot help the poor, or preach the word. A quick denial of God will get me out of this situation and leave me free to serve Him tomorrow. Or perhaps one man, Churchill, would make a deal with the Devil to win a war. Yes, this is the virtue of prudence, not wisdom. While wisdom, following God’s commands, can be lost and then fail disastrously as evidenced by the story of Solomon, prudence can never fully succeed. Prudence appears to and perhaps accomplishes good things, but only wisdom—unhindered by prudence—can reach the highest glory. It may take prudence to win a war, but only wisdom can keep the peace. Simply because Solomon “failed” and Churchill “succeeded,” I will not give up the high and narrow peak of wisdom for the broad and stable plane of prudence. “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it” (Matthew 7:13).

So why do students rarely study the life of Solomon but instead opt for the lives of other great men? The answer is probably because Solomon recanted his prudence. Solomon’s wisest statement was his recognition that all his prudence was not what God demanded. He said, “But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person” (Ecclesiastes 12:12-13). This was the final prudence of Solomon—wisdom.

Clint Leibolt is a senior from Perrysville, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and Business Administration.

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