David’s Unlikely Heir
And he [David] called his name Solomon: and the LORD loved him.—2 Samuel 12:24
David, the fearless shepherd boy from Bethlehem, armed with only a slingshot and his consummate faith in God, killed the tallest, strongest man the Philistines had. Goliath and his armor were no match for a stone to the forehead. Shortly afterward David was made a “captain over a thousand” (1 Samuel 18:13). In time Saul promised his eldest daughter Merab to be David’s wife saying: “Be thou valiant for me, and fight the LORD’s battles. For Saul said, Let not mine hand be upon him, but let the hand of the Philistines be upon him” (1 Samuel 18:17). But the Philistines did not kill David and when the day came when Merab was to become David’s wife, Saul inexplicably gave her to someone else.
As it happened Merab’s younger sister Michal loved David (1 Samuel 18:20). Saul saw it as a second chance to get David killed by using her as bait. David demurred at the thought of becoming the king’s son-in-law because he was a poor man, but Saul said she’s yours if you but kill one hundred Philistines and bring proof of their death to me. No sooner said than done! Thus Michal became David’s wife, the first of many. During one attempt by Saul to kill David, Michal found a way to save him. Saul was enraged and gave her to another man (1 Samuel 25:44). Much later David insisted on getting her back, and in spite of her second husband’s protestations, she was returned to him (2 Samuel 3:13). Unlike all David’s other wives, Michal was childless (2 Samuel 6:23).
2 Samuel 3 lists the sons of David born to him in Hebron by each of six wives. The “Hebron period” was the first seven years of his reign when he was king over Judah following the death of Saul. He was eventually anointed king over all Israel and reigned over the twelve-tribe united nation for an additional thirty-three years. David’s first four sons were Amnon, Daniel (also called Chileab in 2 Samuel 3:3), Absalom, and Adonijah. Daniel/Chileab probably died as a youth because he disappeared from the narrative. The other three became major players in the drama that unfolded during the last half of David’s life.
There is, of course, one more wife of consequence: Bathsheba. We do not know the exact date when David slept with her, then arranged with Joab to have her husband Uriah killed in battle. After Bathsheba completed her period of mourning, she became David’s wife. The scholarly consensus is that this was at the mid-point of David’s reign twenty years before his death. The illicitly conceived child died. Afterward Bathsheba had four more sons: Shimea, Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon (1 Chronicles 3:5). Solomon was the oldest of these four, not the youngest. After the death of the child originally conceived, “David comforted Bath-sheba his wife, and went in unto her, and lay with her: and she bore a son, and he called his name Solomon: and the LORD loved him” (2 Samuel 12:24).
The three Hebrew consonants in the name Solomon—SLM—can also produce shalom, the well-known Hebrew word for peace. The next verse says that because God loved this baby, Nathan the prophet suggested the name Jedidiah (“Beloved of Jehovah”). Perhaps that particular name was meant to reassure David that God was now reconciled to him in spite of his monstrous sin. However, the name Jedidiah disappeared and is never again seen in Scripture.
Royal courts were commonly filled with intrigue, especially when there were multiple wives and concubines, all producing sons and daughters (2 Samuel 5:13). The question of greatest importance was always who would be the next king. Usually it was the first born, and that would be Amnon. But sometime after the birth of Solomon, Amnon made the fatal mistake of seizing Absalom’s sister Tamar for carnal purposes and involved King David in the deceit to get her alone. Tamar pleaded for him to stop, and even suggested that he ask that she become his wife (2 Samuel 13:12,13). But he would not hear of it. He violated her, and immediately afterward, he hated her. He called his personal servant to put her out of his sight. In tears she rent her garment, put ashes on her head, and went to live in her brother Absalom’s house.
The account says when David heard of what happened, he “was very wroth” (2 Samuel 13:21). However, he did absolutely nothing to punish Amnon for what he had done. One can be sure the entire palace staff knew all the details and watched with interest to see what, if anything, would happen. Little did anyone know that avenging the rape of his sister became the most important goal of Absalom. He waited two years before he implemented his plan, a plan that also involved an unsuspecting David to get Amnon to leave the safety of his house and go outside the city to attend a feast associated with the annual shearing of sheep. When the time was right, Absalom’s servants killed Amnon (2 Samuel 13:28,29).
Under normal circumstances with Amnon dead, Absalom would be the logical heir apparent. However, immediately following the murder of Amnon and fearing for his own life, Absalom fled to Geshur, the land controlled by his grandfather Talmai (2 Samuel 3:3). He remained an exile in Geshur three years and might have remained there the rest of his life were it not for Joab who hatched a plan to bring him back. Joab surreptitiously arranged for a “wise woman” to come to David with a story concealing a punch line that “forced” David to bring Absalom back with a guarantee of his safety (see 2 Samuel 14:1-24).
Absalom was known for his physical beauty: “In all Israel there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty: from the sole of his foot even to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him” (2 Samuel 14:25). Thus from both Absalom’s point of view as well as the people’s, he was the logical choice to be the next king when David died. But rather than wait for things to work out naturally, Absalom ingratiated himself with the people and, when he thought he could get away with it, he seized the throne in a coup. He was so successful that David and his faithful retainers were forced to flee for their lives.
But his initial success did not last long. Thanks to a series of miscalculations, Absalom’s army was defeated by Joab and his men; Absalom himself was killed by Joab in direct violation of the order by David to spare his life. David’s love for Absalom was so great that when he learned of Absalom’s death, he became inconsolable: “But the king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 19:4). It fell to Joab to talk sense into the king: “I perceive, that if Absalom had lived, and all we had died this day, then it had pleased thee well” (2 Samuel 19:6).
Time passed. Nothing is recorded about Solomon during any of these events, but it is likely Nathan was intimately involved with Solomon’s education. Nathan would be the best possible person to teach the young boy about God and God’s promise to bless all who hearkened unto his voice (see Deuteronomy 28:1-14). Nathan commanded great respect from both David and Bathsheba. In fact, another of Bathsheba’s sons is named Nathan, and it is through that Nathan that the genealogy of Mary can be traced back to David.
Near the end of David’s life, another woman entered his life: “When King David was old and well advanced in years, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him. So his servants said to him, Let us look for a young virgin to attend the king and take care of him. She can lie beside him so that our lord the king may keep warm. Then they searched throughout Israel for a beautiful girl and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The girl was very beautiful; she took care of the king and waited on him, but the king had no intimate relations with her.” (1 Kings 1:1-4, NIV).
The king was dying; who would succeed him? Next up in chronological order was Adonijah, a man much older than the nineteen or twenty-year-old Solomon. Following the pattern laid down by Absalom, Adonijah ingratiated himself with the people, a task made somewhat easier because he also was good looking (1 Kings 1:6). When Adonijah thought it was time to make his move, he and his supporters went outside Jerusalem expecting to proclaim himself king. Undoubtedly he rationalized that the throne was to be his eventually and he was merely assuming his kingly responsibilities sooner rather than later. David was completely oblivious to what was happening. Even if he had known, it is not clear that he would have done anything about it.
But it is difficult to organize a palace conspiracy that stays secret. Nathan learned of the planned coup, went to Bathsheba, and told her what she had to do: “Then Nathan asked Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, Have you not heard that Adonijah, the son of Haggith, has become king without our lord David’s knowing it? Now then, let me advise you how you can save your own life and the life of your son Solomon. Go in to King David and say to him, My lord the king, did you not swear to me your servant: Surely Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne? Why then has Adonijah become king? While you are still there talking to the king, I will come in and confirm what you have said.” (1 Kings 1:11-14, NIV).
There is a difference of scholarly opinion about whether David actually swore that Solomon should be the next king or not since there is no record of such an oath and none of David’s other sons had considered Solomon a rival. Nathan tells Bathsheba to say that David promised this, and she does. In verse 30 David repeats the words but without knowing more about his mental state at that time, we cannot be sure if he knew what was true and what was not true. Certainly there had been no shortage of deception in this palace. Nonetheless, with Nathan firmly in control and operating with David’s authority, Solomon is whisked away to the Gihon spring where Zadok the priest anointed him as king and all the people cried, “God save King Solomon” (1 Kings 1:39). So much for Adonijah.
The coup that almost succeeded was over and Adonijah fled for his life to the one place he thought could save him: the horns of the altar of sacrifice. Those horns did not necessarily guarantee the safety of anyone, as Joab would eventually discover. But in Adonijah’s case, Solomon did spare him: “If he shows himself to be a worthy man, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground; but if evil is found in him, he will die” (1 Kings 1:52, NIV).
Just before he died, David asked Solomon to right the wrongs done by Joab and Shimei (see 1 Kings 2:1-10). David’s grievance with Joab, his general and the one to whom he owed so much because of Joab’s outstanding military skill, was that Joab had slain Abner in a time of peace (1 Kings 2:5; 2 Samuel 3:26-28). David conveniently ignored the fact that Abner had slain Joab’s brother (2 Samuel 3:30). Joab, following the rules of close-knit families since the beginning of human history, felt duty-bound to avenge that wrongful death. Even Cain expected others would avenge Abel’s death: “I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me” (Genesis 4:14).
Joab was in charge of David’s army on the fateful day when Uriah brought a sealed message from David. That message contained these words: “Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die” (2 Samuel 11:15). Joab did as told and Uriah died as expected. Soon after Uriah’s wife Bathsheba became David’s wife. One can well imagine the unspoken communication between David and Joab when they were together after that. By body language alone, Joab might well have rebuked David for having so little regard for Uriah, a man of far greater character and loyalty than David himself had exhibited at the time.
Shimei is a different story. During the time of Absalom’s rebellion David was forced to flee for his life. When he arrived at Bahurim, Shimei, who was of the house of Saul, came out cursing and throwing stones at David: “Thus said Shimei when he cursed, Come out, come out, thou bloody man, and thou man of Belial: The LORD hath returned upon thee all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead thou hast reigned; and the LORD hath delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom thy son: and, behold, thou art taken in thy mischief, because thou art a bloody man” (2 Samuel 16:7, 8). This was too much for Abishai, David’s bodyguard, who wanted to separate Shimei from his head on the spot. But David said no: “Let him curse, because the LORD hath said unto him, Curse David. … Behold, my son, which came forth of my bowels, seeketh my life: how much more now may this Benjamite do it? let him alone, and let him curse; for the LORD hath bidden him. It may be that the LORD will look on mine affliction, and that the LORD will requite me good for his cursing this day.” (2 Samuel 16:10-12).
Such restraint was uncharacteristic of David, though as he predicted, in this case God did “requite him good.” But David never forgot the insult. On his deathbed he spoke to Solomon: “Remember, you have with you Shimei son of Gera, the Benjamite from Bahurim, who called down bitter curses on me the day I went to Mahanaim. When he came down to meet me at the Jordan, I swore to him by the LORD: I will not put you to death by the sword. But now, do not consider him innocent. You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood. Then David rested with his fathers and was buried in the City of David.” (1 Kings 2:8-10, NIV).
So Solomon started his reign with a few who required his personal attention. Shimei and Joab were named by David, though Solomon would have issues of his own with Joab. David’s great general had allied himself with Adonijah’s failed coup and could hardly be trusted to be loyal to Solomon. Solomon would also watch Abiathar the priest who was with Adonijah to anoint him as Israel’s next king. And, of course, there was Adonijah himself, alive, well, and frustrated that he had come so close to being king instead of Solomon.
At the same time, Solomon realized the value in being deliberate, wise, and a man of peace, in contrast with his father. So he did nothing. Soon Adonijah made his move. He went to Bathsheba and asked her to ask Solomon to give him Abishag as a wife. Abishag was the woman who warmed David’s cold body near the end of his life. Bathsheba saw nothing wrong with the request and spoke to her son. But Solomon saw what Bathsheba did not. Adonijah was making a move for the throne by trying to marry one of David’s [supposed] concubines: “Why dost thou ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? ask for him the kingdom also; for he is mine elder brother; even for him, and for Abiathar the priest, and for Joab the son of Zeruiah” (1 Kings 2:22). Solomon ordered Adonijah killed immediately. He told Abiathar that although he should die too, he would spare his life because of his priestly status and former loyalty to David. However, he dismissed him from the priesthood (vs. 27).
Joab heard what had happened and knew he was next. He thought his only chance to live was to flee to the altar and cling to it for safety. But it was to no avail; he was killed by Benaiah following Solomon’s orders (1 Kings 2:29,34). In issuing Joab’s execution order, Solomon specified it was because Joab slew Abner (vs. 32). He made it clear that Abner’s death was because of Joab, not David. One reason to do this might have been to make sure there was no festering animosity between him as king and the restive tribes who had considered Abner their leader.
One person kills another, and then in turn is killed by someone else. Where does it stop? As Mahatma Gandhi observed, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Next Solomon called for Shimei to be brought to him. He ordered him to stay in Jerusalem under house arrest where he could be closely watched by Solomon’s people. He specifically told him that if he violated the terms of his confinement by leaving the city, he would die. Shimei agreed and lived in his own Jerusalem house for three years. But then two of his servants ran away to Gath, prompting him to leave the city to retrieve them. His departure and later return was reported to Solomon, who then summoned Shimei, reminded him of his oath, and ordered him executed. The account ends with these words: “And the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon” (1 Kings 2:46).
One by one those who might cause trouble for Solomon were either killed or neutralized. He had become king in spite of the best efforts of a number of much older claimants to the throne. He had inherited a kingdom that was at relative peace with its neighbors, he had copious building materials assembled by his father David to build God’s house, and in Nathan he had a wise counselor at his side advising him about matters of state. Nathan was an historian as well as a prophet. He must also have lived a long time, because we are told that more information about the reign of David may be found in the book of Nathan the prophet (1 Chronicles 29:29) and more about the reign of Solomon may be found in that book as well (2 Chronicles 9:29). Other than what may have been preserved in the two books of Kings, that book by Nathan has been lost, presumably forever.
With Solomon’s reign enjoying such a good beginning, few knew how much would change during the ensuing forty years.