My travel agent informed me this week that for people my age to rent a car in Ireland we must now provide proof that we are not only fully insured but a statement from our doctor that we are healthy enough to drive. I believe I have graduated to a different status in life. I am now elderly.
Elderly is better than simply old. Elderly means exactly that. It means I have the opportunity now of being an elder and that is so different from merely being old. An elder can choose to be wise and of use in unique ways. I can resist being old but I can embrace being elderly. Actually, these may be the best years of our lives. They may turn out to be the years for which everything that has come before has prepared us. I’ve been reading John Gardner’s speech titled “Personal Renewal” and he shares two illustrations of men who were prepared for decades. The first was Winston Churchill who was 65 when he became the prime minister in 1940. The second was Pope John the 23rd who was 76 years old when he was elected Pope.
“The son of peasant farmers, he once said “In Italy there are three roads to poverty — drinking, gambling and farming. My family chose the slowest of the three.” When someone asked him how many people worked in the Vatican he said “Oh, about half.” Through a lifetime in the bureaucracy, the spark of spirit and imagination had remained undimmed, and when he reached the top he launched the most vigorous renewal that the Church has known in this century.”
There are almost countless books, articles, and even movies about aging Baby Boomers. We are the most studied generation in the history of America. Just think about the following short list of movies: Cocoon, Grumpy Old Men, On Golden Pond, The Bucket List, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Father.
I wrote something a few years ago about aging Boomers:
“The description of Boomers as we age is not flattering. The author Neil Howe sees many of us being people who will grow increasingly pompous, intolerant, uncompromising, snoopy and exacting of others…”The major question – indeed the one whose answer may decide whether Boomer leadership will end in triumph or tragedy – will hinge on this generation’s capacity to restrain (or let others restrain) its latent ruthlessness.” Ruthlessness? Not very comforting, is it? “While there is also the real possibility that many may take on the role of wisdom figures and self-sacrificing patriarchs, it is just as easy to see these righteous Old Aquarians as the worst nightmare that could happen to the world.”
I’ll leave that judgment up to you as to which we are becoming but this morning we are looking at an aging Solomon who in his old age did not become more intolerant, uncompromising and exacting of others. Unfortunately, he became just the opposite. Why would a king as wise, wealthy and powerful as Solomon lapse into idolatry?
A couple of thoughts this morning.
First, every king before him had a court prophet. Saul was balanced by Samuel. David was confronted by Nathan. Even Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, had the prophet Shemeiah. Solomon had only himself to consult and the foreign influences he loved dearly. He was disconnected from wisdom other than his own and there are limits to personal wisdom. While prophets cannot ensure that a king (or a President) will acknowledge the truth even when it is obvious, it says something about Solomon that he had none around him. Perhaps he began to believe his own press that he was the wisest man to ever live. Perhaps he was swayed by the flattery of the Queen of Sheba who came to sit at his feet because she had heard of his fame. In fact, she did talk with him about all that she had on her mind and he answered all her questions. Nothing was too hard for him. “When the Queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offering he made at the temple of the Lord, she was overwhelmed.”
When was the last time someone was overwhelmed by our wisdom? All the outward signs of wisdom and success were there. But, perhaps, on the inside there were invisible changes and compromises taking hold of him and there was no one to call him to account. Sycophants, wives, concubines, court officials dependent on him for their positions and even visits from admiring and sympathetic rulers of other countries – but no prophets. Maybe he did have prophets but they were just waiting until he was dead or out of office to write a book.
One sign of his slipping wisdom might have been his choice of a successor. As we can read, he had 700 wives of royal birth. That meant he had married multiple daughters of the rulers of other kingdoms to secure their allegiance and cooperation. That represents hundreds of influential wives and families of foreign cultures surrounding him for decades. We see it even today on a much smaller scale with the influence of foreign powers through relationships with highly placed people having access to our leaders. This year alone there are about 12,000 registered lobbyists in Washington, DC spending $3.75 billion dollars on their interests so try to imagine the influence of 700 people who are part of your family whom you love deeply and want to please lobbying for the interests of their families and kingdoms.
Out of all the 700 wives he chose the son of one wife (Naamah) to be his successor. We can read the story of Rehoboam in the next chapter. He, like Solomon, is influenced by the worst of those around him and instead of choosing to accept the wise counsel of the elders he consults the young men he had grown up with and were serving him. Their counsel to be even harder than Solomon on the people caused the great split between the single tribe of Judah and the other 11 tribes. That divide was permanent. Out of 700 wives and so many children he managed to pick the one who would split the kingdom.
But Solomon began to slip long before that. We read that “he loved many foreign women besides Pharoah’s daughter – Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love…As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashworth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites…On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods.”
After getting the news from Ireland about my change in status, I’ve started thinking about the dangers of old age. But I have also been thinking about the idols of old age and whether or not they are different from those when we are young. As we’ve said before, idols are disordered loves. They are things we love out of order as they become first distractions and then demanding masters. What are our own disordered loves as we age?
Perhaps the same as Solomon’s. Let’s look at each of them. Each of them is not only dangerous in the eyes of the writer but is detestable in making their followers do detestable things.
Ashtoreth or Astarte is a fierce warrior goddess but also the goddess of sexuality, royal power, healing and often associated with horses and chariots. The only images we have of her are on horseback or in a chariot ready for war. She was also considered the goddess of increase – whether it was riches or produce she was the one to please if you were serious about increase. And Solomon was. All these chapters tell the story of his great riches and how they increased year after year. Increase is one of the basic themes of his life. But like the rich young ruler he lacked one thing. Character.
As well, it’s important to distinguish between the worship of the goddess of sexuality and the goddess of fertility. Solomon was not so much interested in fertility as he was sexuality at that point in his life. It’s not quite accurate but I have this image of an old Hugh Hefner surrounded by young women and obsessed with sex. He’s way past thinking of fertility but sexuality has taken over his life. So might it have been with Solomon at that point.
But she is also the goddess of chariots and horses. For all the kingdoms surrounding Israel the use of chariots and horses for battle was common and successful but it had been expressly forbidden by God for the Israelites. They were to depend on him alone for victory. In spite of that, Solomon had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses. He had whole cities devoted to the storing and chariots and horses. In other words, they were symbols of his slipping away from dependence on God to his glorification of his own royal and military power. It’s no wonder he was attracted to Astarte. She blessed his disobedience.
And then there is Moloch. We know less about this god than the others. In Leviticus, God tells the people, “And you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.”
What we do know is horrifying as the worship of Molech required the sacrifice of infants and children. A furnace in the shape of a man with a bull’s head and outstretched arms was heated until glowing red hot. Then, as the high point of worship, an infant would be placed in his hands while his devotees listened to the infant cry as it burned to death before their eyes. This is the idolatry of total delusion – to sacrifice your own children. How could Solomon have been so corrupted to have built an altar to such a god? It was how Winston Churchill described Hitler: “He had called from the depths of defeat the dark and savage furies latent in the most numerous, most serviceable, ruthless, contradictory and ill-starred race in Europe. He had conjured up the fearful idol of an all-devouring Moloch of which he was the priest and incarnation.” Such deep deception does not start all at once. It is gradual until the final result is something no one could have imagined themselves doing. But as many studies have shown, ordinary people can do eventually with ease evil acts of which they would have never thought themselves capable. Perhaps Moloch is the worst by making us believe we can find favor by destroying our own but there is yet one more god Solomon worshipped.
“East of Jerusalem he built a high place for Chemosh.” Little is known about Chemosh other than he was the god of the Moabites – the people of Ruth. Early in Scripture we read that the Moabites were “the people of Chemosh.” In other words, they were described by others as the people of the idol they had come to worship. No other people are described that way. Chemosh had become their identity. In the same way, we are defined by our gods. The people of unfettered capitalism. The people of total free enterprise. The people of unlimited individual freedom. A fully Christian nation. The people of – fill in the blank. We are known to the rest of the world by the name of our idols. Chemosh is who we think we are as a people. It is our core values. It is our national identity. “The people of Chemosh”
Chemosh is not so much a religious figure as it is a national and political idol. In fact, many years later when the Israelites are turned back by the Moabites, it is Chemosh who is celebrated for defeating them. Chemosh is the enemy of the nation of Israel – not just their religion. It defeated their spirit and traumatized them when they realized how depraved and corrupted the Moabites were and to what extremes they would go to create fear in the hearts of the army. It was not just a military victory but a victory of abomination over the moral sensibilities of Israel and they retreated from such horrific sin. What did Solomon do? He introduced the worship of the god of their enemies to the nation. He set up an altar to something that would in time defeat them. No one knew it then but hundreds of years later the foreign influence would demoralize and make them so fearful they would retreat from the battle.
What an irony that Solomon the wise poisoned the future of his people. He turned their hearts toward other gods and made them afraid of the people of those gods. He led Israel astray and they lost themselves. All the while he fulfilled his obligations by offerings three times a year. He thought he could be outwardly faithful to both the Lord and his idols. Who would question him?
Solomon sabotaged the nation’s future. He built an altar for an idol that would one day defeat the heart and moral courage of his own people. He was a traitor to their future. He openly worshiped what would one day defeat them. Their hearts were first stolen and then overwhelmed by fear. He injected poison that would wait hundreds of years to take effect.
The idols of the old man were the first cause for the eventual destruction of Israel’s future.
Solomon built a shrine for the god of Israel’s enemies. This should have been seen as treason and the writer is torn between admiration for Solomon and what is obvious. This movement by Solomon was no doubt to some extent political but it made the worship of Chemosh a part of the national life of Israel for nearly 300 years until it was banished by Josiah. The idols of leaders have long term effects. The effects are not eliminated by the next election..or the next..or the next.
Israel’s worship and moral core were affected by Solomon for the rest of the history of the nation. Generations later Josiah’s reforms tore down the idols but for 300 years they had been worshiped by the people. The people had not chosen to tear them down. They worshiped the gods of their enemies. They thought they could worship both God and idols. God and country. God and power. God and their own corruption.
Earlier this week former President Trump made what was intended to be a disparaging remark about his former Vice-President, Mike Pence: “He is a human conveyor belt.” Ironically, that is exactly what a teacher of Scripture should be. We should convey the truths of God without damaging, delaying or diverting them. We are simply here to deliver them from one point to another – from Him to you.
There are still three idols calling for our worship today: The goddess of unlimited power and the too easy acceptance of gross immorality of our leaders. The goddess of disordered loves. The god that demands the sacrifice of our own descendants at the expense of our consciences. The god of a twisted national identity and values that will define and eventually terrify and defeat us.
That is the legacy of an old man and his idols. This is the beginning of the end for Israel. Hear the word of the Lord.