Israel's Golden Age

Israel's Golden Age

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"So Solomon reigned over all kingdoms from the [Euphrates] River to the land of the Philestines, as far as the border of Egypt" (1 Kings 4:21).

The covenant by which ancient Israel would become "the people of God" (Judges 20:2) was made at Mount Sinai shortly after the Israelites were freed from Egyptian slavery. God's covenant with the nation was based on His promises to and covenant with Abraham (Exodus 2:23-24; Exodus 33:1). In it God defined the relationship He wanted with Jacob's descendants, now the fledgling nation of Israel en route to the Promised Land.

God offered this covenant to Israel as a unilateral declaration of the opportunities He was offering Abraham's descendants and an unambiguous explanation of the Israelites' obligations to Him. Their part in making the covenant was only that of accepting or rejecting God's offer and then, after accepting it, performing the commitment they had made.

God provided them the same opportunity to agree to walk before Him blamelessly that He had given to Abraham. He consistently reminded them: "For I am the LORD who brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:45). The effectiveness of the relationship depended on their continued attention to living and behaving as a holy—set-apart—people.

When the children of Israel heard the terms of God's covenant, they had two clear-cut choices. They could accept the role of living as God's holy people—His representatives to the nations (Deuteronomy 4:6)—or they could accept the consequences for refusing to cooperate.

At that time the prospect of their surviving without God's help was bleak. God had just delivered them from the cruelty of Egyptian bondage. They had no homeland, and no other nation was inclined to accept them as residents. They found themselves caught in a no-man's-land, a harsh and unforgiving environment.

God had knowingly made the option of their becoming His holy people too attractive to refuse. But He did not force them into this role without their willing consent. They had to make a choice.

He spoke to them from Mount Sinai and revealed to them His Ten Commandments—His basic definition of holiness. The Commandments, along with the statutes and judgments God revealed to Moses, became "the Book of the Covenant." Moses then "took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, 'All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient'" (Exodus 24:7; compare Exodus 24:3).

In spite of the covenant, the Israelites of the generation God had just freed from Egyptian slavery was still unsure and suspicious of their Creator's concern for them. They said to Moses: "We have seen this day that God speaks with man; yet he still lives. Now therefore, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God anymore, then we shall die. For who is there of all flesh who has heard the voice of the living God speaking from the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived?" (Deuteronomy 5:24-26).

The Israelites feared being too close to God. They did not trust Him. They lacked the faith of Abraham. So they said to Moses, "You go near and hear all that the LORD our God may say, and tell us all that the LORD our God says to you, and we will hear and do it" (Deuteronomy 5:27). They were not ready for a truly close, personal relationship with God.

Why the New Covenant would be necessary

God, of course, knew their hearts better than they knew them. He understood that the covenant He was making with them had one major weakness: There was no provision in it to change the human heart. That would have to wait until the first coming of the Messiah, until Jesus Christ could be slain as the sacrificial Lamb of God (Hebrews 9:26).

Notice God's response to the Israelites' declaration that they would obey Him: "I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They have done well in all that they have spoken. Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!" (Deuteronomy 5:28-29, NASB).

But they did not have such a heart. God did not include a new heart, empowered by His Spirit, as part of the birthright promise. That blessing would come later as part of the scepter promise God gave to Judah that He would fulfill after the death of Christ (Isaiah 53:11-12; Jeremiah 31:31-33; Hebrews 8:3-12).

Notice what Peter said centuries later when God finally made available the Holy Spirit to all His people on that Feast of Pentecost following Christ's death. He exclaimed: "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call" (Acts 2:1, Acts 2:38-39).

Because God did not give them the Holy Spirit, the people of ancient Israel were never fully able to live according to the spiritual intent of God's laws and thus become a truly holy people. Their human nature and the influences of the other people around them consistently led them astray.

Even the generation God led out of Egypt by great miracles died in the wilderness of the Middle Eastern desert because of its constant disbelief, stubbornness, complaints and disobedience. God did not allow that generation to inherit the land He had promised Abraham's descendants. Those people were unwilling to reflect the holiness He desired.

Nevertheless, God kept His promise to Abraham and gave the land of the promise to their children under the leadership of Joshua. So "Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had known all the works of the LORD which He had done for Israel" (Joshua 24:31).

Herein lies an important lesson. Just because a generation of His people becomes disobedient doesn't mean God forsakes His promises to their children. They also are heirs of His promise to Abraham.

God may, for a time, withhold or delay the blessings He has promised. But He will eventually give them. He always keeps His word. For that reason we can be certain God will fulfill the biblical prophecies about the children of Israel in the last days.

Israel becomes a kingdom

For the next several hundred years God sent prophets and judges to guide the people, to teach them His ways and resolve controversies among them. But many times they turned their back on Him (Psalm 78:56-57). They fell short in living up to their commitment to be a holy people. The Bible summarizes the era of the judges in these words: "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25).

Yet during that era, and later, God heard their prayers in times of crisis and fought their battles when they cried out for His mercy (Psalm 106:39-45). He "was gracious to them, had compassion on them, and regarded them, because of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not yet destroy them or cast them from His presence" (2 Kings 13:23).

Finally Israel asked the prophet Samuel for a king. "Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and ... said to him, 'Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.' But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, 'Give us a king to judge us.' So Samuel prayed to the LORD.

"And the LORD said to Samuel, 'Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them ... Now therefore, heed their voice. However, you shall solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them'" (1 Samuel 8:4-9).

God honored their request and directed Samuel to anoint Saul—apparently one of the most physically impressive men in Israel—as their king (1 Samuel 10:17-24). God was willing to work with and support Israel's king if he would behave righteously. But Saul became arrogant, stubborn and self-willed. Physically he appeared to be everything the people could have asked for as a king, but his heart was not right before God. So God decided to replace him.

Paul explained 1,000 years later: "And when He had removed him, He raised up for them David as king, to whom also He gave testimony and said, 'I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will.' From this man's seed, according to the promise, God raised up for Israel a Savior—Jesus" (Acts 13:22-23).

The beginning of Israel's golden age

The story of Israel's rise into a golden age during the reign of David and his son Solomon, and then its disintegration into two separate kingdoms, is a story of both triumph and bitter tragedy.

Together these events underscore God's faithfulness to His promises and the tragedy of human weakness. They also highlight the necessity for a major change in the human spirit and the return of Christ as the world's only perfect king.

During the reign of David and Solomon, God fulfilled His promise that Abraham's descendants would rule over a vast territory in the Middle East from Egypt to the Euphrates River. Israel became a great nation.

But, because of the sins of Solomon and his successors, as well as the transgressions of the people themselves, Israel lost it all in the decades after Solomon's death. Here is how it happened.

David became ruler over the tribes of Israel in two stages. First the tribe of Judah anointed him king in Hebron (2 Samuel 2:3-4). From that city David reigned for about seven years before the other tribes made a covenant with him and also accepted him as king. Thus began a period of unity in Israel (2 Samuel 5:1-5; 1 Chronicles 11:3).

As king, David inherited a large and effective military. About 350,000 armed warriors from the tribes of Israel attended his coronation ceremony (1 Chronicles 12:23-40). Soon he began to subdue the unfriendly neighbors who had plagued the Israelites for years.

David reigned a total of 40 years, 33 of them from Jerusalem, the city he captured from the Jebusites and made Israel's capital. His rule signaled Israel's ascent to military and economic preeminence in the Middle East. Modern historians tend to ignore the biblical record and vastly underestimate the size and scope of David's and Solomon's kingdom.

As the New Unger's Bible Dictionary explains: "The tendency of scholars in the past has been to give scant credence to the biblical notices of Solomon's power and glory ... Archaeology has vindicated the wide extent of the Davidic-Solomonic empire as delineated in Kings. The general historical background of the Davidic-Solomonic period has also been authenticated.

"Solomon's glory used to be commonly dismissed as 'Semitic exaggeration' or a romantic tale. It was contended that such a sprawling realm could not have existed between great empires like Egypt, the Hittites, Assyria, and Babylonia. The monuments, however, have shown that during the period from 1100 to 900 B.C. the great empires surrounding Israel were either in decline or temporarily inactive, so that Solomon could rule with the splendor attributed to him in the Bible" (1988, "Solomon").

The key to David's success

What was the key to David's military and political success? We find the answer revealed in the first military challenge he faced after consolidating all the tribes of Israel under his leadership.

"When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over Israel, all the Philistines went up in search of David; but David heard about it and went down to the stronghold. Now the Philistines had come and spread out in the valley of Rephaim.

"David inquired of the LORD, 'Shall I go up against the Philistines? Will you give them into my hand?' The LORD said to David, 'Go up; for I will certainly give the Philistines into your hand.' So David came to Baal-perazim, and David defeated them there. He said, 'The LORD has burst forth against my enemies before me, like a bursting flood'" (2 Samuel 5:17-20, NRSV).

David did not have to go looking for trouble. It came to him. But when it did God gave him the victory. As time passed, his enemies formed alliances among themselves to overthrow the kingdom—a kingdom they failed to realize that God had established. David was victorious even against alliances of hostile neighbors. "And David became more and more powerful, because the LORD Almighty was with him" (1 Chronicles 11:9, NIV).

David's success was God's doing. He became the most powerful ruler in the Middle East in his day. Yet he built no monuments to honor himself as was the custom of virtually all the other ancient kings. Therefore, since his exploits are recorded only in the Bible, most historians refuse to acknowledge the prominence of Israel under David and his son and successor, Solomon.

Critics of the Bible point out there is little archaeological evidence to support the Bible's claims of Israel's greatness under David and Solomon. Yet the lack of evidence is perfectly understandable in light of the history of Israel and the region.

Armies have fought over and invaded the area countless times over the centuries. Jerusalem alone has been conquered more than 20 times, several of which involved its complete destruction. Parchment and papyrus records from ancient times in Israel have long since turned to dust. But even though such specific hard evidence is sparse, by no means is it nonexistent. In light of the Bible's perfect accuracy in so many areas, we have no reason to question its statements about Israel under David and Solomon. (For more information about the accuracy of the Bible, be sure to request or download your free copy of the booklet Is the Bible True?)

Solomon inherits an empire

King Solomon inherited an immense, powerful and prosperous Middle Eastern empire from his father, David. "For [Solomon] had dominion over all the region on this side of the [Euphrates] River from Tiphsah [probably modern Dibseh, where northern Syria borders southern Turkey] even to Gaza [the Philistine city on the Mediterranean coast], namely over all the kings on this side of the River; and he had peace on every side all around him" (1 Kings 4:24).

At that time the people of Judah and Israel "were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy. 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 [taxes] and were Solomon's subjects all his life" (1 Kings 4:20-21, NIV).

Two other Middle Eastern powers, Egypt and Tyre (north of Israel on the coast in modern-day Lebanon) chose to become allies of David and Solomon rather than attack Israel and risk being conquered themselves. These two greatly expanded the scope of Israel's commercial and political might, though during the reign of Solomon their cultural and religious influences would also contribute to Israel's eventual collapse.

Solomon's alliance with Hiram of Tyre is probably the primary reason the historical importance of Israel's power and influence has been obscured in Western history. Modern historians, when describing the pervasive influence of the Phoenician Empire, centered then around Tyre, tend to overlook that Solomon was the real power of the eastern Mediterranean region at the time.

Israel and the Phoenician Empire

The Bible reveals that the history of Israel and Phoenicia was far more intertwined than most historians have recognized. In general they prospered together in good times and suffered together during the bad. They had common enemies. They rose to international power together and were later conquered by the Assyrian Empire at about the same time.

The people in the coastal area around Tyre and nearby Sidon shared an alphabet and more or less the same Semitic language with Israel. Other than slight cultural and dialectical differences, the languages appear to have been almost identical.

Israel's special relationship with King Hiram of Tyre began during David's reign (1 Chronicles 14:1) and continued beyond the reign of Solomon. Historians know Tyre as the chief city of the mighty Phoenicians.

The 1999 Encarta Multimedia Encyclopedia says the Phoenicians "became the most notable traders and sailors of the ancient world. The fleets of the coast cities traveled throughout the Mediterranean and even into the Atlantic Ocean, and other nations competed to employ Phoenician ships and crews in their navies ... The city-kingdoms founded many colonies, notably Utica and Carthage in north Africa, on the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea, and Tarshish in southern Spain. Tyre was the leader of the Phoenician cities before they were subjugated, once again, by Assyria during the 8th century BC" ("Phoenicia").

Solomon greatly expanded Israel's partnership with Hiram. It appears that a covenant of kinship was formally made between the two rulers, a "treaty of brotherhood" (Amos 1:9, NIV). As we will see, that relationship would prove to be one of Solomon's tragic mistakes. But temporarily it greatly increased the prosperity of both kingdoms, and it was this partnership that achieved international fame as the Phoenician Empire.

In evaluating the power and prestige of the mighty Phoenicians, historians tend to look no further than the maritime cities on the coast of modern Lebanon. They fail to recognize the partnership that existed between Hiram of Tyre and David and Solomon of Israel. As a result, they fail to see that David and Solomon, not Hiram, were the dominant rulers of the commercial partnership that became known to the outside world as Phoenicia.

Israel's contribution to Phoenician power

In his book Lebanon Yesterday and Today, John Christopher succinctly describes the region that historians regard as ancient Phoenicia. "When Phoenicia was at the peak of its power about 1000 B.C. [during the reign of David and Solomon], the chief city-states were, from south to north, Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and Aradus (situated on an island off the Syrian coast beyond the Lebanese frontier)" (1966, p. 43).

But anciently the word Phoenicia sometimes referred to much more than just those few coastal cities. It even included much of the inland area of the "land of Canaan" that was the territory of ancient Israel. This important information is often overlooked in historical accounts of ancient Phoenicia.

Christopher explains: "During the third millennium [B.C.], Byblos and the Lebanese coast in general were often referred to as the land of Canaan, and its inhabitants as Canaanites. Sometime later the more familiar terms, Phoenicia and Phoenicians, appeared. Phoenicia sometimes specifically referred to the coastal section of the much larger land of Canaan that reached well inland" (p. 41, emphasis added).

From the point of view of the Phoenician coastal cities, a cooperative alliance with Israel was a geopolitical necessity. Militarily, Israel was the cities' most powerful neighbor, far too powerful for Tyre's Hiram to ignore.

David's conquests of Edom, Moab and Ammon (modern Jordan) and Aram (modern Syria) gave Israel control over most of the vital inland trade routes. Tyre and Sidon controlled the maritime trade of the Mediterranean region. The weakness of the Phoenician port cities was their almost total dependence on trade for their survival.

Israel was, to a great extent, self-sufficient, producing large quantities of agricultural exports such as wine, olive oil and wheat. But the Phoenician coastal area around Tyre and Sidon was mountainous, leaving little land for agricultural production. Reflecting the scarcity of tillable land, they imported considerable foodstuffs from Israel. Strong political and commercial ties quickly developed between the two kingdoms, but Israel was by far the more powerful of the two.

The port cities of Tyre and Sidon shared manpower with Israel for the gathering of materials for Israel's temple (1 Kings 5:8-18). Solomon even conscripted a labor force of 30,000 men to work in Lebanon to secure timber for the temple's construction (verses 13-14).

The Phoenician port cities also gave Israel direct access to vast inter-national markets through their maritime control of the Mediterranean Sea. Historians have records of the Phoenicians venturing into the Atlantic Ocean at least as far as the British Isles, and some believe they traveled far beyond. This, then, means Israel had the same access to these areas.

The Scriptures even note that two Israelite tribes, Asher and Dan, had developed their own maritime expertise long before the days of David and Solomon of Israel and King Hiram of Tyre (Judges 5:17). Solomon built his own fleet of ships and stationed them at Israel's port city of Ezion Geber (1 Kings 9:26), providing trade access to east Africa and Asia via the Red and Arabian seas.

Though the Israelites had their own experienced navigators, the Phoenicians also supplied them with "seamen who knew the sea, to work with the servants of Solomon," in their joint maritime commercial ventures (1 Kings 9:27-28).

Israel, under David and Solomon, was a full partner in Phoenicia's international greatness and fame. The international commercial and political influence of Solomon was far greater than most recent historians have perceived. During this time, it is likely that some of Israel's traders settled in the British Isles, establishing small colonies. Although historical information about this period is sparse, many ancient traditions indicate this is what happened.

Why God gave Israel an empire

In the days of Moses, when Israel came into existence as a nation, God explained His purpose for making the Israelites a people of influence and power. He told them: "Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation..." (Exodus 19:5-6).

God intended to use them as a model nation. He had Moses tell them: "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you...Be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people'" (Deuteronomy 4:2-6).

God wanted Israel to set an example that would teach other nations the benefits that come from obeying Him—faithfully keeping His laws. When He established Israel as a great nation He gave Solomon wisdom that exceeded the understanding of the other rulers in the region. Solomon became internationally famous for his wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-34), and his subjects apparently were at peace within their lands.

God intended that the wisdom of His way of life and His laws be made available to other nations. He gave Israel a magnificent opportunity to spiritually enrich or bless "all the families of the earth," as He had promised Abraham.

But neither Solomon nor the people he led kept their eyes on that objective. The physical benefits of prosperity, wealth and fame became their chief focus. They lost sight of the reason for their existence as a nation.

Again, the problem was human nature. Solomon increasingly yielded to his own weaknesses until, at the end of his life, he had abandoned the great God who had given him an empire. In the next chapter we'll learn how this happened and the consequences that came from it.

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