Scripture calls King Solomon, the son of David, the wisest man who ever lived. He asked God to give him a wise heart, and 1 Kings tells us that God honored Solomon’s request. What are we to make, then, of comments in Solomon’s writings that we find offensive? Specifically, some readers of the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes have pointed out verses that they say are misogynistic. Are these charges against Solomon fair? Let’s explore.
1. Solomon and sexism
“Look,” says the Teacher, “this is what I have discovered: Adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things—while I was still searching but not finding—I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all,” (Ecclesiastes 7:27-28—NIV).
Before immediately assuming that these verses are derogatory towards women in general, let’s consider the context of the book of Ecclesiastes. The Bible tells us that Solomon had 1,000 women in his life, wives and concubines combined. It was his idolatrous wives that led to his downfall. When Solomon talks of not being able to find even one upright woman among a thousand, perhaps he is talking about his wives and concubines.
This explanation would fit in well with 7:26 where he says, “I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and traps, whose hands are chains. Whoever pleases God shall escape from her; but the sinner will be ensnared by her.”
If Solomon is referring to himself and his wives, then he is debasing himself by admitting that he’s a sinner that allowed himself to be ensnared by an ungodly woman. It’s always tricky trying to evaluate whether a person of antiquity was bigoted or sexist or intolerant by contemporary standards.
By 21st century standards, practically every man that lived prior to the 21st century was sexist. Wise people of the past often had blind spots, and it’s only we who are centuries removed from them that can spot those areas of blindness. Great thinkers of the past, who wrote wonderful works of theology, philosophy and politics, sometimes shock us by ignorantly speaking out against women’s suffrage.
G.K. Chesterton, who lived in the early 20th century, is a prime example of this. For all his excellent theological and philosophical writings, he nevertheless held fast in opposing women’s suffrage. It’s hard to not to be judgmental toward old writers when they do this, but it might help to remember that Chesterton wrote during a time when the overwhelming majority of men opposed women voting. If he was a product of his time, advocating something negative that the rest of his generation advocated, we should stop and ask ourselves how often we do the same thing.
At any rate, Solomon’s writings, when taken as a whole, show that he is not sexist towards women. In 1 Kings 2:19, we see the high regard he had for his mother, having a throne constructed for her, where she could sit at his right hand. In Proverbs, one of Solomon’s themes is what a treasure from God a good wife is:
“A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown,” “The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down,” “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD,” “Houses and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the LORD,” (Proverbs 12:4, 14:1, 18:22, 19:14—NIV).
Also, in Proverbs Solomon frequently personifies wisdom as a woman (especially chapter 8). The personification of wisdom is a noble and godly woman (9:1-12), whereas the personification of Folly is a sexually promiscuous woman (9:13-18).
In his Ecclesiastes commentary, Walter Kaiser interprets Solomon’s seemingly misogynistic comment allegorically, saying, “Solomon does not fit the usual definition of a misogynist—he? A woman hater? No, that wasn’t his problem. Some commentators have suggested that this woman whose heart is a snare and a trap (v.26) is but the personification of that wickedness which is folly itself. She is the ‘strange woman’ of Proverbs 1-9. Perhaps this interpretation is the closest to what Solomon intended, for the topic is wisdom from 7:21 to 8:1.”
Solomon’s comment in 9:9, “Live joyfully with the wife whom you love,” is further evidence, Kaiser says, that Solomon was not sexist. “The tone of this injunction,” he said, “sets the context for understanding Solomon’s earlier word on women in 7:26-28. He was definitely not a misogynist. He was fully aware of what a beautiful gift a true wife is.”
3. Keeping Ecclesiastes in context
Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that Solomon’s remarks about women are wrong, where would that leave us? Would it discredit the Bible as a whole, or the Christian faith? When people charge Solomon with being sexist, it is usually part of a larger case they are attempting to build against the Bible as a whole.
We must remember the great hermeneutic principle of the Protestant Reformation: let Scripture interpret Scripture. This means that we must read Solomon’s books in the context of the Bible as a whole. Genesis 1 tells us that humans, male and female alike, are made in God’s image. Galatians tells us that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female. 1 Peter reminds us that both husbands and wives are heirs of eternal life.
All that said, we need to remember that Ecclesiastes is a philosophical book, a man’s reflections on life. It is a very opinionated book wherein the author shares his perspective on life. The author doesn’t claim to be speaking on God’s behalf, “Thus saith the Lord.” It is Solomon who is saying, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” not Yahweh. Ecclesiastes is, to some extent, a book of Solomon’s opinions, not all of which Christians should feel any compulsion to agree with.
Finally, if G.K. Chesterton, a wise man, had blind spots, and Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, could have had similar blind spots, we shouldn’t think we’re above the same danger. Do we hold individual views on abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage, capital punishment, global warming, etc… or have we simply allowed ourselves to mindlessly parrot whatever our circle of friends say? These are questions we must urgently ask ourselves and seriously answer.