Here in the UK we are currently embroiled in a succession of stories about the expenses our Members of Parliament have been claiming, which were recently made public. It puts me in mind of another review of a political leader’s expenditure set out by an Old Testament writer.
The popular view of King Solomon is that he was a good king who went bad later on in his reign. But the biblical account of his life, in the book of Kings at least, drops a number of hints to suggest a measure of ambiguity throughout his life. One aspect of this was his expenditure.
The people of Israel had been warned what might happen if they ever demanded a human king:
16 The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” 17 He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. (Deut. 17:16-17, ESV)
10 Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” (1 Sam. 8:10-18, ESV)
Fast-forward to Solomon’s reign where, among other things, he redraws tribal boundaries for tax purposes (1 Kgs. 4:1-19), conscripts forced labour for his building projects (5:13-18), spends twice as much time on his own house than he does on the Temple (6:38-7:1), and even imports horses from Egypt (10:28; cf. Deut. 17:16!).
Even the accounts of the opulance of his buldings and lifestyle seem to turn the reader from wonder, to hesitancy, to suspicion. Was the writer of Kings over-praising Solomon to make a point? Is there in fact a drip-drip-dripping of irony throughout the narrative that asks whether this was quite the golden age we thought it was?
Now of course the situations in Ancient Israel and contemporary Britain are completely different. But this at least reminds us that we should pay careful attention to what those in power do with their power, and not least with the public purse.