Wednesday: Working for Kings

David McLoughlin considers a re-reading of the "wisdom" of King Solomon in 1 Kings 4 in light of some of our current employment practices.

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20Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea. They ate and drank and were happy. 21Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt. They brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life.

22Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of fine flour and sixty cors of meal, 23ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl. 24For he had dominion over all the region west of the Euphrates from Tiphsah to Gaza, over all the kings west of the Euphrates. And he had peace on all sides around him. 25And Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon. 26Solomon also had 40,000 stalls of horses for his chariots, and 12,000 horsemen. 27And those officers supplied provisions for King Solomon, and for all who came to King Solomon’s table, each one in his month. They let nothing be lacking. 28Barley also and straw for the horses and swift steeds they brought to the place where it was required, each according to his duty.

29And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, 30so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. 32He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. 33He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. 34And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.

1 Kings 4: 20-34 – English Standard Version.

The Dangers of Working for Kings: a re-reading of the “wisdom” of King Solomon in 1 Kings 4 in light of some of our current employment practices.

We have seen extraordinary changes in the world of work in our lifetimes. A generation ago most men and women in our country worked in production, making things for the home and international markets. Our wealth as a nation was in the production of goods and in trade. We’d had the advantage of being a leader in the industrial revolution of the previous two centuries.

This is no longer the case. Younger countries, starting long after us, have built on our skills and knowledge but have thought through afresh the whole process of production and trade. And a new economic wisdom in the 1990’s allowed free monetary systems to become the arbiter of economic growth and profit while we fell behind. Increasingly we export nostalgia, history, knowledge and technical know-how but fewer produced goods. Today’s beautiful bicycles, motorbikes and cars come from elsewhere and the factories and communities that once designed and produced them here are no more.

But in the last ten or so years there has been an even greater shift. Another model of economy and work has emerged. The Gig economy. This is the fruit of the awesome development of the World Wide Web and the new global markets and networks. There is no longer a need for local communities with local skills gathered round sources of water, iron and coal, drawing on local or imported expertise in producing and manipulating them. Now multi-national organisations have emerged, with no allegiance to a nation or people. They can move their headquarters and centres of operation easily to take advantage of preferential taxes, cheaper workforces, better conditions and greater profit margins.

They draw on micro-work or micro-tasking where workers produce small pieces of work, often data gathering, which are gathered by virtual platforms like Upwork, Uber, Lyft, Rover, Fiverr, Instacart and Amazon Mechanical Turk. They use what is called crowdsourcing; putting out pieces of work, often very small, for tender. The workers on the web bid for the work at prices with tiny profit margins. In the process these workers are assessed at how quickly and efficiently they deliver the agreed outcomes and this information decides whether more work will come their way or not.

In so far as there is a contract between worker and employer, or “requester”, it may last no longer than the task. The Gig workers, we are told are “self-employed” and “can choose when, where, and for whom, to work”. But there is no community of work with mutual responsibility to its members and those doing the work do not “know” their employers or the nature or scope of the projects for which their small pieces of data collection are being used. The rights of working people, fought so hard for over the last two hundred years, are fragmenting before our eyes. But this is not the first time such monumental shifts have taken place.

During the forty or so years’ reign of King Solomon, an enormous social experiment took place which changed Israel, the chosen people of God, and marked its future. Solomon continued David’s consolidation of the federation of the 12 tribes but in doing so took as his model the Kingdoms and Empires of the surrounding regions. The much vaunted “wisdom of Solomon” is, in great part, a celebration of the ideas and practices that he borrowed to enable his new centralised kingdom, with its court and Temple in Jerusalem, David’s City, to come about and survive.

To this end new social structures and new workforces were created and new work practices imposed. The People of God’s covenant with Moses, had been pledged to create a land where the widow, the stranger, the orphan, and all the powerless, were at the centre of concern. There no-one should be oppressed by another, and no-one end up in slavery without the promise of freedom. All this in remembrance of their origins in Egypt as slave labourers of an oppressive regime. The self-revealed God of freedom, had liberated them from this, and established them as a nation that would model such freedom for the future, to be a sign of hope to other oppressed peoples. This is beautifully expressed in the idealised verse 25 above “And Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon.” Note the emphasis on dwelling at peace with the land, God’s gift, as central to this vision.

After King David, the leader of the army was the highest person in Israel because they and the army both protected and sustained the nation’s freedom. However, under Solomon the leading figure becomes the Chief Priest followed by three court Officials, one over the 12 prefects (1 Kings 4:7-19) , a king’s friend, and one who governs the palace. The centre has shifted from the army of liberation to the Temple, the Palace and their structures of central administration and control. From a rural economy based on a careful and kindly use of land there is a shift to cities and urban centres which draw in the land’s produce for trade and sale. The prefects and their districts do include some of the original tribal districts of Israel especially on the peripheries, e.g. Ephraim and Manasseh. However, another five are named after towns, reorganising the central hill country and the former Canaanite territories annexed to Israel and Judah under David.

The purpose of this re-organisation becomes clearer when we read that each regional prefect had to provide food for the King and the court for one month of the year (1 Kings 4:7; 5:7). The reform of the 12 districts enables a new more efficient centralised system of taxation, neutralising the influence of the house and family of the patriarch Joseph over the tribes, and privileging Judah which alone remained tax-free. Indeed, the King distributes salaries from the provisions and taxes to his royal servants. They are now dependent on him and form a new core hierarchy of professional soldiers, court and palace staff, administrators, merchants, and artisans. The Levites (1 Chronicles 6:39-66; 26: 30-32. Joshua 21:1-42;
1 Chronicles 6: 39-66) are integrated into this new administration with the role, among others, of administering the new fortified cities, garrison and store towns (1 Kings 9:15, 17-19; 10:26).

One aspect of Solomon’s wisdom was to increase the use of foreign experts, mercenaries (2 Samuel 15:18), officials (1 Kings 4:6) and artisans like Hiram of Tyre (1 Kings 7:13). He made a number of political marriages with the daughters of neighbouring kings, including ironically, the daughter of the then Pharaoh, effectively locating himself and his dynasty within the same social framework from which Moses had first liberated the tribes.

As a result there was a growth in syncretism and the toleration of the cults of foreign gods in Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:4-5, 7-8). This eventually led to a reaction from the Northern Tribes against the centralised taxation and governance. They lamented the watering down of the unique covenant with Yahweh the liberator and with the land, and the re-interpretation of God’s favour as primarily on the house of David, the holy City of Zion and its centralised and priest-led organisation of religion in the Temple. They saw at its heart, the development and reinforcement of a new militarist defence system with which even Pharaoh had to negotiate.

Jerusalem’s wealth expanded through its collection of tolls on international caravans. It became a regional centre of trade and diplomacy. Its international multi-cultural court was a centre for the collection and exchange of information and technology. This further reinforced Solomon’s reputation for wisdom. But the seeds of discontent were well planted before Solomon’s death. His extensive use of forced labour from the Northern Tribes alongside foreign slaves directly contravened the story of the origin of the liberated People of God. This would lead to a revolt and the breakdown of the Kingdom, with the Northern Tribes declaring independence. Visibly weakened, the land would become easy pickings for the Assyrians and Babylonians and lead to the exile and the destruction of the original 12 tribes.

There are many lessons to be learnt from the chronicles of the reign of Solomon. In terms of the experience of work there is a terrible reversal back to a society which effectively depends on an elite privileged leadership being sustained and served by a series of increasingly oppressed underclasses with whom they are no longer in touch. Such servitude and subservience was meant to have disappeared from the new people of God, as it grew in understanding of the nature of the immensity of what had taken place in the call of Moses and the experience of Exodus. In the new land, an egalitarian society was called into being with freed slaves and manual workers as its citizens, and a gospel for the poor, the frail, the formerly excluded, the stateless – the widow, the stranger, and the orphan.

In Catholic Social Teaching the two principles that underpin this vision are solidarity and subsidiarity. In the Kingdom of God there is a fundamental solidarity between all the children of Eve because each is marked in their essential make-up as created in the image and likeness of God. No-one images God more than you or I, not the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury nor St Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The likeness to that image may shine more brightly out from some lives than others. However, it is the teaching of Genesis, which reflects the teaching given to God’s people by God’s prophet Moses, that each of us is the image of God. So each of us can demand of the other, and should offer the other, the reverence that such imaging implies. This fundamental egalitarian principle, at the heart of revelation, leads to the second principle of subsidiarity.

If this is the basis of our dignity then each person, family, community, institution, government and nation is challenged to organise itself to enable that unique, and yet universal, dignity to be exercised appropriately at every level. There should be no interference from a higher or more centralised authority except when it is for the common good of all that cannot be achieved or realised more locally. Subsidiarity is the conscious exercise of mature responsibility, at the appropriate level, by those most immediately involved towards those who will most benefit.

If we look at our present world we can see good examples of attempts to develop solidarity and subsidiarity. In the movements for eco-reform and the reversal of climate change we experience a new solidarity with the vulnerable species with which we share the planet. In the call of Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew, the Dalai Lama and other leaders, religious, scientific and secular, for a new education, a new politics and economics, and the possibility of a more egalitarian and responsible re-ordering of the international order.

But daily we also see and experience power politics that would continue the misuse of the earth’s goods for the profit of the few at the expense of the many. We see this in unnecessary wars; in terrible droughts and famines that are the result of long term misuse of land and resources; in the thoughtless destruction of fauna and flora; and in the isolation of working people in the Gig economy. The principles of solidarity and subsidiarity have to be learnt by practice at every level in all the different aspects of our shared lives. We start where we are and then challenge others to join us. In doing so, we trust that the Spirit of the God of Exodus freedom, will take our poor efforts and enable them to bear fruit that will transform lives, and open a renewed and reconciled future for those who feel they have none.

Reflection and questions for discussion:

Psalm 72 “Give the king your justice, O God…” is often seen as a prayer for Solomon. But it is a terrifying prayer for anyone in authority. The blessings it calls for are only valid if the one prayed for is actively pursuing the liberation of the poor and oppressed and sharing with them the goods of the land.

a) Who could we pray it for?

b) Can you identify work that is organised such that workers remain isolated with little access to greater solidarity and support?
What actions could they, with help, undertake to change this?

c) “If we get the image of the worker wrong we already have a false image of God.” Where do we most image God in our work? In our relationships, our ideas and shared projects? Or how else?

d) How can we begin to help isolated workers out of isolation into greater solidarity?

Further Scripture texts and reading for reflection:

Mark 2:23-28 – “The Sabbath was made for Humankind, not Humankind for the Sabbath.”
Matthew 20:1-16 – The Workers in the Vineyard.
Matthew 25:31-45 – Solidarity and Judgement.

Hornsby-Smith, M.P. (2006) An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching. Cambridge: CUP, pp.104-106.

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (2004) Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, sections 185-196.

Rowlands, A. (2021) Towards a Politics of Communion. Catholic Social Teaching in Dark Times. London: T&T. Clark, pp. 215-268.

“Royal Consciousness: Countering the Counter-Culture” pp. 21-38 of Brueggemann, W. (2001, 2nd Edn.) The Prophetic Imagination. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Webster, J. (2016), ‘Micro-workers of the gig economy: Separate and precarious,’ New Labor Forum 25(3), pp. 56-64.

Reflection on a painting by Fleur Dorrell

‘King Solomon and the Iron Worker’ by Christian Schussele. Oil on canvas. 1863.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, USA.

Christian Schussele was an American artist, lithographer, illustrator and teacher, and is credited with designing the American ‘Medal of Honor’. This nineteenth century painting of ‘King Solomon and the Ironworker’ is his fascinating interpretation of a Rabbinic Legend; and was commissioned by Joseph Harrison – a renowned railroad builder. Harrison made his money in steel and so the painting’s story had a significance for him in its highlighting of a manual labourer, and because the Civil War relied heavily on the manufacturing industry for its success.

According to Rabbinical tradition, King Solomon prepared a feast for the chief craftsman and artificers who had worked on the newly completed Temple. The Temple looms in the background. At the right hand of the throne was a seat of honour for the most skilled craftsman employed in the whole enterprise. Initially, the special feast didn’t include the blacksmiths since their work with fire and dangerous metals rather than with fine wood, ivory and stone was seen as inferior. But one blacksmith dared to defend their right to be acknowledged and heard by the king. He challenged the craftsmen to answer who made their tools if they were so superior, and each time they replied ‘the blacksmith’. The blacksmith then explains to Solomon that the Temple couldn’t have been built without the tools made by him and his fellow workers. Solomon, in his alleged wisdom, appreciates the argument and offers him the promised seat of honour once he has washed off his sweat from the forge.

So this scene shows the blacksmith sitting confidently on the chair next to Solomon’s throne in the middle of the discussion. However, the kings’ soldiers and the crowds who were not aware of the conversation’s point, rush forward to remove him since they assume he is a threat to the king and should be restrained.

In the legend of this story there is also a quote from Isaiah 54:16 to support the divine purpose of the blacksmith’s work –

16 See it is I who have created the smith
who blows the fire of coals,
and produces a weapon fit for its purpose;
I have also created the ravager to destroy.

At one level this painting with its traditional palette of reds, blues, whites and golds, simply illustrates an Old Testament story. In the history of art, crowd scenes and classical buildings are a firm favourite as they demonstrate the artist’s skill with perspective. By zoning in on the encounter between King Solomon and the blacksmith we not only see the action more directly but we’re reminded of the scale of the Temple as it reaches for the skies. To develop a building complex of that size was an extraordinary achievement and while the glory is given to Solomon, here we’re made to reflect on the workers who created it as detailed in 1 Kings 5:13-16 and 1 Kings 9:15-23:

13 King Solomon conscripted forced labour out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. 14 He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home (or in his palace); Adoniram was in charge of the forced labour. 15 Solomon also had seventy thousand labourers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country, 16 besides Solomon’s three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work. 1 Kings 5:13-16.

Without modern health and safety regulations let alone a living wage, the people who were conscripted to this grand project, risked death on site or at least major injuries coupled with poverty and certainly no proper lunch breaks or decent sleeping quarters.

Just look at the pop-up dais in the foreground with its opulent furnishings – Solomon’s throne is solid gold, the canopy is made of finest silk, the tiled floor is made from the best marble and the carpet was woven by the best tapestry-makers for miles. Yet it’s not even a permanent fixture in spite of its cost. A sweaty half-naked blacksmith striding across this polished floor reverses all the expectations of the day. So notice the man in yellow in the bottom right, wafting his incense burner as he tries to eradicate the smell of toil and labour!

King Solomon began as a godly ruler, but as his influence grew so did his aspirations for grandeur. Like all powerful leaders who aren’t kept in check, his arrogance negatively affected the nations he ruled. Over a 20-year span Solomon was able to oppress large numbers of people without challenge. His enforced labour scheme, a form of human trafficking, was marketed as divinely ordained by God. Yet it added more to Solomon’s stature as a king than to religious stability or fair work for the masses. It wasn’t just the Temple that Solomon ordered to be built, which took seven years, there was his palace – almost as large as the Temple, and the rebuilding of several fortified cities that had been destroyed during his father David’s reign.

The Queen of Sheba was thoroughly impressed with both Solomon’s wisdom and the scale of his construction projects. Other leaders were even more impressed with the mechanics of his throne, which apparently was the first of its kind to move via a pulley system. That could only have been achieved with extensive trial and error, causing undoubted injury to those who were the first to experiment. Solomon’s wisdom clearly didn’t extend to workers’ basic rights.

Closing Prayer

Saving God you came among us as a craft worker,
with skilful hands and a clear voice.
You called us to build the vision lost so long ago.
You died to build a world where all have access to work and its fruits,
where the weak and frail are sustained by the strong and fit.
Inspire our hands and minds as we struggle to realise your vision.
Help us to engage with others, to understand and unite our voices
in saying that Decent Work is not an option but a necessity.
God give us the faith and courage to make a difference,
this day and every day.