The Underside of Prosperity
Scriptures: I Kings 4, 7, 9, and 10 (from Children's Bible); Jeremiah 22:13-17
This is the Palace of Versailles in France, [Slide 1:
Versailles building], the home for Kings Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI. In terms of area it is the largest palace in the world. The building itself has 700,000 square feet of floor space, and the total estate [Slide 2: Gardens] covers almost 3 square miles. The most famous room in the palace is the Hall of Mirrors [Slide 3: Hall of Mirrors], 73 meters long, almost the length of a football field, lined with 357 mirrors, which at the time were luxury items, made very few places in the world outside Venice. This is the bedroom of Marie Antoinette [Slide 4: Queen's bedroom]. The bed is surrounded by what looks like an altar rail, which I understand was there to keep back the public when the queen gave birth. When the queen gave birth, people didn't just stand outside the hospital like for William and Kate, they were present in the birthing room. This is the Queen's study [Slide 5: The Gilded Study], called the Gilded Study because of the gold trim everywhere in the room. The whole palace is trimmed with gold. There were also hundreds of furnishing made of silver [Slide 6: Silver table], like this silver table. And if the main building were not big enough, there were stables for some 2000 horses in the back [Slide 7: Stables]. It is estimated that the cost of building and furnishing this palace was over 116 million livres, in today's money about $2 billion. Maintaining it, including food for the royal family and guests, took somewhere between 6% and 20% of the entire government budget. [Slide 8: Versailles]
I share this because it reminds me of King Solomon. The
Children's Bible says, "Solomon began to build himself a magnificent palace. It took him thirteen years to finish. He kept hundreds of workman busy, cutting fine stone and carving cedar wood ceilings and paneled walls." If they had had mirrors in ancient Jerusalem, he would have put those in too. It also says, "Huge quantities of food were prepared each day for the royal table. The people of Israel had to take turns in providing all the food that was needed at the palace." It also says, "Solomon loved horses and built huge stables for them all" [Slide 9: Stables]. Solomon was a forerunner of the kings of France.
As you may remember, however, things did not end well for
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette [Slide 10: Storming the Bastille]. In 1789 an angry mob stormed the Bastille, seizing weapons and launching the French Revolution. Eventually they seized the Palace of Versailles and executed the king and queen at the guillotine.
According to historians there were many causes for the
French Revolution, but the most basic was the desperate poverty of the poor over against the wealth of the French nobility. At the time of Louis XVI, 90% of the rural peasants in France lived at or below subsistence, meaning that in good years they earned just enough to feed their families and in bad years they starved. The poor living in cities fared even worse.
Which brings me back to Solomon. Like Louis XIV and Louis
XV, Solomon did alright during his lifetime. There was peace during Solomon's reign, but the problems in his accumulation of wealth detonated in the time of his son Rehoboam.
Let me jump ahead to the story you will be reading on Friday this week
in our 365 Bible Stories. According to I Kings 12, when King Solomon died and the people of Israel gathered to install his son Rehoboam as the new king, they sent a spokesman to him named Jeroboam with this petition, reading from The Children's Bible [Slide 11: Words from Children's Bible]:
"Your Majesty," Jeroboam began, "your father, King Solomon, treated us harshly. He made life miserable for us. He made us pay heavy taxes and forced us to work hard for him without pay. If you will promise to treat us kindly and make life easier, we will promise to be your loyal subjects."
Remember all those buildings Solomon built? It turns out
that he financed them by using forced labor and in some cases slave labor. And the lavish meals he served to his guests were furnished by his subjects who had to provide vast quantities of food from their own farms to supply the royal table. The people put up with this during Solomon's reign, but when his son Rehoboam came to power, they rebelled. The result was a civil war from which ancient Israel never recovered.
The Bible says this happened because Solomon worshiped other
gods, like the goddess Astarte, the goddess of fertility, and the god Milcom, the god of war. You will read that story on Wednesday this week from I Kings 11. Basically Solomon began worshiping the gods of money, sex, and power. That's what a fertility goddess and a god of war represented: money, sex, and power. Solomon began worshiping the gods of money, sex, and power, and his worship of false gods displayed itself as injustice.
This story is not unique to Solomon or the kings of France.
In his Second Inaugural Address, four years into the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said this to the people [Slide 12 quote]:
Fondly do we hope-fervently do we pray-that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-men's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."
Abraham Lincoln describes the civil war as a judgment of God
against the accumulation of wealth made possible by exploiting the use of forced labor. It is the reign of King Solomon all over again.
Now please understand: I am not here this morning with a
hidden political agenda. I am not a politician, I am a pastor; I am not an expert on social policy, I am a Bible teacher. But you cannot read the Bible without noticing its warning about accumulating wealth when it is done at the expense of others. A vivid example is our first scripture reading from Jeremiah 22. Jeremiah says [Slide 13 quote],
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper room by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages; who says, "I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms," who cuts windows for it, paneling it with cedar, and painting it with vermillion.
He could have been talking about Solomon. In the context Jeremiah was
actually talking about King Shallum, the son of Josiah, one of the later kings of Israel. But he could have been talking about Solomon. He could have been talking about Versailles. He could have been talking about slavery in America. He is talking about any form of greed and exploitation.
But then Jeremiah says [Slide 14: Quote]:
Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord.
That last phrase is key. Our relationship to God is connected to how
we treat other people especially the poor. The Old Testament says this repeatedly; so does Jesus.
I admit that figuring out how to do this is sometimes tricky. There
are times when well-meaning actions and well-meaning policies to help the poor end up making them more dependent and more vulnerable than they were before. But that does not change Jeremiah's point. Our relationship to God is connected to how we treat other people, especially the poor, because treating other people with justice and compassion will make life better for us all.