By Daniel Schantz
When an old friend of ours left his wife for a younger model, I was dumbstruck. “He’s smarter than that,” I said to my wife. “He knows better.” His villainy didn’t bother me as much as his sheer stupidity.
We all do stupid things, like texting and driving, but when someone really smart does something dumb, well, that’s just inexcusable. And yet, being smart doesn’t make it any easier to behave. Being good has more to do with emotions and willpower than with brains.
Smart people have all the same temptations we all do, plus some that are unique to intellectuals. Ancient King Solomon was as bright as they come, but with his IQ came some powerful pressures.
Boredom begins early in life for the gifted. Gifted children often have trouble with school, because school is designed for “normal” children. The gifted child quickly tires of easy assignments, and his or her mind drifts off to more challenging worlds during lectures. A gifted program may be the only thing that can rescue a gifted child from his ennui.
King Solomon was a brilliant contractor who built a world-class civilization in just 20 years. But the experience left him cold. It didn’t live up to his expectations. In Ecclesiastes, he said it was like “striving after wind” (1:14). He also said, “All things are wearisome” (1:8), and “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2, New American Standard Bible).
We ordinary minds might be deliriously happy with just one of Solomon’s beautiful wives or just one of his swimming pools.
My wife, who loves the simple life, would have disagreed with Solomon’s conclusions. She would say, “All things are full of joy,” and, “Interesting, interesting, all things are interesting.”
Solomon, however, was a man of astronomical aspirations. Such men are often frustrated with the prosaic nature of everyday life. His wives and servants probably enjoyed his kingdom far more than he did.
By definition, leadership is a lonely business. Leaders are chosen precisely because they are exceptional, but their burdens are also exceptional. For instance, if you are a minister, teacher, elder, or a Christian college administrator, then you understand how leaders have to push against a steady gust of criticism, much of it petty, some of it harsh and unfair.
A student came up to me after class to correct me: “You said that the angel fell prostate before God, but angels are not males, they don’t have a prostate gland. You should have said ‘prostrate’ not ‘prostate.’”
I blushed at my error, but constructive criticism is helpful. It’s when criticism is vicious or relentless that it becomes like verbal sandpaper, wearing away at a leader’s motivation.
Leaders have to make unpopular decisions—like firing good employees because of budget cuts or revised objectives, giving negative performance reviews, and confronting an employee who is gambling online or a deacon who is too cozy with a pretty worship leader. There is no nifty way to do these things without getting slimed in the process.
Christian administrators must meet a payroll with unpredictable income. When the money doesn’t come in, they must face the crestfallen faces of fathers and mothers. Leaders often must push employees to perform, but employees may not have their leader’s level of ability, and they rebel. Then the leader feels rejected and may seek solace from a sweet and understanding secretary.
King Solomon had several million citizens to oversee, plus a staff of 10,000 to feed and house. He had cities and roads to maintain, visiting dignitaries to entertain, and a thousand ladies to take shopping at the Gaza Strip Mall.
Everyone praised his glorious, glittering kingdom, but then the bills arrived and taxes went through the roof. Then came the day when taxes would not cover the expenses, and he put his own people to work as slaves. At that point Solomon lost his people’s affection and respect. It was a lonely time for him, even if it was his own fault for overextending.
The higher a leader goes, the lonelier it gets, and with loneliness comes temptation.
Brainpower is like money—it can do great good, or it can destroy. The most educated and cultured country on earth gave us Adolf Hitler and his henchmen. They were brilliant men, but “bad to the bone,” and they used their mental powers to wreck the world.
Being smart can actually make it easier to do evil. Smart leaders can see ways to cheat and not get caught. They have insider information, spyware, computer passwords. They have keys and combinations to vaults and private files. They have informants and cronies. This kind of trust can easily be exploited for personal gain, and sometimes it is.
Leaders usually have high confidence and a healthy ego; these are necessary to achievement, but confidence is like a pet cobra, it can turn on you. Wall Street hot shots, for example, are usually high-
testosterone types who thrive on risk, but that very strength can lead to greed and their downfall.
King Solomon was given enormous power—a blank check to build a Camelot in the desert, but he went “a bridge too far,” and all Israel paid dearly for it.
Most smart leaders have at least one blind spot, an area where they may be as ignorant as dirt. We professor types are fabled for our absentmindedness, for example.
Harvard’s Howard Gardner researched and wrote about “multiple intelligences.” He showed us that no one person has all the different kinds of brainpower. A creative genius like Walt Disney might not be able to balance his checkbook. A computer whiz may be a grand bore at a party. A social charmer can’t hold a job because she is always late to work.
Solomon’s weakness was women. In those primitive times, God tolerated polygamy, but there are problems every time polygamy is mentioned in the Bible. Kings had harems to guarantee many descendants, but also for security reasons. What foreign king was going to attack Solomon, knowing that his own daughter was in Solomon’s palace? But harems were seriously problematic.
Wives are famously influential. My wife is smarter than me in most areas, and I usually yield to her judgment. But sometimes she is too protective of me or has a hidden agenda. I have to know when to ignore her, even if it means I eat nothing but bread and water for a month and sleep on the back porch.
As Solomon got older, his charms were likely waning. His hair was thinning, his gut protruded, and he was missing a couple of teeth. His wives would say, “Solomon, sweetheart, you are such a sheik! You are just as handsome as the day we met you.” He swallowed that bonbon whole, so they went further. “You know, you are such a broad-minded, cosmopolitan man, why don’t you come worship our gods sometime? You can still worship Jehovah, of course, but we would be so proud to have you on Ashtoreth Advent.”
Sharp as he was, Solomon saw no flaw in their logic. But some things in life just don’t mix. Ice cream and chocolate go well together, but if you mix ice cream and manure, you still have manure. So Solomon went to their high places, but it was odiferous to God, and it was the last straw. The greatest leader in the world lost his kingdom because of his blind spot.
When I hear that someone smart has done something stupid, I need to be humble about it, knowing that they may have trials I haven’t had to face.
Fallen leaders absolutely must be held accountable because of their far-reaching influence. They must be disciplined back to spiritual health, if they are willing. But in the process we need to remember mercy. After all, they were willing to take on challenges that no one else would attempt.
The works that great men and women do often outlive their personal failures, and some leaders go on to do their best work after they have been humbled by disgrace. Like Simon Peter, who became the keynote speaker on the first day of the church.
King Solomon’s empire attracted people from the ends of the earth. When they came, they learned about Jehovah God, and they took that knowledge home with them. And two of the most popular and valuable books of the Bible, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, contain spiritual gold, sifted from the ore of Solomon’s blunders.
Just because leaders fail does not mean they can’t go to Heaven. Was Solomon saved? Second Samuel 7:15 suggests to me that he was: “My mercy shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul.”
The higher the fall, the more it hurts. Public shame is a bitter pill to swallow, and fallen leaders need our prayers and compassion, if they are repentant.
Never do we need love more than when we have failed.
Dan Schantz taught the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes for two generations at Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Missouri.