1 Kings 1
1 Kings 1: 1-4 A Feeble King
1 King David was old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm. 2 So his servants said to him, “Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king, and be his attendant; let her lie in your bosom, so that my lord the king may be warm.” 3 So they searched for a beautiful girl throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the king. 4 The girl was very beautiful. She became the king’s attendant and served him, but the king did not know her sexually.
The initial chapter of 1 Kings serves as a bridge between the stories of 1 and 2 Samuel which culminates with the reign of King David and the transition to the narrative of the kings that come after David. People in the United States have generally taken for granted a peaceful transition of power and the political machinations of an election and swearing in of new leaders has, with one notable exception recently, been accepted as a matter-of-fact occurrence. The transition of power in the ancient world was often a matter of life and death for those who would claim the power to reign. King David was a warrior king who had forged a unified Israel by both his military prowess and his ability to forge alliances with various religious and tribal authorities.
1 Kings begins with “an enfeebled king, a mere shadow of the robust leader he once was,” (Cogan, 2001, p. 164) and in the absence of a robust leader coalitions are forming. The servants of the king have attempted to keep the king able to maintain power, but his health is failing him. The solution is to bring another young, beautiful woman into the king’s bed to keep him warm and to for her to lie in his bosom. The language of Abishag lying in the king’s bosom may intentionally echo the prophet Nathan’s parable to David after the affair with Bathsheba where the poor man’s ewe lamb “used to lie in his bosom” (2 Samuel 12:3) and if this echo is intentional it may help prepare us for the awkward conversation between David and Bathsheba while Abishag is warming the king’s bed.
David as a roughly seventy-year-old man is no longer physically able to hold the kingdom together and his physical frailty and lack of clear succession sets the stage for the conflict of the chapter. The chapter is a political narrative about the effective and ineffective use of symbols and alliances to gain power. It also lives in the shadows of the sins of the past which have weakened David’s house and the central presence of Nathan and Bathsheba throughout this episode as well as the parallels between Adonijah and Absalom bring us to the place where an enfeebled king is no longer able to effectively hold his broken house together. David remains passive as the conflict between those who see Adonijah and Solomon as the next king begins.
1 Kings 1: 5-10 Adonijah’s Bold Claim to Power
5 Now Adonijah son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, “I will be king”; he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him. 6 His father had never at any time displeased him by asking, “Why have you done thus and so?” He was also a very handsome man, and he was born next after Absalom. 7 He conferred with Joab son of Zeruiah and with the priest Abiathar, and they supported Adonijah. 8 But the priest Zadok, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada, and the prophet Nathan, and Shimei, and Rei, and David’s own warriors did not side with Adonijah.
9 Adonijah sacrificed sheep, oxen, and fatted cattle by the stone Zoheleth, which is beside En-rogel, and he invited all his brothers, the king’s sons, and all the royal officials of Judah, 10 but he did not invite the prophet Nathan or Benaiah or the warriors or his brother Solomon.
The perspective of 1 Kings is a complicated question, but in this initial chapter it frames the person and actions of Adonijah in a way that is parallel to Absalom (Israel, 2013, pp. 18-19). Both Absalom and Adonijah are described as being attractive men (2 Samuel 14:25) and this physical attraction is a part of their appeal as the future king (and a reason for David’s failure to correct his sons). Both Absalom and Adonijah attempt to secure the crown by their own machinations while David still lives, and each is the next in line by birth order. Both sons will have chariots and runners to demonstrate their power in the city (2 Samuel 15:1) and the presence of both chariots (the military technology of the day) and runners who were often counted on as loyal bodyguards indicate the military strength to defend his claim. Adonijah has developed a power base of both religious and military leaders and is actively excluding those who he feels may pose a challenge to his ascension as the next king. The act of sacrificing and dining with the royal sons (sans Solomon) the royal officials of Judah is a political action designed to further his aspirations of ruling in his father’s stead. One powerful claimant to the throne has been introduced and the enfeebled king has done nothing to oppose the actions of his attractive son and may be unaware of the machinations occurring in his kingdom.
1 Kings: 1: 11-37 Nathan and Bathsheba Rouse King David to Action
11 Then Nathan said to Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, “Have you not heard that Adonijah son of Haggith has become king and our lord David does not know it?
12 Now therefore come, let me give you advice, so that you may save your own life and the life of your son Solomon. 13 Go in at once to King David, and say to him, ‘Did you not, my lord the king, swear to your servant, saying: Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne? Why then is Adonijah king?’ 14 Then while you are still there speaking with the king, I will come in after you and confirm your words.”
15 So Bathsheba went to the king in his room. The king was very old; Abishag the Shunammite was attending the king. 16 Bathsheba bowed and did obeisance to the king, and the king said, “What do you wish?” 17 She said to him, “My lord, you swore to your servant by the LORD your God, saying: Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne. 18 But now suddenly Adonijah has become king, though you, my lord the king, do not know it. 19 He has sacrificed oxen, fatted cattle, and sheep in abundance, and has invited all the children of the king, the priest Abiathar, and Joab the commander of the army; but your servant Solomon he has not invited. 20 But you, my lord the king — the eyes of all Israel are on you to tell them who shall sit on the throne of my lord the king after him. 21 Otherwise it will come to pass, when my lord the king sleeps with his ancestors, that my son Solomon and I will be counted offenders.”
22 While she was still speaking with the king, the prophet Nathan came in. 23 The king was told, “Here is the prophet Nathan.” When he came in before the king, he did obeisance to the king, with his face to the ground. 24 Nathan said, “My lord the king, have you said, ‘Adonijah shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne’? 25 For today he has gone down and has sacrificed oxen, fatted cattle, and sheep in abundance, and has invited all the king’s children, Joab the commander of the army, and the priest Abiathar, who are now eating and drinking before him, and saying, ‘Long live King Adonijah!’ 26 But he did not invite me, your servant, and the priest Zadok, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada, and your servant Solomon. 27 Has this thing been brought about by my lord the king and you have not let your servants know who should sit on the throne of my lord the king after him?”
28 King David answered, “Summon Bathsheba to me.” So she came into the king’s presence, and stood before the king. 29 The king swore, saying, “As the LORD lives, who has saved my life from every adversity, 30 as I swore to you by the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne in my place,’ so will I do this day.” 31 Then Bathsheba bowed with her face to the ground, and did obeisance to the king, and said, “May my lord King David live forever!”
32 King David said, “Summon to me the priest Zadok, the prophet Nathan, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada.” When they came before the king, 33 the king said to them, “Take with you the servants of your lord, and have my son Solomon ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon. 34 There let the priest Zadok and the prophet Nathan anoint him king over Israel; then blow the trumpet, and say, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ 35 You shall go up following him. Let him enter and sit on my throne; he shall be king in my place; for I have appointed him to be ruler over Israel and over Judah.” 36 Benaiah son of Jehoiada answered the king, “Amen! May the LORD, the God of my lord the king, so ordain. 37 As the LORD has been with my lord the king, so may he be with Solomon, and make his throne greater than the throne of my lord King David.”
The prophet Nathan and Bathsheba act to attempt to undercut the ambitions of Adonijah and to forward Bathsheba’s son Solomon as the next king of Israel. Together they come up with a plan to approach David and remind the king of his previous oath that Solomon would reign. Some commentators are dubious about this oath since it is not mentioned in 2 Samuel and believe that the prophet and Solomon’s mother are taking advantage of the king’s weakened mental faculties. While that is a possible interpretation, the David presented in the text will respond decisively and order a set of actions that are both clear and significant to ensure that Solomon is recognized by the people as the new king. David may have withdrawn from the administration of the kingdom due to his health, but when confronted by Nathan and Bathsheba he acts quickly.
Bathsheba enters the bedroom of the king while Abishag is attending to him. Bathsheba comes and does obeisance to the king and is granted the space to make her plea. Bathsheba’s plea comes from the perspective that the king is unaware of the actions of his son Adonijah that contradict his promises to her under oath. Bathsheba makes the reasonable claim that if Adonijah ascends to the throne she and Solomon will be perceived as ‘offenders’ or enemies of the throne and their lives will be at risk. As Nathan indicated while Bathsheba makes her appeal he also approaches the room of the king and is announced. The prophet Nathan confronts the king questioning his knowledge and at least tacit approval of Adonijah’s actions and lists several of the major political players who are now declaring that Adonijah is king. The acclamation, “long live Adonijah” (rendered by the NRSV king Adonijah) is the typical acclamation of a person who has been declared king. Apparently Bathsheba has left the room while the prophet Nathan has reported to the king, but King David summons her back and affirms his previous oath and declares that he will make it official this day.
David is apparently aware enough to summon the officials who are loyal to Solomon and who are not with Adonijah. The action of Solomon riding on King David’s mule is symbolic but also sends a different image than the chariots and runners of Adonijah. This is image of a king of peace riding on a mule or donkey will become an important prophetic image and will shape the action of Jesus in his approach to Jerusalem. Yet, Solomon is surrounded by those of religious and military power. They anoint him at Gihon, the central water source of the city so that it may be seen by many in the city. This is a very public action that King David decrees and then the symbolism is increased by having Solomon take his seat upon David’s throne. David, who has never acted to displease his son Adonijah in the past, now acts decisively and quickly once he is confronted by Bathsheba and Nathan.
Bathsheba and Nathan in this scene make their decisive reemergence after a long period of silence in the story of David. Both are central figures in a story where David’s actions to sleep with Bathsheba and ordering the death in combat of her husband Uriah to cover his actions bring about a judgment delivered by the prophet Nathan of both the death of their first son and the future unrest in David’s household. Yet, Nathan also delivers a message that God favors Solomon (2 Samuel 12:25) before he, Bathsheba, and Solomon recede into the background of the story as David struggles with the discord in his household and unrest in his reign. Yet, as David’s reign reaches its twilight Nathan and Bathsheba reemerge in the story to prepare for the ascension of Solomon.
1 Kings 1: 38-40 The Anointing of Solomon
38 So the priest Zadok, the prophet Nathan, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites, went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule, and led him to Gihon. 39 There the priest Zadok took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!” 40 And all the people went up following him, playing on pipes and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth quaked at their noise.
Adonijah had initiated an act of political theater to rally support for his claim to reign in David’s stead, but now the allies of Solomon, on King David’s instructions, have their own set of symbolically significant actions in the presence of the people to place Solomon on the throne. The priest and the prophet, the military leader and the servants of David place Solomon on David’s mule and lead him to Gihon. The Cherethites and the Pelethites are likely David’s own warriors indicated in 1:8 but they may also be mercenaries who provide “muscle for the throne a popular support ebbs.” (Brueggemann, 2000, p. 18) Solomon may symbolically be riding a mule instead of a chariot, but he is not without the military might to uphold his claim. In contrast to the action of Adonijah which takes place with the leaders outside of the city, this is done in the midst of the people of Jerusalem and the anointment and blowing of the trumpet to signal Solomon’s appointment as the new king is met with the declaration of the people declaring Solomon king and breaking into a spontaneous celebration. The city erupts into celebration and this joyous noise disrupts the gathering outside of town.
1 Kings 1: 41-53 Adonijah Concedes to Solomon
41 Adonijah and all the guests who were with him heard it as they finished feasting. When Joab heard the sound of the trumpet, he said, “Why is the city in an uproar?” 42 While he was still speaking, Jonathan son of the priest Abiathar arrived. Adonijah said, “Come in, for you are a worthy man and surely you bring good news.” 43 Jonathan answered Adonijah, “No, for our lord King David has made Solomon king; 44 the king has sent with him the priest Zadok, the prophet Nathan, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites; and they had him ride on the king’s mule; 45 the priest Zadok and the prophet Nathan have anointed him king at Gihon; and they have gone up from there rejoicing, so that the city is in an uproar. This is the noise that you heard. 46 Solomon now sits on the royal throne. 47 Moreover the king’s servants came to congratulate our lord King David, saying, ‘May God make the name of Solomon more famous than yours, and make his throne greater than your throne.’ The king bowed in worship on the bed 48 and went on to pray thus, ‘Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who today has granted one of my offspring to sit on my throne and permitted me to witness it.'”
49 Then all the guests of Adonijah got up trembling and went their own ways. 50 Adonijah, fearing Solomon, got up and went to grasp the horns of the altar. 51 Solomon was informed, “Adonijah is afraid of King Solomon; see, he has laid hold of the horns of the altar, saying, ‘Let King Solomon swear to me first that he will not kill his servant with the sword.'” 52 So Solomon responded, “If he proves to be a worthy man, not one of his hairs shall fall to the ground; but if wickedness is found in him, he shall die.” 53 Then King Solomon sent to have him brought down from the altar. He came to do obeisance to King Solomon; and Solomon said to him, “Go home.”
Adonijah has been playing a dangerous game and he was outmaneuvered politically by Nathan and Bathsheba. Adonijah likely saw King David’s lack of previous condemnation as a tacit approval of his actions or signs of the king’s lack of awareness of power. David’s instructions carried out publicly by Nathan the prophet, Zadok the priest, Benaiah and with the physical presence of the Cherethites and the Pelethites is met with public acclamation. When Jonathan, a man of worth, reports in detail the proceedings in the city. The repetition of the details in the story reinforces the significance of the actions but Jonathan is also aware of the words of King David to affirm this from his bed. King David may be physically weak, but his position still holds power over the people and his blessing of the LORD for allowing Solomon to sit upon his throne adds the intimation of divine approval.
The actions on behalf of Solomon sends shockwaves through the assembled allies of Adonijah. Realizing that they have been outmaneuvered they retreat from the gathering and try to distance themselves from Adonijah. Adonijah recognizes the precarious nature of his position and flees to the temple for sanctuary, clinging to the horns of the altar. Solomon will either have to grant him clemency or spill blood on the altar. Solomon grants him an opportunity to prove himself loyal but the cost of any perceived action that would be harmful to Solomon’s authority will result in Adonijah’s death. Adonijah comes and bows down before Solomon before being sent home. The narrative is not concluded yet and Solomon will have to make choices in the future to secure his position, but the first chapter has moved us from the reign of King David to the new era under King Solomon in an initially bloodless transition.
 The Hebrew ‘is hayil is a person of economic and social status.