The Wise Mans Tragedy - Jon Fryer
So how to begin this story? Not ‘Once upon a time’, for that tells you that the story that follows never happened, even if it is still true, but this is a story that once happened, a history, a tragedy, a just-so story.
So how about this: Hear, and attend, and listen, oh my best beloved, for this befell and behappend and became and was. A long time ago, in a far distant land, there lived a king. And this king was a man of blood. He fought with his neighbours to the north, and he fought with his neighbours to the south. He fought with his neighbours to the east, and he fought with his neighbours to the west. He even fought civil wars at home with his own people.
And at the end of all his fighting he had a great nation at peace with all of his neighbours. Always a man of action the king used this time of peace to build himself a great palace and stone, and cedar wood and gold and precious stones. When it was completed it was the greatest palace on earth, and the king said to himself “I now live in the greatest palace on earth, and yet my God, who has given me all of these great victories and enormous wealth is still worshipped in a tent. I will build a great Temple for God to live in.”
That night, as he slept, God came to the king and said “You are a man of blood, and no one who has his brothers blood on his sword will be used to build my house. It is not you, but your son, who will be a man of peace, who shall build the Temple you have planned.” The King said “what you say is good”, and he spent the rest of his life storing up gold, and cut stone, and precious metals, and cedar wood so that his son would have everything he needed to build the Temple.
Eventually the old king died, and his teenage son succeeded him, and built the Temple as planned by his father, even bigger and more splendid than the royal palace his father had built.
God was pleased, and on the night the Temple was completed God came to the young king and said “I am pleased with you. Choose then what reward you would have from me – whether it be victory over your enemies, or great wealth, or long life.” And the young king said to God “I am only young, and foolish, and yet you have given me this great kingdom to rule over. Please give me wisdom, so that I may rule your people properly, and understand the times, and know what to do.”
God was pleased with this request, and said to the King “Because you have not asked for victory over your enemies, or great wealth, or a long life I shall give you all these things as well. And I shall give you such wisdom that no-one on earth will be able to confound you. Never before or again will there ever be anyone as wise as you will be.” And God left him.
As the King grew in stature so he also grew in wisdom. The king built up his army with the greatest weapons in the world, until all of his neighbours were afraid of him, and made peace treaties with him. And so the King became a man of peace, as God has foretold to the old king. The new king was so wise and so strong that no one dared attack him, and so the people called him ‘Shiloah’, which means ‘The peaceful one’ or ‘The prince of peace’.
And because all of the kings had made peace with him they sent him great treasures in tax every year. And the king taught his people how to farm and the land prospered and generated yet more wealth. And the king built a great navy and taught his sailors how to read the stars and the waves, and they travelled the earth to bring back rare spices and great treasures. Within a few short years the King was the richest man on earth – the tax from his own country alone was twenty two tons of gold every single year, without counting the wealth from the other kings who paid fealty to him.
And the king was known throughout the land for his fairness and wisdom, and the judges of the law courts brought him the most difficult problems, the most thorny conundrums and the most perplexing puzzles, in the hope that he would answer them, and he did.
In fact, his judgements were so wise and so clever that three thousand years later we still have a record of one of his court cases – one day, two prostitutes were brought before the king. One of them said “Lord king, this woman and I live together, and we both had a baby at the same time. During the night this woman rolled over in her sleep and suffocated her child. Waking up and seeing what she had done she took the body of her son, and swapped him for my living boy whilst I was asleep – but I know that the dead child is hers and the living boy is my son!”
“She’s lying!” said the other woman “The dead one is hers and the living child is mine!” “No, he’s my boy!” insisted the first one, and so they argued before the king. The king said “This one says one thing, and that one says another, and yet there are no witnesses – what shall we do?” And the judges were silent, for they could not answer. But the king was wise, oh so very wise, and he understood the hearts of men and women, so he called for a sword to be brought. And he gave an order to the guards – cut the child in half, and give them half each, and then both will be satisfied!
The second woman said “That’s a good answer – neither of us shall have him”, but the first woman cried out “No my Lord! Let her have him, just don’t hurt my boy!” – and the king recognised the heart of the true mother, and ordered the child be given to woman who loved the boy enough to give him away if that’s what it took to save him. And the judges were amazed by the wisdom of the king.
As the years past wise men came from all over the world to learn from the king, the great teachers of the age, and the king was wiser than them all. Between the king and his wise visitors they filled a great library with their teachings on architecture and nature, on science and philosophy. The king himself wrote three thousand chapters of wise philosophy and one thousand and five books on other subjects. Men came to him from distant Greece, and he taught them geometry and mathematics, and when they returned home they taught students who became teachers themselves, and so on and so forth until the wisdom of the king was taught to men like Pythagoras and Archimedes. Men came to him from far Persia, and he taught them astronomy and astrology – how to read the great book of the heavens. And when they returned home they taught students who became teachers themselves, and so on and so forth, until one day a thousand years later a group of astrologers looked at a new star and understood that a new ‘prince of peace’ had arrived to teach mankind and so they travelled to meet him, but that is another story for another time.
Hearing that the king was oh so very wise the Queen of Ethiopia travelled to meet the king, for she too was wise and clever, as well as beautiful and very rich, bringing with her gifts of gold and rare spices. The king and the beautiful dark skinned queen sat and talked for hours. And the hours turned into days, the days into weeks, and the weeks into years, for the king had never met anyone like her, both beautiful and oh so clever. And he learned from her, and she learned from him. And learning turned to love, and the king lost his heart to her, and loved her above all others.
As is the way with kings and queens however, the kings advisors feared the foreign queens influence over their king, and the queens people back home became restless without her presence to rule them. And the queen was wise also, and knew she must leave before their love brought down two kingdoms out of neglect, and so she took her leave and returned home sorrowing in her heart.
And as for the king, well, he was never the same. His heart was broken, because there was no one else in the world like his clever queen. And so he tried to distract himself. He resolved to learn everything there was to know in the entire world, and he became even cleverer then before – but he found it only bored him without the queen to share it. And so he decided to live like other men, and explore all the forms of pleasure the world had to offer, wine and women and dancing – but without someone to share it with it only made him sad. And so he decided to try and find someone to replace the queen in his heart, and called for the most beautiful girls in the world, and the funniest girls in the world, and the cleverest girls in the world, and went looking for a wife who could match his queen… but within days he tired of each one and moved on to the next. In the end, he had seven hundred wives, and three hundred concubines taken from every nation and religion in the world, but he loved none of them, for none of them was his Ethiopian queen. And his heart remained broken in two.
One night the king was lonely and bored, as he was every night, and so he decided to visit his harem. Bored with sex as only a man with a thousand wives can be, that night he chose to talk to the girls instead, and paid them attention as he never had before. And they told him of their own countries and histories and traditions, because the clever king was interested in everything. And so it was the next night and the next night and the next. When
they ran out of history and languages and culture, the king asked them of their own religions, because he was oh so clever and interested in everything. And so they told him, and he learned more and more of the goddess Ashtoreth, and the idol named Chemosh, and the abomination Molech. And he was interested, because he was always interested in new things. And after a while the girls said to the king “We can tell you no more – everything else has to be shown.” And because the king was curious and clever, oh so curious and clever, he agreed, and built altars to Ashtoreth and Astarte, to Chemosh and Molech the Abomination, and they showed him how they worshipped, with sacrifices of blood and fire. And the king was intrigued, never realising that the more he learned, the further he moved from the wisdom his God had given him. And the girls led him deeper into their dark arts, until the point where he himself was offering forbidden worship to the dark gods of the Amoonites and the Sidonians and the Moabites.
The worship of those gods is dark and terrible, and the king lost himself in the blood and the fire, and his wisdom left him. And so things went on for a year or two, with the king worshipping demons in his basement every night, until one midnight when his wisdom returned to the king, and he saw himself covered to the elbows in blood, and he realised how far he had fallen, and how far from wisdom he had travelled, and detestable the things he had done in worship were. And as it was not possible for his heart to break any further, his mind broke instead, and he went… mad.
In a rage the king smashed the altars and idols that he had built for his wives, and taking up a flaming torch he pushed the screaming girls out of the way, and still covered in blood, he went stalking through the halls of his great palace. The servants were terrified and hid from the king as he ranted and raved as made for his great library. Slamming open the doors, the king carelessly ransacked the carefully ordered bookcases looking for a single scroll amid the thousands. He swept books and papers aside to the floor until he found what he was looking for. Then he took up the torch and thrust it into the scattered papers. The kings students and wise men had reached the library by then, and cried out “No, my lord!” but the mad king would not listen, and he set more and more of the papers on fire, until at last, with an inferno behind him, he clutched the single scroll to his chest, and fled into the night.
The servants and students and wise men battled the flames of course, but the fire was too well set, and the papers were too dry. Up in flames went all of the kings teachings, and the books on science, and history, and law, and nature – all of the kings wisdom lost in fire, except for the few charred scraps that they managed to save from the flames. We still have those scraps three thousand years later, preserved forever in the Bible – random fragments of the great king’s wisdom – we call them the Book of Proverbs, and if you have ever wondered why they seem quite so random, its because they are just burnt scraps of other books all muddled together…
And what happened to the king? Who can say? Some say he locked himself away in his chambers and did not come out for a year and a day, howling and weeping to himself. Others say he sat on his throne neither speaking nor reacting to anyone. And others say he fled to the hills outside the city, where he howled at the moon and ate grass for months, allowing none to come near him. The one thing they all agree is that he held onto the scroll, clutching it to himself, and that he would attack violently anyone who tries to take it from him.
And so it was that the king ran mad, but nothing lasts forever, and in time the king’s mind was returned to him, and he went back to his throne a sad and lonely man. Never again did he speak to or even look upon any of his thousand wives. And never again did he invite the wise men of the world to his court. Instead, he wrote one last book that his people called ‘Qo’heleth’, which means ‘the words of the teacher’, and which in English is called Ecclesiastes. And this is what it says:
“I tried to be wise, but it only made me sad. I worked hard and became rich, but it didn’t make me happy. I tried to forget in drunkenness and the pleasures of the flesh, but it was all empty. So don’t go looking for a better day; instead, whatever happens to you, be glad and enjoy the day you’re in. Fear God, and do exactly what he says, because that’s the only thing that matters; all else fades like the flowers and is blown away like grass in the wind”
And this is the end of the story of the king who gained wisdom and lost it and found it again, the tragedy of the wisest man who ever lived and his love for the queen he couldn’t have. Is there a moral to this story? That’s for you to decide for yourself.
Oh, one last question– what was the scroll the mad king rescued from the burning library? The scroll contained not the law, but a single poem. And what was that poem? The Canticle of Canticles, the Song of Songs, the greatest love song ever written, from Solomon the King to his Queen of Sheba...
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