Of course, since the Israelites had agriculture, Solomon was not paleolithic as that term is used today. But “paleo” is simply a prefix meaning old or previous, the opposite of “neo.”
In that sense, I wonder if we might understand Solomon better if we interpret his statements and riddles in light of a changing Israel (and perhaps also a changing world).
We are told that Solomon, at the height of his reign, “made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah” (1 Kings 10:27). While there were some elements of Solomon’s wealth that were ethically problematic, it seems pretty obvious that the rise of the monarchy was also a time of real economic change due to God’s blessing. Israel became more prosperous and more urban.
This may help explain why the Proverbs give ethical instructions that are missing from the law of Moses.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man. (Proverbs 6:9-11; ESV; see also 24:33-34)
In the Bible there seem to be two kinds of sleep: Sleep is a means of refreshment but also a time of vulnerability to disaster because one is oblivious to other threats. We might say there is resurrection sleep and death sleep. Adam was put to sleep to give him Eve. Abram was put to sleep to receive God’s covenant. But the Caananite general Sisera was lured to sleep to be assassinated. Notice Solomon is taking that vulnerability to hostile attack as a metaphor for how sleep can be a problem.
So, in later Scripture, we get sleep as a curse rather than a blessing from God. Isaiah 29:9–10: “Astonish yourselves and be astonished;/ blind yourselves and be blind!/ Be drunk, but not with wine;/ stagger, but not with strong drink!/ For the LORD has poured out upon you/ a spirit of deep sleep,/ and has closed your eyes (the prophets),/ and covered your heads (the seers).”
Or Jeremiah 51:38–40: “They shall roar together like lions;/ they shall growl like lions’ cubs./ While they are inflamed I will prepare them a feast/ and make them drunk, that they may become merry,/ then sleep a perpetual sleep/ and not wake, declares the LORD./ I will bring them down like lambs to the slaughter,/ like rams and male goats.”
So prosperity will lead to “sleep” and vulnerability to destruction.
Then, in all the Gospels, we have the issue of sleep in the garden of Gethsemane.
And Paul appeals to the same theme in his letter to the Romans:
Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires(13:11–14).
Thus, while sleep can be refreshing and good, it also can refer to a lack of awareness or concern. People “fall asleep” to righteousness and fall into unrighteous and ultimately also self-destructive behavior.
But while we have a theme that runs through several types of Scripture, we don’t find it earlier than Solomon.
Isn’t that strange? Solomon says things like, “He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame” (Proverbs 10:5). “Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger” (Proverbs19:15). “Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread” (Proverbs 20:13). Moses doesn’t say anything about the danger of sleep and Solomon can’t shut up about it.
Similarly, Solomon obsesses over getting drunk.
We don’t have any official commands against drunkenness until the time of Solomon. We get a mention that a criminal son will be a drunkard and a glutton, and stories about getting drunk show that it makes one vulnerable, but we don’t have statements like Proverbs 20:1, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.”
Or Proverbs 23:29–34, “Who has woe? Who has sorrow?/ Who has strife? Who has complaining?/ Who has wounds without cause?/ Who has redness of eyes?/ Those who tarry long over wine;/ those who go to try mixed wine./ Do not look at wine when it is red,/ when it sparkles in the cup/ and goes down smoothly./ In the end it bites like a serpent/ and stings like an adder./ Your eyes will see strange things,/ and your heart utter perverse things./ You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea,/ like one who lies.”
Proverbs 31:4–9, “It is not for kings, O Lemuel,/ it is not for kings to drink wine,/ or for rulers to take strong drink,/ lest they drink and forget what has been decreed/ and pervert the rights of all the afflicted./ Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,/ and wine to those in bitter distress;/ let them drink and forget their poverty/ and remember their misery no more./ Open your mouth for the mute,/ for the rights of all who are destitute./ Open your mouth, judge righteously,/ defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
Again, it is barely mentioned by Moses, but Solomon obsesses over it.
Perhaps we’re seeing the Word of God meditated upon and expressed for a more prosperous and urban people. Up until a generation earlier, Israel has been an agriculture-based confederation of tribes. Agriculture is still important but now Israel is a wealthy kingdom that is centered on a major city. So Israel is richer and has more of an international reach. There are ways to provide for oneself on business trips rather than plant crops or herd cattle (the husband in Proverbs 7).
So now something that has always been true becomes a more pressing concern. People have always needed to be diligent workers. The Fourth Commandment covers this, telling people to work six days and rest on the Sabbath. But it is possible that neglecting the farm for a life of drunkenness was more immediately punished. With more wealth in society, young men are more likely to be able to spend money on wine and strong drink and experiment with making it a nightly habit. They also may be able to afford to stay out all night and quit their jobs without notice (in order to sleep in), assuming they can always pick up a new one.
In other words, when it is an obvious struggle to survive, and you live or die by the rain and other factors, the principles of staving off death are more easily understood, at least for people who knew the basic commands of God. But when you have more wealth in society then you have the possibility of young men and women growing up thinking they are entitled. Poverty and disaster seem like distant concerns.
So, when Solomon warns repeatedly of the dangers of sleep and alcohol (and sloth and rich, adulterous wives, etc.) he is telling such people to “wake up.” There is now immense new potential for young people but they still need to pay attention to their lives. It is dangerous to assume that you can sleep-walk through life and expect everything to come out all right.
Solomon writes, “He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame.” I doubt anyone growing up on a farm would need to be told that. A missed harvest would mean immediate pain. But Solomon’s point is that young men growing up in Jerusalem haven’t left reality behind.
The reality is that they still have to be productive or they will regret the results. Even in relative prosperity, negligence can still have dire consequences.
“In recent decades, economic and professional opportunities have been opened to women. Step-by-step, insofar as social customs have permitted, and within the limitations imposed by the “différence” between the sexes which at least the French appreciate, women in this country are relatively free. They may now compete with men, each to the extent of her abilities, in seeking their chosen goals — economically and professionally.
“The tremendous advances, which have made it possible for women to achieve recognition as persons—legally, politically, economically, and professionally—are undoubtedly due in large part to capitalistic contributions. Savers, inventors, and producers, operating in a relatively free market economy risking their own private property in the hope of profit, supplied the goods and services which have freed women from the daily drudgery and heavy manual labor expected of them for centuries simply to fulfill their roles as sexual companions, mothers to their children, and homemakers for their families. The improved production and preparation of food, more efficient transport, better retail outlets, and inventions of modern household appliances have given women more time to pursue interests outside the home.”
This relief from labor is unquestionably a great blessing from God and the fruit of generations of Christian progress. It was a far greater economic transformation than what happened in Israel under Saul, David, and Solomon.
But the question occurs to me: What kind of male would these technological changes liberate? Men, after all, have benefited greatly from changing technology and increasing prosperity as well.
For that very reason, men who once would know that their lives and fortunes, to the extent that they had any control over them, depended on their diligence, trustworthiness, and ability, might now think there is not that much at stake. Men are obviously the stronger of the sexes, but that wouldn’t seem to be as needed anymore.
It seems a great deal of the preposterous confidence in society that we can dispense with Biblical gender roles or the traditional division of labor between gender roles is fed by these material blessings.
Yet children are still produced by (and only by) pairings of a mother and a father. And reproduction sidelines women far more than men from other economic endeavors despite the attempts of regimes and CEOs to use prosperity to equalize the situation. The biology of the sexes hasn’t changed, though technology has helped sell such a fantasy.
Solomon reminds us that we are not gods, but biological creatures. We haven’t transcended nature. Primal realities may be less onerous in a prosperous society, but they never disappear.
Falling asleep to reality will not end well.
Mark Horne is the executive director of Logo Sapiens Communication.