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Occasional Letters: The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba

D Newell, Glasgow

Do you remember the old days of the wind-up portable gramophone, and the shellac 78 rpm record? As a small boy I inherited a collection of 78s from my older brother, and added to them as pocket money permitted. One of the first I bought contained performances by the distinctive three-handed piano partnership of Cyril Smith and his wife, Phyllis Sellick. On one side was Bach's 'Sheep May Safely Graze', and on the other (the real reason for the purchase) Handel's exhilarating 'Arrival of the Queen of Sheba'. In my innocence I assumed it had originally been written for piano duet – but no, it was in fact an orchestral sinfonia from Handel's great oratorio Solomon. That way I discovered the Queen of Sheba long before encountering her as a historical character in the Old Testament. Two chapters – 1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9 – narrate her famous meeting with Solomon. There's much to learn from that state visit to Jerusalem, for the episode can be viewed in at least three ways.

First of all, it is a demonstration of the accuracy of the inspired historian's insistence upon the tremendous impact of Solomon's reign over Israel. Earlier he had written that "there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom" (1 Kgs 4.34). But a generalised statement is best supported by detailed evidence, which is exactly what we find in chapter 10. Solomon's God-given wisdom made headline news around the world.

Second, it is an anticipation of the future kingdom of a greater than Solomon. If David's immediate heir could attract ceremonial visits from the royal families of the east, how much more will the Lord Jesus Christ draw people from all over the world to Himself when He reigns in righteousness and power from Zion? Israel may have attained its cultural zenith in the Solomonic era, but those days of greatness only faintly foreshadow the greater glory of the Messianic Kingdom. That's why we can study Psalm 72 with an eye on Solomon himself (because it was written by or for him), as well as on his divine successor. When we read that "The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him" (Ps 72.10-11), we think back to the queen's arrival, and forward to far grander days when "many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to … the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths" (Isa 2.3). Only when "a king shall reign in righteousness" (Isa 32.1) will this earth flourish for God. Christ's millennial rule will ensure global justice, peace, prosperity, godliness, and spiritual blessing.

Third, it has an application for believers today, because it may be read as a practical example of worship. Four key verbs signal the crucial moments in the text. They are highlighted below:

And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to prove him with hard questions. And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones … And she said to the king, It was a true report that I heard in mine own land of thy acts and of thy wisdom. Howbeit I believed not the words, until I came, and mine eyes had seen it: and, behold, the half was not told me: thy wisdom and prosperity exceedeth the fame which I heard … And she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones (1 Kgs 10.1-10).

She heard, she came, she said and she gave. Let's take these one by one. First, what she heard constituted an education in Solomon's greatness. On meeting him, she admitted that back in her own country she had learned about "thy acts … thy wisdom and prosperity". We may easily apply such language to the Lord Jesus Christ. As we read the Scriptures we are informed about His astonishing acts. Of course, these are by no means restricted to the days of His flesh, where miracles of grace spangled His pathway, because before the incarnation He was the Creator of the universe, the Jehovah of Israel, and the Angel of the Lord. But, inevitably, we find ourselves overwhelmed by the grand work of redemption which fully satisfied all the righteous claims of God's throne, while effectively saving sinners like us. So certain was its fulfilment, that even before Calvary He could speak of it in the past tense: "I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do" (Jn 17.4). Christ is the infallible Servant of God, the incarnate Wisdom of God (no tricky questions foxed Him) and, in His eternal splendours, the exhibition of divine riches. In the Biblical record of His works, wisdom and wealth we have an inexhaustible storehouse of material for worship.

But the queen didn't simply hear; she came. Rather like the poor woman who, for twelve years, had suffered from a blood discharge but, "when she had heard of Jesus, came … and touched his garment" (Mk 5.27), the queen acted on what she heard. This demanded effort. Assuming Sheba is located in the southern part of Arabia, the distance involved would have been at least 1,000 miles. The journey would have required extensive preparation and expenditure. Like the wise men who sought the King of the Jews, the queen paid a price for her spiritual interest. To practise the Lord's instruction that His people remember Him requires that we make the effort to assemble regularly with like-minded believers.

Having come and seen Solomon in all his glory, she said, putting her thoughts into words. She had discovered that the reality exceeded the report. In the same way, believers can be confident that it is impossible to exaggerate the excellencies of the Lord Jesus. We simply cannot speak too highly of Him. Part of the function of the corporate worship of a local assembly is to verbalise, however feebly, our appreciation of God's Son, whether audibly on behalf of the entire company (the special duty of the males), or silently in hearts which God alone can read. If Christ Jesus is the centre of Heaven's praise, He should certainly occupy the affections of His gathered people down here.

Finally, she gave. Back in Sheba, she had prepared royal gifts to present to this peerless king: "spices … very much gold … precious stones". These could not be scooped up at the last moment from the local Jerusalem gift shops; they demanded time, thought, expense, and exercise. When believers gather to remember God's Son, our thoughts should be finely tuned well ahead of the meeting so that there are no barren silences when there should be fervent praise. Perhaps the most amazing consequence of the Queen of Sheba's offering is that she found she could not out-give Solomon. Not only did he answer her tough questions and clever riddles, but he also lavished his generosity upon her, for "King Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all that she desired, whatever she asked besides what was given her by the bounty of King Solomon" (1 Kgs 10.13, ESV¹). Nothing expended in worship is ever wasted, for God more than recompenses His people. Just as Solomon's visitor returned home with more than she brought, so we leave a gathering dedicated to the honour of the Lord Jesus Christ with an enhanced awareness of His glories, a rekindled heart of affection, and a re-energised desire to live for His pleasure. Worship is well worth it.

¹ English Standard Version.


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