Question: "What was the true issue between Adonijah and Solomon over Abishag?"
Answer: In King David’s old age, he developed circulatory problems, and a beautiful young woman named Abishag was brought to the king to attend him and “keep him warm.” Abishag slept in the king’s bed to provide body heat, though she and David were never sexually intimate (1 Kings 1:1–4). After David’s death, his son Solomon became king. Shortly afterward, another of David’s sons, Adonijah, who had at one time tried to take over the kingdom, hatched another plot to wrest control from King Solomon. Adonijah’s first step was to ask Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, to secure Solomon’s permission to give him Abishag as a wife.
Adonijah’s request seems innocuous enough, but it was full of subterfuge. Solomon’s initial response was one of indignation. He said to his mother, “Why do you request Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? You might as well request the kingdom for him—after all, he is my older brother” (1 Kings 2:22). Solomon rightly saw Adonijah’s desire to marry Abishag as part of his brother’s ongoing attempt to take over the kingdom of Israel.
In those days of royal harems, taking possession of a king’s concubines was a declaration of one’s right to the throne. This had been one of Absalom’s methods when he led a coup against David (2 Samuel 16:22). Since Abishag was considered part of David’s harem, her marriage to Adonijah would have strengthened the usurper’s claim to the throne.
In judgment for Adonijah’s request, Solomon said, “God do so to me and more also if this word does not cost Adonijah his life!” (1 Kings 2:23). He quickly sent Benaiah, one of their father’s mighty men, to execute Adonijah.
The tension between Adonijah and Solomon had been longstanding. Adonijah was older than Solomon and therefore, under normal circumstances, in line before Solomon for the throne. But God promised that Solomon would be king. Adonijah had already attempted to set himself up as king while David was still alive; when David was notified of the plot, he quickly made Solomon’s kingship official (1 Kings 1:38–40).
Adonijah’s followers had fled, leaving him in a situation where he could have been killed for his rebellion. King Solomon mercifully granted Adonijah his life on the condition that he pay homage to the king and give up his claim to the throne (1 Kings 1:52–53).
Yet Adonijah was clearly not done in his attempts to become king. His plan to acquire Abishag as a wife was seen for what it was—a threat to Solomon’s rule. Adonijah’s plan cost him his life, and the sibling rivalry came to an abrupt end. The execution of Adonijah was considered part of the establishment of Solomon’s kingdom (1 Kings 2:19–25).
An interesting theory put forward by some scholars is that Abishag appears later in the Song of Solomon—that she is, in fact, the Shulamite of that book (Song of Solomon 6:13). There is no solid biblical evidence for the link between the two other than a similarity between the words Shulamite and Shunammite (1 Kings 1:3).
Many lessons can be learned from this account. First, it is clear that a struggle for power can cause people to turn to deceit, violence, and lawlessness. Second, God is the one who ultimately appoints rulers, not people. Third, there are consequences for sin. In Adonijah’s case, his ongoing attempt to become king led to his early and abrupt death. We are called to submit to God’s will and to live contentedly where God has placed us in life.