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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: P. C. Headley :: Women of the Bible

P. C. Headley :: The Queen of Sheba

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The mild administration of the Judges had passed away. The splendor of the regal period of the Hebrews had reached its meridian; and the fame of Solomon attracted to his court a distinguished visitor-"The Queen of the South." (Mat 12:42; Luk 11:31.)

The land of Sheba was the Happy Arabia of the ancients, and is the Sabæa and Araby the Blest of modern poets. The present name is Yemen. It is the south western division of Arabia, and embraces an area equal to the whole of New England and New York. In contrast with the rest of Arabia, it has always been distinguished for fertility, beauty, and mineral richness. Especially has it been famous for gums, perfumes, and spices. "Neither," says the sacred record, "was there any such spice as the Queen of Sheba gave to Solomon;" (2Ch 9:9) and in our own day, her country is equally supreme in the excellence of its Mocha coffee. If the region was not the mine, its cities were, of old, the great marts also of precious stones and of gold, two hundred pounds of which were included in the gift of the queen to the king of Israel. It abounds in the palm, orange, apricot and sycamore; the hills are, and doubtless were, cultivated to their tops in terraces, and by means of artificial reservoirs; the valleys and water‐courses are exceedingly luxuriant; the wilder parts are haunts of the antelope, gazelle, leopard, and tropical birds; and, like all Arabia, it has always been the home of that "living ship of the desert"-the camel, and that "glory of Arabia"-the horse. The adjacent seas are filled with superb shells; and the Persian Gulf on the one hand furnishes the finest pearls, the Red Sea on the other the most beautiful corals of all the world.

It was in this country, which, as Milton says, in his picture of Paradise,

-"To them who sail
Beyond the Cape of Hope, and now are past
Mozambic, off at sea north‐east winds blow
Sabean odors from the spicy shore
Of Araby the blest;"

-it was in this land, described in Lalla Rookh as the clime where

-"Glistening shells of ev'ry dye
Upon the margin of the Red Sea lie;
Each brilliant bird that wings the air, is seen;-
Gay, sparkling loories, such as gleam between
The crimson blossom of the coral tree,
In the warm isles of India's sunny sea;
And those that under Araby's soft sun,
Build their high nests of budding cinnamon;

-it was in this kingdom, and in some palace whose halls, and domes, and

Were rich with Arabesques of gold and flowers,"

that the Queen of Sheba, whose name is Balkis in the Arabian traditions, was born and grew, and was crowned with the sovereignty of Happy Arabia.

No description of her person is given in the inspired history. It is enough to know that she belonged to a race that is regarded as supplying the "primitive model form-the standard figure of the human family." Baron de Larrey, surgeon‐general of Napoleon's army in Egypt, said of the people of this same region-the east side of the Red Sea-"Their physical structure is, in all respects, more perfect than that of Europeans; their figure robust and elegant; their intelligence proportionate to that physical perfection." Some of the glowing portraitures in the Song of Solomon, indeed, are supposed to have been drawn from his fair and royal visitor, so that we may infer that she realized a modern bard's picture of her later countrywomen:

"Beautiful are the maids that glide
On summer eves, through Yemen's dales,
And bright the glancing looks they hide
Behind their sedan's roseate veils."

But we have better proof that she had better qualities than beauty. It is one of the perfections of the Bible, that it compresses into a few words the whole biography and character of many individuals. Thus we are only told that Enoch "walked with God, and was not; for God took him;" (Gen 5:24) and, in the Gospels, we hear of a poor woman who cast "all her living" into the treasury. (Mar 12:44; Luk 8:43.) In these hints, we have, as it were, the entire history of a godly man, and of a poor, pious woman. So, in the brief notices of the visit of queen Balkis, her intellectual and moral traits are clearly intimated-her early life readily suggested. The whole case is conveyed in our Saviour's language: "She came from the uttermost parts of the earth, to hear the wisdom of Solomon." (Mat 12:42.) In the Book of Kings, are further data. We see her lively and paramount interest in religion, when it is said, "she heard of the fame of Solomon, concerning the name of the Lord;" (1Ki 10:1) her disposition at once to recognize and worship the true God, in her words, "Blessed be the Lord thy God, which delighted in thee, to set thee on the throne of Israel forever; because the Lord loved Israel forever, therefore made he thee king to do judgment and justice" (2Ch 9:8)-the last words suggesting, also, her own upright character. Her proficiency in knowledge is indicated in the confident purpose "to prove" the wise man "with hard questions." (1Ki 10:1.) Her frankness and earnest solicitude to learn, are evident from the declaration that "she communed with him of all that was in her heart," words that likewise discover to us her long, careful retention of subjects of inquiry. Her interest in household and architectural matters, is recorded; and so candid and appreciative was she, that "there was no more spirit in her." (2Ch 9:2-4.) That she had too much sound sense to credit every floating report, is manifest from her refusal to believe the rumors of the king's acts and wisdom, until her eyes had seen them; that she was modestly disposed to acknowledge an error from her assurance that she had been mistaken; that she found her highest happiness in mental and moral improvement, from her exclamation, "Happy are thy men, happy these thy servants, who stand continually before thee, and that hear thy wisdom." (2Ch 9:5-7.) Happy thy servants!-in how slight estimation did she clearly hold all rank and social position, when she thus envied the condition of menials who yet enjoyed so rare intellectual opportunities. And, to crown the whole delineation, the energy of her character is transcendently illustrated in the journey itself-a journey equivalent to a tour half around the globe, in these days; a journey of twelve hundred miles in a direct line, and much further in the winding course of travel; a journey over mountains, and unbridged rivers, and wide, trackless deserts, where the lion prowls, the scorpion stings, the simoom sweeps in scorching power, clouds and pillars of sand threaten the traveller, and fierce robbers hover around him; a journey of two months in going and two in returning, and if made, as it presumably was, in company with the merchant caravan that is known to have wintered in Sheba and spent the summers in Canaan, one that obliged her to be absent the greater part of a year from her dominions.

It is pleasant to trace, in imagination, the ingenuous, thoughtful youth of the Arabian Queen, her enterprising maturity, the surprises and delights of her visit, and the benefits of it, resulting to her nation, after her return. She had been educated with royal care, in all the learning of her country; yet she felt that her education was not finished-that she had much to learn. Her mind was busy with higher themes than dress, amusements, daily news, and earthly love; her soul no longer slept in the animal life of the senses-of sights and sounds, however refined; it had awakened to a deep feeling of, and a restless longing after, the True, the Good, the Beautiful, the Eternal. The crown, the sceptre, were hers, and she might have contented herself with princely pomp, with display of authority, with woman's alleged desire to rule; but this was not enough for her. The treasures of the kingdom were hers, and she could command in profusion the pearls and corals of the sea, the gold of Africa, the jewels of India, the fine linen of Egypt, the purple of Tyre, the silks of Persia; she might, like many others, have satisfied herself with costly raiment and equipage; but these were insufficient. Any eastern prince would have been made happy by her hand, and she could have at once retired into the seclusion of domestic delight, leaving the cares of state to her officers; but no, she was conscious of higher objects of existence than merely to be well wedded-we say, to be so, for her inquiring mind is evidence of her youth, and the silence of sacred writ, under the circumstances, is proof that she was a virgin queen. And all the luxuries of the land and the delicacies of the sea, were at her disposal; yet she could not feed her immortal soul with the ashes of pleasure, nor expend her whole intellect in royal entertainments. It was not permitted her to dance, for to this day, the dignified orientals esteem that exercise appropriate only to slaves and hirelings; but she could hire the waltzing maids of neighboring Abyssinia, with their tamborines and tinkling bells; yet she had a higher purpose of life than amusement, although, without doubt; she was as keenly sensible to the delights of music and motion, as was Coleridge in his dream, when, as he says,

"A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw;
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she play'd,
Singing of Mount Abora."

Queen Balkis could have further tried to slake her soul's thirst with the romances and legends that bloom so abundantly and gorgeously in the rich soil of Arabian imagination; and perhaps she tried, and failed to satisfy herself with these. Last of all, from her many courtiers and officers and subjects, she could have drank in flattery, and lived on the breath of praise.

After all, there was something awake and sleepless in her spirit. Those things in her heart, of which she afterwards communed with Solomon, were yet unexplained; the hard questions she subsequently put to him, were then unanswered. She felt her responsibility as a ruler, and her duty to fulfil her lofty sphere, and longed for wiser instruction in law and equity and political economy, than she had yet received. She had heard vague reports of the western nations, especially of the miraculous progress of the Israelites, and she wished to hear of their history, and that of other kingdoms. She looked upon the various vegetation and animal life of the earth, and desired to listen to some one who, like Solomon, could "speak of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall; and of beasts, and of fowl, and creeping things, and of fishes." (1Ki 4:33.) She gazed on the moon and stars, and felt that there was a higher wisdom to be drawn from them than the fancies of eastern astrology. She thought of life, and, to her, it was all a bewildering mystery; the perpetual questions stirred within her, From whence do I come?-whither do I go? And then she meditated on death and the dark unknown beyond, and doubted not there was something to be learned besides the sensual heaven of Arab poets, or the transmigration of the Egyptian and Hindoo. She pondered concerning the Powers that created and rule the world, and dreamed of a higher and holier Power than the genii and gnomes and fairies of oriental romance, or the gods of mythology. A quenchless flame of thought and feeling was lit in the warm heart and daring soul of Balkis, Queen of Araby the Blest.

And now as a lively trade sprang up between Jerusalem and Sheba, and caravans came and went, and the ships of Solomon sailed up and down the Red Sea, increasing information was diffused in Happy Arabia; the sailors and merchants then, as now, brought to unknown regions, reports of their country, religion, and government. They were summoned to the presence of the queen, and spoke of the amazing wisdom and glory of their monarch, of their national history, and of the one true and holy Jehovah. Perhaps, by some chance, they brought manuscripts of the books of Moses and of Solomon, and these deeply studied, fanned the curiosity of the queen, and enlightened and enlarged her mind. However it was, her decision was finally and resolutely formed. She knew the wearisome length and appalling dangers of the journey; but her determination was announced; the government was entrusted to the hands of her premier; the choicest gems, gold and spices were selected for her gifts; her retinue of soldiers and servants equipped and mounted, and the march commenced, the queen herself borne in a sedan, or throned in a canopied shade on a camel, or, her clear olive face veiled from the tropical sun, she mounted her favorite Arab horse, and dashed forward in the van. Sixty nights, her pavilion was to be pitched, and sixty mornings, to be struck again before she reached her destination.

She saw the verdure of her own elysian land disappear, and came upon the sterile soil of Hedjaz, or Stony Arabia, the Red Sea all the while lying upon the left, and porphyry Mountains on the right. After thirty days, she came to the half‐way halt-the present Mecca, where, in those days, or soon after, stood a temple with three hundred and sixty images, now supplanted by the Kaaba of the Mahometans. Then she passed the burning springs, surrounded with perpetual vegetation; next, the present Medina, now the place of the Prophet's tomb, with its four hundred columns and three hundred lamps, constantly burning. In a few days, Mount Sinai and Horeb rose to view, and the sovereign gazed in wonder at their shadowy summits, recalling the rumor of their memorable scenes. Here, her company crossed the hills of Arabia, struck upon the barren desert, and passed Petra-the City of the Rocks, which then resounded with busy life, and stood in all its architectual freshness, not, as now, the haunt of the bat and serpent. At last, the Dead Sea was passed, the Jordan forded, the fields and vineyards of Canaan entered. How refreshing was the luxuriance of the land of milk and honey, after the dreary and fearful passage of the desert! The southern caravan came in the spring, and it was therefore late in the season when, in the familiar words of Solomon, "the winter is past the rain over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in the land. The fig-tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape, give a good smell." (Sgs 2:11-13.) It is probable that the King went forth some distance to meet his royal visitor, and if so, it may explain the words in his song: "Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?" (Sgs 3:6.)

Thus did the queen of the South come from the uttermost parts of the earth, to hear the wisdom of Solomon. She came to the Mount of Olives, and as she passed it by the same road so often travelled by our Saviour on his way to Bethany, the prospect of Jerusalem, throned on its hills, broke in beauty upon her sight. There, in full view, like a scene of magic, was the temple‐front, its porch, or tower, rising two hundred feet above the top of Mount Sion; there were Solomon's palace, the Queen's palace, the house of the forest of Lebanon, the porch of judgment; and both temple and palace, porch and pinnacle, so glittering with gold, so studded with pillars, rich in carvings of cherubim, lions, palm‐trees, and flowers, varied with the purple, yellow and white of cedar and fir, that the whole resembled a scene which outrivals the gorgeous wealth of the East-a scene which this queen was never to behold-an American forest in the splendors of October. Gazing at the glories of Mount Sion, she crossed the brook Kedron, and was received at the palace with royal honors.

The main incidents during the visit are given in the sacred narratives. The high-born guest saw the arrangements of the palace; the royal table, to supply which for one day, required thirty oxen and two hundred sheep, besides deer and fowl; (1Ki 4:22-23) the two hundred targets, (1Ki 10:16; 2Ch 9:15) and three hundred shields, (1Ki 10:16-17) and various vessels, all of gold; (1Ki 10:21) the ivory throne, with its twelve carved lions; (1Ki 10:18-20) the thousand chariots and twelve thousand horsemen; (1Ki 10:26) the gardens of spikenard and saffron, pomegranates and cinnamon; the "orchards planted with all kinds of fruit," (Ecc 2:5) and beautiful with "fountains and pools of water;" and the massive stone walls, built up from the valleys to support the temple, some of the immense blocks remaining to this day. She heard the singers and the "musical instruments of all sorts." (Ecc 2:8.) To the temple, she was not admitted; but we are told that she saw the ascent by which the king went up thither; and possibly, through the gates and doors, she may have distantly seen the brazen sea, and the glory of the Lord, filling the holy place.

Above all, she heard the wisdom of Solomon. From his own lips she heard some of those "three thousand proverbs, and a thousand and five songs," (1Ki 4:32) spoken of by the sacred writer. She put all her hard questions-communed of all that was in her heart. Doubtless the conversation was not made up of wit and dalliance, and the compliments of courtesy; nor did they talk alone of fashion, idle news, and the weather. The king was not obliged to treat her as an unthinking being, but rather driven to exert all his intellect to answer her inquiries into the great matters of law, history, science, and religion. Such a journey was not undertaken for nothing. The Redeemer had declared expressly that she "came to hear wisdom" (Mat 12:42; Luk 11:31)-would that this was more often the object of travel and of conversation.

How long she remained is not stated. If, as already assumed, she came with the great merchant caravan, she may have staid two months in Canaan, and may have visited other places. "She turned, and went to her own country." (1Ki 10:13.) That her visit resulted in good to her nation, as well as to herself, we have some evidence. We find, from history, that one hundred and sixty‐seven years before Christ, the patriotic and pious Maccabees propagated a pure religion more readily in Sheba than elsewhere, and that the people were morally superior to the rest of the Arabians. Thus, more than eight hundred years after the death of this queen, there was a happy state of things in her country, which, it is fair to suppose, originated in her wisdom, energy and piety. It is the crowning praise of this crowned woman, that, in all probability, she faithfully discharged the high duties of her sphere, benevolently communicated her knowledge to her subjects, and fulfilled the mission of her life.

Aside from her energy, the two grand features of the character of Queen Balkis, as developed in the inspired history, are her mental activity and religious inclination. Like the two immense columns of brass, ornamented with pomegranates and chain-work, that stood in front of Solomon's temple, these intellectual and spiritual tendencies were the noble pillars of her character, around which all her lighter graces of soul were wreathed. These capabilities, diligently cultivated, prepared her to fulfil the lofty purpose of her existence. And it is in the power of every high-minded woman to be a queen, and wield a sceptre of influence as potent as the literal sceptre of the sovereign of Happy Arabia. Nor has the young American woman now to come from the ends of the earth, to hear the wisdom of the wise. All knowledge is within her reach, and she is raised to the dignity of the equal and companion of man. Nor is there any danger that, under a true cultivation, she will neglect more appropriate duties in higher aspirations. Woman's sphere is just that circle of influence which she can fill without the neglect of her special offices, though it be a world blessed by her benevolent aid, or instructed or delighted by her thought. And to fill this, her powers need not be obtrusively exerted; her authority, whether asserted or not, will be in exact proportion to her intelligence and moral force of character; and a silent but powerful influence will necessarily go out from her, as the Arabian queen, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, and bearing costly spices, everywhere on her journey made the desert air rejoice in the balmy breath.


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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