< August 16, 2009 >

Commentary on 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

 

"What would you wish for if you could wish for anything?"

It's a game my friends and I used to play as children, inspired by tales like "Aladdin." As I recall, our wishes usually had to do with wealth or fame or ponies.

Our reading for today describes the biblical counterpart to that childhood game. Solomon has just ascended to the throne of his father David, that beloved king of Israel. It is a succession marked by court intrigue and competition between rival factions (1 Kings 1-2). A few people lose their lives in Solomon's consolidation of power, including David's older son, Adonijah, who had designs on the throne himself.

But after all the intrigue, now Solomon is king, and he goes to Gibeon to offer sacrifices to the LORD. The LORD appears to Solomon in a dream there and says, "Ask what I should give you." It is a remarkable offer for this young king; "Ask what you will," says God. One can imagine what he might request: long life, riches, power, and victory in battle.

Solomon asks for none of that. Instead, he praises God for God's faithfulness to his father David, and he describes his own situation. He is a young man. (Calling himself a "little child" is simply a way of expressing humility. Solomon is old enough to marry, cf. 1 Kings 3:1). He has to govern a very numerous people; and not just any people, but a nation of God's own choosing. Therefore, he asks of God a "listening heart" (or, as many translations put it, "an understanding mind") in order to judge God's people, and "to discern between good and evil."

A listening heart, an understanding mind, the ability to discern what is right and good--these are qualities essential to good governance, qualities we should pray to find in all our leaders. It speaks well of the young king that he recognizes the enormous responsibility he has and seeks not material gifts for himself, but gifts of character that will benefit his people.

Solomon's request does indeed please the LORD, and the request is granted. In addition, God grants Solomon that which he did not explicitly request: riches, honor, fame, and (if he stays faithful to God) long life. Blessings abound for this new king; but it is important to note that these material blessings are secondary. This text does not support a kind of prosperity gospel. Solomon speaks of himself as God's servant (1 Kings 3:7-9), and seeks not his own personal gain, but the good of his people--their "best life now," if you will.

This story is the first of six lectionary texts (in the semi-continuous readings) that describe Solomon or are associated with Solomon (i.e. Song of Solomon and Proverbs). Because texts about Solomon are rare in the lectionary, the preacher might consider doing a brief sermon series on this complex biblical character or on a larger theme such as "wisdom," with which Solomon is so strongly associated.

"Wisdom" in the biblical tradition has to do in large part with what Solomon requests: the ability to discern good and evil, the ability to listen well, and to judge rightly. In this story, Solomon's great wisdom is understood as a special gift from God. In the biblical wisdom literature, wisdom is also understood as a gift from God. It is given, however, not just to kings, but to all who faithfully seek it (Proverbs 2:1-6; 8:1-17). As in this story, wisdom will reward those who acquire it (Proverbs 3:16); but it is not to be sought simply for personal gain. It is integrally tied to one's life in community (Job 29:7-25) and to one's life with God--"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10).

The texts in the coming weeks, especially those from Proverbs, will speak more explicitly about wisdom. If one chooses this week to focus on Solomon himself, it might be fruitful to include for reflection the story that follows our reading of Solomon's judgment in the case of the two prostitutes (1 Kings 3:16-28). This story serves as a good example of Solomon's great wisdom and how it benefits his people.

The chapters that follow then speak in detail of the glory of Solomon, his magnificent building projects (including the Temple), his wisdom and the fame it brings him (1 Kings 4:29-34; 10:1-13, 23-24). Solomon seems to fulfill the promise we see in him in chapter 3. It is important to note, however, that like David before him, Solomon has flaws. Later in life, he begins to worship other gods (1 Kings 11:4-8), and he builds up his kingdom through forced labor and heavy taxes (1 Kings 11:28; 12:4). Because of Solomon's sins, the northern tribes rebel after his death and the kingdom is split in two.

Solomon, like his father before him, is a complex character. The preacher would do well to follow the lead of the biblical narrator who describes the whole man--his glory as well as his flaws. Solomon is like our own leaders, a mixture of good and bad. Solomon is, in other words, like us--all of us saints and sinners at the same time. Perhaps his story, then, can inform our own stories.

"What would you wish for if you could wish for anything?" Solomon, for all his shortcomings later in life, answers well. He wishes not for personal gain or material possessions, but for a listening heart, a discerning mind, and the wisdom to govern his people well. For these attributes, Solomon becomes in later biblical tradition the epitome of wisdom and a well-loved king. In the coming weeks, we will explore more texts associated with him.