Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Today’s Old Testament lesson is the famous text where Solomon asks God for wisdom.

July 24, 2011

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Commentary on 1 Kings 3:5-12

Today’s Old Testament lesson is the famous text where Solomon asks God for wisdom.

Somewhat oddly, the lection begins and ends in mid-paragraph (according to NRSV and NIV), and it might be better to include in the public Scripture reading and in the preaching both verses 3-4, on the front side, and verses 13-14 (and perhaps verse 15 as well) on the back. 

At the very least, astute preachers need to be aware of these other verses and the data they provide. Indeed, verses 3-4 gives important “background” information that is helpful in making sense of verses 5ff. — for example, why Solomon was at Gibeon in the first place. But after reading verses 3-4, one is also sympathetic with the lectionary’s editors, since these same verses raise more than a few questions. In brief, verses 3-4 tell us of the good and the bad about Solomon:

On the one hand, the good: “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David” (verse 3a; NRSV);

On the other hand, the bad: “only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places” (verse 3b; NRSV).

Much hangs on the word “only” (Hebrew raq) in verse 3b. It can be translated “only” as well as “however” or “except.” Important here is the fact that the word typically signifies a contrast (see, e.g., Exodus 8:24-25; 10:24; 21:19; Deuteronomy 3:19; 12:15, 16, 26; 15:23; 17:16; 20:14, 16, 20; etc.; with a participle, as here, 2 Chronicles 33:17). 

Such a contrast is understandable given the usual valence of the term “high place(s).” Such high places are almost always and strongly condemned wherever they are mentioned in the Old Testament. 

1 Kings 3:2 also has an instance of Hebrew raq. This raq can be seen as the narrator’s attempt to counter the negative associations of “high place(s)” both in this particular verse and in the practice of Solomon that immediately follows:

“The people were sacrificing at the high places, however [Hebrew raq], because no house had yet been built for the name of the LORD” (NRSV).

Perhaps, that is, one shouldn’t be too hard on Solomon — where else could he worship? (An answer may be found, however, in verse 15.)  But most scholars believe that, even if in its original formulation the story (or activity) of Solomon’s sacrificing at Gibeah was “innocent,” the final presentation of Kings imbues it with a dark and negative hue.1 

This darker interpretation gains further support by a look to 1 Kings 3:1, which states that Solomon married the daughter of Pharaoh. Political exigencies are one thing, but it is hard to justify kinship ties with Egypt the great oppressor of Israel! In brief, Solomon, writ large, is a rather ambiguous character.2

But not here, not in the lectionary’s selection, which effectively removes the ambiguity by focusing only on verses 5-12. Good preachers, attentive to the warp and woof of Scripture, will worry more than a bit about the “whitewashed” version of the lectionary snippet, if only because it seems clear already from the first verses of chapter 3 that “Solomon sets into motion a pattern of misbehavior on the part of Israel’s and Judah’s kings.”3

That granted, Solomon in 1 Kings 3 clearly comes with the good as well as the bad, and, even if the lectionary smoothes things over a bit too much, verses 5-12 clearly emphasize Solomon’s better side.  But Solomon’s better side is prefaced by God best side: out of nowhere, it seems, comes the Lord’s appearance to the king in a dream with the equivalent of a genie’s wish (verse 5).

Of course, it isn’t out of nowhere — verse 3 mentioned Solomon’s adherence to the “statutes of his father David,” and verse 6 again mentions David, his faithfulness and righteousness, and God’s steadfast love to David. Nevertheless, the initiative in this carte blanche request is clearly the Lord’s, and, though it isn’t presented as a test, if it were, Solomon would have passed with flying colors. He does not ask what we would expect — what we might request ourselves — what we ourselves would certainly wish for given the right genie and lamp! But Solomon chooses a different way: he does not ask for long life, riches, or victory over his enemies and this fact is not lost on God (verses 11a, 13).

What is not lost on the attentive reader is the rhetoric of Solomon’s answer. God had posed the question in terms of Solomon: “Ask what I should give you” (verse 5), but instead of answering in those same terms (“I would like…”), Solomon begins with God (“You have shown…”) and with what God has done for David. 

And so Solomon quickly moves from God to God’s benefits to God’s favorite, David.  Solomon doesn’t stop there, but lays it on thick. David is God’s favorite for a reason–three reasons to be precise: he walked before God “in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart” (verse 6). But even that impressive Davidic resume is enveloped, front and back, by what God has done; specifically, it is encompassed by two references to God’s “steadfast love” (Hebrew ḥesed):

“You have shown great and steadfast love (ḥesed) to…David,
because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart…
you have kept for him this great and steadfast love (ḥesed),
and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.” (verse 6)

The very last bit of verse 6 is not to be missed. In this clause, Solomon attributes his own kingship to God’s benevolence, but also ties himself to David and, simultaneously, introduces himself into the conversation (finally!).

And yet, even when Solomon finally does speak of himself, he continues to prove rhetorically savvy. First, he speaks of himself using the very same term he used for David: both he and his father are “your (God’s) servant” (verses 6a, 7a). Next, Solomon calls himself “only a little child” lacking knowledge, perhaps even commonsense. In light of 1 Kings 11:42 and 14:21, these last details are not to be taken flat-footedly. 

Solomon was almost certainly no adolescent, let alone a toddler! Rather, Solomon is a gifted pray-er. He knows, as do other great pray-ers like Jeremiah and the psalmists, that appealing to one’s lowly status is incentive for God, who cares deeply for such lowly ones, to act.4

The specific content of Solomon’s request is further incentive for God to act: Solomon asks only for “an understanding mind” (NRSV; Hebrew: “a listening heart”) to rightly govern and judge.  The request is sober and altogether reasonable; moreover, it is on behalf of God’s (not Solomon’s!) people — a point twice emphasized (verses 8-9).

And Solomon’s prayer works! The prayer pleases God (verse 10), particularly in what it does not ask for (again, twice emphasized: verse 11, 13). So God grants the request, giving Solomon “a wise and discerning mind” (verse 12a), but more — Solomon will be, and in fact now already is, incomparable (verse 12b).

And yet more: all that Solomon didn’t ask for is also given — riches and honor, and again in incomparable fashion (verse 13). And yet one more final gift: long life, but this one with a built-in contingency: “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes, and my commandments, as your father David walked” (verse 14). So, just as Solomon had reminded God of David in his request, so God now reminds Solomon of David in the answer. David is paradigmatic for Solomon’s past, present, and future.

In verse 15 Solomon awakes — all this had been a dream. In modern parlance, psychoanalysis aside, such language implies pure fantasy and thus unreality. But in the ancient Near East (as also in psychoanalysis!) dreams were often key arenas for revelatory insight (cf., e.g, Genesis 15:12-21; 20:3-7; 28:10-22; etc.). 

In Solomon’s case, the proof is in the pudding. This dream leads directly to right worship and benevolent activity, not in Gibeon, but in Jerusalem before the ark of the Lord’s covenant (verse 15b). It also leads directly into the famous vignette about Solomon’s wisdom in the case of the two prostitutes and the dead child (verses 16-28), which shows God’s gift of wisdom to Solomon is both real and efficacious (see verse 28).5

In light of all this, Solomon’s ultimate failure, encapsulated in summary fashion in 1 Kings 11:1-13, is made all the more tragic. The tiny little “if” of God in 1 Kings 3:14 proved too big for Solomon, even in all his glory and with all his wisdom. In retrospect, perhaps he should have prayed for more than just wisdom after all. Things like faithfulness, righteousness, and uprightness of heart — things David had in spades (verse 6)–come immediately to mind.

1See Marvin A. Sweeney, I & II Kings: A Commentary (Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 72-74, 79-81; and John Gray, I & II Kings: A Commentary (2d ed.; Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), 116, 120.
2In addition to the opening verses of 1 Kings 3, see Solomon’s role in the murders of Adonijah, Joab, and Shimei recounted in 1 Kgs 2:13-46.  For more on Solomon’s ambiguities, see the excellent study by Walter Brueggemann, Solomon: Israel’s Ironic Icon of Human Achievement (Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament; Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005).
3Sweeney, I & II Kings, 79.
4See Brent A. Strawn, “Jeremiah’s In/Effective Plea: Another Lookער in Jeremiah i 6,” Vetus Testamentum 55 (2005): 366-77; Gray, I & II Kings, 125.
5Cf. Brueggemann, Solomon, 114.