Commentary on 1 Kings 3:5-12
It would certainly be easy to preach this week’s lectionary text as offering contemporary believers a model of faithful prayer.
Indeed King Solomon, who when God offers him the opportunity to have any wish fulfilled asks not for glory and worldly success but for wisdom, is often held up as an example of a faithful believer who recognizes the importance of putting God’s kingdom first (cf. Matt 6:33).
The request for a “listening heart” (cf. the NRSV’s translation of an “understanding mind” that draws on the Hebrew meaning of “heart” as the center of thought and will), suggests that the pious king intends to be truly receptive to the needs of the community. The portrayal of the “ideal king” in this text offers a close parallel to the ideal king held up in Psalm 72–a king who will rule in justice and righteousness, paying special attention to the poor and needy.
Moreover, if one reads the story immediately following the lectionary text in vv. 16-28, the picture of King Solomon as the wise king receives further validation. In the story of the two women before the king, the king’s “listening heart” is demonstrated, showing how the plight of the most vulnerable members in the community does not go unnoticed.
Even though this would be a valid interpretative option to pursue, 1 Kings 3, as in life, is more complicated. In order to do justice to this week’s lectionary text, one has to recognize the ambiguities and complexities associated with this text.
First, the choice of the lectionary reading to only focus on vv. 5-12 is interesting. The lectionary reading chooses to omit vv. 13-14, abruptly breaking off in the middle of Solomon’s dream. It is indeed a question why the lectionary reading would decide to ignore the verses that refer to Solomon also receiving riches and a long life in addition to the wisdom that he requested from God. After all, this link between prosperity and obedience is very much at the heart of the deuteronomistic as well as wisdom traditions (cf. Prov 3:13-18 that maintains that wisdom is followed by all the other gifts initially offered by God). May it be that the promise of wealth counters the image of the faithful pious king who is not interested in worldly goods or fame? Or did the compilers of the lectionary feel uncomfortable with the connection between wealth and faithfulness that is very much proclaimed as gospel in recent strands of prosperity theology? Even though increasingly popular, the uncritical application of these traditions may be harmful and even dangerous to contemporary believers. Reading the lectionary text in terms of its larger context would offer a good opportunity to identify the inherent problems with such a position, referring to other biblical texts that constitute an important countervoice–texts that challenge the act/consequence or punishment/reward schema prevalent in much of the biblical tradition (cf. in particular the book of Job).
Second, limiting one’s attention to the verses suggested by the lectionary reading, which incidentally only focus on the positive aspects of Solomon’s rule, misses the theological tensions inherent in this text. Immediately preceding Solomon’s dream in vv. 5-14, one finds allusions that hint at some of the negative aspects of Solomon’s reign. So the reference to Solomon worshiping at high places such as Gibeon (vv. 2-5) hints at Solomon’s future problems with high places, namely, worshiping at the local sanctuaries rather than heeding the deuteronomistic tradition’s commitment to centralized worship (1 Kgs 9:6-9; 11:7-13). Moreover, the reference to Solomon’s marriage alliance with the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh foreshadows the deuteronomistic concern that foreign wives were responsible for leading the kings astray (1 Kgs 11:1-8).
This other side of King Solomon’s reign is a good reminder that the leaders in the biblical tradition, as in life, more often than not are a mix of complex motives. So, one should not romanticize political power, seeing that any leader has the potential to be corrupt and to abuse power. For instance, Solomon’s assertion in v. 7, that literally translated would read: “I do not know how to go out or come in,” is typically used in a military context to denote the king’s participation in war. This reference serves as a sobering reminder that it is within the power of kings to destroy innocent lives. Moreover, in subsequent chapters, King Solomon will be remembered as the one who built the temple for God (1Kgs 3:1; 7:51; 9:1). Nevertheless, this act of piety is accompanied by the reality that forced labor is used in all of the building projects of the kings (1Kgs 5:13-14; 9:15). Once again one should not forget that numerous innocent people are harmed in political leaders’ attempts at greatness.
Reading the lectionary text in terms of its larger context, not shying away from the complexities associated with this text, may help us to develop theological perspectives that are sensitive to the very real challenges presented by the context in which we proclaim God’s word. Two perspectives come to mind: First, we know that most people are a mix of good and bad motives or intentions. People have the potential to do good, but also much harm. Solomon’s request for a “listening heart” may encourage its hearers to do what is right–as in the case of the two women before the king–to listen to the voice of the voiceless, and to do what one can to preserve life.
Second, it is significant to note that it is exactly within the unresolved tensions of this text, which mirror the messiness of life that God acts. It is significant that it is God who approaches Solomon, regardless of his failures and frailties as a human being. God’s initiative suggests that God’s grace breaks into the midst of the everyday realities of life and politics that are by no means straightforward or uncomplicated–a message we with confidence can proclaim as the good news of the Gospel.