Commentary on 1 Kings 3:5-12
Two ears, one mouth.
We should listen twice as much as we talk, so they say. Even a prominent leader. Even a king. Even King Solomon. Would that more leaders followed this maxim today!
God appears to King Solomon in a dream like a genie in a bottle. Only without a cap of three wishes. God’s words sound less like a question and more like a test.
“Ok, Solomon. You have my ear. Ask what I should give you.”
If you were in charge of a kingdom, what would you ask for? I suppose that depends on where your priorities are. Protection of land? Protection of culture? Possession of other lands and other cultures? Accumulating riches and status? Such things are fear and greed driven. Solomon, at this point, is not driven by these desires.
This scene from King Solomon’s life is a model for right leadership, according to the spirit of its author.
First thing’s first: Solomon loved God. How? He worshiped the Lord alone and did so appropriately.
Second we learn that a wise ruler will wait to act until he or she has heard from God.
Having heard from God, the leader will obey. Having done so, success awaits. On the flipside, disobeying God thus leads to trouble not only for the ruler, but the institution the ruler serves, and more trouble for those being ruled over.
The alternative readings in this stretch of the lectionary seem to have a theme of listening (Isaiah 55, 1 Kings 19:9-18). In order to live well, in order to walk with God, in order to grow and prosper, we must love and listen to God.
Solomon asks for discernment. Discernment? How do our congregations hear that word? Perhaps spiritual direction is a better term. Or wisdom. Or intimacy with God’s heart. Why? In order to lead the people God has entrusted him, Solomon had to know God’s heart. Perhaps it was this gift of discernment that allowed Solomon to blossom as a poet and author of great wisdom for Israel, so that “People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (1 Kings 4:34a).
Preachers can claim that the posture of Solomon is not one reserved for leaders of the nations or leaders of the church, for that matter. For example, this is the prayer of the mother who, in the midst of two screaming toddlers, closes her eyes and calls on God to reveal to her how best to care for these little ones under her care. How often do we close our eyes and ask God for wisdom in the midst of our days? Preachers may want to explore how in the priesthood of all believers, all should seek to pray as Solomon prayed: for understanding, the ability to discern between good and evil. And then to be obedient to that vision as it is revealed, for listening and obedience are one in the same in the Bible.1 If you think you are listening to God, but are not obeying, you’re just hearing things — in one ear and out the other.
This text is part of the Deuteronomistic History, reflected in the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings.2 In these books, leaders and characters succeed when living into Mosaic law — specifically Deuteronomy 17:14-20.
A ruler will prosper so long as he avoids acquiring too much “silver and gold … in great quantity for himself.” So long as the king reads the law “all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God,” all will be fine. So long as the king does not exalt “himself above other members of the community” nor turn aside from “the commandment … he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.” So long as the king does not give into a culture of excess and oppressive power over his fellow covenant people, all will be well in the promise land. So long as the Lord is Israel’s one and only God, the reign will hold (Deuteronomy 6:4).
But of course, Solomon is the last king to reign over the united monarchy, over North (Israel) and South (Judah).3 Scholars believe these texts were written not for the sake of historical record, but for a theological accounting of the trauma of exile.4 Preachers can remind the congregation that when trauma occurs in individual lives or communal lives, it is human impulse to go back in our timelines to search for cause.
Solomon gifted God and God’s people with the temple. But eventually, even Solomon gave into the lures of royal excess and the worship of other gods (preachers, be wary of casting blame on the “many foreign women” King Solomon loved 1 Kings 11:1). And so, the power and authority of the monarchy in God’s plan for Israel began to crumble.
Preachers will need to be wary of conveying a karmic sort of version of Christianity out of this text: if we obey God, then we succeed. This is the mantra of the Prosperity Gospel that runs rampant today. At the same time, many have experienced the gift of hearing God’s heart for our lives and the fruit of obeying that call. In the midst of cultural transition and transformation, the words of 1 Kings can bring us hope: loving God and seeking the wisdom of God brings life and builds up God’s people.
1. Fred B. Craddock. Craddock on the Craft of Preaching (ed. Lee Sparks and Kathryn Hayes Sparks; Saint Louis: Chalice Press, 2011), 6.
2. Robert R. Wilson. “1 Kings,” in The HarperCollins Study Bible Fully Revised and Updated (ed. Harold W. Attridge; San Francisco, CA: 2006), 474.
3. Rainer Albertz. Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century B.C.E. (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 286.
4. Walter Brueggemann. An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 146.