Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

 Does he walk in obedience before God like his father?

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July 30, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on 1 Kings 3:5-12

1 Kings 3:5–12 is bracketed by the death of David, Israel’s greatest king and the reign of his successor, Solomon (1 Kings 1–11). Despite positive characterizations of Solomon in our pericope and the western world for his wisdom and wealth, there are nevertheless subtle clues in the passage that alert the reader that the golden era of his reign was tainted. Thus, we should be careful not to put too much confidence in political leaders as role models but rather trust in God’s example and guidance.

1 Kings 3:5–12 both provides divine sanction for Solomon’s reign and also presents him as a pious and wise ruler, despite his youth and lack of military experience. We know that he is considered pious because he previously presented a thousand burnt offerings to God at Gibeon (3:4) which exceeded expectations. Gibeon was a hill country located northwest of Jerusalem. At first, the reader might not find Solomon’s choice of worship site as a subject of concern. However, it was the largest among several sacred sites where the people of Israel worshiped that were prohibited by God. The narrator is aware of the impropriety of Solomon sacrificing at Gibeon and defends it by explaining that the people sacrificed at these shrines before the construction of the Temple (3:2). 

The text does not specify how long Solomon was at Gibeon, however he was at least on the hill overnight. God appeared to Solomon at Gibeon in the form of a dream as he slept and told Solomon to ask God, “what should I give you?” (3:5). Dreams were a common form of communication between deities and humans in the ancient world. Reasons why God might have visited Solomon range from God’s response to Solomon’s piety to God’s desire to help this inexperienced king, based on God’s offer to give Solomon whatever he asked. Solomon’s response is in the form of a prayer speech.

Solomon speaks of the great and “steadfast love” (Hebrew chesed) or “lovingkindness” God showed his father David for walking in faithfulness (literally “in truth”), in righteousness (Hebrew tzedaqah, also “honesty”), and in the uprightness of heart towards God (3:6). The concept of God’s steadfast love is one of a deity sitting high and coming down from heaven to look after creation. Solomon presumes that his place on the throne is an extension of God’s great and steadfast love for David. Solomon’s awareness of the relationship between God and David is evident in his prayer. However, some scholars question Solomon’s relationship with God. Does he walk in obedience before God like his father?

Solomon uses deferential terms and concepts to denote his inexperience and humility before God. He referred to David as “your servant” (3:6) and himself as “your servant” before God three times (3:7–9). The term “servant” or “slave” (Hebrew ebed) from the Hebrew verb for “to work” (abad) can refer to persons subject to involuntary servitude, persons in subordinate positions, especially regarding the king and his higher officials, and a term for oneself when showing deference for persons of higher status. The people of Israel, the patriarchs, and even kings, to include David and Solomon, were referred to figuratively as the “slaves” or “servants of God.” Solomon’s use here is figurative as a show of humility. 

Solomon also refers to himself as young and inexperienced militarily when God placed him on the throne to replace David. Solomon said that he was “only a little child” (see also Jeremiah 1:7) although he was at least twenty years old (3:7) and that he didn’t know how to lead troops, the meaning of “to go out or come in.” Both characterizations by Solomon are self-deprecating expressions of his modesty. 

The second part of Solomon’s prayer speech introduces Solomon’s ask. Following his acknowledgement that God has continued to reward David’s faithfulness before God by making Solomon king among God’s people, Solomon appears to realize the enormity of the responsibility before him. Solomon’s reference to the chosenness of God’s people who are too numerous to count may allude to 2 Samuel 7 where David refers to Israel as God’s very own people and God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 15:5 to give him descendants too numerous to count. Nonetheless, Solomon requests an “understanding mind” translated literally as “listening heart” (Hebrew lev shome’a) to judge the people and to discern between good and evil (3:9). As king, Solomon was expected to administer justice for the people.

The narrator, who appears to have intimate knowledge of God’s thoughts by reporting that God was pleased with Solomon’s response, evaluates Solomon positively (3:10). God tells Solomon that because “you asked for” (2 times) and “you did not ask for” (3 times), a literary device that builds the reader’s expectation by delaying the response, God will grant his petition. Solomon didn’t ask for riches, longevity, or retribution against his enemies but rather for an understanding mind or discernment to render justice (3:11). The relationship between an upright heart (3:6) or a listening heart (3:9, 12) and the ability to rule with justice is made evident in God’s response to Solomon’s request. To listen to one’s heart in 1 Kings 3:5–12, as opposed to the popular idea of trusting one’s emotions rather than reason, is to walk upright before God. God is pleased and does as Solomon asked. God declared that there hasn’t been anyone like Solomon before and there would never be again (3:12). 

Solomon is often held up as a model of wisdom and piety. The writer portrays him as a young, inexperienced, new leader of Israel who was humble enough to know the right thing to ask God for. Although Solomon receives what he asks for and more, either because of his wealth and honor or despite it, eventually, he doesn’t obey God with his heart and mind the way his father did. We should try to follow Solomon only in asking God for wisdom and discernment, not his behavior.