Commentary on 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
The Old Testament readings for this week and next week both feature prayers of King Solomon.1
While next week’s reading from 1 Kings 8 will feature a public prayer in a formal, liturgical setting, this week’s passage describes a private exchange between God and Solomon, when God has appeared to Solomon in a dream. This “dream sequence” describes a divine origin for the wisdom Solomon famously possesses.
First Kings 2:10-12 reminds us that Solomon has succeeded his father David on the throne of Israel, a succession not without controversy and substantial political intrigue (see 1 Kings 1:5-53). The appointed verses then move to an evaluative description of Solomon’s character: “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places” (1 Kings 3:3 NRSV). Solomon’s righteousness is mitigated by his participation in one of the most egregious religious sins in Deuteronomic perspective: worship at the “high places” rather than in Jerusalem.
The story of Solomon’s reign in as told in 1 Kings, like the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings overall, has a distinctly “Deuteronomic” flavor; that is, those books share the theological priorities of the book of Deuteronomy, which emphasizes steadfast love and covenant fidelity between God and Israel. If the Israelites keep covenant by following God’s law, they will receive blessings; if not, they will face curses.
A prominent refrain in Deuteronomy is that, upon arriving in the promised land, the Israelites must only worship at “the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name” (Deuteronomy 12:5 et al.). References to the “high places” in Kings seem to point both to the improper worship of the Israelites’ God and to the worship of other gods. Thus, when the text remarks that Solomon would offer “a thousand burnt offerings” on the altar at Gibeon, his worship practices, while undoubtedly considered fervent, are also being condemned.
The text’s ambivalence about the character of Solomon has been well chronicled in many commentaries.2 Solomon is a blessed king, a fitting successor to David, and the king chosen to build the LORD’s Temple in Jerusalem. His wisdom, his riches, and his long-lasting reputation as a great king testify further to his chosenness; indeed, in this very passage those elements are described as freely offered gifts from God (3:12-13). At the same time, in addition to condemning his worship at the high places, the Deuteronomic authorial voice regards Solomon’s marriages to foreign wives with disdain, seeing them as conduits for the worship of foreign gods.
It is helpful to remember that the text’s ambivalence about Solomon, whom it regards as both undoubtedly great and yet dangerously flawed, extends to its evaluation of kingship in general. In 1 Samuel 8, the prophet Samuel delivers a warning to the people when they ask him for a king. He cautions that a king will take their resources and their labor for his own benefit, and they will end up as his slaves (1 Samuel 8:11-18). That warning looms over the whole account of the rise and fall of the monarchy in the books of Samuel and Kings. The idea that monarchs take and take from their subjects proves true in Solomon’s use of Israelite forced labor for his building projects and is amplified with subsequent kings. Rehoboam’s intensification of the forced labor program (1 Kings 12:1-14) and Ahab’s murder of Naboth and confiscation of his vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-16) provide two prominent examples. At the same time, the monarchy is instituted by God and contributes to the ordering of society. The text particularly emphasizes the divine choosing of David and Solomon, even as it names royal apostasies as the causes of the exile to Babylon.
Thus, underlying the ambivalence about this king is an overall ambivalence throughout the Former Prophets about kings and kingship in general. Acknowledging this unsettledness in the text helps us as readers avoid too easily assuming that everything Solomon does or says — including his prayers — is to be emulated uncritically. No human ruler can match the sovereign rulership of God. Even so, some of the very limits Solomon exhibits help to make him such a compelling figure. In his prayer Solomon appears to understand the magnitude of the task before him and the challenges it will present. When he describes himself as being “in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted” (3:7), the image is powerful: as if he, a child, is surrounded by an innumerable swirl of citizens pressing in on him for governance, guidance, and protection. By invoking that image, Solomon confesses his fear.
Solomon’s confession is a powerful testimony to his own humanity. Indeed, his entire biography as presented in Kings is evidence of the brokenness he shares with us all. At the same time, he exhibits rare qualities. By asking for wisdom in the first place, Solomon is demonstrating that he already possesses wisdom. That wisdom begets wisdom is a common theme of the wisdom literature: “Give instruction to the wise and they will become wiser still; teach the righteous and they will gain in learning” (Proverbs 9:9). Solomon is wise even before God grants his request.
Leadership, be it governmental, religious, or otherwise, requires us to hold in tension humility and confidence, finitude and limitless capacity, the gifts we have and the gifts we have yet to acquire. Solomon is by no means a “perfect” model for leadership, as his prayer reminds us. At the same time, Solomon’s prayer also testifies that effective leadership demands boldness, calling us to act in wisdom even as we pray to have wisdom enacted in us.
1 Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 19, 2012.
2 For a detailed analysis of the presentation of Solomon’s character, see especially Walter Brueggemann, Solomon: Israel’s Ironic Icon of Human Achievement (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005). Previous workingpreacher.org commentaries by Kathryn Schifferdecker, Brent Strawn, and Juliana Claassens have also addressed this ambivalence.