Wise | Proper 15

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

2:10 Then David lay down with his ancestors and was buried in David’s City. 11 He ruled over Israel forty years–seven years in Hebron and thirty-three years in Jerusalem.

12 Solomon sat on the throne of his father David, and his royal power was well established.

3:3 Now Solomon loved the LORD by walking in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines.

4 The king went to the great shrine at Gibeon in order to sacrifice there. He used to offer a thousand entirely burned offerings on that altar. 5 The LORD appeared to Solomon at Gibeon in a dream at night. God said, “Ask whatever you wish, and I’ll give it to you.”

6 Solomon responded, “You showed so much kindness to your servant my father David when he walked before you in truth, righteousness, and with a heart true to you. You’ve kept this great loyalty and kindness for him and have now given him a son to sit on his throne. 7 And now, LORD my God, you have made me, your servant, king in my father David’s place. But I’m young and inexperienced. I know next to nothing. 8 But I’m here, your servant, in the middle of the people you have chosen, a large population that can’t be numbered or counted due to its vast size. 9 Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help.”

10 It pleased the LORD that Solomon had made this request. 11 God said to him, “Because you have asked for this instead of requesting long life, wealth, or victory over your enemies– asking for discernment so as to acquire good judgment–12 I will now do just what you said. Look, I hereby give you a wise and understanding mind. There has been no one like you before now, nor will there be anyone like you afterward. 13 I now also give you what you didn’t ask for: wealth and fame. There won’t be a king like you as long as you live. 14 And if you walk in my ways and obey my laws and commands, just as your father David did, then I will give you a very long life.” (CEB)

Wise

The story of Solomon’s request for wisdom is iconic. Most of us probably heard the story in Sunday School classes when we were kids. But, just like today’s text, Sunday School lessons tend to skip over the ugly parts, like the executions that helped secure Solomon’s rule. Our text begins with David’s death and a recap of the number of years he ruled. And we’re told that Solomon sat on David’s throne.

In chapter three, there are some curious comments that only make sense when we realize that the books of Kings are part of a group of writings that includes Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges and Samuel called Deuteronomic History. The majority of scholars date the first versions of these books to the reign of King Josiah, who was killed in battle with Pharoah Necho II at Megiddo in 609 B.C. These Deuteronomic texts present a theology called Deuteronomic theology, which declares that bad things happen to people and nations because they’re getting what they deserve due to sin they’ve committed. One thing these books do is assign blame for the ruinous things that occurred in Israel’s history. These texts were likely edited during the Babylonian Exile, or early in the Post-exilic period. The edited versions introduce a focus on a single place of worship, which was the Temple in Jerusalem.

Now, the reason scholars believe these books were edited is because the idea of a central place of worship for the People of Israel didn’t show up until Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms, at the earliest, and maybe not until the post-exilic period with the priest Ezra. Before those reforms, the people worshipped all over the place. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob built altars and shrines all over the place. The Tabernacle that God told Moses to build as the people wondered through the wilderness of Sinai was designed as a mobile sanctuary that was erected wherever Israel camped.

At times it rested at Gilgal (Joshua 4,5,10), Shiloh (Joshua 18,19,22) where it remained for about 350 years. It was also likely at Bethel (Judges 20), probably at Nob (1 Samuel 21-22), and it was definitely at Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39). When David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, the Tabernacle remained at Gibeon until Solomon brought it to Jerusalem for the dedication of the Temple (c.f. 1 Kings 8:4).

First Kings 3:3 tells us, “Now Solomon loved the Lord by walking in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines” (CEB). It’s that second half of the verse that makes it sound like sacrificing and burning incense at the shrines was a bad thing. And, to the later editors of the Deuteronomic writings, it was! But through all of Israel’s history up to Solomon’s day at beyond the people of Israel were supposed to worship at the Tabernacle. David may have moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, but the Tabernacle was where God met the people. It was the sign and place of God’s presence within Israel.

So, despite the disapproval of whoever edited 1 Kings, Solomon was actually doing exactly what he was supposed to do! The proof that Solomon was doing what’s right is proved in the fact that, after he worshipped in the Tabernacle at Gibeon, God showed up. Actually, God did more than show up. God appeared to Solomon in a dream and offered to give him anything he wished. He’s the only one who ever got that kind of a blank check from God.

If God were to give us the same offer, how would we respond? Would we answer right away, or would we have to think about it? What would we ask for? The way we answer that question would certainly reveal our priorities.

As for Solomon, he paused to reflect on his father’s life and on his own. He noted how much kindness God showed to David when he walked before the Lord in truth, righteousness, and with a heart that was true to God. The Lord’s kindness and loyalty to David had now been extended to himself since Solomon now sat on his father’s throne. Solomon recognized that God made him king in David’s place. This wasn’t something Solomon accomplished on his own.

Solomon also recognized that the task of ruling was beyond his ability and experience. At the same time, he recognized that the people he was to govern were important. They were God’s own chosen people. I think Solomon recognized that he might be the king, but the people of Israel belong to God, not to him. He was a steward. So, he asked for a “discerning mind” in order to govern God’s people and to distinguish good from evil. “No one,” Solomon confessed, “is able to govern this important people of yours without your help” (1 Kings 3:9 CEB).

There are a few things we should note about Solomon’s request. First, translations vary. Some say Solomon asked for a “discerning heart” (NIVO), an “understanding mind” (RSV, NRSV), an “understanding heart” (KJV), or a “discerning mind” (CEB). As a kid, I always heard my teachers say that Solomon asked for wisdom, which is what God gave him in verse 12. But, Walter Brueggemann translates it as listening heart because the Hebrew word is ‎שֹׁמֵ֙עַ֙  (shema), which means hear, listen. Brueggemann wrote, “It is remarkable that the phrase is not ‘to speak justice’ or ‘do justice,’ but instead to ‘hear justice,’ suggesting that justice is not in the verdict or in the imagination of the king but is intrinsic to the case itself, if only the king listens well enough to hear” (Feasting on the Word, Proper 15 Essay, 6).

That observation made me wonder, How well do we listen? We live in a culture where distractions can easily drown out the voices of people who need to be heard. Imagine how welcome listening hearts would be at the family dinner table. Imagine how supportive listening hearts could be in a worshipping congregation. Imagine how listening hearts might transform lives on a factory floor or a company boardroom. Imagine how welcome—and relieving—a listening heart would be in a government leader.

Solomon asked for the gift he needed to do the task to which he’d been appointed. He didn’t make his request for his own benefit. He asked for a listening heart for the benefit of his people, so that he could care for others and care for them well. Solomon was aware that this gentle wisdom, a listening heart given by God, would allow him to govern the people. He wanted to use the power of his office as King for the good of others. And that’s what pleased the Lord. Solomon’s humility toward God and selflessness toward God’s people probably made God smile. So, God gave him a heart of wisdom and discernment.

In almost every culture that is or has ever been, people clamor for power, wealth, and advantage over others. So, I imagine that, for most of us, the idea of having our greatest wish granted by the God of the Universe would be like winning the lottery. If riches or power or fame were what we desired, then we would find ourselves with sudden power, influence, and notoriety. Yet, Solomon understood that our requirement—what God wants from us—is selflessness toward others. That’s what Jesus teaches. It’s what the prophets declare. It’s what the Law of Moses states. The Old and New Testaments describe the qualities of life that are pleasing to God: that we empty ourselves for others, that we seek the common good, that we put the needs of others before our own, and that we acknowledge our dependence on God and God’s gifts to us.

Where did Solomon get this humility? Where did he get this selflessness? Honestly, I think it stems from Solomon’s love for and worship of the Lord. Worship has a way of transforming us. It affects how we live, how we love, how we give. It molds and forms us into God’s people, and it connects us to one another and to God.

Proverbs 1:7 tells us that “Wisdom begins with the fear of the LORD, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (CEB). Solomon’s wisdom was famous across the world. Yet, it wasn’t really Solomon’s. Wisdom, the Old Testament writings declare, comes from God and is given to humanity as a gift (c.f. Proverbs 1; Sirach 1). Solomon’s listening heart was a gift from God.

What we also learn from Solomon is that everything else we have is a gift from God, too. Solomon could have asked for wealth, fame, and a long life. He could have put himself first. Instead, he sought to be made into an instrument that God could use for the good of others. In essence, Solomon’s request was along the lines of what Jesus would later tell us to do: “…desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33 CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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