Narrative Lectionary Reflection
October 28, 2018
“The Wisdom of Solomon.”
That phrase has been used in our culture as a way of saying that someone needs to have the smarts that Solomon had in order to solve a problem.
Solomon was wise. But his wisdom was not something that was innate, it was something that came from God.
Solomon is the son of David and succeeds David as king. Solomon’s rule is a time when the kingdom of Israel was at the height of its power. Israel was a miniempire. Solomon started a massive building program which included the building of the temple. A fleet of ships was sent to far-flung places around the known world to bring back riches. Solomon met many of the leaders of the day, including the Queen of Sheba. Solomon brought a sense of cosmopolitan flair to Jerusalem. Solomon, like President John Kennedy in the US, ushered in a Jewish version of Camelot. Things were good in Israel.
Or were they? As we read the text for today you have to look more closely to see that things are not perfect. Just like President Kennedy’s time as President wasn’t the Camelot that we tend to think it was, Solomon’s actions carry within them the seeds of destruction not only for Solomon but for the entire nation of Israel as well. Today, we learn the Wisdom of Solomon, an imperfect king trying to follow God.
Engaging the Text
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.
-1 Kings 3:3
When people think of Solomon, they think of him in two different stages. The first stage is when he is young and asks for wisdom. A later version of Solomon is a man who has forgotten who he is. He has become unfaithful to God, worshipping other gods instead of the God of Israel. In real life, people are not all good or all bad and they are not all faithful or all not faithful. As we learn today, Solomon was already making mistakes that would have severe consequences.
Chapter 3 opens with Solomon entering into a “marriage alliance” with the Egyptian Pharaoh. He marries not out of love, but out of politics. Marrying the Pharaoh’s daughter meant an alliance with the regional superpower which made Solomon a player on the world stage.
While aligning Israel to the Egyptian superpower through marriage had its advantages, there were also problems. For one, marrying someone who was not an Israelite was troublesome. Deuteronomy 7:3 notes that Israelites were told to not intermarry. Why? The reason for this prohibition was that it could lead the Israelites away from God and worshipping foreign gods- which is exactly what happened to Solomon. His Egyptian bride was just the beginning. As he married other women from other nations, he would end up worshipping the gods of his wives.
Starting with verse two, we see that the people are still sacrificing in the high places. These high places were named not because they were in the mountains. In many writings, high places were not portrayed in a good light. Some saw them as a sign of their lack of loyalty to God. There are hints that the high places sometimes were places where people could worship other gods. A future king, Hezekiah, destroyed many of the high places as a way to get back to worshipping God alone. The talk about the high places could also be a foreshadowing of what will happen to Solomon: his worshipping the foreign gods of his wives.
It was at a high place that God came to Solomon in a dream. God’s first words to the king are to make a request. Solomon doesn’t take time to think about this. Instead, he blurts out that he wants wisdom. He asks for a “listening heart” or “understanding mind” to rule the people. The word wisdom in Hebrew is associated with legality and justice. In this time, the King was also the final arbiter of justice, in essence, Solomon was the Supreme Court as well as the President. God is pleased that Solomon chose…well, wisely. The king gets his wish; he has an understanding mind far beyond anyone else.
Solomon paints a portrait of a human faith. He loves God and seeks to be faithful, and yet he is marrying foreign wives- he’ going against what God had commanded. This is not an excuse to sin, but it is a reminder that when we come to God, we bring all of ourselves, both good and bad. Solomon wanted to be wise, to be faithful to God, but he is also doing things that will bring him trouble.
We get to see Solomon’s new found wisdom in action when two prostitutes came forward. It is telling that the king of Israel adjudicates a problem between two women on the lowest rungs of society. Both women had children. One mother rolled over during her sleep smothering the child. A mother decides to take her dead baby and switch it with the other baby. The case was about deciding who was the real mother. Solomon offers a shocking judgment: slice the living child in half and give both halves to the mothers. Was this a callous response to the women? We don’t really know. What we do know is that the judge allowed the two women to respond which revealed who was the real mother. The baby’s life is spared and Solomon gets a reputation for a wisdom that comes from God.
King Solomon was obsessed with women. Pharaoh’s daughter was only the first of the many foreign women he loved—Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite. He took them from the surrounding pagan nations of which God had clearly warned Israel, “You must not marry them; they’ll seduce you into infatuations with their gods.” Solomon fell in love with them anyway, refusing to give them up. He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines—a thousand women in all! And they did seduce him away from God. As Solomon grew older, his wives beguiled him with their alien gods and he became unfaithful—he didn’t stay true to his God as his father David had done. Solomon took up with Ashtoreth, the whore goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech, the horrible god of the Ammonites.
-1 Kings 11:1-5
1 Kings 3 is not a simple story of Solomon getting wisdom. There are hints of a downfall, one that is revealed in chapter 11. “King Solomon was obsessed with women,” says the Scripture. He started worshipping the gods of his wives and he built altars to these foreign gods.
Solomon’s choice to worship these foreign gods had consequences. 1 Kings 11 notes that like his father, God would judge him for his sins:
God said to Solomon, “Since this is the way it is with you, that you have no intention of keeping faith with me and doing what I have commanded, I’m going to rip the kingdom from you and hand it over to someone else. But out of respect for your father David I won’t do it in your lifetime. It’s your son who will pay—I’ll rip it right out of his grasp. Even then I won’t take it all; I’ll leave him one tribe in honor of my servant David and out of respect for my chosen city Jerusalem.”
Looking at chapter 11, chapter 3 is cast in a more tragic light. Chapter 3 shows a king that wanted to follow God and sought God for help. If we could stay just at chapter 3 this would be a wonderful story of someone seeking to follow and rely on God. Instead, it becomes a harbinger of things to come.
Solomon was an imperfect leader. He sought to follow God, but he also did things that harmed his faith in God. Not so different from those of us who aren’t leaders.
Solomon asked for wisdom. In the wider culture, we tend to think wisdom is something we can earn. Wisdom is something that comes with time, from learning life’s lessons and so on. But in Solomon’s time, wisdom is something that came from God. Only God could make someone wise, not us.
What does it mean in our day and age to seek wisdom from God? We won’t be asked to settle complaints like Solomon, but wisdom can be used as we live our lives in our churches, jobs, and neighborhoods. What does wisdom look like to you?
But Solomon’s wisdom did not last. Solomon’s story is truly a tragedy. Solomon took Israel to the apex of its power, but that all ended because of his choices. He was the last king of a unified Israel. After his death, the kingdom would be split in two.
In Solomon’s dream, he was offered riches, but forsook them for wisdom from God. This was odd, since there are examples in the Bible where material wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. Jesus picks up this theme of forgoing wealth in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 6:25-34 has Jesus telling the people to not worry about eating or drinking because God would care for them. Jesus even references Solomon in his talk:
27 Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? 28 And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. 29 But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. 30 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith?
Solomon is both a model to follow and a model of how not to do something. King Solomon has feet of clay. But if there is any gospel to be drawn from this it’s that God used Solomon even though he was imperfect. If God can use flawed Solomon, then God can use us. We can have the wisdom of Solomon if we rely on God.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.