1 Kings 3:4-15
So you need a new coat. Whether you go shopping in person or on line, you will always see other items on your way to the coats, or nearby the coats, that might remind you of something else you want. You may only need a coat, but you end up also buying a pair of pants and that new style of shirt you have been admiring. Or, you may need a coat, but decide to spend your allotted funds on something very different, like a new piece of art for your living room or a ticket to a concert. Discerning between wants and needs is an ongoing discipline, is it not? We try to teach it and model it for our children and grandchildren, and we continue to be faced with various levels of the same decisions throughout our lives.
The people of Israel did not have to do much discerning when it came time to look for a new king. They knew exactly what God expected of a king. The king was to have a heart for God, actually to be God’s servant with the job of caring for God’s people. As the people of Israel formed themselves into a nation, they wanted to be like other nations who had kings to rule over them. So God gave them the following instructions, recorded in Deuteronomy: God will choose your king. The king will be from your own community, not from another nation. He should not buy more horses than he needs just to look good among other kings. He should not acquire many wives or lots of silver and gold, because both run the risk of turning his heart away from God. He must keep a copy of God’s law with him, reading from it every day. He should respect God and diligently observe all of the laws of God. He should not put himself above other members of the community nor should he waver from God’s commandments. By doing all of this, the king and his descendants will reign for many generations over Israel.
So, King Solomon seems to mostly fit the job description for a king. He is from David’s line—definitely a part of the community. He seeks to stay connected with God the best he can before there is a temple to worship in. He offers an inordinate amount of sacrifices, presumably showing his great piety and humility. A thousand sacrifices? Really? Seems like hyperbole, just like we would say, “If I have told you once, I have told you a thousand times.” If he can be accused of excess, it is in the area of trying to be as close to God as possible, not in flashing his great wealth or his vast territory in front of others, like some kings are wont to do. There was one other area of his life which suffered from excess….women. Solomon is reported to have 700 wives and 300 mistresses, many of them from other nations. Again this seems to be hyperbole, and notice that the number adds up to a thousand again! Foreign wives helped Israel make alliances with neighboring nations, but Solomon eventually ran into trouble. Exactly what God had warned against happened to Solomon in his later years—“his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David.”
But that is jumping ahead in the story. In our text this morning, we find a young, inexperienced king trying to follow in the footsteps of his father David, the revered king of Israel who had recently died and left the kingdom to his son, the son of he and Bathsheba, by the way. (I often wonder why David is on such a high pedestal in the minds of the people of Israel when we all know the trouble he got into!) Solomon knows he is green behind the ears and he knows he needs God’s help to take on this job and to do it well. So he asks God for wisdom, or a listening heart, or a mature and wise heart, so that he can govern this multitude of people left in his care.
I heard a definition for wisdom that makes a lot of sense to me: wisdom is BOTH the ability to discern what is best (and we all know that is hard enough by itself) AND the strength to act on that knowledge. Just knowing right from wrong is not enough, is it? When we know what is right, we are called to DO THE RIGHT THING. Wisdom apparently includes listening, pondering, praying and then acting.
For thousands of years (and that is not hyperbole!) the world has remembered the great wisdom of Solomon. It is the adjective most connected with this king in our minds. And the example of Solomon’s great wisdom given in the latter half of chapter 3 is well known by even outsiders to the faith. It happened this way….two women lived in the same house and both had children around the same time. One night, one of the women rolled over on her baby during her sleep, and he died. So she put her dead baby at the side of the other woman and took the sleeping child from her. In the morning, the woman whose child was alive could tell the dead child was not hers, and the two of them ended up arguing in front of the king. After the women point fingers at one another, each blaming the other for the dead child, Solomon’s famous wisdom is put to the test. He calls for a sword and prepares to have the living child cut in half so that each woman can have a part of the child to solve the argument. Theoretically it is the compromise so that everyone wins. But of course killing a baby is not a win-win situation. Upon hearing this solution to the argument, one of the women says, “No! Let her keep the child, just don’t harm him”. The other woman says, “No, go ahead, let us both have at least part of him”. Solomon wisely gives the child to the first woman who was ready to give him up so that he could live. He knows she is truly the mother of the living child and clearly justice is served. People saw this as God’s wisdom coming through Solomon. God’s promise to make him the wisest king up until this point and the wisest king of all those who will come after him seems to be coming to fruition.
Not only did Solomon have a listening heart, he DID THE RIGHT THING. He was never going to kill a baby. He knew very well that the one who loved the child deeply would never want him to be harmed. He used his wisdom to return the child to his own mother. Can you imagine the reputation of the other woman after this episode? Definitely dragged in the mud, and maybe even worse!
God was pleased that Solomon asked for a mature and wise heart. So much so, that God promised to shower him with riches and honor and a reputation above all other kings, none of which he had asked for. He asked for what he knew he needed. Could it be that if you ask for the right things, you will receive all that you need? Asking for what you need is often very different than asking for what you want. What do you need from God today? Maybe it is not wisdom. Maybe you need a kinder attitude toward that pesky neighbor who lives behind you. Maybe you need peace among the people you share your living space with.
Several weeks ago, in our adult forum held at 10 am in the library each Sunday, we imagined God asking us the same question that was posed to Solomon in his dream: “What can I give you? What do you really, deeply need from me?” Some of our class members had a hard time asking God so directly for something for themselves. Oh, we should be thanking God in our prayers. Or we should be asking on behalf of others in need. Or we should be seeking forgiveness from God. But bluntly telling God what we most desire from the Lord of all, the Prince of Peace, the Creator, the Mighty One? We can get uncomfortable being so forthright with God, feeling it is not our place. But in Solomon’s dream, God asks him first: What should I give you? The assumption seems to be either that God trusts Solomon to ask for the right things, and will give him anything he asks for, or that Solomon, like many of us, has a hard time requesting from God, so God has to insist on Solomon making a request. What should I give you, Solomon? Just wisdom. No riches. No honor. No fame. Not long life. Not the death of enemies. Just wisdom. That is what Solomon truly needs in order to rule this people. He doesn’t have a bank of experience to draw on. His dad is no longer around to give him advice or guidance. The people are many. They need a wise leader who can tell the difference between right and wrong AND DO THE RIGHT THING.
Can you imagine God saying to you, what do you really want? What is your deepest desire? What can I give you? It might be hard to imagine, but I believe that God wants to hear that kind of a request from us as well, a request for the right things, the things we need to live lives walking in God’s ways, following God’s commandments. You can ask once or you can ask a thousand times. Just ask for the right things. You know what they are. Not the new car but the new attitude. Not an escape, but the strength to work on a relationship that is on the rocks. Not living to a ripe old age, but living well every day of your life. Not for someone else to change, but for you to change the way you look at him or her. God wants us to ask, to ask for the right things, to ask for what we really need. Amen.