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David is dead. That’s how our OT lesson begins. The great King who reigned over Israel forty years, thirty-three from a united capital in Jerusalem, has been gathered to his fathers. And, we’re told, Solomon sat on his father’s throne.
The lesson then describes Solomon’s character: he loved the LORD; he walked in the ways of his father, David. This is, for the writers of the books of Kings, the highest compliment possible paid to a king. If a King loves YHWH, the covenant God of Israel, if he does not follow idols, then he is a good king. If he governs in the manner of his ancestor, David, then he was a good king. No matter how prosperous the land under his reign, if he worshipped idols, if he did not follow in David’s ways, he was a bad king. And Solomon, we are told, right at the start, was a good king.
Except. Well, except we already know that the writer of Samuel and Kings is not terribly enthusiastic about kings. He did think David was a great king, but he didn’t shrink back from talking about David’s sins in straightforward terms. David loved women. David loved war. And David loved God. David was complicated and kings were complicated and the writer tells us the truth about kings.
And the writer tells us the truth about Solomon. Solomon’s rise to the throne—in a part we skipped today—was bloody. David, before his death, chose Solomon to succeed him. Joab—remember him?—Joab backed Adonijah as the heir to the throne. Adonijah tries to curry favour with the new king Solomon by entreating him through his Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba. But Solomon smells beneath the overtures of fealty and friendship a plot to replace him. So, Solomon swears an oath in God’s name—God’s name!—to kill his brother. And he sends an assassin, Benaiah. And Adonijah is murdered.
Then it’s Joab’s turn. Joab, on hearing of Adonijah’s death, knows his run is over and he flees to the tent of the Lord—the tent that held the ark for there was no temple—and he grasped the horns of the altar. The king’s soldiers, who had pursued him there didn’t quite know what to do with this. They have orders from Solomon to send Joab to his grave. Joab is, very literally, seeking sanctuary in a holy place. What is Solomon’s order? Kill him at the altar. And Benaiah obeys again.
Finally, there’s Shimei, who had backed Absalom in the failed coup and who had sought David’s forgiveness. Solomon placed him under house arrest. And Shimei violated the terms of his arrest. And Beninah once again “pushes the button.” Sorry. I can’t help but think of this story in Mafia terms.
Solomon loved God. Solomon walked in David’s ways. And like David, he knew what to do with rivals, whether those rivals were brothers or friends of his father’s or beneficiaries of his father’s forgiveness. Solomon walked in all of David’s ways. And when the writer wants us to know that.
This is not Solomon’s greatest sin, however. The greatest sin is only hinted at in the opening chapters, but is explored in detail later. Solomon’s greatest sin was wrong worship. But the text says he loved God! And he did. And he worshipped not in Jerusalem, but Gibeon, the principal high place, as our text describes it. And he married foreign wives to cement alliances—the first one is with Pharaoh of Egypt—and even if he did not worship idols, his wives brought their religious customs with them and once there was a temple dedicated to God in Jerusalem, Solomon permitted the idols of his wives to be erected in it.
The writer is ambivalent. He is ambivalent about David. He is ambivalent about David’s son. He is ambivalent about kings. He is ambivalent about kingship in general. There, it seems to me, is a little bit of good advice that we should continue to follow and have in the backs of our minds as we may have to get ready for a provincial election and are forced to watch a national one in the United States. Christians of all people should avoid the political messianism that exalts one candidate and demonizes the rest. Because like the biblical writer, we should be ambivalent about kings in general, this king in particular, and about the very notion of kingship. For we know there is one king who has ascended. One king who in his ascension has cast a question mark and a term limit over the reigns of all the others. And that means, however seriously we take our civic obligations—and we should—no king will get our ultimate allegiance. Every king—just like every one of us—is a sinner in need of redemption.
But that gets us ahead of the story. For now, Solomon’s religious problems are only allusions in the text. A foreboding of the future, a future which will extend well beyond Solomon’s own reign. For now, Solomon loved the Lord and followed in the ways of David his father. And that means, warts and all, Solomon is a good king and a fitting successor to his Father. And the rest of our text lays out just what made Solomon great.
Here’s how the story is told in our text. Solomon went up to Gibeon to sacrifice—remember, not a good thing—and while there, God appeared to him in a dream with a command. “Ask what I should give you.” There is no greater request to disclose a person’s fundamental character. What do you want? If you could have absolutely anything in the world, what would it be? And this is not a fake beauty-contest question to which world peace or an end to disease is the obvious and impossible answer. What do you really want? Solomon’s answer is revealing.
What does he say? First, he says,” You made my father great. My father was a great king. But it was down to you. You kept him in your steadfast love. You gave him a successor.” Then he says, “You made me king.” Now remember, Solomon was a pretty shrewd and ruthless actor. He knew how to attain and keep the throne. Here however, he ascribes whatever success he’s thus far had to God. Then he asks. “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
And God’s reply? “You could have asked for a long life. You could have asked for wealth. You could have asked for victory over your enemies. But you asked for wisdom. So I will give you wisdom and wealth and honor and victory. And if you continue in the ways of your father, David, I will give you long life, too.”
What makes Solomon great? He’s humble. He’s smart. He’s wise enough to ask for wisdom. All of those things make him great. But not so great as to be beyond being human. Being sinful. Being in need of the steadfast love of God that embraced and upheld his father, David. And his true greatness lies in the fact that he knows this from the beginning.
This is a theme that runs throughout the Old Testament, and especially the Wisdom Literature—and the Proverbs which are often associated with Solomon himself. “Teach the wise and they will become wiser,” says the Proverb writer. And the story of Solomon’s request for wisdom is a narration of that truism. To recognize the need for wisdom is already to be wise.
Well, what does this story have to do with us? How is it the Word of the Lord for the Epiphany today?
I hope you know by know that like the author of 1 Kings, I have an ambivalence toward “kings” and I have tried very hard to listen with you to the whole text—even to those parts that the lectionary skips over, like the troubling deaths of Uzzah and Absalom, or the ruthlessness of Solomon in his accession to the thone—because those troubling parts are where the truth of the biblical characters and ultimately of ourselves is also told. We aren’t getting the whole story if we stick with David’s dancing before the Lord or his grief at his son’s death or Solomon’s prayer.
And that’s still true. Solomon is not given to us as an uncomplicated example. There are parts of his life—large parts even—that we ought not to emulate. But his prayer for wisdom is not one of these parts and it is a practice that the text does commend to us. Not because we really want wealth or victory or longevity and hope that we can trick God into giving those gifts if we ask for wisdom, but because wisdom is something to be desired for its own sake. Wisdom, as far as the Apostle James is concerned, is the fountainhead of all good works. And the works done in wisdom, he advises, will be marked by purity and peace and gentility. They will be full of mercy.
And so, as we begin to leave summer behind and prepare for another busy fall, my call to all of us is to make, as a regular part of our prayer lives, Solomon’s request for wisdom. I think those of us on parish council can even pray Solomon’s prayer verbatim! “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this, your great people?” That has been my prayer for the last year. It will remain so. Will you make it yours?