King of wisdom or greed? Solomon’s story
Over the next four months, TextMessage will feature the writing of seminary president Lynn Jost, as he shares some insights from his doctoral study on the book of 1 Kings.—Eds.
We know Solomon as the wisest man who ever lived. He acquired more wealth than any other king of Israel, traded weapons, and built the greatest military-industrial complex of the Israelite empire. Solomon also cemented political alliances through his marriages with hundreds of princesses whose love eventually led him to reject Yahweh, God of Israel.
Despite this simple summary, the narrative in Kings is much more complex. From the first words, the narrator leads us into an ambiguous tale – inviting us to wonder whether Solomon’s rule is blessed by splendour or doomed by a double heart.
We read in 1 Kings 3:1–3 that Solomon enters an alliance with Pharaoh by marrying his daughter, but we wonder whether the marriage celebrates Solomon’s greatness or sows the seeds of apostasy. Does the list of Solomon’s building projects in the same passage witness to his splendour? Or does it demonstrate misplaced priorities when Solomon builds his palace before the temple – and both before constructing a protective wall for Jerusalem?
Solomon shows his love for God by walking according to the statutes of his father David. But in the same sentence comes the fateful word “except” – “except that he offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places” (3:3).
Even his inaugural sacrificial extravaganza keeps us guessing (3:4). On one hand, Solomon offers God a thousand burnt offerings. But on the other hand, the offerings are presented on the “most important high place,” a code phrase for unfaithful worship. The storyteller seems to be trying to disorient us, leaving us dizzy with uncertainty.
At this point, Yahweh God enters the story through a dream. Dreams were important in ancient royal enthronement literature. Ancient Near Eastern kings cemented their places by telling of dreams in which the gods offered security. However, this type of nighttime communication was rare for Yahweh. In the time of Davidic kings, God usually spoke through prophetic words. Suspicious or subversive citizens (and readers) might question if Solomon had truly heard from Yahweh God.
God’s invitation is simple: “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon’s request begins with some of the best theology in the Bible. Humbly, he acknowledges that God is acting with great kindness (hesed) as the God of covenant. This key word points to something beyond covenant obligation. God is behaving generously, reaching out to the weaker party in the relationship, acting with benevolent love.
Solomon’s prayer continues to express humility, referring to himself as a servant and a little child who does “not know how to carry out my duties” among God’s great people. But then Solomon reminds his audience that he is king because God has made him so (despite the fact – or perhaps because of it – that there is no report Solomon was anointed by people, priest, or prophet).
Next, Solomon presents one of the finest requests in the Bible: “Give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong” (3:9). The key word here is “govern” (mishpat) because Solomon is asking for discernment in administering justice.
Biblical justice goes beyond equality under the law; it creates a system that protects the disadvantaged, orphans, widows, and aliens. It’s not enough to enforce laws fairly; justice provides for those in need and defends the afflicted (see Psalm 72). Solomon asks for skill to listen for justice.
God is so pleased by this request that he promises Solomon both wisdom and, as a gift, all the accoutrements of royal power. For readers unfamiliar with the ending of the story, this is a great moment. Solomon’s desires are in the centre of God’s will.
However, the moment turns out bittersweet. Solomon awakens and realizes the whole episode has been a dream! And we know that justice in the time of Solomon will remain only a dream.
Solomon’s dream narrative can challenge us today. First, we’re invited to make it our prayer to listen for God’s ways of justice. God wants right relations, not just with close friends and coworkers but also with those in great need. God promises to give us this kind of listening skill.
Second, we’re challenged to avoid Solomon’s double heart. My public face demonstrates a commitment to God. But my shadow dream, hidden away in a secret place, may be driven by greed, lust, or violent anger. God works to bring single vision to us who struggle with a double heart.
“Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt and married his daughter. He brought her to the City of David until he finished building his palace and the temple of the LORD, and the wall around Jerusalem. The people, however, were still sacrificing at the high places, because a temple had not yet been built for the Name of the LORD. Solomon showed his love for the LORD by walking according to the instructions given him by his father David, except that he offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places.”