Sermon: Solomon's Wisdom Revisited
Preached on 8th November 2010
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
Solomon’s prayer for wisdom in our first lesson is a famous and beautiful story. The young king, unsure of himself at the outset of his reign, goes into the sanctuary, the place he senses he will grow wise in. God appears to him, and asks what gift he should give him. It’s an annunciation moment: when the angel comes, what will he say? Like Mary, he rises to the test. He asks for the only gift worth having: wisdom. How else can he govern this great people? There is a divine sigh of relief. God is pleased with his prayer, and gives him not only what he has asked but also what he has not asked: riches, honour, glory. And the story goes on to show how Solomon’s wisdom was such that Israel ‘stood in awe of the king, because they saw that the wisdom of God was in him.’
I have often spoken about Solomon to ordinands and invited them to make his prayer their own on the eve of their ordination. But as I revisit this passage, I find it more ambiguous than I had realised. I am not saying that we should take what literary theorists call a ‘suspicious’ reading of the story, as if Solomon is cynically praying for what he knows God wants him to ask for, calculating that in a world where outward show counts for so much, God will give him riches and victory and power anyway. The natural reading of the story is the right one, as our own instincts tell us whenever we undertake some new task we know we are ill-equipped to accomplish. And we should notice the paradox that Solomon has to be wise enough already to know that he must ask for wisdom. It is only when we know what we don’t know, the ‘known unknowns’ in Rumsfeld-speak, that we begin to be wise.
No, what is intriguing is how the author introduces his reign at the outset. He could so easily have begun with Solomon’s prayer, where it would so naturally have followed the decisive statement at the end of the previous chapter that ‘the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon’. Instead, he embarks on the chronicle of the new king’s reign with three not very subtly disguised hints that all is not happy and glorious. First, there is his marriage alliance with Pharaoh’s daughter. Compacts with Egypt, the land of slavery and death, are always disapproved of in the Old Testament. Egypt is the land Israel had left behind in exodux. To go back there and marry into Egypt is a betrayal of history. It anticipates what the text says later on about how Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh, who ‘turned away his heart after other gods’.
Then there is the reference to his building ‘his own house, and the house of the Lord and the wall about Jerusalem’. We might say that this is what kings do: they build palaces, erect shrines for their gods, fortify their cities. Yet here too the story foreshadows what is to come: that whereas it took just seven years to build the temple, no less than a full 13 years were spent in putting up his own house, with no expense spared. It’s meant as a clear statement that in Solomon, Israel had truly acquired a king ‘like all the nations’, as they had so misguidedly prayed in the days of Samuel. They had arrived at full statehood in the ancient near east, with all the problems a developed political society brought with it. And the order in which these grands projets are listed: his own house first, then the house of the Lord, then the city walls, is significant: king first, shrine second, the people and their safety last of all. There is already a hint of the forced labour with which Solomon realised these achievements and the heavy taxes he levied to pay for them, something for which the northern tribes of Israel never forgave him, and which after his death led to the kingdom’s fatal schism. Was Yhwh still king in Israel?
Finally, the preamble mentions that ‘the people were sacrificing at the high places’. The criticism here is the proliferation of sanctuaries up and down the kingdom. The Deuteronomic historian, as we call him, sees the high places or local shrines as a betrayal of the law’s requirement that in a covenant community of one people worshipping one God, there should be only one central shrine for worship located ‘at the place which the Lord your God shall choose’. And even when the text tells us how Solomon ‘loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David’, it qualifies it by saying, ‘only he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places’. Gibeon was not where a king should have been offering incense. He should have been in Jerusalem beginning to build the temple. But throughout the history of Israel and Judah, the shrines were tolerated because the people wanted them. We can conclude that Solomon is courting popularity by publicly presiding at what the writer regards as a forbidden cult centre.
So Solomon is introduced to us, not as the legendary wise and good king, but as a man already compromised in his public life and personal relationships. In this, he is entirely his father’s son, for the story of the golden days of David is also one in which the conflicts of his private life threaten to subvert his public role and destroy not only him but his kingdom. And like David, the storyteller is unsparing in his scrutiny of how Solomon’s reign ended badly, betraying the promise of his early years. No doubt the story is reading the ending back into the beginning: the overture is warning us that we must prepare to be disappointed in this man. And the effect of introducing Solomon’s prayer as the petition of an already compromised ruler makes us read the story rather differently. It suggests that the king who prostrates himself before God is not so much the innocent child as the wayward infant who already knows what will entice him away from the path of wise and discerning leadership. Leadership requires purity of heart and motive. Perhaps he already knows about the complexity of his inward life, the conflicted desires that could so easily get the better of him, the seductions of money, sex and power that corrupt even the best of leaders. Is this why he prays for wisdom? If it is, we should admire Solomon all the more for his emotional honesty. What else can purify his motives, wash them of the corrosive instincts for self-aggrandisement and the pursuit of pleasure that a king in the ancient world would have to be superhuman to resist?
Our society likes leaders to be either heroes or villains. We find it hard to accept that our leaders are flawed, and that their failings could be forgivable, and that those flaws could even be the raw material of greatness. The biblical story does not regard Solomon as unambiguously good; perhaps he is more of a tragic figure brought down by the flaws in his character, and in this he is a contrast to David who is portrayed as finding redemption from them. But I like to think that Solomon never forgot how his best instincts led him to ask for the wisdom to know not only how a king should govern his people but how he should govern himself. Governing ourselves is a task we all have to face in life, leaders or not. We know how we short of what the psalm calls ‘truth in the inward parts’. But our exemplar is not any human king, not even Solomon in all his glory. It is the one who is God’s wisdom incarnate, who comes to forgive our failures, and mend our broken lives and make us fit to serve him. In him, our Redeemer, a greater than Solomon is here.
1 Kings 3.1-15