After the brutal realpolitik of chapters 1 and 2 and the violent overthrow of Solomon’s enemies, we know that Solomon’s kingdom has been established but we have not yet heard that the Lord himself approves of Solomon. Chapter 3 puts to rest any doubt on that score. Solomon is the Lord’s choice, the Lord’s man and the Lord’s king.
But we begin with a question: was this alliance with Egypt and this marriage which sealed it in the fashion of ANE diplomacy a right and proper thing or a sinful thing. Many have charged Solomon with a grave error here and linked this to his later infatuation with idolatry said to be directly the result of the influence of his foreign wives (11:7-8). But it seems difficult to believe that the narrator is faulting Solomon in v. 1 when, so soon thereafter we read that Solomon loved the Lord and walked in the statutes of his father David and that God himself seems very much to have approved of Solomon at this point in his life. What is more, in the ethos of ANE culture, and, for that matter, according to the law of God, Solomon was not forbidden to take foreign wives. He could not, to be sure, take a Canaanite wife, but nothing forbad him taking an Egyptian one as, indeed, Joseph had done. Indeed, it would be assumed in that culture that she would take Solomon’s religion as her own. Solomon’s terrible mistake, eventually, was not to insist upon that convention in her case and the case of other foreign wives who were likewise the result of his diplomacy.
The city that David had captured and made his capital was significantly enlarged during David’s reign and would be enlarged still further and made much more splendid during Solomon’s.
“High places” or “hill-shrines” were an inevitable, constant feature of ANE religious worship. Every god had his hill, actually every god had his mountain, but a tiny hill or even a small elevation on a valley floor would serve as a mountain for the purposes of worship. Solomon’s resorting to them is presented here clearly as a fault, but one more understandable as the narrator has already explained that the central sanctuary had not yet been built. The continuation of the people’s worship at these shrines, even after the Temple was built, is of great concern to the author of Kings and consistently his way of measuring a king’s and the people’s full fidelity to the Lord or lack thereof. Solomon’s failure, as we will read in 11:7-8, had something to do with the continuing attraction of the worship that went on at these high places.
Solomon went to Gibeon because, as we learn in 2 Chron. 1:5-6, even after David had brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, the tabernacle and the bronze altar that Bezalel had made for use in the sanctuary during the days of Moses were still in Gibeon. Defective as his and almost all of Israel’s piety was in some respects, the Lord is pleased with Solomon’s devotion and appeared to him in a dream.
“Thousand” can be a generalization and probably here means simply “very many.” [Wiseman, 84] Not unlike the parent who tells his child that he or she has told him a thousand times to make his bed!
Solomon has his theology right. He is repeating what David had repeated before him in chapter 2. He knows that David was granted the promise of a dynasty because he was faithful to the Lord unlike his predecessor King Saul. Very clearly, of course, David’s faith and faithfulness were instruments of God’s grace not the reason for it or the ground of it, but still Solomon understands that he must remain faithful to the Lord if the blessing of the Lord is to continue to rest upon him and Israel. Of course there is nothing unusual in that: it is the message of the Bible from beginning to end.
The idiom “going out and coming in” refers to the skill of leadership and perhaps especially of military leadership (cf. Provan, 48-49) and is used frequently in the OT (cf. Num. 27:17; Deut. 31:2-3; Josh. 14:11; 1 Sam. 18:13, 16; 29:6; 2 Kgs 11:8).
Not only is the task daunting because Israel is the Lord’s people and so the king is directly accountable to Yahweh himself for Israel, but because the nation has grown significantly, posing a still greater challenge for the man who would govern Israel effectively. Israel was a much larger state at the end of David’s reign than it had been at its beginning. By conquest of armies Syria, Philistia, Ammon, Moab, and Edom had all been added to the territory Israel had to govern.
Here is one of many texts that connect the Davidic covenant – God’s promise to David of a perpetual dynasty – to the covenant renewed with Israel at Sinai: what the king must keep is the statutes and commandments of the Lord. The statutes and commandments of the Lord are the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai through Moses.
Solomon’s worship at the Jerusalem sanctuary was his response to the Lord’s promise and his grateful acceptance of it and confidence in it.
“Ancient Mesopotamian kings kept records of exceptional legal decisions which were presented to their deity as a report that they had acted wisely as ‘a just king.’ The detailed written arguments in such cases have survived” and we seem to have something like that here. [Wiseman, 87]
The Lord had obviously kept his promise. Solomon’s wisdom became proverbial and the evidence of God’s blessing upon him was available for all to see. We have here one of the most famous stories in the Bible.
Now, how are we to read this material and what are we to do with it? The fact is there are layers of interest and application here. We could spend our entire time speaking of Solomon the king as the predecessor, the type and the figure of the coming king the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ himself is the embodiment of perfect wisdom. You remember how the great servant song of Isaiah 52 and 53 begins: “Behold my servant shall act wisely…” In Luke 2 we read that as a boy and then a young man Jesus increased in wisdom.
But we can just as easily take the text and apply it to ourselves, for the king in the book of Kings is also the representative man, the exemplar of the life God’s people ought to live, the man who stands for other men. One reason so much attention is paid to the king and to his behavior is precisely because the people tended to be like him. If he had faith, so did they; if he did not, neither did they. And clearly here Solomon is being recommended to us as an exemplar of true wisdom. He asked for wisdom. And, as we read in James, we are to ask for wisdom as well.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who give generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”
Sometimes that text in James is applied as if it were a text about guidance – advice for when you need help in making a decision – but that is not the wisdom James is talking about as we will see later. It is the wisdom Solomon asked for and received. There is no doubt that the center of this chapter is Solomon’s prayer and the Lord’s reply to that prayer, Solomon’s humble expression of need and the Lord’s meeting that need in answer to his prayer. In any case, it is also made particularly clear that Solomon understood that such wisdom is a gift of God and not the achievement of a man or woman.
Now, as I’ve told you before, in the Bible “wisdom” (the Hebrew is חכםה ) is a specialized and technical term. It does not refer to the powers of intellect. A very smart man can be very unwise. It is rather a term descriptive of the art of living well. An artisan in the Bible is said to have wisdom because he can see in his mind’s eye the sculpture or the painting or the carving that he intends to make and can bring the finished product into being by the skill of his hands. At one point, Michaelangelo’s great sculpture The David was a large rough-hewn block of marble. But in the artist’s mind in that block was the form of a perfect man and with his skill he brought that image he saw into reality in the form of an incomparably beautiful statue. You and I could not do this because we haven’t been given that sort of wisdom, which is the term used to describe the skill of an artisan in the Bible.
In the same way in Proverbs 30 the ants and the badgers and the locusts are said to be very wise. They are little creatures, largely defenseless, but they make a terrific success out of life in what is for them a dangerous world. Nobody seems to be worried about the prospect of ants disappearing from the world. They are not an endangered species. Why? Why are ants so successful? They are successful because God has given them wisdom, the art of living skillfully and well, or the art of mastering their environment. “Wisdom” is the Christian word, “instinct” is the pagan term. As someone has said, “ants are the busiest of all creatures but they still have time to go to every picnic.”
Well, in the same way, a wise man or woman is someone who can see a godly life in his or her mind’s eye, see what it means to be good, to serve the Lord, and then, no matter all the temptations to the contrary that constantly beset us, no matter all the spiritual and physical obstacles in the way, the wise man or woman can bring this image of godliness and goodness into being. You bring that life out into the world; you live it – useful, fruitful, and beautiful. That is what a wise man or woman does. Like the artisan, you see the image and then create it. A man or woman without wisdom never seems to get it, never manages to connect the dots, never can see the connection between the choices he or she makes and the worldly and disappointing life that results from those choices. From the ground up the wise Christian is making a success out of obedience and devotion and fruitfulness under the blessing of God. Wisdom, in the literature of Holy Scripture, is the knowledge of God’s world and the knack of fitting oneself into it the way a godly man or woman should. [Plantinga, Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be, 115]
I see this, you see this all the time: on the one hand, people who make choices that are bound to cause problems and are then surprised and discouraged with the results. And, on the other hand, people who never get into the sort of problems that others create for themselves because, being wise, they live their lives in a way that eliminates or significantly weakens a whole set of temptations and forestalls many problems. I had a young woman years ago protest to me in my office that it was hard for her to resist the temptation to smoke marijuana because it was being offered to her all the time. To which I responded, “Honey, I have never once in all my life been offered a joint. I once had a friend come back to his seat next to mine at the old Kingdome and say that someone had been smoking a joint in the men’s room. And it occurred to me that I wouldn’t have known that because I didn’t know what marijuana smells like. The difference between you and me is in the company we keep.” As Paul puts it in 1 Cor. 15, “bad company ruins good morals.” That remark is a piece of Biblical wisdom; it has to do with the skill and the art of living rightly and well. The foolish man or woman keeps bad company and then is surprised that the influences of that company rub off on him or her.
Wisdom is the skill to take the ideal of God’s law and actually form it into a flesh and blood life in this world. That is why elders are supposed to have wisdom. And, according to Acts 6:3, deacons should have it as well. From the wisdom they have from God, as they have learned from his Word, from observing human life, and as they have received it in answer to their prayers, they are to be able to advise others on how to navigate the very tricky waters of this world, to live a clean and godly life in our toxic environment in the same way an ant lives a successful life in his.
In Solomon’s case, the wisdom he asked for was both the craft of godly living and the craft of godly leadership. But the wisdom God gave him, though extraordinary in its measure, is the same wisdom we are all to seek from God. Indeed, we can put the question to ourselves very simply: suppose God came to you in a dream and said “Ask what I shall give you.” What would you ask for? Well, you say, that would never happen.
But, of course, it has happened. In John 15:7 we read the Lord Jesus saying:
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you – the very sort of condition Solomon acknowledges as necessary to meet in his prayer – ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
Is that not pretty much a summary of this conversation between the Lord and Solomon? I don’t mean to say that God will make you a king with fabulous wealth, of course, but, for substance, the promise is the same in 1 Kings 3 as it is in John 15 or James 1. Obviously that similarity is supposed to occur to us.
So, what would you say to God if he asked you what you wanted him to give you? I hope and expect that for many of you it would be this biblical wisdom, which is another way of saying that you crave from the Lord more than anything else to live as becomes a follower of Christ, to live a God-honoring life, to live as Christ your Redeemer deserves for you to live, to live so as to be fruitful, to do something, to accomplish something in the Savior’s name while you are in this world. I know that many of you would immediately say to the Lord – were he to ask the same question of you that he asked of Solomon – Lord, make be as holy as a redeemed sinner can be! Make me the kind of man; the kind of woman, a Christian ought to be. Make me more and more like Jesus himself. Which is the same thing as saying ‘make me wise’ in the language of Holy Scripture. You want to be happy too, of course, and rightly, but you know that the happiest of all men and women are the wise ones.
What are truly wise people like? Well they are the people who seem really to love others deeply. They seem to care about others and to be involved in their lives in important ways. Others seem to treasure their friendship and instinctively to turn to them for advice or encouragement or prayer. They look to these people as an example and they want to be like them. They are the people who seem to order their lives in ways that make it easier for them to remain pure and honest in all their behavior. They are the people who seem to be quiet and at peace but who, at the same time, seem always to be about the Lord’s work and really enjoy being so.
Our problem attaining to such wisdom ourselves is very often that we don’t reckon with the fact of how far short we are presently falling of this ideal. We grow satisfied with what we have already attained. In this regard there is an important thing to notice in this narrative. As often as I have read this text I confess I had never noticed this before. Solomon prayed for wisdom. He was conscious of his deficit in this regard. But it is therefore all the more interesting that we have already read that Solomon was a “wise” man. David recognized this in his son and told him so, as we read in 2:9. Perhaps the very first mark of a truly wise man is his recognition of how much more wisdom he needs! That is true of Solomon and ought to be true of us. No wonder the Lord should have said as part of his profile or description of a godly man in his Sermon on the Mount, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – which is virtually the same thing as saying hunger and thirst for wisdom – because a strong desire for something, a craving for something like hunger and thirst, particularly something that comes only through prayer to God, is a prerequisite for the thing itself. People who don’t desire wisdom so much as earnestly to beg God for it, rarely if ever obtain it.
“What,” asks one wise man, “is a great life? It is a thought conceived in the fervent mind of youth and executed with the solid force of manhood.” [Alfred de Vigny in Stalker, The Preacher and His Models, 89] Well, isn’t it that just the way with the Christian? The young believer feels the force of God’s love and majesty and the greatness of salvation and heaven in his or her heart and mind. He sees, she thinks, what a truly devout life must look like. He imagines himself, she thinks of herself doing great things for God, empowered by love for him. But this life is complicated and proves more difficult than they had supposed at first. And when they are thrown off their early determination to live a radically godly life and when they grow used to something less than the true art of Christlike living, the determination to be and do more and more is soon spent and then forgotten. That is why we need to heed this already wise man, Solomon, praying for still more wisdom and receiving it from the Lord. And to that end we need to keep clear in our mind’s eye what it is we are to be looking for and praying for and working for.
Often the reason we don’t hunger and thirst for wisdom, and so pray eagerly and continuously for it, that we haven’t a clear idea of what it is we are looking for, what it is we ought to beg of God. We need the image clear in our mind’s eye. What would your life look like if you were twice or three times or four times as wise as you are now? What do you think it would look like? Do you have some idea? Is that idea clear in your mind’s eye like the David was clear in Michaelangelo’s mind’s eye before he ever put hammer and chisel to that enormous block of marble. Is that life as beautiful to you as his statue is to all who see it there in the academy in Florence?
Take this profile of a godly man. This is Paul Victor Mendelssohn Benecke, a friend of C.S. Lewis and a fellow Oxford scholar. I just happened upon it the other day and I thought it would prove useful this evening. As I describe him to you, compare yourselves to this man, not in the circumstances of your life which of course will be very different, but in spirit, in conviction, in temper, in behavior and in your priorities.
“Paul Victor Mendelssohn Benecke was the senior fellow of the college, a man thirty years older than Jack [i.e. Lewis]. He had been a “demy,” the Magdalen term for a scholar entitled to free tuition and rooms, and had been awarded first-class degrees, as had Jack… He had also received top ranking in theology. The grandson of the composer Mendelssohn, he was himself a magnificent pianist, but, though he had a magnificent grand piano in his rooms, which were, like Jack’s, in New Buildings, he never played it during term for fear of disturbing men who might be working. Another fellow with rooms in New Buildings, Dr. Hugh Sinclair, described Benecke to me as ‘the nearest approach to a saint’ that he had ever known.
“He was an extraordinarily handsome man, who lived the life of an ascetic. Indeed, except for the fact that he drank nothing alcoholic, a description of his habits resembles Jack’s own ten or twenty years later. He got up early in the morning, never missed a chapel service, and fasted on Fridays. He wore very old and ragged clothes, and during the Second World War, a time of fuel rationing, never had a fire in his rooms, [though he was allowed to] so that in winter his pupils had to wear overcoats and several sweaters when they went to be taught by him. During the period of food rationing, which lasted until well after the end of the war, he tried to live without eating any rationed food at all, until a serious shortage of Vitamin A made him quite ill. He spent his leisure in charitable work, volunteering to do the dullest administrative tasks, just the ones that most people would try to avoid.
“Jack always sprang to Benecke’s defense when younger fellows made fun of him. He was deeply influenced by Benecke and thought of him as the model of a sanctity that he could never attain. [Sayer, Jack, 111]
I’ve known some people like that, and I suspect you have as well. I mean people like Benecke in their concern for others, in their humility, in their splendid manners, and what are manners but just a way of expressing the fact that you consider others more important than yourself, and in their devotion to the Lord. And, I’m sure this is your experience as well, when I have met such a person and been in his or her company, as a Christian I have found myself wanting to be like him or her. I have felt drawn to that person and to that person’s life and have immediately wished that my life were more like his or hers. For a Christian there is nothing more arresting and fascinating and attractive than Christlikeness in flesh and blood. You may not be a single Oxford scholar, whose good looks and brilliance are commented on by all who know you; you may not fast on Fridays or refuse to play the piano for fear of disturbing your fellows, but translate such a life and that spirit into your own circumstances and what do you get? What would real and deep and great wisdom – the wisdom Solomon asked for and got – what would it look like in your case?
James, the Lord’s brother, a man who in his Jewishness had a very Old Testament outlook, defines that wisdom this way in his letter in the New Testament:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom…. The wisdom from above – [notice here too it is God’s gift not our achievement] – is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”
In other words, if you have such wisdom as the Lord gave Solomon and such as James tells us to pray for, you would have such a life as Benecke’s, but suited to your own circumstances, your own relationships and your own daily life. It would reveal itself in your marriage and your family – in love, kindness, thoughtfulness, meekness, in sturdy commitment to what is right. It would reveal itself in your life at work, the way you do your work, the way you relate to the people around you, in your fellowship with the saints, and in every other dimension of your life, pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, merciful, full of good fruits, impartial and sincere.
Christ was the wisest man who ever lived and see what that wisdom, that art of living, made of him: how kind, how thoughtful of others, how resolute in obedience to God, how determined to offer his life up to his heavenly Father, how faithful to his friends, how careful of his time, how devoted to his calling, how clever in dealing with temptation, and yet how attractive a person in every way. If you knew the Lord Jesus Christ, if you had the privilege of knowing him, I guarantee that you would have thought he was the greatest person you had ever met. You would have felt like we feel when we run into Christians like this from time to time – you would have felt “If only I could be like him!”
Solomon was a man who thought about wisdom and wanted more of it. He saw it as the be all and end all of his life, instrumentally speaking. If he could be wiser, he could live more as the Lord wanted him to live and serve him more faithfully as king. And in all of this he has set us an example of Christlikeness.
Now it is up to you and to me to do the same. To think about how our lives would be different if they were wiser in the deep, rich, biblical sense of this term that refers to the art of living skillfully in godliness in a world that is hostile to godliness, if we had such spiritual discernment as God gives to those who ask him.
You know the old Scot worthies in the 17th and 18th centuries had a doctrine they called “the secret of the Lord.” It went something like this. The godlier a man or woman becomes, the more insight he will have or she will have into the Lord’s ways and the Lord’s mind. So much can this be the case that such people can even get to the place where they can predict what is going to happen next. One of the covenanter heroes, Alexander Peden, was known as the prophet of the covenant because of his supposed ability to predict the future. Now, I suspect that if we knew all the facts we would probably be less impressed with Peden’s prophetic powers; but many people commented on them at the time and some in reflection afterwards said what you really had in Alexander Peden is an extraordinarily godly man who was a keen observer of human character, knew how the world worked, and knew how choices made by human beings connected to and inevitably led to certain results. Generally I think it remains true that wise Christians are able to see things more clearly. They can see the connection between choices and consequences, they can predict where temptations are likely to be found, they know what a man or woman will have to do to resist them, and armed with such knowledge of the heart and of the world and of the Word of God, they make their way through the world with an insight, an almost uncanny understanding of things that sets them apart from everybody else, even from other Christians. They never seem to be taken by surprise, taken aback when things don’t work out the way they expected them to do.
It is wonderful to be so wise, as Jesus was wise, as Solomon was wise, and so many Christians have been wise through the ages; artful in living, skillful in seeing the world and the godly life in the world.
You can’t tell me that our Father in heaven, looking down with an eye and heart of love for his children, wanting in them and for them nothing so much as a distinct resemblance to his Son, and hearing one of those children night after night or morning after morning or midday after midday on his or her knees pleading with him for wisdom, for holiness, for a life such as he would be pleased to see, I say, you can’t tell me that our Heavenly Father, watching his children burn the midnight oil reading books about the Christian life and those who have lived it well so that they would know better themselves what they were praying for and what it was they were after, I say, you cannot tell me that our Heavenly Father seeing those things and hearing those prayers will not grant to his children an ever increasing measure the desire of their hearts. He will grant it. Ask, seek, and knock. Ask and seek and knock for the most important thing and it shall be given.