One of the joys of birthdays and Christmas is the receiving of gifts. Everyone enjoys having brightly wrapped gifts to open. Perhaps we will shake the package to guess what’s in it. Perhaps we have no clue and are totally surprised.
But sometimes gifts are not a surprise. Maybe we got a sneak preview when we looked in the hall closet and saw what we were not supposed to see until Christmas. Or maybe our loved ones asked us what we wanted and bought what we asked for.
It is always tricky when someone asks what you want for your birthday or Christmas. Sometimes we don’t have anything in mind. Most of us have a list of wanted items, but we don’t want to appear greedy. We have to factor into our request the approximate amount of money our loves ones plan to spend on us. We don’t want to ask our Mom for the new hybrid Toyota Highlander we have been admiring. But then we don’t want to ask for too little.
Solomon didn’t have that problem with God. In 1 Kings 3:5, we read, “Yahweh appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I shall give you.'” When God asks what we want, we don’t have to worry about limitations!
God’s question to Solomon is a version of what I believe is life’s most important question – “What do you want?” That question gets to the heart of our deepest desires and ambitions. What do you want?
So if God were to address you today and say, “Ask what I shall give you,” how would you respond? What do you want? What would you ask God for?
Our passage begins with a very brief summary of the transition of the kingdom from David to Solomon. Most of us are pretty familiar with both those names, so it is easy for us to assume that this transition was smooth and painless. But, in fact, it was far from that.
David had more than one son who wanted the throne after his death. And as we saw last week, Absalom did want to wait until David died. He mounted an ill-fated campaign to take over the kingdom while David was still alive.
But Solomon didn’t arrive in the coronation without trouble. In fact, he had to eliminate several key people before he could solidify his grasp on power. Joab had to be killed. And Shemei, who had once cursed David, was killed. And then there was Solomon’s brother, Adonijah who was his main rival for the throne. He had to be killed too. And it took the helpful maneuverings of the prophet Nathan and his mother, Bathsheba, to make sure Solomon was the new king.
So when we read our passage today, let’s not be lured into thinking that Solomon was an innocent young lad who stepped in quietly after David’s death. All of these stories are filled with intrigue, plotting, and even violence.
But this gory background is not even hinted at in our passage in 1 Kings. Instead, we see here a pious young man who seeks to be the same type of devout and beloved king his father was. Most of us remember Solomon only from these early stories about his wisdom and from the fact that he was the one who eventually built the Temple that David had planned. Though Solomon’s reign was filled with outward success, it was also characterized by idolatrous worship. It is no accident that the kingdom divides and begins the descent into destruction at the end of Solomon’s reign. It is a sad commentary on his ineffectiveness.
Solomon’s main shortcoming was his habit of worshipping at high places. Prior to the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, high places were acceptable places of worship. But Solomon will later build high places for his wives’ foreign gods and, in fact, made sacrifices there himself.
The other problem that Solomon had was the high taxes he put on the people and his putting his people into forced labor. His building projects were spectacular, but the cost to the people was high. They resented the heavy burden Solomon placed on them. So his reign was not as successful as we might expect.
So our story finds Solomon at one of those high places in Gibeon. As often happens, God comes to Solomon while he is sleeping. God says, “Ask what I shall give you.” And in verses 6 through 9, Solomon recounts the steadfast love God had shown to his father, David. Then he protests that he is only a little child. There is some debate about how old Solomon was at this point. I have seen figures from 12 to 20.
Then he says, “I don’t know how to go out or come in.” After what we know about Solomon, that seems to be false modesty. But the commentators say that the context indicates he is talking about leading an army in and out. Solomon was no soldier, but his gifts of wisdom and administration more than made up for that particular weakness.
Finally, Solomon says, “Give your servant therefore an understanding heart to judge your people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to judge this your great people??” The solution to Solomon’s problems as a young man suddenly on the throne of his father’s kingdom is to pray to God for wisdom. This is the first biblical passage to introduce this theme, which will become the hallmark of Solomon’s reign. The remaining account of his monarchy is peppered with stories of how Solomon’s wisdom made him world-famous and successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
It pleased God that Solomon had not asked for long life, riches, or the destruction of his enemies. So God gave him wisdom. Then God adds, “I have also given you that which you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that there shall not be any among the kings like you, all your days. If you will walk in my ways, to keep my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.”
Now there’s a birthday gift! The lesson is that we should also seek wisdom, and the other things will fall into place. Matthew 6:33 puts it this way: “But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.”
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I find it especially interesting that Solomon asked for wisdom above all else. This is one of the places where the Bible smacks of philosophy. Sometimes I find the Bible filled with philosophy. Ideas from Greek philosophy saturated the culture in which the New Testament was written. Paul and especially the book of Hebrews reflects very clearly the ideas of the philosophers about an alternate reality. The philosophers called it the realm of ideas and the Biblical writers called it heaven, but in many ways they were talking about the same philosophical ideas.
But here Solomon anticipates the whole of Greek philosophy when he asks God for wisdom. The meaning of the word “philosophy” is “the love of wisdom.” The philosophers wanted to know what the good life was. They wanted to know what makes a wise person, a happy person, a genuinely good person.
Socrates and hundreds of other philosophers would pursue wisdom as well. Socrates most famous line was “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But he also said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing…”
Seventeenth-century writer James Howell, put it simply, “Some are wise, and some are otherwise.”
Calvin Coolidge once said, “Some people are suffering from a lack of work, some from a lack of water, many more from a lack of wisdom.”
One Spanish philosopher said many of us are like a house with a great façade with only small rooms behind it. He said we need to be people of depth. That’s what it really means to have wisdom. (The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracián)
Someone has said, “Wisdom is a quality of mind, a way of looking at life. It is to see life both horizontally and vertically. As we look deeper we see that all life is connected to everything else and that in turn causes us to take in more – to see wider. Wisdom requires that we arrange what we observe and know and create meaning from it. It is integrative thinking that guides and directs our life.”
I suspect that we know a wise person when we see one. But we may not be so clear on how we can become wise.
A study of those people through the ages who have been considered wise will clearly show that spirituality is a key ingredient to becoming wise.
In an article entitled “Living Wisdom” Troy Dunn writes, “Abraham was a shepherd and an architect. Lao Tsu was an archivist. Mahavira and Siddhārtha Gautama were both princes. Confucius was a government worker. Socrates was a decorated soldier. Jesus of Nazareth was a carpenter and Muhammad a tradesman. Nanak was the manager of a store. Martin Luther was a monk, Gandhi a lawyer, Mother Teresa a nun and Henry David Thoreau was a Harvard graduate. All of these people have been recognized as being wise, but at first glance it seems that they have little in common. Yet, as we move deeper into the understanding of these individuals, we do discover similarities. It does appear that there is some sort of relationship between spirituality and practical wisdom.” (http://www.poetrybytroy.com/living_wisdom.html, Retrieved 8/16/06)
All of the wise people are ones who sought God. They were people who would spend time in prayer and meditation. They were people with profound love in their hearts and gentleness about their spirit. They were all selfless people.
What does it take to make a person wise like that? Solomon let’s us know that we must go to God and ask for those qualities. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach; and it will be given to him.”
Solomon became very wise and spawned the wisdom literature of the Bible. These are sections of the Bible that are devoted to telling us how to live. Wisdom literature include some of the Psalms, Proverbs, and the book of James in the New Testament.
In James 3, we find these words:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by his good conduct that his deeds are done in gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t boast and don’t lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, sensual, and demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition are, there is confusion and every evil deed. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.”
God gave to Solomon wisdom that is vividly demonstrated in the story just after our text for today. There were two women who came to Solomon, both claiming the same child as their own. They both were prostitutes, lived together and had babies about the same time. One of the mothers rolled over on her child in the night, suffocating it. So she surreptitiously replaced her dead child for the other mother’s living child. When that mother awoke, she was shocked to see a dead baby. But on closer examination she knew this was not her child.
So both mothers come to Solomon asking for him to rule between them. Solomon asks for a sword and commands that the baby be cut in two so that each one could have a half. One of the women said, “Yes, that is fine. That way neither of us will have him.” But the real mother, of course, protested and insisted that the child remain alive even if it was given to the wrong mother. Thus Solomon wisely knew who the real mother was.
If Solomon had so much wisdom, we should certainly learn from him. If a man like Solomon were to write a book today, it would be an instant best seller. It would be hard to get your hands on a copy, because booksellers wouldn’t be able to keep it on the shelf.
One of the books in the Bible that is attributed to Solomon is the book of Ecclesiastes. Throughout this book, he tries to find the best thing in life. He was seeking the good life just as the philosophers would after him.
This most wealthy and influential of men wisely began by observing that there is nothing new under the sun. Solomon continues with some thoughts on the attainment of wisdom. He writes, “I thought that maybe money was everything.” But he found that money wasn’t so great. He concluded, “You spend all your life accumulating money and things but you’re never satisfied and when you die, you can’t take it with you. And worst of all, after working all your life, you don’t know if the person you leave it to will be a fool and squander everything you built—your life’s work down the drain.”
He comments after that, “You may think climbing the ladder is great, but it’s not so great. There’s always someone above you.”
“So,” he continues, “I tried women. I tried food. I had all the best entertainment. But these things aren’t the best things about life.”
At the end of the book he reveals, “Finally, I discovered what the best thing about life is.” He then boils down all of his experience to one final thought, “After all my observing, trying, testing and sampling of everything that life has to offer, I learned that the best thing about life is to fear God and keep his commandments.”
The best thing is to “seek first God’s kingdom, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The thing that matters most in life is genuine wisdom. And remember what Jesus said about how to keep the commandments of God. He said we are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. That is real wisdom.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2006, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.