Wisdom Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be (1 Kings 2)

If you’ve got a black list, I want to be on it.

Billy Bragg

The news is full of stories about the use and abuse of executive power.  It probably won’t surprise anyone that the Bible also abounds with tales of political intrigue.  In fact, they’re so interwoven with stories of spirit filled worship and prayer; it’s hard to have one without the other.  That’s certainly the case with David and Solomon in 1 Kings 8.

Here’s what I want to consider. There are moral lessons in this text which inform how we live, think, and possibly vote.  These instructions extend far beyond the supposed righteousness of Solomon or the holiness of David.  This is not a Sunday School lesson. It is a life lesson.  Listen to the story, who says what, and the missed opportunities.  There are some grand, gracious things said by God, David, and Solomon.  Despite the lofty nature of their rhetoric, what happens at the end of the day?

When everything is said and done, David is dead and Solomon is the new head honcho in town. So now what? If you’re thinking about an absolute monarch who believes he’s anointed by God, rules with an iron hand, a place where slave labor is the norm, and the taking of 700 wives and 300 concubines which should be addressed in light the me too movement, all because Solomon and God made a deal in a dream; then you’ve got a good notion as to what I’m about to say.

Solomon’s desire for wisdom looks great on paper. The words read well from the Bible and bring pleasant images to the mind.  However, when one realizes there’s no democracy, no independent judiciary, no representatives, nor free press to back it up; that it’s solely his interpretation of “wisdom”, the Orwellian nightmare begins.  The love at the heart of the Torah cannot be embodied in a people when a dictator, king, or despot alone seeks to discern God’s will for the totality of God’s people.

This is the moment Solomon becomes Solomon.  Simply say his name and it conjures up images of wisdom, power, and knowledge.  Solomon seems to tell us he wasn’t a gifted or natural born leader.  What we know of his reputation came to him externally, from God.  Solomon realized his youth and inexperience would work against him.  In one sense, the first indication of his wisdom was that he knew his limitations.  What does Solomon request of God?  “Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil because no one is able to govern this important people without your help.”

Nice bit of flattery there at the end.  I’m not sure how God takes to flattery, whether sincere or not.  Do we need to flatter God? Either way, this reminds me of a man on a desert island finding a lamp, rubbing it three times, and out pops a genie.  The genie asks, “I’ll grant you three wishes.”  This is the wish granting scene.  Solomon in his best, “Aw, shucks genie, I just want to be the best gosh darn despot of a small middle-eastern monarchy I can be.  You know my Pa was such a screw up.  I don’t want no money.  We’re filthy rich already.  Just make me good an smart with the learnin’.  I’ll put God is My Co-Pilot on my Chariot.”

He could have asked for anything.  This was the time to push for democracy, women’s rights, free and fair elections, the abolishment of slavery, or anything to improve the quality of life of the people who lived in Israel.  Solomon could have said:  let’s go back to the Judges system, I don’t need to marry women from all over Egypt and beyond, Building projects will destroy our finances and impede our ability to care for the elderly and have good elementary schools.

Yes, these are all things he could have sought.  No, he asked for wisdom, knowledge, and his ego.  He preferred to become Judge Judy.  God gave him what he wanted.  Israel still fell apart.  The kingdoms were divided.  Solomon’s wisdom wasn’t worth all it’s cracked up to be.  Even Solomon’s wisdom couldn’t make Israel great again.

Perhaps, when we read this story, we should do two things:  remember Solomon is a cautionary tale about asking God for the right to control others and the Bible says much about those who recklessly yield executive power.

Richard Lowell Bryant