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



If Your God Is…

If Your God Is:

For A Pre-Emptive Nuclear Strike, when diplomatic options still exist

More concerned about transgendered soldiers than collateral damage in Seoul

Speaking the same words about America as Babylonian, Egyptian, and Roman gods said about their rulers

Silent while the world stumbles toward unimaginable suffering

Always looking for someone to blame or kill

Your God isn’t the Judeo-Christian God.  You worship power. At the end of the day, you believe in doing whatever it takes to maintain the chaotic status quo. 

Your god (by your own reasoning):

Would have taken Jesus off the cross

Massacred Pilate and the Roman soldiers

Led a rebellion and revolution against Herod

Stoned the woman caught in adultery

Called down fire against Jesus’ enemies

 Looks nothing like Jesus Christ and the God we meet in the New Testament

1 John 3:18-20
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 

Fight the Power (Re-Reading Psalm 23)

How would you describe your relationship with God?  In what terms would you characterize how you and God exist together, with each other, in the world?  I’m not a betting man but if I were, I’d bet it wouldn’t be this:  “you know I’m like a dirty, filthy, wool bearing bovine and God’s like the hand to mouth living shepherd who beats my dumb ass into submission with a stick when I stray off course.”  I may be wrong, but I’m guessing I’m not wrong.  Despite this obvious and ongoing incongruity, the imagery surrounding the 23rd Psalm remains popular with countless Christians, devotional writers, and others who know nothing about sheep.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time around sheep would never talk about their relationship with God in terms of a sheep to shepherd.  As agricultural metaphors go, it’s perfectly designed for our sanitized culture.  We view nature and food at a distance, through the lenses of shrink wrap packaging and cute memes shared on Facebook.  The reality of feces, mud, and the sheer brutality of raising sheep on the steep hills of Wales, Ireland, Scotland or Palestine is lost on modern day readers.  When most Christians encounter the 23rd Psalm, we have it presented to us as kind of non-violent bedtime story that Jesus might have read to Mahatma Gandhi.

So what is this Psalm about?  Like any good passage, I see something new each time I encounter the Psalmist’s words.  One of my greatest fears in reading the Bible is to encounter reruns.  Reruns are fine for television, not for the Bible.  I like to read a passage I’ve read hundreds of times, know by heart, and still find something I’ve missed.  What are we missing from this Psalm we think we know like the back of our hand?   There are things we are missing in parts of the Bible we have grown too comfortable quoting, hearing, and repeating to others.

Psalm 23 is about power.  Who has the power and who is powerless?  How is power used?  What does it mean to be weak?  In a relationship of complete submission, where power is total, is there any such thing as freedom?

Power, as the Psalm indicates, is both creative and destructive.  The corrective rod and protective staff are ever before the sheep.  Continual affirmation while also maintaining the imminent possibility of destruction dominates the collective life of the sheep community.  This transcendental tension mirrors the individual engagement between sheep.  In our pastures, sheep do not exist in splendid isolation, unaware of the world or other sheep.  We create our own power relationships between each other, despite the shepherd’s powerful promise of provision.  Where all submit to the shepherd, some now submit to each other.

The sheep are allowed, through the shepherd’s power, to sleep, drink, live, eat, and bathe.  Power, as both Saint Paul and Michel Foucault noted, is the key to freedom.  If I am allowed to sleep, drink, live, and eat, what freedom do I hold?  The freedom I lack is defined by the power I do not possess.  I find no humanity, no freedom, and little hope in the words of the 23rd Psalm.  Yes, you may live in the Lord’s house, but at what cost?

The Christ-event is defined by weakness and powerlessness.  The 23rd Psalm stands in stark opposition to the events of Good Friday.  On that day, Psalm 23 wasn’t a feel good prayer to boost Jesus’ dying spirit as he hung from a Roman cross.  (Remember, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 from the cross.) Psalm 23 contained empty phrases which reflected the all too human preoccupation with power and control.  The Psalmist told a story of a God who should be not a God who is.  God wasn’t a shepherd catering a meal by a river.  Jesus wasn’t willing to pay Psalm 23’s price.  He was dying a miserable death and not because the Shepherd demanded it.  He was on the cross because the sheep insisted he be killed.  Freedom, when it came, was bloody and it hurt.  Yet, without the loss of Psalm 23’s idea of control, salvation still would be given out at feeding time, when the shepherd felt like it, because he has the power.

It’s time to re-read power, whether divine or secular.  Jesus did.


Food for Thought-Unquestioned Assumptions: Power, Truth, and the Wise Men


Every story, particularly those that center on the resolution of conflict (personal, social, international), needs a good villain. Villains provide not only a foil for the hero, but depth to the story and grist for the hero’s emotional mill. In many cases, the villain is the mirror image of the hero; as with Batman and the Joker. Both hide behind masks to conceal the tortured souls which motivate them to achieve power; albeit in different ways. The British novelist Ian Fleming created some of the most notable villains in 20th century literature. James Bond would be nothing without the evil forces which defined him. Bond, who was ethically conflicted and morally ambiguous on the best of days, was a hero by default, good because the others who surrounded him so diabolical. Perhaps the greatest literary villain of the past century and a half is Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. No two characters were more evenly matched in wit, skill, and intellect than two men. Like Bond, Holmes was defined by his struggle with Moriarty. Sherlock Holmes’ identity was built around the inverted parts of himself which he saw in his enemy, the professor. When good and evil join in a dualistic struggle to achieve moral supremacy, readers are more engaged and stories come to life in new ways.

Make no doubt about it, Herod is a villain. He is our villain this week. Far from being the caricatured creation of Christmas plays, Herod is someone we must meet before we (interloping guests with seemingly no idea of what to get a baby) get to find Jesus. I’m hoping to take him seriously because he takes Jesus seriously.  For us today, Herod is much more than a man on a puppet throne in Roman occupied Palestine.  He is system, a way thinking and looking at the world through the lowest common moral denominator.  Herod realizes that both he and Jesus cannot occupy the same physical space.

Like all good villains, Herod has an outstanding intelligence network. He not only employs analysts but he has human intelligence assets on the ground. He is actively searching for the birthplace of the baby mentioned in the Old Testament prophecies cited by his analysts. Obviously, he trusts his team to a point. Herod knows that knowledge is power. Yet, he needs to be able to act on that knowledge with the appropriate means. When we meet Herod, his ability to act has been stalled. The team of analysts has reached the limits of their ability to interpret the data at hand. Like America consulting Cuba in a delicate policy matter; those who come to Herod’s aid will be from beyond his culture, country, and tradition.  With Herod, there is only emotional manipulation to make us believe that compromise and coexistence possible.  This is what he tries to tell to the Magi.  This is what the Herod systems of today are attempting to say to us.

The wise men function on so many levels. Outstanding research has been done to explore the roots of the Zoroastrian astrological tradition and the possible background of these “kings”. Most of the meat on the wise men story was invented during the Middle Ages. What we believe to be true or factual about Matthew 2’s material was created by commentators a thousand years after the event. It’s a good story, someone thought, why don’t we create some names and back stories for these guys?

At the most basic level, we believe them to be holy men from Persia. They are not Jewish. They do not speak Aramaic or Hebrew, most likely. Mathematics and spirituality were probably their primary areas of interest. The bottom line is they were foreign, important, smart, different, wanted to know more about the new reality Jesus represented. Clearly, the Hebrew concept of “messiah” or anointed king isn’t completely foreign to them. They understand kingship. However, no one fully comprehends what Jesus is going to mean by the word. Even Mary, who’s heard from angels and wise persons about what her son represents, is probably not in a place to grasp the message. To be honest, it’s a message we’ve been struggling with for 2000 years.

The wise men come on the scene and they offer us with a choice. This is a choice which breaks into two questions that we face today. How much are we willing to buy into a particular system, story, or narrative of power? Which story, system, or idea of power are we going to embrace? Here are the options: Herod’s or Jesus’. There are many (such as Herod) who conflate the ability to dominate the world around with also being the sole arbiter of religious, political, or social truth. If you have power, money, weapons, the police, a military, or intelligence then you get to decide what’s true. People like Herod manufacture lies and through their power, force others to see them as truth. Herod, like all people in power, can also manufacture consent. He creates conditions (by manipulating the truth) so that people will do things against their own best interest. By acquiescing to the notion that power is truth and truth is power, we are complicit in the actions of King Herod.

Herod wants the wise men to see him as an honest broker, someone who only seeks truth. He needs the wise men to believe that his intentions for this child are honorable.  As the “elite” of one culture meeting with representative elites from another country (Persia); they would understand the ability to dominate others and remain in power is a truth (in and of itself) which is rarely questioned. Herod wants them to believe this no matter what the outcome of their search reveals. Even if their search leads to what we call “genocide”, it must be ok; because power equals truth. Isn’t that they way the world works?

What the wise men don’t realize is that God is going to break their identification with that way of thinking. You don’t find meaning in your life by handing over control of your life to someone else. We don’t discover meaning and purpose in life by accepting the conventional wisdom of the world from someone like King Herod. Until God breaks the connection between what they see in Bethlehem and having faith in the reality that power represents truth, their lives will not change. When the break occurs, after encountering Jesus, they see that truth is a defenseless child without an army, money, or an intelligence network.

Now, that they have encountered Jesus and the identification with truth and power is broken, the Wise Men realize their assumptions about Herod were wrong. If this story teaches us anything, unquestioned assumptions are the real source of Herod’s power. If we don’t question the assumptions we think are sacred, power can and will manipulate us to do evil things. Questioning assumptions saves lives. It could be something simple as fact checking or looking up a story you’re about to repost on a social media site. So many of the things I see posted on Facebook as Christian anecdotes which are presented as true are actually urban legends. A simple visit to Snopes.com will reveal the truth. While these stories may be interesting parables and make a moral point, they are not true. We present them as true. Aren’t their enough factual stories about what God is doing that we shouldn’t have to make up lies in order to convince people of the truth of Christianity? I would think so. Are we going to question the assumptions we’ve been given or keep spreading ones of our own? I would hope the former and not the latter.

Food for Thought-What Makes Jesus’ Teaching So Unique

1.  He asks the right questions.  Jesus knows how to get to the heart of the matter by asking simple questions that force people to confront the most basic realities about their lives.

2.  He doesn’t monetize anything.  In fact, he does the exact opposite.  He encourages his disciples to carry no money on the preaching and healing trips.  He takes money and stuff out the equation; two ideas that run contrary to society then and now.

3.  He says the things that are right even though you don’t want to admit their validity.  We know it’s right to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  We know our priorities are out of whack.  His common sense approach brings us around to being our better selves.