I Kings 3. 4-28
An Understanding Mind…
This week and next the lectionary brings us to a small part of the story of Solomon—the son of David and Israel’s most politically and economically successful king. The account of his reign takes up the first 11 chapters of the book of I Kings. This morning we read just 24 verses—the part of Solomon’s story with which most of us are already at least a little familiar.
God comes to Solomon in a dream and asks, “What can I give you?” To God’s apparent surprise, Solomon doesn’t ask for power or wealth or long life. He asks instead for wisdom—for an understanding mind and the ability to discern good from evil. It’s as if Aladdin rubs the magic lamp and the genie pops out and says, “Your wish is my command”. And Aladdin says, “OK; make me into a good person”. The genie gets a puzzled look on his face and scratches his head. In all his centuries of genie-ing no one has ever made such an unselfish request.
“It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this”. I think, to be honest, God is pleasantly caught off guard. So God grants the king’s wish; and for good measure throws in the power, wealth and long life any ordinary person would have asked for.
Then follows the endearing story of two mothers who come before Solomon fighting over one baby boy. Like an episode of Law and Order, both women claim to be the boy’s mother. There are no witnesses—no evidence, to support one mother’s claim over the other; no DNA tests to make the truth obvious. It takes the king’s wit and wisdom to solve this unsolvable dilemma.
But solve it he does. When word of the king’s cleverness gets out to the people they are in awe of his skill and wisdom. A good start for the new king.
But it doesn’t last.
Because here’s the thing you wouldn’t know unless you read all 11 chapters of Solomon’s story. It appears, in the larger scope of Solomon’s life, that this was just about the only really wise thing he ever did. He was, it seems, a reasonably competent king—an able administrator, a cunning general. In terms of geography and economics and political reach, Solomon almost made Israel great; not Egypt, by any means, but not the Hittites, either. The kingdom reached its political peak under his leadership.
But wise? Not so much. Solomon’s personal failings marked him as a man who fell far short of God’s ideal.
We read today from verse 4 to the end of chapter 3—the good stuff. In verses 1 and 2, however, Solomon marries an Egyptian princess and brings her to Jerusalem. Moses and Joshua devoted their lives to getting Israel out of Egypt. Solomon brings Egypt—and the gods of Egypt, into the heart of his capitol city. In Verse 3 the king goes to Gibeon, a semi-pagan temple, to offer sacrifices.
In chapter 4 Solomon becomes insanely wealthy—mostly by taxing the daylights out of his people and sending many of them deep into poverty. Then he takes a census of the foreign immigrants in Israel and finds there are 153,000 of them. These are all conscripted into his labor camps. Conscription, in this case, is the fancy word for slavery. So just like our Capitol and White House in Washington DC, the temple and palace in ancient Jerusalem were built with slave labor.
In the middle of all this, Solomon goes on a marrying spree. He assembles a harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines—most of whom come from foreign countries as downpayment on political alliances. Most of these bring with them their own gods and religions, further corrupting the king and the people.
So here you have a ruler who loves gold more than almost anything else; who distrusts and abuses immigrants and uses women without end for his personal pleasure and political profit. Like I said—not quite the paragon of virtue God was hoping for in the man who would rule Israel.
Now all of this is interesting, and should give us food for thought when we imagine what makes a king and a country great; as well as the values and character we want our political and religious leaders to display. Is a political victory worth having if you have to be a Solomon to get it? Shouldn’t leaders valued wisdom and the common good over power and a long political life?
But I would argue this morning that, as useful as this is, it isn’t the main point of the story; because Solomon isn’t the hero in this story. There are, rather, two other characters whose hero status rises well above Solomon’s. We’ll meet the second of these next week. For the rest of this morning I want to focus on the real, #1 hero in this account.
Bible storytellers crafted their stories very much on purpose. What might appear to us to be a coincidence, a chance occurrence randomly placed next another chance occurrence, most often was anything but chance. So let’s back up and take a little wider view of what’s happening here.
Solomon’s dream of God’s offer to give him anything he wanted and his completely unselfish request for wisdom, followed by the story of the two mothers that illustrates just how wise Solomon could be, is placed by the storyteller right in the middle of things. On one side of this story Solomon marries an Egyptian princess and on the other side he lives out the rest of his dream as a money hungry, power hungry, woman hungry tyrant.
But this middle deserves our attention. The Bible opens, in Genesis, with the phrase(S), “In the beginning, God…” You might say it continues here with the phrase(S), “In the middle, God…”
Because God drops into the story right here—unexpected and uninvited. Solomon has already begun his downward slide. It’s going to get a lot worse. We can assume this God knows it’s going to get a lot worse. So what does God do?
God offers help. “Ask me what I should give you” God says. Or, as Pat Hitchcock used to say on her telephone answering machine message, “Tell me what I can do for you…”
This is a surprising, and surpassingly beautiful, offer. God interrupts Solomon’s downward slide with a word of grace; a word of generous kindness. Solomon doesn’t ask for this grace. He doesn’t deserve it and will almost certainly abuse it. Nevertheless, God interrupts his life with grace; with kindness; with generosity.
It doesn’t even matter that Solomon is bound to waste this gift. Grace isn’t given on the condition that we don’t waste it, you see. Grace is given because God is gracious. And grace isn’t given to force us to change our ways. It is given to invite and encourage and empower us to change our ways. Grace isn’t the end point of a holy life. Grace is the open door to life.
You may have noticed how common this theme is in the Bible stories we’ve read together over the years. It really is a Genesis to Revelation sort of thing. It’s the point of this little story out of Solomon’s long life and it is the theme that overarches the whole, holy story of Scripture.
Almost 900 years after Solomon’s reign St Paul, whose Bible was our Old Testament, would write in our New Testament that God is able to do for us “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). I wonder if he had this story of God’s offer to Solomon in mind when he wrote that.
So my vote for the # 1 hero in today’s story goes to the God who is Grace itself; the God who is Generosity and Kindness. The God who knows what we need yet has the humility to ask: “What should I give you? Tell me what I can do for you.” The #1 hero, I believe, is this God who interrupts our every-day-normal, human downward slide with grace; and who, if we insist on sliding further, insists on sliding with us.
Why does God do this? I don’t know. But it’s pretty clear, to me at least, that this is exactly what does happen to Solomon. Grace interrupts.
Maybe it’s because Grace is Grace, and it can do no other. Maybe it’s because Kindness is Kindness and Love is Love and they can do no other.
Maybe it’s because Grace sometimes “works”. Because when it is received—breathed in and given space to transform ordinary Solomons like me and you, the world does become a kinder place.
In the light of Grace, people we thought were different from us don’t look so different anymore. People we thought were a danger turn out to be neighbors who are just afraid, or hungry, or lonely. In the light of Grace the stuff we thought we had to have and hoard loses its luster. Generosity becomes possible; kindness more likely.
We could live with that Grace, don’t you think. The world could live with that Grace.
Let me tell you what I’ve been wishing for this week—what this story gives me the courage to wish for:
For each of us despairing today for the future of our democracy; for each of us despairing for the futures of our immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters—from the Syrians fleeing the madness of Bashar al Assad to the children separated from their families and kept in tent prisons in the Texas desert; for each of us despairing for the future of our fragile and damaged planet home—I wish Solomon’s dream.
I wish we might hear God’s gracious “Tell me what I can do for you” and respond with Solomon’s request for an understanding mind; for the knowledge of the good and the courage to resist the evil. And I wish we—the Body of Christ here in Mt Vernon, could breathe in that transforming grace; breathe it in so deeply that the Divine question to us is re-cast into our question for the world: “Tell us what we can do for you”.
That’s what I’m wishing for. That’s the world I want to live in.
“Ask what I should give you.” Imagine the kingdom Solomon might have built had he chosen to live out the Grace of that offer.
“Ask what I should give you.” Imagine the repair of the world that can be accomplish as we live out that same, eternal Grace. Amen.
October 21, 2018
I Kings 3: 4-28
I Kings 3. 4-28
4The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt-offerings on that altar. 5At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’ 6And Solomon said, ‘You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’
10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. 13I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. 14If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.’
15 Then Solomon awoke; it had been a dream. He came to Jerusalem, where he stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. He offered up burnt-offerings and offerings of well-being, and provided a feast for all his servants.
16 Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17One woman said, ‘Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. 18Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. 19Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. 21When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.’ 22But the other woman said, ‘No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.’ The first said, ‘No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.’ So they argued before the king.
23 Then the king said, ‘One says, “This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead”; while the other says, “Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.” ’ 24So the king said, ‘Bring me a sword’, and they brought a sword before the king. 25The king said, ‘Divide the living boy in two; then give half to one, and half to the other.’ 26But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—‘Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!’ The other said, ‘It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.’ 27Then the king responded: ‘Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.’ 28All Israel heard of the judgement that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.
A. Verbs are action words. They describe what is being done by someone or something or what is being done to someone or something. Underline all the verbs you can find. (You will probably miss some. Don’t worry about it).
B. This week we will answer the first 2 of our 6 questions:
1. “What’s the place in the text that fascinates you, bothers you, troubles you thrills you, haunts you, angers you, gladdens you or otherwise jumps up to meet you?” (Rehearsing Scripture, pg 86). Write out that word, phrase or verse here: ____________________________________________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________________________
2. Why does it get you? Why the strong reaction? Hint: It might be because you’ve been in a similar situation, made the same mistake, felt the same blessing. Pay attention to your feelings and answer the “Why?” question here: _______________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________
This week we’ll pay a little more attention to the particular verbs that caught our attention
2.a Write out the verbs in that part of the story that grabbed you _____________________________
2.b Indicate the tense of your verbs? (past, present or future—did it happen, is it happening now, is it going to happen?) _____________________________________________________________________
2.c Who is doing the action described in your verbs and who is the action being done to?____________
2.d What feelings or emotions do your verbs evoke in you? (Think about times or places in your own life when you experienced these verbs (the actions they describe).
Don’t over think this process. It should be fun, rather than difficult. All you’re doing in this first week is looking at the words in the text. You’ll do the interpreting next week.
Bring the results of your study to class on Sunday and we’ll start talking over what we find before moving into the second half of our study on October 14.