On the Limits of Wisdom
Wisdom is wonderful! But it will only get you so far.
Just ask Solomon.
I Kings 3:5-9, 16-28
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 toward 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?”
16Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17The one 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. 23Then the king said, “The 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 the 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 judgment 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.
Last week we got a glimpse of David –great king of Israel, a deeply flawed man close to God’s heart. This week we heard about his son. Solomon as renowned for his wisdom, but oversaw the end of the united kingdom of Israel.
Since the Narrative Lectionary is moving so quickly, it might be a good idea to stop and take stock of where we have been and how we have come to this moment.
(Remember, you can always see the schedule of upcoming readings right here)
We started (on September 9) with the story of Noah’s flood –or, rather, the aftermath when God makes a promise to never again destroy the earth, a promise symbolized by the rainbow. Then (on September 16), we heard how the promise came to one particular family. God spoke to Sarai and Abram, promising to bless them and to make them a blessing. The story of Joseph (September 23), great grandson of Sarai and Abram, reminded us that God’s promise can lead to unexpected places. On September 30 we caught up with God’s people as they had become an entire nation, delivered by God at the Red Sea. And we saw how being people of God’s promise calls us to have tender hearts and nerves of steel. On October 7, we heard how God made a covenant with the people and gave them a law to live by, including the Ten Commandments. On October 14, we…had a guest preacher who did not use the Narrative Lectionary. (But he was good!). And On October 21 we saw how, when God’s people were eventually settled in the land God had promised, they had a king. And monarchy was a mixed bag at best.
This brings us to the story of Solomon.
The books of I and II Kings recount the story of first one and then two kingdoms, from the death of David to the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century BCE. Quickly told: Solomon inherits the kingdom from his father David and Solomon’s reign is the high-water mark of Israel’s power, prestige and wealth as a nation. But upon Solomon’s death, a succession struggle led to a civil war and the division of one nation into two: Israel in the north, with its capital at Samaria and Judah in the south, with its capital at Jerusalem. The rest of I and II Kings chronicles the histories of these two kingdoms, portraying the kings who ruled them and the prophets who tried to speak truth to power. Neither nation would endure. Samaria fell to the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE; Judah to the Babylonian Empire in 587 BCE.
And the books of Kings have a clear opinion about these events: God judged Israel and Judah for their disobedience. That is why they fell. And that makes Solomon a critical figure.
He gets off to a great start. I Kings 3 opens with a story of the recently inaugurated king humbly asking God for wisdom commensurate with his new responsibilities. And then we get an anecdote intended to illustrate how wise Solomon was.
But it isn’t enough to celebrate Solomon without remembering how his story ends: a kingdom divided and first step taken on the path that will lead to ruin and exile.
Why did Solomon get it wrong? And if Solomon struggled, what are the prospects for people like me? What are the limits of wisdom?
That is the question I look forward to exploring this weekend. See you in church!