A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar
October 20, 2013
1 Kings 4:29-34, 11:9-10; Luke 10:21-24
Solomon was not like his father David in many respects. Let us count the ways…
David was a warrior. From the slaying of Goliath, when he was still but a boy, to the eventual suppression of the hated Philistines – who sought continually to raid the Hebrew nation and create havoc for the people of God – David proved his courage in battle. “Saul has slain his thousands,” we remind you the story goes, “but David his tens of thousands.”
Seven years into his reign as king, David moved Judah’s capital from Hebron to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was a fortified city belonging to the Jebusites, who were rather fierce people themselves and didn’t take too well to the idea of having their city overtaken by their Hebrew neighbors. But David determined that it was vulnerable by means of its underground aquaduct. Using a brilliant strategy, his army secured the city with little bloodshed… not that David would have been hesitant to take human lives, if need be, for David was indeed a warrior.
Solomon was not. Not that Solomon was any more hesitant to take human life than was his father. He just generally had other people do the dirty deed for him.
One of the first things he did as king was order the execution of his half-brother Adonijah, David’s oldest surviving son. In David’s last days, when his physical frame was diminishing in old age and he was vulnerable to the cold air, it was arranged for a young woman named Abishag to be his companion. She would lie with David and keep him warm. Following David’s death, Adonijah asked, through his step-mother Bathsheba, if he might be given Abishag as his wife. It seems to be a rather simple, if not harmless, request. After all, now that David is dead, Abishag is, shall we say, “unattached”.
According to the custom of the day, Bathsheba had to make that request to her son Solomon on behalf of her step-son Adonijah. Solomon evidently took this as an aggressive political move on the part of Adonijah. And since Adonijah had proved not to be above doing such a thing as coveting the royal throne, Solomon took offense at the request. If Adonijah asked for Abishag today, he might try to claim the leadership of Israel tomorrow. So, to remove his brother as a threat, Solomon had him killed.
And he wasn’t through… not just yet. A political kingdom can be a very tenuous thing to keep, and Solomon had plans of staying on the throne of Israel for a very long time. At the outset of his kingly reign, he needs to set the tone for what is to come, and one thing he cannot afford is for there to be revolt in the kingdom. His father David had lived with it constantly – generally at the hands of his own sons – but he, Solomon, wasn’t about to do the same.
While Adonijah is barely in the ground, Solomon orders the execution of the ruthless Joab, the long-time leader of David’s army. Joab was the kind of brutal warrior who used the sword first and asked questions later… except that he rarely asked any questions. Joab had aligned himself politically with Adonijah, not Solomon, and now that David’s eldest was dead, Joab knew he was next.
And he was right. He had been around the political scene long enough to be able to read the signs. So, he ran to the worship sanctuary and grabbed hold of the horns on the altar, thinking that “sanctuary” meant just that… sanctuary. Not in Solomon’s realm. Benaiah, the commander of the royal guard, slew Joab with his sword right in the very heart of the place where the worship of God occurred. It may very well be that this is where the expression was born… “you live by the sword, you die by the sword.”
And Solomon wasn’t above vengeful killing either. Shimei, the old Benjaminite, had placed a curse on Solomon’s father David when David fled from his son Absolom during one of those revolts we mentioned earlier. Solomon told Shimei he would spare his life, but ordered him not to leave Jerusalem under penalty of death. One day, Shimei went to Gath looking for a couple of runaway slaves. When he returned to Jerusalem, Solomon sent for Benaiah again and Shimei was quickly dispatched. He had been warned, and Solomon, if nothing else, kept his word.
“So the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon,” we are told. And it proved to be a bloody hand indeed. Still, Solomon was not a warrior. He used other people to do his dirty work.
We were talking about the differences between Solomon and his father David, remember? David appears to have been more emotional than his son Solomon.
In fact, the one time David did not put on the royal armor and go into battle was that fateful spring he stayed at home. It was then that he spied Bathsheba bathing nearby, and was utterly taken by her beauty. Unable to rein in his desire, David got into trouble by committing adultery with his lovely neighbor, and covering it up with the arranged murder of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband.
This event, of course, was what led to the confrontation between the prophet Nathan and the king. “Thou art the man!” Nathan says, as he points his bony finger at the startled king, and immediately David crumbles into an emotional heap. The baby, conceived in the illicit affair between David and Bathsheba, is taken in death, and it falls to David then to pick up the pieces of his life. It is generally thought that David’s resulting remorse led to his writing Psalm 51, the psalm that says…
Have mercy on me, O God…
wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Solomon is the second son born to David and Bathsheba. There is no evidence that he ever felt the same way as his father when it came to being repentant of his mid-deeds… of which there were many. There is another line in the 51st Psalm that reads…
You (referring to God) desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Maybe that’s it. Years later, when Solomon petitioned God for wisdom, he only wanted wisdom on the surface so he would look kingly before the people of Israel, and come across as a thoughtful leader to other nations. Perhaps Solomon wanted to be wise primarily for the sake of building an empire worthy of his name. After all, much of his time and effort was spent in securing alliances with other kings and other countries, largely by marrying their daughters and adding them to his list of accomplishments. But what Solomon did not request, and evidently did not receive, was wisdom in his “secret” heart, that part that no one else, other than God, can see. Wisdom is one thing while being displayed in public. It is quite another when one is alone with one’s secrets. After all, wisdom has its limits.
We are told in 1 Kings that “Solomon loved the Lord” and walked “in the statutes of David his father.” “Only,” we are told, he made his sacrifices to Yahweh “at the high places.” That statement requires a little bit of digging. I discovered that there’s a lot of meaning in that simple word “only”… “only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.” It seems that Solomon worshiped Yahweh, the one true God of Israel, at the places of worship which had been dedicated to the foreign gods of his many wives. Somehow, those don’t mix very well, not in that place and in that time, and not in ours as well.
Nevertheless, early in his kingship, Solomon had a dream. God appeared to him and kind of like the genies of the ancient fairy tales, offered Solomon a wish. Now, even when he was dreaming, Solomon was no dummy. He knew his father David had had a good track record with the Lord. So, the first thing he does is remind God of what good stock he comes from. “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and 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” (3:6). Pretty shrewd, huh?
Have you ever heard of politicians riding piggyback off the good fortunes of others? When the next political season rolls around (wait… is there ever a time anymore when it isn’t a political season?), notice how some candidates, who are hoping to replace those whose track records seem to be favorable with the public (not that that happens much anymore), will campaign on issues their predecessor established? It is not unlike what Solomon is doing with his father’s reputation. He’s playing off of it and reminding God of what God had done for David, and then says, “Oh, and Lord, in case you’ve forgotten who his son is, that happens to be me.” It is then that Solomon asks for wisdom. “An understanding mind to govern your people,” is the way it is worded.
And according to the way the story is told, God is pleased, not so much with Solomon’s knowing on which side his bread is buttered, but because he doesn’t ask for the world. After all, he had God in a pretty vulnerable position… if there is such a thing.
God had not put any conditions on his generosity toward Solomon. Solomon could have really taken advantage of the situation. Instead, he asks only for one thing: an understanding mind, the Bible says. Or – and I like this translation better – “a hearing heart.” You see, Jews in that day believed the bowels were the seat of the human emotions and the heart was the center, not of feelings as much as the ability to sort things out… the intellect… and in Solomon’s case, the ability to govern.
When you read all this in 1 Kings you are given the impression that everything was fine until Solomon got old and that’s when it all began to fall apart. But look at the story carefully and what you will find is that Solomon’s rule was more like a slight ravel in the hem of a garment. It began early in his leadership of Israel, slowly and without much notice. But by the time his life was over, the garment was just about completely gone. Following the reign of King Solomon, his people knew 500 years of tyranny toward God, and it was his weak leadership, not to mention his thirst for large living, that led to much of the troubles.
Early in my ministry I came upon a book of devotions written by the late Dag Hammarskjold, former secretary-general of the United Nations. The book was published posthumously following his death in a 1961 plane crash. In his book entitled Markings, Hammarskjold says something that has stayed with me for almost forty years. “You cannot play with the animal in you without becoming wholly animal, play with falsehood without forfeiting your right to truth, play with cruelty without losing your sensitivity of mind. He who wants to keep his garden tidy doesn’t reserve a plot for weeds” (my emphasis).1
That’s Solomon’s problem, isn’t it? He tried to keep his garden tidy by reserving a plot for weeds, and you simply can’t do that. So the gold began to tarnish, the elegant buildings Solomon constructed began to leak, the wealth began to fade and the garment of his life became unraveled. Solomon’s leadership went downhill, and his legacy proves to us that wisdom definitely has its limits.
If God came to you with one wish, as he did with Solomon, what would you choose? Would you ask for wealth, for long life, for wisdom? What would you ask for?
After offering a prayer to his heavenly Father, Jesus turned to his disciples and said to them – privately, we are told – “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see… prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” Prophets and kings…
Do you think that perhaps Jesus had Solomon, his forefather, in mind when he said this to his disciples? “…prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” The context for all this has to do with the issue of eternal life. In fact, it is immediately after saying this to his disciples that Jesus is tested by the lawyer who asks him about life eternal. Jesus points him to the great commandment of loving God and loving one’s neighbor. “Do this,” he says, “and you will live.”
Solomon didn’t ask for that, did he? The ability to love, to see with the eyes of God, to hear with ears that enabled him to be in tune with the needs of others. Instead, he was intent solely on building a kingdom. What his wisdom didn’t teach him was that kingdoms aren’t built, they are given as a matter of the heart. And to receive that kingdom, one must open one’s heart to the loving presence of God. Of that, there is no limit.
Lord, when it comes time for us to ask something of you, instead of wisdom perhaps we should ask for the eyes and ears with which to see and hear your presence, not only in us, but in the lives of others as well. Through Jesus our Lord, we ask this, Amen.
1Dag Hammarskjold, Markings (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), p. 15.