For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 7 – 1 Kings 3:5-12 (Related)
Oliver Cromwell was by all accounts not the most handsome chap in history. But when sitting for his portrait by artist Peter Lely, he refused the offer to ‘airbrush’ him up a bit, and insisted that Lely paint him as we was, warts and all. Once again our lectionary compilers have painted a glowingly positive picture of King Solomon in the snippet they have chosen from this story, whilst the two key words from the passage (one of which isn’t even in our selection) show a much more realistic picture, with Solomon’s warts and all. So we shall need to read wider if we are to see beyond the hagiography to the real person, who, we shall see, is much more like us than verses 5 – 12 would suggest.
The first key word is in v.5 – Gibeon. It’s easy to pass over it, but when OT writers give us locations they usually do so deliberately in order to tell us something important. So what was Solomon doing in Gibeon? V.4 tells us – he had gone there to offer sacrifices. On one level, why not? The Temple had not yet been built in Jerusalem, so Gibeon seemed as good a place as anywhere. But a little research into its background soon shows that it was a dark place, a place of rebellion, trickery and false worship. Whilst the text tries to excuse Solomon’s behaviour, there is still an underlying sense that this was a big mistake. It is in this context that God appears to him, not perhaps because of his extravagant sacrifices, but maybe to interrupt them. Furthermore, v.1 tells us another sinister fact about Solomon – he had used marriage to forge a political alliance with Egypt, the very nation who had enslaved and oppressed Israel for so many hundreds of years. The OT always takes a dim view of such alliances, and the verse sends out signals to us that all is not quite well with this man.
The sense of the section actually set for us, though, is clear and paints Solomon in a completely positive light. Like a genii God asks him to make a wish. Rather than choosing fame and fortune, he asks for wisdom to rule well, a highly commendable choice from God’s pint of view. Wisdom in the Bible isn’t like academic intelligence – good ‘A’ level grades and even maybe a PhD. It’s what the French call savoir faire, ‘street wisdom’, knowing instinctively the best way to behave in any given situation. Therefore it is an important quality in any decent leader. God is pleased with this request, and in his grace decides to grant Solomon his wish, along with what he didn’t ask for, wealth and honour (v.13). He is going to become ‘proverbial’ (see what I did there?) for his wisdom, the ‘patron saint’ of all wise men, and so he is to this day. But there is a catch, and it is contained in our second key word, which occurs in v.14.
It’s only a little two-letter word, but the word ‘if’ proves to be Solomon’s downfall. All God’s promises to him are wonderful but also conditional. He has to follow his father David’s example and remain faithful and obedient to God all his life. Two little letters, but they proved too hard for the wisest man who has ever lived, and his reign, perhaps like David Cameron’s premiership, has gone down in history as the one which sowed the seeds of a broken and divided nation which his successors were unable to mend, leading to the greatest North-South divide ever, and ultimately to defeat and captivity.
Maybe if you only read or heard the set section of this sorry tale, from verses 5 to 12, you were left feeling what a wonderful hero Solomon was, and how unlike mere mortals like you he was. But to read wider paints a very different picture, one which shows a much more human Solomon. Has our worship at times not been pleasing to God? Have we not tripped up over the ‘if’ word, and felt ourselves distanced from God because we have failed to remain faithful and obedient to him? There is a sense in which Solomon is no so very different from you and me as we waver and lurch through our Christian discipleship, reaching mountaintops but then crashing into the valleys below. And isn’t it exactly for people like us that God sent his Son to rescue us, to teach us wisdom and to assure us of the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us in our struggle against the ‘if’ word? Isn’t that exactly why we need both grace and the cross, because at the end of the day we’re just like Solomon, even if we don’t have quite as many wives?