The Wisdom of Wanting Wisdom
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Professional promotions often engender awkward and strained relationships between leaders and their subordinates. Inexperienced new bosses attempting to supervise their former colleagues tend to swing back and forth between ironfisted control on one hand and sweet camaraderie on the other. That’s why the military routinely transfers new officers to a different unit from the one they served in. To adapt a phrase from Jesus, it is necessary that new leaders gain experience, “but woe unto them” through whom they gain that experience (Luke 17:1).
In this week’s passage we are introduced to a young, inexperienced leader who sincerely wanted God’s guidance as he transitioned into his new position. At age twenty, Solomon was promoted to a position that called for a level of maturity he knew he did not possess. Of course, the mere recognition of his immaturity demonstrated that young Solomon already possessed unusually good judgment. “I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in” (1 Kings 3:7b). It takes a certain amount of wisdom to recognize our deficiency and humbly seek after a supplement.
God obviously appreciated Solomon’s request for wisdom. “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.” So God not only granted the wisdom Solomon asked for, he threw in the riches and fame Solomon did not ask for. Here is an Old Testament example of a New Testament principle. “Strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (Luke 12:31). These other “things” were more than just a reward for requesting wisdom. They resulted from the wisdom Solomon received. They grew out of the wise decisions he made early in his reign. Solomon structured and administrated his kingdom in a manner that naturally produced financial and political success.
We are all acquainted with the prosperity gospel, which attempts to use God in the accomplishment of selfish, personal objectives. That is not the lesson modeled in this passage. In fact, we have just the opposite. Solomon’s objective was to be the best possible leader of God’s people. He essentially asked for a gift that would benefit others. Solomon’s objective was not so much to become a great king, but rather, to become a great servant. In the process of pursuing this objective, he became both.
Solomon is most famous for his material prosperity. But his religious accomplishments were even farther reaching and longer lasting. The moral failures of his later life do not negate the significance of his spiritual successes in early life. Solomon’s temple became the nucleus around which Judaism was to develop. The sacred writings associated with Solomon are at the center of Old Testament wisdom literature.
These are the accomplishments of Solomon that most directly carried out the counsel of his father, David. David’s conception of success was that of keeping the statutes, commandments, ordinances, and testimonies laid out in the five books of Moses. The scripture was to be Solomon’s sourcebook. It contained the principles by which he was to rule. Advice like that which David gave his son sounds simple enough, but attempting to carry it out can be exceedingly complex. It takes a great deal of wisdom and judgment to discern the principles behind an ancient text and apply them in a contemporary setting.
Solomon was challenged to live and govern by scriptures that had been passed down to him from another time. They were ancient words even in his day—words from a world long gone. The Law of Moses had been given to people living in a completely different cultural, economic, and political situation. These people were Solomon’s ancestors, but their lives had little in common with his. The world had changed. The descendants of Abraham were now living in the land God had promised to Abraham in Genesis, but there was little there that Abraham would have recognized. Entire social groups had come and gone. National boundaries had changed. Cities had been rebuilt, destroyed, and rebuilt again.
How was Solomon to take a revelation given to his ancestors in one world and apply it to the people living in his world? That is essentially the same question we preachers must wrestle with every time we prepare a sermon. It was hard work for Solomon, and it is hard work for us. But it is just the kind of work God wants to help us with because it is God’s work. When we sincerely ask for spiritual discernment in preaching we are actually asking for a wisdom that will benefit others.
Give me an understanding heart. That is the kind of prayer God delights to answer. That is the kind of motive God can work through. That is the kind of person Solomon was, and God was ready and willing to work through him. The fame and fortune God bestowed on Solomon was an indication that God wanted him to do well. It seemed that the better Solomon did the more God was glorified. For example, 1 Kings 10:9 says that when the Queen of Sheba beheld Solomon’s wisdom and wealth she went away praising the God of Israel. The writers of both Kings and Chronicles presented Solomon’s fame and fortune as a glorious testimony to the faithfulness of God in keeping God’s promises. A similar theme emerges early in the story of Abraham. God’s original promise was “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing . . . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3). The blessings of God (both spiritual and material) are given to us that they might be passed onto others through us.
We are wise to remember this principle when we pray. James teaches us that selfish prayers are largely ineffective. Moreover, our prayers reveal our priorities. We naturally pray for the things that are most important to us. Solomon’s prayer for wisdom demonstrated that God’s priorities were his priorities. God wanted a wise leader to guide his people. And more than anything else in the world, Solomon wanted to be that wise leader. Leaders like Solomon make great kings and great ministers because they are great servants. The desire for wisdom is the first step toward greatness. May God grant us the wisdom to want most what his people need most.