by Rev. Jason Radmacher
Text: 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
The opening chapters of the book called First Kings describe a chaotic scramble that decided who would follow David as Israel’s king. These chapters tell us how one of David’s sons, Prince Adonijah, declared himself king while his father was still alive, only to have his plans undone by the prophet Nathan, Bathsheba, and Solomon, Bathsheba’s son. Then, in a chapter that reads as though it could’ve been the inspiration for the iconic baptism scene in The Godfather, we see how Solomon eliminated his rivals, settled some old scores, and consolidated his power. He even ordered the death of Shimei, the dirt throwing curser of David we met last week. These were the troubling circumstances of Solomon’s elevation.
After these things, Solomon went on to become a mighty king. He established numerous alliances that brought Israel and its leader unprecedented wealth. He built a fleet of trading ships, an army of chariots, and, most famously, the Temple in Jerusalem. Solomon truly put his father’s old kingdom on the map.
According to the historian Michael Grant, with Solomon on the throne “for the first time Israel had been brought fully into the mainstream of near-eastern big business and diplomacy, as the accounts (even if exaggerated) of his 700 wives and 300 concubines, many of the foreign, effectively confirm.” (p. 88)
Students of the Bible will also recall that Solomon’s name became synonymous with wisdom. Three books of the Bible’s wisdom library are linked to him—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs—as is another ancient book of popular sayings known simply as The Wisdom of Solomon. Stories of Solomon’s thoughtful and prudent judgments abound.
Like his walking contradiction of a father, however, Solomon had a knack for pursuing his own desires, rather than God’s purposes. His wealth became disorienting; his alliances a distraction; and, even in the age of polygamy, his sexual escapades a sign of embarrassing excess. Although exceedingly wise, the king often acted very foolishly and his most foolish decisions set the stage for his nation to fall apart when he died.
In all the chapters written about Solomon, no passage depicts his tragic flaw as succinctly as words we’ve read this morning.
Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.
This is a reference to Solomon’s worship of other gods and idols, a practice frowned upon in the Bible, to say the least.
It’s literally the thing forbidden in the First Commandment, isn’t it?
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
Saying that Solomon loved the LORD, but worshiped other gods, therefore, makes as much sense as saying to your best friend “Sure, I lied straight to your face, but think of all the times I was honest.”
The break from virtue sort of colors our impression of the whole relationship and, in the case of Solomon, colors our impression of wisdom itself.
Given the circumstances of the wise king’s reign, then, a few questions come to mind.
If Solomon was so wise, how did he get something so basic so wrong?
If wisdom didn’t offer its greatest practitioner protection from such a colossal error of judgment, then what purpose does wisdom serve?
Questions like these lead us to a deeper exploration of the biblical story where we discover that the bonds between wisdom and virtue aren’t as strong as we might think—as we might hope.
Ever since they heard the Word of God in a story about the crafty serpent who used his insights into Adam and Eve’s weaknesses to lead them into temptation, our ancestors knew that to be wise was to understand what made people tick, but understanding what makes people tick is no guarantee that one has their best interests in mind.
Think about it. Think about all the energy given to understanding human behavior, all the parties that have an interest in understanding you.
A potential suitor wants to understand you so that he or she can woo you.
A marketing department wants to understand you so that they can sale you something.
I want to understand you so that I can communicate the Gospel to you more clearly.
Others might want to understand you so that they can tune you in or turn you off to a cause or a way of thinking.
In this way, wisdom is simply a tool and it’s up to the wise person to employ that tool to do good or to cause harm; to inspire others to do works of justice and mercy, to convince us that we really need to buy a new product, to distract us from important matters with a never ending parade of click-bait.
Wisdom is quite a weapon in the hands of a fool.
King Solomon falls into this camp. He absolutely knew what made people tick and was incredibly adept at motivating them to do his bidding. In many ways, that made him a successful, popular, and rich head of state. He was wise, but when his virtue wore thin, his judgment suffered and he “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.”
Wise until the end, nevertheless, the Bible says Solomon’s “heart had turned away” from God.
For those who truly aspire to live righteously and honorably before God, Solomon’s story is a sobering reminder of wisdom’s limitations. However, this isn’t to say that Christians should be mindless and ignorant fools. Far from it!
Rather, the news of wisdom’s limitations calls us to recognize that a catalyst—an active ingredient—must be added to life’s wisdom in order to unleash its true potential and give direction to our labor, our judgments, our lives.
That catalyst is love.
When Jesus commissioned the apostles he said, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Sharpen your mind and soften your heart for work in God’s kingdom, the Savior seemed to say.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
That’s how Saint Paul began the passage destined to become the most quoted thing he ever wrote.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
But when we pursue love, when love is present—the All-Excelling Love of God—we gain life in the fullest, Good News to proclaim, and a mission of service to a hurting and exploited world.
Solomon had a gift, of this there can be no doubt, but his gift—his wisdom—like any gift we’ve ever given or received— was subject to abuse, misuse, and being taken for granted.
His gift, just as it is with all that we possess, needed a catalyst—an active ingredient—to unleash its true potential and give direction to his labor, his judgments, his life.
That catalyst is love—Holy Love, perfectly revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the love that abides, the love that will not let us go.
So let us be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.
Let us be sharp-minded and tenderhearted.
And let us always give thanks for the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen.