A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, July 27, 2014
Text: 1 Kings 3:3-15
You know the old stories. An unlikely hero finds a tarnished lamp and, while polishing it, a genie magically appears, pledging to do our hero’s bidding – up to a point. Sometimes this leads to prosperity, a beautiful partner and living happily ever after; sometimes to disaster. Of course, there’s a rich humorous tradition in which the genie offers three wishes, some or all of which are wasted in thoughtless utterance or foolish desires. Take a minute to imagine, if a genie offered you three wishes, what would they be?
Now I am not trying to make God a genie who appears when we rub some magic lamp to grant us a wish or three. In fact, I think this morning’s text ultimately says the opposite, but on a superficial reading don’t these verses lean a little toward that old magical tradition? In a dream, God comes to Solomon with an open invitation to ask for some gift that God might give him. At best, Solomon is wise in exercising his request; at worst, he is cunning.
Let me explain. I confess I was not as familiar with Solomon’s story as that of his father David. Basically, I had understood that David had united the tribes of Israel into a substantial nation and that Solomon had solidified and expanded the nation. Tradition teaches that the combined rule of David and Solomon was Israel’s golden age. Never before or after would it be as strong and influential as it was during those days.
We’ve all heard of the “wisdom of Solomon.” It’s become a common phrase to describe someone or some group exhibiting exceptional wisdom. The famous example of Solomon’s wisdom comes in the passage immediately following today’s text. Here he settles the dispute between two women over who is the mother of an infant. Remember he cleverly suggests dividing the child in two parts so that each woman can have half. Of course, the one we presume to be the real mother refuses the solution, choosing the child’s life over her parental claim. Solomon is also credited with writing much of the great wisdom literature in the Hebrew Scripture, including Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) as well as one of the books of the Apocrypha actually entitled Wisdom of Solomon.
But I want to suggest that Solomon’s story is really a tragic tale and that much of that tragedy centers on the quest for an understanding heart. When the quest is pursued with commitment, it is fulfilled; when it is neglected the results are tragic. And so it seems for Solomon.
Solomon is the son of David and Bathsheba. In the line of succession, the throne should not be his. David has older sons to succeed their father. It is true that, in the palace intrigues and bloody battles that run throughout David’s reign, his oldest sons, Amnon and Absalom are dead, but there are a number of living brothers and half brothers. The elderly David, perhaps suffering from senility, is persuaded by Bathsheba and his chief advisor, the prophet Nathan, to give the crown to Solomon.
If you want a little perspective on ancient political intrigue, go back and read the first two chapters of 1 Kings in which David instructs Solomon on how to get rid of his enemies. Solomon begins to consolidate his own power to rule by eliminating several threats. The dream that opens chapter three could as easily have been a nightmare a la MacBeth, with the blood this time on Solomon’s hands.
However, that is not the way this story unfolds. Perhaps in a moment of dream-like remorse for the bloody beginning of his reign, Solomon sees God coming to him, inviting him to ask God for what he really needs to rule his people and his nation. Is the young king truly desirous of ruling wisely and well? Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.
In his nocturnal encounter with the Holy he could have asked for his father’s military cunning and hunger for power and control or some form of invincibility. If you were to poll our Tuesday Bible study group, you would pretty much get agreement that David was a scoundrel. There are too many skeletons in his closet and too much blood on his hands for us to elevate him to the great ideal that the Hebrew Scriptures do. We might praise a symbolic David as a messianic figure but it’s hard to see the real person in quite that light.
So I imagine that, in this dream, Solomon has a moment of repentance for having started down his father’s track. He recognizes that it is not the way he wants to rule. When God gives him the opportunity, he asks for an “understanding mind.” In Hebrew the word is a “listening heart.” The Message reads “a God-listening heart.” Other translations are “a discerning mind,” “an understanding heart,” “a discerning heart,” “an understanding mind and a hearing heart.” Rather than requesting power or wealth or longevity, the text says Solomon longs for wisdom.
It should be noted that Solomon seems keenly aware of the power of God’s hesed, God’s great and steadfast love for David and for the children of Israel. Though we might question the breadth and depth of David’s actual faithfulness, righteousness and uprightness of heart, Solomon recognizes these qualities as desirable in a king. In fairness, there are moments in which David exhibited these qualities. For whatever reasons, warts and all, God loved David and Solomon desired this same gracious love in his own life and reign.
If nothing else, Solomon knew the right things to say in the moment; God is pleased. Because he asked God for a discerning mind and a listening heart, God also promised him riches, honor and long life. Of course, this text was written well after Solomon lived, so the promises can be seen as an anachronistic account of what Solomon’s life and reign were actually like. This text has been used to support the so-called “prosperity gospel” – do right and God will bless you. As we well know, those blessings will not always be riches, honor or long life. God has ways to bless our faithfulness that are far more than earthly success.
The tragic end of Solomon’s story may be that he lives too long. In any event, 1 Kings 11 tells it this way, “King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the Israelites, ‘You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods’; Solomon clung to these in love. Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God” (1 Kings 11:1-4).
The problem, amazingly enough, is not 700 wives and 300 concubines, as exhausting as that may seem. The problem is the turning of the heart. Whether or not you want to blame it on all those women – that seems to be an unfortunate biblical practice doesn’t it? beginning with Adam and Eve – Solomon seems to forego this understanding heart for which he had prayed and which God had graciously given. In the end, all his riches and glory and honor were lost. His heirs, battling for control of the kingdom, eventually tore it apart.
What is striking to me about this ancient tale is the importance of the discerning mind, the listening heart. Much is gained and much is lost according to the understanding of our hearts and minds. The words from the Message may be the most meaningful here, for those who lead as well as for us: “Here’s what I want: Give me a God-listening heart so I can lead your people well, discerning the difference between good and evil.”
I want to pray this prayer, shout this word in the presence of every person in this world who has responsibility for the well-being of others and of the planet. Give them God-listening consciousness, discerning minds, understanding hearts. Help them see that we are all in this together and if we cannot find ways to live in peace and harmony with love and justice, we will tear the world apart in our lust for power and wealth, self-righteousness and control. An understanding heart will know the need to live and work together as sisters and brothers, children of an ageless Parent who continues to offer us great and steadfast love if we would just accept it.
Give me a God-listening consciousness, give me a discerning mind, give me an understanding heart so that I can tell the difference between good and evil in my own life and in the world around me. I don’t imagine any of us are in line to become world leaders, though I certainly wouldn’t rule out any of our remarkable children. Some of us may not see ourselves in any leadership role, except that the witness of our lives often makes a difference whether we realize it or not.
So rather than ranting about the obscenities being perpetrated in our world today, let me close with a tender tale, a fragile moment that still points in the right direction. I’ve mentioned that I am touched by the photography and reflections of Sue Ann Yarborough, who pastors New Community of Faith. Sue Ann shared this yesterday:
Ms. Cleo, one of our beloved dogs, is now over 15 years old. Our walks are slow, and we do not go very far. When I am with her, one of our usual paths takes us by a very tidy house and small garden that I have come to appreciate.
As it is too often the case in the suburbs, I have never seen anyone coming in or out of the house, even though it is just a couple of blocks away. That is, until today. I had paused to admire the garden, and felt quite self-conscious when I heard the front door close. I greeted the gentleman who was then standing before me, and asked if this was his garden. His smile was radiant. ‘Oh, yes. My wife and I did all the work ourselves, including the walkway.’ I learned that he emigrated here from Haiti many years ago. We talked some more, and then he asked, ‘Do you think we will lose all of this in the drought?’
That, of course, I could not answer. He then smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Ah, but we have been given so much. I cannot complain.’ We shook hands, called one another by name, and said our farewells.
Perhaps that is the wisdom that daisies know. Grow where you are planted, and simply go in peace when it is time. ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1).”
Give me a God-listening consciousness, a discerning mind, an understanding heart so that I may come to know the wisdom the daisies know. Amen.