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A Lost Future
Reflections on 1 Kings 3:7-15, 11:1-6

Dennis Bratcher

Introduction

Gary slumped into the chair in the corner of my office. "Prof, I won’t be back next semester." Gary was a ministerial student. He had come to college excited about his call to serve God in the ministry. He was bright, committed, and worked hard to learn.

Gary thought "traditional" churches were too dull and started looking for an "exciting" church. He became good friends with two young men who were involved with a fringe religious movement. Soon, Gary’s behavior was erratic and hostile. His new friends had persuaded him that theirs was the only true way to God. We began to hear strange reports of all-night exorcisms of demons, unusual religious services led by Gary, and verbal attacks against students who disagreed with him.

Gary was zealous in his new found religion. But he talked less and less about the ministry. His dabbling with the dramatic, extreme, and shallow aspects of religion had dulled his awareness of the deeper aspects of devotion to God. So he gave up his dream and his call to serve God and His people. He had wasted his potential for leadership in the church by serving somebody else’s distorted idea of God. The Bible calls this idolatry.

God gave Solomon the ability to be one of Israel’s best kings. Yet, he squandered his potential by allowing alien ideas about God to dull his commitment to the living God of Israel.

The Text

1. Solomon’s Prayer for a Listening Heart (3:7-9)

7 And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8 And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered or counted for multitude. 9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this your great people?"

The story of Solomon is an introduction to the sad saga of Israel’s kings. These stories about Solomon in the first eleven chapters of Kings serve two purposes. While they inform us about the reign of Solomon, they are more than just history. The Scripture writers use the life of Solomon to teach us something about commitment to God.

Solomon was Israel’s first king from the lineage of David and would be the last king to rule over the unified Israelite people. During the reign of his son Rehoboam, internal conflict would tear the nation apart. The Scripture writers place the blame for the division largely on Solomon and his failure to devote himself fully to God (11:11-13).

The dream recorded here occurred early in Solomon’s reign (v. 5). In Solomon’s day kingship in the Eastern world meant absolute power, wealth, and usually oppression and cruelty (note the warnings in 1 Sam 8:11-18). Even David, Solomon’s father, had abused his kingly power for selfish ends (2 Sam 11). In this story, Solomon chose a different style of kingship. He rejected the pursuit of power and chose instead to govern with the spirit of a servant ("your servant" occurs three times in these verses). David became the model for Israel’s ideal king, and later for the Messiah. Yet when Isaiah later spoke of the righteous King who would come, he used images here associated with Solomon (Isa 11:1-5).

This story remembers Solomon as a humble man who realized that he was not adequate for the task of leadership. He did not desire power and control, but the ability to care for God’s people wisely. So he prayed for discernment, in Hebrew "a listening heart."

Solomon showed his humility and a strong sense of community by counting himself as one of the people (v.8). The story also reflects a deep sense of God’s grace at work in the community (v.6). The people were God’s people and Solomon was God’s leader. Yet the authority was not Solomon, but God.

These verses are as much a judgment on power as they are the story of an Israelite king. A few years ago I took a sales training course for a new job. Most of the training involved techniques to intimidate people, to manage any meeting with another person. Nothing could be more alien to the biblical views on relationships in community! What might our federal government, our state legislatures, our churches, even our families, be like if both leaders and people would choose "a listening heart" instead of control and intimidation?

2. God’s Gift of a Wise Heart (3:10-15)

10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 And God said to him, "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. 

13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days.  14 And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days." 15 And Solomon awoke, and behold, it was a dream. Then he came to Jerusalem, and stood before the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings, and made a feast for all his servants.

God responded to Solomon’s expression of humility by giving him the wisdom necessary to govern the people. In biblical tradition, wisdom and discernment were always gifts from God, not human achievements. Scripture consistently views any human ability or accomplishment in relation to God. No aspect of human existence falls outside God’s domain. In biblical thinking there is no such being as a "self-made man" or woman.

The story tells us that Solomon understood this well. God gave Solomon what he had not asked, expressed both in material and non-material terms (riches and honor). We should not try to ignore the fact that Scripture often equates blessing with material belongings. In our Western, success-driven culture we should not make too much of it either. The point is that everything comes from God. Any security, any benefit, any happiness, life itself, is a gift from God.

Some use this passage to teach a "gospel" of prosperity and success. Contrary to many modern voices speaking in the name of God, the Bible does not call us to succeed, to be prosperous, or to be wealthy. God, through Scripture, calls us to choose responsibly before God. He calls us to live a lifestyle of integrity and commitment to God. He calls us to serve Him, first and only.

That is why "the Lord was pleased" with Solomon’s choice (v. 10). It showed a proper ordering of priorities. Success, wealth, or prosperity may come. But it can never be the goal; it must always be secondary. Giving us wealth is not a duty God must fulfill or a divine right we can demand. It is always an unexpected gift from God. Paul understood this when he wrote from a Roman prison: " I have learned, in whatever circumstances I am, to be content. I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want." (Phil 4:11-12).

Nearly a third of the Sermon on the Mount addresses the issue of proper priorities. Jesus cautioned about too much concern with seeking wealth, security, and power. His call was clear: "Seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness." Then he added: "And all these things shall be yours as well." (Matthew 7:33). This is not a promise that everyone will be wealthy or automatically happy if they chose wisdom over power, God over "mammon." This is just a statement of fact rooted deeply in biblical faith: "these things" are always gifts from God. And they must always be secondary.

It is all too easy for us to take our own selfish desires and then interpret the Scripture as if God wants us to satisfy those desires in His name. Sorting out the difference between doing what pleases us and doing what pleases God is not always easy. Sometimes it is costly. But we must do it.

3. The Tragedy of a Divided Heart (1 Kings 11:1-6)

1 Now King Solomon loved many foreign women: the daughter of Pharaoh, and Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, 2 from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, "You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods"; Solomon clung to these in love.

3 He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. 4 For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. 5 For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.  6 So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and did not wholly follow the LORD, as David his father had done

Solomon ruled his kingdom well. As his fame spread, the royal court attracted visitors from all over the world. He united the land conquered by David and forged an empire. He built great fortresses, palaces, and a magnificent temple for God. By examining the ruins of his cities and strongholds, scholars have confirmed his massive building projects and have lent support to the biblical stories of his fabulous wealth.

Solomon needed to secure the borders of his empire and avoid costly foreign wars. So he made alliances and signed treaties with rulers of the surrounding peoples. In the ancient world, marriage often sealed political and military agreements between kingdoms (3:1). Also, lesser rulers often gave their daughters in marriage to a powerful king as tribute, a sign of loyalty to his empire. So as Solomon’s power grew, so did the number of his wives and concubines.

Here we need to be careful that our modern cultural ideas do not cause us to misread the story. Solomon’s failure was not in having more than one wife or too many wives. The Israelite law codes (the Torah), as well as the culture of the day, allowed more than one wife. Eastern culture expected a king to have a large harem. His vigor proved his ability to rule and to have sons to succeed him (note 2 Sam 16:20-22). The problem here is not sexual. It is a much deeper problem of commitment.

Solomon’s failure came by tolerating, even encouraging, idolatry. His foreign wives brought with them their own gods to worship. Solomon not only allowed the worship of these foreign gods, he built temples for them (11:7-8). The text does not say so directly, but the implication is that Solomon wanted to keep the wives happy. This would assure continued peace in the empire.

The more Solomon dabbled with alien ideas of God, the less devoted he became to Yahweh, the God of Israel. His zeal for God, so strong early in his reign, faded. Solomon’s commitment became shallow ("not fully devoted") because other ties and conflicting ideas had divided his loyalty. He loved God (3:3) but he also loved many women who did not share his love of God (11:1). Finally, Solomon mishandled God’s gifts.

Few of us will ever face the problem of idolatry in the same way Solomon did. For us, however, the danger is as real. Our idols are not foreign gods of wood and stone. Our idols are idols of the mind. These are ideas, ideologies, systems of power, cultural influences, even ideas about God, that are completely at odds with faith in the living God of the Bible.

Idolatry may be expressed in different ways in different cultures, different cities, or different churches. Remember Gary, the young student I mentioned earlier? Idolatry for him was allowing someone else’s idea of God to pervert the love and fellowship that is the heart of Christianity. Religion itself can become idolatrous if it allows a perversion of total devotion to God. Distorted religion can rot the fruit of the Spirit as quickly as outright sin can!

Conclusion

Jim was a retired dock worker. He had worked most of his life in an environment where ethnic background, religion, and race divided people into closed groups. This provided others with fuel for insults and jokes. Since he was among the majority group, he was usually on the giving end of the insults.

Jim was a decent man who attended church faithfully. Yet, he struggled spiritually. Jim enjoyed telling demeaning jokes about people whose skin was a different color than his. He could not see a black man or a Hispanic without making some negative comment. This attitude spilled over into his attitude toward Catholics, Baptists, lawyers, salesmen, anyone not just like him. If you listened very long to Jim, you got the impression that there were very few people he liked. He had allowed a set of ideas, adopted from the culture around him, to become idolatrous. Idols, even idols of the mind, lead to ungodly actions.

We would like Solomon’s story better if it had ended before chapter eleven. We would have a pleasant, positive narrative with a fairy-tale like ending. But the Bible is not a fairy tale whose endings are always perfect. It deals with real people living in a real world; few of us live fairy-tale lives.

The Bible does not gloss over the failures of its heroes and make them super-saints. Personally, I need that kind of honesty. I will never be a super-saint. I would likely get discouraged if I thought I had to be one. Or at least I would no doubt become a pain to live with if I tried to be one!

It is exciting to me to realize that the greatest men and women of the Bible were just ordinary people like you and me. Yet God could use them. That does not mean that we must fail, or that we should glory in our failures, or that we should excuse them and pretend that they are really successes.

It does mean that failure does not always destroy us, or stop God’s working in the world. If God could work in the world through a coward like Gideon, a vengeful prophet like Jonah, a murderer like David, a fanatic like Paul -or an idolater like Solomon- maybe, in some way, he can use me!

O Lord, give me a listening heart. From the strength of your presence, help me surrender any idols I harbor in the corners of my mind that might turn my heart away from you. By your grace, help me devote my heart to you totally.

Questions for discussion

1. While we are used to hearing of the abuse of power by government officials or executives, what are some examples of abuse of power on the ordinary levels of life where most of us live? at work? at home? at church? among our friends? our family?

2. How do we go about sorting out the difference between doing what pleases us and doing what pleases God? Can they ever be the same thing? Why or why not? What are some specific examples from our modern life?

3. What are some other examples of "idols of the mind" that might threaten our Christian commitment today?

4. What is our responsibility for the stability and vitality of our community of faith?

5. What is the balance between using our own wisdom (common sense) and yet understanding that wisdom comes from God? How do we receive God’s gift of wisdom?

6. In what ways can "religion" itself become idolatrous?

7. What is the biblical perspective on prosperity? What cultural, historical, and geographical factors must be considered in understanding this? How do these perspectives compare with how we experience life today? (We need to think here beyond the United States to the situation of Christians in Haiti, China, or central Africa.) Does obedience to God always guarantee even basic food and shelter?

-Dennis R. Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis R. Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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