YEAR B: PENTECOST 11
August 16, 2009
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
The troubles that beset David’s house following the taking of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah go with him even to his deathbed. With David’s oldest sons dead, next in line to the throne was Adonijah, his fourth son. 1 Kgs 1:5-10 tell how Adonijah prepared, somewhat presumptuously, to take his father’s throne. Trouble still looms, however, for some of David’s generals and supporters did not favour Adonijah’s succession. Their support fell behind Bathsheba’s second son, Solomon. This coup was led in part by the prophet Nathan who, with Bathsheba, plotted to persuade David, by now nearing death, that he declare Solomon king (vv. 11-14). They even convinced him that he had promised this, although no such promise is recorded. In earlier days, David had vacillated between his love for his son and seeking revenge when Absalom attempted to usurp the throne. Now in his old age David is again reluctant to speak against a son, this time Adonijah, as the latter seeks to take the throne from his father (v. 6). Nathan and Bathsheba play on this reluctance. In the end they get their way and Adonijah’s campaign falls apart after Solomon is publicly declared king (vv. 28-53). We need to keep this rather messy episode, where Solomon himself usurps the throne of Israel, in mind as we turn to today’s reading.
It opens with the death of David (1 Kgs 2:10). David had just finished giving last instructions to Solomon. David’s final words to his successor are an interesting mix, on the one hand, of charging Solomon to remain faithful to the Lord and the covenant between the Lord and David’s house (1 Kgs 2:1-4), and, on the other, of taking revenge on those who had been disloyal to David (vv. 5-9). Even on his deathbed, David proves a complex mixture of faithful servant and ruthless avenger. Solomon proves to be David’s match – a complex alignment of ruthlessness and faithfulness. Today’s reading skips over the detailed account of how Solomon killed off the opponents of his father (vv. 13-46), thus ensuring an unchallenged succession. It begins where we hear of Solomon’s dream at the start of his reign 3:3-14.
We are told quite firmly in v. 3 that ‘Solomon loved the Lord’. That faithfulness will dominate the account of Solomon’s reign through to 1 Kings 10. However, the editors have added a few things that cause us to reserve our judgment on Solomon. After stating his love of the Lord the writers add ‘only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places’. The ‘high places’ were originally Canaanite sanctuaries, now used by Israelites to worship the Lord, although the old connection with the worship of Baal and other Canaanite deities was never totally forgotten. A cloud thus lies over Solomon’s actions here. To add to this there is the note at the start of the chapter (vv. 1-2) that he made an alliance with Pharaoh of Egypt which involved marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter. There are hints that all will not be right with Solomon’s reign, as turns out to be the case in 1 Kings 11.
Gibeon was at that time recognized as the chief sanctuary in Israel (the temple had not yet been built in Jerusalem). Solomon’s sacrificial rites at Gibeon were indeed lavish (v. 4). While he was there the Lord appeared to him in a dream. Appearances of a deity at a sanctuary and in dreams or nightly visions were not uncommon throughout the ancient Near East (cf. 1 Samuel 3). In his dream Solomon is given a choice of anything he wants from the Lord. Solomon’s reply seems to indicate the faithfulness noted in v. 3. He begins by noting the Lord’s great faithfulness to the covenant with David but is aware at the same time of the burden of kingship and asks for wisdom to govern the people with understanding and justice (3:7-9). To stress his need he proclaims that he is ‘only a little child’, seemingly inexperienced in the ways of the world (v. 7). Some manuscripts of the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, took this remark literally and stated that he was 12 years old (at 2:12), while the historian Josephus (Ant. VIII, vii, 8) said he was 14.
The Lord is pleased with Solomon’s response, since he had asked for wisdom to rule rather than wealth and the life of his enemies. The Lord grants his request (v. 12). Indeed Solomon’s request would seem to reveal the very quality he says he seeks. In what might seem like a surprising move, however, the Lord also promises the wealth and honour that Solomon did not ask for (v. 13). There is even the promise that the Lord will lengthen Solomon’s life. The scene is set, complete with divine promise, for the great rule to be described over the next few chapters. However, some points need to be made about what seems on the surface a strong beginning to Solomon’s reign.
First, the Lord’s promise to Solomon, complete with the wealth and honour not asked for, is all conditional (v. 14). The Lord says it all depends on whether Solomon will ‘walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments’. It was noted back in v. 3 that Solomon loved the Lord and walked in the statutes of his father David. He is to continue in that way. It is not so much whether Solomon will continue to observe the religious rituals of the cult, or how lavish his offerings might be, but how he lives as a human being and as a king. In the last two weeks especially we have seen how even Solomon’s father, David, struggled with that very issue. Solomon must continue in that struggle.
Secondly, we ought not to accept what we read here too easily and without question. We should remember that the editors have already given us some hints that eventually things might not turn out as anticipated. Solomon’s plea for wisdom because of his ‘youthfulness’, i.e. inexperience, may sound like a good start but could be read in another way. When prophets and other people are called to high station in the Old Testament, they often proclaim their unsuitability for the task (cf. esp. Jer 1:6; also Exod 4:1-17; Judg 6:15; and Isa 6:5). It is part of the literary form which in fact asserts the authority of their calling. In other words, an account of the Lord’s calling someone to a particular task is not seen as genuine unless that person protests their inadequacy. It is a way of saying that the person can only carry out the task with the Lord’s help. In a curious twist on this it might be that Solomon’s request and statement that he is ‘only a little child’ is a way for the writer to justify Solomon’s ascent to the throne although, as we noted above, he was not the rightful heir. Is this delightful story of the inexperienced youth seeking wisdom to carry out the tremendous task set before him, really just a piece of political propaganda to justify the coup and murderous revenge that have recently taken place? I think the writers imbue their story of the start of Solomon’s reign with just enough ambiguity to help us keep an open mind regarding this new king. His reign will turn out to be a difficult, turbulent time just like the reign of his father. Solomon does eventually turn away from the commandments of the Lord (11:1-8) and once again this will have lasting effects on both those directly involved and on those who follow. His kingdom will be split in two (1 Kings 12).
Finally, in spite of the murkiness of all this – the mixture of faithfulness and revenge, the request for wisdom that is probably genuine but speaks also of political manipulation – we are certain that the Lord continues to work with his people. In spite of the foibles and the sinful efforts of the most noble of the Lord’s people, the call for loyalty to the Lord, the need for genuine (divine) wisdom, the demand to ‘walk in the Lord’s ways’, never cease. We glimpse the full nature of God’s grace even as we are aware of our human failings. We also understand that faithfulness and loyalty to the Lord are the very key to life itself.
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