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Monday, July 25, 2011

King Solomon

Lessons from Solomon (1 Kings 3:1-15)

I was reviewing a list of books I had read, great works that had walked across my path, filling my mind – The Brothers Karamazov; Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger; Pilgrim’s Progress, and the like. It’s similar with movies. I was around some guys watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade this past week, and I had sit in with them. I’ve seen the movie 20 times, but it is still good.

I wonder if it is like that with books in the Bible that go unread for periods of time. Some people have read the Bible from cover to cover multiple times. Some are well versed in the New Testament or the Psalms, and some have never actually picked up a Bible and read it. That’s just reality.

I am not sure of your level of Biblical literacy, but I know you have not heard a sermon from 1st Kings in the last five years here at HillSong. I keep track of these things. So, like revisiting a favorite old movie or book, we turn to the Old Testament. The saga of Israel’s greatest king, David, is told in 1st and 2nd Samuel. 1st Kings begins with the reign of his favored son, King Solomon.

The assumption about Solomon by many readers is that after David struggled to establish Israel, his son ruled during the nation’s golden age. He accumulated vast amounts of wealth. His empire was envied and feared by surrounding nations. He was the one to build the temple – one of the wonders of the ancient world.

Furthermore, part of the legend of Solomon is his wisdom. Tradition identifies him as the author of three Old Testament wisdom books – Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Song of Songs. He was endowed with sage knowledge from God.

From success and wisdom, Solomon moves, according to popular perceptions, to excess. He becomes enamored with his own power and he sins against God. He turns to his wives and concubines – women numbering in the thousands, many of them foreign to Israel. To please them, he practices their religious traditions and acknowledges their gods. Such syncretism is an affront to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. David was the man after God’s own heart, but Solomon uses religious faith to acquires power, so the story goes.

Can the story be believed? In 1st Kings 3, we see the beginnings of the the Biblical story behind for the legend of Solomon. As we look closely, we hear God speaking to us.

Immediately, chapter 3, reveals a problem. Solomon marries the daughter of the Pharaoh. One thousand years or so earlier, Pharaoh was the main enemy of Israel. He enslaved the people. Moses led them out of bondage and toward the Promised Land. God killed all the firstborn in Egypt, including Pharaoh’s son. So Pharaoh pursued the Israelites and God swallowed up Pharaoh’s men in the Red Sea. The Egyptians were Israel’s ancient enemies. They were not Jews. The book of Deuteronomy, probably the source of the moral law that underpins 1st and 2nd Kings, says marriage to non-Jews is forbidden (7:3).

Solomon was a lover, not a fighter. He wanted those Egyptians as his friends. So he sealed the friendship with a marriage. Also in first Kings 3:1, we also see Solomon overseeing construction – two projects. He had to get his new wife’s palace built, and he had to build the Lord’s temple. Do we see the issue? His own creature comforts are listed before his attention to the house of worship.

That leads to a third significant error in perspective on Solomon’s part. Because the temple was not yet complete, the people and the king worshiped in high places (hill tops or man-made elevations, that usually involved worship to some god of nature, but not to Israel’s God). Solomon would say he was using Pagan form to worship Yahweh, the God of Moses, but worship in high places is consistently associated with idolatry and the worship of false gods in the OT.

First Kings shows us sinful Solomon. He makes a bad marriage choice, he makes the building of his own house equal in importance to building of God’s house, and he worships in a way that has consistently led Israel away from God.

Those were he mistakes. Did Solomon get anything right? Oh yes.

He goes to the most important of high places, Gibeon, to make an offering to the Lord. While staying there, sleeping, God came in a dream. God said to Solomon, newly crowned, “Ask what I should give you” (3:5). Like a genie in a bottle, God offered Solomon whatever he wished.

Solomon’s first response is to praise God, specifically referring to the history of relationship between God and Solomon’s father David. “You, [God], have shown great and steadfast love to your servant, my father David. … You have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.” Before Solomon sets a wish list before God, he acknowledges that God is the reason for David’s success and for his own privileged position. Just because he made serious blunders does not mean Solomon was all wrong; few people are all good or all bad. Reality is in shades of gray more than stark black and white. .

After the praise, Solomon sets his own inadequacy alongside God’s limitless power. He says of himself, “I am only a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And [I], your servant, am in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted” (3:7b-8). In all relationships, and especially in the relationship with God, we proceed in humility, not making much of ourselves.

Repeatedly, Solomon refers to himself and to David as God’s servants. This type of identification occurs throughout this passage. In this way, Solomon identifies himself with the king who was the man after God’s own heart. And he sees his own status as King in its proper light. Being King primarily means he is the most recognizable servant of God in the nation that is God’s chosen people. His calling is to serve more than it is to rule.

Solomon has exalted God. He’s humbled himself. Finally, he makes his request. “Give your servant … an understanding mind” (3:10). God loved this answer so much, unsurpassed wealth and honor were also promised, but with the condition of obedience. God would make Solomon the greatest king ever if Solomon was the most obedient and faithful king ever. “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life” (3:14).

Maybe the reason we don’t read 1 Kings as often as the Gospels is the stories are about Kings. Jesus was a carpenter. He spent his time with unassuming, common people. Most of us are never written up in the newspaper. We go to the grocery store and no one notices. And we like it that way. Solomon enjoyed prestige than most of us will never know. What do the stories of a 9th century BC Jewish monarch have to say to us? Maybe it is best we leave this classic on the shelf and flip over to Paul’s letters or Luke or John.

No, we must read 1st Kings and read about Solomon because this part of our Holy Book was by the Holy Spirit to form us as people of faith. Solomon is a man before God. We are people – men and women, boys and girls, who live our lives with God or against God. If we want the abundant life Jesus promised then we have to consider the will of God and the way of Jesus today, right now, and every day of our lives. We aren’t kings. But like Solomon, we live our lives before God.

I summarized popular assumptions about Solomon. There are some assumed notions about believers too. If someone goes to church, pays his taxes, gives his tithe, and is generally a nice person, he’s in God good graces, right? We can be certain that the person that I’ve described is one of the good guys, bound for Heaven.

The late Christian pop-singer Keith Green smartly said, going to church makes someone a true believer like going to McDonalds makes someone a hamburger. As we stripped away the assumptions about Solomon, we will do the same regarding believers who attend churches.

“Bad” Solomon got into the wrong marriage, worshiped in an offensive manner, and put his own needs before or on equal footing with God’s priorities. Our sins are just ugly.

Sociologist and religion scholar Ron Sider wrote the book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. Citing statistics related to divorce, abortion, sex outside of marriage, spousal abuse, and substance abuse, he shows that Christians aren’t doing much better than the secular world with regards to holy behavior. We sin – a lot.

Moreover, we who are believers in America tend to be considerably more affluent than our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But, our affluence does not lead us to greater generosity in combating hunger, poverty, illiteracy, and other forces that impose suffering on millions.

We behave badly; we fail to show compassion even though we have resources; and finally, some – not all of us – judge those outside our camp to be lost and hell-bound. We assume our brand of Christianity is the closest thing to pure orthodoxy, and we judge those who are too liberal or too fundamentalist. We judge those who practice others faiths. We judge atheists. I am not saying there won’t be a judgment. The Bible is clear – judgment is coming. It is equally clear that we aren’t going to be holding gavels. Jesus calls us to love, not condemn. Love includes telling the truth about sin and about God and about false religion. But the truth telling must start with our own sins.

Solomon had relationship problems, worship problems, and priority problems. We have moral problems, compassion problems, and perspective problems. But it’s not all problems!

Just as Solomon got some of it right, the church does too. First, we are possessors of the truth. The world may not believe it, but the only word that is truly Word of God is the Bible – the Old and New Testaments. The church is who has the Bible, and the church has the responsibility of sharing it with the world.

A second good thing about church, especially evangelical churches, is we do try to share Jesus with the world. Though we might experience distance from God and a sense of being lost even when we are in the church, we have worship, we know about prayer, we have the Word. People in the world have none of that, so we need to, in love and with humility, share Jesus with the lost. And we try to do just that.

A third good to mention about churches like ours is compassion. I know, I know! I just said in our opulence, we fail to share with our neighbors. Sometimes that’s true. But sometimes, we are possessed of the Spirit and we demonstrate generosity, kindness, and Biblical justice. I think of our youth at Mission Serve, or our members who participate in Restoration Carrboro-Chapel Hill, or our year-end project, Operation Christmas Child. I think of all the members who sponsor extremely poor children in Ethiopia and Uganda and Rwanda and other places. When we set our minds on compassion and let what breaks God’s heart break ours, then compassion is a strength, not a weakness.

The ancient king, Solomon did some things well in his faith and in some areas he came up short. The same can be said of us. We are not kings, but like Solomon, we are people before God. Though God hasn’t given us the responsibility given to Solomon, God has a keen interest in our lives. We matter to Him.

What do we take from all this?

We should each do something Solomon did in his prayer. We acknowledge God’s holiness. Following the wise king’s example, we recognize, believe, and declare that God is sovereign – all powerful, all knowing, and present in all places. Along with this, we humble ourselves. God saw the great king as his servant. It’s something we have in common with Solomon. We too are God’s servants. Our reason for being is to serve God in whatever capacity he demands.

A second response to the Solomon story, after we’ve acknowledged God’s holiness and committed ourselves to His service is relationship. We strive to get to know God better. Through various forms of prayer, through worship, through scripture, and through practicing a life lived God’s way, we come to understand God’s heart. The God we serve loves us and we feel it. We, more and more, see the world as God sees it. Solomon did this early on in his reign, but then his faith waned. We stick with it. God’s part is grace. Our part is worship, service, and prayer, and we remain committed to all three.

Finally, we re-adjust our values. As we get to know God, we see what is most important to God, and that becomes most important to us. Solomon wanted wives, wealth, power; we recognize that the greatest pleasure we’ll find come in what God gives, not what we acquire. We find that the world is a better place, a happier place, when God has the power and we trust in His provision. So we don’t live to advance ourselves. We live by a set of values – God’s values.

Solomon’s life was mixed bag with much to be admired and much to be criticized. We can learn from all of it and when we do, we are on the road to becoming the disciples Jesus wants us to be. It begins when we trust that His way is the best way. I invite you to trust Him with your life today.


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