Text: 1 Kings 3:4-28
This past week the Mega Millions jackpot reached nearly $1.6 billion. It was announced as the largest jackpot ever. As it turned out, that was just an estimate, and the actual amount was only $1.537 billion, the second largest ever. One individual had the winning ticket, purchased at a convenience store in Simpsonville, SC. But if the winner takes the payout as a lump sum, it will be only $913 million after tax. That’s a long way from $1.6 billion. That’s $700 million less than advertised. When it gets down to that amount, you have to wonder if it is even worth it, right?
Now, I don’t play the lottery myself, although when it gets to that level it has crossed my mind. But being cursed with an analytical approach to things, I figure that the higher the payout, the less chance of winning. So aside from a conviction that the lottery is a regressive form of taxation and a poor way to fund government, I guess I am really just too cheap to play the lottery.
You will find all kinds of news stories about the difficulties that lottery winners face. Sudden wealth can tear apart families. It can lead to divorce, to abuse of alcohol and drugs. People give up jobs and find themselves adrift, searching for meaning in life. Family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers will come out of the woodwork wanting a slice of the pie. Lottery winners have been robbed, assaulted, and worse. It’s not always the case, of course, but a large number of big lottery winners regret having won all that money.
Nevertheless, if given the chance, a lot of folks would say, sure, I would love to win $1.6 billion and have to deal with whatever comes with that. In fact, if given one wish, a lot of people would likely wish for something like $1.6 billion, even if it is just $913 million in a lump sum after taxes.
I bring this up because our scripture today asks us to think about that one wish – if given the chance, if we had one wish, what would we ask for?
This fall, we have been making our way through the Old Testament, considering some of the great Old Testament stories. Two weeks ago, Joshua asked the people, “Choose this day whom you will serve – as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
After the time of Joshua, with the Israelites now established in the land, the people were led by judges. The judges came from various tribes. They led the nation in military battles and established justice in the land. It was a more decentralized form of leadership, but the time came when the people wanted a king, like other nations. God said, “Be careful what you ask for,” but in the end God said, OK, if you want one so bad you can have a king. But don’t blame me if it goes south.”
The first king of Israel was Saul, but while he looked the part, he was a poor leader. And so God had the prophet Samuel anoint David as the new king. Though he was clearly a flawed person, David was known as “a man after God’s own heart” and the greatest king of Israel. Upon David’s death, his son Solomon became king.
That is the short version of how we got to today’s scripture. And if that is all you know, and then you read 1 Kings Chapter 3, you may think, “Wow! What a great guy Solomon is. What a wonderful leader!” And he was regarded highly by the Hebrew people as a great king – not David great, but a great leader who built the temple. But there is more to Solomon than what we read in this chapter.
There is a reason that the lectionary reading chosen for today comes from 1 Kings Chapter 3. If you want to know why we read chapter 3, then read chapter 2. There was a power struggle after David’s death between David’s sons Adonijah (the oldest brother and the natural choice for king) and Solomon (who has help from political operatives including the military general Benaiah, the priest Zadok, and Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba). So in chapter 2, there is manipulation, banishment, revenge-taking, exploitation, and lots of bloodshed. As Adam Copeland puts it, “Solomon learns his winning (though brutal) approach from his cunning old man, King David.”
Our scripture this morning skips over all of that and goes right to chapter 3. By now, Solomon has consolidated power and all that messiness is in the past. He has taken care of threats internal and external, and is ready to govern. But he is young. He’s a rookie king trying to get off to a good start. He is not doing badly, but there have been some issues.
Solomon has married foreign wives for the purpose of forming political alliances. He even married the daughter of Pharaoh, making an alliance with Egypt. Yes, Egypt - which had held Israel in slavery for 400 years.
Solomon’s wives from other countries often worshiped other gods. And Solomon himself would make sacrifices at the high places – this refers to places where other gods were worshiped. So sacrifices were not only made in Jerusalem, but elsewhere around the country, especially as the temple in Jerusalem was being built. So at one of those high places, those places devoted to worship of gods, you might have a sacrifice to Ba’al at 10:00 then the 11:30 service would be a sacrifice to Yahweh, the God of Israel. There is not quite the call for exclusive devotion to the God of Israel that we heard about from Joshua a couple of weeks ago. Solomon is no doubt taking some flak for that, which is why the writer of 1 Kings makes mention of it.
Solomon is at Gibeon – the most important of those high places. He spends the night there, goes into a deep sleep, and God speaks to him in a dream. And God asks Solomon, “Ask me what you would like me to give to you.” God speaks to Solomon and says, “One wish, Solomon. What would you like?”
Solomon responds, “You have shown great and steadfast love to my father David.” There is that word hesed we talked about a few weeks back - the same kind of loving kindness God showed Moses and Ruth showed Naomi. God has showed that kind of loving kindness, steadfast love to David, and now God had made Solomon king in place of David.
And Solomon knows that leading the people is a very tall order. It is beyond him. “I am just a kid,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m doing, and the needs of the people are so great. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”
God was pleased by this and said, “You have not asked for long life or riches or to dominate your enemies but for understanding to discern what is right. So I will give you that, I will give you wisdom, but I will also give you what you did not ask for. I will give you riches and honor your whole life.”
I think the key word here in what Solomon is asking is discern. “An understanding mind, able to discern.”
Discernment is more than knowledge. It is more than book smarts. Discernment is knowing what is truly important, what really matters. And it is connected to action. We discern the best path forward. We discern what God would have us do. Solomon was asking that he might have discernment to know how to lead the nation.
To have discernment, we need to have humility. Humility to listen, humility to learn, humility to admit that we don’t know all the answers. This allows us to be open to possibilities, open to ideas, open to God’s Spirit. If we think we already know everything, then there is no need to listen to anybody.
Did you notice Solomon’s approach before God? He says, “I’m just a boy. I don’t know what I’m doing. I need some help here. I’m supposed to be king but this feels overwhelming.”
That is exactly the kind of attitude that God can use. And when we lose that sense of humility about life, then we can get into trouble.
NBA Hall of Fame player Bill Russell was well known for having anxiety, for getting very nervous before basketball games. In fact, he would routinely throw up before a game. He was among the best to ever play the game, and there is no question that he was the winningest player in basketball history, maybe in the history of professional sports. He won back-to back NCAA championships playing for San Francisco, was captain of the US Gold Medal winning 1956 Olympic team, and then won the championship in 11 of his 13 professional seasons for the Boston Celtics. Besides playing for the Celtics, he was also the coach in his last 3 seasons. Despite all of that experience and all of that talent and despite being more successful than maybe any professional athlete ever, he never took the game for granted.
At the beginning of his reign, God asks Solomon what he would like to have. He doesn’t ask for wealth. He doesn’t ask for power. He doesn’t ask for military prowess. He doesn’t ask for a life of pleasure. In humility, mindful of what he lacked, he asked for discernment that he might be a wise ruler.
Our scripture includes a story that speaks to Solomon’s wisdom. Two women come to him to settle a dispute. It’s hard to imagine common people coming to the king to settle grievances, but these two women come before Solomon. They lived in the same house and had babies about the same time. One woman’s child died in the night, and the other woman accused her of switching babies while she was asleep, so that she awoke with the other woman’s dead child.
They disagreed as to who the living baby belonged to and presented the case to the king. Solomon said, “No problem, we’ll just cut the baby in half and you can each have your half.” One of the women said, “No, please, spare the child – the other woman can have him.” And so Solomon decreed that the woman who wanted to save the child was its true mother.
At the beginning of his reign, Solomon seems to have everything going for him. He was known as a wise ruler. Common people could look to the king for justice. Solomon was following in the footsteps of his father David, who was a beloved king. Solomon did not ask for riches or for political power – he asked for wisdom, for discernment.
He seems set up for a great run. But as it turned out, his reign did not go so smoothly. I think he lost some of that wide-eyed wonder at being king, at leading the nation. He lost that sense of humility.
God said that because he had not asked for riches or for honor, God would grant those as well. But as time went on, Solomon became addicted to women and to wealth. He didn’t just build the temple; he carried out a magnificent royal building campaign that nearly bankrupted the nation. The people were taxed heavily to support Solomon’s lavish tastes.
1 Kings chapter 11 says that Solomon had 700 foreign wives and 300 concubines. Now I doubt that they actually had a royal scoreboard, but the point is that Solomon’s life became all about excess. He worshiped the Lord, yes, but also a lot of other gods. And after he died, the kingdom split north and south. It didn’t happen in his lifetime, but Solomon’s reign more or less tore the nation apart.
Solomon asked for discernment – for wisdom, but he did not always live wisely. They say that with age comes wisdom but for Solomon, he seemed to have wisdom as a younger man but then lose it as the years went by.
Jesus said, “Unless you become as a child, you will not enter the kingdom of God.” A child knows she needs help. A child knows his need. A child is open to learning. That attitude is the beginning of discernment. That is something like the fear of the Lord, which Proverbs says is the beginning of wisdom.
Albert Schweitzer said, “Knowing all truth is less than doing a little bit of good.” Discernment is truth in the service of doing what is good.
I’d like you, for a minute, to think about that dream where God speaks to Solomon. God appears and says, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Except it’s not Solomon, it is you. God comes to you and says, “Ask me for anything.” What do you ask for?
Solomon essentially asks that God make him the best king he could be. What is it you would ask of God? What would help to make you the best person you could be?
And what about all of us, together? What would make us the best church we could be? What would make us the best community we could be? What would help us to be the best country we could be? Asking those kinds of questions and truly being open – asking those questions before God with a sense of humility – that is the path to discernment. Amen.