Other sermons in this series
A few months ago, I sat down with our girls and our niece and nephews to introduce them to one of the greatest movies ever made – The Great Escape.
One of the brilliant things about The Great Escape is the soundtrack – scary music when the German guards are on patrol, when escaped prisoners are caught or when an escape tunnel collapses; when Steve McQueen is on his motorbike, exciting music, or when plucky Brits and the one token Aussie (played, of course, by an American with a terrible accent) are giving the enemy hell, jaunty, happy music. It’s not hard to work out what’s going on. Now if 1 Kings 3 and 4 came with a soundtrack it would be pretty similar. Solomon gets it right, and we can almost imagine the happy music playing in the background; when he gets it wrong, lots of minor chords and clashing brass, and when there is tension… anxious strings… you get the idea.
The problem is that while we pick that kind of thing up in movies without even thinking about it, we find it tougher to pick up these kind of hints in the Bible. Sometimes it’s because we just aren’t used to reading the Bible. Sometimes, it’s because we want to think the characters in the Bible are good guys, and are instinctively reluctant to accept it when they do the wrong thing. But whatever the reason, if we are to get the message of these chapters, it’s vital that we learn to pick up the changes in mood and the shifts in atmosphere, the implied praise and criticism that accompanies the account Solomon’s life. Because that’s how these chapters make a very simple point. This man is made of the same stuff as you and me. 1 Kings 3 and 4 force us to face the question: What am I like?
WHAT AM I LIKE?
One of the things the Bible does is make us think about ourselves. There is a level of self-reflection, self-awareness, self-criticism which is right and good. and even necessary if we are to live for Jesus. Now of course, we have to be careful with this. The Bible is ultimately about what God has done for us in Jesus, and how we should respond to him. If we haven’t got that, then we just haven’t got what the Bible is on about. But at another level the Bible is also about us. God has given us a book written by people like us about people like us in order to show us what he has done for people like us in Jesus Christ. And because of that, even as the Bible tells us about what God has done in Jesus it also holds up a mirror to our lives.
That’s why when we read the books of Kings, for example, we find it isn’t populated with great moral examples, heroes to aspire to, but with broken, unreliable people like us – people whose issues and flaws and choices look remarkably like ours. And it’s not a pretty picture. That’s why when we read 1 Kings 3 and 4, for example, we discover that you are totally inconsistent. Sorry to break it to you, but it’s the truth. You are inconsistent, and so am I. It’s just what we’re like.
Even if we are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, people, who, unlike Solomon, have been joined to Christ and have received the gift of the Spirit, we are still made of the same ‘stuff’. Even though we now have the capacity to know and delight in and enjoy God, we are still more than capable of acting like idiots.
As CS Lewis puts on the lips of Aslan in his book Prince Caspian,
You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve. And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.
Why? Not just because some of us do great things and some of us do terrible things – it’s because we all do a mixture of both. We’re all inconsistent. Like Solomon, we do some great things, some awful things, and a lot that’s in between. Let me show you how this plays out in 1 Kings 3 and 4, starting with the great things about Solomon…
Solomon does have some real high moments.
So, for example, in 1 Kings 3:3, we read that Solomon loved Yahweh, walking in the statutes of David his father. Commendations don’t really come any better than that. In fact in the whole of the Old Testament, no-one else is described quite in these terms. Caleb followed Yahweh wholeheartedly. David was a man who cared deeply about Yahweh’s agenda. But Solomon? He loved Yahweh and obeyed him. And that was clearly a very good thing. In the NT, we are told repeatedly that the utterly lovely God has loved us in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that the one thing that will set us apart is loving God back with a love which is as real, and lasting, and deliberate and passionate as our love for our spouse. Solomon actually got that one spectacularly right!
As he did when God appears to Solomon in a dream. Solomon admits to God that he is out of his depth, and then asking this in verse 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?
It’s just a fantastic request. It’s a godly request – and in the next verse, it gets God’s stamp of approval – ‘It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.’ Solomon acknowledges the covenant God made with his Dad. He shows deep personal humility and asks humbly for a discerning mind to do the humanly impossible task of leading God’s people well. Top marks Solomon!
When the two women show up in 3:16, not only does Solomon show the discerning mind he’d asked for, but he acts with real integrity, seeking justice even for the disadvantaged and stigmatized members of society. (NB they are almost certainly prostitutes, which says something about the state of Israel). When he suggests bisecting the baby, he sees past two prostitutes to two grieving mothers. In fact, at the end of verse 28, it’s said that ‘the wisdom of God was in him to do justice’. This is Messiah territory – as Isaiah 11:3 says:
And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.
This is all incredibly positive.
As a King, in chapter 4 it is clear that he is an organizational genius. He set up a simple and efficient administration (4:1-19). 4:20 makes it clear that he plays a key role in the promises made to Abraham being fulfilled to a whole new level – 1 Kings 4:20.
Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea. They ate and drank and were happy… Everyone enjoyed peace (4:25).
And at the conclusion of this section, in 4:29-35, Solomon is hailed as the ultimate wise man, who is used by God to bring blessing to the nations, just as God had promised Abraham. – 4:34:
And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.
You can’t miss the fact that Solomon is portrayed in an immensely positive light. But that’s not the whole story.
Some of Solomon’s acts are described in a way that is unmistakeably negative.
We only have to read the first sentence of these chapters to pick that up. 3:1 Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt. Nowhere in the Old Testament is going to Egypt, hanging out with Egyptians or marrying Egyptians a good thing – and Solomon, the King, is supposed to be a model Israelite. This is not a good call. Then there’s the fact that he seems in the same verse to be more concerned with building his own house than the house of Yahweh (more of that to come next week). Add to that the fact that according to 3:3, the man who loved Yahweh also has a bit of a weakness for worshipping at the high places – the old Canaanite shrines. Foreign wives, now foreign worship places. Not good.
And in verse 6, Solomon shows that his theology isn’t the best either. Here’s what he says –
You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you.
Back in 2 Samuel 7:14-16, God had said that he would work through David’s family in spite of them – Solomon thinks it’s because of them. Do you get the difference? God operates by grace, not rule-keeping. But Solomon, the wisest man in the world, still manages to slip into legalism – ‘Because my daddy was good, you blessed him’. Mmmmmm. Not too sure about that.
And then there is his marvellous new political system from 4:7. Israel had always been 12 tribes gathered around God himself, represented by the tent of meeting in the centre. Now it’s twelve districts around the king’s palace. Elders have been replaced by Civil Servants. Efficient? Yes. A good short term solution? Yes (according to 4:21). Capturing the theological essence of God’s view of his people up to this point in the Bible? I don’t think so. But, according to 4:22, it did make sure that Solomon and his pals at the palace were kept in the manner to which they had become accustomed! Can you hear the music changing? Oh, and by the way, Solomon had 40,000 horses and 12,000 charioteers. At this point, the words about the King in Deuteronomy 17 should be ringing in our ears –
16 Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ 17 And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.
Add to that the fact that Solomon had introduced a Ministry of Forced Labour which the rather grumpy Samuel had said would happen if the people opted for a King back in 1 Sam 8, and it’s fair to say that all is not well.
So I hope you can hear these two competing tunes playing intermittently throughout these chapters. Solomon is wise and just and incredibly organized, and everything is going so well. Solomon is foolish, and makes bad choices, which are going to come back and bite him. He is incredibly consistent – or inconsistent, depending on which way you look at it. And here’s the rub – you are like this – and everyone you know is like this. Why does the writer go to such lengths to take us through all this? Why so much detail about the good Solomon and the bad Solomon? To get it into our heads that we are all like this – even the smartest, wisest, most privileged of us. The one thing we can plan for today is everyone else’s inconsistency. Oh – and our own! It will save us a lot of time, energy and wishful thinking if we get this straight now!
For some reason, we have a deep-rooted desire to divide the world into the good guys and the bad guys. We do it with our kids. We do it with people in church. We do it with pastors. We even do it with ourselves. It’s theological nonsense, and it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Even the best of us is inconsistent. Whether you are thinking about yourself as a family member, a spouse, a friend, an employee, a youth worker, a pastor or simply as a human being, it will make life much simpler (and much less painful for everyone else) if you face this right now – I’m tempted to get you to say after me ‘Hello, my name is… . And I am inconsistent!’ Because you are, and so am I. No matter how wise we may be, we do not lose the capability of making dumb decisions. No matter how selfless we may be, we do not lose the capacity to be selfish. Look at Solomon – the wisest man who ever lived couldn’t cut it – so let’s face it, it’s hardly likely that we are going to manage it!
I’m sure that this is what James is talking about, when he writes these words in chapter 3 of his letter:
8 no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
There’s the reality – we are inconsistent.
Like Solomon, we have our moments – we are not as unwise as we could be. We are not as evil and selfish as we could be. But no matter how hard we try, we muck it up, sooner or later. That’s why James speaks of the meekness of wisdom – the paradox is that the secret of wisdom is realizing that we don’t always act wisely – we don’t have it in us to pull it off. Wisdom starts with accepting that sometimes we are fools! But I have to say, that this admission doesn’t come easily. That’s why God devotes such a huge proportion of the Bible to the fact that like every character who steps onto these pages, we are messed up. We get it wrong. We make terrible choices. We may be wise, but we are also fools. May I make a suggestion – I think it’s time for all of us together to embrace our inner idiot. To make our piece with our inner brat! To face the fact that this is who we are – that like Solomon, we are deeply inconsistent people. This is what we’re like.
You may not have thought about it like this, but you and I will all leave a mixed legacy behind us. Yes, in the kindness of God, some people may remember us for good. We pray there will be people whom we have introduced to Jesus. People who have encouraged along the way. People we have laughed and cried with. But sadly, there will also be those we have hurt, and messed around, and betrayed and disappointed. And those who are closest to us? Who live longest with us? Even with them, our impact will be mixed – as children, as siblings, as parents, we will leave a mixed trail – where we have built up and torn down. And if you want evidence that this is basically what we are all like? Then look at Solomon. The hope in this chapter is not found in the person of Solomon. But I think that we got that much even last week, with the ambivalent introduction to his ‘wisdom’, as he killed off his dad’s old enemies. But that doesn’t mean that we should all go get our sackcloth and ashes on and slide into the pit of self-pity. Because alongside the successes and failures of Solomon, 1 Kings 3 and 4 answer another question in a simply delightful way – as we read these chapters, we also need to ask ‘What is God like?’
WHAT IS GOD LIKE?
The really surprising thing about this narrative is that even though Solomon is all over the place – being really godly and wise one moment, and really dumb and ungodly the next – God appears to be utterly dependable and consistent all through the chapter.
Despite Solomon’s dubious behaviour, God’s first action is to show up in a dream and make Solomon a stunning offer in 3:5:
At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.”
Not only does God then delight in Solomon’s answer, but he goes way beyond what Solomon has asked for – 3:11:
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.
Yahweh does bless Solomon in a huge range of ways – including royal wealth and a long life. And in 4:20, and 4:21, and 4:24, and then so clearly in 4:29-34, God keeps his promises – the promises that he had made to Abraham, now ramped up by the additional covenant promises that he had made to Solomon’s dad David. It is very clear that God does not operate on a performance-related basis! God does not treat Solomon as his bad decisions deserve. God is relentlessly generous and gracious and kind.
It is very easy to miss that in these chapters. God continues to bless despite the unwisdom, the latent selfishness, the blatant foolishness that will have dire consequences, the sheer inconsistency of Solomon. I don’t know about you but that comes as an incredible relief to me. Do I want to make wise decisions? Of course I do. Do I want to be consistent? Of course I do. Do I want to do everything in my power to be godly? Yes I do. But I know that I won’t be able to pull it off – which is why there is such comfort, such strength, such relief flowing from the fact that our God is so unbelievably gracious.
I think it is one of the hardest things in life to learn that God really does treat us so much better than we deserve. We seem to have large reserves of a sense of entitlement hidden somewhere deep within us (I think that’s called sin). But it brings such an incredible sense of relief when we get this. If we belong to God, we are not going to be disowned as soon as he realizes what we’re actually like. If we belong to God, we are not suddenly going to find ourselves on report, or in detention. If we belong to God, he is not going to be permanently disappointed in us the next time we stuff up – or the time after that – or the time after that, for that matter. The shocking thing about our God is that he somehow finds a way to keep being gracious to people like you and me. And how does he do it? He does it in and through the Lord Jesus.
HOW CAN GOD ACT LIKE THIS?
How can God act like this when Solomon acts the way he does? How can God keep being gracious in the face of our stupidity – our inconsistency? There isn’t actually any answer to that question in the passage, other than to say, because he does. But we can do a little better than that… As we read on through the Bible, it becomes clear that God treats people like this – whether they are ancient wise fools or 21st Century ones – but because of his grace, which is displayed in all its splendour in the Lord Jesus. When we see what God does for us in Jesus, suddenly it becomes clear not only how God can treat us as if our sins don’t exist, but also how God makes it possible for really foolish people like us to be wise.
The great news, you see, isn’t just that God graciously gives wisdom to this one remarkable King, God does what it takes for all of his people to receive wisdom –
HOW DO WE GET WISDOM?
in Jesus, God gives us wisdom on tap – which almost what it says in James 1 we read,
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
It is a marvellous promise – but to be honest, the marvellousness is often tempered by the rider, warning against double-mindedness, and lack of faith. But the good news is that asking in faith here is simply a matter of trusting the person who is making the big promise. It’s trusting that the God of wisdom, the God of Solomon can actually deliver. James tells us why we can be confident in God’s ability to deliver – it’s because he has already provided wisdom from above – which is pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. What’s the ‘wisdom from above’ that James is talking about? This ‘wisdom can really only be one thing -actually one person. It’s James’ big brother (or big half-brother) the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
JESUS CHRIST IS WISDOM FROM GOD
In Jesus Christ, God shows us consistency in the flesh. Living, breathing wisdom. He is the one whose Spirit is the antidote to our stupidity and inconsistency. He is the one who can bridge the gap between what we know and what we do. He is the one who is full of grace and truth – he is the one who is our wisdom. Jesus the King lives wisdom, and gives wisdom. Even if we happen to be the wisest man in the world, we need to constantly, desperately, humbly run to him, and ask for his help – knowing that he is already poised to answer, and to give us himself – the wisdom that comes from above.