Solomon: The wisest fool – I Kings 2: 10-12; 3: 3-14
The Twelfth Sunday of Pentecost [Proper 15], August 18/19, 2012
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
This glorious sanctuary and the congregation it shelters bear proudly the name of George Washington. Washington made many contributions to our nation, but perhaps his greatest gift was his commitment to democracy and his determination to serve only two four-year terms, something that now has wisely been enfolded into our Constitution.
I think that was a wise decision. For no matter how able or popular Presidents might be, in time they can become hostage to pressure or to their own vanity. Many Presidents start off well but after a number of years they seem to lose touch with the very people who elected them. Our Old Testament lesson reminds us of the danger of being in office for a long time. When Solomon succeeded his father David as King of Israel, hopes were high that this would be a new beginning. But, sadly, the years were not good to Solomon.
My sermon continues a decision to lift up the wonderful lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures that provide an alternative to what I have called the Month of Bread, the consecutive readings from John 6 that are our Gospel lessons for all of August. Two weeks ago we considered the moral weakness of King David, who brutally took the wife of one of his generals and then had the man killed to make it seem all right. Last week we looked at the strife and unrest in David’s family, culminating in the revolt of his son Absalom, an action that cost the young man his life and broke his father’s heart.
Our lesson for this week focuses on King David’s successor … his second son with Bathsheba, the young man Solomon. When Solomon was crowned king of Israel, many hoped that that the problems that had plagued David’s reign would at last be over, and that a new era might begin for the people of Israel.
But before that could happen there would be more intrigue in the royal court, as David’s oldest son and apparent heir, Adonijah, had to be maneuvered out of the way. Bathsheba was eager to see her son on the throne, and so, with support from the Prophet Nathan, she convinced David to yield to her wish and make Solomon his successor. That was accomplished, but not without intrigue. When the dust settled, Adonijah and those leaders who supported him were either dead or exiled.
Our First Lesson puts a gentle spin on the story by celebrating that wonderful attribute of wisdom that characterized King Solomon, at least in the early years of his reign. We are told that after his sudden secretive investiture as King, when Solomon only twenty years old, he worshiped the Lord at the shrine of Gibeon, and fervently prayed for God’s guidance. We learn that God told Solomon to ask for whatever he would like:
And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, … and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, … Give your servant, therefore, an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this, your great people?”
[1 Kings 3:4-14]
Although the account is not in our Old Testament lesson, one of the wonderful stories of the Wisdom of Solomon is the time when two women came before the King to have him resolve their quarrel over which of them was the true mother of a baby. Each had given birth to a baby, but one child had died. Both women claimed the living child. When Solomon ruled that they would need to divide the child in two with a sword, one of the women shrieked and declared that she would rather surrender the child than see it killed. Solomon quickly declared that the woman whose instinct was compassion for the child had clearly demonstrated that she was the true mother and he gave the baby to her.
So the Bible is clear ~ Solomon started well. His name in Hebrew means peace, and that was most appropriate, for under Solomon’s rule Israel did know great peace and security. Solomon was the first king of Israel born to a reigning king. He turned out to be the last king of the united Kingdom of Israel, including all twelve tribes. Like his father David, he is also known as the writer of many books of the Bible … the Book of Proverbs, the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, and the later apocryphal book, the Wisdom of Solomon.
So Solomon began well. His prayer at the Gibeon shrine is considered a model prayer. When the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt thrust the burden of the Presidency on the shoulders of Harry S. Truman, the new President included Solomon’s prayer for guidance in his first address to the Nation.
Solomon expanded the city of Jerusalem, built the glorious Temple, and ushered in a Golden Age. But then things went terribly wrong. I think there are lessons from the life of King Solomon that merit our attention.
It is clear that Solomon was very devout in his early years, but as time went by, he was led by his non-Jewish wives into the worship of other gods and idols.
He poured his efforts into building a glorious Jerusalem and a magnificent Temple, but the cost of this construction and a strong military drained his treasury and forced him to tax his people heavily, diminishing their quality of life.
Solomon became materialistic and greedy. He became obsessed with wealth and extravagant living. In addition he gathered an enormous personal body guard of twelve thousand horsemen, with all related expenses.
Although he began his reign in quiet humility and a yearning to be a wise ruler, Solomon’s life was soon marked by immorality, idolatry, dishonesty, and intrigue.
The story of Solomon is a tragedy, because, in spite of his closeness to God early in his life, his fame, power, and wealth led him away from any core values. Jesus once spoke of the danger of gaining the whole world but losing your soul; he very well may have had Solomon in mind.
Without getting unduly moralistic, I think we can learn some important truths from the life of Solomon:
Blessings are from God. Whether we specifically ask or simply receive, all good things around us have come from heaven above. We need to live our lives with a sense of doxology and always remember that to whomever much has been given, much shall be required.
A faith-relationship with God can easily be compromised; backsliding is always a possibility. For Solomon his undoing was his success, wealth, and power. Many people today are experiencing a similar reality. As life gets sweeter and richer, the life of faithfulness and compassion can easily begin to atrophy. This is why regular worship and church involvement are so important. We need to be reminded that we are not in control of everything.
The experience of Solomon shows us that all the wealth and pleasures of this world can be hollow. Solomon had it all … harems, houses, horses, and gold. But in the end it brought him no joy. He died a sad, defeated person, and after his death the Kingdom of Israel split in two, never again to be strong.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes, a work attributed to Solomon, we read words that could easily have been his final testimony on what it meant to be the wisest fool in the Kingdom of Israel:
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them. … Remember him ~ before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. … Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandment, for this is the whole duty of man. God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. AMEN. [Ecclesiastes 12:1, 6-7, 13-14]