The old king, David, is dead. It is time to pick his successor as king. In retrospect it seems obvious that his son, Solomon, was his rightful heir. In the moment, however, the matter of succession to the throne is highly contested. Two sons of David, Solomon and Adonijah, are both aggressive candidates for the succession. In the end, Solomon prevails and becomes king. But not easily! He must engage in choreographed deception with the aid of powerful allies. He is also willing to engage in raw violence in order to eliminate his rival. The scene sounds like one from "The Godfather."
Except that beyond deception and violence, legitimate rule requires a religious affirmation. There is need for some "God speak" to make the new king secure on his contested throne. That act of religious legitimation for the successor king is the subject to our text. Solomon participated in the required liturgy to exhibit his piety. That act is then reinforced by a dream recorded in our verses. Solomon dreams of God-given, well-grounded authority. There is no reason to doubt in the legitimacy of the dream. On the other hand, there is no reason to trust the dream either; it may strike one as remarkably convenient for the new king, so that it may be nothing more than a piece of political propaganda. Maybe it is no more, cast in ancient idiom, than a familiar blatant assertion that, "God told me..."
The dream of governance lets the new king imagine what his reign would be like. The dream tracks all the right rhetorical maneuvers. First Solomon links himself to his beloved father David in the world of God's faithfulness. The double affirmation about God's faithfulness and David's faithfulness locates the new king in a stream of reliable God-given identity.
Second, the new king voices appropriate modesty and humility in the face of royal responsibility. For that role, he will need all the divine help he can evoke.
Third, he makes a bid for divine help. He asks for an "understanding mind" to function in his role as chief judicial officer. That role is evidenced in the famous narrative of I Kings 3:16-28.
Indeed, the phrase "understanding mind" is more closely translated, "listening heart." The one thing the new king requires is a capacity for attentiveness to the needs, hopes and expectations of his subjects. Solomon knows that a "listening heart" is the antithesis of a "hard heart," an inability to care for or notice or take seriously those before him. In using this phrase he is perhaps aware that he is married to Pharaoh's daughter, Pharaoh being the quintessential hard-hearted guy. Solomon intends to be a very different kind of king!
God grants his request and will endow him with the necessary sensibility to be the best king ever. What a way to begin a reign! But, of course, the God of steadfast love will give more than is asked. God will give Solomon, beyond his asking, wealth and honor beyond compare. That is where the exchange is left (except for verse 14 to which I will return). After that the rest is history! It turns out, in subsequent narrative, that Solomon majored in wealth and honor. His temple is an extravaganza of gold. His trade policies flourish so that money flows in like it always does to a superpower.
But of wisdom, not so much! While he is credited with wisdom, the narrative itself shows a foolish overreach of inordinate greed that proves unsustainable. The accumulation of wealth and honor serve to distort the wisdom God has given him so that his heart no longer "listens."
The crux is a surprising verse that begins with an "if" that qualifies all of the foregoing. It is a conditional "if" that echoes the big "if" of Moses at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19:5. It is the "if" of Torah obedience and the keeping of the commandments. We know, moreover, that in this "Deuteronomic" narrative the Torah in purview is the Book of Deuteronomy that specializes in attentive care for widows, orphans and immigrants. Thus the culmination of the dream defines God-given wisdom in a very different way. This wisdom is not successful management or clever rulings or flourishing economy or technological mastery. It is rather attentiveness to the socially, economically vulnerable as the prerequisite for effective governance and power.
As we read this text we have some interpretive options:
- We can take the narrative at face value as is often done in the church, the story of a successful young king.
- We can take the whole as a belated fabrication that wants to legitimate a new mode of public power.
- We can read the text ironically so that the high sounds of modesty, steadfast love, wisdom and discernment mock and contradict the actual performance of monarchy.
Either way, we now read the text in the midst of our own preoccupation with "our next leader," whether Obama or Romney. Things are of course very different in a democratic society that is nothing like an absolute monarchy. Except that we know our political process is filled with choreographed deception. Thank God there is no comparable violence in the democratic process, unless we consider the assault made on the democratic process by the flow of tons of ideological money, or unless we think about the coercive silencing effected through voter repression.
Our new leader or our continuing leader, as the two vie for the seat, promise us a "listening heart," even though enough money tends to dull that listening. When they have finished with due modesty and then wealth and honor, the great divine "if" will persist. It is an "if" that disrupts the rhetoric of noble dreaming. There is not enough money or power or deception or violence or religious legitimacy to nullify that alternative commitment to the vulnerable. Any other wisdom will fail. Thus the wisdom that Solomon did not learn is attentiveness to those for whom God has special attentiveness. There are all kinds of dreams -- of power and money and prestige and control. But the dream of justice for widows, orphans and immigrants is the deep wisdom of Torah obedience!
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.
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