Things didn’t end right.
1 Kings reports that God was angry. Very, very, angry. So much so that God says, “Since this has been your mind and you have not kept my covenant and my statues that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant.” (11:11) Why? What was this person’s mind? Chapter 11 of 1 Kings says, “So [the king] did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and did not completely follow the LORD…[he] built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who offered incense and sacrificed to their gods.” (11:6-8)
Business advisors and leadership gurus say to begin with the end in mind. Undoubtedly, this was not the ending the king had hoped for. His kingdom, the Kingdom of Israel, was in active rebellion by the end. Because of the practice of forced labor, a leader of a labor team had risen up, armed many of the slaves, and begun a civil war. The people are sympathetic to the rebellion because they’ve been taxed heavily for infrastructure projects. When the taxation first came, it was to build the temple. But the money was used first to build the king’s palace and only last to build the temple.
The king has been worshipping foreign gods, in direct violation of the law, because of the influence of his foreign wives, which is also a violation of the law. Deuteronomy specifically forbids the practice, even naming by name some of the nations from whom the king’s wives had come.
The kingdom is facing ruin and division. And in fact, when the king dies, the kingdom divided just as God said: only one tribe remained with the king’s son. It took three to four hundred years for the sins of this king to be reversed. A king who had begun his reign with so much promise. A king who had an amazing international reputation. A king who had brought stability and made Israel an honest nation. A king who certainly began his reign with an end in mind: an end of having lived out Godly wisdom as king, but that end did not come about. Instead, the kingdom was worse off than it was the beginning.
And that king was Solomon.
Today, we read the scripture of Solomon asking for wisdom, the beginning of his reign. But we cannot consider that scripture without considering the fullness of his reign, from start to finish. And in doing so, we’ll discover a lesson for us about Godly wisdom: what it means to ask for it, what it means to have it, and what our responsibility is to it.
Hear now 1 Kings 2:10-12 and 3:3-14
Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David. The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established.
Then to chapter 3, verse 3:
Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statues of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place: Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, 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, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 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? It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statues, and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”
Memory and legend of Solomon present to us a king who was wise beyond anyone before or since, just as God says in the scripture this morning. We know the tale of Solomon threatening to split a baby in order to determine the real mother. Less famous is his administrative structuring and excellent diplomacy skills that brought peace, wealth, and stability to his kingdom. Solomon was an excellent administrator, an able ruler, and a skilled diplomat. He was the perfect king for Israel in many respects. And Israel never soared as high before, nor after, his rule.
How did it all go so wrong? What happened to the wisdom God gave Solomon? Scripture says that Solomon received wisdom such that “no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you,” according to verse 12. The wisdom literature of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes is traditionally ascribed to him and was certainly written in memory of his wisdom. The book that bears his name, Song of Solomon, also attributes to him great wisdom in human relationships. He understood the way of things. He could see the right course to take.
But he chose the wrong actions. At moments, his reign looked more like House of Cards than the West Wing. In the verses in chapter 2 that our scripture skipped this morning, Solomon vanquishes his political enemies through ruthless efficiency. He does so in part to secure his throne and in part to follow his father’s dying wish. Just before passing away, at the beginning of chapter two, David tells his son two things. First, respect God and follow him always. Second, remove certain individuals from your kingdom for they are political threats.
And that’s because palace intrigue has created two factions. When David falls ill, the nation descends into anarchy. Adonijah, as the oldest living son, attempts to set himself up as king. Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, and the prophet Nathan, convince a sick and feeble David to agree that Solomon is the rightful next king. Then they rush him off to the priest Zadok to be anointed as king in a ceremony of questionable legitimacy.
Solomon becomes king, then, under challenging circumstances. It’s no wonder he asks for wisdom as he speaks to God at Gibeah. His throne isn’t secure at this point, even with his vanquished enemies. He lacks the traditional symbols of being God’s chosen king: wealth, power, and age. And so he asks for wisdom to know how to lead.
God grants it, and in between the beginning and the end of his reign, he shows remarkable wisdom. But his reign is bookended by a severe lack of wisdom, by violence, and by anarchy or rebellion. How did this happen?
When Georges Clemenceau of France, David Lloyd George of England, and Woodrow Wilson of the United States gathered at the palace of Versailles in 1919, things didn’t end up the way they had envisioned.
World War I had ended and the three of them represented the victors. But it wasn’t much of a victory to celebrate. World War I shocked the world. We tend to forget that now because World War II ended up being so much worse. But at the time, the world had never seen such a brutal, destructive, terrifying, war. New inventions of air forces and chemical weapons were used for the first time to devastating effect. Artillery and tanks came into wide scale use for the first time, as well, and the world saw first hand how terrible their inventions were.
To these three leaders was tasked the terms of a lasting peace. The world eagerly anticipated that Clemenceau, George, and Wilson, some of the wisest and most well-regarded leaders the world had known, could accomplish just such a feat.
Wilson wanted to set up all the nations for success in the future, believing that prosperous nations were safe nations. Clemenceau, George, and their allies saw things differently and their way carried the day. They wanted significant punishment and shame put upon their opponents. That’s exactly what they got, but the results of their actions went far beyond their expectations and proved their actions in this treaty to be not wise, but foolish.
The Versailles Treaty, as it came to be known, can be traced as a root cause of much of the suffering of the world in the twentieth century.
⁃ The economic sanctions they enacted against Germany and her allies were a contributing factor in the Great Depression, worsening and elongating the worst economic crisis in modern history.
⁃ The treaty enacted severe political punishment and societal shame on Germany, Italy, and their allies. This fact set the stage and fueled the rise of first, Benito Mussolini, and later, Adolf Hitler, to use their country’s hatred of the treaty, and hatred of France and Great Britain, to rise to power. In doing so, Versailles created hostile, fascist, countries that would, twenty years later, start World War II, a war far more destructive, more catastrophic, and more deadly, than the first.
Not only this, but in the gallery for much of the proceedings of the treaty was a young man studying government at the Sorbonne, the University of Paris. He’d come from his native country to see democracy first hand, believing that he was destined for leadership of his country one day and thinking hard about leading that country toward democracy. When the treaty was enacted, this young man was disgusted with these leaders of the world’s greatest democracies. That disgust eventually turned to disdain for democracy itself. That young man, when he did rise to power, choose communism as his government and the Soviet Union as his ally. That young man was Ho Chi Minh.
The treaty of Versailles set the stage for the Great Depression, World War II, and even the Vietnam War. Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George, in their quest for vengeance and revenge against their enemies created the basis for so much suffering across the world over the next several decades.
These men, throughout their careers, had shown remarkable wisdom. But their actions demonstrate the foolishness of their quest for vengeance. How did this happen?
The question we’ve been asking is how can wise people do such foolish things? These two examples of Solomon and the Versailles Treaty are two of many. We ourselves can think of other world leaders and even of people we know personally who have great wisdom to them but have also done incredibly foolish things.
When we act in Godly wisdom, powerful and wonderful things happen. We see that lived out through Solomon’s reign. But when we fail to do so, we see the consequences can be disastrous, especially over time. Scripture reports that, as Solomon’s wealth, status, and power grew, he grew more and more complacent. He lived a lavish lifestyle, doing whatever he pleased. That complacency stretched into his religious devotion.
And because he grew less and less disciplined in his faith, he made more and more choices for idolatry and the enslavement of his own people. It’s fair to compare him to the kings of the old tale of Robin Hood. After securing his throne, he was much like the fabled King Richard: beloved of his people, making his country stronger and more stable, winning militarily and especially diplomatically. The people prospered. But over time, Solomon grew from King Richard into Prince John, enjoying his lifestyle, concerned primarily for himself, while his people suffered and withered away under taxation and forced labor.
That complacency led him to squander the gift of wisdom he had been given. This gift from God was not a one time gift of all the wisdom he could ever need. It was, rather, a gift of a resource that could be properly employed or squandered depending on Solomon’s actions. God makes clear the conditions of this gift in verse 14 when he tells Solomon that he must “[keep] my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked…” pledging to lengthen his life as a result; an ancient way of saying that his throne will be secure and he will rule supreme as God’s chosen king if he maintained allegiance to God. Solomon receives this resource of wisdom, but he must manage it properly.
Wisdom, here, is like any other resource we might receive. It’s like a gift of land. Managed properly, land can prosper us but, managed incorrectly, it can become a liability. It’s like a gift of money. Invested wisely, it can make us prosper for years to come but, managed incorrectly, it can become a source of ruin. It’s like a gift of health. If we take care of our bodies, they will treat us well for years to come and we can look forward to long life but, if we do not take care of our bodies, it can quickly become a liability and a source of tremendous pain.
Wisdom is a resource. We can tend to think of Solomon has having received a gift that we do not have nor can ever have. We tend to think of it as a one time affair. But this is not the case. We can choose God’s wisdom the way Solomon did.
James tells us, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” If we ask for wisdom, it will be given to us. The Holy Spirit who lives within us grants us that wisdom, that spirit of discernment, that tells us what to do when we’re unsure. All we need to do is pray and wait with patience for the answer to come. It will come, for where we need wisdom, God is faithful to provide.
God comes to us, through Christ, as God came to Solomon saying, “Ask what I should give you.” John 14:14 records Jesus saying, “if in my name you ask for anything, I will do it.” Where we need wisdom in our lives, James and John tell us it will be provided. We have the same opportunity Solomon had and, through the Holy Spirit’s discernment in our lives, we can receive the wisdom we need to live our lives rightly.
That’s a powerful word for today, for it means this: Do you need wisdom for your health? Ask for it and you’ll receive it. Do you need wisdom for care of a family member? Ask for it and you’ll receive it. Do you need wisdom for managing your finances? Ask for it and you’ll receive it. Do you need wisdom as a parent? Ask for it and you’ll receive it. Do you need wisdom for managing your land or business or leadership? Ask for it and you’ll receive it. Do you need wisdom in your life today? Ask for it and you’ll receive it!
It will be granted to you. But the gift of wisdom we receive, in God’s timing, is like resources of money, power, health, and relationships: we are stewards of God’s resource. It must be managed wisely.
When we ask for God’s wisdom, we must ask as Solomon did and then do what Solomon failed to do: stay in love with God. If we are drifting away in our faith, if we are wavering in our commitment to our relationship with Christ, if we’re failing to seek after God daily with all that we are and all that we have, it becomes harder and harder to hear wisdom from God. Where we have sin in our lives and realize it, we must repent, as Solomon failed to do of his idolatry.
Only through maintaining our discipleship, our allegiance to God, only through growing in holiness can we avoid the idolatrous actions of Solomon that led to disaster and the complacency of his faith.
This is how wise people can take foolish actions: complacency in their relationship with God and failing to confess sins. Solomon, throughout his reign, failed to confess his idolatry and reform the ways he broke the law. We all fail to keep up the standard to which God calls us, but that failing must be followed by repentance once we realize that we have failed, and a renewal of our discipline in relationship with Christ to correct complacency.
And sometimes the distance we’ve allowed in our relationship with God is so great that we need wisdom to know how to follow Christ again. Be bold! Ask for that wisdom! God is forgiving, always ready to welcome back with open arms.
This morning, if complacency characterizes your relationship with God, leave it behind and become more disciplined. Signing up for the adult confirmation class is a great way to learn how to become more disciplined in your relationship with God. Set aside time daily for prayer, scripture reading, meditation, worship, or whatever way you intentionally connect yourself to God. This is not praying while driving or while doing chores. While that’s great, a faith that is not complacent demands that we give God the gift of some of our time, another resource entrusted to us. Make an offering of your time to God to avoid complacency.
And if you have unconfessed sin in your life, repent of it. If you can look behind you and see a trail of disasters, perhaps there’s some sin that you need to admit to yourself and to God. Perhaps there are practices that you’ve convinced yourself aren’t really that bad. One can imagine that Solomon had convinced himself that his occasional idolatry wasn’t really that bad, especially because it kept his wives happy and made his diplomacy easier. But sin always creates separation, so ensure that you have confessed and choose to repent, which means to literally do a 180, turning away from the sin.
The good news this morning is this: where you need wisdom, God is gracious and good to provide it. Ask for it, and in God’s timing, you will receive the wisdom you need. Then the trick to wisdom is to manage it properly. Stay in love with God, don’t allow complacency to creep in, and continually confess of your sins.
Solomon’s story ended tragically. His choices were both for good and for bad but, in the final analysis, his kingship did more harm than good. He had great wisdom at his disposal, but he chose to squander it.
Don’t squander that gift. Wisdom is a resource, given by God. We can make the choice to access that wisdom and it can change our future for the better. That was the promise of the wisdom given to Solomon by God. That’s a promise we can claim today. So claim it, ask for wisdom, and be disciplined in your faith.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.