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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
1 Kings 3

 

 

Verses 1-28

THE BOY-KING’S WISDOM

1 Kings 3:1-28

"An oracle is upon the lips of a king."- Proverbs 16:10 (Hebrews).

"A king that sitteth on the throne of judgment scattereth away all evil with his eye."- Proverbs 20:8

"Ch’ei fu Re, che chiese senno Accioche Re sufficiente fosse." DANTE, Parad., 13:95.

"Deos ipsos precor ut mihi ad finem usque vitae quietam et intelligentem humani divinique juris mentem duint."-TAC., Ann., 4:38.

IT would have thrown an interesting light on the character and development of Solomon, if we had been able to conjecture with any certainty what was his age when the death of David made him the unquestioned king. The pagan historian Eupolemos, quoted by Eusebius, says that he was twelve; Josephus asserts that he was fifteen. If Rehoboam was indeed as old as forty-one when he came to the throne, {1 Kings 14:21} Solomon can hardly have been less than twenty at his accession, for in that case he must have been married before David’s death. {1 Kings 11:42} But the reading "forty-one" in 1 Kings 14:21 is altered by some into "twenty-one," and we are left in complete uncertainty. Solomon is called "a child," {1 Kings 3:7} "young and tender"; {1 Chronicles 29:1} but his acts show the full vigor and decision of a man.

The composite character of the Books of Kings leads to some disturbance of the order of events, and 1 Kings 3:1-4 is perhaps inserted to explain Solomon’s sacrifice at the high place of Gibeon, where stood the brazen altar of the old Tabernacle. But no apology is needed for that act. The use of high places, even when they were consecrated to the worship of Jehovah, was regarded in later days as involving principles of danger, and became a grave offence in the eyes of all who took the Deuteronomic standpoint. But high places to Jehovah, as distinct from those dedicated to idols, were not condemned by the earlier prophets, and the resort to them was never regarded as blameworthy before the establishment of the central sanctuary.

After the frightful massacre of the descendants of Aaron at Nob, the old "Tabernacle of the congregation" and the great brazen altar of burnt offerings had been removed to Gibeon from a city defiled by the blood of priests, {1 Samuel 22:17-19} Gibeon stood on a commanding elevation within easy distance of Jerusalem, and was henceforth regarded as "the great high place," until the Temple on Mount Zion was finished. Thither Solomon went in that imposing civil, religious, and military procession of which the tradition may be preserved in the name of Wady Suleiman still given to the adjoining valley. There, with Oriental magnificence, like Xerxes at Troy, he offered what the Greeks called a chiliombc, that is a tenfold hecatomb of burnt offerings. This "thousandfold holocaust," as the Septuagint terms it, must have been a stately and long-continued function, and in approval of his sacrifice Jehovah granted a vision to the youthful king. Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams and ten thousands of rivers of oil, when all the beasts of the forest are His, and the cattle upon a thousand hills?" Thinkest thou," He asked, in the words of the Psalmist, "that I will eat bull’s flesh or drink the blood of goats?" No; but God always accepts a willing sacrifice in accordance with the purpose and sincerity of the giver. In reward for the pure intention of the king He appeared to Solomon in a dream, and said, "Ask what I shall give thee."

The Jews recognized three modes of Divine communication-by dreams, by Urim, and by prophets. The highest and most immediate illumination was the prophetic. The revelation by means of the primitive Urim and Thummim, the oracle and jeweled breast-plate of the high priest, was the poorest, the most elementary, the most liable to abuse. It was analogous to the method used by the Egyptian chief priests, who wore round their necks a sapphire ornament called Thmei, or "truth," for purposes of divination. After the death of David the Urim and Thummim fell into such absolute desuetude, as a survival of primitive times, that we do not read of its being consulted again in a single instance. It is not so much as mentioned during the five centuries of the history of the kings, and we do not hear of it afterwards. Solomon never once inquired of the priests as David did repeatedly in the reign of Solomon the voice of prophecy, too, was silent, until disasters began to cloud its close. Times of material prosperity and autocratic splendor are unfavorable to the prophet’s function, and sometimes, as in the days of Ahab, the prophets themselves "philippised" in Jehovah’s name. But revelation by dreams occurs in all ages. In his prophecy of the great future, Joel says, "Your old men shall see visions, your young men shall dream dreams." It is true that dreams must always have a subjective element, yet, as Aristotle says, "The visions of the noble are better than those of common men." The dreams of night are reflections of the thoughts of day. "Solomon worships God by day; God appears to Solomon by night. Well may we look to enjoy God, when we have served him." Full of the thoughts inspired by an intense devotion, and a yearning desire to rule aright, the sleeping soul of Solomon became bright with eyes, and in his dream he made a worthy answer to the appeal of God.

"Ask what I shall give thee!" That blessed and most loving offer is made to every human soul. To the meanest of us all God flings open the treasuries of heaven. The reason why we fatally lose them is because we are blinded by the glamour of temptation, and snatch instead at glittering bubbles or Dead Sea fruits. We fail to attain the best gifts, because so few of us earnestly desire them, and so many disbelieve the offer that is made of them. Yet there is no living soul to which God has not given the choice of good and evil. "He hath set fire and water before thee: stretch forth thy hand unto whether thou wilt. Before man is life and death; and whether him liketh shall be given him." (Sirach 15:16-17) Even when our choice is not evil it is often desperately frivolous, and it is only too late that we rue the folly of having rejected the better and chosen the worse.

"Damsels of Time the hypocritic days,

Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,

And marching single in an endless file,

Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.

To each they offer gifts after his will, -

Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.

I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,

Forgot my morning wishes; hastily

Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day

Turned and departed silent. I, too late,

Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn."

But Solomon made the wise choice. In his dream he thanked God for His mercifully fulfilled promise to David his father, and with the touchingly humble confession, "I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in," he begged for an understanding heart to judge between right and wrong in guiding his great and countless people.

God was pleased with the noble, unselfish request. The youthful king might have besought the boon of "many days," which was so highly valued before Christ had brought life and immortality to light; or for riches, or for victory over his enemies. Instead of this he had asked for "understanding, to discern judgment," and the lesser gifts were freely accorded him. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." {Matthew 6:33} God promised him that he should be a king of unprecedented greatness. He freely gave him riches and honor, and, conditionally on his continued faithfulness, a long life. The condition was broken, and Solomon was not more than sixty years old when he was called before the God whom he forsook.

"And Solomon awoke, and behold it was a dream." But he knew well that it was also more than a dream, and that "God giveth to His beloved even sleeping."

In reverential gratitude he offered a second sacrifice of burnt offerings before the ark on Mount Zion, and added to them peace offerings, with which he made a great feast to all his servants. Twice again did God appear to Solomon; but the second time it was to warn, and the third time to condemn.

In the parallel account given by the chronicler, Solomon says, "Give me now wisdom and knowledge," and God replies, "Wisdom and knowledge is granted unto thee." There is a wide difference between the two things. Knowledge may come while wisdom still lingers, and wisdom may exist in Divine abundance where knowledge is but scant and superficial. The wise may be as ignorant as St. Antony, or St. Francis of Assisi; the masters of those who know may show as little "wisdom for a man’s self" as Abelard, or as Francis Bacon. "Among the Jews one set of terms does service to express both intellectual and moral wisdom. The ‘wise’ man means the righteous man; the ‘fool’ is one who is godless. Intellectual terms that describe knowledge are also moral terms describing life." No doubt in the ultimate senses of the words there can be no true knowledge, as there can be no perfect wisdom, without goodness. This was a truth with which Solomon himself became deeply impressed. "The fear of the Lord," he said, "is the beginning of wisdom but fools despise knowledge and understanding." The lineaments of "a fool" are drawn in the Book of Proverbs and they bear the impress of moral baseness and moral aberrations.

To Solomon both boons were given, "wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore." Of his many forms of intellectual eminence I will speak later on. What he longed for most was evidently moral insight and practical sagacity. He felt that "through justice shall the throne be established."

1. Practical wisdom was eminently needed for the office of a judge. Judgeship was a main function of Eastern royalty, and rulers were called Shophe-tim or judges. The reality of the gift which Solomon had received from God was speedily to be tested. Two harlots came before him. One had overlaid her child in the night, and stealing the living child of the other she put her dead child in its place. There was no evidence to be had. It was simply the bare word of one disreputable woman against the bare word of the other. With instant decision, and a flash of insight into the springs of human actions, Solomon gave the apparently childish order to cut the children in two, and divide them between the claimants. The people laughed and the delinquent accepted the horrible decision; but the mother of the living child yearned for her babe, and she cried out, "O my lord, give, her the living babe, and no wise slay it." "Give her the living babe, and in no wise slay it," murmured the king to himself, repeating the mother’s words; and then he burst out with the triumphant verdict, "Give her the living child! She is the mother thereof!"

The story has several parallels. It is said by Diodorus Siculus that when three youths came before Ariopharnes, King of Thrace, each claiming to be the only son of the King of the Cimmerians, he ordered them each to hurl a javelin at their father’s corpse. Two obeyed, one refused, and Ariopharnes at once proclaimed him to be the true son. Similarly an Indian story tells that a woman, before she bathed, left her child on the bank of the pool, and a female demon carried it off. The goddess, before whom each claimed the child, ordered them to pull it in two between them, and consigned it to the mother who shuddered at the test. A judgment similarly founded on filial instinct is attributed to the Emperor Claudius. A mother refused to acknowledge her son; and as there were no proofs Claudius ordered her to marry the youth, whereupon she was obliged to acknowledge that he was her son.

Modern critics, wise after the event, express themselves very slightingly of the amount of intelligence required for the decision; but the people saw the value of the presence of mind and rapid intuition which settled the question by bringing an individual dilemma under the immediate arbitrament of a general law. They rejoiced to recognize the practical wisdom which God had given to their young king. The word Chokhmah, which is represented by one large section of Jewish literature, implied the practical intelligence derived from insight or experience, the power to govern oneself and others. Its conclusions were expressed chiefly in a gnomic form, and they pass through various stages in the Sapiential Books of the Old Testament. The chief books of the Chokhmah are the Books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, followed by such books as "Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus." On the Divine side Wisdom is the Spirit of God, regarded by man under the form of Providence; {#/RAPC Wisdom of Solomon 1:4; Wisdom of Solomon 1:7; Wisdom of Solomon 7:7; Wisdom of Solomon 7:22; Wisdom of Solomon 9:17} and on the human side it is trustworthy knowledge of the things that are (id. 7:17). It is, in fact, "a knowledge of Divine and human things, and of their causes". {#/RAPC 4 Maccabees 2:16} This branch of wisdom could be repeatedly shown by Solomon at the city gate and in the hall of judgment.

2. His varied intellectual wisdom created deeper astonishment. He spake, we are told, "of trees from the cedar which is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts and fowl and of creeping things and of fishes." This knowledge has been misunderstood and exaggerated by later tradition. It is expanded in the Book of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon 8:17) into a perfect knowledge of cosmogony, astronomy, the alterations of solstices, the cycles of years, the natures of wild beasts, the forces of spirits, the reasonings of men, the diversities of plants. Solomon became to Eastern legend

"The warrior-sage, whose restless mind

Through nature’s mazes wandered unconfined,

Who every bird, and beast, and insect knew,

And spake of every plant that quaffs the dew."

His knowledge, however, does not seem to have been even empirically scientific. It consisted in the moral and religious illustration of truth by emblems derived from nature. He surpassed, we are told, the ethnic gnomic wisdom of all the children of the East-the Arabians and Chaldaeans and all the vaunted scientific and mystic wisdom of Egypt. Ethan and Heman were Levitic poets and musicians; Chalcol and Darda were "sons of the choir," i.e., poets (Luther), or sacred singers; and all four were famed for wisdom; but Solomon excelled them all. Of his one thousand and five songs, the majority were probably secular. Only two psalms are even traditionally assigned to him. Of his three thousand proverbs not more than two hundred survive, even if all in the Book of Proverbs be his. Tradition adds that he was a master of "riddles" or "dark sayings," by which he won largely in fines from Hiram, whom he challenged for their solution, until the Tyrian king defeated him by the aid of a sharp youth named Abdemon. Specimens of these riddles with their answers may be found in the Book of Proverbs, {Proverbs 11:22; Proverbs 24:30-34; Proverbs 25:25; Proverbs 26:8; Proverbs 30:15} for the Hebrew word "proverb" (Mashal) probably means originally, an illustration. This book also contains various ambiguous hard sayings of which the skilful construction awoke admiration and stimulated thought. {E.g., Proverbs 6:10} The Queen of Sheba is said to have tested Solomon by riddles. The tradition gradually spread in the East that Solomon was also skilled in magic arts, that he knew the language of the birds, and possessed a seal which gave him mastery over the genii. In the Book of Wisdom he is made to say, "All such things as are either secret or manifest, them I know." Josephus attributes to him the formulae and spells of exorcism, and in Ecclesiastes 2:8 the words rendered "musical instruments" (shiddah and shiddoth; R.V, "concubines very many") were understood by the Rabbis to mean that he was the lord over male and female demons.

3. Far more precious than practical or intellectual ability is the gift of moral wisdom, which Solomon so greatly appreciated but so imperfectly attained. Yet he felt that "wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom." The world gives that name to many higher and lower manifestations of capacity and attainment, but wisdom is in Scripture the one law of all true life. In that magnificent outburst of Semitic poetry, the twenty-eighth chapter of the Book of Job, after pointing out that there is such a thing as natural knowledge-that there is a vein for the silver, and ore of gold, and a place of sapphires, and reservoirs of subterranean fire-the writer asks: "But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?" After showing with marvelous power that it is beyond man’s unaided search-that the depths and the seas say, "It is not in us," and destruction and death have but heard the fame thereof with their ears - he adds with one great crash of concluding music "GOD understandeth the way thereof, and He knoweth the place thereof And unto man He said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding." {Job 28:23; Job 28:28} And again we read, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." {Proverbs 1:7} The sated cynic of the Book of the Ecclesiastes, or one who had studied, not without dissatisfaction, his sad experience, adds, "Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man." And in answer to the question "Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you?" St. James, the Lord’s brother, who had evidently been a deep student of the Sapiential literature, does not answer "He who understands all mysteries," or, "He who speaks with the tongue of men or of angels," but, "Let him show out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom." Men whom the world has deemed wise have often fallen into utter infatuation, as it is Written, "He taketh the wise in their own craftiness"; but heavenly wisdom may belong to the most ignorant and simple hearted. It is "first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, without partiality and without hypocrisy."

We should observe, however, that the Chokhmah, or wisdom-literature of the Jews, while it incessantly exalts morality, and sometimes almost attains to a perception of the spiritual life, was neither prophetic nor priestly in its character. It bears the same relation to the teaching of the prophets on the one hand, and the priests on the other, as morality does to religion and to externalism. Its teaching is loftier and truer than the petty insistence of Pharisaism on meats and drinks and divers washings, in that it deals with the weightier matters of the law; but it does not attain to the passionate spirituality of the greater Hebrew seers. It cares next to nothing for ritual, and therefore rises above the developed Judaism of the post-exilic epoch. It is lofty and true inasmuch as it breathes the spirit of the Ten Commandments, but it has not learnt the freedom of love and the beatitudes of perfect union with God. In one word, it finds its culmination in Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus, rather than in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospel of St. John.

We cannot better conclude this chapter than with the eulogy of the son of Sirach: "Solomon reigned in a peaceable time and was honored; for God made all quiet round about him, that he might build a house in His name and prepare His sanctuary forever. How wise wast thou in thy youth, and as a flood, filled with understanding! Thy soul covered the whole earth, and thou filledst it with dark parables. Thy name went far unto the islands, and for thy peace thou wast beloved. The countries marveled at thee for thy songs, and proverbs, and parables, and interpretations. By the name of the Lord God, who is called the Lord God of Israel, thou didst gather gold as tin, and didst multiply silver as lead (Sirach 47:13-18)."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Kings 3:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/1-kings-3.html.

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Thursday, May 28th, 2020
the Seventh Week after Easter
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