In preaching on this story or any part of the narrative literature of the Old Testament, it is absolutely crucial to remember what we are dealing with here. This is not modern historiography, in which economic, political, or military factors play the major role in explaining the course of human events, although, of course, plenty of attention is paid to those factors. This is not classic biography, in which the focus is on the character and achievements of the major players, although, of course, the Bible gives us some rich characters in its stories. These stories are not Aesop’s fables, fairy tales designed to teach us some helpful morals about how to act, although there are plenty of moral lessons that can be drawn from these stories.
Rather, this is theological history, a form of preaching, in which the ways of God with his people are the main focus. In I Kings, as with the rest of this genre of biblical literature, it is the covenant that determines a king’s success, whether he and his people loved the Lord their God, kept his commandments, and trusted his promises, that is, whether they were faithful covenant partners.
I and II Kings, in particular, were written to the Exiles in Babylon to explain to them how they ended up in their sorry state. How could this happen to God’s chosen people? Well, it’s a long and complicated story, but it is primarily the story of covenant breakers who experienced the very chastening God had promised from the beginning of their covenant relationship.
To put this in modern terms, the biblical story is the counter story to the narrative that dominates the media of our day. Perhaps it is better to say that the stories we read in I Kings and elsewhere in the narrative of the OT are “the rest of the story” (as Paul Harvey used to say), or the deeper story. That is not to say that what we see and hear on TV or the Internet is fake news, though some of it undoubtedly is. It is to say that the news that determines so much of our belief and our behavior simply isn’t the Good News that the Bible aims tell, the story of God’s loving intervention in the human tragedy by sending his own Son to save the world. Now, that Good News may seem a long way from our reading in I Kings today, but it really isn’t. Let me encourage you to find that Good News and preach it.
Our lesson for today begins with I Kings 2:10-12, but there is much more to the story than that little vignette. After reigning for 40 years, David dies and his son Solomon takes the throne which is allegedly secure. However, in the verses before this succession story, we have David giving his son a strong charge in verses 1-9. As a faithful covenant-keeping king, David summarizes the theme of the story of Israel in a few verses: obey God, walk in his ways, and God will keep his promises to you and you will prosper. But then like a typical Middle Eastern sovereign, David charges Solomon with settling accounts with Joab and Shimei, scoundrels in the story, and with Barzillai, a supporter of David.
In the verses following the succession account (2:10-12), and just before the rest of our reading, Solomon does what his father has asked. He clears the field of all potential rivals (most notably his half-brother, Adonijah) and anyone who had been a thorn in David’s side (Joab and Shimei). At last, says the story, “The Kingdom was now firmly established in Solomon’s hand (I Kings 2:46).” But Solomon wasn’t quite done with taking care of business. To further consolidate his Kingdom, he contracted a political marriage with the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt and he worshiped God profusely on the high places of Gibeon (3:1,2).
Now it is time for our lovely prayer story (3:3-14). But before we go there, note what kind of man Solomon was– a man standing in the need of prayer. While he was an obedient son and a lover of God who already had shown some wisdom (his father called him “wise” in 2:6 and 9), he was more shrewd than wise and he was as ruthless and hard as his father. Even worse, he blatantly and frequently married foreign women, even though his covenant Lord had strictly forbidden such marriages as his people entered the Land. And worst of all, he worshipped on the high places of Gibeon. Yes, the tabernacle was there, but these high places where formerly places of pagan worship. God had explicitly forbidden worship on those places, because such worship opened his people to the temptation of syncretism. Those marriages and that worship would prove to be the undoing of Solomon’s secure Kingdom.
Thus, he was, indeed, a man standing in the need of prayer. And what a pray-er he was. His prayer in verses 6-9 is such a perfect prayer that many preachers have treated this story as “a classic lesson in prayer.” Even though God invites him to pray a simple prayer of petition (“ask),” Solomon begins his prayer with praise and thanksgiving for the kindness (covenant love) God has shown (verse 6). Then, he shows great humility by correctly assessing his own disabilities (verse 7 and 8). Finally, he demonstrates that he knows the difference between selfish wants and God honoring needs (verse 9). Instead of asking for things that would make his own life more comfortable and glorious, he asks for the one thing that will bless the people and honor God. What a prayer! You could preach a whole sermon on the shape of that prayer.
And you could spend fruitful homiletical time on the subject of wisdom. It is, indeed, what we need to navigate the complexities of life. It is more than intelligence, more than an encyclopedic grasp of multiple facts, more, even, than a practical understanding of how life should be lived. Wisdom has a relational component; the heart of it is the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7, et al). It has an ethical component; Solomon prays for the ability to discern between right and wrong. And it has an emotional component, the ability to govern one’s emotions and desires. With wisdom, we might live in relational harmony, ethical correctness, and emotional control. What a gift that would be! Who shouldn’t pray for that?
No wonder God was pleased with Solomon. He gave him his heart’s desire and much more—a wisdom so deep that Solomon would become famous for it, and (surprise!) the riches and honor that Solomon hadn’t asked for. Scholars point out that the wisdom from God was precisely what gained that wealth and honor for Solomon. Then God added one more blessing in response to Solomon’s wise prayer for wisdom—long life. Except that God added one condition to that blessing. In that condition, we hear that theme of covenant faithfulness again. And we hear rumblings of a coming trouble. “If you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as your father David did, I will give you a long life.” Well, Solomon only lived about 60 years, precisely because he didn’t walk in God ways and obey his commands. Think of those foreign wives and the syncretistic religions they introduced into Solomon’s life.
Again, it was the keeping or breaking of the covenant that determined Solomon’s success or failure. So, your sermon on this text should not be first of all on the perfection of Solomon’s prayer or the necessity of wisdom, though a thorough exposition of the text cannot ignore those things. Rather, your sermon should be about the grace of God to his covenant partners. In the same way that God had chosen and elevated David, God elevated and equipped Solomon. Note how God is the initiator in this story. Even though Solomon came to God as a sinner (the marriage and the worship are both well -intentioned but wrong), God in his grace overlooked that sin and came to Solomon with both a gracious offer and an even more gracious blessing. “Ask for whatever you want from me.” “I will do what you have asked” and more. And that more includes long life, if….
In other words, living as a faithful covenant partner, as a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ, demands more than wisdom, because we are all deeply flawed people. The New Testament commands us to ask for wisdom and promises that we’ll get it (James 1:5). But even the wisdom of Solomon, though vast, was limited in its ability to save him from his sins. Only Jesus can do that. In Jesus “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom” (Colossians 2:3). It takes more than wisdom to live a life pleasing to God; it takes Jesus. Here’s the Gospel response to this Old Testament story. “It is because of him (God in his electing love) that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption (I Corinthians 1:30).”
Yes, we need wisdom. Our leaders need wisdom. So, we should pray for wisdom for ourselves and for them. But God has a greater gift than wisdom for a fallen race. He gives Jesus and invites us to ask that he will be our Savior and Lord. With him, we get wisdom and honor and wealth of a spiritual kind and long life that never ends.
Most children will have seen Disney’s version of “Aladdin and His Magic Lamp,” so retelling that fictional tale might be a way to capture their attention as you preach on this historical story in I Kings. The differences will be instructive. The Aladdin story was part of the Arabian Nights anthology, the Solomon story is part of sacred Scripture. The Aladdin character gets three wishes, while Solomon is invited to pray for one thing. Aladdin asks for things that will benefit him alone, while Solomon asks for the one thing that will benefit the Kingdom of God. Most importantly, the powerful figure in the Aladdin story is a genie, a sort of spirit/demon/angel figure, while the central power in Solomon’s story is Yahweh, the creator of heaven and earth and the redeemer of fallen humanity.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 19, 2018
1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14 Commentary