This sermon is part of the sermon series "The King Takes His Throne: Solomon's Rise to Power". See series.
If you could wish for anything in the world, what would it be? Some people wish they had different abilities. Others wish for a change in their life circumstances. There is something they have that they wish they didn't have, or something they don't have that they wish they had. What would your wish be?
The 2005 television reality show "Three Wishes" asked that question in small towns across America. Then, in each heart-warming episode, the producers made wishes come true, choosing three people to receive the one thing they wanted more than anything else in life. The application said, "We are looking for emotional stories of people in need. We want to help deserving people—people who always help others, but never think of themselves." Then it asked the big question: "If you had one wish in the world and could ask for absolutely anything from the heart, what would it be?"
The television producers said that money was no object, which may explain why the show was canceled after only one season: making wishes come true can get very expensive. But what if your biggest wish really could come true? What if the person asking what you wanted had infinite resources? What if you were King Solomon and God said, "Ask what I shall give you"? What wish would you make from the heart?
A man after David's heart
To understand Solomon's wish, we need to know what kind of man he was. Solomon had ascended the throne of his father David—not by his own ambition, but by the sacred anointing of Almighty God. After only a short time in power, it was evident that he had the courage to lead. Solomon had established his kingdom by eliminating his enemies, so we know that he is politically savvy, a man of action. But what kind of person is he inside, in the spiritual life of his soul?
The Bible describes him as a man after David's own heart: "Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father" (1 Kings 3:3). This is virtually the highest praise any person could ever receive. Solomon's heart was full of holy affections for the living God. He adored the divine being, responding to God emotionally. He felt a deep spiritual longing in his soul, a passionate yearning for a closer relationship to God.
Love is more than a feeling, however, and Solomon's love for God was expressed in many tangible and practical ways. He often worshiped God, and when he worshiped, he devoutly offered many costly sacrifices: "And the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place. Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar" (1 Kings 3:4). Imagine the great expense and extraordinary labor involved in sacrificing a thousand animals on the altar of God. Solomon proved his love for God through sacrifice.
This was a close and personal relationship, for when Solomon made his sacrifices, God appeared to him and spoke with him (see 1 Kings 3:5). When Solomon spoke in turn to God, he expressed his affection through prayer: "You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David my father, 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 this day" (1 Kings 3:6).
Solomon's affectionate prayer is a model for our own love life with the living God. Ask the Holy Spirit to stir your heart with holy affections, giving you a longing to be with Jesus. Then show your love in all the practical ways that Solomon showed it. Meet with God often in worship, both publicly and privately. As you worship, make costly personal sacrifices to promote the glory of the God you love. John Piper writes:
The way of love is both the way of self-denial and the way of ultimate joy. We deny ourselves the fleeting pleasures of sin and luxury and self-absorption in order to seek the kingdom above all things. In doing so we bring the greatest good to others, we magnify the worth of Christ as a treasure chest of joy, and we find our greatest satisfaction. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. And the supremacy of that glory shines most brightly when the satisfaction that we have in him endures in spite of suffering and pain in the mission of love.
As you worship and give, praise God as much as you can for what he has done for your family. Rehearse the ways that God has blessed you by blessing people in past generations. Then celebrate his steadfast love in your own life, the promises he has made and kept for your salvation. When was the last time you told God how much you love him for saving you from an eternity of misery? In his Personal Narrative,Jonathan Edwards often celebrated the love of God with rapturous joy. These words are typical of his religious affections:
I have sometimes had a sense of the excellent fullness of Christ, and his meekness and suitableness as a Savior; whereby he has appeared to me, far above all, the chief of ten thousands. His blood and atonement have appeared sweet, and his righteousness sweet; which was always accompanied with ardency of spirit; and inward strugglings and breathings, and groanings that cannot be uttered, to be emptied of myself, and swallowed up in Christ.
Jonathan Edwards was a man of singular devotion, and some Christians may rarely, if ever, reach the heights of his spiritual passion. But we can all worship, we can all pray, we can all give out of love for Christ. And we can ask the Holy Spirit to make us better lovers, giving us more love for Jesus.
As much as he loved the Lord, there are ominous warning signs that Solomon's love was not wholehearted. The traditional view of 1 Kings is that the king was faithful until the last years of his life. If we study his life more carefully, however, we see signs of his eventual downfall, especially in his love for money, sex, and power.
The first warning sign in chapter 3 is Solomon's choice of a life partner: "Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt. He took Pharaoh's daughter and brought her into the city of David until he had finished building his own house and the house of the LORD and the wall around Jerusalem" (1 Kings 3:1).
This union was problematic in several ways. Since we have no reason to think that Pharaoh's daughter had faith in the God of Israel, we can only conclude that Solomon was unequally yoked. This is not an issue of ethnicity, but of spirituality. The Bible fully supports the union of two people from different ethnic backgrounds, but it condemns the marriage of a believer to an unbeliever (see Exod. 34:15-16; Deut. 7:3-4). It is hardly surprising that marrying outside the faith eventually led Solomon into idolatry (see 1 Kings 11:1-8), that the very king who once was said to "love the Lord" is later said to "love many foreign women" (1 Kings 11:1). His poor example is a warning for Christians not to pursue a romantic relationship with anyone who is not committed to Christ. As Matthew Henry comments, "Unequal matches of the sons of God with the daughters of men have often been of pernicious consequence."
Another problem with this marriage was that it formed an unholy alliance with Egypt, of all places. A royal marriage like this was intended to secure a political and military alliance. By marrying Pharaoh's daughter, Solomon was trying to help Israel become a player on the stage of international politics. He was seduced by power as well as by sex. But the Bible takes a dim view of this kind of power play, which was often a temptation for Israel. God wanted his people to trust in him alone for their salvation, rather than trying to find their security by aligning themselves with foreign powers like Egypt. By becoming Pharaoh's son-in-law, Solomon was turning to Egypt, a nation that was "the antithesis of everything Israelite," a place that in the Bible "bespeaks brutality, exploitation, and bondage, the demeaning of the human spirit, and the suppression of covenantal relations." Going back to Egypt may or may not have been a good political decision, but it was certainly a bad decision spiritually; for although the Bible later gives precious promises for their future salvation (e.g. Isa. 19:19-25; Ezek. 29:13-16), the Egyptians had always been enemies to the people of God. This too is a warning for us—a warning not to try to advance our position by joining spiritual forces with worldly people who are working against the kingdom of God.
There also seems to be a warning sign in the way that Solomon worshiped. Verse 1 mentions his great life's work of building a house for God, the temple in Jerusalem. Yet it also mentions that Solomon built a house for himself, and as we shall discover, he spent more time and money on his own house than he did on the house that he built for God (compare 1 Kings 6 with the opening verses of 1 Kings 7). Solomon's heart was tempted by the love of money.
Verse 2 explains that until Solomon built his temple, "The people were sacrificing at the high places … because no house had yet been built for the name of the LORD" (1 Kings 3:2). Like his people, Solomon "sacrificed and made offerings at the high places. And the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place" (1 Kings 3:3-4). Apparently, the king and his people were worshiping in the name of the one true God. Yet the term "high place" (bemah) has extremely negative connotations in the Old Testament, especially in 1 and 2 Kings, where all of its other uses are pejorative (e.g. 2 Kings 14:4; 15:35). The high places were elevations where people worshiped, and before long they became inextricably associated with pagan idolatry. Furthermore, verse 3 seems to present Solomon's worship at the high places as an exception to his love for the Lord: "Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father, only he sacrificed and made offerings at the high places" (1 Kings 3:3; emphasis added). The word "only" (raq) is restrictive, indicating that what follows is some sort of exception—in this case, an idolatrous exception to Solomon's love for the Lord.
Perhaps at this early stage of Israel's history, before the temple was built, it was acceptable for people to worship at the high places. After all, where else could they worship? And when Solomon made his sacrifices at the great high place of Gibeon, he did have a direct personal encounter there with the living God.
On the other hand, the Lord's appearance at Gibeon says more about his grace than about Solomon's obedience. The Law of Moses (which David commended to Solomon in 1 Kings 2:3) explicitly commanded the people of God to destroy the high places of pagan idolatry: "You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree ….You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way" (Deut. 12:2, 4). Instead of worshiping at the old high places, the people were called to worship God at his chosen place in Jerusalem: "But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices" (Deut. 12:5-6). Their worshiping God at the high places is an ominous foreshadowing of their coming apostasy, for both Solomon and his people would later go back to the high places and commit idolatry (see 1 Kings 11:7-8).
Solomon was a lot like us. He loved the Lord, but he also had some other loves in his life—sinful passions that had the power to destroy his spiritual leadership. He did not love the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, and strength (see Deut. 6:4). So while there is some truth to the view that his life started out more positive spiritually, before ending up more negative, the deeper truth is that, like every believer, he was always as much a sinner as he was a saint.
We face the same struggle. In the famous words of Martin Luther, each of us is simul iustus et peccator—at the same time both righteous and a sinner. Through faith in Jesus Christ, and on the basis of his perfect life and atoning death, we are perfectly righteous in the sight of God. Yet for as long as we live in this sinful world, we will continue to struggle with remaining sin. This means that the warning signs of our own tragic downfall are present right in our own hearts.
Solomon's wise request
This is what Solomon so famously asked for: the wisdom of God. The king made his wise request in the context of a dream. He had been offering a thousand sacrifices at Gibeon, and as he worshiped, "the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, 'Ask what I shall give you'" (1 Kings 3:5; cf. 3:15). God did not place any conditions on the king's request, but simply invited him to ask whatever he wished. This extraordinary and unprecedented invitation was also a serious test, because the way that Solomon responded would reveal the godliness (or ungodliness) of his character. Here is how the king prayed: "And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude" (1 Kings 3:7-8).
Later, Solomon would become famous for saying, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7). His own request is a perfect example, because the king begins his prayer for wisdom by reverently proclaiming who God is and what God had done. Here is a man that feared the Lord, which for him was the beginning of wisdom. In his prayer, Solomon declares that the Lord is his God, the God with whom he has a personal relationship. He acknowledges that the God of David has put him on Israel's throne. He remembers that God has chosen his people, and when he says that they are "too many to be numbered or counted for multitude" (1 Kings 3:8), Solomon echoes the covenant promise God made to Abraham—that his children would be as countless as the stars in the sky, or the sand in the desert (Gen. 22:16-18).
Solomon's wise request in verse 9 was firmly based on a proper knowledge of the greatness of God. His prayer shows us how we should always start to pray about anything: by acknowledging that God is God, that he is our God, that he is at work in our loves, and that he has kept his promises of salvation.
At the same time, Solomon's wise request was also based on a proper knowledge of his own limitations. Like Moses before him, and like Jeremiah afterwards, Solomon was somewhat doubtful of his own abilities. When he calls himself "a little child," he means that he is inexperienced, and therefore dependent on God to give him the help he needs. So he prayed for wisdom: "Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?" (1 Kings 3:9; cf. 2 Chron. 1:10). Here Solomon was praying with proper humility. He asked for "an understanding mind," or more literally, "a listening heart." The word for listening or hearing (shomea) implies obedience, because if we are wise, to hear is to obey. The word for the mind or the heart (leb) does not refer only to the brain, or to the emotions, but to the whole person: the intellect, the affections, even the will. Solomon was asking that his whole person would be able to discern the will of God.
The king would use this wisdom to govern the great people of God. Whether he was ruling his people, or conquering his enemies, or defending the weak and the poor, Solomon would need a discerning mind, an understanding heart. He did not make this request for his own sake, but for the good of his people and the glory of God. It was a kingdom-minded prayer request.
Solomon's situation was unique; only he inherited David's throne, so only he could pray exactly this prayer. But his wise request is still an excellent example for us to follow. Unlike Solomon, writes one commentator, "I am not a king, but shouldn't I pray like one?" Yes, we should pray like Solomon. With all due reverence, we should begin with the character of God and his saving work. In all holy humility, we should acknowledge our own limitations, openly admitting how weak we are in honoring our parents, or serving our spouse, or raising a child, or loving a neighbor, or leading a ministry, or sharing the gospel, or any other single thing that God calls us to do. Then, with all confident faith, we should ask God for the wisdom we need to serve him well in whatever he has called us to do. In ourselves, we are unequal to any of the tasks God has given us to do, but we can ask him to give us a discerning mind and an understanding heart. We do not request this for ourselves, primarily, but for the good of God's people and the sake of his kingdom.
God's gracious gift
God was pleased to answer Solomon's prayer and grant his wise request:
It pleased the LORD that Solomon had asked this. And God said to him, "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you" (1 Kings 3:10-12; cf. 2 Chron. 1:11-12).
Solomon rightly regarded long life, money, and power as inferior to the supreme gift of spiritual wisdom. "Wisdom is better than jewels," he later wrote, "and all that you may desire cannot compare with her" (Prov. 8:11; cf. 16:16). The king knew that the wisdom to know what is right is helpful for every situation in life. Wisdom helps a young person know which way to go. It helps a man love a woman, and a woman love a man. It helps a couple know how to raise a family. Wisdom helps people know how to live, how to work, how to play. It even helps people know how to die, because wise people trust in the Son of God for eternal life. So Solomon wisely asked God for the gift of a discerning heart.
God was so pleased with what Solomon asked that he granted his request. The king became what God promised: the wisest man who ever lived. This gift went beyond Solomon's natural intellectual ability (which must have been exceptional), to endow him with the kind of spiritual insight that can only come from God (Prov. 2:6). To this day we can learn from the king's wisdom by reading his wise sayings in the Book of Proverbs, or studying his wise philosophy of life in Ecclesiastes, or hearing his wisdom about love and romance from the Song of Solomon.
After giving Solomon this wisdom, God proceeded to give him even more than he asked or imagined (see Eph. 3:20). Solomon thus received the very gifts he had bypassed in his quest for wisdom. God added wealth to Solomon's wisdom, making him the richest man in the world. He gave the king an international reputation for his exceptional insight: "King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind" (1 Kings 10:23-24). God even said that the king would enjoy a long life, provided that he kept his covenant the way that David did.
The king serves as an ideal example of an important principle that Jesus taught his disciples: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matt. 6:33). By far the most important gift that Solomon ever received was the wisdom for which he asked. After all, it takes wisdom to know how to handle all of the responsibilities and temptations that come with being rich and famous. If the king had selfishly pursued fame and fortune, God would have not been pleased with his request. But Solomon asked for wisdom, and with the gift of wisdom, God graciously added many other blessings.
Solomon never regretted his decision to make wisdom his only wish. He would counsel us to make the same choice. "The beginning of wisdom is this," the king once said: "Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her. She will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown" (Prov. 4:7-9; cf. Prov. 8:18). This was the story of Solomon's life. He did whatever he could to get wisdom, and then, with the gift of wisdom, came riches and honor. The best counsel he could give to anyone else was to seek the same superior wisdom that he received—the wisdom that only comes from God.
The way for us to follow that wise counsel is to study the Scriptures, which are able to make us "wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:15), and to seek the wisdom of God in the person of Jesus Christ. For as wise as Solomon was, the Bible says that Jesus Christ is infinitely wiser. So when the Gospel of Matthew speaks of the world-famous wisdom of Solomon, it goes on to say "something greater than Solomon is here" (Matt. 12:42). That "something greater" is Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God and "wisdom of God" (see 1 Cor. 1:24).
The Bible says that "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" are hidden in Jesus Christ (Col. 2:3). His wisdom is more complete and extensive than Solomon's wisdom, because as the divine Son of God, Jesus knows all things. His wisdom is more perfect and permanent than Solomon's wisdom, because as the sinless Savior, Jesus never gave in to sin and its foolish temptations (which was Solomon's downfall, as we shall discover—like any other spiritual gift, his wisdom was not operative apart from a living and active faith in the one true God). The wisdom of Jesus is more vital and necessary than Solomon's wisdom, because as the everlasting king, Jesus continues to govern everything in earth and heaven.
What may not seem particularly wise is the manner in which Jesus died: by crucifixion. In fact, the Bible frankly admits that the cross of Christ seems like foolishness to the people of this world, who are dying in their sins. What difference could it make for a man to hang on a tree and bleed to death? But the Bible also explains that what may seem foolish to us is actually the wisdom of God for our salvation. By his crucifixion, Jesus paid the price for all our sin. However foolish it may seem to some people, the preaching of the cross brings forgiveness and eternal life to everyone who believes in Jesus, who himself has become our wisdom from God (see 1 Cor. 1:18-25, 30).
The wisest thing that we can do is to give our lives to Jesus Christ. The supreme wisdom of Jesus Christ is available to us for the asking, even for the little things of everyday life. It may seem tempting to envy Solomon for the invitation he was given to ask for anything he wanted from God. But God is ready to grant us Solomon's wish and give us "a heart of wisdom" (Ps. 90:12). Jesus told us simply to ask, and it would be given; everyone who asks will receive (Matt. 7:7-8). Do you need any wisdom for work, for a broken relationship, for the future, for an obstacle you are facing in ministry, for the problems you have in your family? The Bible gives us this promise to anyone who asks in faith: "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him" (James 1:5-6).
Philip Ryken is president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.