Solomon’s wisdom knew no bounds. This is something even those who have not read the Bible know, for legends have expanded his reputation beyond the canon. In one such legend the Queen of Sheba almost stumps Solomon with a room full of fake wildflowers, where only one real flower grows. Can Solomon discover the true flower? He does, by following a bee.
With wisdom like this, surely no riddle could stump the great Israelite king. But with wisdom like this, we envision Solomon filling his days with puzzles: one by one the wise men approach his throne to ask impossible brain teasers; one by one Solomon dismisses them with the answers.
But as wise as Solomon was, this is not the man scripture presents, and the popular portrait makes it easy to miss what truly pleased God and prompted him to make Solomon so wise. Happily, the text in 1 Kings reveals something far more exciting.
When God extends to Solomon his wildly generous offer–“As what I shall give you” (1 Kings 3:5)–Solomon praises God for being a promise-keeper. One promise kept has been made to David, for God has given David “a son to sit on his throne this day” (1 Kings 3:6). But this short-term promise is not the only promise Solomon is aware of. Solomon also recognizes that he rules over the land promised to Abraham, and that God’s people (“whom you have chosen”) are as numerous as God promised they would be: “a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude” (1 Kings 3:8). Thus, Solomon is tracking God’s long-term promise as well, and recognizing that God is using him in this wider plan fills him with humility (he is “a little child” who does not “know how to go out or to come in” (1 Kings 3:7)).
All this is the precursor to Solomon’s famous appeal. When he finally requests what God shall give him, he is not asking for wisdom in general but for “an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9, emphasis added). His desire, then, is to be a wise judge, a discerning leader of “your great people” (1 Kings 3:9). As commentator Dale Ralph Davis points out, “the welfare of the people of God drives Solomon’s prayer.”
This, then, is what “pleased the Lord” (1 Kings 3:10)–that Solomon desired to judge God’s people well. And this is what prompted God to lavish upon him material wealth in addition to wisdom.
The focus on Solomon’s wisdom to judge is emphasized by the story that follows, the famous incident between the two prostitutes with the one living baby. In threatening to divide the child, Paul House points out, Solomon has “insight to see the difference between just and unjust persons even when he has no corroborating evidence.” This is not just riddling skill, the people of Israel recognize, this is “the wisdom of God” (1 Kings 3:28). Solomon’s judgment clearly proves that his request has been granted.
At first glance this dwelling on Solomon’s motivation may sound like splitting hairs, for no matter the original conversation, Solomon’s wisdom was famously incisive. He is, after all, the author of many proverbs and is thought by many to be the author of Ecclesiastes, both stockpiles of wisdom.
But it does matter that God was not pleased by the pursuit of wisdom alone. God was pleased because Solomon was doing essentially what Jesus asks everyone to do in Matthew 6:33: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Solomon was seeking not his own pleasure and power, but God’s pleasure. He was seeking to serve God’s people well as their judge, which is precisely what he did with the two prostitutes. Is it any wonder that God’s response to Solomon was similar to the response Jesus promises? God added “these things” to him, “these things” in Solomon’s case being riches and honor.
But even further, the story of Solomon’s request reveals the need of God’s people. God’s people Israel needed a wise ruler to serve as judge over them, to guide them in the ways of righteousness. They had already lived without a righteous king, and in that time “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). To return to that path was to return to the way of destruction.
And it is easy to see that this need did not die with Solomon. We too need a wise ruler, a king to lead us in the paths of righteousness, to judge for us between good and evil. Jesus is that ruler, that king from David’s line (Matthew 1:6-16; Acts 13:23, 36).
And like with Solomon, it is crucial that we see this king not simply as an astonishingly wise ruler but as one who prioritized God’s people above himself. Solomon saw that the true glory was God’s, and he asked for wisdom to lead God’s people to that glory. Jesus saw that God is glorified not in his making much of his own wisdom or divine nature, but in putting it aside for his father’s people (Philippians 2:6-8).
It is Solomon’s humility and prioritization of others that pleased God, just as it is Christ’s humility that prompts the Father to grant him the name that is above every name (Philippians 2:9-11). Ultimately, a proper grasp of why God was pleased to give Solomon wisdom not only helps us value what God values (humility, sacrifice), it helps us see how central such values are to the Gospel of Jesus, the gospel of the one who has completed what God began with Solomon, not only judging between good and evil, but making us good (1 Peter 2:25).
- Davis, Dale Ralph. 1 Kings. Christian Focus Publications, 2002. 37.
- House, Paul R. The New American Commentary: 1, 2 Kings. B&H Publishing, 1995. 113.