Forming Faith Blog

What Is Wisdom? (1 Kings 3)

God promises to give King Solomon one gift. Solomon chooses wisdom. This is great, but what exactly is wisdom, and was Solomon really the wisest?

brown wooden gavel on brown wooden table. Solomon had wisdom to give justice.
Living Faithfully

Last week, we read about what King David did to Bathsheba and Uriah, and the story the prophet Nathan told to convince David of his guilt. This week, we move to the next generation: Bathsheba’s and David’s son Solomon. Specifically, near the beginning of Solomon’s reign.

The Intro

In this passage, Solomon has already been king for a little while and followed some of his father’s parting advice (more on that later). Solomon is worshipping NOT at the tabernacle as the Torah commands but at one of the “high places” that the people use to worship other gods. In a dream, God visits Solomon and basically offers to grant him a wish. Solomon, already pretty savvy, asks for wisdom to govern the people.

What Is Wisdom?

But what is wisdom? It’s one of those words that I can use accurately in a sentence, but (before looking it up just now) I had a hard time figuring out how to put it into simple language. A starting point here—before Wikipedia—is what the text reports Solomon actually asking for:

“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?”

1 Kings 3:9

God is the one to talk about wisdom:

“Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind.”

1 Kings 3:12b

Wikipedia tells me:

Wisdom…is the ability to contemplate and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight.

So, wisdom is basically about decision-making. It’s about taking what you know through learning, experience, the advice of others, investigation, analytical thinking, etc., and deciding what to do. But it’s not just about making a decision in general; it’s making the right, just, and good decision: ethical decision-making.

And that’s exactly what Solomon asked for: the ability to understand and discern between right and wrong.

Was Solomon Wise?

The Scripture says that Solomon was wise, in fact, the wisest person in all of history. The problem is: I’m skeptical. The biggest point of evidence that the writers of 1 Kings directly give us to show the king’s wisdom is the case of disputed infant (1 Kings 3:16-28). The king is here as a judge, deciding which mother is telling the truth. After hearing both sides, the king decides to test the women with a ploy (I sure hope it was a ploy): threaten to kill the living infant and see how the mothers react.

In this case, the results are telling. One woman doesn’t care, and one does. He judges that the woman who cares is the mother (or at least should be). Here is my problem: beyond the fact that threatening to cut a baby in half is barbaric, Solomon is making the bet that the woman who wasn’t the true mother wouldn’t care. But that really goes against human nature. Most decent people would care about the life and death of an infant, whether that infant is theirs or not. So, he was betting on the inhumanity of one of the parties. [Note: it is true that I do not understand fully the cultural context here on the value of infants in the lives of these women-turned-sex workers.]

Other Evidence

Outside of this “proof” are Solomon’s other actions. He is certainly famous for his wisdom, so that’s something. Even before Solomon asks for wisdom, his father David calls him wise—in connection to requests to kill David’s enemies (1 Kings 2:6, 9).

Solomon is also famous for his building programs: a palace, the temple, and more. He did this, in part, by fulfilling the warning that God-through-Samuel gave to the Israelites when they demanded a king back in 1 Samuel 8:10-18: taxation and conscription. These were not considered good, right, and just by the people, who would eventually ask Solomon’s son Rehoboam for relief (note: that didn’t go well).

And then there’s the “wives issue,” in which Solomon not only decided that it was good to take 700 wives and 300 concubines, but then he chose to worship their gods, not YHWH.

So, was Solomon the wisest person ever? That partly depends on how comfortable you are with “the Bible says so” as evidence. I personally don’t see how he was able to discern right from wrong, justice from injustice better than David. But perhaps knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it are two different things. And being a person after God’s own heart, like David was, sounds quite a bit like wisdom to me.

Faith Formation Connection

While a debate like this about Solomon’s wisdom could be fruitful in older youth and adults, it is obvious that it’s above the developmental level of children.

What isn’t above their developmental level is explaining what wisdom is. It is, most simply, the ability to see what is right and wrong in a situation. And the Bible has long discussions about right and wrong, good and evil, and justice and injustice (many times by showing what not to do). The simplest rule of thumb would be Jesus’ greatest commandments: loving God and neighbor. A specific situation can be incredibly complex, but the main questions remain the same: which option is loving God? Which option is loving our neighbors?

God’s wisdom be with you,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

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