1 Kings 3:5-12
Chapter 1 opens with the words, “Now king David was old and stricken in years” (1:1)—and then tells of the efforts of Adonijah, the son of Haggith (and David) to inherit the throne (1:5-14). Bathsheba (Solomon’s mother) complained to David, reminding him of his promise that Solomon would inherit the throne (1:15-21) and Adonijah the prophet came to tell David that Adonijah was celebrating his accession to the throne (1:22-27). David called Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah and had them proclaim Solomon king (1:28-40). Adonijah received word that David had made Solomon king and was afraid, but Solomon spared his life, albeit temporarily (1:41-53).
David instructed Solomon, “I am going the way of all the earth. You be strong therefore, and show yourself a man; and keep the instruction of Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, according to that which is written in the law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do, and wherever you turn yourself” (2:2-3). He also instructed Solomon to consolidate his reign by dealing harshly with Joab and Shimei and to deal generously with the sons of Barzillai (2:5-9).
Then we hear of King David’s death and Solomon’s accession to the throne (2:10-12) and his efforts to consolidate his reign (2:13-46).
But then we hear an ominous beating of the drums in the background as the text reports the marriage of Solomon to the daughter of Pharaoh (3:1) in spite of a law forbidding such marriages (Deuteronomy 7:3-4). Royal alliances of this sort are a way of consolidating power and insuring peace. Pharaoh is unlikely to attack the kingdom where his daughter is queen. However, Yahweh expects Solomon to trust him rather than royal alliances. It is Yahweh, not Pharaoh, who has the power to guarantee the future of Solomon’s kingdom.
Also, we hear of people sacrificing at the “high places” (3:1-2)—a phrase most often associated with pagan worship. We also hear that Solomon “loved Yahweh”—but also that “he sacrificed and burnt incense in the high places—on pagan altars (3:3-4).
1 KINGS 3:5-9. GIVE YOUR SERVANT AN UNDERSTANDING HEART
5In Gibeon Yahweh appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” 6Solomon said, “You have shown to your servant David my father great loving kindness, according as he walked before you in truth, and in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart with you. You have kept for him this great loving kindness, that you have given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is this day. 7Now, Yahweh my God, you have made your servant king instead of David my father. I am but a little child. I don’t know how to go out or come in. 8Your servant is in the midst of your people which you have chosen, a great people, that can’t be numbered nor counted for multitude. 9Give your servant therefore an understanding heart (Hebrew: leb·so·me·a—a listening heart) to judge your people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to judge this your great people?”
“In Gibeon Yahweh appeared to Solomon in a dream by night” (v. 5a). Accounts of people receiving revelation by dreams and visions are common in both testaments (Genesis 20:3, 6; 31:10, 24; 37:5, 9; Judges 7:13; 1 Samuel 3; Daniel 2:4; 7:1; Matthew 1:20; 2:12, 19, 22; 27:19).
“Ask what I shall give you” (v. 5b). This is the kind of offer that people dream about—an open-ended offer of assistance by an almighty being. It is the kind of offer that unveils the heart of the recipient. We might ask for money—or health—or long life—or a bevy of beautiful virgins—or a plague on our enemies. It is rather like hearing that we have won the lottery. Our choices will reveal our true character.
We should note that Jesus makes a similar invitation to his disciples, saying, “Ask, and it will be given you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7; see also Luke 11:9; John 16:24).
Yahweh implies that he will give Solomon whatever Solomon wants, but that is not explicit. It seems possible that Yahweh will deny Solomon his wish if Solomon fails to ask well—or that Yahweh could even punish Solomon for a truly foolish request.
Yahweh will appear again to Solomon in chapters 9 and 11. Those will be the last times that Yahweh “will appear or speak directly” to an Israelite king (Fretheim, 31).
“You have shown to your servant David my father great loving kindness, according as he walked before you in truth, and in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart with you. You have kept for him this great loving kindness, that you have given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is this day” (v. 6). In his response to Yahweh’s generous offer, Solomon begins well by recounting Yahweh’s love for David and Yahweh’s generosity in allowing Solomon to sit on the throne.
“Now, Yahweh my God, you have made your servant king instead of David my father. I am but a little child” (v. 7a). Solomon continues well by taking a humble stance before Yahweh—by admitting that he doesn’t possess the required wisdom for his new position. His humility is fitting.
“The reference to tender youth is certainly a convention and an exaggeration because, after forty years of rule, Solomon is said to have had a forty-one-year-old son (11:42, 14:21), and hence had to have been a married adult at the time of his accession” (Devries).
Solomon is young—probably about 20 years old—and has inherited the mantle from his father, a truly great king. He is assuming the leadership role formerly occupied by Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and David (House, 110). He has big shoes to fill.
“I don’t know how to go out or come in” (v. 7b). This phrase has to do with leadership in battle (Hens-Piazza, 38).
“Your servant is in the midst of your people which you have chosen, a great people, that can’t be numbered nor counted for multitude” (v. 8). Solomon further notes the tremendous scope of the job—providing leadership for a people so numerous that they cannot even be counted.
“Give your servant therefore an understanding heart (lēḇˊ šō∙mēˊ∙˓ǎ—a listening heart) to judge your people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to judge this your great people?” (v. 9). When Solomon requests Yahweh to give him a listening heart, he doesn’t specify whether he expects to listen to Yahweh or to the people—but a good ruler needs to do both—and in that order.
Wisdom in the Bible is more practical than philosophical. “A musician displays wisdom in making music, a parent in training and guiding children…. First Kings 3…sets wisdom firmly in this practical—and in this case political—context…. Carried out with wisdom, politics is a craft, the product of which is social harmony and beauty” (Leithart, 43, 45; see also Longman, 223).
In this context, Solomon’s request for “an understanding heart” is a request “to be wholly and completely obedient to the will of God so that he could govern God’s people wisely and well” (Smith, 42).
1 KINGS 3:10-12: IT PLEASED THE LORD THAT SOLOMON HAD ASKED THIS
10The speech pleased the Lord, that Solomon had asked this thing. 11God said to him, “Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked for yourself long life, neither have asked riches for yourself, nor have asked the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern justice (Hebrew: ha·bin·lis·moa mis·pat– to hear understanding judgment); 12behold, I have done according to your word. Behold, I have given you a wise and an understanding heart (Hebrew: leb – heart); so that there has been none like you before you, neither after you shall any arise like you.
“The speech pleased the Lord, that Solomon had asked this thing” (v. 10). Solomon could have disappointed Yahweh by making selfish requests, but instead manifests a concern for the task to which Yahweh has appointed him and the people whom Yahweh has entrusted to his care. This pleases Yahweh.
“Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked for yourself long life, neither have asked riches for yourself, nor have asked the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern justice” (hā∙ḇîn liš∙mōa˓ˊ miš∙pāṭˊ– to hear understanding judgment) (v. 11). Yahweh lists some of the selfish requests that Solomon could have made and commends him for asking instead “to discern justice”. Note that Yahweh revises Solomon’s request. Instead of “a listening heart,” Yahweh interprets Solomon to be requesting “understanding to discern justice.”
“behold, I have done according to your word. Behold, I have given you a wise and an understanding heart; so that there has been none like you before you, neither after you shall any arise like you” (v. 12). Yahweh further revises Solomon’s request by granting wisdom—”a wise and understanding heart” (or heart). Solomon’s wisdom will be a gift from Yahweh rather than something acquired through innate ability and/or experience.
1 KINGS 3:13-28: POSTSCRIPT
These verses confirm Solomon’s wisdom. They tell the story of two women who gave birth at about the same time. One baby died and the other lived. Both women claim the live baby as their own and ask Solomon to resolve their dispute. In this situation there is no way for Solomon to determine with certainty which woman is the true mother of the living child, so he proposes using a sword to split the child in two so that both mothers can have half. One woman accepts that solution, but the other one agrees to surrender possession of the child so that the child might live. Solomon identifies the woman who is willing to surrender possession as the real mother and gives the child to her.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Devries, Simon J., Word Biblical Commentary: 1 Kings, Vol. 12 (Dallas, Word Books, 2003)
Dilday, Russell H., The Preacher’s Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987)
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House, Paul R., New American Commentary: 1, 2 Kings, Vol. 8 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995)
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Longman, Tremper III, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
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Seow, Choon-Leong, The New Interpreters Bible: 1-2 Kings, Vol. III (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999)
Smith, Norman H. (Exegesis) and Sockman, Ralph W. (Exposition), The Interpreter’s Bible: Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Job (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
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Copyright 2011, Richard Niell Donovan