Solomon's Wisdom

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The Old Testament is important for every Christian. First, it was Jesus' Bible. Secondly, in the Old Testament you have a total philosophy of history. And that is important because, to quote the words of a distinguished professor of Modern History at Cambridge, Herbert Butterfield:

"our final interpretation of history is the most sovereign decision we can take ... it is our decision about religion, about our attitude to things and about the way we will appropriate life."

No one who reads the Old Testament can doubt that history was of supreme importance to the Jews. They looked back at history because they believed they could see the hand of God in historical events and there were lessons to be learnt.

One of the lessons that came through loud and clear was and is that God blesses his people when they obey him, but when they ignore him they experience his judgment. So God's Old Testament prophets both interpreted past events and spoke about possible future events - some good, some bad. It is not surprising, then, to find that the Old Testament historical books - Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings - were known as the "Former Prophets" in the Hebrew Bible. The books of the prophets themselves, like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, were known as the "Latter Prophets".

In addition, this philosophy of history (unlike some other philosophies of history) said emphatically that this universe of space and time had a beginning and one day it will have an end. History is linear and not cyclical and going on for ever. And it taught that in this historical process, that includes Solomon's kingship, God was, and is, working his purposes out to save men and women after the terrible Fall of the first man. You read in Genesis chapter 3 how the man and the women decided to ignore God and go their own way - with disastrous consequences for every age. But the good news of the New Testament is that God has fulfilled, and is fulfilling, his purposes in Jesus Christ, his Son - the Second Person of the Divine Trinity. That good news is "the gospel" - summed up in John 3.16:

"God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Now I have given that little introduction about the Old Testament because - and this is for any newcomers this morning - over the second half of this summer period, in the mornings at JPC we are looking at the life of Solomon and what you read about him in the opening chapters of the first book of Kings in the Old Testament. So from what I have said, you should not be surprised that in such an Old Testament historical book, you find the writer being selective.

In 1 and 2 Kings you've got a continuous narrative about the Hebrew monarchy from the end of David's reign (when he handed control over to Solomon) to the end of the kingdom (400 years later). But all that is described in only 50,000 words. That is the size of a very small paperback. Inevitably, therefore, the books of Kings can only contain a selection of information. You must, therefore, assume that what the writer selects is important. He is not providing an exhaustive history but teaching what we need to know. As one commentator puts it: "He is giving us a 'God-authorized version of how we should view that history'."

Well, this morning we have reached chapter 4 of 1 Kings. I'm assuming that all of this chapter, in some way, is important, although most of it looks no more than a list of government officials - something like the lists you read in the broadsheet newspapers following a Cabinet reshuffle. What you've got in verses 2-19 is a list of Solomon's officials. His chief advisers and administrators - or Cabinet ministerss - are listed in verses 2-6. His district governors who go out and about - or his junior ministers - are listed in verses 7-19. I am going to assume we are told about these people for a purpose. And you'll see that my headings this morning are first, YOUR MIND MATTERS; secondly, SOLOMON'S [GODLY] WISDOM; and, thirdly, WORLDLY [UNGODLY] WISDOM.

First, YOUR MIND MATTERS

To put chapter 4 in its immediate context, let me just say this. Solomon has recently been made king. His father David, an old man, had to stop a coup attempt by another son, Adonijah. So he quickly arranged for Solomon to be made king. You read all about that in chapter 1. According to the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, Solomon was about fifteen at the time - a very young man indeed. Then to secure his throne Solomon, in a rather brutal fashion, eliminated his enemies, including Adonijah. You read all about that in chapter 2. Then in chapter 3 you read the remarkable account of how, soon after his accession, God met with Solomon, at night time, in what is described as "a dream". And in that meeting Solomon prayed for wisdom. He was so young, he said, he needed help to know how ...

"... to govern your people and to distinguish between right from wrong" (chapter 3 verse 9).

And God remarkably answered that prayer with the gift of wisdom for Solomon - and a whole lot else he had not asked for as a bonus - such as "riches and honour." And the end of chapter 3, which reports Solomon dealing with two prostitutes, together with chapter 4 give you examples of Solomon's wisdom. What does all this teach us today?

First of all it teaches that your mind matters. Look at chapter 4 verse 29:

"God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore."

God was pleased that Solomon asked for knowledge to improve his mind and not money to improve his bank balance. How important it is to understand that God wants his people to improve and use their minds correctly. In the New Testament the apostle Paul said that the problem with some religious people is that they were zealous for God, but they did not use their minds properly. He says,

"their zeal is not based on knowledge" (Romans 10.2).

Then two chapters later he said this:

"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12.2).

John Mackay, former President of Princeton Theological Seminary, has well said:

"Commitment without reflection is fanaticism in action, though reflection without commitment is the paralysis of action."

That is so true.

To encourage you to use your mind the Old Testament has books that are called the "Wisdom Literature" - Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. The last two are attributed to Solomon himself. This literature deals with great issues such as the problem of suffering, the creation of all things, philosophical doubt and the providence of God over nations and individuals. It also deals with personal issues, basic principles for Godly living and practical advice on such things as education, the choice of friends and sexual morality. And at the heart of all wisdom, it says, is the fear of the Lord. It says that is the beginning of wisdom.

Who this morning thinks they can be wise while they are ignoring God? The Bible says you can't. If you have never done so, why not read through a Wisdom Book like Proverbs. I once heard Billy Graham say that he tried to read through Proverbs once a month. Your mind matters. So, like Solomon, pray for wisdom.

Secondly, SOLOMON'S [GODLY] WISDOM

Let's now look more closely at these examples of biblical wisdom in this section of 1 Kings. You've got here five aspects of wisdom and all are important for God's people and for all people.

The first aspect of wisdom - and Jonathan Redfearn touched on this last week - is judgment or discernment. This is being wise when facing difficult situations. It is making good judgments when there are no clear Biblical principles to guide you. Some things are so clearly wrong. For example, it is wrong not to honour your parents; to murder, to commit adultery, to steal, to give false testimony and to covet - - all those things in the second table of the Ten Commandments. But some things in life are not so clear.

What do you do, for example, when you are to judge between two prostitutes who both live in the same brothel and who both recently have had babies but one of the babies has died and then (so it is alleged) the mother of the dead baby swapped the dead baby for the living one in the middle of the night and now claims it is her own child? These bizarre sorts of situations do occur. And there is no biblical text to help you out. Yes, there are biblical principles, but you need good judgment as well. Sadly some people seem to make bad choices too often. But God doesn't want you to be the sort of person who makes bad choices. As some of us heard on Wednesday night, in the great New Testament "Wisdom Book" - the letter of James, it says,

"If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him" (James 1:5).

That is a wonderful promise. God will guide you somehow. But - and this is a big "but" - James adds, God will guide, if you ask in faith and are not "double-minded". I know people who pray for guidance and seek advice when their minds are already quite made up - often in the wrong way. All they are doing is searching for someone to confirm their wrong choices. Of course, God can't guide you in those circumstances. But if you pray openly and honestly, in faith, God will give you wisdom. Read the end of chapter 3 when you get home to see how God's gift of wisdom helped Solomon deal with the two prostitutes.

A second aspect of wisdom is organization and management or "administration". That is what you have behind those lists in verses 1-19. The lists show you that Solomon's prayer for wisdom resulted not only in good judgment, but good and effective organization and management. So never think that administration is something "unspiritual". God is interested in good organization - not only in the church but also in the world.

A third aspect is good politics. Verse 20 tells us ...

"The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy."

And look at verse 25:

"During Solomon's lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree."

That expression, "each man under his own vine and fig tree", became proverbial for the ideal in social and public life. Would that more of our political leaders today prayed for wisdom as Solomon prayed. In the 19th century, as soon as Lord Melbourne had announced to the young (then still) Princess Victoria that she was Queen of England, he opened the Bible and read to the young new sovereign the story of Solomon's dream that included his remarkable prayer for wisdom.

A fourth aspect of biblical wisdom covers what we would call the natural sciences - physics, chemistry, biology and so on. Look at verse 33:

"He [Solomon] described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish."

Modern science as we know it needs to be understood against its Christian origins. It was often godly men who saw God's creation as proclaiming his glory. They took Psalm 19 seriously which begins:

"The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (verse 1)

And they understood that Jesus Christ was and is not only our Saviour but also the agent in our creation. The Bible says that "all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Colossians 1.16-17). So they wanted to read the book of nature, as well as the book of revelation - the Bible. The second charter of the Royal Society commands the Fellows to direct their studies (I quote) "to the glory of God the creator and the advantage of the human race." Solomon undoubtedly saw the glory of God in the natural world.

A fifth aspect of biblical wisdom here relates to human art and culture. Look at verse 32:

"He [Solomon] spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five."He was a lyricist as well as a writer. So much for Solomon's godly wisdom.

Thirdly, and finally, WORLDLY [UNGODLY] WISDOM.

The letter of James says there are two sorts of wisdom. One is described as "earthly, unspiritual, [and] of the devil" (James 3.15). The other is described as "from heaven". You have a similar opposition in the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 1 verse 17 he says that he didn't preach the gospel

"with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power."

But Paul clearly didn't mean people should stop using their minds. Later on in the same letter he says this:

"Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults" (1 Cor 14.20).

So what is the difference between "godly" and "ungodly" wisdom? There are a number of things. I have time just to mention two.

First, ungodly wisdom ignores what the Bible says is essential to wisdom - "the fear of the Lord". Let me illustrate this from Solomon's case. Solomon was a great observer not only of animal life but of human life and of human emotions including sexual emotions. In fact, he glorified them in his Song of Songs in the Bible - which is erotic love poetry of a remarkable sort.

However, as the Bible makes clear, sex is to be reserved for heterosexual monogamous marriage. Also it is clear that marriage for believers is to be with other believers. And to stick to that is to fear the Lord. But in Solomon's later life there was a drift away from such a fear of the Lord in this matter of sex. In fact it was more of an avalanche. If you want to, turn over to chapter 11 and verses 1-3:

"King Solomon ... loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh's daughter [his legal wife] - Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the LORD had told the Israelites, "You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods." Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray."

He may still have been able to write love poems, and artistically they may have been brilliant. But if they celebrated his sexual life with these women, James would say they were "earthly, unspiritual [and] of the devil" - and ungodly wisdom, not godly.

Secondly, wisdom is either ungodly or godly depending on the way it is come by or the use to which it is put. Wisdom, in one sense, like money often can be neutral. But there are moral questions and they are twofold: "how did you get it, and then how are you going to use it?" Solomon got his wisdom by prayer. That was godly. By contrast his predecessor King Saul got his wisdom on one famous occasion by consulting a witch - by occult means that the Bible says are very wrong and ungodly. With regard to the use of wisdom, initially Solomon used his wisdom well. Later, as we have seen, he failed to use it well. It was then ungodly.

Let me give you one modern example and a subject relevant for this city of Newcastle - stem cell research when it is through human cloning. The possible uses of that scientific wisdom are good and wonderful - healing and the relief of suffering. But the acquisition of that wisdom is very wrong when it involves the creation of human embryos for experimentation. This is ungodly. By contrast adult stem cell research is right both in its acquisition of wisdom and in its application. I am informed (by a consultant member of the congregation) that he is already using this sort of research to great effect. This is godly wisdom.

I must conclude

Our Gospel reading reminded us that Jesus Christ is greater than Solomon for all his wisdom. Christ, says the Bible, is both "the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1.24). And as the wisdom of God, Proverbs says, he was involved in the creation of the universe. So never forget his creating work; and never forget his saving work.

As the agent of creation he sees the created world, both natural and human, as good and worth saving; and that is why weneed to study it. As the Saviour he sees it as fallen and in need of saving; and that is why we must "maintain and proclaim" the gospel of Christ.

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