About three years ago, I decided to preach through a single chapter of the book of Proverbs. No one, it seems, does this. Most sermons that address Proverbs are either solo shots or they cluster a number of proverbs by theme. But to get the most from the book—in my opinion—one must contemplate each specific proverb.
Most of the proverbs in the book of Proverbs were written by Solomon, whom we also believe wrote Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. Solomon was noted for many things: his great power, his huge empire, his great wealth, his many wives and concubines (1,000 total, 1 Kings 11:3), and certainly his great wisdom.
Solomon’s wisdom was a special gift from God, but Solomon himself often chose to make decisions that ignored the very wisdom he had asked God to give him. It is one thing to know the right course, another to follow it.
When we deal with Solomon, his wisdom, and the nature of wisdom, we must narrow our focus. Here, I would like to highlight an important principle: wise people crave more and more wisdom, for wisdom is given to those who value it.
I have long compared the love of wisdom to the love of cooking. The best cooks are usually cooks who enjoy cooking. Many folks cook out of necessity but do not enjoy it—to them, cooking translates to heating food. The love of cooking itself entices cooks to be creative, improve, and learn from others. Same thing with wisdom; those who love it pursue it and attain more wisdom. It is almost of a case of, “to him who has, more will be given.”
In 1 Kings 3, we see this dynamic at work. In verses 1-15, we see the background for Solomon’s “wisdom booster” experience.
Solomon was always shrewd, which is not exactly as broad as possessing godly wisdom. In verse 1, he shrewdly marries an Egyptian princess. Making an alliance (via marriage) with the powerful Egyptians to the south was in Solomon’s best interest. Nonetheless, the king married a woman who did not believe in Yahweh as the one true God.
The Scriptures forbade the children of Israel from marrying Canaanite women. In Deuteronomy 7:1, the forbidden people groups are listed: Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. (Some have added another group: the over-bites!)
Egyptians were not on the forbidden list. Still, godly Jews were not to associate with idolatry. This shrewd marriage might help Solomon politically, but not spiritually. Indeed, we might summarize King Solomon’s life as exactly that: politically successful, spiritual unsuccessful. Although no king surpassed Solomon’s wisdom, several kings were more faithful to the Lord.
These verses tell us Solomon offered sacrifices at the high places, something displeasing to God, yet something God repeatedly overlooked. In the Torah, Deuteronomy 1:23-27 teaches the idea of only one central sanctuary; when this sanctuary was too distant, sacrifices were to be converted into money. When the worshipper or his representative arrived at the sanctuary, he could use the money to buy local livestock for sacrifice.
This cannot mean sacrifices were never to be offered elsewhere; God repeatedly told people to build altars and offer sacrifices (Judges 6:24-32, 1 Samuel 16:2, 1 Kings 18:30). There could be, therefore, a distinction between the sacrifices that could only be offered at the central sanctuary and sacrifices that could be offered elsewhere. Since the “high places” displeased the Lord, perhaps the distinction is between a makeshift altar (sometimes acceptable?) in contrast to a permanent shrine (never acceptable).
At this point the author of 1 Kings informs us of Solomon’s unique dream. Yahweh appears to Solomon and offers to grant him a solitary wish. Solomon contemplates his choice and determines to ask for more of what he already had, wisdom.
Solomon’s realization that he was inadequate to lead his nation evidenced in itself significant wisdom. In contrast, not-so-wise people may speak as though they had all the answers, which are frequently somehow black and white.
Herein lies my main point: wise people crave more wisdom; foolish people want nothing to do with wisdom because wisdom stifles them; it makes them feel bound and inhibited. Wisdom can be a messenger of bad news, telling us what we prefer not to hear.
Others choose to be foolish (or feign foolishness) because ignorance is a recognized excuse. In some cases, people may literally sabotage wisdom’s restraint—they know better, but they want to defend themselves to their consciences. Why? So they can feel better about their not-so-wise choices.
Please note that God was overjoyed at the nature of Solomon’s request (10-14). It was not self-centered or based upon sinful urgings. Perhaps James had this event in mind when he penned, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:2b-3).
Solomon’s request offers us a strong example of the right kind of praying. In this case, Solomon sought first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. After being granted this wisdom, Solomon offers a sacrifice before the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem, probably via the high priest.
Next, Solomon demonstrated his newfound wisdom booster (16-28). Most of us know the story of the two prostitutes and the two babies, one of which had died. With this great gift of wisdom, Solomon was able to determine who the genuine mother was, even in an age before genetic testing.
The real mother would prefer to see her child reared by another than killed. Thus Solomon’s wisdom included a huge dose of “people sense.” Social contexts are usually the best proving ground for practical, down-to-earth wisdom.
The common people disliked many things about Solomon: he taxed them heavily (except for his own tribe of Judah—see 1 Kings 4:7-19 where Judah is left out; blood is thicker than water!); he conscripted them to work (1 Kings 5:13) on his never-ending building projects, and he ruled with an iron fist. But they respected his wisdom.
Even today, people prefer leaders with people sense. Conflict within the kingdom itself and conflict with the world try modern Solomons to the breaking point.
Faith, hope, and love may be the greatest of the Christian virtues, but even they require wisdom to back them. We must believe wisely, we must hope wisely, we must love wisely. As Proverbs encourages us to do, let us make our pursuit of wisdom a life-long pursuit. But, unlike Solomon, let us apply that wisdom to ourselves and live out its implications.