Image King Solomon and courtiers
King Solomon and his court
Mughal miniature
via Wikimedia Commons

This text from 2 Chronicles is not our usual fare. Scholars call the author “the Chronicler,” and have recognized that this author has a distinctive view of the history of ancient Israel, that focuses on Israel’s worship and especially Israel’s worship through the Temple in Jerusalem. In this text, we get our first real glimpse of Solomon, the son of King David and now the king who follows David, and who is going to build this Temple. We meet him on the night of a very big day, the day that he has gone “up to Gibeon” to present sacrifices to God on the occasion of his coronation. He has been recognized as David’s successor by “all Israel,” he has performed the ceremonial function that makes that visible to the people, tomorrow the real work of being a king begins, and tonight he is alone with his thoughts, or perhaps his dreams.

That night God appeared to Solomon , and said to him, “Ask what I should give you.” Solomon said to God, “You have shown great and steadfast love to my father David, and have made me succeed him as king. O Lord God, let your promise to my father David now be fulfilled, for you have made me king over a people as numerous as the dust of the earth. Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can rule this great people of yours?” God answered Solomon, “Because this was in your heart, and you have not asked for possessions, wealth, honor, or the life of those who hate you, and have not even asked for long life, but have asked for wisdom and knowledge for yourself that you may rule my people over whom I have made you king, wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you and none after you shall have the like.” So Solomon came from the high place at Gibeon, from the tent of meeting, to Jerusalem. And he reigned over Israel. (2 Chronicles 1:7-13)

Reading this story about Solomon reminded me of a fairy tale from my school girl days. As I remember it, there was a family with two sisters in it, one who was good and kind and one who was mean and selfish. The one who was good and kind always had to do the chores the mean, selfish sister put off or wouldn’t do, one of which was to go fetch water from the spring, which was a long walk away.

One day she when went to fetch water an old old woman came up to her and begged for a drink of water. Of course, because the girl was so good and kind, she gave her the old woman a drink, and was kind enough to run back to the spring to get more water, and the upshot was that the old woman – who was of course a fairy godmother in disguise – rewarded the girl by casting a spell on her so that whenever she spoke flowers and jewels would fall from her lips. When she finally got home – after going back to the spring to refill her water pitcher – and had to give an account of why she was so late with the water, her mother and sister realized that has received this magic gift, so the mother immediately sent her other daughter off to the spring with a pitcher, to get the same reward.

The other sister sulked and dragged her feet, but finally followed her mother’s instructions because of her greed. Of course, no old lady showed up for the mean selfish sister; instead, a young, richly dressed woman rode by on a beautiful horse and asked for a drink, and the selfish sister was as rude to her as her character predicted, and told her to go buy herself some water from someone else, because she was waiting for an old lady who was supposed to be a fairy in disguise. But of course, the young lady was the same fairy, in a different disguise, and she punished the sister for her selfishness and rudeness by casting a different spell on her, so that lizards and toads would fall from her lips when she spoke.

So when she got home, her mother couldn’t stand to have her in the house and made her go live in the woodshed, while the good kind daughter winds up marrying a handsome prince – naturally, because she was literally a treasure – and lived happily ever after.

[I looked this up on the internet and found out that it is probably a version of the story “Diamonds and Pearls,” a French fairy tale collected by Charles Perrault, and that it fits into the Aarne-Thompson folk tale classification scheme as number 480, “The Kind and the Unkind Girls”, of which there are many other examples from more than one culture.]

Now Solomon is not a girl, and God does not reward him with having flowers and jewels fall from his lips. But this story from the history of ancient Israel made me think of that “Diamonds and Pearls” story, nevertheless. I think that’s because it feels like the same … set up. And I suspect that some people have fallen for this set up from time to time, and if we are not careful, we might fall for it, too.

Because – do we not want, at least sometimes, what God promises Solomon: possessions, wealth, honor, and victory over his enemies? And it almost sounds like the way Solomon got those things was by asking for wisdom and knowledge, first, instead of those other things. And so, because Solomon gave the right answer (even though he didn’t know before hand that it was a quiz), all the other goods come with it. So it almost sounds like, if what we really want is possessions, wealth, honor, and victory over enemies, we should remember to ask God for wisdom and to pursue knowledge, and then we could expect God to reward us in a similar way.

This makes sense. But. There’s definitely a problem with this logic, maybe even more than one.

One problem is that thinking that way tells us that what we want most of all are the possessions and the wealth and the honor, and we’re willing to ask for wisdom to get that, if that’s what it takes; we’re willing to put on the right kind of show if it will allow us to satisfy our desires. And at that point, the point at which we’re willing to put on the right kind of show, willing to learn the right lines, willing to manipulate or try to manipulate the giver of all good gifts, at that point we begin to become … we all know this word, the one people so often use for church people, for religious people, the h-word … we become “hypocrites.” We pretend to care about something – wisdom – because pretending to care about that will get us what we really care about, which is something else, possessions, wealth, whatever.

Of course, we probably know we can’t fool God that easily, although we might manage to fool other people, and even ourselves. But this can’t be what this story is in the Bible to encourage us to do, is it?

But then again, part of me wants to holler “hey, not so fast! How is it wrong to do what you know you need to do to get the results you want?” Don’t we do that all the time, aren’t we encouraged to do that, at school, at work, in life? I exercise and watch what I eat, not because I want to exercise so much, not because I enjoy keeping an eye on calories, but because I want to be able to eat strawberry-rhubarb pie with ice cream without gaining weight. If I could do that without exercising and watching, I totally would; I just know that I can’t, so I don’t. When I get enough calories saved up, I get strawberry-rhubarb pie. I listen to my boss and I figure out what counts at work and I set my priorities and budget my time and energies accordingly, because what I want is to get a promotion and a raise and a good annual evaluation, and doing all that other stuff is the right means to that end. Isn’t that just being … rational? In fact, isn’t that being … wise? And isn’t wisdom the value that’s being held up in this story from the Bible?

Which question takes us back to what Solomon actually says, and the deeper issue with the logic: as we have it, he says “give me wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can rule this great people of yours?” In other words – Solomon asks God for what he thinks is the main tool he needs to accomplish his purpose, the purpose of carrying out the task of being king, the purpose of doing right by God’s people. Solomon seems to have been focused on the requirements and demands of the people he needed to rule, and what it was going to take to know how to do that job; from that focus, he came up with the request for wisdom and knowledge; but what was even more deeply on his heart than wisdom was the challenge posed by God’s people. And in effect, what God tells him is, you’re going to need all those other gifts, too, to accomplish this purpose; wisdom is the top priority; but let’s get you fully equipped, even so.

For us to receive this story as something other than a set-up for hypocrisy, it will help to notice this alignment of Solomon’s pursuit with God’s at this point in the story; that pursuit is the well-being of God’s people. Solomon’s purpose is less self-focused than it is others-focused. In calling the people “God’s” he seems to recognize, or at least to name, his ultimate responsibility to God for those people. God rewards Solomon here not only because he “asks for wisdom instead of something else,” and not only because his role as king will benefit from the reward, but because what is on his mind and heart, when we get down to it, is God and Solomon’s responsibility toward God.

If we take this story as a piece of practical advice, to ask for wisdom first, because your dividends will be greater that way, we’re probably missing the point. But if we take this as a story that commends alignment with God’s purposes, and that suggests that having that alignment will change our priorities and our desires, bringing them increasingly into harmony with God’s priorities and prescriptions, then I think we may be closer to its relevance for us today.

What is the task we have inherited or been asked to take on? What challenge(s) does that task pose? What gifts will enable us to perform it? If those are the questions on our minds, and our hearts, we will be ready to give the right answer … whether we must answer to the old woman at the well, or the young one, or the God of questions in the night.