A Wise and Discerning Heart
In 1 Kings 3, we read that God appeared to Solomon in a dream, early in his reign and sometime before he started construction on the temple. God will appear to him again in chapter 9 after the temple is complete. In this first encounter, He starts the conversation with a directive I bet we’d all like to hear: “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”
Solomon does have a request, but before he gets to that, we learn a little bit about how Solomon sees himself. He begins by recognizing that he is Israel’s king because of God’s faithfulness to someone else: David. He’s not in this position because he earned it or he showed great potential or even because he wanted it. Solomon has received this appointment because of his connection to another person, in whom God delighted and to whom God has been faithful.
Solomon then describes what a monumental task lies before him, one he feels inadequate to accomplish. In our reading so far this year, we’ve come across a few people who felt inadequate for the job God gave them. Moses insisted that no one would listen to him, and Gideon said he wan’t important enough. But unlike them, Solomon doesn’t give much credit to his insecurities or ask permission to opt out.
Instead, he confesses that he does not have the maturity or skill needed - “I am but a little child”- and expresses confidence that God is in charge - “You have made your servant King.” (3:7) He doesn’t think he’s the most qualified person for the job, but he is the person God has chosen. Instead of rejecting the assignment, he asks for God’s help. Both his attitude and his request are worth imitating.
Specifically, Solomon asks for a discerning heart to govern God’s people and to distinguish between right and wrong. This request pleases the Lord, we’re told in verse ten. God makes Solomon the wisest man who ever lived, and in the stories that follow, we see two facets of this wisdom at work: wisdom toward God and wisdom toward others. Solomon will need both kinds of wisdom to build God’s house.
Wisdom Toward God
In 1 Kings 3:3, we read that Solomon went to worship at the high place at Gibeon, where he offered 1,000 sacrifices to the Lord. But after he receives wisdom from God, Solomon tells everyone to pack up and move the worship service to Jerusalem, where he stands before the ark, bringing burnt offerings and peace offerings. Why the change of location? And why does Israel have two places of worship?
After the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, the tabernacle was set up at Gilgal temporarily and then moved to Shiloh, where the nation gathered to worship for many years. But when the Philistines attacked Shiloh, they took the ark of the covenant from the tabernacle, leaving behind the tent of meeting and the bronze altar. From that day forward, all the components of the tabernacle were never in the same place at the same time again. To make a very long story short, the ark ended up in Jerusalem and the bronze altar and tent of meeting were in Gibeon.
Interestingly, the writer of 1 Kings doesn’t seem to take a high view of the worship services that were happening in Gibeon. “Solomon showed his love for the Lord by walking according to the instructions given him by his father David, except that he offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places.” (1 Kings 3:3)
The Mosaic law forbade worship at the high places, possibly because they were former sites of Canaanite worship. (Duet. 12:1-7) Israelites were supposed to destroy the high places when they conquered Canaanite cities. But even then, the Israelites weren’t allowed to convert those sites into places of worship for their God. Perhaps the temptation to mix Baal worship with Yahweh worship would be too strong.
That might have been especially true in Gibeon, which was a city Israel never actually conquered. Instead, the Gibeonites tricked Joshua into making a peace treaty with them, and his troops never attacked the city. Since the city was never conquered, what happened to all the high places? Were the altars and temples there ever destroyed? We don’t know.
So, worship at Gibeon was kind of a mixed bag. Pieces of the original tabernacle were set up there, and priests were serving it. However, it wasn’t the place God had chosen for his people to worship him - that was in Jerusalem, where David had brought the ark of the covenant. And, the Law of Moses prohibited Israelites from worshipping at the high places. The author of 1 Kings tells us that Solomon loved the Lord, and he went to Gibeon with good intentions…but the place itself was not ideal.
With all this in mind, the significance of Solomon moving a worship service from Gibeon to Jerusalem stands out. The wise and discerning heart God gave him was not only for legal matters or philosophical debates. The first thing this new deposit of wisdom compelled Solomon to do was change the way he worshipped.
At Gibeon, Solomon offered a thousand sacrifices to God, an extravagant, over-the-top, covering-all-my-bases kind of gesture. But when he went to Jerusalem, the text says he “stood before the ark of the Lord’s covenant and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings.” (3:15) Interestingly, it’s not the quantity of those later sacrifices that the author emphasizes, but the content. They are the sacrifices outlined in the Law, the offerings God required.
I was chatting with a friend recently, who told me about a passage of Scripture that had been illuminated for her. While reading the book of Romans, she had a sudden burst of clarity about the difference between relating to God based on her own merit and relating to him based on his grace for her in Christ. It’s not that she wasn’t aware of this distinction before; it’s that she saw it more clearly than ever, saw how it applied to her own heart, saw how God wanted her to respond to this truth.
Another friend told me that when she first became a believer, she was a little embarrassed to be so dependent on God. She discovered that she needed him for everything. At first, she hoped she would mature out of this constant state of dependence, but one day, it occurred to her that she would never outgrow needing God. And that God actually liked it when she depended on him. This realization changed the way she thought about being a disciple.
When Solomon moves the worship service from Gibeon to Jerusalem, I think it’s because he has received this kind of wisdom. Wisdom toward God increases our understanding of God’s character and helps us respond to him in better or more appropriate ways. It aligns us with his perspective and mission. It leads us into habits and practices that please him and away from ones that don’t.
Wisdom Toward Others
When Solomon asks God for wisdom, he doesn’t ask for his own sake. He needs God’s help for the benefit of those he is leading. Solomon prays, “Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” (1 Kings 3:8-9)
The phrase “a discerning heart” is sometimes translated “an understanding mind” or “an obedient heart.” Literally translated, the words mean “a hearing heart.” In Hebrew wisdom literature, the heart is closely associated with the will, and the heart that truly hears is the one that obeys. Solomon wants the kind of wisdom that helps him hear and obey, especially where God’s people are concerned. He’s making decisions that affect them, and his high regard for Israel makes him want to serve them wisely.
To do this, he’ll need to “distinguish between right and wrong” or as some translations put it, “to discern between good and evil.” It’s an interesting choice of words, and it brings to mind a tree in a garden where the knowledge of such things was forbidden. Eve desired the knowledge of good and evil very much, but it got her into trouble.
In contrast, Solomon asks for the ability to discern between good and evil, to distinguish between the two. Discernment is a kind of knowledge, but it has a specific goal in mind - it is aimed toward obedience. It helps us distinguish between good and evil in order to reject one and embrace the other. Solomon goes to the source of knowledge, instead of the tree of knowledge, and receives the kind of knowledge that will help him obey.
First Kings 3 concludes with a story that demonstrates how this wisdom helped Solomon govern well. The two mothers who plead their case before him have apparently stumped the lower courts of Israel. How could anyone possibly know to whom this baby belonged? Solomon asks for a sword and comes up with a test that reveals a distinction between these two women, proving one of them to be the mother of the living child.
Most of us do not preside over courtrooms, but a significant number of the decisions we make will affect other people. All of us need wisdom from God to distinguish between good and evil. We need clarity about what he thinks is right so we can act accordingly. That doesn’t mean we’ll make everyone happy - one of the women who left the courtroom that day was probably pretty disgruntled. But wisdom from God will help us obey him, which is the best thing we could do for the people around us.
Wisdom to Build
One of the most important tasks in front of King Solomon was constructing the temple. It took 20 years to complete, and while the results were impressive, what he built was only a prototype. It pointed forward to a temple built by another descendant of David, King Jesus. He is that building’s architect, general contractor, and chief cornerstone. In him, we, the church, are all “being built together into a dwelling place for God by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:22)
We’ve been invited to participate in this building project, and we’ll need wisdom toward God and wisdom toward others to build well. We’ll need increasing clarity about who God is, how to worship him, and how to build with him. We need his help to make decisions that lead to justice and peace and right relationships.
However, unlike Solomon, we don’t have to wait for a dream or a vision to receive something. In Jesus, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden. And James says, if any of us lacks wisdom, we should go to Him. He gives it generously and without reproach. Let’s take him up on the offer.