In which God seemingly plays the part of the Genie of the Lamp, if we don’t look closely…
This familiar passage of Scripture is staggering on multiple levels, but perhaps we should begin with the intricate way in which it turns our generally accepted notion of prayer upside-down. Many people who enter into communication with God will testify to an appreciation for a two way exchange. We come to God with recognition, adoration, submission, petition, confession, and a wide variety of other prospective topics for dialogue, and if prayer has become a well defined spiritual discipline in our lives; we then listen as God pours answers into our souls. This is not a bad pattern, we are not wrong to pray this way, but this is also not what Solomon experiences at this particular moment of his life. The piece that makes this conversation different is the approach. God speaks first.
Solomon is not seeking anything. Solomon is not even awake! God appears to him in a dream and says, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” If I was presented with the same opportunity; I’m not sure I would respond as wisely as Solomon. The irony in that is painfully thick. Although he clearly does not recognize it fully, Solomon is already wise. Solomon asks God to form him further into the person he was created to be and already is.
It should be noted that God does not come to Solomon with a covenant or even a promise. At best, the translation of this passage from the original Hebrew is broken. There are missing words and phrases that we must do what we can to responsibly bridge in order to make this passage read coherently in our own language. Often, we marvel at God’s willingness to give Solomon that for which he asks, but God’s words are actually closer to permission to inquire than to permission to demand. As best we can discern, Solomon eagerly seizes the chance to gain wisdom, even in his query, as he essentially proclaims, “I don’t know what I’m doing! I need wisdom that results in justice. I need a listening heart that allows me to lead the people.”
Solomon’s words deflate the typical power and control constructs, because he exercises humility and recognizes the need for community. At least part of the supernatural wisdom for which Solomon asks is directly tied to the ability to rely on the testimony of others. Solomon recognizes the value of experience. He asks for a wisdom that seems intellectual in nature, but it is also practical in ways we see further displayed in the judgments he makes throughout his reign, even if not in his personal life. Of course, this kind of leadership comes at a great cost, but we know the best leaders build their legacy based on sacrifice. Assuming Solomon is the author of Ecclesiastes, he goes on to pen words including, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief,”(Eccl. 1:18) and, “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Eccl. 1:2) Solomon’s distress clearly indicates that he did not choose the easy way out with his request.
Some might argue Solomon’s hasty response was a waste of his ‘three wishes.’ God, however, finds Solomon’s inquiry to be commendable. Given the opportunity, for what would most people ask? God seems to think money, health, and revenge would top the list. I tend to think God is right. Interestingly, though, God honors Solomon’s request for wisdom, perhaps making this exchange more covenantal than it began. God says, “I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be.” And although it moves beyond the scope of the specific lectionary passage for this day; in the verses that follow, God also grants wealth, honor, and a long life to this king who asked only for wisdom.
We would be wise to take a page from Solomon’s book, and I think that begins with understanding both our limitations and the trajectory we hope to travel as we journey toward a more communal understanding of what it is to be the people of God. We need wisdom to exercise justice, and our justice should exhibit value for the very people whose lives it impacts directly. This can only be achieved by listening with wise and discerning hearts.