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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

King Solomon's Mines...of Wisdom

I was looking forward to being back in my old college to preach tonight. I am very sorry indeed that an infection prevents me from travelling at the moment. I’m grateful to the chaplain for reading it to you instead.

The High Court ruling about Parliament’s role in Brexit, Guy Fawkes’ Night yesterday, and Tuesday's American election make for an interesting constellation of events. In their different ways they all make us think about political authority: what it means and how it should behave towards the citizens it governs. For people of faith they pose the even larger question about where God belongs in the structures of human society. In the language of our New Testament reading, what does it mean to “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”?

The story in our Old Testament reading doesn’t answer these questions. But it does shine a light on the nature of leadership. The young king, unsure of himself at the outset of his reign, goes into the sanctuary, the place he senses he will grow wise in.  God appears to him, and asks what gift he should give him.  It’s an annunciation moment: when the angel comes, what will he say?  Like Mary, he rises to the test.  He asks for the only gift worth having: wisdom.  How else can he govern this great people?  There is a divine sigh of relief.  God is pleased with his prayer, and gives him not only what he has asked but also what he has not asked: riches, honour, glory.  And the story goes on to show how Solomon’s wisdom was such that Israel ‘stood in awe of the king, because they saw that the wisdom of God was in him.’

But things are more ambiguous than we might think.  Is Solomon cynically praying for what he knows God wants him to ask for, calculating that in a world where outward show counts for so much, God will give him riches and victory and power anyway?  It would be churlish to be too suspicious. The natural reading of the story echoes our instincts when we begin any new task we know we are ill-equipped for. Helplessness has a way of concentrating the mind. I prayed just such a prayer on the day I was ordained in this very chapel forty years ago this year. At least Solomon is wise enough to know that he must ask to be wise.  It’s only when we know what we don’t know, the ‘known unknowns’ in Rumsfeld-speak, that we begin to be wise.   

No, what is intriguing is how the author introduces his reign at the outset.  He could so easily have begun with Solomon’s noble prayer. Instead, he embarks on the new king’s career with some not very subtly disguised hints that all is not happy and glorious.  First, there is his marriage alliance with Pharaoh’s daughter. Egypt is the place Israel had left behind in the exodus.  To marry into Egypt would be a betrayal of history. It anticipates what the text says later on about how Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh, who ‘turned away his heart after other gods’.

Then there is the reference to his building ‘his own house, and the house of the Lord and the wall about Jerusalem’.  We might say that this is precisely what kings do. But think about this: whereas it took just seven years to build the temple, no less than 13 years were spent on his own palace with no expense spared.  In Solomon, a king had arrived ‘like all the nations’, just what they had so misguidedly asked for in the days of Samuel.  And notice the order in which these grands projets are listed: his own house first, then the house of the Lord, then the city walls: king first, shrine second, the people and their safety last of all.  There is already a hint of the forced labour with which Solomon realised these achievements and the heavy taxes he levied to pay for them, something for which the northern tribes of Israel never forgave him, and which after his death led to the kingdom’s fatal schism. Was God still king in Israel? – that was the big question.

So Solomon is introduced to us, not altogether as the legendary wise and good king, but as a man already compromised in his public life and personal relationships.  In this, he is his father’s son, for the story of the golden days of David is also one in which the conflicts of his private life threaten to subvert his public role and destroy both the kingdom and its king with it.  The storyteller is unsparing in his scrutiny of how Solomon’s reign ended badly. His huge wealth, his taxation policies, his exploiting of slave labour, his comprehensive harem of women from across the world and his toleration of their gods all betrayed the promise of his early years.  No doubt the story is reading the ending back into the beginning: the overture is warning us that we must prepare to be disappointed in this man. 

So Solomon’s prayer is the petition of an already compromised ruler. It suggests that the king is not so much the innocent child as the young man who knows about the ambiguities that could lure him from the path of wisdom. He can glimpse his demons, the conflicted desires that could get the better of him, the seductions of money, sex and power that corrupt even the best of leaders.  And he can also see that good leadership calls for real integrity of mind, heart and motive. Is this why he prays for wisdom?  If it is, we should admire Solomon for his emotional honesty.  What else can purify his ambitions, wash them of the corrosive instincts for self-aggrandisement and the pursuit of pleasure that a king in the ancient world would have to be superhuman to resist? 

Our society likes leaders who can be either heroes or villains.  It’s good at erecting pedestals but enjoys it when they are fallen from. We find it hard to accept that our leaders are flawed, that their failings could be forgivable, and that even their brokenness could be the raw material of greatness or at least dignity.  This is precisely the drama being acted out before our eyes in America: whose personal story makes them more fit to be Commander in Chief? The scriptures don’t regard Solomon as unambiguously good; perhaps he is more of a tragic figure brought down by the flaws in his character, and in this he is of a piece with so many in public life we could name. 

But I like to think that Solomon never forgot how his best instincts led him to ask for the wisdom to know not only how a king should govern his people but how he should govern himself.  The oversight of ourselves is a task we all have to face, leaders or not.  We know how we fall short of what the psalm calls ‘truth in the inward parts’.  But our exemplar is not any human king, not even Solomon in all his glory.  It is the one who is God’s wisdom incarnate, who comes to forgive our failures, and mend our broken lives and make us fit to serve him.  In him, our Redeemer, a greater than Solomon is here.

Balliol College Oxford, 6 November 2016 (1 Kings 3.1-15, Matthew 22.15-22)