1 Kings 3: Solomon Asks for Wisdom, A Wise Ruling
It’s probably safe to say that the two main characteristics we associate with King Solomon are his wealth and his wisdom. This chapter focuses on the latter: why God blesses him with wisdom—though I’d argue that God had already blessed Solomon with wisdom in the first place, and this story is simply God enhancing that wisdom—and an early example of it.
To start with, though, we’re given some contextual facts:
- Solomon has married the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt, to form an alliance with that country
- The palace hasn’t yet been built—there’s not yet even a wall around Jerusalem, which is the main thing that makes a city a “city” in the Old Testament—but Solomon and his Egyptian wife live in the city of David
- The temple hasn’t been built yet either, so the people are currently sacrificing to God at “the high places.” This includes Solomon himself; verse 3 tells us that Solomon is mostly living up to the instructions handed down by his father, except that he’s offering sacrifices and incense at the high places
- That being said, he’s offering a lot of sacrifices! A thousand burnt offerings.
The “most important” high place is at Gibeon (verse 4), so that’s where Solomon tends to go. On one occasion when he is there God appears to him in a dream and tells him to ask for whatever he’d like from God.
Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.
“Now, LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. 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. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”
This answer pleases God; Solomon could have asked for a long life, or for riches, or for the death of his enemies, but instead he asked for wisdom and ability to lead his people. Therefore, God will grant his request—plus, He will also give Solomon the things he didn’t ask for, riches and honour! Plus a long life, if Solomon obeys God as his father David did.
Solomon wakes up and realizes it was a dream, but he also understands it was more than just a dream since he immediately returns to Jerusalem to sacrifice burnt offerings to God—but this time, he does it at the Ark. Does this mean Solomon himself will never again sacrifice at the high places? I don’t know the Scriptures well enough to know the answer to that, so I’ll just keep reading and see!
After this he gives a feast.
Then, in verses 16–28, we’re told a famous story illustrating Solomon’s wisdom:
- Two women1 are living together and both have children, but in the night one of them accidentally rolls over and smothers her baby, killing him.
- The claim is made that the mother of the dead child then swapped the babies, claiming that the live child is hers and the dead child is the other woman’s; the counterclaim, of course, is that both mothers already have their own child, and the mother of the dead child is trying to steal the live one.
- Solomon seems exasperated by this back and forth: “This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead,’ while that one says, ‘No! Your son is dead and mine is alive.’” So he has a suggestion: a sword is brought, and he commands that the remaining living baby be cut in half. Each woman can have half of the body.
- The real mother just wants the baby to live, so she says no, give the baby to the other woman instead. The woman who is only claiming to be the baby’s mother says no, neither woman will have the baby—cut him in two!
- Based on this, Solomon says that the one who wanted to protect the baby is obviously the mother and should be given the baby. (Maybe it’s too obvious to state, but they don’t end up cutting the baby in half.)
People around the nation hear about this, and hold Solomon in awe because of the wisdom he’s received from God.
I have a feeling this will be happening a lot when I’m blogging about Solomon, but this passage is a mix of good (his wisdom) and bad (his intermarrying, and his association with high places).
Funnily enough, the part of the story most people probably remember best—the story of the two women and their babies—is the part I don’t really have anything to say about. It’s a straightforward story, demonstrating Solomon’s wisdom. It’s definitely memorable, but I don’t feel I have anything to add to it.
Solomon’s Marriage to the Pharaoh’s Daughter
This is mostly an upbeat passage about Solomon’s wisdom—which is a good thing—but it’s interesting to note that the very first thing we’re told is that Solomon has married the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt, which was expressly forbidden! It seems to me this is a constant theme with Solomon: he has his good points, and he also has his bad points. He’s very wise, it’s true, but he also intermarries with many of the surrounding nations, which he’s not supposed to do.
The ESV Study Bible notes make a good point around this:
1 Kings 3:1 marriage alliance with Pharaoh. This is another dubious act to add to those in ch. 2. Deuteronomy warns against a “return to Egypt” (Deut. 17:16) in terms of too-close relations with that nation. The Hebrew verb (khatan), translated “made a marriage alliance” in 1 Kings 3:1, is translated “intermarry” in Deut. 7:3, where the command not to marry foreigners is explicitly tied to a warning that such marriages will lead the people to serve other gods (Deut. 7:4). This becomes all too real for Solomon (1 Kings 11:3–4). Even though Solomon “loved the LORD” (3:3), he is a king with a divided heart, failing to keep the Law of Moses wholeheartedly as David had instructed (2:1–4).
The High Places
We’re going to be seeing the term “high places” a lot so it’s probably worth exploring. The “high places” were places where God or other gods were worshipped, as opposed to the Tabernacle or the Temple. In Deuteronomy 12 the Israelites were told that they’d have one place to worship in the Promised Land, and in this chapter that place is the Tabernacle. (When the temple is built, it will become the new place for offering sacrifices.) Verse 2 says that the Israelites—including Solomon—are sacrificing at the high places “because a temple had not yet been built for the Name of the LORD,” but just because they have a reason doesn’t mean it’s permitted. (i.e. doesn’t mean it’s a good reason!) They’re disobeying God by offering their sacrifices and incense anywhere other than the Tabernacle.
I’ll quote the ESV Study Bible notes again:
1 Kings 3:2 the high places. This is the standard translation of the Hebrew bamot, but it is not clear that height (whether natural or artificial) was an intrinsic feature of these worship sites. The idea is simply that of publicly accessible structures (including unenclosed altars and temples with altars) within which or on which offerings were made to God or the gods. The continuation and proliferation of these local places of worship (as opposed to the one place of worship described in Deuteronomy 12) is one of the main concerns of the authors of 1–2 Kings (1 Kings 22:43; 2 Kings 12:3; 14:4; 15:4, 35). Solomon begins by tolerating worship of the Lord at these places and ends up being drawn into full-blown apostasy (1 Kings 11:7–8), as also later do Israel and Judah (e.g., 12:28–31; 2 Kings 21:3–9). …
The story indicates that the women are prostitutes, but that doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the story itself. ↩︎