5At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” 6And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” 10It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.
Our passage finds the young King Solomon, David’s son, having successfully navigated the precarious early days of his reign, secured his right as the heir of the dynasty against pretenders and threats to his throne, and established a strategic alliance with Pharaoh by marrying his daughter. Now that the ship of the kingdom is finally on an even keel, Solomon’s task of ruling Israel can truly begin.
Within the story of the early life of Solomon, there are various details that recall the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden. Solomon constructs the temple, a building replete with garden symbolism—pomegranates, lilies, cedars, olive wood, and streams of water moving out—and containing images of guarding cherubim, as God appointed in the Garden of Eden. This new construction is associated with a time of peace and rest after the wars and struggles of King David’s reign.
As king, Solomon is like a restored Adam, established by God to reign in a kingdom of peace. Peter Leithart remarks:
Solomon asks for wisdom, more specifically for “discernment of good and evil” … (3:9), using a phrase similar to that found in Gen. 2–3 to describe the tree in the garden … a tree that gives wisdom. Solomon’s request can thus be described as a request for access to the tree forbidden to Adam. Like Adam, Solomon goes into “deep sleep” in order to receive a bride, but Solomon awakes in the company of Lady Wisdom. As in 1 Kgs. 2, Solomon is a new and improved Adam.
As 1 Kings 3 recalls the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, it also alerts us to a movement beyond the order of Genesis. In Genesis 2 and 3, that tree—the tree associated with wisdom and authoritative rule in the wider world—was forbidden to Adam and Eve, yet the wisdom and authority its fruit once promised is here given by God to Solomon.
If Genesis and the earlier books of the scriptural narrative are associated with the priests and with the prescriptive order of the Torah, a different genre of literature comes to the fore in association with the royal figures of David and Solomon—Wisdom. While the priest functions in an office akin to that of a household steward in YHWH’s palace-temple (an important servant of his divine master), the king is someone who must exercise rule himself, as a faithful vicegerent under YHWH (the prophet is an appointed member of the heavenly council).
While the Law enables the priest to perform his duties faithfully, it is Wisdom that equips the king to acquit the responsibilities of his office justly. Wisdom is consistent with the Law, yet advances beyond the Law in foregrounding the prudence and discretion of wise persons, whose intimate acquaintance with the deep structure of the Law equips them to apply fitting principles of justice appropriately to new situations. While the Law emphasizes receptive obedience and observant adherence to clear commands, Wisdom emphasizes the perceptive discernment, prudence, and insight required to act righteously and effectively when matters aren’t clear.
In 1 Kings 3, the Wisdom tradition is closely tethered to the story of King Solomon, who, in addition to being presented as the most prominent author of its associated literature, exemplifies its virtues in his person and reign. This prominence of the theme of wisdom in our passage brings it into a broader intra-canonical conversation on the subject, not least in relation to the book of Proverbs.
In YHWH’s question to Solomon in his dream in Gibeon there is both an offer and a test: within it YHWH takes a sounding of Solomon’s heart. Solomon’s answer to the question will reveal much about Solomon himself and what he most truly values. Does Solomon seek the splendour of royal majesty—its wealth and honor—over the substance of just kingly rule?
In the book of Proverbs especially, the connection between wisdom and the heart is accented. The most important thing—above all else—is to set one’s heart on Wisdom and never to forsake her (Proverbs 4:1-9). It is Wisdom who will crown the righteous and those who neglect or reject her invite their own ruin. In his prioritizing of Wisdom herself over the wealth and honor with which she often blesses those who devote themselves to her pursuit, Solomon reveals an incipient wisdom that he already possesses, in the ordering of his heart towards the fear of YHWH and the pursuit of Wisdom.
The significance of wisdom to just rule, powerfully illustrated in the story of Solomon’s judgment in the case of the two women that follows after our passage, is manifest in its power to ‘resolve moral ambiguity and to make the right and wrong in a given historical situation clear to our eyes,’ to use Oliver O’Donovan’s description. The power of the judgments of wise rulers to bring such clarity is itself integral to their authority.
Wisdom’s value within political rule has been somewhat depreciated over the past century, its former prominence often ceded to technique. In place of human discretion and prudence in the administration of justice, modern government can elevate proliferating protocols, procedures, techniques, methods, systems, etc. Instead of the wise ruler, who can perceptively bring the light of insight and judgment to bear upon the unique particularities of a situation, we can increasingly trust in the mastery of the expert, who resists such particularities and seeks to impose a standardized order upon social reality, often effacing the very features to which the wise attend.
This supposedly relieves us of the need for wisdom and judgment, treating social and personal particulars as mere data or raw material to be crunched by well-honed techniques. Yet social reality so construed can suffer sore indignities: to make government by wisdom obsolete, social reality will have to be rendered into the ‘raw material’ that technique-driven government needs it to be. Society languishes in many ways under the blindness of technique, yet the open and perceptive eye of the wise ruler can bring health.
Wisdom’s character as the discernment of good and evil is perhaps one of the most striking areas of contrast between it and government by technique: technique pursues efficiency, so often divorced from perceptive apprehension and prudent pursuit of the common good, yet wisdom attunes us to, directs us to, and gives us deep understanding of that good. Through such wisdom, good rulers bring life and health, not merely to themselves, but also to the communities and nations they serve.
Whatever great or limited scope of authority we might enjoy, 1 Kings 3 presents the figure of Solomon as one we ought to emulate. Like Solomon, we must set our hearts upon wisdom and its pursuit: this fundamental orientation is the source of all just judgment and rule. It is wisdom that will bring true health to us and success to our endeavors, bringing us and all with which we are involved into fuller enjoyment of the good.
Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.