The Complicated Legacy of King Solomon

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A sermon on 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 given by the Rev. Teri Daily on August 15, 2021

In today’s reading, Solomon is worshipping at the high place Gibeon. (In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are told to worship only in one place – not the multiple “high places” of previous times – when they enter the promised land and have rest from their enemies. But the temple in Jerusalem has not yet been built at this point.)[1] God appears to Solomon in a dream and asks what it is that the new king would like to receive. A humble Solomon overwhelmed by the prospect of leading God’s people says “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.” And this pleases God.

Of note, Solomon’s desire for knowledge is exactly what Adam and Eve were looking for when they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. But Solomon goes about getting that desire met the way God had always intended that humankind would grow in knowledge – as a gift that comes through a relationship with God. (Adam and Eve tried to take matters into their own hands behind God’s back.)

God is pleased that Solomon asked for wisdom instead of wealth or long life, and so God not only promises Solomon “a wise and discerning mind” but also goes ahead and throws in a promise for long life, wealth, and success.

King Solomon’s reign is off to a good start, but it will not end the way it started. Yes, we read in scripture that Solomon became known far and wide for his genius. The temple and palace in Jerusalem were signs of abundant wealth filled as they were with gold, and his political alliances brought success in the world arena. He is even credited with writing the wisdom literature of our tradition. In all this, he seems to have lived into God’s promises. But this isn’t the whole story…

As Solomon accumulated riches and increased in power, these “blessings” from God began to take on a life of their own. Solomon ruled with a divine mandate, and so whatever means necessary to build his kingdom was justified in his eyes. He imposed massive taxes on the people and forced them into hard labor. He fed his ego with a harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines. And in the end, his heart turned to other gods – even a god associated with child sacrifice. In anger, God began to raise up enemies against Solomon. Solomon died not in a time of rest and prosperity, but with glimpses of the decline that would soon descend upon the empire he had built.  

After Solomon died, his son tried to continue and even increase the burden of taxes and labor on the people of Israel, causing them to rebel. The civil war that followed ultimately led to the division of Israel into the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). Not the legacy we would expect for a king who wanted to rule well and asked God for wisdom and discernment.[2] The truth is that King Solomon was a mix of motives and desires and actions and results – like all of us are.

When we look at Solomon’s life, we find this warning (among others) for our own times: Too often we equate wealth and power with God’s favor. The problem with merging these things in our mind is that we can then come to see any privilege or advantage that we may have over others as somehow justified, as maybe even sanctioned by God – in Solomon’s case, he saw as justified the heavy taxation, the forced labor, even murders.

Today the belief that material riches, secular power, and intelligence (which can be very different from true wisdom) are signs of God’s favor is known as the prosperity gospel. A recently published book is a good example. The marketing promise is that when you buy and read this book, your growth in faith and confidence will “take the limits off God” and you will receive blessings you never knew were possible. Not just spiritual blessings, but “supernatural wisdom, success, and unexplainable events.”[3] “Doors will open that may not have opened for others. You’ll receive good breaks, unusual blessings, and more – not because you are better than anyone else – but because you are a child of the Most High God!”[4] (And, by the way, it comes with a set of coasters.) In other words, if you have faith and so have the favor of God on your life, you will have more power, wealth, opportunities, and possessions than other people.

But when we automatically equate wealth and success with God’s favor, we keep ourselves from asking the deeper questions of a complicated world. Like… Do our possessions and power separate us – geographically, socially, educationally – from whole other sections of a community? Are there certain characteristics that have made some people more or less likely to obtain success, power, riches, or long life – characteristics such as the color of one’s skin, the language one speaks, the person one loves, the gender one is? And what about those who are struck by terrible illnesses, or those who work full-time but still cannot afford healthcare? What does the prosperity gospel say –perhaps indirectly – to these people? Does poverty, sickness, or any other adversity mean that we are not favored by God?

Hear me clearly – I’m not saying that wealth or power or opportunity is inherently sinful. However, without continuous shaping and reshaping of our hearts and lives, privilege and power and wealth can corrupt our dreams and desires. They can cause us to forget who and whose we are. And given that the US median household income puts a middle class American in the top 0.17% of the richest people in the world, almost all of us here experience some form of privilege, power, and wealth.[5]

The truth is that we all need our hearts and lives to be continuously shaped and reshaped by God. I think that’s one of the most important reasons we come to church each week. We come to be part of a community of faith where we inevitably bump up against each other and have the sharp points of our egos rounded off by the needs and concerns of others. We come to hear the prophets of scripture remind us of God’s special concern for the vulnerable, poor, marginalized, and brokenhearted. We come to hear the gospel – to learn what true wisdom looks like in a human life, a life marked by both the cross and the empty tomb. We come to confess our sins, acknowledge God’s forgiveness, and hope in a new beginning. We come to receive the bread of life – so that we can become once more the Body of Christ given for the sake of the world that God loves so much.

And we come to hear our own story in the complicated legacy of King Solomon – a legacy that Debi Thomas, a lay minister in Palo Alto, summarizes this way: “Once upon a time there was a king. He had big dreams, as most of us do. He had great faults, as most of us do. He lived a life marked by success and failure, nobility and disgrace. He loved God and he didn’t. He pleased God and he didn’t. He left a legacy that was neither perfect nor wretched, as most of us will. But he was loved by God throughout, even when his foolish wisdom shattered God’s heart. As we are.”[6]

[1] Later on, worshipping at these “high places” would be considered a sin for the Israelites, most likely because it was believed that worship at these sites outside Jerusalem would lead to confusion which God they are worshiping. But at this point the temple in Jerusalem has not yet been built. Dora R. Mbuwayesango, “Commentary on 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14,” Working Preacher,

[2] I am indebted to Debi Thomas for the idea of two parallel stories of Solomon. Debi Thomas, “A King’s Tale,” Journey with Jesus,

[3] “The Power of Favor, Joel Osteen Ministries,

[4] “The Message of Grace Collection,” Joel Osteen Ministries,

[5] “How Rich Are Americans on a Global Scale? Very Rich!”,

[6] Debi Thomas, “A King’s Tale.”

The Complicated Legacy of King Solomon
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