22 April 2012
1 Kings 3:3–15
Wisdom has long been associated with age. Many believe, to shorten the oft-told joke, that it takes lots of bad decisions to garner the experience that leads to good decisions, which, in turn, ripens into wisdom.
Yet we also know that age is not guarantor of wisdom. Each one of us can name people in our lives — relatives, friends, perhaps ourselves — for whom age has not brought an increase in wisdom. Evidence exists all around us that it is possible to be old and foolish.
The evidence is less apparent that it is possible to be young and wise, in part because of the association I mentioned at the outset. We are inclined to believe that being young and being wise is oxymoronic.
Thinking of things oxymoronic makes me think of my own college years, not because they were oxymoronic but because they took place at Occidental College, affectionately known as Oxy. I majored in music, focusing on piano performance and composition. In my senior year, I wrote a series of songs on poems from the 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman.Some of you have heard this poem before:
When I was one-and-twenty, I heard a wise man say:
“Give crowns away and rubies but not your heart away.
Give pearls away and rubies, but keep your fancy free.”
But I was one-and-twenty; no use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty, I heard him say again:
“The heart out of the bosom was never given in vain.
’Tis paid with sighs a-plenty and sold for endless rue.”
And I am two-and-twenty, and, oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.
It is remarkable how Housman’s narrator goes from foolishness to wisdom in just one year. Perhaps the path to wisdom is paved with broken hearts and shattered dreams and, as a result, the young can travel farther along the path than any old codger can.
Our Scripture lesson, however, suggests that the path to wisdom can also be paved with overflowing hearts and fulfilled dreams. The young king Solomon did not ask for long life or riches or for the life of his enemies. He asked for the understanding to discern what is right, which the chronicler of 1 Kings credited to him as wisdom. And indeed, the next passage in this chapter provides evidence of Solomon’s wisdom. Perhaps you recall it.
Two women came to Solomon. In that day, parents and their infant children often shared the same bed, sometimes with tragic results. One woman had accidentally suffocated her infant during their sleep, and in her grief, she stole the infant of another woman. Both women came to Solomon to claim the infant as their own, but no judge could tell by sight which woman was the rightful mother. Solomon asked that a sword be brought and dictated that the infant be rent in two, with a half-infant given to each woman. One woman eagerly supported Solomon’s ruling; the other insisted that the whole infant be given to her rival. Upon hearing these disparate responses, Solomon commanded that the child be given to the woman who wanted to spare the life of the child, for she had to be the rightful mother.
That passage ends by telling us “all Israel … stood in awe of [Solomon], because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.” Solomon, the relatively young monarch, gives evidence that it is possible to be young and wise.
But note: He asked for the ability to discern between good and evil, between right and wrong. In the words of the hymn we sang earlier, we shall all encounter hardships. By themselves, they are not curses. And in our lives, we shall all encounter blessings. Indeed, our lives here at Dartmouth are teeming with blessings that most women and men in the world cannot begin to imagine. Riches and blessings are not signs in and of themselves of God’s favor, nor are hardships signs in and of themselves of God’s displeasure. But if we fail to understand the reasons why hardships and blessings come our way, we are not wise. More to our situation here: if our blessings come as a result of injustice we have perpetrated, we may be heralded as intelligent and cunning, but we are not wise, not as God measures wisdom.
In our passage, the chronicler tells us that Solomon’s request and God’s answer was all a dream. Let me close by saying: Wisdom is not something we dream about, nor is it something we wrest from God or use at will to impress others. It is a mindset, an orientation. One must seek to master the ability to discern between good and evil, between right and wrong. One must find the path that finds us doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with our God.
One need not be old to walk down that path. Indeed, it is better to start walking down that path before one reaches two-and-twenty.
1 Kings 3: 3-15 (NRSV) Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’ And 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 towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And 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. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give 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?’
It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God 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, I 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. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.’
Then Solomon awoke; it had been a dream. He came to Jerusalem, where he stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. He offered up burnt offerings and offerings of wellbeing, and provided a feast for all his servants.