1 Kings 3:16-28
by Daniel Harrell
Apparently winter is here to stay for a while, so I’ve tried to embrace it as true Minnesotans do and go to Florida. That’s one reason I wasn’t preaching last Sunday—I was supposed to be in Miami for a speaking engagement. I was taking Dawn and Violet with me, but as many of you know by now, we never made it out of the airport due to an enormous crush of people also wanting to get away. The baggage check line was so long that we missed our flight. Our luggage made it, however, and had a wonderful time in the Sunshine State, while we hunkered down here in the tundra and watched the Winter Olympics.
Not that watching the Olympics did a whole lot to buoy our wintertime blues—especially with tough losses by the hockey teams and a basic no-show from the speed skaters. Granted, others did well, notably the sledders and skiers and those crazies doing half pipe and slope style. I watched the skaters too, though I have to admit I still don’t get how that’s a sport. I get that it’s hard and demanding and beautiful, but at least with sledding and most skiing and skating, you have times and goals, clear winners and losers. But figure skating and its incomprehensible scoring system? Go figure. The International Skating Union implemented their bewildering mathematical process in reaction to the 2002 pairs-skating scandal in Salt Lake City where the Russians bested the Canadians with a fixed judging panel. For Russian Adelina Sotnikova to beat defending champion Yuna Kim of South Korea on Thursday still smelled to some like more Russian home-cooking. The new scoring system still allows for massive conflicts of interest (one judge is married to the former Russian Skating Federation president) as well as blatant cheaters (another judge was suspended for a year for trying to fix an event at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.). Former silver medalist Paul Wylie called Thursdays finals “figure skating at its finest.”
This morning’s installment from the life and times of King Solomon has nothing to do with skating, but it has plenty to do with judging, the contestants in this case being two mothers vying for maternity rights. So far in this series I’ve highlighted the way God redeems our bad choices, the supernatural conversion of anger into forgiveness, and unanswered prayer as a pointer toward the kingdom of God. Of course my previous sermon about unanswered prayer also featured a famously answered prayer; namely, Solomon’s request for wisdom. The Lord appeared to Solomon one night in a dream and, like a genie in a lamp, offered Solomon whatever he wanted. To everyone’s surprise, Solomon didn’t roll out the customary wish list of long life, wealth, health and fame. Instead, overwhelmed by the responsibility of being king, Solomon asked for a discerning heart with which to judge right and wrong. Pleased, the Lord granted Solomon unparalleled wisdom and then gave him long life, wealth, health and fame as a bonus. It all goes to show that if you ask for the right thing, you’ll get everything. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” Jesus taught, “and everything else will be added to you.”
Of course as we saw two weeks back, everything else meant specifically the Holy Spirit, who is the very spirit of the Lord residing inside us. By the end of chapter 4, we’ll read how God’s spirit resided in Solomon, resulting in “very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else … and his fame spread throughout all the surrounding nations. ”
This morning brings us to Solomon’s most celebrated use of God’s wisdom. The facts of the case feature two women under one roof, each of whom delivered baby boys three days apart. One baby died, the surviving baby was allegedly kidnapped. Evidence had both women being prostitutes, important so as to emphasize the nonprejudicial nature of Solomon’s justice. More importantly, the women being prostitutes rendered the fathers unidentifiable. No other witnesses meant there no corroboration for either woman’s claim. There were no markings on the infants tying them to their mothers, no DNA testing. All Solomon had to work with was the she-said/she-said testimony—that and God’s wisdom. The first mother did most of the talking: “This other woman gave birth to a son who died when she rolled over on him. So she got up in the night and took my three-day-old from me while I slept. when I tried to nurse my son, he was dead! But when I looked more closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t my son at all.”
A good cross-examination might have raised reasonable doubt. Solomon could have asked the first woman: “You say you were so asleep you weren’t aware of our own son being snatched from your arms. How then did you witness the other woman rolling over onto her own child? How can you claim the switch took place as you describe it if you were sound asleep when it happened? Maybe you’re the one who rolled on top of your own son.”
Instead, the second woman forcefully and simply rebutted, “the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.” To which the first woman countered, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.” Rather than resorting to reasonable doubt, Solomon reaches for a sword. Drawing on the well-known law of dividing disputed property whereby each litigant is awarded half, Solomon decided to apply the law to babies—a deranged idea no judge in his right mind would ever go for. Still, the women believed the king to be serious, which may have had to do with the way Solomon had applied his sword against members of his own family and other political threats to his throne. “Divide the living boy in two;” decreed the king, “ then give half to the one, and half to the other.” Figure skating at its finest.
Yet, as we know, there was a method to Solomon’s madness, a wisdom couched as ridiculousness. His order to cut caused the woman whose son was alive to erupt with compassion for her child—so much so that she chose to lose custody rather lose his life. “Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” At this point in the story, we fully anticipate the other mother to step to the top of the podium and celebrate her vindication: “Aha! See? She admits the baby was truly mine all along!” It’s this anticipation that makes the other mother’s actual response so appalling: “The child shall belong to neither of us,” she said, “Cut him in half.” No wonder Solomon gave the baby to the compassionate woman. Even if she wasn’t truly the mother, at least she wasn’t a heartless monster. No decent person, mother or not, would want an innocent child killed just for spite. You don’t have to be so smart to see that.
Then again, what if the first woman to speak was a liar trying to sway the king with a load of fake compassion? Your pew Bible tries to eliminate the inherent ambiguity by having Solomon award custody to this first woman, but the Hebrew text only has Solomon order that the living baby be given to her. It never identifies who is whom. By contrast, Jewish tradition teaches the real mother to be the second woman. The second mother, though less verbose, always spoke of her own son first, calling him the living one, enough to suggest that her heart was the one with her son. It’s not her but the melodramatic and talkative woman who turns out to be the monster. Then yet again, it may be that the monster wasn’t so much monstrous as she was desperate. Reasons abound as to why biological mothers might let or even need their children dead. You don’t have to be following Lady Edith’s saga on Downton Abbey to understand this. Abortion and abandonment stories in our own day offer deeply troubling narratives of desperation and despair. Add poverty and prostitution, compounded by the strict mores of ancient Jewish societies discriminating against women, and you suffer outcomes that were unbearably disastrous. To have a baby without a husband created any number of awful perils, the least of which left a mother beholden to a presumed paternal family whose disgrace could spell nothing but lifelong misery and social destitution for both mother and child. To concede the court to kill the baby could be interpreted as a horrible kind of mercy.
Add to this the fact that genetics don’t guarantee good parents. Countless stories demonstrate biology’s inability to ensure a fit mother. As our text never clearly states who is whom in the narrative, we’re left with plenty of ambiguity, plenty of reasonable doubt, plenty of room for wisdom to operate. Courts typically default to the best interests of the child, but evidence for what’s best is rarely so cut and dried. And thus Solomon decided to cut and see. The real mother to whom Solomon awarded the baby may have not been the biological mother; but she was certainly the mother who truly loved the child most. We read how “All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to do justice.” As Jesus will later proclaim: “wisdom is proved right by her actions.”
It’s appropriate for Solomon’s wisdom to be credited to God. In the chapters that follow, Solomon’s own wisdom becomes increasingly compromised and by the end of his story, recklessly self-destructive. For such a smart man he does incredibly stupid things. The populace awestruck by the king’s verdict would not imagine such remarkable wisdom—wisdom masquerading as insanity no less—to have originated from any human king. Anything as crazy as this had to come from God. The apostle Paul will later acknowledge the same by ascribing righteousness to the insanity of the cross: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” Israel stood in awe of the king—because they saw that the wisdom of God was in him.
It’s wisdom definitely welcomed. Knowing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth on our own is a dubious proposition. As of this morning, almost 2 million people have signed a petition at change.org demanding an investigation into the controversial Olympic figure skating medal decisions. Being both bad at math and barely able to get around a pond on skates, I was not one of the signers. Still, a large number complain that what happened in Sochi on Thursday was worse than Salt Lake City in 2002 because, this time, we’ll never find out who did what since all judges’ scores are now anonymous. The anonymity is supposed to eliminate bloc judging and blatant cheating, but the result is that the system now hides, and even protects, those who might be fixing the outcomes. Of course we are just talking figure skating here. Much more dangerous and vicious concealment fills headlines weekly: from covering-up political kickbacks or corporate mismanagement, to suppressing evidence and shrouding crimes against children committed by religious priests—not to mention all the daily lies and withholdings of truth that ruin friendships and families.
Jesus promises, “there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the rooftops.” This is good news. “The Lord searches every heart,” King David said to Solomon, “He understands every motive behind every thought.” We read “Israel stood in awe of the king—because they saw that the wisdom of God was in Solomon.” But the King James version has the populace trembling with fear. This is bad news. If God’s wisdom was truly inside Solomon, then the king could see inside their hearts and they were all totally doomed. Turn to the book of Revelation where Jesus returns, and you see him riding in with a vengeance, astride a ferocious white horse, a sharp sword protruding from his mouth. Scripture calls the sword “the word of God,” another way of saying wisdom, its power described in the book of Hebrews as “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” “The truth will set you free,” Jesus said, but, as one bumper sticker acknowledged, “the truth will first make you miserable.”
The wisdom of God in Christ, displayed on the cross, does its justice against evil, including our own. Appearances of insanity aside, the cross exposed and exhausted evil’s power. Jesus took onto himself the best the devil could dish out. Satan may still may win now and then, but he does so as a defeated demon. God’s guarantee, demonstrated in the resurrection of Christ, is final victory over all forces of chaos, corruption and death. At the same time, likewise because of the cross, God forgives sin and with that forgiveness not only releases the world from its burden of guilt, but also, so to speak, releases himself from the burden of always having to be angry with a world gone wrong (NT Wright, Evil and the Justice of God). The truth sets God free to embark upon a new creation, commencing with the resurrection of Jesus, a life of true justice already begun and only attainable by way of grace.
Justice is blind, we presume, thus we portray it as that sculpted woman whose eyes are covered and whose one hand bear scales to assure equality and the other a sword to exact just desserts. But God’s eyes stay wide open. “The Lord searches every heart,” King David said to Solomon, “He understands every motive behind every thought.” The Lord’s scales are tipped toward the humble and the repentant sinner in ways they are not tipped toward the arrogant or sanctimonious. His sword does not fall on the guilty but on those who refuse to acknowledge any guilt. This is God’s grace: Justice that comes off as unfair, sagacity that seems like stupidity, victory that appears as defeat, justice that renders to sinners forgiveness we do not deserve, gospel truth that finally sets us free.
Here in 1 Kings, God’s wisdom in Solomon has gospel written all over it. The woman who wins custody does so by loving enough to give up her only son to save him. God loves the same way with his only son and saves the whole world.