When you hear the name “Solomon” which word comes to mind? If you guessed “wisdom,” then you are right. Even those who don’t know the Bible very well probably understand the phrase: “as wise as Solomon.”
Solomon was known for his wisdom. Indeed, he was legendary because of it. We learn that people from everywhere came to Jerusalem just to sit before Solomon and listen to his words of wisdom. The most outstanding among them was the Queen of Sheba. She came to test him with difficult questions. And Solomon answered all her questions. Nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. The queen was astounded. In all his wisdom, he far exceeded her expectations. And she gave him expensive gifts as a token of her appreciation (1 Kings 10:1-13).
The first lesson for this Lord’s Day tells us how this all began. After an act of devotion, Solomon lies down and falls asleep. This is what the artwork on the cover of the bulletin portrays. He has a dream and God appears to him. And God said: “ask me what I should give you.” Solomon then asked God to give him a wise and discerning mind.
At first glance, it may seem odd to us that Solomon should ask God to give him wisdom in response to this offer. We can immediately come up with a number of things we might prefer to have before wisdom. How about true love, good health, wealth and long life, victory over our enemies, to name just a few? Indeed, Solomon’s choice seems to have surprised God. God knows that these are the things we want and value most, and his response to Solomon implies that he expected Solomon to ask him for one or more of them.
But on further reflection, if we were in Solomon’s place, would we not do the same and ask God to give us wisdom too? Consider that wisdom is the foundation of all these good things. That is to say, it is an indispensable condition to them. Guided by his wisdom, the wise person picks the right friends, chooses the right spouse. The wise person has a realistic assessment of her talents and weaknesses, preferences and dislikes, and chooses the proper course of education or training accordingly. The wise person has a realistic assessment of the labor market, and sizes up her best prospects for gainful employment. The wise person knows when to speak up and when to hold his tongue, and thereby wins the favor and respect of powerful and influential people. The wise person saves money, and does not waste it. The wise person cares for his body and provides for the health of those closest to him. This then is how wisdom is the foundation for all the good things that Solomon otherwise could have asked God for.
We will note here that wisdom is above all practical. In certain places, the Hebrew word for wisdom can even be translated as “skill.” A furniture maker displays wisdom in his craftsmanship, a musician displays wisdom in making music, a parent in training and guiding children. There is a skill or craft or art in all these activities.
Here we need to be careful to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom. We have all known people who are extremely smart. We marvel at how many things they know. They seem to be a walking encyclopedia. They have intelligent and informed input to contribute to discussion on almost every subject imaginable. But then we consider their lives—both public and private. They made what seem to us and others to be ill-advised choices in the areas of love, work and finances. And we wonder: how in the world could someone so smart make such bad choices?
This only goes to show that knowledge and wisdom are not the same thing. One can know a lot about many things and lack wisdom. This is not to say that knowledge cannot serve wisdom. The Bible regards wisdom as important for raising and guiding children well, for example. To know as much about child psychology as we can while raising our children or assisting in the raising of our grandchildren can certainly serve our wisdom. It is good to be wise. It is even better to be both wise and knowledgeable.
Solomon considers himself a child. He is overwhelmed by the responsibility he has taken over from his father David. He—a child—is to lead a great people, to reign over a vast kingdom. It is too much for him.
Parenthetically, it often happens in life that we are “in over our heads.” Our first impulse is to panic and bail out. My dad’s chosen profession was personnel management. Today they call it “human resources” or “HR.” When he was very young, only a few years out of business school, he worked as an assistant to the director of human resources at a large automotive manufacturing plant in Grand Rapids. One day his boss died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack. My dad immediately found himself in charge of a thousand employees. He was not yet even thirty years old! He spent several sleepless nights praying to God for wisdom, and God answered his prayer. God blessed him, and he went on to have a very successful career in his chosen profession.
If we have put our trust in God, if we have a relationship with him, we can go to him in prayer and ask him to give us wisdom whenever we find ourselves in situations that we cannot handle on our own. James says that if any lacks wisdom, let them ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to them (1:5).
James adds “without finding fault” to give comfort to those of us who find ourselves in an overwhelming situation because of our own folly. Let’s be clear. God doesn’t hold our folly against us. Our past folly does not constitute grounds for a rejection of our request. We should not imagine God as a scolding parent who stands there to tell us: “Well, you’ve made your bed, now you have to lie in it.” We can expect God to give generously to us without finding fault. It is the Lord who gives wisdom; from his mouth comes perception and understanding (Proverbs 2:6).
Solomon too can be considered a director of human resources of a sort. He is about to be king. Even before he makes his request to God, he acknowledges how big are the shoes he has to fill. David was the object of God’s special favor and the recipient of a special promise. God established his father’s throne and now Solomon stands in line to succeed him as king. So he seeks the skill to rule well. He asks God for wisdom so he can administer the affairs of the kingdom. He needs a wise and discerning heart so that he can distinguish between right and wrong.
We see here that wisdom is ordered to justice. The Bible understands justice to mean fidelity to the demands of relationship. That is to say, justice is a matter of well-ordered relationships with God, with those closest to us, and with the larger community around us. Laws are just when they safeguard and promote these well-ordered relationships. When just laws are framed and enacted and followed, the result is social harmony and beauty within a society.
Today we hear continually the call for social justice, for racial justice. But do we hear the call for wisdom with the same passion? The Bible teaches us that without wisdom, there can be no justice, social, racial, or otherwise. By the same token, folly will sooner or later lead to injustice. When fools are in office exercising power, the result is strife and conflict and chaos and ugliness. Folly is an agent of the social cancer that eats away at the structural integrity of a society.
There are wise people among us here today. But many of us do not pretend to be wise. On the contrary, we may regard ourselves as foolish. Or at the very least we may say that wisdom has not always guided our most important decisions. Our track record proves it. Where then do we go from here?
We can turn to Christ. The Apostle Paul tells us that Christ is the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). He is wisdom personified. He embodies, in the words of Nicolas of Cusa, the art of the Father. He is, in the words of Peter Leithart, the skilled craftsman who shapes the raw and ruined material of this world into the kingdom of God. He is the Rabbi who teaches his disciples true wisdom. For in him are hidden all the treasures of the wisdom of God (Col. 2:3). Those who turn to him become wise. Those who build their lives on him are the wise builders who build their lives on the rock. When the storms came and beat against them, they did not collapse. Those who do not build their lives on him are the foolish builders who build their lives on the sand. When the storms came and beat against them, they did collapse (Matt. 7:24–27).
To all people he calls out: you who are foolish, set your hearts on me. Those who find Christ find life and receive favor from the Lord. But those who fail to find him harm themselves; all who hate him love death (cf. Proverbs 8:35-36).
This is the theme of the Bread of Life discourse, which has been featured in our gospel lessons these past few Sundays. Today we heard that the flesh of Christ is true food and his blood is true drink. Elsewhere in the Bible, food is a metaphor for wisdom. Wisdom has prepared her meat and mixed her wine. She has set her table. She sends out her servants with the announcement: “Let all who are without wisdom come to my house. Come to my table and eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed” (Proverbs 9:1-6).
This is echoed in the invitation implied in our gospel lesson. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).
To turn to Christ involves also turning to the Bible. Make it your aim to know the scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ, the Apostle Paul tells his young protégé Timothy (2 Tim. 3:15). One of the places in the Bible to turn for wisdom is the book of Proverbs, a book attributed to Solomon. God’s promise to add to Solomon all the good things he did not request no doubt inspired his teaching in Proverbs. There he teaches that wisdom is the first thing to pursue, and that honor, prosperity and success come through the pursuit of wisdom. In this regard, Solomon discovered that God gives abundantly beyond what we can ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20). Proverbs contains instruction for skillful living, teaching seekers of wisdom how to build a life that is harmonious and beautiful.
In his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, retired Calvin Seminary professor Cornelius Plantinga puts in everyday language many of the wisdom sayings to be found in the Book of Proverbs. I will conclude by reading a few of them: “The more you talk, the less people listen.” “If your word is no good, people will not trust you, and then it is useless to protest this.” “If you refuse to work hard, you are unlikely to do much of any consequence.” “Boasting of your accomplishments does not make people admire you.” “Envy of fat cats does not make them skinnier and in the end will rot your bones.” “If you scratch certain itches, they will only scratch more.” “Many valuable things, including happiness and restful sleep, come to us only if we do not try hard for them.”
Let us then be careful in how we live, not as unwise people but as wise. Amen.