Scripture: 1 Kings 3:3-14
George Washington, our first president, was the most honest man who ever lived. He would tell the truth, no matter what it cost him. In fact, one time as a boy George got so angry at something that he took an ax and buried it into the closest thing he could find—a cherry tree on the family property. He chopped that whole tree down! Then, afraid of what he’d done, he hid the ax and went away. But it wasn’t long before his wrongdoing caught up with him. George’s father found the tree and confronted the boy: “Did you do this??” Knowing that he was going to get a whupping, George nevertheless told the truth. He took a licking for it, but he kept his word intact. Because George Washington was the most honest man who ever lived.
How many of you have heard that story before? Most of us, right? Well—is it true? I’ve heard biographers of Washington discuss the story, and their opinion is that the cherry tree story is probably not factual, but a story that started getting told to convey something about Washington’s personality and reliability. It’s an example of strategic storytelling, where the details of a person’s life are told in such a way as to fit (or create) assumptions about a person. Think about the tales of Abraham Lincoln’s compassion, or Johnny Appleseed’s persistence, or Davey Crockett’s grit. Stories of exemplary human lives, told selectively, lift up essential qualities even if they don’t exactly match the original facts.
Today’s reading from First Kings fits that model of strategic storytelling. You’ve no doubt heard of Solomon, King David’s son. And chances are if there’s anything you remember about Solomon, it’s that he was supposedly the wisest man who ever lived. As the stories go… Solomon’s so wise that when he heard really tough cases about people, everyone was amazed at his insight. Solomon’s so wise that he once threatened to kill a baby when two mothers argued over who gave the child birth. The lying parent said “go ahead”, so Solomon knew which mother was telling the truth. Solomon’s so wise that the great Cleopatra came up from Egypt to have a conversation with him. She brought boatloads of wealth and left it with him,
then went away thinking SHE was wiser for it! Solomon’s so wise that he wrote not one or two, but THREE books of the Bible: Song of Songs when he was a love-struck teenager, Proverbs when he was a ruler on the throne giving good advice, and Ecclesiastes when he was a cynical old man. Solomon’s so wise that as a youth God came to him and offered him one wish. What do you think Solomon wished for—wisdom! Solomon’s so wise that… The stories pile one on top of the other, constantly reinforcing a picture of King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived.
Where do you suppose these stories came from? They’re so far back we can’t know for sure, but those who study the Bible have come to suspect that these stories aren’t exactly “just the facts, ma’am”. Rather, these may well have been selected illustrations from Solomon’s life, or from an imaginative scribe, carefully chosen to paint a certain picture of Solomon’s life. Solomon’s conversation with God in a dream may have originally been the work of a scribe who wants to get in well with the new king, rather like the “puff pieces” that flatter Washington officials when a new administration moves into town. Indeed, some scholars find in this morning’s account the hand of the king’s own court, suggesting that it could be official propaganda to persuade hearers that Solomon was a splendid ruler whose wisdom ought to be followed and emulated.
I might respond to those scholars: “Okay, so none of us were there, and yes stories are told selectively, and history is written by the victors and the powerful, but propaganda? In the Bible? What reason or evidence could there be for that?” Well, it turns out that there’s a whole OTHER set of stories that might be told about Solomon. You find them in the pages AROUND this description of Solomon’s wisdom dream.
Earlier in First Kings, we learn that Solomon is not the eldest son of David, who would be the proper heir to the throne. No, his mother Bathsheba persuaded dying David to choose Solomon instead of one of the older brothers. And Solomon’s first acts as a young king were to avenge his father’s decades-old grievances by killing those who had crossed David. He also assured his security on the throne by ordering the executions of his older brothers, at least one of them in the sacred tent of the God’s presence. He then entered into the first of many marriages for reasons of political alliance—this first one was to the daughter of Pharaoh king of Egypt. In the chapters beyond this morning’s passage, we can read for pages about the excesses of King Solomon. He enslaved his own people, built a lavish royal palace before he built God’s temple, then bankrupted the kingdom to provide the finest for himself and his cronies. Elsewhere in scripture, Solomon sounds like a blowhard
who had his way with any women he wanted, worshipped other gods, and saw the start of a decades-long civil war that split the kingdom forever. Even the writer of this morning’s dream story has to mention Solomon’s idolatrous sacrifice “on the high places” in Gibeah, when the true place of worship was with the ark of the covenant in Jerusalem. The biblical record on Solomon’s reign is maddeningly mixed.
So what are we to make of King Solomon? Is he a ruthless young ruler driven by political calculations and the pragmatism of protecting and wielding power? Or is he in over his head, crying out to God for wisdom in the middle of the night? How do we reconcile these versions of a man’s life? Is Solomon a saint or a sinner?
Yes. Yes he is a saint; yes he is a sinner. That’s the only faithful verdict I believe we can offer; on Solomon’s life and on any other. Solomon is a typical human being. He made some huge mistakes, and he showed moments of breathtaking wisdom. There was great controversy surrounding his actions, and the historical record is murky at best. Solomon sought an ideal of wisdom, and it’s easy to invoke an abstract concept, such as “freedom” or “patriotism”. But flesh and blood humans—even the ones we hold up as paragons of virtue—have a harder time living out ideals in the real world. Think of what we now know about more modern-day heroes. The adult George Washington kept slaves on his plantation. Thomas Jefferson had a child with his slave Sally Hemmings. Even the minister Martin Luther King, Jr. was unfaithful to his wife. And Mother Teresa doubted God’s presence for years. So Solomon can be both the celebrated seeker of wisdom and the murderous younger brother. One of the lessons we draw from stories in the Bible is clearly reflected in our experience as well. When we put people on pedestals we must remember that
even the very best folks have clay feet.
Ultimately, I believe the story is not about Solomon, but about God. Because no matter how fickle or faithless human beings are, God is faithful. It was GOD, after all, who came to Solomon in the dream, even when Solomon was off sacrificing in the high country of Gibeah. (There’s no place our shepherding God won’t go to find the lost sheep.) God was faithful to Solomon’s father David, nurturing the good in David and judging the bad, including his adultery with Bathsheba. It is this same “great and steadfast love” no matter what that God promises to Solomon. God knows more than anyone the gap between the ideal and the real. Yet instead of writing off those who fall short, God is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God reaches out across the gap between our dreamy idealism and our crass behavior in reality. God reaches to us when we fall short, rescues us in spite of ourselves, then sets us on our feet again, holding our lives together with grace and mercy. Responding to this story of Solomon’s dream, biblical scholar Choon-Leong Seow writes: “Such is the nature of God in Scripture: God responds to the imperfect love (3:4), the sincere if inadequate response of mortals, with undeserved blessings, only to summon one yet again to love and to obey (3:14).” Which is to say, in the words of an anonymous sage, that “God is able to draw straight, with crooked lines.” No matter how messed up human lives are, God will work them into a tapestry of forgiveness, mercy and deliverance. Even Solomon, in all his glory and wrongdoing, is in the lineage that leads down the generations, from David to Jesus.
Perhaps this is the deepest wisdom of all that we might pray for—trusting God to draw straight, with crooked lines and bent lives. Trusting God to make the most of it when our politicians lack the courage of their convictions. Trusting God to mend the mistakes of that person we cannot understand, and trusting God to mend our hearts also. Trusting God to multiply small mercies into magnificent human community. Trusting God to save us from ourselves in a world where millions suffer in refugee camps, where 21st century technology brings us ever more face-to-face with human failings, and where all the knowledge in the world is not persuading us to halt our planet’s catastrophic warming. Trusting God to be faithful, to be at work in it all, and to deliver as only God can.
In the end, we can’t control what stories they’ll tell about us after we’ve gone. We might end up being saints, or sinners, or more likely something in between. But because of God’s grace, the one story worth telling is the one story that’s finally true. There is nobody so much a sinner that God would write you off. There is nobody so much a saint that you’ve never done anything wrong. God works in all the drama, sorrow and misbehaving of our lives, writing straight with crooked lines. Grow with God in THIS wisdom, and let the stories of your life reflect the never-ending story of God’s unfailing love.
Let us pray: God of mercy and wisdom, in your great love free us from our aimlessness and sin. Set us on the paths of goodness and righteousness. Give your people grace with wrongdoings in others and ourselves, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, and wisdom to see you drawing straight, even with crooked lives. Amen.
 Choon-Leong Seow, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume III (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 39.
 Choon-Leong Seow, 41.