Still waiting for the true King

Still waiting for the true King

Sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David.” That simple sentence brings to an end the story of this extraordinary—and extraordinarily complex—character. This is the twelfth and final sermon in the series I’ve been doing on kingship and nation-building in ancient Israel; the longest series I’ve ever offered in my twenty-eight years as a preacher. We’ve followed the thread of the story from the prophet Samuel’s warning words about the liabilities of kingship, through David’s rise from shepherd to shepherd king, to David’s moral collapse. We’ve seen his family rocked by pain and internal politics, and last week we had a picture of this great king grown old and frail and unable even to get his body warm. All along the way there have been these moments of seeing our own selves mirrored in his life and the lives of those around him. By telling the full and sometimes raw truth about the humanness of these characters, the biblical storyteller has also told some truths about us.

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“David slept with his ancestors [and] so Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established.” We close our cycle of stories by telling just one more about David’s son Solomon. Solomon is remembered positively in the tradition for two things. Firstly, he is the one who will build the great temple in Jerusalem—something God had not permitted his father David to do—and as described in 1st Kings what he builds is extraordinary.

Secondly, Solomon is remembered and celebrated for his wisdom. Just as the name of David is powerfully associated with the Book of Psalms, the name of Solomon is associated with the wisdom writings—Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, even Ecclesiastes. The roots of that association are shown in this evening’s reading, where we see the young king asking God that he be granted “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.” I have a very clear memory of being introduced to this story in a grade five or six Sunday School class. My teacher, a woman named Lois Lamont—now in her nineties and occasionally in attendance here at saint ben’s on Sunday nights—wrote three words on the chalk board: money, fame, wisdom. If you could choose to be given one of those things, which would you choose? I remember our class having quite a discussion about our choices, after which she told us this story from 1 Kings. “The Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’” “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people,” Solomon had answered, “able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

“It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this,” the narrator tells us. It is a request that is not self-serving; the sort of request one wants to hear from a young king. “Indeed,” the Lord says to Solomon in his dream, “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 honour all your life; no other king shall compare with you.” I remember Mrs. Lamont telling us that because Solomon had chosen wisdom over fame or money, God had granted him all three. As she underlined the word “wisdom” and then drew a big circle around all three words, the point was forever imprinted on me. Wisdom is the greatest of gifts.

If all we had were the demonstrations of Solomon’s wisdom and the account of his building of the great temple, then he would be an unparalleled figure in the story of Israel. But is it any surprise that the writer of 1st Kings has given us more than that? That this truth-telling tradition has insisted on telling the whole story of Solomon, warts and all?

The books of Samuel and Kings are sometimes referred to as “the Deuteronomistic history,” reflecting their connection to the spiritual and theological tradition voiced in the book of Deuteronomy. Like the books of Samuel and Kings, Deuteronomy is cautious about the prospect of kingship, quite deeply aware of the pitfalls of that kind of power. In Deuteronomy 17 we can read the following: “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me’, you may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose.” When you decide you want a king like the other nations, you’ll be allowed to have one, but there are going to be some pretty unique terms to the king’s job description. It will need to be someone “the Lord your God will choose,” and that person will be “one of your own community,” not an outsider or import from another nation. That seems like a reasonable starting point. And then it continues: “Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself… and he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.” Many horses—which in the ancient world stood for military power—many wives, and silver and gold in great quantities, are swept out of the royal job description… all the perks of kingship, declared out of bounds.

Instead of those perks, this is what a true king of Israel is to be about: “When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the Levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life…” At the heart of this Deuteronomic vision of kingship is the call to sit on the throne with a torah scroll, reading it day by day, and ruling from that vantage point. Not “exalting himself above other members of the community,” the text continues, and not “turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left.” As Walter Brueggemann has it, the king’s job is to study scripture and watch over the neighborhood.

Given those terms and that vision, what do you suppose the writer of 1st Kings will tell us about wise Solomon? That he was a terrific success, utterly faithful to that vision? I’m afraid not… Solomon’s wealth was legendary, and while he did build that impressive temple, once it was completed he built for himself a royal palace that was even larger and more ornate. Strike one. According to 1st Kings, he had “forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen.” (1 Kings 4.26) Strike two. He also famously had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, and because many of those wives came from other nations and other religious traditions, he built for them shrines to other gods. As an old man he even accompanied them to those places, and made offerings to those other gods. Strike three. Yes, Solomon did manage to build up and secure Israel’s place among other nations, yet when he died it simple couldn’t hold; the nation was split in two: the northern Kingdom of Israel, and the southern Kingdom of Judah.

What are we to make of the raw honesty of this biblical historian? What are we to do with a tradition that insists on telling both the best and the worst of a character like Solomon? I found myself thinking about that this week when I came across a news story revealing that the director of a well-known Christian international relief agency received an annual compensation of $880,000. How can he possibly justify that figure? Then there are those accounts of megachurch and prosperity preachers earning million dollar plus salaries and driving Rolls Royces and Bentleys, ostensibly signs of God’s blessing on their ministries. Part of what has made Pope Francis so compelling for Christians across denominational lines is the way in which he’s powerfully challenged the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church to reconsider a whole set of assumptions around what it means to hold the office of archbishop or cardinal.

But you know, it is all too easy to look askance at the obvious examples—they’re kind of low hanging fruit in that sense—and so to miss the basic claim that this tradition places on all of us. People in ministry can easily slip into the seeking of prestige and even into the abuse of power—economic and sexual—and I’ve often thought that the terms of kingship set out in Deuteronomy should be adapted and applied to pastors, priests and bishops as a way helping us to set our own priorities. Yet it isn’t just clergy who need to pay attention here. The claim placed on all of us is to steep ourselves in this self-aware and self-critical biblical and spiritual tradition, and then to keep watching the “neighborhood;” keep watching what is going on in the lives of those all around, as a way of keeping us alert to the real hurts and needs and hungers of the world. And then in the spirit of Jesus Christ—Son of David—to do what we can to keep our lives real, rooted… maybe even wise.

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