Solomon the scholar
What would you ask God to do if you could ask him for anything at all?
If God should pose a carte blanche question like this to you: "What do you want me to do for you?"—how would you answer. . . honestly? What would you ask God to do if you could ask him for anything at all? An offer like this one is sure to reveal the earnest desires of our hearts.
Little did King Solomon know that God would ask him this very question on a momentous night in the city of Gibeon, where he had spent the day offering a thousand sacrifices and worshipping God. According to 1 Kings 3:5, God appeared to Solomon in a dream and said to him: "Ask what I shall give you." Solomon's wish was God's command.
The king quite likely pondered this question for a while. Several responses, some of them probably self-serving, may have danced like sugarplums in his head. Eventually he came up with his final answer. Solomon knew that his position as Israel's king was a faithful fulfillment of God's promise to his father David to seat one of his sons on his throne. Solomon's political task was so daunting to him, however, that he considered himself but a little child who did not even know how to go out or to come in. Consequently, in response to God's free rein proposal, Solomon said: "Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?" (1 Kings 3:9).
This answer pleased God, and he gave Solomon exactly what he asked for—a wise and discerning heart that he might be an intelligent and competent leader of God's people. Since Solomon did not selfishly request riches, wealth, honour, long life or victory over his enemies, God gave Solomon these blessings anyway. The abundance of Solomon's wisdom and prosperity meant that no one would or could come close to him in grandeur, at least not for a very long time.
Solomon promptly displayed his ability to administer justice when he identified in a rather cunning way the real mother of a young boy when two women were fiercely claiming him as their child. In light of his great intellectual gifts and wealth, Solomon also initiated one of the most ambitious academic enterprises the world has ever known, though his efforts in this regard are sometimes ignored. For you see, Solomon was not only a wise ruler, but also a man of immense intelligence, and his remarkable scholarly achievements and cultural contributions are summarized for us in 1 Kings 4:29-34.
And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like 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. For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.
From this passage we can excavate several features about "Solomon the Scholar" that challenge and inspire us as Christian academics and students today.
To begin, the passage states the previously acknowledged fact that Solomon's extraordinary aptitudes of mind and heart were God-given gifts. To be sure, God wasn't a stingy giver. The king's wisdom, great discernment and breadth of mind were abundant in character, even proverbially so, "like the sand on the seashore." However, we should not only recognize that Solomon's ample resourcefulness was God's blessing, but it also constituted a significant task and responsibility. Solomon was called to be a humble and grateful steward of the enormous talents he received. There was no room for pride—only thankfulness and a call to responsible action.
We find here in Solomon a good example that we should imitate. Among the many things we ask of God, let's not forget to ask him for a wise heart and keen intellect. Anti-intellectualism is no badge of spiritual honor. It fact, it's a sin. We are commanded to love God with all our minds. And as both Jesus and the apostle Paul teach us, when it comes to evil, we should be innocent as babes, but when it comes to our minds and thinking, we should not be children, but mature adults (Matthew 10:16; 1 Corinthians 14:20). Therefore, let us humbly and gratefully acknowledge the divine source of our gifts of mind and heart, developing them to the utmost and deploying them for good, with a profound sense of accountability to God.
Solomon's own intellectual investments certainly paid off. His knowledge and wisdom far surpassed the leading sages and scholars of his day. Whether it was the sons of the East who were celebrated for the sciences and sagacity, or the Egyptians who were legendary for their knowledge of medicine, geometry, mathematics, astronomy and gnomic wisdom, Solomon was smarter and wiser still. He even topped a formidable list of "Who's Who" among the great intellectuals in the ancient world. In verse 31 we read that Solomon was wiser than all men—better than the best and brighter than the brightest. This included such notables as the learned Levitical priests Ethan and Heman, and the more enigmatic Calcol and Darda, both sons of Mahol (a family with smart genes, evidently) who were prominent for their erudite contributions. If these men were renowned, Solomon was more so. Solomon's fame was widespread, not just at home in Jerusalem, Judah or Israel, but in the surrounding nations, or as we might say today, globally. Note that this acclaim is not attributed to a pagan thinker, or to a secularist, if you will, but rather to an Israelite, to a person of faith, to a man of God.
If we were to update the point to the present, perhaps we might say that Solomon's intellectual reputation would exceed Ox-Bridge, the Ivies, and Canada's most celebrated institutions (not to mention other worldwide notables). He would be considered smarter than the best in the West and wiser than the academics in Asia. Shouldn't there be a few persons or institutions of Christian persuasion with a comparable reputation today?
The boast about Solomon's scholarship was not an empty one. Solomon was not only a prolific writer and composer, but he also possessed encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world. Of the 3,000 proverbs he composed, 375 of them are preserved for us in the Old Testament book of Proverbs that makes the fear of God the prerequisite for wisdom and knowledge. Also, Solomon's grand total of 1005 songs include Psalm 72, which tackles kingly politics, and Psalm 127, which addresses the subjects of providence and parenting. Solomon's number one hit, of course, was the Song of Songs, a lovely lyrical meditation on the holy meaning of marriage and sexuality that simultaneously symbolizes the ardent nature of God's love for His people.
Solomon was shrewd to express his ideas in the influential genres of maxims and music. After all, our lives and the world are very much governed by proverbs, since apt and timely thoughts frequently fix our notions and determine our conduct (says Matthew Henry). As we read in Proverbs 15:1, for example, "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." These are good words to believe in and to live by. And as Plato noted, rhythm and melody insinuate themselves in a life-shaping way into the innermost parts of the soul. Music has this mysterious ability to inscribe itself deep in our hearts. Who, for instance, isn't familiar with John Lennon's resonant line, "All we are saying is give peace a chance"? How smart it is, then, to devote considerable energy to the transformative republics of letters and lyrics in which Solomon's own contributions are nothing short of astounding.
If this was not enough, Solomon was also an accomplished natural philosopher or scientist whose knowledge of trees, plants and animals is highlighted in verse 33. If we combine Solomon's compositional achievements with his extensive knowledge of dendrology and botany, as well as zoology, ornithology, entomology and ichthyology, then we can see why it would be appropriate to acknowledge him, anachronistically so, as a true "Renaissance man." Indeed, Solomon was the ancient world's polymath par excellence.
Solomon's prodigious efforts had a goal—shalom, or peace. His labour was devoted to securing the common good of the surrounding nations, and he worked especially hard to procure the well-being of his own people. As 1 Kings 4:25 memorably recalls, "Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon." As if he were a new Adam, Solomon embodied the original cultural mandate of Genesis 1, which is constitutive of human identity as God's image and likeness. On this foundation, Solomon's fruitful labours illustrate for us the deep meaning and permanent nobility of the tasks of education, learning and culturemaking. If we could ask God for anything at all, shouldn't we beseech him to restore a profound understanding of this abiding purpose in us?
Solomon's efforts were not without recognition. As we have already seen, Solomon was internationally famous for his knowledge and wisdom. He was a veritable "tourist attraction" (as Walter Brueggemann says), for commoners and kings alike came from all over the world to obtain his insights. As the world's centerpiece of culture and scholarship, many strangers came to Solomon where they were exposed, not only to Solomon's knowledge and wisdom, but also to Yahweh—Solomon's God.
His most famous guest, of course, was the Queen of Sheba. In the account of her visit in 1 Kings 10, we read that the Queen spoke with Solomon about all that was in her heart, and Solomon himself answered all her questions. As the texts states, he explained everything to her. I wish I could have overheard that conversation.
Upon hearing his wisdom and observing his prosperity, the Queen was overwhelmed. There was no more spirit left in her. Though skeptical of the things she had heard about Solomon at first, she came to believe that not even half of his magnificence had been reported to her. She proceeded to bless Solomon's servants and subjects who attended to him and heard his teachings daily. Most importantly, she blessed God who had blessed Solomon and enabled him to become Israel's wise, just, and righteous king. The Queen's visit shows that the quest for truth and wisdom can ultimately lead to its divine source, demonstrating the evangelistic or missional potential of education and scholarship pursued avidly in God.
Based on this review of the Solomon's accomplishments and the Queen's storied testimony about him, who could be greater in intellectual stature than Solomon the scholar? Who is known as the world's wisest man? Well, Solomon, of course! Nevertheless, as great as he was, Solomon is not our chief example of erudition. His later moral and spiritual lapses notwithstanding, Solomon's wisdom, very great discernment and breadth of mind were merely a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. One greater than Solomon has come.
Most of us, however, do not think of Jesus as particularly smart. We tend to see him in a rather ho-hum, sentimental fashion as nice, kind or good. But smart? Bright? Intelligent? Rarely. Unfortunately, brains, brilliance and intelligence are not the attributes we typically ascribe to Jesus the Messiah.
The truth is, however, that in addition to the usual virtues we typically attribute to Christ, he was, in fact, wisdom incarnate. Not only is he properly designated as the King of all kings and Lord of all lords, but he should also be regarded as the Sage and Savant of all sages and savants. He ranks first among the world's cognoscenti, if you will, a status that Old Testament prophets like Isaiah clearly anticipated (Isaiah 11:2):
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
Certainly, Jesus' erudition lacked the pomp and circumstance of Solomon and his court. For the most part, he toiled and taught in obscurity; he published nothing. Nevertheless, his ever-increasing wisdom was evident from childhood (Luke 2:40, 52). At the tender age of twelve, he impressed the rabbis in Jerusalem with "his understanding and his answers" (Luke 2:47). Once he began his public ministry, the brilliant content and logical form of his authoritative discourses and the profundity of his thought-provoking parables, among other things, astonished his hearers. Where and how could this simple man—a carpenter, no less—have obtained such unparalleled insights? (Matthew 7:28-29; 13:54, 56)
As James Sire has shown in his Habits of the Mind, a pre-eminently thoughtful, intelligent and lucid Jesus is showcased in his shrewd dealings with his contacts (Luke 7:36-50), in his capacities to argue on the basis of analogy and evidence (John 7:21-23; Luke 7:21-23), in his persuasive dialogues and victorious exchanges with enemies (Mark 12), in his resourceful interpretations of the Old Testament (Luke 4:16-30) and in his storytelling prowess as seen, for example, in the parables of the Good Samaritan and Prodigal son (Luke 10:25-37; 15:11-32).
Of course, Jesus was the Logos of God, the very incarnation of divine rationality (John 1:1,14). As God in-the-flesh—the incarnate great I AM of the Old Testament—Jesus claimed to be the bread of life, the light of the world, the way, the truth and the life (John 6:35; 8:12; 14:6). These are the kinds of assertions only a liar, lunatic or God could make. And if he truly was God, then how could God be stupid, as Dallas Willard has queried?
The apostle Paul, likewise, held to this high view of Christ's divine status and recognized the significance of his cosmic roles. As Christ is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of "all things" (Colossians 1:15-20), Paul's affirmation that in Jesus "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" makes perfect sense (Colossians 2:3). Here is a discovery as great as it is perhaps surprising: Jesus Christ is the key that unlocks the door to the house of all wisdom and knowledge.
You would think that the people of Jesus' day would have recognized him as the key to wisdom. But they didn't. For this reason, Jesus declared that the Queen of Sheba would rise up at the judgment of his generation and condemn it (Matthew 12:42). Why her? Why condemnation? Because if the Queen was able to recognize Solomon's lesser wisdom, then you would think the people of his day who saw and heard Jesus would be able recognize his superior wisdom and knowledge. You would think we would too. But often we don't. Instead, we tend to pay more attention and give greater homage to lesser lights. Hence, we must pray that God will enable us to know Jesus for who he is—someone greater than Solomon the Scholar. This is, I believe, is what we should ask God for if we could ask him for anything at all.