The Wisdom of Solomon

Sermon for Sunday, August 19, 2018 || Proper 15b || 2 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14*

Today, I’d like to talk about wisdom. Wisdom is a gift from God that combines knowledge, discernment, and compassion to allow one to see deeply into the heart of things. Wisdom is the gift God gives to King Solomon in today’s first reading. And wisdom is desperately needed but in short supply in these strange and tumultuous days.

Let’s start with Solomon. His father David has just died, and Solomon succeeds David as King of Israel. It won’t be until the next generation after Solomon that the kingdom splits between Israel and Judah; Solomon is king over the whole region, and Solomon knows his limitations. “I do not know how to go out or come in,” he says. “And your servant is in the midst of a people…so numerous they cannot be numbered.” Therefore, when God asks Solomon what wish the new king would like granted, Solomon asks for “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”

Such a request pleases God, for Solomon had not asked for some self-indulgent boon, but a gift that would help him discharge his duties as the monarch. “You have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right,” says the Lord. “I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind.”

At this point in Solomon’s reign, the new king sees himself as a servant of the people, who uses the gift of wisdom to dispense justice and mercy. You might recall the story in which Solomon orders an infant sawed in half in order to judge which of two women is the baby’s true mother. Of course, she is the one who would give up her child lest harm befall the babe. Solomon discerns rightly. The baby is unharmed and goes home with its rightful mother.

The “wisdom of Solomon” is an axiom the world over. He or she who possesses such wisdom is truly blessed by God, blessed to be a blessing by sharing the gift of wisdom. But it seems to me that wisdom is an attribute that receives little recognition in today’s world. For wisdom to flourish, the elements I mentioned above – knowledge, discernment, compassion – must also be prized.  Such characteristics are not often embraced by the most visible among us, so we have a much harder time teaching them to our children and remembering to display them ourselves. Thankfully, wisdom is deep and abiding, and if we value hanging onto wisdom, it will not abandon us.

For the book of Proverbs teaches us that Wisdom was the first of God’s created works and helped God shape the rest of creation. Wisdom personified speaks in Proverbs Chapter 8: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth…When [God] marked out the foundation of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (8:22-23, 29b-31). Thus, the Wisdom of God exists in the machinations of the cosmos – the cycles of nature, the gravitational dance of heavenly bodies, the steady march of evolution. When we assume our rightful place in God’s creation – not as overlords but as fellow beings – we resonate with the Wisdom of God.

The book of Psalms says that the “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (111:10; also Prov. 9:10). Fear, in this sense, is not terror, but awe. It is the motivation that helps us find our place within God’s reign, not setting ourselves up as tyrants over our own lives and those of others, but serving God with humility. In such service, we discover wisdom, which walks hand in hand with true freedom. Wisdom sees into the heart of things and helps us shed both privilege and pretension, so we can locate ourselves within the true state of the world.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks at length about human “wisdom,” which you might as well put in air quotes because he’s really talking about mere speech that sounds pretty. But true wisdom is living the way Jesus taught: “Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God” (1:30).

The Letter of James picks up a similar thread. “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (1:5). Ask God for wisdom like Solomon did, says James. Even the asking shows you already have some wisdom to share. Such wisdom “from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (3:17).

In these places throughout scripture, among many others, wisdom is a gift from God available to all. Wisdom helps us find the place we fit, the place God calls us to. Wisdom is not partial or hypocritical, but judges with sound judgment. Wisdom takes knowledge, molds it through discernment, and shares it with compassion. We have the opportunity, with God’s help, to be bastions of wisdom, lighthouses of wisdom standing tall and strong offering knowledge, discernment, and compassion to a broken world full of broken systems.

Today, I invite you to ask God for wisdom just like Solomon did. Stay informed so you may have knowledge. Cultivate a life of prayer so you may have discernment. Open your heart so you may have compassion. Taken together these three form the wisdom of God, which is needed now more than ever. You don’t need to be King Solomon to own the wisdom of Solomon. You need only be willing to accept such a gift from the giver of all good gifts, our wise and holy God.

* The written and video versions of this sermon differ. After preaching it, I spent the rest of Sunday and much of Monday disturbed that I had not done as much revision work on my draft as I should have. In the video version, extraneous political critique only serves to cloud the message of the sermon. I would have preached the written version above if I had allowed myself a second revision after my first revision took out some, but not all, of the critique. In the spoken version, the critique overshadows the good things about Wisdom, which surely could have stood on its own.

Art: King Solomon with Harp by Marc Chagall

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