If God told you that you could ask for anything you wanted, what would you choose? As we continue our study of the “Great Prayers of the Old Testament”, we will see that God makes this offer to David’s son and successor, Solomon. His response, included in this prayer is remarkable as well as memorable, and serves as a model for our prayers, because of what Solomon does – and does not – ask for.
By way of background, (because I love researching the back stories of scripture verses), Solomon has become Israel’s king following the death of his father, David. Despite being favored by God and destined to inherit the monarchy from his very birth, his ascent to the throne was not at all easy. To begin with, David had many older sons by other wives who were also vying for the monarchy. Hence, according to one commentator, Solomon proceeds to eliminate - and in violent ways - his key adversaries who were in competition for the throne “in a in a series of killings that parallels the violent choreography of The Godfather”. The commentator also mentions that his tactics were carried out with the assistance of his mother, Bathsheba and the prophet, Nathan. It also becomes clear that Solomon did not come to his kingship by public acclaim, as had his father, but rather by way of an “insider” job; in ways that were, shall we say, less than noble? For he does what needs to be done in a ruthless rise to power. Yet, somehow, he does manage to portray a façade of innocence; political intrigue and violence notwithstanding. He astutely begins his reign demonstrating his love for YHWH, following in the footsteps of his father before him. He did, in fact, initiate his administration by portraying himself as an exemplar king, in terms of being a ruler who obeyed the Torah and who worshipped God.
It is against this background that Solomon was visited by God in a dream, and in which his royal office is portrayed as a gift from God, for which he must now accept responsibility. Thus, his dream becomes a prayer, in which Solomon and God are portrayed as covenantal partners, which allows Solomon to speak boldly with God. He begins his conversation with God, as his father David did, with “doxology and deference”. He opens his prayer with celebration and praise for God’s steadfast love and fidelity toward his father, David. He then moves to deference, as he articulates his humility and modesty before God, likening himself to a mere child, one who is overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the monarchy, as perhaps he was. By reminding God of his youth, his lack of experience and competence, he then places himself in a position of dependence and need, with a readiness to receive the divine gifts. In fact, in our opening verse of our scripture, as he begins his dream, God says to him, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.”
And of all the things he could ask of God, in his prayer, Solomon makes a single request: he asks that God would grant him “listening heart”, which is often translated as an “understanding mind”. We should note that in the Old Testament, the heart is actually the locus for decision-making. By asking for a listening heart, he was asking God for gift of discernment; for being able to determine between what was good and what was evil; what was right and what was wrong. Instead of asking for the conventional things that one would associate with his rank – longevity, wealth and military victory - he asks for wisdom.
As a result, YHWH gives him what he requests – and so much more! Solomon’s wisdom becomes that which legends are made of, and he is gifted with more material goods than he ever asked for or perhaps even imagined: riches and honor, for which he also become legendary!
There is much we can take from this encounter with God. While we may not be granted the legendary wisdom and discernment with which Solomon was gifted with nor achieve the wealth that came as a bonus, Solomon’s experience teaches that God wants to be in dialogue with us; that God desires “face-to-face” communion, a relationship that involves more than what we might call the “drive-through prayer”. We see this prayer as an act of being invited to ask, allowing Solomon – and us – to be able and willing to bring before God for our hearts desire.
Additionally, we note that God not only gave him what he asked for, but gave him far more than he ever dreamed of (pun intended). It is said that this double gift of what is asked and what is not asked anticipated the promise of Jesus to his disciples in Matthew 6:33: that when there is passion for God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, “all these things will be yours as well”. Here, in the gospel, these things are food, drink and clothing, at least at a minimum. But the point is, that God’s generosity goes well beyond human need or asking, because God wills for those who pray, an abundance of well-being, that which can only come as a gift from God. For Solomon, the abundance came in the guise of kingly wealth and power. For us, it may be as simple as our daily bread -or more, but we can indeed trust that God will provide, often with more than we could ever ask.
I found a cute little story that might illustrate God’s generous providence.
A woman was at work when she received a phone call that her daughter was very sick with a fever. She immediately left her work and stopped by the pharmacy to get some medication. She got back to her car and found that she had locked her keys in the vehicle.
She didn't know what to do, so she called home and told the baby sitter what had happened. The baby sitter told her that the fever was getting worse. She said, "You might find a coat hanger and use that to open the door."
The woman looked around and found an old rusty coat hanger that had been thrown down on the ground, possibly by someone else who at some time or other had locked their keys in their car. Then she looked at the hanger and said, "I don't know how to use this."
So, she bowed her head and asked God to send her some help. Within five minutes an old rusty car pulled up, with a dirty, greasy, bearded man who was wearing an old biker skull rag on his head. The woman thought, "This is what you sent to help me?" But she was desperate, so she was also very thankful.
The man got out of his car and asked her if he could help. She said, "Yes, my daughter is very sick. I stopped to get her some medication and I locked my keys in my car. I must get home to her. Please, can you use this hanger to unlock my car?"
He said, "Sure". He walked over to the car, and immediately the car was opened. She hugged the man and through her tears she said, "Thank You God for sending me such a very nice man”.
The man replied, "Lady, I am not a nice man. I just got out of prison today. I was in jail for car theft and have only been out for about an hour."
The woman hugged the man again and with sobbing tears cried out loud, "Oh, Thank you God! You even sent me a Professional!"
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this not the end of Solomon’s story. You see, all of benefits and blessings God lavished upon Solomon came with catch. If we look back at verse 14, we notice that it begins with the conditional conjunction “if”. “If” you will walk in my ways, “if” you will keep my commandments…” As mentioned earlier, Solomon found himself in a covenantal relationship and partnership with God. In this is the essence of covenant promise: if you are faithful to YHWH, then you will live long and prosper. Unfortunately, as we will discover later in the narrative, his great wealth – much of which came to him by his many advantageous marriages to many foreign women – as many as 700 wives and 300 concubines, all bringing with them their pagan deities, in the end, distracted Solomon from his “listening heart” and his dedication to God, and did ultimately, things did not end very well.
Nonetheless, we are reminded and have the assurance that God is indeed generous. As Paul tells us in Ephesians, “God will give us abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.” But we are also reminded that we are to continue to seek God and walk in God’s ways. May we always remember the source of our being and goodness. Thanks be to God. Amen.