The old king, David, is dead. It is time to pick his successor as king. In retrospect it seems obvious that his son, Solomon, was his rightful heir. In the moment, however, the matter of succession to the throne is highly contested. Two sons of David, Solomon and Adonijah, are both aggressive candidates for the succession. In the end, Solomon prevails and becomes king. But not easily! He must engage in choreographed deception with the aid of powerful allies. He is also willing to engage in raw violence in order to eliminate his rival. The scene sounds like one from The Godfather.
Except that beyond deception and violence, legitimate rule requires a religious affirmation. There is need for some “God speak” to make the new king secure on his contested throne. That act of religious legitimation for the successor king is the subject to our text. Solomon participated in the required liturgy to exhibit his piety. That act is then reinforced by a dream recorded in our verses. Solomon dreams of God-given, well-grounded authority. There is no reason to doubt in the legitimacy of the dream. On the other hand, there is no reason to trust the dream either; it may strike one as remarkably convenient for the new king, so that it may be nothing more than a piece of political propaganda. Maybe it is no more, cast in ancient idiom, than a familiar blatant assertion that, “God told me…”
The dream of governance lets the new king imagine what his reign would be like. The dream tracks all the right rhetorical maneuvers. First Solomon links himself to his beloved father David in the world of God’s faithfulness. The double affirmation about God’s faithfulness and David’s faithfulness locates the new king in a stream of reliable God-given identity.
Second, the new king voices appropriate modesty and humility in the face of royal responsibility. For that role, he will need all the divine help he can evoke.
Third, he makes a bid for divine help. He asks for an “understanding mind” to function in his role as chief judicial officer. That role is evidenced in the famous narrative of I Kings 3:16-28.
Indeed, the phrase “understanding mind” is more closely translated, “listening heart.” The one thing the new king requires is a capacity for attentiveness to the needs, hopes, and expectations of his subjects. Solomon knows that a “listening heart” is the antithesis of a “hard heart,” an inability to care for or notice or take seriously those before him. In using this phrase he is perhaps aware that he is married to Pharaoh’s daughter, Pharaoh being the quintessential hard-hearted guy. Solomon intends to be a very different kind of king!
God grants his request and will endow him with the necessary sensibility to be the best king ever. What a way to begin a reign! But, of course, the God of steadfast love will give more than is asked. God will give Solomon, beyond his asking, wealth and honor beyond compare. That is where the exchange is left (except for verse 14 to which I will return). After that the rest is history! It turns out, in subsequent narrative, that Solomon majored in wealth and honor. His temple is an extravaganza of gold. His trade policies flourish so that money flows in like it always does to a superpower.
But of wisdom, not so much! While he is credited with wisdom, the narrative itself shows a foolish overreach of inordinate greed that proves unsustainable. The accumulation of wealth and honor serve to distort the wisdom God has given him so that his heart no longer “listens.”