At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and god Said, ‘Ask what I shall give you.” Solomon answered, “Oh Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And thy servant is in the midst of thy people whom thou hast chosen, a great people that cannot be numbered or counted for multitude. Give thy servant therefore an understanding mind to govern thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this thy great people?”
It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself what is right, behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.” (1 Kings 3:5; 7-12)
If you could be granted one wish for anything in the world, what would it be?
History is teaming with stories of people—both real and fictional—who have been given the proverbial genie-in-a-lamp opportunity to have a wish or desire fulfilled only to find it is not that simple. Getting all that you desire rarely, if ever, leads to true satisfaction. To the contrary, it often leads down a path of destruction that leaves few unscathed in its wake.
I remember as youth reading a story in the newspaper about a poor family in Texas that had suddenly become exorbitantly wealthy by winning the lottery. At first the money came as a blessing—overdue bills were paid, family members received the medical attention they had required, and life was generally less stressful without the constant financial strain.
But soon the problems came—drug abuse and tragic overdose among the children, the parents torn apart by greed and infidelity, and in short order even the unfathomable happened. The family was forced to declare bankruptcy, having blown through an unconscionable amount of money in a very short span of time. In the end they were left with less than when they had begun, and their lives had been utterly destroyed in the process.
I remember telling myself that if I had been in their shoes I would not have let that happen. I would have done better. But how could I know that? What assurance do any of us have against falling into such a common trap?
The story of King Solomon provides an interesting insight into this exact dynamic because it essentially gives us both sides of the coin: it shows us first the only means by which we can avoid being corrupted by the opportunities afforded to us as well as, tragically, what happens when this path is ultimately abandoned. As is so often the case, Solomon’s story does not end as well as it begins; the legacy he left behind is one of a kingdom burdened by his excessive taxation and forced labor, adulterated by idol worship (due to his concessions to his numerous foreign wives), and finally torn apart under his son Rehoboam, the punishment prophesied by Ahijah for Solomon’s unfaithfulness to the Lord (1 Kings 11:26-40)
So where did Solomon go right? Where did he go wrong? And what can we take away from it all?
This week’s first reading gives us the answer to the first of these questions. When faced with the ultimate genie-in-the-lamp opportunity, (it can’t possibly get any better than being asked what you want from the God of the universe, for whom nothing is impossible!) Solomon responds remarkably by not asking for wealth, power or even the head of his enemies. He simply asks for the ability to discern between right and wrong so that he may be able to lead God’s people well.
His response bears three key marks of humility:
1) He knows he cannot perform the task at hand without the Lord’s help. Not only does he recognize his own youth, but he also acknowledges that no one could perform the task at hand well without the grace of god: “For who is able to govern this thy great people?” he asks, recognizing that the opportunities set before him are too great not to overwhelm and potentially corrupt even the greatest individual.
2) He knows that this position has not been granted due to any inherent merit of his own. There is no hint of entitlement here, simply the recognition that this opportunity is due solely to the Lord’s faithfulness and steadfast love, primarily towards his father (see verse 6).
But most importantly…
3) He knows that his position has a purpose greater than himself and his own pleasure. As a king he will, undoubtedly, enjoy extraordinary honor and privilege, but to be a great king he must subject himself to the greater good of the kingdom in general, and even more importantly, God’s purposes for the nation of Israel. This is not just any king “gig”. He is the king of God’s chosen people, through whom the salvation of the world is being worked out. Solomon is merely a steward and his stewardship carries with it enormous responsibilities which must come before his own desires.
Pleased with Solomon’s humility, the Lord grants not only his request, but also everything he has not requested, “both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days,” the following verse tells us (v.13). And indeed, Solomon became the greatest king of his time, renowned not only for his wisdom but also for his exorbitant wealth. The kingdom of Israel also flourished under his reign…at least for a while. You see, the gift of wisdom and discernment is like any other gift that comes from the Lord. It must be both nourished—through constant enrichment and encouragement—and exercised, lest it fall into atrophy. Sadly Solomon did less of this as the years went by and he involved himself more in the pursuit of material interests and idolatry, and less in the search for God and wisdom. It was as he turned away from his initial humility and sought on his own terms the very things whose pursuit he had eschewed at the beginning that not only he, but also the whole kingdom, began a steady path toward decline that resulted in the great schism under Rehoboam.
Even the greatest of us can fall to the temptations of the flesh if we do not carefully guard our hearts.
But Solomon’s decline does not diminish the value of his original humility, and it is this we are called to emulate in our own lives wherever we find ourselves—whether it is in upper leadership of a large corporation, in the home as a mother raising her children or at school as a struggling student a student. At the end of the day we are all Solomons: stewards of an immense responsibility, the purpose and value of which is far greater than our selves and that has deep meaning and purpose within the entire Kingdom of God. We cannot excel at our vocations without the grace of the Lord, as well as our own deep recognition that we have done nothing to inherently merit the vocation we have been given, much lesss the talents and opportunities by which that vocation is made possible. Everything is grace, as St. Therese says.
It is only as we surrender to this grace in humility by submitting our resources, our vocations and indeed, our whole lives to the greater purposes of God that we begin to thrive as the men and women we were created to be and become sources of that grace to the world around us.
Seek first the kingdom of God, Jesus says, and all these things will be given unto you. (Matt 6:33)
Kathleen Durham is a Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author, editor and speaker.