After Davids death and long reign the Kingdom of Israel is, after years and years where border disputes and skirmishes with neighbouring nations kept appearing, settling down to a time of peace, economic stability and political strength has begun under his successor Solomon. Right at the start of Solomons reign there is some trouble around the succession, but after that a prosperous and stable time of peace begins.
That had probably as much to do with the political context of the times as with Solomons extraordinary Kingship skills: there was relative stability in the region. The super powers around Israel are busy with internal matters and looking in other directions for expansion than towards that small strip of land in the middle. So the heat is off and Solomon finds himself with room to move in a comfortable position of being a trading cross roads and a linking pin between the main players of the region.
So, with the circumstances favourable, it should be relatively easy for Solomon to make his country prosper.
Solomon however is very young when he comes to the throne (the fact that he says that he is only a child and doesnt know how to come out or go in later on in the text is thought to refer to the fact that he wasnt sexually mature yet), and it is only through his mother that he survives all the political intrigue that ensues after Davids death.
So there is a need for him to establish and assert himself, and prove that he is worthy of the high office that has been bestowed on him. Prove that he is more than his mothers darling and his fathers pet, helped along by the good fortune of relative peace in the region, but a king in his own right.
Now how would one be able to prove himself as King in that environment? Would it be through Military leadership? A couple of daring raids into neighbouring countries like his father used to do? Might it be by showing male prowess through the gathering of many wives and the siring of many children? Would it be through showing political acumen? Economic success? An ambitious building project perhaps? Or some shrewd alliances with other nations?
Well yes, and it is exactly how the taking off of the reign of Solomon is pictured in the story the book of Kings tells. Although there are no raids into neighbouring countries there is the routing of his enemies. There is an alliance with mighty neighbour Egypt and the marriage to an Egyptian princess. And there is economic growth and the peace of a stabilizing political environment. And there is the ambitious building project.
But that is not, in the end, what is deemed most important in the book of Kings and seen as the source of the prosperity and peace that will ensue under Solomons reign. Not what in the eyes of the world would make a King King says the story, but what in the eyes of God makes a King a good King is important when it comes to ensuring Gods blessing and the coming of justice and peace to the people.
The material Solomon is made of, the assessment of his Kingship potential by God is not by his military skill, his male prowess, his economic or political acumen but something entirely different. It is his faith and the extent to which he walks with God that determines if he is worthy and worthwhile as a king. Not the success and esteem of Kingship as it is desired in the nations around Israel is of importance, only the love and willingness to walk in Gods ways is what counts. And thank God, very soon after the beginning of the story we hear that Solomon loved the Lord and walked in the statutes of his father David.
So here we are: a young King, new to the office, walking with God and ready to reign in his Name, ringing in a new era full of promise.
It is then that Solomon is put to the test. Not, like in other Kingship literature, by being challenged by a mighty enemy or a nasty monster that needs to be slain, but by God, who wants to know what his faith is made of.
Solomon is still worshipping in the high places, presumably because at the time there wasnt a central worshipping place in Israel yet. It is there, at Gibeon, that he lays down his head to sleep.
Solomon would have known that that was regarded as an open invitation to the divine to communicate and make their presence known in dream or vision at the time.
Had Solomon come to seek guidance? Was he after a vision or a dream? Was he looking for some specific insights or was it just a desire to be close to God and spend time in his presence? We dont know, the story doesnt tell, but it is clear that Solomon is open and ready to receive such communications as God would impart on him.
When the moment comes it is a challenge rather than a vision of the future or guidance in the presence he receives: "Ask of me what I should give you".
Immediately a hundred thousand things must have sprung to mind. And Solomons answer is not the most obvious one. Riches, power, military strength, a long life and many, many other things would have been reasonable and defendable choices.
But no, what Solomon asks for is wisdom, more literally translated as "a listening heart". It is a request to be given insight, for the ability to discern between a right and wrong and the ability to choose rightly for his people and in the eyes of God. It is an answer that pleases the Lord and moves him to give Solomon all the other things as well: riches, a long life, power over his enemies and the respect and reverence of those around him.
This answer shows Solomon to be a King seeks the wellbeing of his people before he seeks any gain for himself. He presents here as a servant King, like his father David before him, a King who seeks to serve and is well aware of how precarious an undertaking that is.
The answer also shows Solomon is well aware of his limits and fallibility where it comes to conducting his life and reigning his people. That knowing the difference between right and wrong is often not as clear cut and straight forward as one would wish but that additional wisdom and enlightenment from God is needed in many cases to come to proper decernment and make the right choices.
Solomon, young as he may be, seems to understand already that wisdom is necessary to come to the right decisions in his personal life as well as for his Kingship. That wisdom, insight, and constant attention to the Gods guidance is needed to temper the influence of instinct, gut feeling, emotion, personal history, peer pressure, or habit to enable us to make choices that are positive and constructive and that will help prevent clarity of purpose and direction from being clouded by secondary motivations. That we need more than our own, limited insight to be able to live, and his case rule, in a faithful and God pleasing way.
Solomons prayer for true insight and true mindfulness guided by God and inspired by his presence, is a prayer we all need to pray constantly. We all need that listening heart, we all need God to fill us with his perspective on things. We all need God to infuse our gut feeling with a profound desire for justice, for peace and love. We all need those to be made the prevailing forces in our lives. To be aware of his guidance and made strong enough to resist urges that come from other, baser instincts than the desire to serve the Lord and his people.
Solomon receives that listening heart, and all other things that are desirable for a King in the bargain. The story makes clear that before anything else comes openness towards the Lord and a preparedness to follow his guidance. That everything else is secondary and only derives from that. To put first the Kingdom of God and trust that everything else will follow on from there.
Politics led by a desire to listen, economics built on the desire to serve and care for people, leadership profoundly aware of its own fallibility and limitations in insight and discernment.
I think it would make a refreshing change in at least some cases if not all.
Let us at least, in our small personal kingdoms try to be aware and live with that prayer of Solomons on our lips: "for a listening heart". Amen.