1 Kings 3:3-10

September 9, 2001


Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

My paternal grandparents had a custom that my sister, brother and I were rather fond of. Each Christmas eve, they dropped by our house and took us to either Kiddie City or Nestors Sporting Goods, set us loose to roam the isles, and gave us only one word of instruction: “Pick out whatever single item you want!” I nearly went crazy on those occasions. The store looked massive from my vantage point, and I was confronted with what up to that point might very well have been the most important decision of my life! “Pick out whatever you want.”
In our story, Solomon faces a similar dilemma, though with admittedly higher stakes. He has just become king over Israel, and his ascent was somewhat confusing and problematic. His father, King David, failed to identify clearly who his successor would be, and the principle of the eldest son succeeding the father was not yet firmly entrenched in Israel’s political psyche. Not surprisingly, then, what occurred was a rather heated jockeying for position among all the aspiring candidates. Without a doubt, the process of naming David’s successor was far more controversial and violent than the just-completed pastoral search here at the Grantham Church in which I was chosen to succeed Dr. Ives. In fact, once the dust settled, while the Israelites did have their third king – Solomon–all the others competing for the position lay dead on the ground.
With Israel’s kingship firmly in hand, Solomon receives a visitation from the Lord. “What do you want me to give you,” the Lord asks Solomon. How would you respond? What would you ask for? Solomon, after rehearsing the goodness which God had shown his father, weighs his situation carefully and then replies.
I. Solomon’s Condition
“I am only a young boy,” Solomon begins, “and I don’t know how to go out or come in.” On the surface, what we seemingly encounter is a newly enthroned king positioned and poised to lead. But beneath the surface, what we actually discover is a man fully aware of his youth and inexperience.
Now it’s difficult to determine precisely how old Solomon was when he became king–the Bible never really says. All indications, however, suggest that he was in his early 20's at the time of our story (1 Kgs. 11:42; 14:21). If that is in fact the case, then Solomon was less than half the age of George W. Bush at his inauguration earlier this year, and less than one third the age of Ronald Reagan when he became President back in 1981. Why, only seven or so of Israel’s and Judah’s forty kings were younger at their coronation than he was. Solomon, though not a seven year old child like Joash (2 Kgs. 11:21) or an eight year old like Josiah (2 Kgs. 22:1) when they rose to power, was a young man when he became king.
But beyond his physical age, what apparently compounded Solomon’s anxiety was his lack of experience. From all indications, Solomon lived a rather sheltered life in the royal household. While his predecessors, Saul and David, grew up among commoners in country villages, Solomon knew only the security of the palace and its guards. There are no biblical accounts in which Solomon conquers Israel’s foes, as did Saul and David. There are no stories linking him with strangled lions or enemy giants like Goliath. Most likely, Solomon rarely if ever traveled further than fifty miles from his home in Jerusalem! Solomon seemingly appears out of nowhere, arriving on the scene just in time to succeed David as king. “I am only a young boy,” he confesses, “and I don’t know how to go out or come in.”
I feel a bit that way right now. To be sure, I am no longer in my 20's. If I tried to convince you that I was, my balding head, graying beard, and increasing aches and pains would quickly betray me. I might not be approaching retirement just yet, but I’m no spring chicken anymore.
Yet I stand before you this morning profoundly aware of my inexperience. I’m deeply grateful, of course, for my education, and I’m no less thankful to God for the many rich experiences that I have had – teaching here at Messiah and overseas, preaching in many places, pastoring congregations in Kentucky and New York, and serving the denomination in a variety of capacities. But the truth remains – I am a man of limited experience. The two churches I pastored previously, one in Appalachia and the other in an urban ghetto, were both relatively small and stylistically quite different from this one. In Kentucky, my initial challenge involved bringing some kind of order to the service – children were jumping and screaming in every corner of the sanctuary. And on one of my first Sundays in the Bronx, a young man ran frantically into the church during the sermon, looking for protection from the men outside who were shooting at him. Apart from the obvious similarities – lights, seats, a pulpit, and breathing people – this is a very different church.
Furthermore, I am 17 years removed from both of these previous appointments. It’s been a long time since I served as a pastor. It’s been a long time since I planned a preaching schedule several months in advance. While I have for several years now taught a class entitled “Theology of the Church” for men and women in the denomination seeking credentialing and ordination, it’s been a very long time since I have actually provided primary leadership in building such a church. When Solomon stands before God and responds, “I am a young boy and I don’t know how to go out or come in,” I can at least begin to sense what he might have been feeling.
II. Solomon’s Situation
Solomon continues his reply to the Lord by describing the people he has just been called to lead. “I am among a great people,” Solomon points out, an obvious reference to the size of his constituency. They are, as promised in Genesis 13:16 and 32:13, “so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.” Yet Solomon has more in mind that just Israel’s considerable size, for he qualifies his description in verse nine with a different word than that used in verse eight. Unfortunately, most translations simply render both terms as “great” and move on. In verse nine, the term actually means “heavy,” “weighty,” or even “difficult.” “I am among a large and difficult group of people,” Solomon responds. “Who can govern them?”
Perhaps Solomon remains concerned about the tense situation that just accompanied his ascension to the throne. Some of the Israelites wanted his brother, Adonijah, to serve in his place, and Solomon might very well be leery of lingering factions within the group. Perhaps he is uneasy about the vast geographical holdings under his control and the possibility of his being stretched too thin. Maybe the issue revolves around the varying tribal groups in his domain and the intense difficulty that unifying them would bring. Or perhaps he is simply overwhelmed at Israel’s calling – “the people you chose” – and the prospect of releasing their potential. For whatever reason, Solomon clearly senses that this group of people under him is great and complex, and that leading them will be no easy matter.
I’ve mulled over similar thoughts in my own mind more times than I can count during the last several months. “I am among a great people,” I’ve said to myself and to the Lord. “A great people.” Numerically, we might not compare with the mega churches so popular in various areas of our world, but we’re not small, either. This congregation is at present twice the size of my former two congregations combined. But greatness does not stop with numbers. In so many ways, this is a very special congregation. A gracious congregation. A generous congregation. I remember your act of extreme mercy when you flew my entire family home from Jerusalem last year when my sister was dying. I’ll never forget it, and I’ll never be the same because of it. I heard from afar how you rushed to the aid of the Steele family when their house burned down. I have watched many of you contribute countless hours and resources to the ongoing ministry of this church, whether in the boardroom, classroom, utility room, or dishroom. I’ve caught a glimpse of your excitement over our partnership with the Harrisburg congregation. Just these past two weeks, I have been moved again and again by the notes, cards and flowers that many of you sent. “Lord,” I’ve often cried, “I am among a great people.”
But this is also a difficult congregation. By virtue of our location, we find ourselves situated between a major Christian college on the one side and a large retirement village on the other. At the same time, our county continues to experience considerable growth, and Grantham is no longer isolated from the outside world. We are in the middle of 2,800 college students, 750 Messiah Village residents, and thousands of community people from various walks of life. This is a complicated congregation.
Within the Grantham Church itself at this moment, we have some 150 people who are 65 years of age or over, an increasingly large number of college students and other young people, and everyone else in between. There are 20 ordained ministers in this congregation, nearly 40 people who have served as missionaries, and 40 people with doctorate degrees. Among us are building contractors, teachers, electricians, florists, lawyers, computer scientists, doctors, therapists, presidents, homemakers, students, nurses, librarians, and receptionists. We have trained musicians who bask in Beethoven, mid-lifers who still boogie with the Beatles, head-phone wearing teenagers who bop with the Back Street Boys, and little children who beam with Barney. This is a difficult congregation. We have people inside who need to be fed, and countless people outside who need to be found. When Solomon looked up at God and said, “I am among a great people, a difficult people,” I know something of what he felt like. And when he asked “Who can lead them?,” I want quickly to respond, “Not me!”
III. Solomon’s Petition
So what does Solomon do? He asks God, not for wealth, power, or prestige, but for divine assistance. “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, and the ability to discern between good and evil.” Human credentials are inadequate, the task too great. Lord, help me. And God’s response? “I will give you what you have asked, and much, much more.”
Be sure to consider Solomon’s wording carefully: “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, and the ability to discern between good and evil.” The ability to discern between good and evil, between right and wrong. Frequently today, different word pairs run through our minds and influence our decision-making: effective and ineffective; expensive and affordable; pleasurable and painful; popular and unpopular; practical and impractical. Whether business executives formulating long-range plans or high school students struggling to discover their identities, we want to know if something is cost effective, feels good, or will enhance our popularity. While these and other distinctions of course have their place, Solomon cuts through the chaff and asks for discernment at a more foundational level: is it good or is it evil? Is it right or is it wrong? There are a lot of things in the world that are pleasurable and effective and practical, but are they good? It’s all too tempting, too easy, to sacrifice goodness and godliness on the altar of popularity, pleasure and expedience. “Oh God,” Solomon asks, “give me the ability to discern between good and evil.”
I continue to bring that same hopeful request before the Lord. We live in a day when ethical issues grow increasingly complex, and many of those issues will enter quite naturally into the inner life and conversation of this congregation. At times, those difficult issues might very well escape the walls of our classrooms and the realm of theory and infiltrate our homes. We will need to respond. Lord, help me to discern between good and evil, between what is right and what is wrong.
We today are also regularly bombarded by pragmatic and stylistic pressures. There is a seemingly endless number of books and strategies for building the church. Start this program.
Restructure your organization in this fashion. Use only this type of music. And to make matters even more complicated, many of us here have our own personal preferences and ideas that we are quick to share and defend. Lord, help me to discern between what is simply popular and what is biblical, and when the two overlap. Help me to know when to encourage change and when to resist the pressures that are all around us. Help me to know the difference between a personal preference and a fundamental truth. Give me the ability to discern between good and evil.
And we live today in a world where people readily look for what they like, run from what they don’t like, and rarely make a commitment that is strong enough to weather storms and conflict. The moment differences of opinion arise, some people begin looking elsewhere. Lord, help me to hear not only what people say, but what they are trying to say. Help me to know when to speak softly and when to be firm. Help me to know when to chase after people, and when to let them go. Lord, help me to discern between good and evil. Lord, help all of us to discern between good and evil.
Solomon was young and inexperienced. He lived among and was chosen to lead a great and difficult people. And Solomon, when taken to the local store and given the opportunity to “pick out anything he wanted,” asked God for guidance and direction, for the ability to discern between good and evil. In at least ways these, he and I have certain things in common. But I would add these words to my hopeful request to God: “Lord, may the similarities between Solomon and me stop there. Help me to use your gifts, not to dominate others or to make a name for myself, as did Solomon, but to assist these great people in building your kingdom on earth. And Lord, as you enable me to discern between good and evil, enable me also to choose what is good, regardless of the cost. In so doing, may my time of ministry here, however long it might be, result in unity rather than division, growth rather than decay, and an exalted Lord rather than an infamous king. Amen.”