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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

1 Kings 3



Verse 5


‘And God said: Ask what I shall give thee.’

1 Kings 3:5

Our ideal means that in which we most thoroughly believe as good and worth having, that which we consider to be the true object of our life. If it be low and poor, we may become lords, or we may become millionaires, but our lives will be low and poor also; if it be noble and lofty, we may be paupers like Luther, or lepers like Father Damien, but our lives will be lofty and noble too.

I. What is your ideal?—It is too probable that the question takes many men and women by surprise. Ideal? We have none. What are we aiming at? Why, nothing at all. Yes, that is the curse of it. So many have no object. Men and women often drift hither and thither through life, never turning an eye to the guiding reins which to them have become useless. Do we not know scores of such moral ciphers?—petty in all their aims, not to be trusted at any time, without depth, without worth, without stability. We do not go to them when we need advice, we do not look to them when we crave for sympathy; as for asking them to be interested in any generous and unselfish aim, or to subscribe for any kind or worthy purpose, we never dream of it. If they are not often swept away into some unknown abyss of crime by some sudden hurricane of temptation, it is only because the devil, secure of these Laodiceans already, and not thinking much of them, though they think so much of themselves, does not deem them worth any expenditure of his energy.

But, if we have an ideal and aim, how infinitely important it is that it should be a worthy one! Many men have some ideal that they admire of persons or conditions. Very strange are the ideals of some men. To one class, the successful jockey seems to be the supreme of men, or the successful prize-fighter; and the personal effects of these heroes sell at fancy prices, so small are human aspirations. To others, the man of fashion seems to be the one to be admired, or the sleek man of business who has made money, and has his suburban villa and drives to his counting-house in his neatly-appointed brougham. These are the little gods of little men. And to what strange results such ideals lead!

Perhaps, however, men more often idealise conditions than they make heroes of persons; they set before them something which they desire and, because the object of their desire is often ignoble or delusive, they end in degradation, disappointment, or despair. It is a very fatal thing to have an inferior or a mistaken end in view. It is like steering straight upon a rock. And it is really marvellous how generation after generation, in spite of all experience, men go on being deceived. The Mohammedan legend about Christ is full of insight, but he compared the man who desired only earthly things to one who drinks sea water, and becomes more thirsty the more he drinks, and dies mad. And the strange thing is that the devil scarcely tries to lie to his votaries; he does not deceive—he tempts; he knows that that will be enough. Before the silly fish in the dim waters he dangles the gilded bait; he knows the victim will rush at it and swallow it. Then he will be able, in the. picture of St. James, to drag him out to gasp and lie torn and wounded on the shore.

One of the vilest ideals is that of wealth. The greed of gold is the meanest, and its ideals are attainable by anybody. Any fool, if he chooses only to creep and crawl enough, can get rich if he likes. And riches have made millions mean, and millions dishonest, and millions God-forgetting; but what man who ever lived have they made happy? Human souls are not low enough, after all, to be made happy by accumulation, as the beetle is, though they may spend their life at it as the beetle does. He that maketh haste to be rich shall not be honest, and many a man who is making, or has made, a fortune by dishonest bargains, by grinding the faces of the poor, by cheating the ignorant and the confiding, by trades which ruin the bodies and souls of men, by false weights and deceitful balances, which are an abomination to the Lord, has sold his eternal jewel for the dross, not one atom of which he can take away with him. ‘Who is that purpureal personage who has such a splendid dress?’ asks the Latin epigrammatist. The answer is, ‘Take the plaister off his forehead, and underneath you will read the three letters F U R, Fur [thief], branded there.’ Many a respected person in society, who has made money by base means, deserves just as much to have those very letters branded on his forehead, knowing very well that they are branded indelibly on his soul.

II. When God intends to fill the soul, it has been said, He first makes it empty; when He wishes to enrich a soul He first makes it poor; when He wishes to exalt a soul He first makes it sensible of its own want and nothingness. But as for earthly successes, they are vain in two ways: vain because they are often unattainable; vain because, when attained, they are of their very nature disappointing. God disillusionises us by refusing our desire, or by granting our desire and sending leanness withal into our souls. You all want happiness; earthly things do not and cannot give it, and never have done. Satiety and sloth are poor counterfeits, but these mock the poor worldling and vex the feverish.

There is one man, and one only, of whom the ideal is perfect, attainable, satisfying, ennobling, eternal; it is the ideal of Him by whose name every one of you is called—the Man Christ Jesus; it is the ideal of holiness to which He excited us, and the example which He set, ‘that we might follow in His steps.’

Dean Farrar.


(1) ‘Youth is meant to be enthusiastic, and to feed its aspirations on noble ideas, and if, instead of that, it does as too many do, especially in countries where wealth abounds, namely, regards life as a garden of delights, or sometimes as a sty where young men may wallow in “pleasures,” then farewell to all hopes of high achievements, or of an honourable career. The ideals will fade fast enough; but alas for the life which had none to begin with!’

(2) ‘Put first things first. One of the most important lessons of life is to discern the relative value of the objects within our reach. The child will take the handful of glass beads, and leave the heap of diamonds in the rough. It is the terrible mistake of men that, perplexed by earth’s cross-lights, they put evil for good and good for evil; they make earth rather than heaven their centre, time rather than eternity their measurement.’

Verse 9


‘Give thy servant an understanding heart.’

1 Kings 3:9

I. Not wealth, not pleasure, not fame, not victory, not length of days, but an understanding heart, was the choice of Solomon’s boyhood.—The prayer for wisdom is always pleasing to God. (1) Even intellectual wisdom—how far higher is it, how far worthier of man as God made him, than any alternative of fashion or vanity, of wit or vice! Fear not to ask of God an understanding heart, even in studies which name not His name. (2) But the speech which pleased the Lord was a prayer rather for practical wisdom. The gift which Solomon’s prayer drew down was the gift of justice. When he seated himself in the gate to hear the causes which Israel brought to him, intellect was nothing; judgment, the power to discriminate between good and bad—this was his work. This therefore was his prayer.

II. The bitter and painful thing to remember in the history before us is the wreck and ruin of that prayer, which in itself was so beautiful and so acceptable.—(1) It may have been that Solomon’s largeness of heart slipped into latitudinarianism. (2) That which cankered Solomon’s wisdom was the entrance of sinful lust.

III. We may hope that even out of this wreck the lost life found a way to arise.—We read the Book of Ecclesiastes as the record of that hope. Let us hope that the night’s prayer at Gibeon was being answered, though in dim and broken reflection, in the latest utterances of the Preacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem.

—Dean Vaughan.


(1) ‘The heart—the understanding—and the right use of both together—make character. There cannot be a right character without the three. If there is no love, or if there is no intellect, or if either of them be not properly regulated, the character suffers; the character cannot be complete. And the design of all education—of our education of our children, of God’s education of us all—is, and ought to be, to make character. Character includes heart, head, conduct; and the character determines the man.’

(2) ‘I leave the mystery—that Solomon afterwards abused that vast gift; that that very “heart” went wrong! It is a very solemn thing, but there is a great deal of most grave teaching here. No one prayer can secure continuance; one period of life is no guarantee for another period of life; a very bad chapter may succeed a very good one. “A wise and an understanding heart” may fall; the intellect may become darkened, and the heart may go wrong, and the wisest man become the worst!’

(3) ‘To ask anything from God in the right way is not an easy thing. It implies that we have yielded ourselves to God and gained His entrance into our lives. There is, therefore, no true asking that does not enlarge the asker so that God can give him even more than he asked for. And God is always eager to give Him more; He is only waiting for us to hold out a bigger basket.’


‘Give therefore Thy servant an understanding heart to judge Thy people, that I may discern between good and bad,’ etc.

1 Kings 3:9

I. God comes to every one of us saying, ‘Ask what I shall give thee.’—Goethe said he admired the man who knew precisely what he aimed at in life. God wishes you at the commencement of your career to come up to the height of a great choice. You must choose; your refusal to choose is itself a choice, and it is the liberty to choose your own aim in life, and at last your own destiny, that makes life so serious. Life comes to every man with its riddle; and if he answers it aright, it is well with him; but if he tries to go on neglecting the commandments of the Giver of life, if he tries to go on living in his own way, and not in God’s way, life to him will be a thing of loss, and he will become an object to be wept over. We are placed here, naked as the giant of fable, to wrestle with the rude elements of the world, to conquer in the midst of its varied probation; but remember this: no devil nor devil’s child can cast you down without your own consent.

II. Notice that ‘the speech pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this thing.’—It was this thing in contrast to three other things that he rejected: long life, riches, and revenge on his enemies.

III. The reasons are here assigned why it pleased the Lord that Solomon rejected the false and chose the true aim in life.—(1) Because he chose what enabled him to be serviceable to others. Our great poet has told us that ‘Heaven does with us as we do with torches; do not light them for themselves.’ We are lit in order to be the light of the world. (2) It pleased the Lord because he chose to walk in the statutes of a good father, and so to encourage him in his last days in his faith in God’s covenant. (3) It pleased the Lord because he chose God Himself as his portion rather than all His gifts.

Verse 11


‘Thou hast asked.’

1 Kings 3:11

The day of sacrifice is succeeded by a night of revelation. It is almost a reflection of the paradise lost when, after a day of blessed and happy toil, Adam and Eve saw and listened to God in the cool of the evening.

I. The prayer which Solomon offered is in many respects a model.—All prayers must have certain points in common, as the letters in some heavy mail with various contents yet resemble one another closely enough to be included in the one despatch. You will notice in this prayer Gratitude (6), Humility (7), Dependence (8), and Wisdom (9). ‘A little child,’ probably not more than twenty years of age, Solomon recognises in himself the fulfilment of God’s promise to David. ‘Thou hast given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is this day.’ Let us train ourselves to detect the direct answers to our prayers; the plain accomplishment of God’s promises. Yet this great access of honour solemnised rather than elated Solomon. He was there however in no strength of his own. ‘Thou hast made me king in the midst of Thy people which Thou hast chosen.’ God loves to have us lay the burden as well as the praise at His feet.

II. Our chief attention, however, should be paid to that for which Solomon pleaded.—God’s words to him suggest other things for which he might have asked. Long life was a special boon in these wild and uncertain times, and Solomon had seen enough of violence in the home of his father to know how rare and how precious this was. For the splendid plans which he was forming for the future of himself and his people he might have asked for wealth. The son of a soldier, it might have been the life of his enemies that he craved. Let me live, let me prosper, let me prevail, these are three wishes which lie at the root of a good deal of prayer. They are foremost essentials in the gospel of getting on which is preached very generally now. But Solomon said: ‘Give therefore Thy servant an understanding heart to judge Thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this Thy so great a people?’ What did he ask for? Moral discernment. An echo here of the injunction ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.’ There are two sorts of kings—first, the warrior; second, the judge. David was the first. He would hardly have offered this prayer. The first conception of a king was very probably of the man who was successful in battle. But it is a harder thing to rule wisely than to fight victoriously. The making of a land is a more serious problem than the conquering of it. This was what Solomon had begun to see. It is what we need to see now. In England and in America alike we need not so much soldiers as statesmen. ‘And the speech pleased the Lord, that Solomon had asked this thing.’

III. How did God show His approval?—He gave Solomon all he asked for, and added to this understanding heart what Solomon did not ask for, ‘riches and honour.’

But notice two points that we are apt to overlook.

(a) God gave him all this wonderful store of blessings just because he had known what to ask for. ‘To him that hath shall be given.’ The man who puts wisdom first and foremost can be trusted with wealth and success.

(b) And, again, He did not give it all unconditionally. ‘If thou wilt walk in My ways.’ For already there were shadows amid the sunshine, and an undertone of warning in the burst of praise. ‘Solomon took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David.’ ‘Solomon loved the Lord … only he sacrificed in high places.’

So there is ‘the little rift within the lute.’ No course of continuous progress was promised to Israel. ‘There was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee.’ Not the most desirable answer to prayer after all. There is a note of finality in it which ‘by and by shall make the music mute.’ No true man wishes to be the wisest one that the world shall ever see.


(1) ‘“Ask!” Cromwell says in one of his letters that “to be a seeker is to be of the best sect next to a finder.” The one leads to the other. Seeking is the path to finding.’

(2) ‘We may have felt perplexed to find out just how the wisdom for which Solomon is so famous manifested itself. He reigned forty years, and died at the age of sixty. The splendour of the dawning years of his reign is in sad contrast to the gloom of its close. But he showed his wisdom in asking for wisdom. He showed it in asking for the highest kind of blessing. He failed indeed, but it was because he did not listen to the warning “if” in God’s promise to him.’

Verse 12


‘Lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart.’

1 Kings 3:12

As He is wont, God gave Solomon more than he asked. There is a difference between the favour that was sought and the boon which was granted. ‘The heart’ is the affections; ‘the understanding’ is the intelligent knowledge of any subject; ‘wisdom’ is the sensible and right use both of the knowledge and the affections.

I. Wisdom is the only thing of which God has said that He gives it liberally and never upbraids.—No man need be afraid to ask for wisdom, however often or however much. Solomon’s wisdom went higher than all natural history, higher than political economy, higher than moral science. It went up to essential truth, to the Truth of truths, to Christ Himself. Read the eighth chapter of Proverbs, and you will see, beyond a cavil, what and who was the ‘the Wisdom’ that God gave to Solomon. All this was the result of one good choice, and the answer to one simple, humble prayer in early life.

II. There is a very solemn lesson in the fact that Solomon afterwards abused that vast gift, that that very heart went wrong.—No one prayer can secure continuance; one period of life is no guarantee for another period of life; the intellect may be darkened, and the heart may go wrong, and the wisest man become the worst.

III. The triple band of wisdom, intellect, and love is a ‘three fold cord, which shall not be quickly broken.’—Affections are the springs of life, without which the man lies dormant and useless. Affections are the seat of faith, and the heaven of this present life. And intellect is strength. Intellect takes in all truth, and is the characteristic of man. But wisdom takes us higher. Wisdom teaches us that the affections and the intellect have a far end beyond; that we must live up to our immortality; that we must be like God. Wisdom blends and sanctifies the heart and the understanding, gives unity, completes our being, moulds nature into grace, and turns the man into a saint.


‘Solomon’s choice pleased God, and He gave him his request—a wise and an understanding heart, that he might be a good king. Then He gave also more, new riches and honour. Riches are a blessing when one has the wisdom to use them well. Honour is a blessing when one knows how to wear it for Christ. When one’s heart is right God loves to give this world’s good things to add to one’s power for doing good. As we read these words of God to Solomon we think of the words of the Great Teacher: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you.” These are not the first things—the first things must always be God and good. Then if we put God and His kingdom first, He loves to add the blessings of His grace and providence to meet all our needs and to fill our hands for all service.’


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on 1 Kings 3:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

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