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Bible Commentaries

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

1 Kings 3

 

 

Verses 1-28

1 Kings 3:1. Solomon—took Pharaoh’s daughter. It would appear from the 45th Psalm, which the rabbins with one consent affirm, was the nuptial ode for this marriage, that David had made arrangements for it prior to his demise. The law, Deuteronomy 7:3, it is thought did not bear on this point, but against marriages with the Canaanites.

1 Kings 3:2. Only the people sacrificed in high places, to the Lord, as their fathers and as Samuel had done. Moses however names but one place which the Lord should choose. Deuteronomy 16. There could be but one Calvary.

1 Kings 3:5. In Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, Ask what I shall give thee. “And Solomon said, thou hast showed unto thy servant David my father great mercy, according as he walked before thee in truth, and in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart with thee, and thou hast kept for him this great kindness, that thou hast given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is this day. And now, oh Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant king instead of David my father. I know not how to go out and come in: and thy servant is in the midst of thy people which thou hast chosen, a great people which cannot be numbered, nor counted for multitude. 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? And the speech pleased the Lord, that Solomon had asked this thing.”

The Abbe Maury, in his Treatise on Eloquence, says, that “Saurin’s Sermon on the Wisdom of Solomon, is one of the best specimens of his eloquence.” As it has not yet been given in an English dress, I will here attempt a translation. But though I am well acquainted with the style and manner of this great man, having already translated two volumes of his Sermons; yet I must here solicit the indulgence which enlightened criticism will grant to a hasty production.

“Woe to thee, oh land, when thy king is a child.” In this way has the Sage expressed the calamities of states conducted by men destitute of experience; but the general maxim is not without exceptions. As we sometimes see the levities of youth in mature age, so we sometimes perceive in youth the gravity of sober years. There are some geniuses premature, whose early indications of reason anticipate old age; and who, if I may so speak, on leaving the cradle, discover talents worthy of the throne. A profusion of supernatural endowments coming to the aid of nature, exemplifies in those characters the happy experience of the prophet: “I have more understanding than all my teachers. I understand more than the ancients.”

Here is an illustrious proof. Solomon, in the early period of life, formed the correctest idea of government which had ever entered the mind of the profoundest philosophers, or the most consummate statesmen. Awed by the sceptre, he acknowledged the impotency of his arm to sway it. Of the high privilege granted him by heaven of asking whatsoever he would, he availed himself solely to ask wisdom. What an enlightened request, my brethren. How many aged men have we seen inferior in wisdom to this youth. On the other hand, God honoured a petition so wise, by super- adding to the petitioner every other endowment. He gave to Solomon wisdom, and with wisdom, glory and riches; he elevated him to a scale of grandeur, which no sovereign ever did or ever shall be allowed to equal. It is to this petition so judicious, and to this reply so magnificent, that we shall call your attention, after having bestowed a moment on three important circumstances connected with the occasion.

These are marked in the leading words of our text. In this divine revelation, the place, the manner, and the subject claim particular attention.

1. The place of this revelation. It was in Gibeon, about eight miles from Jerusalem. The people sacrificed on the brazen altar, constructed by divine command, then in Gibeon, where it had been removed, along with the tabernacle. 2 Chronicles 1:3.

2. The manner in which the revelation was communicated to Solomon, supplies a second source of reflection. It was, says the historian, in a dream. We have elsewhere remarked, that there are three sorts of dreams. Some are in the order of nature; others are in the order of providence; and a third class are in an order superior to both. Discours Histor. tom. 5. p. 184.

3. A reason very dissimilar supersedes our stopping to illustrate the subject; that is, because the subject has no need of illustration. The Lord was pleased to put Solomon to the proof, by permitting him to ask whatsoever he would. To this proof Solomon worthily corresponded; his sole request being for wisdom. God complied with the enlightened prayer, and in granting profound wisdom to his servant he superadded riches, glory and long life. It is this enlightened request, and this munificent reply we are now to examine. Four remarks demand attention in Solomon’s request to God, and four in God’s reply.

First, notice in Solomon’s request his recollection of past mercies, the mercies of David his father. Solomon makes this recollection with a view to obtain those divine favours and aids which his situation required. He aspired at the blessings which God confers on the children of faithful fathers. He wished to become the object of that promise in which God stands engaged to show mercy to thousands of generations, to them that love him.

This is the first object of our discourse. The privilege of an illustrious birth, I grant, is sometimes extravagantly strained. This kind of folly is not novel in the present age; it was the folly of the Hebrew nation. To most of the censures of the prophets, the Jews opposed this defence: “We are Abraham’s seed: we have Abraham to our father.” Matthew 3:9. What an apology! Does an illustrious birth sanction low and grovelling sentiments? Do the virtues of our ancestors excuse us from being virtuous? And has God uniformly engaged to excuse the profaneness of children, because their parents were pious? You are the children of Abraham; you have an illustrious origin; your ancestors were the models and glory of their age. Then you are the more inexcusable for being the reproach of your age: then you are the faithless depositaries of the nobility with which you have been entrusted: then you have degenerated from your former grandeur: then you shall be condemned to surrender to nature a corrupted blood, which you received pure from those to whom you owe your birth.

It is true however, all being equal by nature, that in tracing one’s origin, it is a singular favour of heaven to be able to cast our eyes on a long line of illustrious ancestors. I am not about to offer the incense to idols of distinguished families. It is the church which has perfect notions of true nobility. To be accounted noble in the sanctuary we must give proof of virtue, and not of vain titles, which often owe their origin to the vanity, the seditions, and the fawning baseness of those who display them with so much pride. To be noble in the language of scripture, and to be impure, avaricious, haughty and implacable, are opposite ideas. But charity, but patience, but moderation, but dignity of soul, and a certain elevation of mind, place a man above the world and its maxims. These are the characteristics of nobility which distinguish children of supreme descent.

In this view it is a high favour of heaven, in tracing one’s descent, to be able to cast the eye on a long line of illustrious ancestors. How often have holy men availed themselves of these motives to induce the Deity, if not to bear with the Israelites in the course of their crimes, at least to pardon them after the crimes have been committed. How often have they said in the supplications they opposed to the wrath of heaven, Oh Lord, remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, thy servants. How often has God yielded to the strength of these arguments. How often has he for the sake of the patriarchs, for the sake of David, heard prayer in behalf of their children.

Let those maxims be deeply imprinted on the heart. Our own interest should be motive sufficient to prompt us to piety; but we should also be excited to it by the interest of our children. The recollection of our virtues is the best inheritance we can leave them after our decease. These virtues afford them pleas for the divine favour: the goodwill of heaven is in some sort entailed on families who fear the Lord. Happy the fathers who can say, when extended on the bed of death, ‘My children: I am about to appear before the awful tribunal, where there is no resource for poor mortals, but humility and repentance. Meanwhile I bless God, that notwithstanding my defects, which I acknowledge with confusion of face, you will not have cause to be ashamed on pronouncing the name of your father. I have been faithful to the truth, and have constantly walked before God in the uprightness of my heart.’ Happy the children who have such a descent.—

”Oh God, thou hast showed unto thy servant David, my father, great mercy, according as he walked before thee in truth, and in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart.” Here is the recollection of past mercies, the recollection which God approves, and the first object of our discourse.

Consider, secondly, in the prayer of Solomon, the aspect under which he contemplated the regal power. He viewed it principally with regard to the high duties it imposed upon him. “Thy servant is in the midst of thy people which thou hast chosen; who is able to judge this thy so great a people, which cannot be numbered?” The answer of God is a correspondent seal to this idea of supreme authority; and what we here say of the regal power is applicable to every other office of trust and dignity. A man of integrity must not view them with regard to the emoluments they produce, but with regard to the duties they impose.

What end has society in view, in promoting individuals to high stations? Is it to augment their pride? Is it that they may live in a style the most expensive? Is it to flatter their arrogance and ambition? Is it to aggrandize their families by the ruin of the widow and the orphan? Is it to adore them as idols? Is it to become their slaves? Nobles of the earth, ask those subjects, to whom you are indebted for the high scale of elevation you enjoy? Ask, why this dignity has been conferred? They will say, it was to entrust you with their safety and repose; it was to procure fathers and protectors; it was to find peace and prosperity under your tribunals. To induce you to enter on those awful duties, they have accompanied them with those inviting appendages which soothe the cares, and alleviate the weight of office. They have distinguished you with titles, they have promised obedience, and ensured your salaries. Entrance then on a high office is to make a contract with the people, over whom you proceed to exercise authority; it is to make a compact by which certain duties are required on certain conditions. To require the emoluments when the conditions of the engagements are violated, is an abominable usurpation. I speak literally, and without a shadow of exaggeration; a magistrate who deviates from the duties of his office, after having received the emolument, ought to come under the penal statutes of those who take away their neighbour’s goods. These statutes require restitution. Before restitution, he is liable to this anathema: “Woe to him that encreaseth that which is not his own, and to him that ladeth himself with thick clay. For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall answer it.” Habakkuk 2:6-11. Before restitution he is unworthy of the Lord’s table; and is included in the curse we denounce against thieves, whom we repel from the holy eucharist. Before restitution he is unable to die in peace, and he is included in the list of those who shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

But into what strange reflections are we not led by our subject? What awful ideas does it not excite in the mind? Into what alarming consequences does it not involve certain kings? Ye Moseses, ye Elijahs, ye John Baptists, faithful servants of the living God, and celebrated in every age of the church for your fortitude, your courage, and your zeal; you, who knew not how to temporize, nor to tremble, even before Pharaoh, nor before Ahab, nor before Herod, nor before Herodias; why are you not in this pulpit? Why do you not to-day supply our place, to communicate to the subject all the energy of which it is susceptible? “Be wise oh ye kings, be instructed ye judges of the earth.”

We remark, thirdly, in the prayer of Solomon, the sentiments of his own weakness; and in God’s reply, the high regard testified towards humility. The character of the king whom Solomon succeeded, the arduous nature of the duties to which he was called, and the insufficiency of his age, were to him three considerations of humiliation.

1. The character of the king whom he succeeded. “Thou hast showed unto thy servant David, my father, great mercy, according as he walked before thee in truth, and in righteousness, and in the uprightness of his heart with thee.” How dangerous to succeed an illustrious prince! The distinguished actions of a predecessor are so many sentences against the faults of him who has to succeed. The people are never wanting to make unfavourable contrasts between the past and the present. They recollect the virtues they have attested, the happiness they have enjoyed, the prosperity with which they have been loaded, and the distinguished qualifications of the prince of whom they have just been deprived by death. And if the idea of having had an illustrious predecessor, is on all occasions a subject of serious consideration for him who has to follow, never was there a prince who had juster reasons to be awed than Solomon. He succeeded a man who was the model of kings, in whose person were united the wisdom of a statesman, the valour of a soldier, the experience of a marshal, the illumination of a prophet, the piety of a good man, and even the virtue of a saint of the first rank.

2. The extent of the duties imposed on Solomon, is the second cause of his humility. “Who is able to judge this thy so great a people?” Adequately to judge a great nation, a man must regard himself no longer as his own, but be wholly devoted to the interests of the people. Adequately to judge a great nation, a man must have a consummate knowledge of human nature, of civil society, of the laws of nature, and of the peculiar laws of the people over whom he has to preside. Adequately to judge a nation, he must have his house and his heart ever open to the solicitations of those over whom he is exalted. Adequately to judge a people, he must recollect that a small sum of money, that a foot of land is as much to a poor man as a city, a province, and a kingdom are to a prince. Adequately to judge a people, he must habituate himself to the disgust excited by listening to a man who is quite full of his subject, and who imagines that the person addressed ought to be equally impressed with its importance. Adequately to judge a people, a man must be exempt from vice: nothing is more calculated to prejudice the mind against the purity of his decisions, than to see him captivated by some predominant passion. Adequately to judge a people, he must be destitute of personal respect: he must neither yield to the entreaties of those who know the way to his heart, nor be intimidated by the high tone of others who threaten to hold up as martyrs, the persons they obstinately defend. Adequately to judge a people, a man must expand, if I may so speak, all the powers of his soul, that he may be equal to the dignity of his duty, and avoid all distraction, which on filling the superior powers of the mind, obstructs its perception of the main object. And “who is sufficient for these things? Who is able to judge this thy so great a people?”

3. The snares of youth form a third object of Solomon’s fear, and a third cause of his humility. “I am but a little child: I know not how to go out and come in.” Some chronologists are of opinion that Solomon, when he uttered these words, “I am but a little child,” was only twelve years of age, which to us seems insupportable: for besides its not being proved, as we see by the event, the style in which David addressed this prince on investing him with the reins of government, sufficiently proves that he spake not to a child. He calls him wise, and it was on account of that wisdom that he entrusted him with the punishment of Joab, and of Shimei.

It was therefore, I should suppose, at the age of twenty or twenty six years, that Solomon saw himself called to fill the throne of the greatest of kings, and to enter on those exalted duties of which we have given but an imperfect sketch. It is then that we give scope to presumption which has a plausible appearance, being as yet unmortified by the recollection of past follies. It is then that a suspicion of not being yet classed by mankind among great men, prompts a youth to place himself in that high rank. It is then that we regard counsel as an obstruction of the authority we attribute to ourselves. It is then that we oppose an untractable disposition to the advice of a faithful friend, who would lead us to propriety of conduct. It is then that our passions hurry us to excess, and become the arbiters of truth and falsehood, of equity and injustice.

Presumptuous youths, who make the assurance with which you aspire at the first offices of the state, the principal ground of success. I cannot better improve this head of my discourse than by affirming, that the higher notions you entertain of your own sufficiency, the lower you sink at the bar of equity and reason. The more you account yourselves qualified to govern, the less you are capable of doing it. The sentiment Solomon entertained of his own weakness, was the most distinguished of his royal virtues. The profound humility with which he asked God to supply his inability, was the leading disposition for obtaining divine support.

Fourthly, we are come at length to the last, and to the great object of the history before us. We shall show you, on the one hand, our hero prefering the requisite talents, to pomp, splendour, riches, and all that is grateful to kings; and from the vast source opened by heaven, deriving nothing but wisdom and understanding. We shall show on the other hand that God, honouring a prayer so enlightened, granted to Solomon the wisdom and understanding he had asked, and with these, riches, glory, and long life.

Who can forbear being delighted with the first object, and who can sufficiently applaud the magnanimity of Solomon. Place yourselves in the situation of this prince. Imagine for a moment that you are the arbiters of your own destiny, and that you hear a voice from the blessed God, saying, “Ask what I shall give thee.” How awful would this test prove to most of our hearers! If we may judge of our wishes by our pursuits, what strange replies should we make to this permission. What a strange choice would ours be. Our privilege would become our calamity, and we should have the awful ingenuity to find misery in the very bosom of happiness. Who would say, Lord, give me wisdom and understanding. Lord, help me worthily to discharge the duties of the station with which I am entrusted. This is the utmost of all my requests; and to this alone I would wish thy munificence to be confined. Who would not say, on the contrary, biassed by the circumstance of situation, or swayed by some predominant passion, Lord, augment my heaps of gold and silver; and in proportion as my riches shall encrease, diminish the desire of expenditure. Another, Lord, raise me to the highest scale of grandeur, and give me to trample underfoot the men who shall have the assurance to become my equals, and whom I regard as worms of the earth. How little for the most part do we know ourselves in prosperity: how incoherent are our ideas. Great God, do thou determine our lot, and save us from the reproach of making an unhappy choice by removing the occasion. Solomon was incomparably wiser. Filled with the duties of the high station to which he was raised, “Lord,” said he, “give thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad.” But if we applaud the wisdom of Solomon’s prayer, how much more should we applaud the goodness and munificence of God’s reply? “Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself long life, neither hast thou asked riches for thyself, nor hast asked the life of thine enemies, but hast asked for thyself understanding to discern judgment; behold, I have done according to thy word. Lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; and I have also given thee that which thou hast not asked, both riches and honour, so that there shall not be any among the kings like unto thee all thy days.”

How amply was this promise fulfilled; and its fulfilment corresponded with the munificence of the Being from whom it had proceeded. In virtue of this promise, “I have given thee an understanding heart,” we see Solomon carrying the art of civil government to the highest point it can ever attain. Witness the profound prudence by which he discerned the real from the pretended mother. “Bring me a sword—divide the living child into two parts, and give half to the one and half to the other.” 1 Kings 3:24-25. Witness the profound peace he procured for his subjects, and which made the historian say that “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine, and under his figtree.” Witness the eulogium of the sacred writers on this subject, that Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt; that he was wiser than Ethan, than Heman, than Chalcol, and Darda; that is to say, he was wiser than every man of his own age. Witness the embassies from all the kings of the earth to hear his wisdom. Witness the acclamation of the Queen who came from the remotest kingdom of the earth to hear this prodigy of wisdom. “It was a true report that I heard in mine own land of thy wisdom, and behold the half was not told me. Thy wisdom and prosperity exceed the fame which I heard. Happy are these thy men, happy are these thy servants, which stand continually before thee, and that hear thy wisdom.” 1 Kings 10:6-8.

And in virtue of this other promise, “I have given thee glory and riches,” we see Solomon raising superb edifices, forming powerful alliances, and swaying the sceptre over every prince, from the river even unto the land of the Philistines; that is, from the Euphrates to the eastern branch of the Nile, which separates Palestine from Egypt, and making gold as plentiful in Jerusalem as stones. 2 Chronicles 9:26-27. It would he easy to extend these reflections; but I should, on confining myself to this alone, incur the charge of having evaded the most difficult part of the subject, to dwell on that which is sufficiently plain. The extraordinary condescension which God evinced towards Solomon, the gifts with which he was endowed, the answer to his prayer, “I have given thee an understanding heart,” collectively involve a difficulty of the most serious kind. How could he harmonize those favours with the events? How could a man so wise commit those faults, and perpetrate those crimes which defiled him at the close of life? How could he follow the exorbitant pride of eastern princes, who boast of a harem filled with innumerable women? How in abandoning his heart to sensual pleasure, could he abandon his faith and his religion? And after having the baseness to offer incense to their beauty, how could he also offer incense to their idols? I meet this question with the greatest pleasure, as the solution we shall give will demonstrate—the difficulties of superior endowments—the danger of bad company—the peril of human grandeur—and the poison of voluptuousness.

First, the difficulties attendant on superior talents. Can we suppose that God, on the investiture of Solomon with superior endowments, exempted him from the law which requires men of the humblest talents to improve them? What is implied in these words, “I have given thee understanding?” Do they mean, I take solely on myself the work of thy salvation; and thou mayest live in voluptuousness and neglect? Brave the strongest temptations; I will obstruct thy falling? Open thy heart to the most seductive objects; I will interpose my buckler for thy preservation and defence?

On this subject, my brethren, we have need of a total reform in our views, and to abjure a system of theology, if I may so speak, inconceivably absurd. Some persons have formed notions of I know not what grace, which takes wholly on itself the work of our salvation; which suffers us to sleep as much as we choose in the arms of concupiscence and pleasure, and which redoubles its aids in proportion as the sinner redoubles resistance. Undeceive yourselves. God never yet bestowed a talent, without requiring its cultivation. The more superior are our endowments, the more our difficulties are augmented. The greater the efforts of grace to save us, the more should we labour at our salvation. The more it watches for our good, the more we are called to the exercise of vigilance. You—you who have more light than your neighbour, tremble; an account will be required of that superior light. You—you who have more genius than most men, tremble; an account will be required of that genius. You—you who have most advanced in the grace of sanctification, tremble; an account will be required of that grace. Do you call this truth in question? Go, go see it exemplified in the person of Solomon. Go, go see the abyss into which he fell by burying his talents. Go, go see this man endowed with talents superior to all the world. Go see him enslaved by seven hundred wives, and prostituted to three hundred concubines. Go see him prostrated before the idol of the Sidonians, and the abomination of the Ammonites; and by the awful abyss into which he was plunged by the neglect of his talents, learn to improve yours with sanctifying fear.

Our second solution of the difficulty proposed, and the second instruction we would derive from the fall of Solomon, is the danger of bad company; an instruction rendered the more essential by the dissipation of the age. A contagious disease extends its ravages for a thousand miles round us, and it excites in our mind terror and alarm. We use the greatest precaution against the danger. We guard the avenues of the state, and lay vessels on their arrival in port, under the strictest quarantine: we do not suffer ourselves to approach a suspected person. But the contagion of bad company gives us not the smallest alarm: we respire without fear an air the most impure and fatal to the soul. We form connections, enter into engagements, and contract marriages with profane, sceptical, and worldly people; and regard all those as declaimers and enthusiasts who declare, that evil communications corrupt good manners.

The danger of human grandeur is a new solution of the difficulty proposed, and a third source of instruction derived from the fall of Solomon. Mankind have for the most part a brain too weak to bear a high scale of elevation. Dazzled with the first rays of surrounding lustre, they can no longer support the sight. You are astonished that this prince, who reigned from the river even to the land of the Philistines; this prince, who made gold in his kingdom as plentiful as stones; this prince, who was surrounded with flatterers and courtezans; this prince, who heard nothing but eulogy, acclamation and applause; you are astonished that he should be intoxicated even with the high endowments God had granted him for the discharge of duty, and that he should so far forget himself as to fall into the enormities just described. Seek in your own heart, and in your life, the solution of this difficulty. We are blinded by the smallest prosperity, and our head is turned by the least elevation of rank. A name, a title, added to our dignity, an acre of land added to our estate, an augmentation of equipage, a little information added to our knowledge, a wing to our mansion, or an inch to our stature; here is more than enough to give us high notions of our own consequence, to make us assume a decisive tone, and wish to be considered as oracles.

Fourthly, the beguiling charms of pleasure are the last solution of the difficulty proposed, and the last instruction we derive from the fall of Solomon The sacred historian has not overlooked the cause of the vices of this prince. “Solomon loved many strange women,—and they turned away his heart” from the Lord. 1 Kings 11:1-3. We are here reminded of the wretched mission of Balaam. Commanded by powerful princes, allured by magnificent rewards, his eyes and his heart already devoured the presents which awaited his services. He ascended a mountain, he surveyed the camp of the Israelites, he invoked by turns the power of God’s Spirit, and the power of the devil. On finding all aid refused from prophecy, he had recourse to divination and enchantment. When just on the point of giving full effect to his detestable art, he felt himself counteracted by a sentiment of truth, and exclaimed, “there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel.” He temporized: yes, he found a way to supersede all the prodigies which God had done and accomplished for his people. This way was pleasure. It was, that they should no more attack the Israelites with open force, but with voluptuous delights; that they should no more send among them wizards and enchanters, but the women of Midian, to allure them to their sacrifices. Then this people, before invincible, I will deliver into your hands.

Of the success of this advice, my brethren, you cannot be ignorant. But why does not every Balaam fall by the sword of Israel. Numbers 31:8. Why were not the awful consequences of this counsel restricted to the unhappy culprits, whom the holy hands of Phinehas and Eleazar sacrificed to the wrath of heaven. David, Solomon, Samson, and you, my brethren, you may yet preserve at least one part of your innocence. Let us arm then against voluptuousness. Let us distrust enchanting pleasure. Let us fear it, not only when it presents its horrors; not only when it discovers the frightful objects which attend its train,—adultery, incest, treason, apostasy, with murder and assassination: but let us fear it when clothed in the garb of innocency, when it sanctions the most decent freedoms, and assumes the pretext of religious sacrifices.

 


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Bibliography Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Kings 3:4". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/jsc/1-kings-3.html. 1835.

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