King Solomon is said to have been the wisest of all the kings of Israel. He was known far and wide for being able to expound at length on any topic you could wish—from music and poetry to the classification of plants and animals. The Kingdom prospered, there was peace, whatever he turned his energies toward seemed to invariably be a success. But Solomon had a secret. There was a secret to his wisdom, it was not ordinary.
When Solomon was just a young man, he inherited the throne from his father David, a man who fought all his life to hang onto royal rule. But Solomon had done nothing to deserve to be king, fought no battles, won no wars, Solomon was acutely aware that he had no qualifications whatsoever to lead a whole nation of people. But those days were when the walls between earth and heaven were not so high that angels and visions could not come bounding upon you in a moment, and Solomon had a dream. And in the dream the very voice of God spoke to Solomon, saying “ask, what shall I give you?” Just ask, what shall I give you? Says the voice of God.
Can you imagine? To be a young person, just at the beginning of life, placed in a position of enormous authority, enormous power and privilege, and to top that off able to ask of God any one thing and be given it? Would it be riches, or long healthy life, or love, or victory over your enemies? To ask for money or long life, those would be safe requests, obvious requests, a king could seek those things and be well contented in their choice, walking away from the throne of God having received a choice blessing. But what Solomon asks for is a blessing that to some people might seem like a curse. Solomon asks for something difficult, something dangerous, something that is not to be taken up lightly—Solomon ask for a listening heart able to discern between good and evil.
To know good and evil is no small thing, in the garden of Eden the first humans were forbidden from tasting the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And when they did eat, when their eyes were opened, when they had knowledge of good and evil, God had a choice to make.
Because there was in the garden a tree whose fruit would make them live forever. It was actually right next to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as if by their mere proximity they were being counterposed. That’s why they were expelled from the garden, not because they had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but because of the threat that they might also eat from the tree of life and life forever—the consequences would be too terrible.
The bible doesn’t explain what those consequences are, but suffice it to say, having knowledge of good and evil is no small thing. And Solomon asks not only to know the taste of good and evil, but to be well acquainted with both, to be so knowledgeable as to discern between them! Solomon seeks to be intimately familiar with good and evil, to know their anatomy, skin and bone and gristle, to be able to divide one from the other like a surgeon with a scalpel, bringing wholeness with a knife and needle and thread. And how does Solomon imagine he will receive this knowledge? Remember, Solomon asks God for “a listening heart able to discern between good and evil. A listening heart…able to discern between good and evil.”
Now in many translations it will say that Solomon asked for an “understanding mind”, but the words in Hebrew are “lev shomhea” which very literally means a listening heart. This I think is the central insight we can take from Solomon—his wisdom flowed from listening to others, to having a heart open to the ideas of others, his power came from partnering with other. When dealing with something as fearful as discerning between good and evil, the strongest tools of examination must be used, and that is listening. That is, valuing other people and receiving from them what they know. That is, treating people not as objects to be used, or obstacles to be overcome, but as partners to join with alongside. A listening heart, that’s how to navigate between good and evil.
Let me give you one example. Solomon built the very first temple to God, well and good. There were plenty of stones to quarry nearby Jerusalem, so they had that covered, but they would also need a lot of wood, and the very best wood for building in that area were the cedars that grew near a city name Sidon. The problem is that Sidon was in the land of Lebanon, not always a friend to Israel. Solomon needed the very best wood to build the Temple of God, but how could he get it? He could try to leverage his wealth and buy it, but as a foreigner what kind of price would he get? He could always just raise an army and take the wood he needed, Solomon’s father David after all had been in a near constant state of war with this one or that one. But not Solomon, Solomon proposed a deal with the Sidonians. He made a deal with the king of Sidon—let me pay the wages of hundreds of your people for years, and since they won’t be working for you in that time, let me also cover the expenses of the royal household. I want your cedar, true but I also need to have your workers because I have heard that no one can cut timber like you Sidonians.
Do you see the wisdom in that? Do you see Solomon’s listening heart in that? Do you see how he could tell between good and evil in that? He needed cedar, the Sidonians had cedar. Wars have started over less. But Solomon saw the Sidonians not as resources to be exploited, not as one time commodities traders to get the better of in a negotiation, but as neighbors, as people who could be persuaded to join in the work of building the temple, as partners who—if your listened to them—you’d find out actually knew more about cedar than anybody else in the world! Solomon had all the timber he needed for the temple, and he had a new friend in the king of Sidon and he had peace all along his Northern border! All of that good, just because of a listening heart, an openness to working alongside the other. This is what the reign of King Solomon was like—a wise king who found his way past evil and onto a path of good relying on a listening heart to guide him.
Sound Good? Sound like a leader we could use today? Well, the church isn’t in the business of waiting for leaders like that, we’re in the business of making leaders like that. The church is in the business of asking ordinary people like you if you will become leaders like that, who take up work that is about nothing less than knowing good from evil. Remember it was a risky blessing Solomon sought—to know the difference between good and evil, that is dangerous, that can change your whole life! No one would blame you if you set the course of your life and sought out material comfort for yourself and your family. No one would blame you if you set the course of your life as the pursuit of a long and comfortable and untroubled life. Those things are good. But if you seek, like Solomon, to take up work that is about nothing less than dividing good from evil, then you should enter into that through prayer, and see if—Like Solomon—God might give you what you need for that.
Now I’ll just speak for myself here, but my experience of praying does not include dreams in which God grants me one wish. But that’s no reason to be discouraged. Because even though it comes from God there’s nothing supernatural in the wisdom of Solomon—it’s just listening, it’s just honestly caring about other people who might just as easily be ignored. And when it comes to having a heart open to listening to others—the desire to truly listen to others is not so very far from the fulfillment of that desire. When it comes to caring about other people, rather than ignoring them, the desire is not so very far from its fulfillment.
And that’s a good thing brethren, it’s a good thing, because the world needs leaders with wisdom like Solomon, wisdom enough to listen to others with other points of view. The world needs people like you to be leaders who have wisdom enough that when you are tasked with the high and hard task of discerning between good and evil, that you know that every voice has to be listened to, that you know that every voice has to be heard, especially those voices that have been silenced or ignored. Just read the paper, there’s a thousand ways you can see that it’s true.
This a nation which from its very founding has been divided by a continental rift of race and racism and white supremacy. The color of the skin that your mother’s womb wrapped you in, that changes the way the world works. America needs listening hearts, if we as a nation are to discern what is good and shun what is evil, there has to be real listening especially when there are voices that have been so long ignored that the only language elemental enough to capture it is the sounds of protest and rage, grief cries that are close to the sound of birthing pangs God the Mother crying out as the new world is about to be born. That’s what we’re listening for. A listening heart that can discern between good and evil—that’s the wisdom of Solomon and there’s nothing supernatural in it. But it can still be the answer to our prayers.