Kingdom dreams

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.

These are the opening words of Psalm 72, something like the job description of Israel’s dream king.

May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

May his foes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust.

May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.

For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.

May his name endure forever,
his fame continue as long as the sun.

You noticed how many of the verses begin with the wishful sounding may. The psalm is not a job description; it belongs to Israel’s poetry of hope, formed by generations of royal disappointment.

In 1 Samuel 8, the people ask for a king, and the prophet Samuel delivers a warning. “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you” and then there’s no hopeful may he, but only a litany of matter-of-fact he-will’s:

He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself … some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to … his officers and his courtiers. He will take … the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work … and you shall be his slaves.[1]

The prophet’s warning looms over the whole account of the rise and fall of the monarchy in the books of Samuel and Kings. Solomon is presented as a test case for the opportunities and temptations of kingship.

King David is dead, and through carefully choreographed deception and with the help of powerful allies, Solomon has secured for himself the highly contested succession to the throne. After that, the first thing we hear about him is that he made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt – of all the princesses of all the neighboring kingdoms he married Pharaoh’s daughter! It’s not a very subtle hint of the proximity of kingship to slavery, but at this point it’s only a hint. He is young, his reign has only just begun: Oh, the promise!

Oh! The places he’ll go!

He’ll be on his way up!

He’ll be seeing great sights!

He’ll join the high fliers

who soar to high heights.

Solomon goes to Gibeon, one of the local shrines, a holy place, to sacrifice, and there, at night, the Lord appears to him in a dream and says, “Ask what I should give you.” This dream is not like the fairy tale where the fairy godmother grants you three wishes, or the Disney movie where the genie does the same for Aladdin. “Ask what I should give you,” is an offer that comes without a cap. Solomon could just check off a laundry list of everything any king has ever wanted, anything any king could ever want think of the possibilities!

Then the young king speaks, and he presents himself with such piety, sincerety, and humility. He speaks of God’s loyal love toward David and of David’s faithfulness, righteousness, and uprightness of heart toward God. “And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.”

He’s so humble, he doesn’t even say “I” until he points out how young he is and inadequate to the solemn task. And then he asks for one thing only: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

Can you imagine? A man who has just stepped into a unique position of power and authority and all he asks for is an understanding mind to govern the people, able to discern between good and evil? Not the vanquishing of his enemies, not wealth, not fame, not the unceasing admiration of an awestruck public an understanding mind.

The phrase “understanding mind” is more closely translated, “listening heart,” with the heart being, in Hebrew anthropology, the center of thought, intention, and will. The one thing Solomon asks for is a capacity for attentiveness to the needs and hopes of God’s people. He knows that a listening heart is the antithesis of a hard heart, an inability to notice or care for or take seriously the people he governs. Walter Brueggemann wonders if “in using this phrase [Solomon] is perhaps aware that he is married to Pharaoh’s daughter, Pharaoh being the quintessential hard-hearted guy.”[2] A listening heart is a heart receptive to the purposes of God and responsive to the needs of the people whom God has brought up from Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

The Lord is pleased with Solomon’s answer. He promises to be a king after God’s own heart, and God promises to give him, beyond his asking, wealth and honor beyond compare.

In the chapters that follow, we’re told in detail of his magnificent building projects the temple is an extravaganza of gold! of his global fame and of the trade policies that bring never-before-seen wealth to his house and the city. But while he is credited with wisdom, the narrative itself shows a foolish overreach of inordinate greed that proves unsustainable. He uses forced labor and heavy taxes to build up his kingdom, and he worships other gods, gods more in line with his style of governance. Wealth and honor distort the wisdom he asked for that night in Gibeon and his heart no longer listens. His heart is no longer in tune with the heart of God, no longer attentive to the needs of God’s people, no longer faithful. He has forgotten that the God who appeared to him in his dream did not just promise wealth and honor and long life; God also spoke of walking in God’s ways and keeping God’s commandments, particularly the Torah that instructs God’s people and their leaders in the attentive care for widows, orphans, and migrants.

Governing God’s people well, it turns out, is not merely a matter of successful management  or economic growth or impressive capital projects ultimately it means attentiveness to the socially and economically vulnerable members of the community. The wisdom that Solomon did not learn is how to be and remain attentive to those for whom the God of the exodus has special attentiveness.

Kingdoms are born of all kinds of dreams of power and prestige and wealth and fame. But the dream of freedom for the oppressed, the dream of justice for widows, orphans and migrants, the dream of righteousness is the deep wisdom of human hearts in tune with the heart of God.

So, if you were in charge of a kingdom, what would you ask for? “A heart in tune with the heart of God” would be the Sunday school answer, and a good one at that.

Wisdom? The book of Proverbs confirms that putting wisdom first is recommended, and not just for young royal dreamers:

Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy

If you were in charge of a kingdom, what would you ask for? The question is not a hypothetical one, because we are. Only we are not the ones on the throne. And ultimately that may well have been what Solomon in all his wisdom forgot: that the kingdom wasn’t his, but God’s.

Jesus says in the sermon on the mount, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” You cannot serve God and ambition. You cannot serve God and power. And he continues,

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.[4]

When Solomon asked for a listening heart, God was pleased and promised to give him not only what he asked for, but also wealth and honor. And soon the king and, according to First and Second Kings, just about every king after him, forgot that they were servants in the kingdom of God and they made idols of wealth, fame, and power.

Kingdoms are indeed born of all kinds of dreams and the dream of freedom for the oppressed, the dream of justice for widows, orphans and migrants, the dream of faithfulness and righteousness has given birth to God’s kingdom on earth in the person of Jesus. And when we strive first for this kingdom, he reminds us, all that we need and all that anyone needs will be given to us as well.


[1] 1 Samuel 8:11-17

[2] Walter Brueggemann

[3] Proverbs 3:13-18

[4] Matthew 6:24, 28-33

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