Click here to read 1 Kings 3:16-28.
Our text today is a courtroom drama, and even though it was recorded centuries before the birth of Christ, it's a familiar story. The very same case could be tried today in a court of law—or, just as likely, in the court of public opinion known as the daytime talk show. But more importantly, it's familiar because it is a story about family. No matter our context, no matter where we are situated on the timeline of Creation, we can recognize the compassion of a true mother.
At first I wanted to preach this text because of the powerful story it tells: a wise King suggests an unusual but effective test to determine the rightful mother of a newborn child. But the power in this story is really its characters. So today we're going to spend a little time with each participant in this struggle.
Both of the women involved in the dispute are prostitutes. They probably wouldn't have been in the situation if they did not live in the margins of Israelite culture. So far as we can tell, neither of the women is married. And so there is no one else in the house to see it happen, no husband to awaken and intervene when the first mother rolls over in her sleep and fatally injures her infant son. I do have sympathy for that woman, at least in that devastating moment when she wakes up and realizes what she had done. But whether it is her grief that corrupts her or if she was a cruel woman to begin with, she does the unthinkable. She creeps through the dark and lonesome house and makes a frantic attempt to switch her lifeless baby with the one who still breathes and hungers and hiccups.
She takes what isn't hers. She doesn't simply trespass against the living boy and his mother. She abandons her own flesh and blood. If he wasn't a living boy who could grow into a child and become a man, he was nothing to her, simply a token to exchange for a second chance.
The villain of this story does nothing to redeem herself in the light of day. Standing before the King, she lies. Her testimony is false, her words broken and meaningless. It's no surprise that when the sword is drawn and the life of the kidnapped baby is threatened, she is happy to let him be sacrificed at the altar of her spite.
Let's talk about that King. After all, Solomon is the celebrated hero of the story. When word of his amazing gift for discerning the truth sweeps through his Kingdom, the people are in awe. They recognize that God's wisdom dwells within him. Now, this story is often read as we read it today—taken out of context. This unusual trial and verdict take place soon after King Solomon has awakened from a dream. This is all happening pretty early in Solomon's reign over Israel. He's only been king since chapter two of the book of Kings, when his father, the celebrated King David, went to sleep with his ancestors. (That means he died.) So here we are in chapter three, and King Solomon has the esteemed privilege of encountering God in a dream.
This is a dream many long to have—the Lord shows up and asks Solomon what he should receive. What should I give you? Solomon could have said anything. He could have asked for wealth or beauty or more soldiers for his army. Solomon had an opportunity to receive anything he wanted, and he asked God for wisdom. He said, I'm really small, like a child, actually, and I have a lot of people expecting me to lead them. So give me, your servant, understanding. Give me the ability to discern between good and evil. Give me wisdom, your wisdom. So great a King, and so aware that he was empty and helpless without God's help.
So what's interesting about this story is that Solomon comes across as powerful and wise, but the reader knows that Solomon is only gifted with such confidence and discernment because he had confessed his need to God. He had admitted that he was no better than a little child when it came to knowing what was best for his people. I know why my seminary professor always pestered us to read everything that comes before and after any passage we intended to preach. If we just see Solomon playing the wise judge, we're likely to miss that it's God's wisdom doing the heavy lifting. Solomon was wise enough to know that he knew nothing. In his weakness, he made room for God's understanding.
I have to say, as much as I concur with the awestruck Israelites that Solomon drank deeply from the well of God's wisdom, I think that the true mother in this story is an unsung heroine. Despite the fact that she is a prostitute, vulnerable to the scorn and distrust of good society, she publicly stands up for herself and for her infant son. She will not let her child be stolen from her without a fight, and she fights well. She seeks out the King, and presents her argument as articulately as any lawyer. Yet as passionately as she fights for her right to mother her own child, she is just as quick to sacrifice her experience of motherhood to save her boy.
Solomon may possess the wisdom of discernment, but the victimized mother possesses the wisdom of love. The scriptures testify that compassion for her son burned within her. Her heart is scorched by the fierceness of her love for the child she had conceived, delivered, and nursed. Though pains her, she is willing to give him up if it meant that he could live. That is the wisdom of love. By revealing that she puts the life of the child before her own, the plaintiff proves that she is the true mother, and her son is saved from both the kidnapper and the sword. Solomon returns the child to her arms, unharmed.
There is another character in this drama, and I'm not talking about the crying infant. God's wisdom is at work, and in the Hebrew tradition, the wisdom of God is personified. She speaks in the language of poetry in the book of Proverbs, calling for all people to seek her out and learn her ways. She is, in a way, a literary technique, a metaphor. She gives voice to what could otherwise be a dusty and lifeless theological CONCEPT. Wisdom is not simply a set of rules to obey or disobey. Wisdom takes to the street in the poetry of Proverbs. She is loud, dynamic, bossy, and more precious than diamonds. She is a teacher, a guide, a voice leading us away from evil and toward the will of God. Wisdom calls us into our best selves, and challenges us to live in a way that is in harmony with Creation. She is an active, invisible presence in the story, giving insight and strength to the humble King and the brave mother so that the truth can be discerned.
Lady Wisdom, as she is sometimes called, is an unusual biblical character. She is neither spirit nor angel, but she embodies the mind of God. Her presence is not about burning bushes or even visionary dreams; she is subtle. Even as a literary figure, she testifies to a God who isn't afraid to get mixed up in the world. The argument that God created the world and walked away just doesn't stand when Lady Wisdom shows up at the gates of the town, preaching the way of life. The traditions about Lady Wisdom are so much about the very real presence and activity of God that Christians would later recognize the connection between the Wisdom of God and the Word of God, Christ Jesus his son. God is involved with his people, God has a will for us, God is continually making himself present in our lives, in ways that are seen and unseen. We must seek God as persistently as he seeks us.
I don't want to turn this story from the First book of Kings into a simple morality tale. Of course we know that we should endeavor to have wisdom like Solomon and be compassionate like the true mother. What this story can be for us is a guide for discerning how God works in the world. Here we can practice seeing God’s movement in something as ordinary as a family controversy, and practice recognizing what it looks like when human beings—whether they are prostitutes or kings—follow the will of God. Where we accept our weakness, we make room for the spirit. Where we see compassion burning, we are likely to find the presence of God. Where we find the truth revealed, we have surely encountered Wisdom. May it be so.