How Wisdom Grows
There is something to be said for unflinching honesty that doesn’t sugar coat things. There is a fascinating tension in this whole portion of scripture (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Chronicles and 1 and 2 Kings)– the people have been freed from Pharaoh, delivered from slavery, to be the free people of God. But it’s really hard to be free, and they have begged to have a king, like the other peoples. So God gives them a king, and they struggle after that with the political reality of having a king, as God said they would.
But God bless their honesty, the scriptures are ambivalent about their kings – on the one hand they praise their achievements- we see how powerful and wealthy, successful and wise they were, how they ruled in righteousness or built up Israel and brought prosperity and strength, but on the other hand, they also blame the kings for breaking the covenant with God, for turning away from the promises and words of God and their choices ultimately lead the people of Israel into exile.
And throughout, for most of the kings, the prophets are continually calling them back to covenant and reminding them who is really in charge. And the bible holds both of these things in tension – their great success and their utter failure, and in the midst of it all, God’s desire for relationship –to be their God and for them to be God’s people, a light to the nations, hope for the world.
So despite David’s murder, rape, etc. he is known for his faithfulness and his righteousness, and for his love of God. And Solomon, who has 300 of concubines and 700 wives and builds shrines to foreign gods and builds opulence and wealth on the backs of the poor, was known for his wisdom.
So let’s just get that little bit aside here for a second – these are not clean characters or easy stories. They are messy and scandalous and frustrating, and the writers of these texts acknowledge the disappointing side of their heroes readily. Because – and this is important to keep in mind throughout – this is God’s story. God who works in and through and in spite of the best and worst we can throw at God, and who never gives up on us – that is the story they are all telling, and they are committed to telling it right.
We left things last week with David’s household - which is a not the most peaceful one - God tells him the sword will never leave his house, and it never does. In his old age there are several attempts by sons to take over after David, lots of bloodshed, and finally, Solomon - Bathsheba’s second son (the first one dies as punishment for his killing of her first husband, Uriah) Solomon is the one chosen by God, appointed by David, and anointed by Nathan, who ascends to the throne of David, but even he is involved in some scheming and has a potential usurper half-brother killed in the process.
So Solomon, who has already shown cunning and savvy, now begins his reign of the Israel in the most ideal way possible- at least from God’s point of view. God says to him, Ask what I should give you. And Solomon asks for wisdom. And God is very pleased with this request. Because while wealth or power or revenge would serve Solomon, but wisdom will serve the people.
What is wisdom?
Like love or hope or foolishness, it almost can’t be explained or explored in the abstract, it appears in circumstances and situations, in the word and actions of human beings in real life. So wisdom researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine study people who are considered by others to be wise, and look at the kinds of experiences that make someone wise, and what it looks like in context to be wise.
In order to illustrate Solomon’s wisdom, we are given a story, a context in which to see wisdom enacted. It’s a horrid story, really, about two women on one of society’s lowest rungs caught in a tragic situation and at the mercy of the king, who holds the power of life and death in his hands. It’s a story of loss and despair, of what desperation and grief can do, and of what love looks like too.
In this story, Solomon peels back the curtain of wisdom for a glimpse, and shows the roomful of people not a dazzling display of his own intellect or power – though to hang a child’s life over a sword is certainly power- but a simple doorway to wisdom. He doesn’t judge or condemn either woman, and he doesn’t try to get to the bottom of anything, or figure out rationally what is right and what is wrong, and who is to blame and what their punishment should be. He taps into the deeper reality. He starts with the love that will care for the child enough to let him go, so he might live, and exposes that.
Solomon sidesteps the drama and (albeit with considerable drama of his own) lays the truth bare. The consequences will still be theirs – one will need to face her loss instead of denying it, and will grieve terribly, the women will have to work out their relationship and living arrangements with one living child and one childless mother. But Solomon’s actions in this moment leave open the possibility for reconciliation and forgiveness, for honesty and a way forward, without in any way simplifying or trivializing the complex reality of life and living for these women and anyone else there witnessing this moment.
Of course, we want to know, Would he have sliced the baby in two? The absurdity of this as a solution – it’s sheer illogic and shocking non-solutionness makes me think no, of course not. Unless it is simply to shut them both up and get the problem out of his presence, which, as a powerful king, is risk enough for them to take him seriously. A king could do what he wanted, so if he wanted to make a mockery, or cause pain, or show his might, he certainly could have.
But that’s not where he was headed. He offers the solution of dividing the child as a test, one that actually treats the women as participating human beings and not as problems to fix or objects in his way. By this absurd gesture he allows reality to be exposed – the deeper truth is spoken, the one who loves the child, and would give the child up to see him safe, this is the true mother.
Wisdom is not knowledge; it connected to the way things are, to our very being. It is like glimpsing the alignment of things, sensing the deep truth underneath it all. And it is always something that moves us beyond ourselves and connects us with others, it is always for others, never for our own personal gain.
Included on the long list of words people use to describe those who are wise are “things like compassion, ability to see the big picture, to put things in perspective, to see things from many points of view, to be able to reflect on and rise above one’s own perspective.” Dr. Margaret Plews-Ogan, who studies wisdom, explains, “Wisdom is different from intelligence. Intelligence seeks knowledge and seeks to eliminate ambiguity. Wisdom on the other hand, resists automatic thinking, seeks to understand ambiguity better, to grasp the deeper meaning of what is known and to understand the limits of knowledge.”
Where does wisdom begin?
Solomon gives us some insight into this. He is credited with Proverbs, (and Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes – the wisdom literature). And we hear there this very often-repeated refrain, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (e.g., Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 10:27; 14:27, 15:33; 16:6). This is where Solomon started.
The word for “fear” can mean being afraid or scared, but it can also mean reverence, wonder, amazement, mystery, astonishment, honor, in other words, something like awe. And it is linked linguistically with the word for seeing –
Abraham Heschel wrote, Awe is a sense for transcendence, for the mystery beyond all things. It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple: to feel in the rush of the passing, the stillness of the eternal. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe."
The fear of the Lord, the awe and the awareness of the eternal beyond the within the ordinary, the seeing into – this is the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom is speaking from the great truth bigger than ourselves, the silence beneath the noise, the real reality that holds us. But, it begins with an honest assessment of yourself and the world. Lord, How can I govern so great a people? I am but a small boy! Give me an understanding mind. I am limited and you are beyond all – help me see with your vision, help me glimpse with your insight, that I may serve these people rightly and do what is best for them.
Solomon asked for wisdom from God and received it. But most often wisdom is gained not from studying or listening to someone else wise, but from experience, often tragic, difficult, painful, real life experience. Where these things can cause post-traumatic stress, they can also lead to what some have called, post traumatic growth. Plews-Ogan asks, “What better teacher of compassion than one’s own experience of suffering? How better to learn humility than to make a mistake? And what better to discover the deeper meaning of one’s life than to face a circumstance that forces you to focus on that which is of most value to your life?”
And we are participants in the process, we can receive the paths wisdom carves in us. All the exemplars of wisdom the University of Virginia researchers looked at in their Wisdom Study had one thing in common– they had all, at some point, made an intentional choice to do something that was hard. Plews-Ogan describes it like this: “It may not have been what they really wanted to do, and certainly not something they thought would necessarily end up well. But it was something they felt they had to do to set things straight. They chose, in many cases, the harder course of action. They chose to face their circumstances face on. We say, they “stepped in”. They may have decided to apologize to a patient or family, to go into a room full of intense judgment. It might have meant that they had to face their addiction, or take control of their health. At some point they made a courageous choice to make a difference in their own lives.”
But what leads people to make hard choices in the face of adversity? To remain vulnerable and changeable instead of hardening and becoming bitter and shut down?
When researchers asked what gave those people the courage to make their hard choice – to step into something they’d rather avoid, their answers could be summarized in five things: a community to hold your experience- a place to tell your story, cultivating gratitude and hope, some kind of quiet reflection or prayer, doing something to help others, and having some kind of spiritual grounding to help guide you as you make hard but good choices. Since wisdom is from God, it doesn’t surprise me that these things that open a place for God’s wisdom to grow in us sound exactly like church.
Solomon had the gift of wisdom from God, for the people, to see the greater truth and help others live in it, to connect him to God’s reality and bring that reality to be in his leadership, but he also had his own cleverness and intellect in spades, and it is easy to see when he relied on one and not the other.
His rule was characterized by stability and peace within the borders of Israel’s huge territory, and political and social order. He was a prolific writer and composer, beloved for his wisdom, and he gave the people of God the Temple.
But he also used slave labor from conquered peoples to build the temple, built shrines for the worship of foreign gods, and taxed the people heavily to support his lavish and excessive lifestyle. He made the people work as soldiers, chief officers and commanders of his chariots and cavalry, and gave preferential treatment to the tribe of Judah, which angered and alienated the other tribes. By the time his 40 year reign came to an end, the people were weary, burdened, frustrated and disillusioned, after his death, the kingdom he had built broke apart.
Wisdom keeps us human and connected to others. It keeps us human and connected to God. But, Solomon did not have a prophet. There was no Nathan for him like there was for David. Was there anyone who spoke hard truth to power? Who reminded him of his vulnerability? Who called him back to God’s ways when he got distracted by his own power and ingenuity, or became enslaved to his desires and the drive to satisfy his own wants, even at the expense of those he was called to serve?
One researcher describes, “…a wisdom atmosphere as one in which doubts, uncertainties and questions can be openly expressed, and ambiguities and contradictions can be tolerated, so that individuals are not forced to adopt the defensive position of…“too confident knowing”.’ (John Meachum)
Perhaps Solomon, for all his wisdom, did not have this.
These wisdom researchers were not studying church. They were not looking at the Bible or the faithful from the generations who’ve gone before us, or those of us who seek to live in wisdom in a community of Jesus Christ with and for one another. So they couldn’t have realized what it would sound like to us gathered here tonight when they said this:
“When we foster compassion, empathy and forgiveness, in ourselves and in others, we are opening up the possibility for wisdom. When we foster the capacity for self- reflection in our children, or our community, we are creating the matrix for wisdom to develop.
When we foster gratitude, wisdom is likely to follow. When we accept the complexity and ambiguous nature of things, and refuse to accept a simplified black and white explanation, we are increasing the likelihood of wise decisions. Wisdom does not arise out of the easy, simple parts of our lives. Wisdom lives in the most messy, hard, complex and painful of our experiences.”
This, my friends, is Church. They are talking about church. They are talking about us. We are people called to live with one another in the messy, hard and complex experiences, called to foster gratitude, to make space to openly express doubts, and to accept ambiguity and mystery.
We are called to hear and hold each other’s stories – stories that God works in and through and in spite of so that we can be with God. We are to be, for each other and the world, the people who help one another step into hard things, and who remain open and soft when life wants to make us bitter and shut down.
We make space for silence and pray together, we can be brave and trusting instead of afraid and guarded, and we can dwell together in the fear of the Lord, that place where awe and wonder well within us and open up to us a seeing that otherwise remains closed.
And when we look at David and Solomon and all these faithful who have gone before, in all the raw ugliness and beauty of their lives, it can help us to foster compassion, empathy and forgiveness in ourselves and others.
We are the Church, the Body of Christ, the living and breathing reminders of grace, experiencers of grace, spreaders of grace amidst life’s joys and struggles. We are the community where wisdom grows. May we come in honesty and awe before God and “feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal." (Heschel)