Sunday, July 10, 2011

Solomon's Wisdom was Justice: Rethinking What it Means to be Wise

In the greater Christian community, Solomon is generally known for two things: his praying for and receiving wisdom from God and his eventual downfall following foreign gods because of his insatiable desire for women. The first notable irony is that he was given wisdom by God, was known for that wisdom throughout the entire Ancient Near East, yet couldn’t figure out that having over 700 wives and 300 concubines wasn’t wise…but that’s neither here nor there for my purposes in writing here.

When you think of what it means to be wise, what comes to mind? I think of years of experience in a given field of study or the fruits of living long life. I think of grey hair and phd's. The Bible also speaks of this kind of wisdom. Wisdom can be discernment, judging correctly, and knowing the correct path to choose when given many options. We also know from Scripture that the “wisdom of the world is foolishness to Christ.” This thought from 1 Corinthians is highlighting the infinite wisdom of God over man, especially of those who think they are wise and use that worldly wisdom for selfish needs, what the Word calls “crafty”. I also like another theme woven throughout the New Testament, of God choosing the “foolish things”  (i.e. unwise by our standards) of the world and the least likely of folk to proclaim His Kingdom...that He might get the glory. Jesus is constantly choosing the most unlikely of characters to be His disciples. In a world full of educated religious elite, Jesus chooses the likes of  fishermen and “uneducated, untrained” men that at times could barely mumble out a cohesive, comprehensible sentence. Unfortunately, as products of the Western Enlightenment, we have gone a long way in the opposite direction, preferring those with seminary degrees, bible training, years of experience, and special skill sets to become valid declarers of the Message.  We want educated and trained men and women…but that isn’t what Jesus wanted, or  what He needed and this is primarily because the glory of God could be more readily seen through these undesired types.

Nevertheless, God granted Solomon wisdom.  In 1 Kings, God said to Solomon, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Can you imagine if God asked you that today? What would you want? I am not sure what I would ask for, but I am fairly certain that “wisdom” wouldn’t have been high up on my list. Solomon replies, “give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong…” There is so much to unpack here, but lets start with God’s reaction. The Bible says God was “pleased” by Solomon’s response, since Solomon asked for this and not “long life, wealth, power, or deliverance from enemies..” Instead, God was outright pleased because, as God himself would say, Solomon asked for “discernment in administering justice (Hebrew: mishpat).”

Notice the subtle, yet interesting different words used to describe this blessing from God. Solomon asks to “distinguish between right and wrong” and God grants him discernment in “administering justice”.  So, “justice” is being able to tell the difference between “right and wrong”. When we think about justice (particularly in the West), the first thing that comes to our minds is retributive justice, the idea of exacting punishment for a crime or wrongdoing. In other words, the Old Testament concept of an “eye for an eye”, which ironically Jesus later calls His followers to avoid and stop doing. However, the biblical concept of justice is much more robust and multi-faceted than this narrow understanding. It also includes restorative justice, social justice, and Kingdom justice.  The Bible is equally, if not more, concerned with this type of justice, especially Old Testament prophets and Jesus. And as it turns out…the wisdom Solomon was granted to bring about justice, was not narrowly defined as punitive righteousness or God-sanctioned war on  pagan enemy, but rather a wisdom in understanding how to order the Kingdom in a way which is “right” for every single inhabitant, but especially for the most poor, oppressed, and vulnerable of the other words, what we understand as, social justice.

This is confirmed by Psalm 72, written by Solomon. He says, “Endow the king with your justice, O God…” Solomon is asking for wisdom, for this justice God is providing him in response to his request. Solomon then goes on to describe in vivid detail what the justice he is getting from God means, and who it is for. I encourage you to read the entire Psalm yourself, but here are some highlights:
  • He will judge your people in righteousness, your poor with justice” (verse 2).
  • He will defend the afflicted…save the children of the needy…and crush the oppressor (verse 4).
  • He will deliver the needy…the afflicted who have no one to help (verse 12).
  • He will take pity on the weak and the needy (verse 13).
  • He will rescue them (the needy) from oppression and violence (verse 14).

This Psalm of Solomon’s is clear and straightforward: Solomon’s justice, as granted by God would be a social justice for the poor, needy, oppressed, and vulnerable. What’s more, going back to the original request, Solomon will use this justice to “determine between right and wrong.” Therefore, justice for the poor and others described in Psalm 72, is in fact “right” behavior and life pursuit, while anything short of that is “wrong” behavior and pursuit. 

While this should come as no surprise as literally the whole Bible talks of “justice”, I wonder how many of us (including me!) have ever truly contemplated that social justice is part of being wise (wisdom) and something that is “right”, and that a world and kingdom without it is, “wrong”. All I can say is: Amen to that! 

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