In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”Matt 2:1-2
At this time of the church year, when Jesus comes to us as a child, it’s hard to think of him as “king of kings and lords of lords.” (Even as I wrote that sentence, my mind conjured Byzantine icons of an oddly adult child sitting on his mother’s lap and wearing a crown.) But from even before his birth, Jesus is described as a ruler. “He will be great,” the angel Gabriel tells Mary, “and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (Luke 1:32).
But what kind of king? Perhaps there’s a hint in the first person to whom God gave the throne of David: Solomon.
Born in scandal and younger than David’s other sons, Solomon only succeeds Israel’s greatest king because of the machinations of his mother, Bathsheba. The purge he uses to consolidate power makes him seem more like Herod than the Prince of Peace. But in today’s Old Testament reading, we see that Solomon, in at least one important respect, is a different kind of ruler.
God appears to him in a dream and gives Solomon the chance to ask for anything. The young king responds with remarkable humility and self-awareness:
…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. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 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?1 Kings 3:7-9
Impressed, the Lord grants Solomon’s request: ““Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you” (vv 11-12). Indeed, Solomon soon became known for possessing “very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore” (1 Kgs 4:29).
Just as Jesus will draw lovers of wisdom from afar, Solomon attracted admirers “from all the nations… from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom” (1 Kgs 4:34). Millennia later, perhaps people of this nation will enter 2021 more appreciative of the value of a wise ruler, having endured four years of leadership by a man whose mind discerns no difference between good and evil, who longs for nothing so much as riches and his enemies’ defeat. (“Righteous lips are the delight of a king,” Solomon might remind him, “and he loves those who speak what is right” — Prov 16:13.)
For all his wisdom, though, Solomon is just a king, not the “king of kings.”
At one point in his ministry, Jesus recalls how people came from the “ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon,” but then declares that “something greater than Solomon is here!” (Matt 12:42) For Jesus is himself “the wisdom of God,” a wisdom “secret and hidden” that “none of the rulers of this age understood” (1 Cor 1:24, 2:7-8). A wisdom that chooses “what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Cor 1:28). A wisdom that makes a little child a king, crowns him with thorns, and uses his death to “destroy the wisdom of the wise.”