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Introducing 1 and 2 Kings (focus on 1 Kings 3)

It's always wise to ask God for wisdom.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Kings 3

In this introduction to 1/2 Kings, we meet Solomon, the heir to David's throne. Demonstrating that Solomon "started well", we learn that he desired wisdom to govern God's people well, which God granted (along with wealth and stature). Foreshadowing: having wisdom and acting on wisdom are two different things.

For who is able to judge this great people of yours? (3:9)

Your Favorite Historical Documentaries

I'm going to sound a lot like "A Dad", and that's okay, because I am. I love history videos. Did you know that on YouTube, you can watch a video of just about any length (and quality) on just about any subject. Here's a great history of the interstate highway system:

Or how about my hometown amusement park (Six Flags Astroworld):

My favorite content creator is CGP Grey. Who knew the historical rivalry between New York and New Jersey was so much fun!

He even made the history of the name "Tiffany" a must-learn.

But when I think history videos, I think documentaries, which means dad-hero Ken Burns. Have you watched any of these productions?

Here's where I'm going with this. We're studying 1/2 Kings this quarter, a hard-core (and depressing) history book. It's probably the kind of history book that makes 9th graders rank "history" so low on their list of "favorite high school subjects". So, here are some ice-breaker-type questions that you might pick from to get your group thinking "history":

  • What was your favorite/least favorite subject in school?

  • What was your favorite/least favorite topic to study in history?

  • What topic/era have you become an "armchair historian" on?

  • What makes you interested/not interested in history?

I personally love history. When I got out of college, I became very interested in the history of WWII. I bought and read many books on the subject (pre-streaming era, kids). When I went to seminary, I focused on church history and historical theology. I love to study the outcomes of choices, good and bad. And that's the crux of 1/2 Kings, which is why I offer this "hot take": 1/2 Kings is actually a very interesting and valuable survey of the long-term impacts of choices. I'll spend the next quarter convincing you of this ☺.


This Week's Big Idea: Introducing 1/2 Kings

1/2 Kings is really one book, telling the story of, well, the Jewish kings. It opens with the last days of King David (his story was told in 1/2 Samuel) and continues through the fall of Jerusalem. Here's a simplified outline:

  1. The Rise and Fall of Solomon (1 Kings 1-11)

  2. The Kings of Israel and Judah through Ahab (1 Kings 12-16)

  3. The Kings of Israel and Judah during Elijah's ministry (1 Kings 17-2 Kings 2)

  4. The Kings of Israel and Judah during Elisha's ministry (2 Kings 2-13)

  5. The Kings of Israel and Judah through the fall of Samaria (2 Kings 13-17)

  6. The Kings of Judah through the fall of Jerusalem (2 Kings 18-25)

Author/Date. We don't know the author or the date for 1/2 Kings, but it does seem to have been compiled/edited in phases. It relies on royal annals; such sources were kept by every king of every land. So, 1/2 Kings pulls from Solomon's records, the records of Israel's kings, and the records of Judah's kings. The "to this day" comments (like 1 Ki 9:21, 12:19, 2 Ki 2:22, etc.) imply that at least those sections were written when those things were true, i.e., pre-exile.

Aside on the "Deuteronomic History". The phrase "to this day" shows up a lot in Joshua/Judges/Samuel/Kings. In fact, there are a lot of common literary features between those consecutive books, so much so that some scholars thought they might have been intended as a single, long history. (At the very least, 1/2 Samuel and 1/2 Kings were considered one book.) But the biggest common denominator between those books is their obvious reliance on the book of Deuteronomy. The measure of if a king was "good" or "bad" depended on how closely he followed the law of Moses. The pattern of rebellion/punishment flows from the warnings in Deuteronomy. For example:

  • "Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you." (Deut 7:4)

  • "4 As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. 5 He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. 6 So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done." (1 Ki 11)

The Importance of Josiah and the Law. The celebration of Josiah's reforms feeds into this emphasis on Deuteronomy, particularly since it is believed that that was "the law" that Josiah found and based his reforms on (2 Ki 22-23). This leads to a common theory that the first draft of Kings was compiled during Josiah's reign by a royal prophet (explaining the emphasis on Elijah and Elisha) who wanted to support the royal reforms. This explains his access to the royal annals and the prophetic "memoirs":

  • David's and Solomon's annals would have been kept in Jerusalem

  • The annals of the northern kings were probably brought to Jerusalem by refugees escaping the Assyrians

  • Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha would have kept their own records, or their followers would have, and these would have been given to other prophets

A popular variation of this theory is that Jeremiah was the primary composer of these histories. But, Kings records through the fall of Jerusalem and has an addendum on the much-later release of Jehoiachin, which means that someone else would have added that information and perhaps even re-edited parts of Kings to clarify the "Deuteronomic theology" -- obedience to God brings blessings; disobedience brings curses (that God did indeed allow His temple to be destroyed and His people to be exiled because of their sin). It is assumed that the update on Jehoiachin was added to give hope to the exiles, to prepare them for the release from captivity. This would imply a final date for Kings as after Jehoiachin's release (around 560 BC) but before the return from exile (around 540 BC). If that is correct, then the purpose of re-editing Kings when they did was to confront the exiled Jews with their tragic history so they would not repeat those mistakes when they returned to Israel.

None of that calls into question the accuracy of the historical details because the purpose of the book is to be a theological history -- a report of the facts as evaluated by what God said in Deuteronomy. If anything, that approach would have led the editors/compilers to be as accurate as possible, believing as they did that God was guiding human history according to His divine purpose.

"Anchor Dates" and Chronology Challenges. There are two dates confirmed in Assyrian archives which help us know for certain when these events took place: the battle of Qarqar (853 BC, which the same year Ahab died), and the first year Jehu paid tribute to Assyria (841 BC). But there are still challenges to certain dates:

  • Egypt counted the king's "first year" from the moment he took the throne, but Mesopotamia counted that as the first full calendar year. Both of those systems were imposed on Jewish records.

  • There are two different calendars in play with two different New Years (look up "New Style/Old Style dating" in Great Britain and you will see that calendar shifts like this challenge historians to this day).

  • Sometimes two kings ruled at the same time ("coregents"); some historians counted the "start date" for a king his first coregency date, and others counted it when he ruled by himself for the first time. This isn't clarified in the text.

Themes in Kings

  1. Monarchy is not God's design for His people. Most of the book reports how the various kings failed to fulfill their part of David's covenant (see 1 Ki 2), and the failure of the king would result in punishment for the nation.

  2. Judah's kings were more like David. It's made very clear that each of the northern kings were wicked failures; David's line continued in the southern kingdom (Judah), where there were at least a few good kings. But even those good kings, like Josiah, still made disastrous mistakes.

  3. The importance of prophets and prophecy. Supporting the idea that a prophet compiled this book, there is a big emphasis on fulfilled prophecy (see 1 Sam 2:27-36/1 Ki 2:27; 2 Sam 7:13/1 Ki 8:30, etc.) and the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Prophets answered to God, not the king.

  4. Sin and judgment (related to God's law). The terrible things that happened to Israel and Judah were not historical happenstance but the design of God and a consequence of the people's (especially the king's) sin. See 2 Ki 17 and 2 Ki 24-25.

  5. [A sub-category of that last -- the importance of worshiping God rightly, according to His instructions. There is a heavy emphasis on the temple in Jerusalem and how the various kings interacted with that temple and the priesthood.]

Of course, I strongly recommend watching the Bible Project overview:

They don't call attention to this, but this video makes the connection between Kings and Deuteronomy clear. David's final words to Solomon were a corruption of Moses' final words in Deuteronomy; Solomon's reign failed when measured against Deut 17; the criteria for the kings ware taken from the Deuteronomic law. (They also point out the importance of the story of Jehoiachin to God's promise to the line of David.)

Nerd Corner!

I found this nice and simple timeline on a number of websites:

But what's the fun in that? Here are some timelines that I created that have way more detail, are a lot more overwhelming, and are generally more confusing. Just how I like it.

In all seriousness, what I tried to do was show how the kings of Israel and Judah line up with each other, with the prophets, and with other surrounding kings. Please take my "dates" with a grain of salt. For my method to work, I had to give a single start date and end date for each individual. Here are pdfs of those files that make it a lot easier to zoom in.

Israel Timeline
Download PDF • 179KB
Timeline of the Prophets
Download PDF • 59KB

Where We Are in 1/2 Kings

Our first lesson begins with chapter 3. We skip over the depressing political connivery of chapters 1-2. David had gotten . . . old (there are plenty of shots taken at David's character in these chapters). His oldest living son (Adonijah) set himself up as the heir and started building support; David's inner circle knew that God wanted Solomon to be the successor, so they kinda manipulated David into making a public declaration in favor of Solomon. David then gives final words to Solomon (think: Moses), but it's less about following the law of Moses and more about following the law of "do to others before they do to you". Solomon then finds a way to execute everyone who supported Adonijah's claim to the throne. It's not a great start to the reign, and it foreshadows the problems on the horizon.

Indeed, chapter 3 begins with a comment about how Solomon married Pharaoh's daughter for political reasons (v. 1) and how the people were worshiping idols (v. 2). Just tuck those things away in your mind.


Aside on Kings and Chronicles

You'll see in the Lifeway materials regular references to 2 Chronicles. That's because 1/2 Chronicles retells the history of God's people, and the authors/editors clearly used 1/2 Kings as a source.

But 1/2 Chronicles was written after the return from exile. Consequently, its focus is on Judah (because that's the people who returned to Jerusalem), particularly David and Solomon and the "good days" in Jerusalem. This means that the editor wanted to write an account that would encourage the returning exiles -- a greater emphasis on hope. That's also why we see a stronger allusion to a prophesied Messianic king and the possibility of a restored relationship with God.


Part 1: God Offers (1 Kings 3:4-5)

4 The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there because it was the most famous high place. He offered a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. 5 At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream at night. God said, “Ask. What should I give you?”

If you've ever wondered why God would call David -- a man with murder and adultery on his resume -- a man after His own heart, then you've probably wondered why God would offer Solomon this blessing after Solomon ordered the execution of his rivals.

Right off the top of this lesson, we need to clear up some misconceptions. I've heard people say that God cannot be trusted because He favored those "scoundrels", David and Solomon. Clearly, those people never read Genesis! God also favored Abraham, the liar, Jacob, the deceiver, and so on. The point of the Bible is that all people are sinners, and yet God will still use us to bring about His purposes. (Otherwise, God would have wiped out all people a long time ago).) But no, God made a promise -- a promise to bless the world through the descendant(s) of Abraham -- and God keeps His promises. This blessing isn't about Solomon's character but about God's grace.

[But let's also be clear about this: there were good things about David and Solomon -- for example, this week's episode in which Solomon asks for wisdom. People are capable of doing the right thing; sadly, we too often choose to do the wrong thing. If we are entirely pessimistic about David and Solomon, we will tend to be pessimistic about ourselves. And remember that we have the Holy Spirit. Imagine trying to "do your best" relying only on your wisdom and willpower. Is it any wonder that in their later years, David and Solomon fell off the proverbial cliff?]

Solomon went to Gibeon to make a sacrifice because it was the "most famous high place". If that sounds bad, that's because it is. God hates "high places". "High places" are boringly just that -- a high place (like the top of a hill) where the Canaanites would worship their gods. (The hill at the site of Gibeon seems like a logical place to put an altar; "Gibeon" means "hill place".) God wanted His people to destroy all high places so they would not be tempted to worship the pagan gods (see Deut 7:5, 12:3).

So, why did God seemingly approve this worship? Because plans were in motion to build the temple in Jerusalem, but it hadn't been built yet (see verse 2). Solomon wanted to start his reign by worshiping God, and he had to do it somewhere. The parallel passage in 2 Chronicles 1 says that the Tent of Meeting was at that time in Gibeon, which would explain why it was the "most famous" of the locations of worship and also why Solomon thought it the best place to go. (But the ark was in Jerusalem where David had brought it.) (Gibeon was central, making it a sound place for the tent. But Jerusalem was larger, which is why God wanted the temple built there. I mentioned that the theme of "centralized worship" is big in Kings -- left on their own and without guidance, people tend toward paganistic practices.)

A thousand burnt offerings sounds like a lot, but that was par for the course for Solomon, a man of great means. We skip over the chapters describing the building and dedicating of the temple; you should read them and see just what Solomon was willing to do in worship. The important thing is that we aren't supposed to read this as a bribe -- Solomon is genuinely trying to offer something of a cost. Subtle life lesson: the more you have, the more you should give to God. Why? Because everything you have comes from God.

God grants His approval of Solomon's kingship with an amazing offer. There are two great discussion topics to camp out on:

  1. Why would God make this offer? Seems like a lot could go wrong here, right? The answers I hear seem to fall into three categories: God was testing Solomon, God was rewarding Solomon, and God was honoring David. Do you agree with any of those? Why or why not?

  2. If God made this offer to you, how would you answer? This is actually a common question in the culture, so it should be easy to get answers -- except in the culture it's phrased as the genie and three wishes.

Googling this is quite depressing (people are so incredibly self-centered), so look up other's people's answers at your own risk. Here are funnier ones I saw: "I want all politicians to be honest" "No more coronavirus" "I want the ability to cook the perfect steak" "I just want to know who I'm supposed to marry" "Make Texas have seasons". Plenty of people wished for world peace and no more sickness. There's a big difference between a genie granting wishes and God offering you a blessing, but don't be surprised/upset if someone slips into "granting wishes" language; just point that out and move on. Taking this scenario seriously, what would you ask God?

Note: God is not writing a blank check. He doesn't say that He will give Solomon whatever he asks for! That's important to catch.


Part 2: Solomon Answers (1 Kings 3:6-9)

6 And Solomon replied, “You have shown great and faithful love to your servant, my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, righteousness, and integrity. You have continued this great and faithful love for him by giving him a son to sit on his throne, as it is today. 7 “Lord my God, you have now made your servant king in my father David’s place. Yet I am just a youth with no experience in leadership. 8 Your servant is among your people you have chosen, a people too many to be numbered or counted. 9 So give your servant a receptive heart to judge your people and to discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of yours?”

And Solomon gives a great answer. But of course he did. Do you really think that God would take a risk here? (You might consider a follow-up question-- now that you've said what you would ask God for, what do you think you should ask God for?)

Solomon hits all the right notes in this answer, and we are to take it as genuine. The following chapters give evidence of Solomon's wisdom and his desire to lead God's people to worship and serve God rightly. Solomon started in a pretty good place. (Unfortunately, it also matters how you finish, as we know.)

Solomon would have known at least some of David's psalms. The phrase "faithful love" (which is also translated as "lovingkindness") appears 123 times in the Psalms. I find Psalm 25 particularly applicable to our passage:

4 Make your ways known to me, Lord; teach me your paths. 5 Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; I wait for you all day long. 6 Remember, Lord, your compassion and your faithful love, for they have existed from antiquity. 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my acts of rebellion; in keeping with your faithful love, remember me because of your goodness, Lord.
8 The Lord is good and upright; therefore he shows sinners the way. 9 He leads the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. 10 All the Lord’s ways show faithful love and truth to those who keep his covenant and decrees. 11 Lord, for the sake of your name, forgive my iniquity, for it is immense.
12 Who is this person who fears the Lord? He will show him the way he should choose. 13 He will live a good life, and his descendants will inherit the land. 14 The secret counsel of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he reveals his covenant to them. 15 My eyes are always on the Lord, for he will pull my feet out of the net.

If Solomon were aware of this psalm, this would inform just about everything he said to God. Not only does it show how David experienced God's faithful love, but it also shows why David believed it important to follow God's way -- that Solomon sat on the throne because David was faithful to follow God.

My first reaction is to think that Solomon was overdoing it with David, calling him a man of "faithfulness, righteousness, and integrity". Being "mostly righteous" does not make one righteous. But what was Solomon supposed to say? David was God's chosen king for Israel, so trashing him was not Solomon's best course.

Solomon would have been about 20 at this time. Notwithstanding all of the bold claims made by Gen Z (cf. last week), a 20-yr-old has some serious limitations as a leader. How do you think a 20-yr-old would do as a leader of a large group, a large church, or a government? (Or all three at the same time.) What would be the challenges of being 20 in that situation?

Well, Solomon asks for discernment, particularly the ability to make the right decision as a leader/judge. The word used literally means "a hearing heart". What a great phrase! So often when I'm trying to work through a dispute or a problem, my biggest "wish" is to know what's really going on -- to be able to listen through the noise and hear what people are really saying. Needless to say, I think that Solomon's request is incredibly wise and forward-thinking. (If you read the read of chapter 3, you'll see a famous instance of Solomon's newly-given wisdom.)

Think of a decision you made at work (or wherever) that would have been different if you knew then what you know now. This is the ol' "hindsight is 20/20" conundrum. Solomon is not asking to know the future; he's asking to see the present clearly. Wise!

You might be thrown off by the "too many to be counted" comment. It's hyperbole; the point is that God has made Israel numerous.


Part 3: God Provides (1 Kings 3:10-15)

10 Now it pleased the Lord that Solomon had requested this. 11 So God said to him, “Because you have requested this and did not ask for long life or riches for yourself, or the death of your enemies, but you asked discernment for yourself to administer justice, 12 I will therefore do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and understanding heart, so that there has never been anyone like you before and never will be again. 13 In addition, I will give you what you did not ask for: both riches and honor, so that no king will be your equal during your entire life. 14 If you walk in my ways and keep my statutes and commands just as your father David did, I will give you a long life.” 15 Then Solomon woke up and realized it had been a dream. He went to Jerusalem, stood before the ark of the Lord’s covenant, and offered burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. Then he held a feast for all his servants.

Again, God was not setting Himself at risk here. We don't have to worry if Solomon was going to ask for magical powers or superhero abilities. (If he did, God would have condemned the request.) He asked for wisdom and discernment, and that's just the sort of thing that made him a good successor to David. Otherwise, don't you think God would have put someone else on the throne? (You might think, "Wait, didn't some real jokers get the throne later?" Yes -- we will get to that in a few weeks.)

God's answer suggests that this offer was a kind of test for Solomon. But I also think it was a teaching moment. Note how God emphasizes the importance of following Him. It leans heavily on Deuteronomy -- read all of Deuteronomy 28 for detail on this:

  • "Now if you faithfully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all his commands I am giving you today, the Lord your God will put you far above all the nations of the earth . . ." (28:1)

[Aside: Solomon has already put to death several of his enemies. Just saying.]

Lifeway rightly points out that God's verbs are in the present tense, meaning that as He speaks to Solomon, he is giving/has given Solomon that wisdom.

God says that Solomon will be the wisest and most discerning ruler ever to live. (The next few chapters of the book offer support for this declaration.) This has thrown more than a few modern readers off. If Solomon were so wise, how did he end so badly? Let me say it this way: wisdom and discernment don't equal obedience. Knowing the right thing to do doesn't mean that you will do the right thing! We have talked about that at great length related to our personal experiences -- how many times have we had the wisdom to do something but chosen to do something else? Why do we do that?

That should help explain God's challenge -- "if you walk in My ways..." If having wisdom meant making wise choices, why would God have to say this? Seriously -- wouldn't wisdom by definition lead someone to strive for riches and honor and long life? God granted the riches and the honor (stature), but the long life would be up to Solomon's continued obedience. Just because this is in the news right now, I can't help but point out that Solomon ruled Israel for 40 years. Elizabeth has been on her throne for 70. Probably doesn't mean anything, but I can't help but wonder that Solomon might have gone longer if he had made better decisions. (And congratulations to Elizabeth.)

Anyhoo, Solomon wakes up from his dream (probably should called attention to the fact that God spoke to Solomon in a dream, just like He did to Jacob and Joseph) and immediately returns to Jerusalem to continue his worship. No scholars call attention to this, so I could be completely wrong, but I wonder if the author of Kings is connecting Solomon's newfound wisdom with worship in Jerusalem, not on a high place. Rather than stay in Gibeon, Solomon transfers to Jerusalem where God's temple will soon stand.

The comment about the feast is intended to highlight the "public celebration" aspect to Solomon's inauguration. But now that Solomon has God-given wisdom and discernment, we are also to look at these initial actions as being wise. What might be wise about having a feast for all of your servants?

So there you go. Lots of questions to think about. For the first lesson in a new book, the primary concern is getting a sense of the book -- what it's about, what it's for.

The following chapters wax eloquent about Solomon -- how wealthy and powerful he was, how many songs and proverbs he wrote (did you know that Solomon taught about animals and birds?). If they sound a bit much, realize that the author is proving that God did indeed give Solomon wealth, prestige, and wisdom.

Next week, we will get into the chapters about the temple.

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