THE WISDOM OF SOLOMON
A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper
Preached in Westville, South Africa, February 10, 1991
“So the king answered and said, `Give the first woman the living child, and by no means kill him; she is his mother.’ And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had rendered; and they feared the king, for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to administer justice” (1 Kings 3:27,28).
It is sometimes difficult, when we read the Old Testament, to understand how the Lord could have used the kings of Israel to represent His government. Saul was the first king, specifically chosen by the Lord and made king over his objections. Although he got off to a good start, all too soon he became arrogant and disobeyed the Lord’s commandments delivered through the prophet Samuel. Saul’s punishment was that his dynasty would end before it was even established; his son Jonathan would never be king, because the Lord had chosen David instead. Saul, in madness caused by jealousy and disappointment, repeatedly tried to kill David, while David refrained from killing Saul even though he twice had the opportunity.
When Saul and his sons died in battle against the Philistines (see Isaiah 31:2 ff.), David became king in his own right. David is often referred to in the Scriptures as the ideal king, and yet the record shows a different picture. He was a brilliant general and a powerful fighter, but he repeatedly had to flee from his palace as various people almost overthrew him. The most dangerous challenge came from his own son Absalom. David committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then committed murder to try to hide the adultery.
When David was dying, Bathsheba and Nathan the prophet successfully plotted to put Solomon on the throne instead of one of his older brothers, any one of whom had a more legitimate claim to the throne than Solomon. Solomon, through his apparent hunger for beautiful women, built altars to and worshiped hundreds of different idols to please his wives and concubines.
Yet for all their personal failings, each of these kings represents the Lord. The representation rests not with the man, but with the office of king, and so David, while his personal life was a mess, still represents the Lord as to His royalty because he conquered Jerusalem and made it his capitol, because he skillfully drew Judah and Israel into one nation, and because he fearlessly fought against the Canaanites.
Even today such a distinction between the person and his office is important to make. The mayor wears a badge of office which is passed on from individual to individual showing how the person and the office are distinct. The priest wears certain garments on chancel that are never worn for any other use, in order to make manifest the office of the priesthood, while wearing ordinary clothes for study or recreation. The man is the same, but the uses are different.
Solomon as a king represented the Lord even though as a man he introduced idolatry into Jerusalem. As a king, Solomon was particularly chosen by the Lord to represent Him as to His Divine Wisdom, and so the Scriptures record Solomon’s many accomplishments as a scholar (see 1 Kings 4:29-34). But the incident that stands out in people’s minds when they think of Solomon is the incident where the two women were arguing over a baby.
The essence of the story is that two women each had a very young infant. Their ages differed by only three days. They are described as harlots to explain why neither of them had a husband to help identify which baby survived. It also explains why they were sharing quarters. During the night, one woman accidentally smothered her child while she slept. When she awakened and discovered the death, she secretly switched her dead baby for the other woman’s living child. The mother of the living child immediately knew what had happened, but the children were so young and so similar in appearance that only the mother would know for sure which was which.
The problem they presented was a difficult one. Both claimed the surviving child. There was no objective way of identifying the baby. One of the women was a persuasive liar. No one else had been able to resolve it as long as the one woman kept lying, and so it came to the attention of the king as the supreme judge. His solution, the order to have the baby cut in two and divided between them, is intuitively recognized as an elegant solution because it sidesteps the problem that can’t be solved discovering the liar and instead solves the problem of discovering which was telling the truth by identifying motherly concern. It’s a solution we recognize as correct as soon as we hear it, but it is a solution we would probably not have come up with ourselves. By making such a judgment, Solomon overcame the objections some people had to his rule by showing himself to be wise and compassionate, and the story is recorded in the Scriptures as absolute proof of his wisdom Solomon’s ability to cut through a difficult problem and expose the heart of it, and thus the solution. In this light and from this perspective, one can see that the people feared Solomon’s wisdom because they discovered that they now had a king that couldn’t be fooled.
This story can also be understood from more interior perspectives. It is not too difficult to imagine how this story could have been seen as a symbol of the political difficulties facing the nation of Israel, and a clear sign of how the king intended to deal with these problems.
The kingdom of Israel was fundamentally divided between two competing, and sometimes warring, camps. The roots of the division go back to the jealousy between Judah and Joseph. Judah was the natural leader of the twelve sons of Israel, and he resented his father’s obvious preference for young Joseph, and so he arranged to sell his brother into slavery. Of course we know that in Providence it led to the salvation of the whole family, but the division remained. Five hundred years later when the Children of Israel conquered Canaan, Judah was the most important tribe in the south, while Joseph’s two tribes, named after his sons Ephraim and Manasseh, were the largest and most powerful of the northern tribes. The child Benjamin, as Joseph’s only full brother, had been the focus of the battle between Judah and Joseph, and later the tribe of Benjamin served as a buffer between north and south, siding sometimes with Judah, sometimes with Ephraim.
This explains in part why Saul, David, and eventually Jesus, were all born in Benjamin to attempt to take a neutral stance so that they could be accepted by both Israel and Judah.
The story of Solomon’s wisdom concerning the child can be interpreted in the light of the ongoing battle between Israel and Judah. Both are represented by harlots, because, as Scripture often tells us, the people of both groups frequently “played the harlot” by worshipping Canaanite idols instead of Jehovah (see Judges 2:17, Psalm 106:39, Jeremiah 3:1). The child represents the ideal of a unified kingdom which everyone recognized, but typically expected the other group to make all the necessary sacrifices. The picture we see then is of Israel and Judah fighting about which one will have the most power in the unified kingdom ruled by Solomon. Solomon’s decision to divide the child would have been seen as his announcement that unless the arguing stopped and he was given absolute control, the kingdom would be divided by civil war. When the people heard this announcement, the fear they might have felt was that a destructive civil war was imminent.
It is on a more interior plane that this story begins to have personal meaning for us. The two women together represent the will, or ruling love. All humans, while they yet live in the world of nature, have a will that is mixed, that exhibits tendencies to evil and to good. They are called “harlots” in Scripture because in the unregenerated person these affections are not yet conjoined, as in a true marriage, with the appropriate truths. The two harlots then represent the duality of evil and good in the human will.
The unregenerate, corrupt old will is represented by the harlot who carelessly destroys innocent good, who accidentally smothers her infant while it sleeps. She represents that part of us that is totally selfish, self-centered, and without conscience, that part of us which the Heavenly Doctrines call “a hell in miniature.”
On the other hand, the other harlot represents the new will which is formed in the elevated understanding as we bring ourselves into obedience to the truth of the Word from conscience. The new will can be represented by a harlot to show that it arises from a corrupt source, but during the interview with Solomon it is shown to be something entirely different: when Solomon threatens to kill the child, the old will agrees, because it cares for nothing but itself and its own pleasures. The other harlot, representing the new will, hears the words of Solomon and in her fear that the innocent child be harmed, recognizes that the only way for the child to survive is for her to give up her claim to it, to act in a selfless manner for the sake of another, to make her own needs serve the needs of another which is genuine love and charity.
It is important that we note that it is Solomon’s words that solve the problem about the child and, more important, make the different characters of the two women manifest, for as king, Solomon represents the Lord, and his words therefore correspond to the truths of the Word given by the Lord.
In this context we can see that the story tells us about the kind of things that happen within our minds and hearts as we struggle to determine what is good and right for us to do in our lives. On the one hand we have the old will, insisting that if we want to have happiness, the baby, we must believe her claim. On the other hand, the new will also argues its case compellingly. We are torn. We don’t know what to do. Neither course seems clear. We cannot solve it on our own. However, if we then turn to the Word and seek the truth there, we will find that the Lord will speak to us, that when we look to the Lord for guidance while trying with all our might to do what is right, it is as if the light of heaven shines on the problem, and what has been incredibly difficult suddenly becomes crystal clear. The impossible solution suddenly becomes obvious. We receive enlightenment from the Lord which guides us safely to our goal.
The key idea that we need to have if we are to assist the Lord in the formation of the new will is that we have to come to a point in our lives where we acknowledge from the heart that we actually need the Lord’s help to solve the problems of our spiritual life. Once we approach the Lord in His Word for help, we are reading the Word with an attitude that will permit us to hear, to hearken, to receive the Lord’s words into our hearts. Then, if we wish to do what is right, if we wish to gain the ultimate reward of heaven, we must seem to ourselves to give up the “baby,” that which we love the most. Then, when we give up our evil, proprial loves for the sake of the greater good, the Lord will reward us with the gift of a living child new spiritual life. And we, like the Children of Israel, will tremble with awe when we realize the power and wisdom of God.
“So the king answered and said, `Give the first woman the living child, and by no means kill him; she is his mother.’ And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had rendered; and they feared the king, for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to administer justice” Amen.
Lessons: 1 Kings 3:16-28, Luke 14:7-14, AC 4865
Arcana Coelestia 4865
That a “harlot” denotes falsity is because marriage represents the heavenly marriage, which is of good and truth … Therefore, adulteries and harlotries, being opposite, signify evil and falsity; and they are opposite in reality, for those who spend their lives in adultery and harlotry care nothing for good and truth. The reason is that genuine conjugial love descends from the heavenly marriage, that is, from the marriage of good and truth, but adulteries and harlotries arise from the conjunction of evil and falsity, which is from hell.