1 Kings 3 records an appearance of God to Solomon with an interesting request, “What do you want?”
5 At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” 6 And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you. And you have kept for him this great and steadfast love and have given him a son to sit on his throne this day. 7 And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. 8 And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. 9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”
1 Kings 3:5–9 (ESV)
There are many peculiar things about this passage, such as it involves God asking what someone wants – rather than God providing instruction. But what interests me here is Solomon’s request, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”
The commentators typically emphasis the direct nature of this request, Solomon asks for the ability to govern:
“Solomon’s desire for an obedient, listening heart is based on his wish to administer justice in Israel. Justice can only emerge when the king is able “to distinguish between right and wrong” (lit., “good and evil”). Justice can become a quite complicated goal, as 3:16–28 proves. Only knowledge of what God considers fair and unfair can guide the king to act justly with any consistency. Though Solomon has already exhibited political craftiness, he knows that long-term wisdom and success reside where David found it—in an ongoing relationship with the Lord.” Paul R. House, 1, 2 Kings, vol. 8, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 110–111.
“ ‘For judging thy people, discriminating between good and evil’: it is precisely the ability to distinguish good from evil, truth from falsehood, that is indispensable in the administration of justice. “For who is able to judge this thy difficult people (את־עמך הכבד הזה)”: not only was the civil life of Israel filled with strife and contention toward the end of David’s reign (cf. 2 Sam 15:1–4), but the political situation likewise continued unstable. This prayer was definitely answered in the sense that Solomon did find the means to suppress all outward show of rebelliousness to the end of his reign.” Simon J. DeVries, 1 Kings, 2nd ed., vol. 12, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Inc, 2003), 52–53.
The Pulpit commentary opens up an interesting cross reference to Hebrews 5:14, “That I may discern between good and bad [i.e., right and wrong, true and false; cf. Heb. 5:14).”
H. D. M. Spence-Jones, ed., 1 Kings, The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 52.
But there is another cross-reference which think is far more instructive to understand Solomon’s prayer:
16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Genesis 2:16–17 (ESV)
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.
He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Genesis 3:1–5 (ESV)
Peter Leithart picks up on this cross-reference:
“Solomon asks for wisdom, more specifically for “discernment of good and evil” (להבין בין־טוב לרע) (3:9), using a phrase similar to that found in Gen. 2–3 to describe the tree in the garden (עץ הדעת טוב ורע), a tree that gives wisdom (Deurloo 1989, 12). Solomon’s request can thus be described as a request for access to the tree forbidden to Adam.”
Peter J. Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 44.
I think Mr. Leithart is correct about the reference which underscores this prayer. But I think he got the allusion backwards (I will here quickly note that no one has requested that I publish a commentary and that Dr. Leithart is far better credentialed than I (D. Phil. Cambridge).)
And thus with appropriate trepidation, I make my case.
The immediate correspondence between his prayer and Genesis is the knowledge of good and evil. With that interesting phrase, we can begin to draw a comparison:
|Before the Fall||After the Fall|
|Approached by the Serpent||Approached by God|
|Speaks with Eve, Adam’s wife||Speaks with Solomon, a type pointing at Christ & Adam|
|God does not want your good||What can I give you?|
|God has forbidden the tree of good and evil||God has forbidden nothing to ask|
|God does not want you to have wisdom||God is pleased Solomon asks for wisdom|
|The temptation is you will be like God and you will be able to determine for yourself good and evil||Give me the ability to discern good and evil|
Rather than Solomon asking to eat from the eat; I think it better to see this as Solomon asking to reverse the temptation of the Fall. The Serpent came to Eve and said God does not want you to have wisdom. But if you eat from this tree, you will be able to be like God and you will be able to independently exercise your moral judgment.
Solomon is approached by God. Solomon is well passed the Fall. Human beings have fully rebelled – in fact, the refrain of 1 & 2 Kings will be “he did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord.” (When I read through these books with my daughter and I came to another evil King who did evil in the eyes of the Lord, she said, “Oh no, not again!”)
And the book of Judges recording the horror human sin ends with this epitath:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Judges 21:25 (ESV)
As Paul will write summarizing the degradation of human beings:
“21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Romans 1:21–23 (ESV)
The act of making one’s own decisions of good and evil lies there at the heart of the horror of human history. (Even the most depraved actions are always justified in the eyes of the perpetrator.)
But Solomon prays for a reversal of the noetic effect of sin: God, I am not going to strike out on my own. In fact, I recognize my inability to judge. Rather than a tree to just know good and evil; I am asking for your intervention that I may discern good and evil.
And in this we see an aspect of how Solomon typifies the Christ to come.