Vey Iz Mir!
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
When the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima, a cloud of woe descended on the genius who made this world-changing weapon possible. How important it is to have a discerning mind, and to understand that human progress can lead both to good and to evil.
For an alternate approach pertaining to Ephesians 5:15-20, see Sand Sculptors.
His name is synonymous with smarts.
People don’t say, “You don’t have to be an Edison to figure it out.”
They don’t say, “You don’t have to be a Bill Gates to figure it out.”
They don’t say, “You don’t have to be a Carl Sagan to figure it out.”
Instead, they say, “You don’t have to be an Einstein to figure it out.”
He had the wisdom of Solomon. Plus a mastery of the photoelectric effect, which earned him the Nobel Prize in physics.
Over the past nine months, there’s been a groundbreaking exhibit in New York about this great scientific genius. Although Einstein’s thoughts are often assumed to be too complex for mere mortals to master, The New Yorker reports that this assumption is completely untrue. Walk in the door of this exhibit, and you are immediately greeted with a view of yourself as seen through a black hole.
It’s not a pretty sight.
Then, as you work your way through the displays, you come to understand how light travels, why time warps, and what makes stars shine. You discover that the mass of a single penny, under the right conditions, could be converted into enough energy to fuel New York City for two years. Of course, to accomplish this feat, you’d need to crank up your oven to a temperature hotter than the sun. So, for now, New York is stuck with ConEd.
Most amazing of all is what Albert Einstein managed to accomplish in a single year.
In 1905, at the age of 26, he published three groundbreaking papers that provided the blueprint for much of modern science. The first was on the motion of particles suspended in liquid. The second was on the photoelectric effect, the release of electrons from metal when light shines on it. Last and perhaps most famous, Einstein published his special theory of relativity, which led to the shocking conclusion that time is not constant, and neither is weight nor mass.
It is still hard to believe that Einstein’s work in that single year led to the discovery of, among other things, X-ray crystallography, DNA, the photoelectric effect, vacuum tubes, transistors and the mechanics of the information age.
1905. What a year.
Unfortunately, Einstein’s work at that time also laid the groundwork for the atomic bomb.
When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Einstein’s immediate response was “Vey iz mir” ... “Woe is me.”
Einstein was one of the smartest humans in history, and yet he ended his career feeling that his creations had slipped beyond his control. The pro-bomb position that he took during the Second World War turned into pacifism by the end of his life. The mushroom cloud that validated so many brilliant theories brought no joy to this genius, but instead only woe.
“Vey iz mir.”
That is precisely the response we often have when our wisdom turns out not to be so wise at all, when the trouble we’re in is of our own making, when the plans we’ve devised implode under the weight of their own foolishness, when we think we’re acting judiciously and prudently, but the outcome is that of a madman on crystal meth. Vey iz mir!
It is essential to have a discerning mind and to understand that human wisdom can lead both to good and to evil. Experiments on stem cells derived from human embryos can unlock cures for disease, but may also undermine the dignity of embryonic life. Advances in computer technology create amazing tools for education and business, but produce incredible amounts of toxic waste when outdated computers are thrown away. The clearing of land and the building of homes can provide wonderful quality of life for new generations, but these actions can also degrade the environment and reduce biodiversity.
How do we discern whether our actions are going to lead to good or to evil?
In the text for today, Solomon assumes the throne of his father David. At this momentous turning point, he has to decide what his focus will be as the new king of Israel. He knows very well that royal power can be used both for good and for evil — something his father demonstrated throughout the roller-coaster ride of his 40-year reign — and so Solomon hopes his administration can be a kinder and more gentle administration.
Since there is not yet a temple in Jerusalem, Solomon goes to a high place called Gibeon to offer a sacrifice to the Lord. We’re told that “Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar,” so it is clear that Solomon is no slacker in the sacrifice department (3:4). While he is in Gibeon, the Lord appears to Solomon in a dream, and God says, “Ask what I should give you” (v. 5).
Tough question. Makes you wonder what you and I might ask if God were to put a carte blanche offer on the table. He could ask for long life, or riches, or victory over his enemies. He could express a desire for personal popularity, or political power, or romantic success.
But Solomon asks for none of these. Instead, he says to God, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil” (v. 9). More than anything else, Solomon wants wisdom, which will enable him to discern what is right and wrong.
It pleases the Lord that Solomon asks this. In fact, God is so delighted that he gives the new king a wise and discerning mind, and on top of this gives him several additional benefits that he hasn’t even requested: riches and honor and long life (vv. 13-14). It turns out that an understanding mind is at the very top of God’s desires for us.
So how can we exercise this kind of wisdom?
We need to begin by grasping that true understanding involves the heart as well as the head. This is no knock against the accumulation of knowledge, against the pursuit of knowledge, against the discipline necessary to acquire it.
But knowledge acquired is not necessarily wisdom dispensed. Knowledge resides in the left and right brains, although some would say that while knowledge is left brain, wisdom is right brain.
Wisdom is no mere intellectual exercise — which is what Einstein discovered when his greatest insights started a chain reaction which led to the cry of despair, “Vey iz mir” ... “Woe is me.” Unless intellectual lucidity includes a heartfelt understanding of people and concern for their welfare, it can lead to woe upon woe upon woe upon woe.
Solomon demonstrates very quickly that his wisdom is both heartfelt and heart-shaped. Soon after his dream at Gibeon, two prostitutes come and stand before him. You know the story. They live in the same house, and both have babies, but in the middle of the night one of them rolls over and crushes her son to death. They argue about which one of them is the true mother of the remaining child, with one saying, “No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours,” and the other saying, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.”
Solomon’s solution is to ask for a sword. He says, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other.”
The woman whose son is alive says to the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” But the other woman says, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.”
Then Solomon, in his heart-shaped wisdom, pronounces, “Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him.” He knows that only a true mother would be willing to part with her son in order to spare his life (vv. 22-27).
Frederick Buechner weighs in on wisdom, saying, “Wisdom is a matter not only of the mind but of the intuition and heart.” It is like “a woman’s wisdom born out of suffering as a woman bears a child.” It is no surprise to Buechner that wisdom is described as a woman in Proverbs, a book traditionally attributed to Solomon. Wisdom was present when God made the heavens, the sea and the earth. “It was as if he needed a woman’s imagination to help him make them, a woman’s eye to tell him if he’d made them right, a woman’s spirit to measure their beauty by.”
Wisdom also involves obedience. A wise person walks in God’s ways and keeps his commandments. Wisdom walks in the light of the revealed word. No need to agonize over issues of honesty, integrity, faithfulness, love, trust, greed, envy, slander, gossip and the like.
When we walk with God, we replace the human tendency to “Just say ‘no’” with the spirit-led impulse to “Just say ‘yo,’” — to paraphrase the cargo-panted, body-pierced rapper youngster in your junior high Sunday school class.
Finally, wisdom always wears the cloak of charity. The greatest wisdom is to love God and neighbor. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). Wisdom may flow from knowledge, and in that sense there is an intellectual component to wisdom. But wisdom is also informed by our emotions (heart), enacted by the volition or will and affirmed in our souls.
There is nothing anti-intellectual in the teachings of Jesus. What Jesus is saying is that we should keep love of God and love of neighbor in front of us as we move into the future together. If our discoveries don’t help us to act in a truly loving way, then we need to find another path to travel.
Great minds have always sensed this, whether they were kings of Israel or winners of the Nobel Prize. In fact, Albert Einstein himself said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Wisdom requires not only a good mind but a loving heart, and a willingness to walk in God’s ways.
Any other path leads to a world of woe.
Buechner, Frederick. Whistling in the Dark. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, 112.
Specter, Michael. “At the museums: Know Einstein.” The New Yorker, November 15, 2002, 37-38.
The transition of royal power from David to Solomon is finalized in this passage, but the peaceful nature of the story here belies the bloody and destructive path that Solomon had to tread to succeed David on the throne. On his deathbed, David instructed Solomon regarding all those who should be eliminated after his demise. They were Joab son of Zeruiah, David’s nephew and Solomon’s uncle, who had once been David’s right hand, the leader of his army, and Shimei son of Gera who had cursed David as he fled from Absalom’s rebellion (1 Kings 2:5-9). The reason David says he wants Joab executed is for the murders of Abner son of Ner (2 Samuel 3:22-30) and Amasa son of Jether (2 Samuel 17:25; 19:11-15; 20:4-10).
More likely the cause of Joab’s loss of David’s favor, however, was his execution of David’s son Absalom on the battlefield (2 Samuel 18). Although he does not mention it, David probably also knew that Solomon would have to execute his brother Adonijah, his main rival to the throne, which he does very shortly after David’s death (1 Kings 2:13-25). It is rather ironic that Solomon blesses God for giving David a son to sit upon his throne (1 Kings 3:6), because one of David’s main problems is that he had too many sons who wanted the throne — Amnon, Absalom, Adonijah and Solomon. One by one they kill each other and are killed, until only Solomon is left.
But this gory background to Solomon’s ascension is hardly hinted at in 1 Kings 3:3-14. Rather, he is depicted as a pious young man who seeks to be the same type of devout and beloved king as was his father. The facts of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his later murder of her husband Uriah the Hittite are not mentioned. David is, instead, portrayed as completely upright and devout — the model of a holy king whom Solomon wishes to emulate. Perhaps it is another subtle irony that both Solomon and David are portrayed as perfectly pious here, when in fact both of them had serious theological and ethical flaws. In the end, Solomon does become approximately as pious as was his father. The text simply does not point out the fact that both of them ultimately miss the mark of true faithfulness toward God.
Solomon’s main shortcoming, according to Kings, is his habit of worshiping on high places. Prior to the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, however, high places were completely acceptable places to worship Yahweh. Samuel presides over his own high place in Ramah and even anoints Saul king there (1 Samuel 9). What the text knows about Solomon, at this point, however, which the reader does not yet know, is that although Solomon is sacrificing to Yahweh on the high place at Gibeon, later he will build high places for his wives’ foreign gods and make sacrifices at those places himself (1 Kings 11:1-13). The Chronicler evinces, however, that Solomon was only worshiping Israel’s God at Gibeon by insisting that the altars at Gibeon at that time were the original altars of the wilderness tabernacle, which had been left at Gibeon when David moved the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 1:3-6).
The fact that the Lord comes to Solomon in a “dream by night,” has led some to suppose that Solomon was practicing a type of ritual known as an incubation — in which a person sleeps in a temple or holy place hoping for a revelatory dream from the God of the shrine. Samuel receives a revelatory dream from Yahweh while sleeping in the temple at Shiloh (1 Samuel 3), and there appears to be another reference to such activity in Amos 2:8. In Amos the practice is being criticized as an unnecessary form of super errogationism; therefore it appears that only the most zealous persons, as Solomon is depicted here, engaged in this practice.
The content of Solomon’s prayer is, again, more humble and self-deprecating than one would expect on the lips of Israel’s first true empire builder. His statement that he is just a “lad” is hard to verify from the text. He may well have been below adult age when he was made co-regent with his dying father, because his age and the time of his ascension to the throne are not given. However, the actions taken on his part to consolidate his hold on power (executing his brother, his uncle, Saul’s remaining descendants, and exiling the priestly supporters of his rival, 1 Kings 2) depict him as a savvy political machinator. Even if these actions were orchestrated by those around Solomon, the text portrays him as one with steely resolve and a clear knowledge of what was required of him politically.
Solomon’s statement, however, that he does not know “how to go out or come in” should not be understood as some sort of false claim of feeblemindedness. When paired together and placed in a royal context, the verbs yatz’ah and ba’ah imply “going out and coming in” in a military sense — namely as a leader of an army (see also 1 Samuel 8:20 and 2 Samuel 11:1). In this case, Solomon is making an entirely accurate statement of what he understands to be his main weakness as a monarch. Unlike his father the great warrior, Solomon has no military experience. And to make matters worse, he has just executed the second best general Judah ever had, namely, his uncle Joab.
The solution to Solomon’s problems as a young man suddenly on the throne of his father’s kingdom is to pray to God for wisdom. This is the first biblical passage to introduce this theme, which will become the hallmark of Solomon’s reign. In fact, the remaining account of his monarchy (1 Kings 3-11) is peppered with stories of how Solomon’s wisdom made him world-famous and successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The fact that he was not a warrior, then, was totally irrelevant given his ability to expand his kingdom through wise decisions about political balances internally (1 Kings 4; 9:15-28) and foreign alliances externally (1 Kings 3:1; 5; 10; 11:1-3).
Thanks to his humble prayer to God for wisdom, rather than for the selfish things others might have asked for in his place (and setting aside the fact that he had already taken the lives of his enemies by his own hand prior to this encounter with God), Solomon appears here as a pious man who simply wants to serve God, and knows that wisdom would be his best tool in that task.
Have you ever watched an icicle form? Did you notice how the dripping water froze, one drop at a time, until the icicle was a foot long or more? If the water was clean, the icicle remained clear and sparkled brightly in the sun; but if the water was slightly muddy, the icicle looked cloudy, its beauty spoiled. Wisdom is formed just like an icicle. Each thought or feeling adds its influence. Each decision we make — both great and small — contributes its part. Everything we take into our minds and souls — impressions, experiences, images or words — helps create wisdom.
Wisdom comes from God as a byproduct of right decisions, godly reactions and the application of scriptural principles to daily circumstances. Wisdom comes from being faithful to the obscure tasks few people ever see. Wisdom comes from living a disciplined life. Wisdom comes from keeping your eyes focused on God and his Word. Psalm 90:12 (NIV) says, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
—Rod Handley, “Wisdom,” in the book Character Counts for Quiet Time and Small Groups, Gospelcom.net. Retrieved February 24, 2003.
Did you know ... that at age 15 Albert Einstein decided to educate himself, but a year later he failed the history and language sections of the entrance exams for admittance to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology? Of course, Einstein was always good at math and science.
—“Did you know,” The Christian Century, January 25, 2003, 7. Copyright 2003 Christian Century Foundation. Reprinted by permission from the January 25, 2003, issue of The Christian Century. Subscriptions: $49/year. From P.O. Box 378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054, 1 800 208-4097.
There is a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
—Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen), in Apocalypse Now Redux.
Martin Sheen stars as Capt. Willard, an American soldier sent upriver through Vietnam into Cambodia to find and assassinate another American, Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz has gone insane, Willard’s superiors tell him; he has disappeared into the wilderness to start some kind of cult. At first, Willard cannot comprehend how this “perfect soldier” could use such “unsound methods.” But the farther he travels into the hellish battlegrounds of the jungle, the more he realizes the madness, audacity, and, yes, “unsound methods” of America’s participation in the [Vietnam] struggle. As young and bewildered soldiers die meaningless deaths around him, he feels his own soul, and sanity, suffocating. In the end, Willard has some inkling that he perhaps is as lost as the man he has been sent to kill.
—Jeffrey Overstreet, “Apocalypse now and again,” Christianity Today, August 27, 2001, Christianitytoday.com.
Turning to the headlines, we read of surprising claims. There is a possibility of miracle cures that will work for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injury — even AIDS, cancer and heart disease.
What is this miracle drug? It isn’t really a drug at all. The miracle agent, we are told, is stem cells derived from cloned human embryos ....
On top of that, cloning holds up new hope for infertile couples. In a television interview, one couple has already proclaimed their belief that human cloning is God’s gift: “God really wants us to do this ... I can’t imagine any other reason why we haven’t had a child, other than this is what we were meant to do.”
Thus begins a whole new chapter in human history. For the first time, we have in our power the ability to manufacture people and, eventually, to do so to our specifications — free from the ills we ourselves suffer. But there is a catch ....
Cures involving stem cells from cloned embryos are a Faustian bargain — we may get new cures for ailing bodies, but we will have sold our souls in the process.
—Charles W. Colson, et al., The Struggle for the Human Race, a publication of The Wilberforce Forum (Reston, Va: Prison Fellowship Ministries, 2003), 4-5.
We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.
Concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors ... Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.
Faith-based mutual funds have doubled since 1999, and ethical investing continues to attract converts. But there has been a backlash. The Web site Mutual.com has a “Vice Fund,” which invests in gambling, tobacco, alcohol, video games and defense companies. “No matter what the economy’s doing, people keep drinking and smoking and gambling, no matter what,” fund co-manager Dan Ahrens told ABC News.
Now, more than ever, we need to have a discerning mind.
Professor Barbara Brock of Eastern Washington University is studying TV-free families in America, and initial results of her study reveal that families who watch little or no television have more time to talk than most Americans, are overwhelmingly satisfied with their lives and are active in their communities ....
Some questions for families to consider about family viewing are: Who watches TV in your household? When? What? Where? Is TV-watching a solitary activity or a family event? Do you choose shows deliberately or is TV “just something to do”? Do your children imitate the behavior or speech patterns of television characters? How do you feel about that?
Then consider: How positive (or negative) is the effect of television on your family life? What effect do news broadcasts, cartoons, dramas, sitcoms have on the way you and your children view the world? And finally, how different are TV’s values from those of Jesus Christ?
—Editorial, “Watch television with discerning mind,” The Clarion Herald, April 12, 2001, Clarionherald.org.
Place a birthday cake in front of the children, and talk to them as you put birthday candles on the cake. Find out what they enjoy the most about birthday parties. Then light the candles, and ask what you are supposed to do after the candles are lit. Make a wish and blow them out! After the candles are blown out, ask the children what sorts of things they wish for on their birthdays. Find out if it is good to ask for long life, or money, or toys, or power over other people. Tell them that God once gave King Solomon the chance to have one wish, and Solomon asked for the gift of wisdom — “an understanding mind” (1 Kings 3:9). Poll them on whether this was a good wish or not, and if so, what was good about it? Point out that God liked this wish because it wasn’t selfish, like long life and power, and it could never be lost or broken, like money and toys. Let them know that God granted this wish, and God gave Solomon many other good things as well. Encourage the children to ask God for wisdom as they go through life, because an understanding mind will help them to be successful in friendships and school and work.
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