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WHICH of these elements will conquer at the last? The sentence is divided into two parts. There is only a semicolon between the one part and the other, so far as its typographical relation is concerned; but the two parts are wide asunder morally as far as the east is from the west. In which part of the sentence will Solomon die? This is a question which concerns every man; for the same sentence may be employed in describing the character of most of those who have in their hearts some good thing towards the Lord God of Israel. Sometimes we go up as on wings of eagles. We run, and are not weary; we walk, and are not faint. God seems to have given us great strength, and riches ample and ever-enduring, so that the heart has no fear and the spirit is unrestrained in prayer. Sometimes we go down into the place of night, the very quarters of darkness, the very depths of gloom, where winter is born, where sorrow sheds its tears, where iniquity comes with its broken petition, its half-selfish prayer for forgiveness. In which of these conditions shall we finish life? That is the question we put concerning Solomon, and it is the inquiry we should put concerning ourselves. Is this the morning twilight that grows into the perfect day: or is it the evening twilight that deepens into uttermost darkness?
See how well Solomon begins. The very goodness of the beginning alarms us. That is a sad thing to say, but considering life in all its breadth and tragedy, it seems a not unnatural statement to make. How many fair mornings have died in tumultuous sunsets! How many who began well have fallen out of the way, and are not found at the last when the winners are counted one by one. And how many who began badly come in late and say, Father, we have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and are no more worthy to be called by any name of endearment or to have any place of honour! Yet no doctrine can be founded upon either of these facts. They are simply to be taken as phenomena, full of sharp suggestion and profound moral teaching. See how well Solomon begins. When he went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, he slew a thousand beasts, and burned them upon the great high place. In Gibeon Solomon dreamed. When the Lord has his tenderest messages to deliver to us, does he not cause a deep sleep to fall upon us, that we may have excluded from our vision and imagination all things broad, vulgar, debasing, and misleading? When he would send the angel into the garden, will he not send her through the gate of sleep? God uses the dream as no nightmare, but as a moral medium, a highway into the soul's best thought. We shall see Solomon at his highest when we find him in a sleep into which he has been put by the power of God. In answer to the divine inquiry propounded in the dream, Solomon gives an outline of his own character and policy; and looking at this answer, we ask again, Did Solomon begin well? And beginning well, will he finish well? Hear him as he sleeps: he calls himself God's "servant"; he describes himself as "but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in." ( 1Ki 3:7 ). Surely he will do well, a beginning like this must have a conclusion worthy of its simplicity and pureness. He is king, yet servant; he is king, but not God; he is king, but not master: he draws his lines definitely, he stands within his bounds in an attitude of attention awaiting heaven's will. What a sweet beginning! Who would not baptise him then, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, three Persons in one God? He is worthy to be king. Wisdom is always royal. Spiritual wisdom should always occupy the throne.
Now he prays:
"Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad" ( 1Ki 3:9 ).
That is a distinction not easily realised. There is a good so good that no mistake can be made about it; there is a bad so bad that decency turns away from it, and uninstructed instinct revolts and cannot be persuaded to look at the ghastly spectacle. But the division is not always so sharp and vital, or so patent and easily determined. What is spiritual good? What is spiritual bad? What about that mysterious border-land where good and bad seem almost to inter-penetrate, to hold confidential communication, and to be making compromises, and to be learning each other's native tongue? What about the good motive, the noble impulse, the incitement pure as fire, kindly as light? And what about the crooked motive, the tortuous policy, the unavowed selfishness, the cruelty which wears the gloves of kindliness and friendship, the double-mindedness that only omniscience can penetrate and judge? "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" Solomon would not be a king who made broad distinctions only; he would have the spirit of wisdom, that is to say, the spirit of discernment, the spirit of discrimination, the spirit which could not be imposed upon; he would be to Israel, as David had been described again and again, as "an angel of God." When hypocrites and dissemblers came before David, they said: "It is of no use to conceal the matter from the king; his eye sees the inner meaning, and dissimulation does but provoke the king's discernment to greater keenness and severity." Such a man must go up. Now we read "Solomon loved the Lord," and we know it to be true. We will say of him: Yes, he will ascend; he has clean hands, and will grow stronger and stronger; his light will grow more and more unto the perfect day; he will surely die at noontide, and his death will eclipse the gaiety of the skies. How well he begins when he comes into actual life; the deceiving woman comes before him, and claims a child, which in reality she has stolen. What is to be done? The king said: Bring me a sword and divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other. Was ever answer so charged with true wit, discernment, nature, pathos? Have the wits of the world improved this reply? Have they brought a keener edge to bear upon the difficulty? Here stands the answer: add one line of beauty to it, if you can; improve it in any particular, if such improvement lie within the scope of your power. Whence hath this man this wisdom? This answer was never born of mere sagacity. We know it to be inspired, because it covers the whole case, is true to human nature, and brings to witness instincts that cannot be crushed until human nature itself is extinguished. And there is none like him. Having asked wisdom, God says: Now I will give thee that which thou hast asked, "a wise and an understanding heart;" and more: "I have also given thee that which thou hast not asked, both riches, and honour: so that there shall not be any among the kings like unto thee all thy days" ( 1Ki 3:13 ). And there was none like him, for "God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore. And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt" (iv. 29, 30). Never was a man so wise, so good, so rich, so great, as Solomon. Splendour is added to splendour, until the whole firmament burns with glory. Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman and Chalcol, and Darda, men of unusual wisdom and peculiar fame, were not to be named with Solomon: his genius gave language to the cedar, and made the voice of the hyssop to be heard in song; as for his proverbs, they were an army for multitude, and his songs were a thousand and five. The king's throne was of ivory, and twelve lions stood upon its steps; and the king made silver to be in Jerusalem as stones, and cedars were as abundant as sycamore trees. And so human nature seemed to be glorified in king Solomon! "There came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom" (iv. 34). Oh, would to God the gate of heaven would open for him now, and let him in! Would he might die as the last king leaves him, wonderstruck at his boundless wisdom; he would go up as the dew goes in the early morning when the sun calls it, to make rainbows of it and clouds in the blue sky. It has been also the same with ourselves. What man amongst us has not said? Now, Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace. We do sometimes fix our own death-point. We seem to know when it would be best for us to die when the heart is all prayer, when the soul is all love, when life breathes the fresh air of spiritual freedom: Now, Lord! How well for some of us had we died in the cradle; we should then have begun life in heaven. From what great heights may men fall!
How will Solomon die? So far he has been in the first part of the text, loving God, walking in the statutes of David his father, a wise and understanding king, and as for his riches, God poured them upon him until they were without measure; and we have wished that under such circumstances he might die. Now take another picture about the same Solomon: "When he was old... Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites " ( 1Ki 11:4-5 ). When he was old: when he ought to have known better; when experience ought to have become a kind of religion; when something like complete knowledge of life ought to have made him more devout, reverent, loyal, and true. Call no man bad until he is dead; reserve the epitaph for the buried bones! Call no man lost until all the light is gone out of the wide kind heaven. The doctrine applies in both ways. We may perish within sight of land. Men are not drowned only in the great Atlantic; they are drowned within the ten feet into which they fall. We may be within sight of home, and never reach it; we may see the fair city, its pinnacles flashing in the eternal light, and hear somewhat of the holy song of the high places of the universe; and at the last the enemy may win. Would God we had died in childhood! say we many a time, when the chase is severe, when the enemy has his hand immediately over us ready to strike. Let us talk not so. We cannot tell what is to be. Let us fall into the hands of the living God. Great gifts mean great dangers. The higher the exaltation the more terrible the fall, should it take place. Great zeal is but the religious aspect of great passion. The only thing we can do is to pray the living God that we may be kept body, soul, and spirit, that we may be beset behind, and before, and have the divine hand laid upon us; yea, that we may be kept in the hollow of the hand of love. To this great prayer great in its simplicity and tenderness the heart that best knows itself will be the first to say Amen! Sad that the buds and the blossoms do not always come to fruit, that the snow upon the summer ground is a snow of bud and blossom shaken off the tree of promise. How well some of us promised when we were boys; what predictions were made concerning us; we were to be pure, true, unselfish, noble, and tongue for the dumb, eyes for the blind, and our eloquence was to take fire whenever man was oppressed, whenever righteousness was outraged. Where are the predictions now? Better perhaps not inquire, for the man of whom they were uttered may be a drunkard, may be crouching where he ought to have stood erect, may be overwhelmed by floods which he himself let loose. On the other hand for is it not better to hasten to the sunny side of the hill and there spend the day? are not some by the grace of God better than they ever promised to be? Was it not said of some, They will come to no good; mischief is in their hearts, and they must come to evil? And have they not been turned into right paths and become burning and shining lights, apostles of truth, evangels of mercy? We have need of continual watchfulness. "What I say unto one," said Christ, "I say unto all, Watch." The point to be kept before the mind is that where there are two aspects of character, the question arises, which of them shall predominate at the last? Thus; here is a young man, and we speak of him in these terms: he is very good, kind, chivalrous, but he is fond of excitement. How is that life to end? Will the chivalry triumph or the love of excitement? Will he go from home to be amused? When he plays his innocent games, will he be frowned out of the house by some foolish father, and driven to play those games within a stranger's gates? Will he want more excitement than he can have under rational restriction? Or again: this young man has many a charm; sometimes he is all that one could desire him to be so courteous, considerate, and obliging; only he is a little self-sufficient; he never feels himself unequal to the occasion; he always stands to the front; Nulli cedo is his motto. What will become of him? We wonder. We do not reply. Or we say: this man is intelligent, companionable, right pleasant altogether, but "rather close." What do you mean by that? Rather pinching, penurious; rather covetous; he is not a miser, but he spends so much time in calculating what this or that will cost him. Which shall triumph? Where there is intelligence and covetousness be assured the covetousness will quench the lamp of intelligence, or only use it to explore regions in which covetousness can improve its own wealth. We have watched these features of character develop themselves in young lives; and it has been a pitiful spectacle to see the good go down and the bad go up, so that he who began life with being "rather close;" ended life as ungenerous and utterly selfish. A sad thing to see any young man "rather close!" We have no good opinion of him. Self-consideration, self-calculation, self-protection in a young soul seems like a plant out of its proper soil. Yet we dare not say too much lest others should take licence and become fools. The question is, which side of our character is to come uppermost at the last? What are we to be when we are old? See an old kind man, an old good man, an old chivalrous man, why, these are contradictions in terms: "kind" is never old, "chivalry" is never decrepit, generosity is always young. Heaven, as we have said before, is eternal youthfulness. Let us take heed and beware and watch from the morning until the evening, and from the evening until the morning, for the enemy slumbers not: it is when men sleep that he sows tares. The living God help us!
Almighty God, judgment is thy strange work: mercy is thy peculiar delight: God is love. Behold, thou hast set wide open a door into which the prodigal may enter. Thou dost wait to be gracious: thy longsuffering and thy tender mercy what imagination can conceive, or what tongue can adequately set forth? We need thee every day, at every moment of every day, for our hearts have gone astray from righteousness and our thoughts are far from heaven. We bless thee for sweet gospel truths, great messages of love, the very music of God's own heart; these come to us from heavenly places, and breathe themselves into our heart's hearing when that heart is most self-despairing. We thank thee for a music not of earth the music of pardon through the cross, of forgiveness through the blood of the lamb, a mystery which is far beyond all other wonders, not to be known by men, or explained by them, but to be felt in all its graciousness and rest. We have done the things we ought not to have done, but thou canst magnify the law, thou canst be just and yet the justifier of the ungodly, who can tell the resources of thy grace? Who can lay a line upon the love of God and say, This is the measure thereof? Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. Thou dost forgive our iniquities, thou dost restore our souls, thou dost bring back that which is lost, and there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over every penitent sinner. We thank thee for words of this kind so high in quality, so tender in tone, so precious in all their suggestiveness. We hail them with welcome. This truly is the voice of God; this surely is the message of our Father. Give us to feel that where grace abounds our sin must not abound: because God is merciful, shall we go on to sin? God forbid! May we rather be ashamed of our sin, turn away from it, and flee away fast, lest the enemy should turn upon us and overtake our life. We bless thee for our conscience, the monitor within, the voice that speaks to us of law, righteousness, honour, and truth: this is as the presence of God in the soul; this is the very light of heaven; this is the counsel of eternity. May we cultivate our conscience; may it be pricking, sharp, full of rebuke and judgment; and thus may it also be gifted with the power of commending us and encouraging us in all the ways of virtue. Thou knowest how little we are, and poor, and altogether unworthy; we have lost our heritage, we have no more foothold in thy creation: we are fallen. We come to thee as such as apostates, as criminals who might have loved and obeyed God, but have not done so. God be merciful unto us sinners: the Lord be very merciful unto us even to tenderness, for we cannot stand before thee when thou dost look upon us in the light of the law. O that we had hearkened unto thy voice, and walked in the way of thy commandments: then had our righteousness flowed like a river or as the waves of the sea; but let the time past more than suffice, let God be gracious unto his servants and give them further opportunity. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Kings 3". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19