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Vey Iz Mir!
August 17, 2003 •
1 Kings 3:3-14
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to IKN3 and follow along as I read verses 3-14. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
3 Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.
4 The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.
5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, "Ask what I should give you."
6 And Solomon said, "You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, 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 today.
7 And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.
8 And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.
9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?"
10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.
11 God said to him, "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right,
12 I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.
13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you.
14 If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life."
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Einstein, Albert Einstein, E=MC˛--his name is synonymous with intelligence. People do not say, “You don’t have to be an Edison to figure it out.” People do not say, “You don’t have to be a Bill Gates to figure it out.” Or, “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, and a mastery of the photoelectric effect, which last earned him the Nobel Prize in physics.
Over the past nine months, there has been a groundbreaking exhibit in New York about this great scientific genius. Now it is true that the ramifications of Albert Einstein’s thought are very complex, but the exhibit emphasizes that at least some aspects of his thought are not too difficult for mere mortals to master.
Walk through the door of this exhibit, and you are immediately greeted with a view of yourself as seen through a black hole. It is 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, and after the blackout this week, I imagine that they are none to happy about that.
Most amazing of all is what Albert Einstein managed to accomplish in a single year. In 1905, at the age of 26, he published not one but 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, which describes 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. In some ways, 1905 was the most significant year in the 20th Century. By the way, that offers a great trivia question. Ask our friends why 1905 was the most significant year in the 20th Century. When they are totally stumped, you can tell them about Einstein. They will be impressed, or maybe not.
Unfortunately, Einstein’s work in 1905 also laid the groundwork for the atomic bomb. When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Einstein’s immediate response was in Yiddish, the language he learned at his mother’s knee. “Vey iz mir,” he moaned. “Woe is me.”
Einstein was one of the smartest human beings in history, and yet he ended his career feeling that his creations had slipped beyond his control. Einstein was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. But when the bombs killed hundreds of thousands of people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he was distraught. 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 are in is of our own making, when the plans we have devised implode under the weight of their own foolishness, when we think we are acting judiciously and prudently, but the outcome is the opposite of what we intended. 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 such experiments also destroy those embryos. 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.
Here is the point: 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 that royal power can be used both for good and for evil — something his father demonstrated throughout the roller-coaster ride of his long, forty-year reign — and so Solomon hopes his administration can be a kinder, gentler 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).
Wow!!! Have you ever thought about what you would have answered had God asked that of you. What do you want? Long life, lots of money, lots of gadgets, power, fame. It is almost as if God put a birthday cake loaded with burning candles in front of Solomon and said blow out all the candles and make a wish—with this addition, you can be absolutely certain that whatever you wish for, you will get.
What would you have wished for?
Solomon sets us an example in that he looks beyond his own selfish needs and wants and desires. He does not say, “Oh, Lord, let me win the lottery.” In v9, he asks 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 help other people.
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, in addition, gives him other benefits that he has not 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, if that is what God wants for us, then obviously that is what we should want for ourselves. You might ask then, what exactly is an understanding mind that enables us to discern between good and evil? It is a godly mind, a mind focused on God. It is not a mind that understands God—for God is beyond our understanding—but it is a mind that is aware of God.
We account John Calvin as the founder of all those churches that are Presbyterian and Reformed. Calvin’s best-known work was The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Written in 1535, some Christian scholars call it the greatest book outside the Bible. Certainly, it is one of a short list of books that have notably effected the course of human history and have molded the beliefs and behavior of generations of humankind.
Calvin begins The Institutes of the Christian Religion where Solomon begins—with knowledge and understanding. The first sentence of the book says: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consist of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (I,1,1) In other words, he says there are two kinds of wisdom: Godly wisdom and human wisdom. But then Calvin adds, “No one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God in whom he “lives and moves” (Acts 17:28) (I,1,1). If we think about ourselves, we are led to think about how we came to be here, how we came to be what we are, and why we are here, and where we are going. Thus, we are led to think about God. Even our lack leads us to God. When we see what we do not have and what we cannot do, that also turns us to God. Calvin says, “thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and—what is more—depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone” (1,1).
An understanding mind then Calvin would say, and rightly so, is a mind that recognizes that we need God. Without God, we are the most wretched form of life on this planet. We are more brutish than the brutes. With God in our lives, we are higher than the angels.
God is part of our lives, the most important part. Almighty eternal God is not merely to be conceived as the author and ruler of the universe; rather God is my God, my creator, my redeemer. God’s resources answer my needs. When we examining ourselves consider our own abilities, we must gratefully attribute them to the bounty of God, when we realize our own depravity, we cast our selves on the redeeming grace of God. That is what it means to have an understanding mind.
This understanding, this awareness, involves more than the intellect. It involves mind, heart, and soul. To know God is not some sort of intellectual exercise. We are not talking here about abstract theology. We are not saying that we should all sit down and think about various doctrines of the everlasting God Rather this is an awareness that penetrates our hearts and minds and souls and motivates our words and deeds.
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 our knowledge 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 who is the real mother 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 God’s 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. In the Bible, God has told us what we ought to think about those things. Our part is to obey God.
When we walk with God, we replace the human tendency to “Just say ‘no’” with the spirit-led impulse to say, “whatever you want Lord.” Thy will be done, not mine.
Finally, wisdom always wears the cloak of love. 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.
To return to John Calvin, he defined true wisdom as piety. And he said that piety is “that reverence joined with the love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces” (Inst. 1,2, 1). Piety, calvin says, is an awe of God combined with a love of God. When we know what God has done for us, we love him, and at the same time we are in awe of him. How could we not be in awe of a God who created the universe? How could we not love a God who sent his Son to die for us? This love and awe combine to produce in us and understanding mind.
And loving God implies that we will love one another. Jesus said the two go together, love of God and love of neighbor. This is the way and understanding mind thinks. 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, “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.”
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. Amen.
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.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 01/22/04