Sermon preached on 1 Kings 3:16-28 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/21/2019 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Kings 3:16-28
The Wisdom of God was in Him to Administer Justice
In some of our nation’s recent political matters, we’ve been reminded that personal testimony is not always synonymous with truth. Someone’s testimony might be true, but it might not be. We could hear testimony that is very believable, very plausible – we could imagine it being true – but it might not actually be true. A person could present credible testimony and be lying or even just mistaken. Of course, sometimes a person giving testimony might be completely truthful and right, but just not be able to prove the truth of their testimony. These are the kinds of issues humans struggle with when it comes to justice. And we see in today’s passage, there is nothing new under the sun. Such struggles of justice have been present through the ages. Let us consider such as we dig into today’s passage.
So then, in our first point, let’s appreciate the context for this legal dispute in today’s passage. Let’s appreciate the context by beginning with some pity. There is so much to pity here in this case. First, let us pity a mother losing their newborn child in their sleep. Too many of us probably know someone who lost a newborn in their sleep, and I grieve over the very thought. Second, let us pity such a mother, who filled with such pain, such envy and covetousness, such bitterness, would be driven toward sin and hatred of their neighbors. That such a broken woman would so sin against their neighbor so as to first try to take their child, but then be willing to have that same child sliced in two rather than admit their sin. How pitiable this is, even while we are disgusted by it.
Lastly, let us pity these two women as harlots. It could be easy to miss that point in the opening verse. Verse 16 is the only reference to their “profession” as harlots. But let us pity these two women who served in such an awful profession. Women might become harlots for different reasons back then. It could be out of some form of destitution – for example they become a young widow through tragedy and then turn to such a life out of desperation. Or it could be through some evil imposed upon them – sadly sometimes fathers would sell their daughters into that life; or sometimes young daughters would be unwanted and then abandoned – only to be picked up by some pimp to enslave them in this lifestyle. Of course, there are certainly women who freely choose such a sinful lifestyle. But however they got there, surely we can and should pity them in such a deplorable position.
Surely another reason to have some pity for these harlots is when we remember that it’s this same word in Scripture repeatedly used metaphorically to describe God’s wayward people. God’s people too often have “played the harlot” with false gods and false religions. In other words, too often God’s people have forsaken their God in idolatry. That temptation and tendency in God’s people should give us pause today. Even if we personally have not fell into such spiritual harlotry, we should all fear our own tendency and temptations toward infidelity towards God. We are sheep prone to wander. We all too easily tend toward idols of the heart. So, yes, we can and should speak against all forms of harlotry, literal and metaphorical. It is sin and wrong. But some pity toward these harlots might remember our own struggles with sin and righteousness.
As we mention the idea of pity toward harlots, we should recognize that so often that is not what they found in society. Harlots in general back then would have been greatly looked down upon; they would have been a despised and often lowly class of people. So, don’t miss the fact that Solomon gives justice here to harlots. As we read the prophets, we see that later in Israel’s history justice became greatly perverted in Israel. The prophets routinely spoke then against the judicial system in Israel, that the rich and powerful bribed judges at the expense of the poor and lowly in society. But here Solomon hears this case even among harlots. He’s no respecter of persons when it comes to administering justice.
So then, let’s turn now in our second point to see the limitations of human justice exposed in this judicial case. In short, humans aren’t omniscient. We have to rely on evidence and human testimony to determine a matter. Even when a judge genuinely wants to administer justice as described in the law, he still may fall short in being able to deliver that. Deuteronomy 19 was one helpful passage in the law to inform Israel’s judges. It speaks of the need for multiple witnesses. Deuteronomy 19:15, “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.” Deuteronomy goes on then to describe the evil of false witnesses and how they should be punished if they are found to be false witnesses after a careful examination by the judge. But that’s the issue here. Sometimes there’s not enough evidence, not enough witnesses to confirm a matter. This is where the language of the so-called “perfect crime” comes from. It’s the idea of someone committing a crime and getting away with it because the criminal has so arranged things that there is not sufficient evidence to prove his guilt. If human judges were omniscient – if they had all knowledge – then there could be no perfect crime. A judge who knew all things couldn’t be lied to, and frankly wouldn’t even need any eyewitness testimony. He would just know what happened and could administer justice according to the law. But humans aren’t omniscient, and so we need to carefully weight the evidence and all the available testimony.
This is what’s going on here with Solomon’s case. The first woman recounts a very plausible story of how the second woman accidently smothered her own child and then switched babies at night with her. But the problem is that the second woman completely denies this charge and is saying the exact opposite. It becomes a she-said, she-said, sort of thing. The first woman’s testimony in verse 18 clearly shows this issue. There, she says that it was only her and the other woman in the house. There was no one else. Thus, there were no other witnesses either. It was just one witness’ testimony against the other. After both sides give their individual testimony, the text presents a sort of back and forth here. It’s like a tug of war. The first woman says one thing, the second says the opposite. Solomon expresses this too. The text’s use of contrasting repetition brings out this tug of war between the two women. “No! the living one is my son, the dead one is your son. No! But the dead one is your son, and the living one is my son.”
If you are the judge, what do you do with this? This is the limitation in the system. Too often in the name of justice, we have to allow injustice. If we don’t have enough evidence to convict someone of the crime, then we can’t justly punish the person. But if the person is actually guilty, then our justice allows an injustice. It’s been long held that is better to let ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer, but we should still admit that means ten injustices happen. Yet, with the limitations of human knowledge, sometimes that is all that we can do. This limitation of humans trying to administer justice is exposed in Solomon’s hearing here. Solomon himself acknowledges the limitation when in verse 23 he parrots the conflicting testimony.
This leads us then to our third point to see Solomon’s wise verdict in this case. Faced with the lack of evidence, Solomon uses wisdom to derive additional evidence from them. With his declaring the child’s division, he’s able to discern who the real mother is by their very different responses. The real mother loves her son and would rather give him up than see him put to death. The mother of the deceased is so full of envy and hatred that she consents to the child’s death. Thus, Solomon’s wisdom unveiled this additional evidence which clearly showed the real mother. The result is that the boy’s life is spared and the real mother is reunited with her son. Given Deuteronomy 19’s teaching that false witnesses should be punished, we are left to wonder what, if anything, Solomon did to this woman who gave the false testimony here.
Notice then the result Solomon’s verdict had on the nation. Verse 28, word spread about this case throughout the nation. Notice its effect. The people feared King Solomon. Modern translations often express this in the sense of the people holding King Solomon in great awe for achieving such a wise verdict. Surely that is true, that they were greatly impressed and held Solomon in high regard and honor after this. But this language of “fear” is most often used in Scripture like this to express the submissive attitude we should have toward authorities. We should have a healthy sense of fear that such authorities are in charge and they can hold us accountable for our evil actions. Like it says in Romans 13 about earthly rulers – that if we do evil we should be afraid because such rulers don’t bear the sword in vain. In fact, as I’ve been referencing Deuteronomy 19 for its teaching on administering justice among Israel, that’s exactly how that passage ends. It says in Deut 19:20 that if justice is administered properly, that the people will “hear and fear” of the judgment and thereafter not commit again such an evil. In other words, such proper administering of justice should have a preventive effect on the people if they know the king will hold them accountable for evil.
And so, this is what goes on here. But to be clear, the ultimate point about the hearing and fearing is recognize the wisdom of God in this. Verse 28 says that the people saw that the wisdom of God was in Solomon to administer justice. This again goes both ways. That’s for the righteous people to celebrate, to know that they will receive justice when needed. They could especially be encouraged that if even the least among Israel could seek and find justice, then it would be available to all. But this was also a warning to all who would commit crimes. With Solomon having the wisdom of God at his disposal, there will be much less likelihood of that so-called “perfect crime”. Having such wisdom begins to address that innate human limitation when it comes to omniscience.
But of course, to recognize the wisdom of God here in verse 28 is ultimately to praise and credit God in this judicial case. It would obviously be wrong to walk away from this passage and put the praise chiefly in Solomon. Verse 28 rightly recognizes Solomon’s amazing verdict here is because God gave him the wisdom to do this. That should give reason for everyone in Israel to rejoice and praise God. To God be the glory! But it should especially be reason for Solomon to do so. Because in the context of this chapter, we see that this event signaled the fulfillment of God’s promise to Solomon. This judicial case is demonstration that Solomon had received the specific gift from God that he had asked for earlier in this chapter. Thus, Solomon ought to praise and thank God for such a gift!
Solomon’s grand display of God’s wisdom here in administering justice points us forward to King Jesus’ greater expression of this. You see, as we go on to study about King Solomon, we’ll see two relevant weaknesses with Solomon that Jesus doesn’t have. First, he himself will later struggle in his fidelity to God – he’ll need God to administer righteousness in his own life. In fact, God will bring such a judgment upon him when he declares that he will take most of the kingdom away from him son Rehoboam for a punishment for Solomon’s idolatry. And so, God’s people needed a king who wasn’t subject to falling to evil himself – who will administer justice to keep the king accountable? And a second relevant issue for Solomon was that he would die. He was mortal, and he would die, and that means someone else would be responsible for administering justice after him. And as I mentioned earlier, Solomon’s successors too often failed in this regard. Too often these successors led a nation that perverted justice. We know this because it’s a repeated message that the prophets would condemn in Israel and Judah. The prophet Amos would decry how they turned justice into wormwood. Isaiah 59 would describe how justice was turned back since truth had fallen in the streets. Ezekiel 45 would speak of how the princes tolerated dishonest scales in the land so that people could cheat one another. Micah would speak against how judges would take bribes. I could go on with quote after quote after quote among the prophets on this. This would become such a major problem in Israel’s history.
So, yes, it was great that in Solomon’s day they had a king with the wisdom of God to administer justice in the land. But that was a need not just for that generation. And so, God’s people would need a king who would administer justice faithfully and forever, with such wisdom of God. Well, that is exactly what the prophets foretold would one day come in the Messiah. Isaiah 11:1-5 is a central example of this. There, it prophesies of how the Davidic Messiah would one day come who would have God’s Spirit upon him to give him wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. It speaks of how the Messiah would thus judge with righteousness and equity, even for the poor and meek of the earth, wearing a belt of truth.
Jesus, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, is this promised Messiah from Isaiah 11. What Solomon represents here in 1 Kings is what God’s people would need in a more enduring and perfect way than what they got with Solomon. This, God promised and has begun to come about in Jesus.
I say this has begun to come about because we see that there are ways in which Jesus has begun to bring judgment to this world, and ways in which he has shown patience in the final administration of his justice. His patience is to give opportunity for the world to repent of its sin and find mercy and grace through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Yet, not all his work of administering judgment and justice has been reserved for the end. Every time the words of Christ are read and declared, they are in service to justice and righteousness. Jesus also said in John 16:8 that by ascending into heaven, the Spirit that he will send into this world will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and of judgment. When the church properly acts in church discipline to settle disputes and administer justice among its members, Jesus said in Matthew 18 that he is in the midst of such decisions – that’s the justice of Christ at work. These are just a few examples of how Christ as King has already begun to administer justice. But at the end, Jesus will serve as judge over all. As it says in John 5:22, the Father has committed all judgment to the Son and that there will come a day at the end of this age when all will rise and come forth from the grave — those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. Jesus says this will happen upon his judgment of all the world at the end of this age.
So then, my closing application in light of this is to fear the King! Fear King Jesus. In general, it should be good news that Jesus as Messiah is the king the world has needed – one who will administer justice for all. He will administer it righteously, perfectly, with all wisdom and knowledge, and according to God’s good laws. All our human limitations for justice are done away with in King Jesus. His judgment will usher in a perfect and enduring justice for humanity. So, yes, in general, this is a wonderful thing and should result in our reverence and awe and praise for King Jesus.
But there should indeed be a fear for this King. On our own account, his righteous judgment would come against us. If we truly reckon with the holiness of God’s laws against our own lifelong record of sins, we should acknowledge that we deserve a judgment of eternal condemnation. Sadly, too often, humans don’t want to own up to this. When humans think of the brokenness in the judicial system, we typically think of how others got away with a crime or how we didn’t get justice when we thought we deserved it. Humans tend to not think of our own guilt. We’d rather excuse or minimize our own guilt. Yet, it’s at the heart of Christianity to acknowledge our sin and guilt before an all holy God and how that deserves the eternal death and judgment of hell. That, on its own, should give a call to fear the King, King Jesus.
Yet it’s then that we remember the mercy and compassion of Jesus. He, the only righteous, sinless human, the only one deserving to live, allowed himself to be struck to death and endure the justice of God’s wrath. He did this so that we deserving death, who were spiritually dead, could receive new life, eternal life, life from above. This then is the offer held out in the name of Christ – an offer of our heavenly father’s great pity and compassion toward us weak and lowly people. That whoever repents of their sins and puts their trust in Christ will be saved!
So then may we each fear Christ the King and be driven toward his grace and mercy, so you will no longer need to fear his judgment. If you have turned and put your trust in Jesus for salvation, then be renewed again today in his mercy. In Christ, your sins have been forgiven. Your judgment has been pardoned. If your sins are covered by Christ, you don’t need to fear his judgment.
One final application then. I mentioned how in that Isaiah prophecy about Jesus it spoke of how the Messiah’s judgment would make use of a belt of truth. You would be right to remember how in Ephesians 6 we are told that we have his belt of truth at our disposal too. Let us make use of that belt of truth as we look to speak forth the justice and righteousness of Christ – both to those inside the church and outside. Let us seek to administer Christ’s justice with such truth, especially as we point people to the gospel.
Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.