A reflection on 1 Kings 3:5-15
What do a king, a friar, and a flower have to do with each other? The question sounds like a very strange riddle. I unexpectedly discovered the answer while rereading 1 Kings 3:5-15, coming upon a sequence of thoughts that initially seemed both familiar and sobering, but ended on a fresh and deeply joyful note.
Many readers probably know the story. In this chapter, the young King Solomon finds himself in a situation that few men could handle: God visits him in a dream and says, “Ask what I shall give you.” Avoiding the many temptations one might see in this offer, Solomon thinks first of his responsibility as king, and asks for wisdom to be able to govern well. God is so pleased that He not only gives the young monarch the greatest wisdom on earth, but promises him wealth and prosperity “so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days.”
Reading this, I remembered another man, thousands of years later, to whom the Lord is said to have made much the same offer: St. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval master of all things pertaining to theology or philosophy. In that case, the implicit “flattery” was even greater, since the offer was made as a reward: “Thou hast written well of Me, Thomas. What wouldst thou have of Me?” Or something like that. The friar, not having the temporal cares of Solomon, replied simply, “Only Thee, Lord.” No further detail on that story seems to have been given, which I’ve always taken to mean that there’s nothing more to be said. What better answer could anyone give? What greater good could one seek?
In fact, the comparisons and contrasts between the two men are extensive and striking. Both received offers from God of anything they might wish, and both responded excellently. Both were without peer among their kind of men in their time. Both have gone down in history as among the wisest men who ever lived. Yet the two made very different endings. Thomas remained faithful and holy for all not-quite-fifty years of his life, thus becoming a saint as well as a scholar. Solomon, on the other hand, took pagan wives and joined them in idolatry, betraying the One Who had been so gracious to him. God spared him for the sake of his upright father David; but after Solomon’s death, Israel split in two, rapidly declined, and never again knew peace or comparable prosperity. The former wonder-king died knowing what would happen, having again heard God speak.
What went wrong? Solomon began so well. He wanted to be a faithful and righteous king like his father; and for a time, he was. He did rule wisely and well, so much so that word of his wisdom made the queen of Sheba, in southwestern Arabia, curious enough to come and see for herself. He also continued in piety for some time, as evidenced by his construction of the Temple and solemn prayer thereafter. So what was his “fatal flaw,” as one might say in literature class?
The relevant Scriptural passage explains that the influence of the pagan harem led Solomon into idolatry: “his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kings 11:3). Had he had only one wife, or even a few, romantic passion would seem to have overcome his prodigious powers of reason. But the same chapter tells us that his wives numbered seven hundred and his concubines three hundred. He may have found them all attractive at some point, but he could hardly have had deep relationships with all of them. Certainly, spending time with so many heathen princesses meant exposing himself to bad influence. But why did he have them there in the first place? By marrying them, he was already breaking God’s injunction against marriages with pagans.
1 Kings doesn’t tell us exactly what went on in Solomon’s soul. Did the most gifted king in Israel’s history have a terrible streak of lust, which grew into an insatiable craving for one wife after another? Possibly. My guess, however, is that the years of boundless wealth and uncontested honor simply turned his head. The fatal whisper in Eve’s ears, “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:5), has never ceased to echo in her children’s ears, especially when no voice around them counters it. I suspect that Solomon, overwhelmed with his own greatness, forgot to Whom he owed it all and let himself act as the god of his own little world, doing whatever was easiest for him thereafter. That was his downfall.
Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, never lost sight of his happy debt to and dependence on his Lord. Admittedly he never had such power or wealth to tempt him as did Solomon (though, as a nobleman’s son, he might have). Still, a subtle spiritual pride in one’s virtues or achievements can easily creep into religious life, especially when the religious is writing as many treatises as St. Thomas. He might easily have become proud of being one of the premier theological thinkers of his time.
That he did not is evident in this story itself: it happened, not early in his life as in Solomon’s case, but well into his career. Given a choice of anything he wanted, a man absorbed with his own greatness would have made a self-centered request. G. K. Chesterton, in his biography of Thomas Aquinas, remarks about this episode, “He might have asked for things that he really wanted . . . for the solution of an old difficulty; or the secret of a new science; or a flash of the inconceivable intuitive mind of the angels; or any one of a thousand things that would really have satisfied his broad and virile appetite for the very vastness and variety of the universe.” Not that asking for any of these would necessarily have been wrong; these things are all good in themselves, and could be used for good. The point, rather, is that Thomas might have taken the opportunity to increase his own brilliance, knowledge, or prestige, or to exult in having had some special experience. Instead, thinking only of the great Love at the center of his life, he replied that he wanted God Himself.
Whether or not this particular story happened exactly this way—though I, for one, see no reason to doubt it—St. Thomas’ lifelong humility is well attested in any case. Elsewhere in the same book, Chesterton remarks, “There is not a single occasion on which he indulged in a sneer . . . he was never an intellectual snob. He never troubled at all whether those to whom he talked were more or less of the sort whom the world thinks worth talking to; and it was apparent by the impression of his contemporaries that those who received the ordinary scraps of his wit or wisdom were quite as likely to be nobodies as somebodies, or even quite as likely to be noodles as clever people.”
Those seeking more specific anecdotal evidence may look to the incident near the end of his life, after an especially powerful mystical experience, when he declared, “I can write no more. I have seen things that make all my writings like straw.” Thus he spent his last days, living only for, and looking forward to, those things beside which his magnificent works seemed like straw. Because this love kept his heart clear of self-love, Thomas Aquinas became a great saint and remains one of the Church’s go-to theological sources today, often called the “Angel of the Schools.”
Until now this has been a rather somber reflection; but I promised that it would be a joyful one. How is it so? Both Solomon and St. Thomas received a noble mission and abundant gifts. God wanted to raise both of these men to true greatness, such that they would sanctify their own souls and do marvels for others. Solomon failed to complete his mission—quite possibly because he became intoxicated with his own success, certainly because he placed himself ahead of his Lord—whereas St. Thomas fulfilled his because he kept his heart fixed on God. In both cases, though, God intended His servants for greatness, to make them into their “best selves.” All He required of them in return was humble fidelity, a heart where He had no competition. This sounds at first like an arbitrary bargain, but is, in fact, simple spiritual logic: God will not transform us against our wills; and if our hearts are filled with ourselves and attached to our own wishes, we are not open to the good that He would do in us.
Very few of us are as strikingly gifted as Solomon or St. Thomas. Each person, however, has a particular call from God and talents with which to answer it. Answering this call always involves doing something great, in one way or another. Each person, too, can become something much more than he could on his own—a sort of ideal version of himself, the fulfillment to which he was always meant to come, to which God wants to raise him. This is what C. S. Lewis means when he says in Mere Christianity, “If we let Him . . . He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness.” If we are faithful, this is consummated in Heaven, but we begin to grow into it in this life by responding to His grace.
The paradox, of course, is that those who seek greatness on their own terms, or believe that they already have it, will never achieve the reality. Lewis discusses this too in Mere Christianity, near the end. “The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether,” he explains. “Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” Human beings naturally aspire to glory and want to obtain it for themselves. We have our own ideas about the things we want to accomplish and what we want to become—not necessarily bad ideas, but too often bound up with pride, especially if we become attached to them. Christian faith tells us to forget about ourselves and seek only God—but promises, too, that if we do so, our true greatness will follow.
This may explain why our faith seems so rigorous in its demands and at the same time tells us to rejoice. We do need to give up these urges that run so deep in us, like this urge to pursue glory on our own; and then we find that the generous God to Whom we have given ourselves gives us everything, and better than we could have hoped to make it; yet we must not be thinking of that or seeking it, for if we are, we have not really cleaned out our hearts.
Our disposition should be simply one of love and trust—love of God in His unspeakable goodness and trust that when we give everything over to Him, He will look after everything for us. After all, He does the same for the lilies of the field. They do only what He made them to do, blooming between the earth and sun; they never make the least effort on their own behalf. Yet “even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6:29). The most magnificent of earthly kings could not conjure up as much beauty as God lavishes on a mere plant.
And He intends something much more for us than He does for the lilies, something that involves both a great obligation on our part and a great gift to us. He wants us to join Him in His world, His life—to share with us His perfect glory and goodness and joy. If we only consent to empty out our own pride and desires connected with it, He will fill us with Himself, Who alone is all goodness; and we will find that we have gained everything else with Him.