God did the Jews a huge favor early on in their history: He made them losers. Losers in the sense that, when it came to coming out on top in the whole “top dog in the geopolitical department” thing, Israel was never particularly notable. The nation had a brief Golden Age under David and Solomon, where it achieved a dominion the size of Maine. Then it got ripped in two by civil war and spent the next thousand years as a minor player squeezed between various Big Cheeses like the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, getting kicked around.
The danger of riches and power is that they afford clever people the leisure to make themselves stupid — a fact borne out by watching the foibles of the Beautiful People and the Best and Brightest in the news every day. Thinking, after all, is hard. Many people would rather just be comfy in a great cushion of wealth and power than trouble themselves with deep thought.
Ancient Oriental potentates were no different. The obvious goals the world throws up to us who are involved in the rat race were equally obvious to ancient kings. Only they actually were within hailing distance of achieving those goals. Gold, guns and girls could be had for a song if you happened to be an ancient king, since that was more or less what the gig was popularly conceived to be. So the ancient Near East was chockablock with monuments kings erected to themselves, bragging about slaying enemies, amassing riches, and having phalanxes of wives and concubines upon whom they could prove their manliness. One of these kings, later in life, was Solomon. He did all this and is remembered by Israel as a tragic figure precisely because he started out with such promise before the high life turned his head.
What promise? It’s all summed up in the story of God appearing to Solomon in a dream and telling him to ask for whatever he liked. And the astonishing thing is: Young Solomon asked for wisdom and knowledge. Even God sounds surprised and impressed:
God then replied to Solomon: “Since this has been your wish and you have not asked for riches, treasures and glory, nor for the life of those who hate you, nor even for a long life for yourself, but have asked for wisdom and knowledge in order to rule my people over whom I have made you king, wisdom and knowledge are given you; but I will also give you riches, treasures and glory, such as kings before you never had, nor will those have them who come after you” (2 Chronicles 1:11-12).
If only Solomon had remained as faithful to God as God was to him. But instead, he eventually caved and went for gold, guns and girls after all — leading to disaster for the nation. But Israel would always look back on his reign as the great Might Have Been, presaging the disaster that was to end in captivity in Babylon centuries later.
Through that torment and the memory of Solomon’s wise wish, God revealed something: It’s not all about power. Any barbarian can devote himself to the pursuit of possessions, wealth, vengeance, sex and long life. Fools do it every day. But the truth is, Love is what life is about.
And one crucial step toward figuring that out is to do what Solomon did: Ask for knowledge instead of power.
Other steps follow, of course. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That’s why confirmation bestows the gift of knowledge — so that we can imitate Solomon’s wisdom and avoid his folly.
Mark Shea is content editor of