Solomon and the Moms, I Kings 3:16-28 -A Mother’s Day sermon by Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
We’ve been studying the wisdom of King Solomon from the Book of Ecclesiastes. He asked God for wisdom to rule Israel. He wrote wisdom literature. Now let’s see his wisdom in action!
The two mothers who come before the king are of questionable character. Because of their social status and poverty, they have no one to act as an advocate to plead their case. A few Hebrew scholars think the term “prostitutes” (zonot) could be rendered “innkeepers,” but most say these were women of ill repute. You’d think that the rights of women from the more sordid fringe of society wouldn’t be granted a hearing. They wouldn’t be given the time of day, let alone a royal audience. Nonetheless, Solomon shows that he cares for the lowliest of his people. He defends the poor, the outcast, the disadvantaged. He believes that all should have access to justice. By their profession, these two were violating God’s law, yet Solomon knew God still loved them.
These poor women are to be pitied. Have you ever spoken to a prostitute? I have. While serving with the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea, I occasionally patrolled the clubs the GIs would frequent in the village outside of the camp with our Charlie Company Commander. One night as we were checking up on the troops, a “hostess” explained to me that poverty led her to sell herself. Her dream in life was to be a schoolteacher. With tears she said, “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.” I encouraged her to return home, like the Prodigal Son. We can easily condemn, but we can also pity such women.
Israel’s kings were sometimes called on to resolve particularly thorny cases. They were known to grant periods of public access to arbitrate disputes by royal edict. What we see here is reminiscent of the many popular “people’s court” shows on TV. In this case it’s not Judge Judy but the King of Israel who sits in decision. Solomon’s willingness to hear their case shows his concern for matters touching the lives of his people. Leaders are consumed by national interests, but occasionally they get involved with more personal, everyday matters. The two women appeal to Solomon for justice.
Liberal thinkers claim this is a fable, yet it was common for ancient kings to maintain records of exceptional legal decisions, to affirm how they ruled fairly and justly.
Solomon is presented with a complicated legal dilemma, a seemingly unsolvable dispute. Two women have newborn babies; they probably don’t know who the fathers are. One mother carelessly smothered her child in the night, and then switched the babies while the other mother slept. Now both are claiming the living child as their own. There are no witnesses, and no CSI Jerusalem to run DNA tests. Solomon prayed for wisdom, in verse 9: “Give your servant a discerning heart to govern Your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” He hoped to carry on the legacy of his father David. God granted him wisdom enough to know which is the true mother without hard evidence. In Proverbs 8:15 Wisdom states: “By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just.” Wisdom is a very real and practical sense of what to do, how to do it, and why it must be done. Knowledge alone isn’t enough. We all know people who have book knowledge but lack common sense. We could surround ourselves with “the best and the brightest” but there’s no guarantee we’d make wise decisions. Solomon produces his own evidence, the evidence of the heart. In so doing, he reveals the compassion of the true mother and the callousness of the false. It’s been said, “You must live with people in order to know their problems; you must live with God in order to solve them.”
Solomon devises a severe scheme to draw out the truth. He calls for a sword, then confronts the two mothers with a test; and in order for it to work, they must think he is deadly serious. “The choice now is between the claim of motherhood and the claim of life itself” (DeVries). Solomon is confident that the true mother will show maternal emotions; that she will care about the welfare of her child and want to keep him alive at all costs. Solomon knew he could count on the self-sacrificing love of the true mother. Her concern for the safety of her child would surface and identify her. Simply “having” a child doesn’t make one a real mother, any more than having a piano makes one a musician (Sydney Harris). The false mother can do nothing but hate, and comes up empty in the end.
Dave Berry wrote a funny piece about his hectic visit to Disney World. He said the line at Space Mountain was so long that those near the front were from the Cro-Magnon period! A family was vacationing at Disney World on a typically crowded day; it seemed like wall-to-wall people. The mother got her children together and told them, “If any of you somehow get separated from us, go find a mother pushing a stroller and ask for help.” The reason? There’s safety in a mother’s love.
Solomon’s words pierce the heart of the true mother, revealing her compassion. The Hebrew word for compassion (rachamim) is connected with motherhood. The word describes an experience of wounding pain in one’s womb, implying a motherly concern for the hurts of others; what we might today call a “gut feeling.” But compassion is more than emotion. Compassion begins with human distress and results in action taken to alleviate the pain, even personal sacrifice if necessary. Verse 26 reads literally, “her compassion grew warm.” The real mother was willing to lose her child in order to let it live. True motherhood cares more about the welfare of one’s child than mere justice. Compassionate people like Solomon readily recognize compassion within others of like heart.
Compassion is also “the capacity that senses that there can be no peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy for you too” (Frederick Buechner). Do we have compassion? Or do we see the hurts of others from a detached, dispassionate attitude? Social activist minister Tony Campolo was speaking to a large evangelical gathering about world hunger. He stated bluntly: “Thousands of children died last week from starvation and malnutrition, and a lot of Christians just don’t give a damn.” He paused for a moment, then said this: “Right now some of you are more upset that I said ‘damn’ than the fact that a thousand kids died of hunger.”
In I Kings, the dishonest mother is willing to take her “half”. She regards Solomon’s solution as fair: “Either I get my way or neither of us do.” Envy is not simply wanting what someone else has; it’s also wanting them to not have it. In so doing, her cruelty is uncovered along with her deceit. Her heartless response reveals her true colors. Why would this false mother even want this child? We could presume to replace the child that died, or perhaps to have someone to later take care of her, for security…or to sell the child.
Would Solomon have gone through with the killing of the baby? If the true mother had not cried out, the child would have likely been given to neither, but handed over to a foster family to raise. Both mothers would then lose. But happily this is not the case, and the true mother is reunited with her child.
Solomon’s wise decision reverberates throughout the land, filling his subjects with awe and deep respect. God’s approval of the king appears evident. Such wisdom can only come from Above. When the people learned what the king did for two of his more despised subjects, they saw how he truly must care about all Israel. People don’t care what you know till they know that you care. They knew their king was a man of discernment and compassion.
When we feel abused, cheated or mistreated, “One greater than Solomon” pleads our case (Matthew 12:42). When life seems unfair, we have an Advocate, a Mediator—the Lord Jesus. Moreover, Jesus is appointed the Judge of all the earth (John 5:27). We trust His wisdom and compassion.