One of the Bible’s ugliest stories is also one of its most insightful.
The famous King Solomon had recently been installed as the ruler of Israel. Soon after, God spoke to him at night in a dream and invited Solomon, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you” (1 King 3:5).
What an astonishing blank-check offer: “whatever you want.” How would this new ruler respond, and what would it reveal about his deepest desires?
Solomon’s heart was humble, and he admitted to God that he was out of his depth. Rather than asking God for wealth or power or the death of his enemies, Solomon asked God for wisdom. He prayed, “I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties… So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong” (1 Kings 3:7-9).
Solomon’s honest prayer is surprising for an ancient ruler and perhaps counter-cultural for all of us still today: he admits to being small, not knowing what he’s doing, and needing God’s help in the very basics of human community.
God was pleased with Solomon’s prayer for “discernment in administering justice,” and God promised to fulfill his desire (1 Kings 3:11-12).
Then Solomon wakes up from his dream, and he is immediately confronted by a brutal case that will test his wisdom and reveal the heart of divine justice.
Two prostitutes come to King Solomon. Both women claim the same newborn baby as her own. Each begs the wise ruler for justice (I Kings 3:16-23).
There was no way to prove which woman was the real mother. All that was known with certainty was that one woman’s baby had died and that both now claimed the living baby as their own. The evidence could go either way depending on who was talking. The case was seemingly unsolvable and justice impossible to accomplish.
So Solomon proposed an ultimate solution: he would cut the baby in half and give each woman half of the dead baby. In that way, they would each get an equal share and “justice” would be done. Of course, Solomon was setting a trap to allow the real mother — and true justice — to reveal herself (1 Kings 3:24-25).
The first prostitute agreed with Solomon’s verdict and urged the king to move forward quickly. She praised him for his wisdom and cried out for “justice” to be done: “Cut him in two!”
The second prostitute begged Solomon not to do it. Crying out for mercy, she said, “Please, my lord, give her the baby! Don’t kill him!” (1 Kings 3:26).
What was Solomon’s verdict?
Solomon ordered for the baby to be given to the second woman. Her love for the baby was so profound that she desired for him to live, even if she would lose him to the other woman. This self-sacrificial love for the vulnerable was the intangible proof that she was the true mother. In the process, the first woman’s “justice” was revealed to be no justice at all but mere heartache, anger, and vengeance.
And thus Solomon’s prayer was answered, and God gave him wisdom to administer true justice (1 Kings 3:28).
Today we wrestle with many important disagreements. We cry out urgently for “justice” to be done in seemingly impossible situations. There are no easy answers or quick fixes.
But if our “justice” brings death to the vulnerable, perhaps it is no justice at all but a disguised vengeance. The one with the mother’s heart — the courageous one who chooses life for the vulnerable even in loss — seeks the heart of genuine justice.
Does your vision of justice lead to life or death? Is its heart broken with compassion for the vulnerable, or hardened with the demand to win, even if it destroys the powerless?
Let us pray with Solomon: “I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Give me a discerning heart to distinguish between right and wrong.”