I Kings 10-12, Psalm 101, Acts 16
God’s Wisdom is the Spice of Life
I Kings 10-12
Several weeks ago, our youngest daughter, Isabelle, and I visited my mother in a quintessential New England town in the northwest corner of Connecticut. The area is stunning and remains a well-kept secret. For this reason, celebrities like Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, Whoopee Goldberg, Michael J. Fox, Mary Tyler Moore, Henry Kravis and Henry Kissinger have all owned homes in this area. This is a place where they may live somewhat like ordinary people.
During our visit, we drove to Millerton, New York, where we ate at Harney and Sons Tea Shop on Main Street and ran into my old friend Michael Harney, who now runs the Harney and Sons Tea Company, which was founded in 1983 by Michael’s father, John, who recently died. John literally began the company in his garage, where he kept boxes of tea and blended them by hand.
Today, Harney and Sons employs 170 workers and is the largest employer in the country and one of the ten largest tea producers in the United States. Their teas are even served in several of Queen Elizabeth’s castles. Michael invited Isabelle and me to tour his tea factory after lunch. The sights and smells were wonderful. Michael lifted lids on large blue barrels for us to smell vats full of lavender or tea mixed with dried mangos. He opened a furnace, and we smelled cooked cinnamon being prepared for a blend of Christmas tea. The vast warehouse was full of bottled coconut water from Thailand and iced tea. We watched three Italian engineers installing new machinery to speed the tea packing process. It was quite a tour.
I suppose that the Queen of Sheba must have had a similar experience as she visited King Solomon’s warehouses and saw spices from throughout the world. Spices were a principle means of currency. It was like touring the subterranean gold vaults of the Federal Reserve underneath New York City near Wall Street. It was a sight reserved for but a few to see.
I love this first paragraph in 1 Kings 10, which tell us:
When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon (fame due to the name of the Lord), she came to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon, she told him all that was on her mind. Solomon answered all of her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her. When the queen of Sheba had observed all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his valets, and his burnt offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her. (1 Kings 10:1-5)
I love that she tested Solomon with “hard questions.” Religion is not about having all of the answers, but it is about asking the hard questions in order to discover what gives life its deepest purpose and meaning. Beware of anyone who claims to have all of the answers or even most of them. We are but finite creatures, struggling to discover purpose, truth and meaning, as we strive to live our lives with integrity, compassion, honesty and kindness. We are like beggars. Each of us has some truth to share with another about where to find bread to sustain us.
Sidney Evans writes, “There is a would-be believer in every unbeliever; an agnostic in every church-goer.” So, we struggle to find truth and to overcome our doubts as we make our journey. R.S. Thomas, speaks for all of us when he writes that he has felt like one who throws,
at the sky’s
window, hoping to attract
the loved one’s
(and who would have)
refrained long since
but that peering once
through my locked fingers
I thought that I detected
the movement of a curtain.
So, who was the Queen of Sheba? She was a monarch of the ancient kingdom of Sheba is referred to not only in the Bible, but also in the Qur’an as well as in Yemenite and Ethiopian history, Yoruba customary tradition, and by the Jewish historian Josephus. She is widely assumed to have been a queen regnant, but, since there is no historical proof of this, she may have been a queen consort. The location of her kingdom is uncertain. Some believe it to be Ethiopia while Islamic tradition links it with Yemen and modern scholarship suggests that it was the South Arabian kingdom of Saba. The Queen of Sheba is also believed to be the Queen of the South referenced in Matthew 12:42 and Luke 11:31 in the New Testament, where Jesus indicates that she and the Ninevites will judge the generation of Jesus’ contemporaries who rejected him.
She has been called different names by different peoples in different times. To King Solomon she was the Queen of Sheba. In Islam she is called Biklis. The Roman historian Josephus called her Nicaule. Members of the Kenyan Luhya tribe call her Nakuti. Ethiopians refer to her as Makeda. She is said to have been born in the 10th century BC. Her grandfather and father were said to be the last two rulers of a famous Ethiopian dynasty. In Genesis 10:7 there is a reference to Sheba. The French artist Claude Lorain painted her embarkation with an astonishing sunset.
According to the Bible, the unnamed queen of the land of Sheba heard of the great wisdom of King Solomon and journeyed there to test him with questions, and carrying gifts of four and a half tons of gold, as well as precious stones, spices, and wood. (1 Kings 10:1-3 and 2 Chronicles 9:1-12) The queen was awed by Solomon’s great wisdom and wealth and pronounced a blessing on Solomon’s God. Solomon reciprocated with gifts and “everything she desired … besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty.” Then she returned home. There are no hints of love or sexual attraction between Solomon and her. The two are depicted merely as fellow monarchs engaged in the affairs of state. Sadly, she left dejected by perhaps both his wealth and wisdom. The joy of life is the search, the quest and sometimes the acquisition. When we have everything or see someone who does, we lose interest or become envious. Neither state is pleasing.
The wealth of King Solomon is hard to imagine. We are told that “the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was six hundred sixty-six talents of gold.” Solomon was like a hedge fund manager with wealth beyond what he needed. The king had “made two hundred large shields of beaten gold” and “his drinking vessels were of gold” and “he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses…” We are told that “The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as the stones.” (1 Kings 10:27)
“Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines…” (1 Kings 11:3) When Solomon grew old, his wives turned toward pagan gods and he betrayed Yahweh by following Astarte, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom, a god of the Ammonites. He built centers of worship for Chemosh, the god of Moab, and Molech, another Ammonite god.
God punished Solomon for dabbling with different divinities by raising adversaries who made his life difficult, just as we punish ourselves when we let other things take the place of God in our lives. God raised up Hadad the Edomite and Rezon son of Eliada to challenge Solomon. Fortunately, God also provided an answer in raising up a young man named Jeroboam, who defended Solomon and his kingdom and helped to rebuild the Millo.
The Millo was a structure in Jerusalem first mentioned in the book of 2 Samuel 5:9 and corresponding passages in the Chronicles and Kings. It seems to have been a rampart built by the Jebusites prior to Jerusalem’s being conquered by the Israelites. Most scholars believe that the Millo was a stepped stone structure uncovered by the famous biblical archeologist Kathleen Kenyon, which is believed to have been part of the Israelite royal palace and in continuous use from the tenth century until the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians. Hezekiah’s repair of the Millo was mentioned within a list of repairs to military fortifications, leading us to believe that it was something connected to military activity, such as a tower, citadel or wall fortification. It may have been an earthwork or embankment near the Temple Mount.
Jeroboam proved a threat to Solomon, and therefore fled to Egypt until Solomon died. Before fleeing, Jeroboam met the prophet Ahijah, who told him that Yahweh was about to tear Israel from Solomon’s hands like a garment torn into pieces. God would not stand for Solomon flirting with other gods. “For this reason I will punish the descendants of David, but not forever,” he said. Solomon reigned over Israel for 40 years before dying. His son Rehoboam succeeded him.
In chapter 12 Rehoboam made a fatal decision early in his reign. When a deputation arrived requesting that he rule less harshly than his father, Rehoboam took counsel among the elders of the kingdom. They answered, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” (1 Kings 12:7) They offered great wisdom. Sadly, Rehoboam scorned their advice and listened instead to his friends, replying to the delegation which sought his mercy, “My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” (1 Kings 12:11)
Rehoboam lacked his father’s wisdom. Above all, he did not listen. Realizing that they had a leader who was deaf to their concerns, Israel revolted. The land was consumed by chaos. Only the tribe of Judah remained faithful to the king. Rehoboam “made two calves of gold. ‘He said to the people, ‘You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’” (1 Kings 12:28) He set one up in Bethel and the other up in Dan. Yahweh must clearly have thought, “Haven’t I dealt with this before?”
Like Solomon, Psalm 101 is full of wisdom. The Queen of Sheba may have been wiser to have turned to the Psalmist than to Solomon in seeking wisdom and asking hard questions. We read:
I will study the way that is blameless.
When shall I attain it?
I will walk with integrity in my heart
within my house;
I will not set before my eyes
Anything that is base.
Perverseness of heart shall be far from me;
I will know nothing of evil. (Psalm 101:2-4)
Here is a person committed to living a holy life each day. Wisdom is not something that can be acquired outside of ourselves as though we were in search of a treasure hidden in a cave or buried underground. Wisdom cannot be purchased or bartered for, but rather must be developed and earned. Wisdom comes from silence and solitude as well as living in community. It comes from searching, listening, taking risks, making mistakes, spending time with wise persons, conversing, asking good questions, praying, reading God’s Word and striving to live a balanced and generous life marked by integrity, compassion, honesty and kindness. Yahweh says:
A haughty look and an arrogant heart
I will not tolerate.
I will look with favor on the faithful in the land,
so that they may live with me;
whoever walks in the way that is blameless
shall minister to me.
No one who practices deceit
shall remain in my house;
no one who utters lies
shall continue in my presence. (Ps. 101:5b-7)
How we act greatly influences God and what wisdom God will impart and entrust to us. God does not squander wisdom on thieves, liars and selfish people. God’s wisdom is bestowed on people striving to do the right thing and living honestly and selflessly. God wants wisdom to prosper in the soil of the most faithful of human hearts.
This chapter reveals to us the efforts that Paul and his colleagues took to establish the Church, which we often taken so for granted today. We read that “the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.” (Acts 16:5) This is a great thing to behold. We do not see this happening frequently today in Europe and the United States, but in Africa and other places there is abundant growth. When I served the Anglican Church in Kenya, I was told of occasions where a bishop would visit a town or city and baptize and confirm several hundred people – confirming people in groups of twenty at a time. Then the worship would pause, and the bishop would drink tea. After being refreshed, he would confirm several hundred more people.
We cannot, however, do everything that we desire to do for God. Sometimes, God prevents us from carrying out various missions and ministries that we desire to do. Such was the case when Paul wanted to visited Asia. We read that the he was “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the Word in Asia.” (Acts 16:6) The Holy Spirit sets our itinerary when we are truly willing to do God’s work. It is not our will, but God’s will that will be done. Instead of traveling to Asia, Paul and his companions received a vision and an invitation to share God’s Word in Macedonia.
When we go where the Holy Spirit opens doors for us, God provides an ample harvest for our labor. Among the people that Paul and his cohorts ministered to was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from Thyatira. “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” (Acts 16:14) Whenever we have success in ministry, it is not us, but God who makes the difference. We, clergy, too often take credit for what God has done. In truth, we ourselves have done little. God brings about any good that comes from our ministry. All that we can take credit for are the mistakes that we have made and from which we have hopefully learned important lessons.
Lydia, however, turned out to have a demon, and Paul and his colleagues performed an exorcism and freed her of the demon. Her owners, however, were deeply resentful. They had Paul and his friends cast into jail. They were stripped and beaten with rods, flogged and imprisoned. I personally know only a few Christians who have suffered greatly for having offered to proclaim Christ. We live a pretty risk free Christian life in the United States. Paul and the members of the Early Church, however, risked everything.
About midnight, as Paula and Silas sang hymns to God, an earthquake split open the prison. Their shackles were unfastened, and they were free to walk out. Seeing that they could escape, the jailer awoke and was about to commit suicide, when Paul shouted, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” Perhaps these are words that we ought to all say more frequently to those whom we know are vulnerable, depressed or who possibly could harm themselves. “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here. We are here for you and for each other. We are in solidarity.”
The guard asked what he must do to receive Christ, and Paul instructed him to “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:31) Then then spoke to him about Jesus. Then he washed their wounds and his family and he were baptized. When the magistrates learned that Paul and his colleagues were Roman citizens, they urged them to leave the city quickly and quietly, but Paul refused until they had apologized for their brutality.
If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever. (1 Kings 12:7)
I will study the way that is blameless. When shall I attain it? I will walk with integrity in my heart within my house… (Ps. 101:2)
Perverseness of heart shall be far from me; I will know nothing of evil. (Psalm 101:2-4)
No one who practices deceit shall remain in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue in my presence. (Ps. 101:7)
Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household. (Acts 16:31)
What wisdom do you seek? Where do you seek for it? What practices or experiences have helped you to glean wisdom? Who are the wisdom figures in your life? Are you still seeking wisdom outside of yourself or have you begun to discover wisdom within yourself as you strive to walk in the footsteps of Jesus each day? What signs of growth do you see and experience in the Church today?
Father of all, God above, God beyond, God around and God within us, guide us to your wisdom and truth. Open our hearts and minds and souls to your profound wisdom so that we might see you and see ourselves and those around us accurately and see your face in the face of each face that we encounter. This we pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania