The books of 1 and 2 Kings were originally a single work, but were separated into two parts when they were translated into the Greek New Testament (the Septuagint). The Septuagint also combined Samuel and Kings into a four-part history of the monarchy of Israel (First, Second, Third, Fourth Book of Kingdoms).
The author of Kings is unknown, but most scholars believe it was finally written and edited around 550 BC during the Babylonian exile by a Judahite. The author claims to use at least three sources for his information, although there are probably additional sources he does not mention. The three sources are 1) the Book of the Annals of Solomon, 2) the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel, and 3) the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah. These books were either part of the official royal archives, or they may have been written by Hebrew prophets during the 400 year span from Solomon’s rule to the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
The primary purpose of the author is to explain why the Jews are in exile by examining the kings who ruled Israel and Judah. Each king is evaluated based on whether they obeyed God’s commands in the Book of Deuteronomy, which is the summary of the Law given to Moses. The kings of the northern kingdom, Israel, disobeyed God so egregiously that they were overrun by the Assyrians a full 136 years before the southern kingdom of Judah was overrun by the Babylonians. Although there were a handful of kings who followed the Law, the vast majority did not, and so both Israel and Judah fell to foreign powers.
Chapter 3 of 1 Kings begins Solomon’s official reign as king of Israel in 970 BC. In verse 1, we learn that Solomon immediately forges an alliance with Egypt, his powerful southern neighbor, by marrying the daughter of Pharaoh. He brings her to Jerusalem and puts her in temporary quarters until his building projects are completed.
There is some debate among biblical interpreters as to whether Solomon is violating the Law with this marriage. Deuteronomy 7 prohibits marriage with Canaanite women, but Deuteronomy 21 allows for marriage of foreign (non-Canaanite women) captured in battle. It appears that Pharaoh’s daughter willingly accepted the worship of Yahweh and she is nowhere criticized by the writer for turning Solomon away from adherence to the Law.
In verses 2-3, the writer alerts us to the fact that the Israelites are worshiping at “high places,” which are shrines set up at various elevations to conduct worship of a deity. The reason given is that there is no central worship center for the Israelites yet. At this time, the Ark of the Covenant has been moved to Jerusalem, but the rest of the tabernacle still resides at a high place called Gibeon, which is about 5 miles north of Jerusalem.
Solomon travels to Gibeon to make sacrifices to God, probably during one of the seven annual festivals. That night, he encounters God in a vivid dream. God asks Solomon what he wants and Solomon answers that he desires a “discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” Why? Because he is an inexperienced king (he was about 20 years old at the time) and he is expected to govern an enormous number of people.
Recall that a primary role of a king was to render judicial decisions in especially difficult cases where local judges were not able to settle a dispute. Years before, King David’s son Absalom undermined his authority by accusing David of neglecting his judicial role. Solomon knows he needs God’s help to do this job well.
It is also important to note that God is the source of all wisdom, and thus Solomon will only be truly wise and discerning if he follows the commands of God, given in the Law. Solomon cannot be wise without knowing and obeying the commands of God.
God is pleased with Solomon’s request and grants it. He will make Solomon the wisest man who ever lived. In addition, God will give Solomon those things he did not ask for: riches and honor. Solomon will also have a long life if he obeys the Law as his father David did.
Now that God has officially blessed Solomon’s reign, Solomon returns to Jerusalem and hosts a feast with sacrifices before the Ark of the Covenant. His rule is off to a great start!
To prove to his readers that God truly blessed Solomon with supernatural wisdom, the author of 1 Kings, in verses 16-28, relates the most famous example of Solomon’s discernment at work. Two prostitutes, who live in the same house, each bear a child within 3 days of each other. One prostitute carelessly smothers her child while she sleeps. When she discovers what she’s done, she takes her dead baby and swaps it for the live baby who belongs to the other sleeping prostitute.
The next morning, the woman wakes with a dead baby beside her, but upon closer inspection she realizes it’s not her child at all. She figures out that the other prostitute has stolen her child to replace the one she lost. Of course, both women claim that the other is lying and that the live baby truly belongs to each of them. How can Solomon possibly decide who the mother of the living baby is?
Solomon’s solution is to announce that he will cut the baby in half with a sword so that each woman can have half a baby, the only “fair” solution. At this point, one woman speaks up and pleads for Solomon to give the baby to the other woman instead of killing him. The other woman tells Solomon to go ahead and kill the baby so that neither woman will have him. Solomon rightly discerns that the true mother must be the first woman who offered to give the baby up.
Verse 28 summarizes the reaction of the nation to Solomon’s ruling: “When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.”