“A Tale of Deceit, Jealousy, and Murder”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
August 19, 2018
1 Kings 2:12-25
As I planned worship this week, this strange story from the first book of Kings jumped out at me and I kept asking myself, “What, if anything, does this story have to say to us today?” Unlike most other stories in the Old Testament, God does not seem to be active here—the only mention of God in the story happens when Solomon swears and vows to kill his brother. This isn’t a story about people overcoming impossible odds, and it is not one that has direct ethical or moral teaching. It is a tale of deceit, jealousy, and murder—what can we take away from it that will make us better followers of Jesus Christ? Let’s start with a recap.
Even though Solomon’s reign over Israel has been firmly established after the death of his father David, there are still threats within the kingdom. Actually, there are threats to Solomon’s kingdom from right within his own family. Adonijah, Solomon’s brother, is lurking around with a terrible urge to steal the throne. The two had an awful relationship, a relationship that was likely soured because they had the same father but different mothers. Solomon’s mother was Bathsheba, the woman that King David stole from one of his military commanders. Adonijah’s mother was Haggith, one of the many women in King David’s harem. I’m sure that Adonijah questioned how and why Solomon took the throne after David’s death since he was as legitimate of a child as his brother.
Adonijah comes to Bathsheba with a proposition that is apparently so delicate that he dares not broach it with Solomon directly. Adonijah and Bathsheba encounter each other ever so carefully. Despite the fact that her son has been successfully enthroned as king over Israel, Bathsheba continues to be suspicious of Adonijah. She asks, “Do you come peaceably?” When Adonijah confirms that he has not come, like many before him, to take her life, she allows him to speak. Adonijah begins by asserting his view that the kingdom had been his to begin with and that all of Israel had fully expected him to reign. That’s a gross exaggeration. He concedes, though, that Solomon is on the throne because the Lord meant for him to be there. Only in the final turn of the conversation does Adonijah make his one request: that Abishag the Shunamite be given to him for a wife. Abishag was a beautiful young virgin who had been tasked with taking care of David in his old age.
Bathsheba promises to take Adonijah’s request to the king. Keeping her word, Bathsheba comes to the royal court to speak with her son. Solomon obviously had high regard and respect for his mother because he, the king, bows down to her and then has a throne set beside his own for her to sit on. “I have one small request to make of you; do not refuse me,” she says. It is hard to tell why Adonijah and Bathsheba keep calling this a small request—they are literally bargaining with a young girl’s life. Nevertheless, Bathsheba makes the request, being sure to name Adonijah as ‘your brother.’ And Solomon blows his lid! This is not just ‘one small request’ to him. Despite the deep respect he has for his mother, and even though he assured her in the beginning that he would not deny her request, Solomon is completely on fire. He basically screams at his mother, “Is that all? Should I give him the kingdom, too?”
Part of why Solomon is so ignited is that he knows his brother has some of the support he needs to stage a coup. When Solomon is yelling at his mother, he mentions Abiathar the priest and Joab the military commander. These two men wield power and influence over the people of Israel in such a way that Adonijah could call them together and rise up against Solomon. This was not the case when David was king—David had good relationships with military and religious leaders. Solomon is mad partly because he is afraid.
The other part of why Solomon blows up on his mother is because women like Abishag were real and saleable property, and the more you had, the more power and fame you had. Abishag belonged to Solomon because she would have been willed to him at David’s death. Women, along with children, were trophies in the time of ancient Israel and if you took a woman or child who belonged to another man, you put that man to shame. Adonijah isn’t just asking for a wife—he is bringing shame on Solomon and Solomon’s court.
Put those two together—the fear of a coup and shame—and Solomon takes up arms. Well, actually, he’s too good to do his own dirty work, so he sends Benaiah, who was a great military leader during David’s reign. Benaiah struck Adonijah down, fratricide once removed, and Adonijah died. Later on in the ending of the story that we didn’t read today, Abiathar and Joab are also murdered, one at his estate and the other in the temple in Jerusalem while he was holding onto the altar of the Lord. Of course, we don’t ever hear about what happened to Abishag.
It’s really a wild story. I think the obvious takeaway from this story is ‘don’t’—don’t take your brother’s women, don’t take your brother’s throne, don’t murder. Everything Solomon did was in direct violation of the covenant God established with Israel at Mt. Saini. God established the covenant at Mt. Saini with ten laws that would govern Israel’s relationship with God and the relationships they had with each other. The intent of those covenant laws was to establish peace and prosperity for all of the people. Solomon and Adonijah both turned their backs on God’s covenant—they took things that did not belong to them, they lusted after things that were not theirs, they lied, they misused the name of the Lord, and Solomon committed the grave sin of murder.
But if we stop there, with all of the ‘don’t,’ I think we miss something really profound. Woven in and through every story in the Bible, including this tale of deceit, jealousy, and murder is the truth that even when God is not speaking, even when God is not actively doing something, even when God is only used as the first word in a curse, God’s power, and nothing else, is the driving force in all things. The Bible is not primarily a guide for how to get through this life and claim a spot in heaven; it surely has that in mind, but that’s not the main focus. The main focus of the Bible is God. Period. Full stop. The Scriptures tell us the story of God, and when we read that story we are able to find our place within it. So even, and especially, in stories like Solomon and his mother and brother, the main characters are not the main actor. God is always the main actor.
The Bible, the story of our faith, presents us with two things that seem to be irreconcilable. On the one hand, the God who created the heavens and the earth, the God of the prophets and judges, the God of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is actively guiding all things to their perfect completion even if we can’t see it. On the other hand, the thing that we can see, the stuff that is so very clearly happening before our eyes, is the treacherous and despicable behavior of men and women. To make this situation even more complex, the main character in our story today, Solomon, was supposedly put on the throne by God’s power. Solomon, a murderer, rules over God’s people. I think its OK to ask how God could choose someone so awful and how God could allow such terrible things to happen. If God is in control, why, why is there so much suffering and death and abuse and pain?
I know there are a lot of folks today in the Catholic branch of our Christian family tree who are asking these exact questions. A grand jury report published this week found that since the mid-1940’s the Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania have shuffled around some 300 predatory priests who were known to abuse children. The number of victims of these priests is estimated to be as low as 1,000 and as high as 2,500 children. These priests used their power to physically and emotionally destroy the ones who are closest to the heart of Jesus. If you read the interviews from the priests and their bishops, some are still not really sure what they did wrong. Some even deny that what they did was a sin or harmful. These are men who were supposedly called into ministry by God, to love God’s people, to do God’s work, to proclaim God’s kingdom has been established on earth. If God is in control, how could such terrible things happen? God’s will for all people is life in abundance—how could God’s supposed servants steal that away from so many?
There is a secondary tragedy in all of this, too. Since the Catholic church is front and center in the cover-ups and the denials, I think we begin to imagine that they are the only one’s who have harmed God’s people. It’s everywhere and its as old as the Bible itself.
It would be easy to give it all up in the face of such evil and pain, and in fact many have already done that. But today and always, we must not lose hope, in God or in one another. We must not lose hope because time and time again God has proven to us that God’s faithfulness and love will triumph over any evil humans or hell can muster. God is always working for the good of those that God loves, and that’s you and me. We see this most clearly in Jesus. Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, was the last king to claim the throne of David. That throne had been used in generations past by murderers like Solomon and adulterers like David. Jesus used that throne to redeem a world that had gone all out of whack, then he gave up that throne to show us the true and eternal meaning of love. Even when humans tried their hardest to quench the power and love of God, Jesus broke out the tomb as a sign of just how in control God really is.
And I don’t know what that means to people who were abused by their spiritual leaders and role models. I don’t know what that means to people who are daily afraid for their lives. I don’t know what that means to those who are worried about local, national, and global politics. I don’t know what it means for those who have been hunted, pushed out, or beaten down their whole lives. But I know what it means for you and me.
For you and me, the power and control of God over all things means that we’ve got a lot of work to do.
We can’t just sit back and say, “Well , God’s got it.” This is the exceedingly good news of our faith: God is in control. But this God has called us into action. God is in control, so we must love our neighbors as ourselves. God is in control, so we must honor the sacred dignity of all people. God is in control, we must protect our children, the elderly, and God’s other vulnerable beloved people. God is in control, so we must respect those with whom we disagree. God is in control, so we must work for policies that champion life, structures that care for the most in need, and institutions that work for the good of all people. God is in control, so we must worship and sing and pray and stand ready to receive the kingdom of God as it breaks into this world. God is in control, so we must have hope and we must give up the fear that keeps us closed to God and to one another.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ll say it again…God is in control. When we can see and when we can’t, when someone like Solomon is on the throne and when Jesus Christ takes up his cross, dies, and rises again to set us free. May we worship and serve and display this God each and every moment we are alive. Amen.