Solomon’s Wisdom


Moshe Ben-Chaim


Reader: I have heard many times that we should strive to live life based on wisdom. It has just occurred to me after all these years, that I don’t quite know what is meant by “wisdom”. What is wisdom? It seems to be different from knowledge, but how, I don’t know. I often see the word “chachma” a lot. Is wisdom the correct translation of it?


Related to that, I ask: how could King Solomon be wiser that Moshe? I have seen a statement that goes something like, “Who is wise? One who can anticipate the consequences of his actions.” Now with Moshe being the great prophet that he was, can’t we say he saw more into the future, more than anyone, including Solomon?  Regards, Omphile.


Mesora: “Knowledge” refers to learned facts and theories. One gains “knowledge”, after having been ignorant. Thus, one may say, “he has acquired knowledge of biology”, when beforehand, he possessed no such “knowledge”. Learning something means we are newly cognizant. But does this “knowledge” equate to one being “wise”? Knowledge may contribute to one’s wisdom, but wisdom is not “of” matters. We don’t say one is wise “about” the structure of a tree. One is “knowledgeable” of a tree’s structure. So what is “wisdom”?


“Wisdom” refers to the refined level of precise, analytic and clear thought, which results in intelligent and accurate statements and theories. In English, “wisdom” refers to both the “results”, and to the “process”: through wisdom, one gains greater wisdom. But herein we will refer to wisdom as the human ‘faculty’ of higher thinking, not the results of wise study.


Thinking is available to all members of mankind, but not all men are wise. One arrives at a state of wisdom, not due to his amassed, encyclopedic knowledge base. Such a knowledge base does not offer man the ability to think properly. Wisdom is a far higher level, than one who is simply knowledgeable. A wise person reflects on his knowledge – his facts – and then arrives at new truths by analysis, inductive and deductive reasoning. It is the refined act of critical, Talmudic thought, leading one to real truths, which earns one the appellation of a chacham, a “wise man”. With wisdom, one arrives at reasonable conclusions and decisions, accurately explaining phenomena. With wisdom, man uncovers reality. One, who sees more of reality, is referred to as greater in wisdom. Conversely, knowledge alone does not equip man with a refined intellect capable of arriving at conclusions. 



King Solomon’s Wisdom

Let us take an example in which wisdom is referred. This area in Prophets is immediately subsequent to God’s imbuing of King Solomon with his great wisdom, and will also answer your question as to King Solomon’s wisdom, in contrast to Moses.


Kings I, 3:16 states that two harlots came before King Solomon. Both bore a child. One, the careless harlot, slept on her child and killed it. While the innocent woman slept with her infant nearby, the murderess switched the living infant with her dead infant. In the morning, the innocent woman awoke, and recognized what the murderess did. They came before the King, both claiming that the living child was theirs. King Solomon arrived at his conclusion to cut the infant in two, and to give half of the child to each woman. Of course he would not have gone through with this barbaric act. However, the King’s seemingly bizarre and ruthless suggestion caused the lying harlot to display her heretofore-concealed carelessness for the infant, as she subsequently said, “both to me and to her, the child will not be, cut the child!” The king successfully brought into the open, the spine-chilling, cold nature of the true murderess. Justice was served, and the baby was given to his true mother.


The Jews were in awe of King Solomon’s wisdom, “And all the Israelites heard the ruling that the King judged, and the people feared the King, for they saw that God’s wisdom was in him to mete out justice.” (Kings I, 3:28) What was King Solomon’s great “wisdom”?


The Jews were struck by King Solomon’s plan to expose who was telling the truth. They were taken by his “justice”, as this verse repeats the word justice or judgment three times. As you quoted, the Talmud states, “Who is wise? One who sees the outcome.”  (Tractate Tamid, 32a)Why is this the definition of wisdom? I believe it is because wisdom exists – only when there is no ignorance. One may have all the present facts, and use a cunning mind. However, if he cannot anticipate all outcomes, his current decision may prove tragic - he would not be termed “wise”. One may only be spoken of as wise, if he considers not only what is true now, but also what may be true in the future. The future is no less real to a wise person. He considers all of reality, and that does not refer only to the present. But as the element of “time” is a factor, he considers all possible outcomes by anticipating subsequent results of a given decision. So one is called wise when he rationally considers all factors in a given case, including all possible effects.


But even prior to his “decision” to cut the infant in two, the King had to have some knowledge, in order that he would feel this to be the most effective response. How did he arrive at his ploy? What did King Solomon consider? A closer examination of the verses reveals that the King already knew who was innocent and who was guilty - before his suggestion to cut the child in two. However, perhaps he did not feel his observation would be accepted. Let me explain.


Verses 22 and 23 in our chapter state the quarrel between the two harlots, “[22]…mine is the living infant and yours is the dead. And the other harlot said, ‘no, the dead child is yours and the living child is mine’. [23] And the King said, ‘this one said ‘mine is the living, and yours is the dead child’, and this one said, ‘no, the dead one is yours, and the living is mine’.” At this point, he commanded that a sword be brought. Thus, he had a plan. But what did the King already know, and how did he know it?


Why does Kings I record verse 23, where King Solomon reiterates (albeit perhaps to himself) what each woman said? Kings I is not being redundant. I feel this verse is here to indicate that King Solomon detected a distinction in the harlots’ words, he pondered this, and then devised his plan. Therefore, Kings I records, for us, what the King pondered. He was pondering the harlots’ words. So we must ask, what did he detect? These words in verse 23 appear as containing no clue whatsoever; a mere repetition of what they already said in verse 22. But there is one, subtle difference: the first woman refers to the living child ‘first’, while the second woman refers to the dead child first. Read it again: “mine is the living infant and yours is the dead. And the other harlot said, ‘no, the dead child is yours and the living child is mine.”


Perhaps, the King derived a principle: ‘a woman always refers to her child first’. From this principle, the King knew to whom belonged the dead infant. It was to the latter woman, the one who referred to the dead child first. But perhaps, this subtle observation and his conclusion would not be appreciated by the masses in his court and in Israel, without demonstrative proof. Thus, he instantly thought of how he could demonstrate the true callousness of the murderess. He created a scenario, in which, he anticipated that the murderess might express her true nature. It worked!


King Solomon’s wisdom straddled what the outcome of his plan might be; the murderess might express her callousness again.  Forecasting this possibility as a reality, he created a plan now, based on his wisdom of the outcome. He created a possibility for the murderess to express her very nature, which allowed her to carelessly sleep on her child, thereby killing it. “Who is wise? One who sees the outcome.”  We now understand why Kings I repeats for the reader, what exactly were the words that the King pondered. It directs us to study the King’s specific observation, appreciating the level of knowledge he received from God.


The Jews were awed by such insight and wisdom. Today, we are equally awed, not at only the King’s wisdom, but by God’s formulation of these verses; how a verse’s subtle clues reveal more knowledge than what the Jews witnessed back then.




God Granting Solomon Wisdom

Having come this far, let us see if we can determine why God imbued King Solomon with such unparalleled wisdom. Solomon became king at the age of 12. God then appeared to him in a nighttime dream (Kings I, 3:5-14):


[5] “In Gibeon, God appeared to Solomon in a dream of the night, and He said, ‘Ask what I will give to you.’ [6] And Solomon said, ‘you have done with Your servant, my father David, great kindness as he walked before you in truth and charity and in an upright heart with You, and You guarded this great kindness, and You gave him a son sitting on his chair as this day. [7] And now God, my God, You have made Your servant king under David my father, and I am a young lad, I know not of going out and coming. [8] And Your servant is in the midst of Your people You have chosen, a numerous people that cannot be counted from their size. [9] And give to your servant a hearing heart, to judge Your people, to distinguish between good and evil, for who can judge Your people, heavy as they are?’ [10] And the matter was good in God’s eyes, that Solomon asked for this thing. [11] And God said to him, ‘On account that you asked for this thing, and you did not ask for long days, and you did not ask for yourself riches, and you did not request the life of your enemies, and you asked for yourself understanding, to hear righteousness, [12] behold I have done according to your words, behold I have give to you a wise heart, and understanding, that none were like you before you, and after you, none will rise like you. [13] And also what you did not ask, I give to you, also riches and also honor, that none will be like

you, a man among kings, all your days. [14] And if you go in My ways, to guard My statutes and commands as David your father went, then I will lengthen your days.”


God commences His vision to Solomon with the words, “Ask what I will give to you.” How do we understand such a general offer? I would suggest that God only makes such an offer, when one, such as the son of David, would not make such a request from his own understanding of reality. Correctly so, Solomon did not think wisdom is arrived at other than through his own diligence. God also knew what Solomon’s new concern was, having been made king immediately before this vision and requiring wisdom to rule the people. But why then didn’t God simply imbue Solomon with this new wisdom without a dialogue, in question form at that? God knew what Solomon desired! As Rabbi Reuven Mann stated, God wishes that man use his mind at all times. For this reason, God did not create miracles for Pharaoh that were undeniable. This would remove Pharaoh’s chance to arrive at a realization with his mind that God in fact sent Moses. Being awed by overt miracles, Pharaoh’s mind would be disengaged. This is not how God desires man to arrive at truths. Similarly, when Solomon may have the opportunity to think into a matter, and arrive at knowledge on his own, God will not remove this opportunity from him. Therefore, God framed this vision in a dialogue so that Solomon would be afforded this opportunity to learn something new with his own mind; a new idea about how God operates. Aside from receiving his newfound wisdom, God desired that Solomon’s mind be engaged in the very dialogue itself.


Solomon then realized something new: “God would not make such an offer for a matter I may achieve independent of His interaction. God must be intimating that He offers to me that which is naturally unavailable.” Solomon immediately seized the true sense of God’s offer, and asked for the most admirable request: wisdom to judge God’s people. Solomon desired to fulfill his role as king as best he could. This demanded that he, a 12-year-old lad, be equipped with wisdom.


Solomon was perfectly in line with God’s will. Before asking for wisdom, he describes how God granted such kindness to David his father, and that he was now to replace David’s position as king over “God’s” people. Solomon was stating that based on God’s will that the Jews exist as a “chosen” people, and must have a king, it is in line with God’s will to ask for wisdom. Solomon requested something necessary to fulfill God’s will. This is why he made such a lengthy introduction before asking for wisdom. This is why he was granted such wisdom.



Unparalleled Wisdom: Why was it Necessary?

This case of the two harlots is the first event recorded after God imbued King Solomon with His great wisdom. We understand that the king’s wisdom was of a far, superior nature. The king, successfully exposing the true murderess, had a profound effect on the Jews.


Previously, we read in verse 13, “…behold I give to you a wise and understanding heart, that before you none were similar, and after you, none will rise like you.” If this is so, who was greater: Moses or Solomon? Radak answers that Solomon surpassed Moses in knowledge of ‘nature’, but in knowledge of God, none surpassed Moses. Radak also suggests another possibility; God’s elevation of Solomon’s knowledge over all “others”, is limited to “kings”, excluding all who were not kings, such as Moses. Thus, according to Radak’s second possibility, Solomon was wiser than all “kings”, but in no manner wiser in anyway than Moses. This latter view is supported by verse 13, “…none will be like you, a man among kings, all your days.” (However, one may argue well: this verse describes Solomon’s wealth and honor, not his wisdom. His wisdom is described in verse 12, where he is not limited to kings alone.)


But we wonder: why did God grant Solomon wisdom in this high degree, “unparalleled by others, both, prior or subsequent to him”? For what purpose did God see it necessary to elevate Solomon’s wisdom over all others - prior, and subsequent to him? Could not a lower, “natural” level of wisdom - on par with other prophets and kings such as David - suffice for Solomon to rule Israel effectively? Additionally, Solomon did not request wisdom of such a degree - God’s gift was over and above what the king requested. As such wisdom was never offered to all others, we must examine these verses to detect any clues, which might lead us to an answer.


For one, we can safely say that this degree of wisdom was viewed as “unnatural” – it was clearly granted through God’s providence. As no other human attained such wisdom, purposefully stated in the verses, Israel would recognize that Solomon’s wisdom was achieved only by means of a miracle of God. We must then understand why this was necessary.


I thought into this matter at length, over a few days, and although not arriving at what I feel is the most satisfying answer, yet, I do wish to propose one possibility. King Solomon was 12 when he became king. Perhaps such a youth would not be well received by the Israelites, with the exclusive, authoritative power deserving to him. Imagine a 12-year-old running the United States. Many would be reluctant to subject themselves to such a youngster. Perhaps this was why God, on only this occasion, wished to give a man an undisputed and unparalleled mind. Only with the wisdom that undeniably was granted miraculously by God, would the Israelites find themselves with no argument against the king’s continued leadership – it was God’s leadership, through him. It is Solomon’s age that distinguishes him from all other rulers, that I feel this might be the reason for his receipt of such a gift.


Additionally, the verse may teach us another point. Verse 11 says that God gave Solomon this wisdom “on account of the fact that he did not seek riches, long days, or his enemy’s lives.” What does this verse teach? Perhaps God teaches us here, that it was precisely Solomon’s “selection” of wisdom over all else, that he raised himself to a higher level through this very act of selection - a level where God would relate to him on such a plain, granting him unparalleled wisdom. It is only the person who selects wisdom as his full desire in life that God relates to on a higher level, than all other people. Solomon was not ‘entitled’ to this wisdom, without raising himself to the level where he responded properly to God’s offer. Had Solomon selected something other than wisdom, he would not have received it.


Finally, why did God also grant Solomon those things he did not request? This teaches that had Solomon asked for riches, his enemy’s deaths, or long life, that such requests were improper. Such requests display one’s view that these matters are ends unto themselves, and this is against the Torah’s philosophy. By requesting wisdom, Solomon displayed a proper character, one in which he would relate to those other areas in the correct manner. Therefore, God granted to him these other benefits as well.