Wisdom to Spare

16 Then two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 The one woman said, “Oh, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house, and I gave birth to a child while she was in the house. 18 Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. And we were alone. There was no one else with us in the house; only we two were in the house. 19 And this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20 And she arose at midnight and took my son from beside me, while your servant slept, and laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. 21 When I rose in the morning to nurse my child, behold, he was dead. But when I looked at him closely in the morning, behold, he was not the child that I had borne.” 22 But the other woman said, “No, the living child is mine, and the dead child is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead child is yours, and the living child is mine.” Thus they spoke before the king.

23 Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; and the other says, ‘No; but your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’” 24 And the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So a sword was brought before the king. 25 And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.” 26 Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him.” 27 Then the king answered and said, “Give the living child to the first woman, and by no means put him to death; she is his mother.” 28 And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice. 1 Kings 3:16-28 ESV

In Solomon’s vision, he had requested that God would give him “an understanding mind” so that he might be able to “discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9 ESV). And God had agreed to Solomon’s request, bestowing upon him the ability “to discern what is right” (1 Kings 3:11 ESV). All of this occurred while Solomon slept, and when he awoke there was probably little evidence that anything had changed. It is doubtful that he felt any different of could sense that he was wiser and more discerning. But, in time, he was given tangible proof that God had kept His word.

As the king, he was expected to act as the preeminent judge over his people. One of his duties was to ensure that the citizens of his kingdom were governed with order and justice. He was to see that there was a fair and equitable system for hearing and settling all civil disputes. And this responsibility was not to be taken lightly. When David was king, it seems that he failed to make this aspect of his kingly duties a high priority, and his son, Absalom, used this oversight to his advantage.

He got up early every morning and went out to the gate of the city. When people brought a case to the king for judgment, Absalom would ask where in Israel they were from, and they would tell him their tribe. Then Absalom would say, “You’ve really got a strong case here! It’s too bad the king doesn’t have anyone to hear it. I wish I were the judge. Then everyone could bring their cases to me for judgment, and I would give them justice!” – 2 Samuel 15:2-4 NLT

Absalom knew that the people wanted a king who showed care and concern for them. His daily appearances at the gate were intended to win them over the convince them that he was a more reliable advocate for them than David. And his actions paid off.

Absalom did this with everyone who came to the king for judgment, and so he stole the hearts of all the people of Israel. – 2 Samuel 15:6 NLT

But unlike his father, Solomon didn’t shirk his kingly responsibilities. He was willing to do the dirty work that came with his new role, which included presiding over disputes between the citizens of his kingdom. And, as this passage makes clear, Solomon didn’t practice a form of judicial snobbery. He could have limited his cases to those of the wealthy and influential and relegated the disputes among the common people to a subordinate on his administration. But here we find the king presiding over a case involving two prostitutes. These women would have been considered the scum of the earth. The Hebrew word used to describe them carries a strong pejorative meaning, most often being translated as “whores.” They were guilty of adultery and sexual immorality, and their reputations were well known within the community. Yet, Solomon graciously admitted them into his royal court and took the time to hear their dispute.

It’s interesting to note that Jesus Himself was accused of being “a friend of tax collectors and other sinners” (Matthew 11:19 NLT). He had a reputation for associating with the despised and disreputable of society. But, when faced with these accusations, Jesus didn’t deny them, he simply stated, “wisdom is shown to be right by its results” (Matthew 11:19 NLT). Jesus was emphasizing that, in time, His choice of friends would prove to be right and just. After all, Jesus had come into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). When Jesus was condemned by the Jewish religious leaders for eating with tax collectors and sinners, He had responded, ““Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do” (Matthew 9:12 NLT). And then He added, “For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” ( Matthew 9:13 NLT).

Solomon understood that he was the God-appointed king over all the people. He didn’t have the right to pick and choose whom he governed. And these two women, while clearly sinners, were still citizens of his kingdom and no less deserving of his time.

So, Solomon patiently listened to their story, and it proved to be a convoluted and complicated tale. These two women not only shared a common occupation, but they also lived in the same house. And as a result of their chosen form of livelihood, both women eventually became pregnant. Within a few days of each other, both gave birth to healthy baby boys. But one of the infants died in his sleep, accidentally smothered by his own mother as he slept by her side in the bed. During the night, the woman woke to find her son dead, so driven by grief and jealousy, she took the body of her deceased baby and switched it with the living child. There is little doubt that this ploy would fail, but she was driven by grief, not logic.

And when the other woman awoke and discovered the lifeless baby by her side, she quickly discerned that it was not her child. The babies had been switched in the night. But the other mother vehemently denied any wrongdoing and vociferously declared that the living baby was her own. Unable to settle their dispute, the women brought the matter to the king. And now, it was up to Solomon to deliver a wise and discerning resolution to their conflict.

After hearing these two emotionally charged mothers state their cases, Solomon simply stated, “Bring me a sword” (1 Kings 3:24 ESV). His words must have come as a shock to the women. Why was he asking for a sword? What was he intending to do? Was he going to enact judgment and personally execute one of them on the spot? What they didn’t realize was that Solomon was utilizing the wisdom and discernment promised to him by God. Without even knowing it, Solomon was putting into practice his newfound ability to discern what was right. Having heard the details of the case and the conflicting claims of the women, Solomon somehow knew exactly what to do. 

Sword in hand, Solomon declared his shocking “solution” to the problem.

“Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other!” – 1 Kings 3:25 NLT

In essence, Solomon was declaring that since there was no way of knowing which woman was telling the truth, the only alternative was to kill the remaining child, so that neither had an advantage. This judgment sounds preposterous and totally unfair. One of the women was clearly lying, and this solution would have produced an inequitable and unrighteous outcome. But Solomon was operating under the divine influence of God Almighty. He had no intention of killing the baby. His “judgment” was a carefully crafted ploy, designed to expose which woman was the liar. And the disparate responses of the two women quickly revealed the identity of the real mother. She was the one who begged for the life of the child to be spared. She was willing to lose custody of the child in exchange for his life. Yet, the other woman was more than willing to see the living child killed so that the other mother might be deprived of joy.

This entire episode is intended as a demonstration or proof that God had kept His promise to Solomon. The vision given to Solomon had been far more than just a dream. It had been a prophetic word from God and now Solomon knew that he had received the very gift he had requested: An understanding mind that could discern between good and evil. Even Solomon must have been surprised by his own actions. But as Jesus had said, “wisdom is shown to be right by its results.” The positive outcome of this dispute revealed that the wisdom of God had been at work. It had not been the result of human intelligence or Solomon’s inherent cleverness. He had been given the ability “to discern what is right” (1 Kings 3:11 ESV), and he had put it to good use. The result was the joyful reunion of the mother and her child. There is no indication that Solomon condemned the other woman for her lies and subterfuge. She had already suffered the loss of her child and that was punishment enough.

And, in time, news of Solomon’s novel approach to justice began to spread throughout the kingdom, and the people recognized it for what it was: The wisdom of God.

When all Israel heard the king’s decision, the people were in awe of the king, for they saw the wisdom God had given him for rendering justice. – 1 Kings 3:28 NLT

They found comfort in knowing that their king was governed by the wisdom of God. They could expect to receive justice because their king operated according to divine wisdom.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson