1 Kings 3:9 (ESV) … “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”
Solomon’s prayer was brief and to the point in verses 6-9, and it was spoken with true humility, for three times he called himself “your servant.” First, Solomon reviewed the past and thanked God for the faithfulness and steadfast love shown to his father (v. 6). Solomon acknowledged God’s goodness in keeping his father through many trials and then giving him a son to inherit his throne. Solomon is referring here to the covenant God gave to David when he expressed his heart’s desire to build a temple for God (2 Sam. 7). In that covenant, God promised David a son who would build the temple, and Solomon was that son. Solomon admitted that he wasn’t the king because God recognized his abilities but because He kept His promises to his father David.
Then, Solomon moved into the present and acknowledged God’s grace in making him king (v. 7). But he also confessed his youthfulness and inexperience and therefore his desperate need for God’s help if he was to succeed as Israel’s king. Solomon was probably twenty years old at this time and certainly much younger than his advisers and officers, some of whom had served his father. He called himself a “little child” (1 Chron. 22:5; 29:1ff), a mark of both honesty and humility. The phrase “to go out or come in” refers to giving leadership to the nation (Num. 27:15–17; Deut. 31:2–3; 1 Sam. 18:13, 16; 2 Kings 11:8).
In his prayer, the king not only confessed his own smallness but also the nation’s greatness (v. 8). The people of Israel were the people of God! This meant that God had a great purpose for them to fulfill on earth and that their king carried a great responsibility in ruling them. God had multiplied the nation and fulfilled His promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:2; 13:16; 15:5), Isaac (Gen. 26:1–5), and Jacob (Gen. 28:10–14), and Solomon wanted the blessing to continue.
The king concluded his prayer by anticipating the future and asking the Lord for the wisdom needed to rule the nation (v. 9). Wisdom was an important element in Near Eastern life and every king had his circle of “wise men” who advised him. But Solomon didn’t ask for a committee of wise counselors; he asked for wisdom for himself. In that day, the wise person was one who was skillful in the management of life. It meant much more than the ability to make a living; it meant the ability to make a life and make the most out of what life might bring. True wisdom involves skill in human relationships as well as the ability to understand and cooperate with the basic laws God has built into creation. Wise people not only have knowledge of human nature and of the created world, but they know how to use that knowledge in the right way at the right time. Wisdom isn’t a theoretical idea or an abstract commodity; it’s very practical and personal. There are many people who are smart enough to make a good living but they aren’t wise enough to make a good life, a life of fulfillment that honors the Lord.
Solomon asked God to give him “an understanding heart,” because no matter how smart the mind may be, if the heart is wrong, all of life will be wrong. “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23, nkjv). The word translated “understanding” means “hearing”; Solomon wanted a “hearing heart.” True understanding comes from hearing what God has to say, and to the Old Testament Jew, “hearing” meant “obeying.” When the Lord speaks to us, it’s not that we might study and pass judgment on what He said, but that we might obey it. An understanding heart has insight and exercises discernment. It is able to distinguish the things that differ (Phil. 1:9–11). It knows what is real and what is artificial, what is temporal and what is eternal. This kind of understanding is described in Isaiah 11:1–5, a prophecy concerning the Messiah. Believers today can claim the promise of James 1:5.