God did the Jews a huge favor early on in their history: He made them losers. Not losers in the sense of being the sort of nebbish who lives in his Mom’s basement, but losers in the sense that, when it came to coming out on top in the whole “top dog in the geopolitical department” thing, Israel was never particularly notable. The nation had a brief Golden Age under David and Solomon, where it achieved a dominion the size of Maine. Then it got ripped in two by civil war and spent the next thousand years as a minor player squeezed between various Big Cheeses like the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, getting kicked around.
The danger of riches and power is that it affords clever people the leisure to make themselves stupid—a fact borne out by watching Beautiful People and the Best and Brightest in the news every day. Thinking, after all, is hard and many people would rather just be comfy in a great cushion of wealth and power than trouble themselves with it.
Ancient oriental potentates were no different. The obvious goals the world throws up to us who are involved in the rat race were equally obvious to ancient kings. Only they actually were within hailing distance of achieving those goals. Gold, guns, and girls could be had for a song if you happened to be an ancient king, since that was more or less what the gig was popularly conceived to be. So the ancient Near East was chockablock with monuments kings erected to themselves, bragging about slaying enemies, amassing riches, and having phalanxes of wives and concubines upon whom they could prove their manliness. One of these kings, later in life, was Solomon who did all this and who is remembered by Israel as a tragic figure precisely because he started out with such promise before the high life turned his head.
What promise? It’s all summed up in the story of God appearing to Solomon in a dream and telling him to ask for whatever he liked. And the astonishing thing is that young Solomon asked for wisdom and knowledge. Even God sounds surprised and impressed:
God answered Solomon, “Because this was in your heart, and you have not asked possessions, wealth, honor, or the life of those who hate you, and have not even asked long life, but have asked wisdom and knowledge for yourself that you may rule my people over whom I have made you king, wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like.” (2 Chronicles 1:11-12)
If only Solomon had remained as faithful to God as God was to him. But instead, he eventually caved and went for gold, guns, and girls after all—leading to disaster for the nation. But Israel would always look back on his reign as the great Might Have Been, presaging the disaster that was to end in captivity in Babylon centuries later.
Through that torment and the memory Solomon’s wise wish, God revealed something: It’s not all about power. Postmodern culture is, in many ways, a return to the most raw barbarism of pagan antiquity. You can put a barbarian in tweed and turtleneck, teach him a great many polysyllabic words and make him a tenured prof at some university. But if, in the end, he says that Everything is About Power or the war between races, classes, and genders or that “truth is whatever the most powerful says it is” then that professor remains a barbarian. Any barbarian can devote himself to the pursuit of possessions, wealth, vengeance, sex, and long life. Fools do it every day. But the truth is, Love is what life is about. And one crucial step toward figuring that out is to do what Solomon did and ask for knowledge instead of power. Other steps follow of course. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That’s why Confirmation bestows the gift of knowledge: so that we can imitate Solomon’s wisdom and avoid his folly.