This boy's name was Solomon.
When we read the scene where God appears to Solomon in a night vision, it appears as though part of a fairy tale, as if Solomon were visited by a djinn. And though he can choose anything, anything at all, the youth, wise beyond his years, makes the following request:
But why this request?
ט וְנָתַתָּ לְעַבְדְּךָ לֵב שֹׁמֵעַ, לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת-עַמְּךָ, לְהָבִין, בֵּין-טוֹב לְרָע: כִּי מִי יוּכַל לִשְׁפֹּט, אֶת-עַמְּךָ הַכָּבֵד הַזֶּה. 9 Give Thy servant therefore a listening heart to judge Thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to judge this Thy great people?'
The answer that immediately comes to mind is that this is indicative of Solomon's wisdom. He cares for the people and wishes to rule them well. He understands, even at this tender age, that he exists beyond himself, that he is a servant of the nation as well as their leader.
But there is something deeper here.
And that can be uncovered through referencing all of the events prior. Solomon's story begins in context of his brother Adonijah's rebellion. Adonijah has claimed all the trappings of his brother Absalom but he does not share the vision of Absalom. He does not have a reason to rebel. He is simply tired of his weak, dying father. He wishes to seize power for the sake of it. But due to the textual echoes, we, the readers, are put in mind of Absalom. And there is a reason for that...
For Absalom did have a reason to rebel. It was a very compelling reason.
You see, Absalom had witnessed a terrible miscarriage of justice. His sister was raped by the crown prince, Amnon. And though their father was very wroth, he did not actually do anything. Amnon was not imprisoned. He was not executed. His actions were not checked. And so Absalom took it upon himself to right that wrong, to correct that miscarriage of justice. He arranged for a sheepshearing that was anything but, and at that ostensible celebration he murdered Amnon.
Then he fled to Egypt because he knew his father would not see that justice had been served, but rather would seek to harm him.
Eventually, he returns. But even when he is reunited with his father, he realizes that David does not have the passion for justice that Absalom has. David does not burn with that bright sacred fire. But Absalom is incandescent with it.
And so he acts.
Absalom's cause is justice. He is a passionate advocate and he is convincing. He tells the Israelites there is no one there to listen to them. The Israelites believe that they, too, would be better served were Absalom their High Judge in lieu of David. Of Absalom it is written that he "stole the hearts of the men of Israel." Absalom's rebellion was not a plot countenanced by only one tribe, Judah, and by men in high places, Joab and Evyatar. No. Absalom's rebellion was the people's rebellion.
And so when Solomon finishes managing the burdens laid upon him because of his father's past...punishing Joab, Shimi ben Gera, showing mercy to Evyatar and rewarding the Barzillai...he realizes he is not done. His father was many things, a military man, a Godstruck man, a man who created a kingdom out of blood and sweat. But he was not, or at least he was not in the eyes of the people, a just man.
And so when Solomon asks for a listening heart to judge the people, he is not just being astute. He is actively rectifying a grave mistake on his father's part. David lost the people because he was not seen as just. In contrast, Solomon goes out of his way to be just. He is willing to give Adonijah a second chance- but he also carries out swift justice when Adonijah breaks his bond. He asks God to help him remain just. He opens his courtroom to prostitutes. Solomon has just lived through an attempted coup by Adonijah. He has punished Shimi ben Gera, who appeared on the scene in the time of Absalom. And so he thinks about Absalom. He recognizes the threat to his kingdom, the threat to the throne, his father's one great failing. And so, when he speaks to God, he speaks not only for himself but to fix what was broken. To mend what was flawed.
He asks God to help him be the kind of king the people wanted. The king Absalom wished to be, but could not be. The king David showed himself not to be, when he did not punish Amnon at once.
Solomon is wise because he learns from history, and he heeds the echoes of the past. He understands who he must become to retain his people's trust. It is what makes it all the more ironic and tragic when his son Rechavam is unable to hear the people's cries.
Solomon's request is flavored by the past. The monarchic enterprise cannot succeed unless Solomon can restore justice to the throne. And so he acts to mend, to build. He begins his monarchy as one that will heal the rifts that existed in the past. That is what makes it all the more devastating when he later chooses to destroy, building the Millo and breaking David's Breach, creating new rifts. Wisest of all men, Solomon needs to maintain balance between repairing David's legacy and creating his own. Is it any wonder it became too challenging? He sought to create, and his creativity was astonishing. But at one point, his creativity overflowed, tipping the balance. He built, but not on land that truly belonged to him. It was, instead, public property, land upon which the Israelites pitched their tents when gathering for their pilgrimages. He built, and in so doing destroyed the history that came before. His fatal mistake, his eventual downfall, comes due to this. The monarch who began by learning from what came before his time fell at last because he thought himself above those events.
It is history which enwraps, envelops, moves and binds us. Knowing how to learn from it...that is the question.