Back to the Garden
Before we move on to the next phase of Israel's story—kingship—we should stop and return to the beginning of human history. Since we are reflecting on biblical wisdom and about to embark on a study of the wisdom of Solomon expressed in Ecclesiastes, it would be helpful for us to go back to the "book of beginnings" and think about the way in which wisdom is first presented to us. The Hebrew word "wisdom" does not itself occur in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3, but it is evident from the details of the story that God promised kingly wisdom to Adam if he would but be patient and wait for God's to mature him.
The promise of royal wisdom God held out to Adam was embodied in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This perspective is not often appreciated. But a little investigation into how the Bible later uses the notion of the "knowledge of good and evil" reveals that it is the wise discernment exercised by those placed in positions of authority and responsibility. Knowing or discerning between good and evil has to do with making mature judgments. It is a precious gift of God sought by those called to rule. Those given the gift to discern good and evil possess the wisdom necessary for deciding life and death issues for those whom he serve as rulers. So the woman of Tekoa recognizes that King David is a "messenger of God to discern good and evil" (Second Samuel 14:17). Indeed, David is able to unravel in this story a very convoluted situation that ultimately concerns the life and death of his son Absalom.
But the best illustration of the meaning of "knowing good and evil" is found in the story of young Solomon's prayer for wisdom. Knowing that he is too young to have the weight of the kingdom on his shoulders, Solomon petitions God for the wisdom he needs to rule. He is not presumptuous like Adam. He does not prematurely seize power. Rather, when given the opportunity to ask anything of the Lord, Solomon makes this request:
And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. 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? (1 Kings 3:7-9)God commends Solomon for his appropriate request and gifts him with "a wise and discerning mind." Solomon, the Son of David, is a new Adam. The text of First Kings calls attention to this shortly after Solomon's prayer for wisdom, recounting his Adamic accomplishments (First Kings 4:29-34).
Children do not know "good and evil" in this judicial sense (Deuteronomy 1:39), which is why elders not young people are given the privilege of adjudicating cases in the community. Even though Adam and Eve began their biological life as adults, they were nonetheless children in their experience of life and the world. It seems evident that God's program for them was to gain wisdom through their experience of life and the world, patiently waiting for God to grant them the gift of royal judicial authority symbolized by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
As Adam faithfully ate of the Tree of Life, giving thanks to God for his life, and as he diligently guarded and served the Garden and his new wife situated in the midst of the Garden he would slowly mature into the kind of man qualified to rule over God's creation. That was the plan anyway.
The tragedy recorded for us in Genesis 3, however, is that Adam failed to guard the Garden and his new bride from the attack of the Serpent. They seized what God had asked them to wait for and as a result they were banished from the Garden. With fatal consequences Adam presumptuously and prematurely snatched what would have been his if he had trusted God’s promise—the authority to judge good and evil. He listened to the Serpent and decided that he didn't want to wait for God's permission to rule. The seductive power of being "like God" now and ruling like him "judging good and evil" overcame our original parents.
But God's plan was not thereby thwarted. God's program for the maturation of humanity continued. Now, however, after the fall, mankind would learn and grow into a mature image of God only through intense suffering and the curse of death. But the path to maturity, although now more difficult and frustrating, was nevertheless the same. Whether it was Abraham and his descendents or Israel's own story, they experienced life first as priests (guarding and serving the worship of God) and then were graciously given the privilege of "discerning good and evil" as kings. Abraham and his altars give way to Jacob ruling over his large family and finally Joseph's wise administration of the entire world in Egypt. From priesthood to kingship—that is the flow of God's program of maturity for his people.
Just as God intended Adam and Abraham's family to mature from priest to priest-king, so also the kingdom is envisioned in the priestly law for Israel (Deut. 17:14-20). As the Lord's new humanity (new Adam) Israel was to patiently wait for the Lord to bestow the responsibility of kingship on them when they were ready. If they would but faithfully guard God's house and serve at his Table, they would grow in wisdom and eventually mature into a nation capable of the larger responsibility of kingship. Israel begins with service at the altar and Tabernacle of God until she is ready to administer the kingdom some 500 years later. When David and Solomon rule, they also write. The law was given through Moses, but Psalms and wisdom literature came through David and his son.
This has been a rough and ready summary of the story of mankind and Israel from the perspective of their maturation from priesthood to kingship. A great deal more could be said. We have not even discussed the prophetic climax of maturity. Since the prophetic stage of the story is not directly germane to the study of the book of Ecclesiastes I'll only point out that becoming a prophet means even greater responsibility and authority. Contrary to popular notions, prophets are not merely God's errand boys, simply delivering messages they here in the heavenly court. Rather, prophets have been elevated to the rank of advisor and council member. God allows them to participate in the heavenly courts deliberation before He makes a decision to act. The prophet's words, then, have a power beyond that of kings. They have the ear of the Almighty. When they speak history changes, nations are alternately delivered or uprooted and destroyed.
This, then, is the basic outline of the story of humanity's maturation according to God's own pedagogy. We see it in the story of Abraham and his family as well as in the story of Israel as a whole:
Priest (Abraham) → King (Jacob) → Prophet (Joseph)Note how the story of the Bible begins with priests who have a limited service in God's sanctuary, then progresses so that the priests become kings who rule in their own land, and finally ends with a flurry of prophetic activity relating to the whole of world history.
Priestly service in the sanctuary (Mosaic)The education and maturity of humanity would culminate in the God the Son assuming our human nature and living as a man among us. Jesus, the Last Adam, would not fail to serve and guard his bride, the church. He is flawlessly faithful in his priestly service. Indeed, Jesus did not grasp for kingship as Adam did, but allowed God to bestow it upon him (Philippians 2:5-11). He did what Adam would not do. He refused the Serpent's temptation to seize prematurely what his Father had promised him (Matthew 4:1-11). Jesus knew that the path to wisdom was learning maturity through suffering (Hebrews 5:8). And "being made mature" the writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was granted the Davidic promise to sit down at the Father's right hand (Hebrews 1; Psalm 2 and 110).
→ Kingly rule in the land (David & sons)
→ Prophetic advisors who change the world (Daniel).