God offered Solomon to ask for anything he wanted. Solomon famously did not request long life or wealth. He asked for wisdom because he realized he sorely lacked it:
"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."1 Kings 3:7
Knowing when to go to war and when to come home and claim victory or at least promise peace requires great wisdom. Solomon was David’s son because he notoriously stayed in his palace and seduced Bathsheba, the husband of an active-duty soldier. Later, David had to flee from his rebel son, Absalom.
When it came time to fight, David tried to lead, but his loyal troops would not let him. They knew that they could not afford for him to be killed. Joab seems to have had more wisdom in warfare. As a result Joab became a power in the court. He supported another prince to inherit David’s throne and Solomon’s supporters had to work fast to stop him.
Solomon understood the price of foolishness in war. One needed to know how to lead troops to battle and also how to bring them home again.
Many years later, after the ten northern tribes had seceded from Solomon’s dynasty, their king was threatened by the ruler of Syria. King Ahab tried to placate Ben-hadad, but he kept demanding more. Ahab convened the elders in the land and told them what was going on and they agreed it was time to refuse.
So he said to the messengers of Ben-hadad,
“Tell my lord the king, ‘All that you first demanded of your servant I will do, but this thing I cannot do.’”1 Kings 20:9
And the messengers departed and brought him word again. Ben-hadad sent to him and said,
“The gods do so to me and more also, if the dust of Samaria shall suffice for handfuls for all the people who follow me.” And the king of Israel answered, “Tell him, ‘Let not him who straps on his armor boast himself as he who takes it off.’”1 Kings 20:10-11
Ahab proved correct. Ben-hadad did not have the wisdom, despite superior forces, to “know how to go out or come in.” He over-estimated his advantage in trying to invade a foreign country.
Jesus himself mined the biblical theme when he preached parables about the need for Israel to repent before it was too late:
“Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace."Luke 14:31-32
Knowing when to fight and (at least as important) when not to do so, takes wisdom.
And how does one gain wisdom?
Proverbs isn’t like Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” or any other work on strategy. It is more basic than that. It is concerned about what kind of character you need to develop wisdom so that you can benefit from any lessons about strategy. You have to know that you need the insight of others but that there’s a difference between seeking counsel and seeking out those who tell you what you want to hear.
“Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war."Proverbs 20:18
“A wise man is full of strength, and a man of knowledge enhances his might, for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory."Proverbs 24:5–6 ESV
“A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin."Proverbs 26:28
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy."Proverbs 27:6 ESV
If a ruler hasn’t come to grips with these basic truths, no manual on warfare will do him any good. If he isn’t accustomed to discerning between advice and flattery, between wise guidance and enemy kisses, then he won’t be able to accurately count the costs. His numbers will be the ones he is given on the basis of what he wants to hear.
This is how arrogance and wrong decisions breed incompetence. No one wants to admit that one's deeds are leading to disaster, whether directly or through negligence. So one develops strategies for evading reality and rationalizing consequences as bad luck or as the fault of one’s political opponents. The consequences can grow gradually and, like a perverse version of progressive exercise, train you in stronger and stronger delusional skills until you are surprise by an obvious catastrophe.
Mark Horne has served as a pastor and worked as a writer. He is the author of The Victory According To Mark: An Exposition of the Second Gospel, Why Baptize Babies?,J. R. R. Tolkien, and Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men. He is the Executive Director of Logo Sapiens Communications and the writer for SolomonSays.net.