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Listening – A Case Study

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In my last post we looked at how Proverbs 18 gives invaluable instruction regarding the importance of  being a good listener in counseling. In this post we look at a case study of biblical listening in action. Here is an example from Solomon’s own life as recorded in I Kings 3.  This is a concrete, practical example of what Proverbs 18:15 means by having active ears. Here is the text of the case study:

1 Kings 3:16-28

16 Now two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him.

17 One of them said, “My lord, this woman and I live in the same house. I had a baby while she was there with me. 18 The third day after my child was born, this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there was no one in the house but the two of us. 19 “During the night this woman’s son died because she lay on him. 20 So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I your servant was asleep. She put him by her breast and put her dead son by my breast. 21 The next morning, I got up to nurse my son — and he was dead! But when I looked at him closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t the son I had borne.”

22 The other woman said, “No! The living one is my son; the dead one is yours.” But the first one insisted, “No! The dead one is yours; the living one is mine.” And so they argued before the king. 23 The king said, “This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead,’ while that one says, ‘No! Your son is dead and mine is alive.’”

24 Then the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So they brought a sword for the king. 25 He then gave an order: “Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.”

26 The woman whose son was alive was filled with compassion for her son and said to the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don’t kill him!”

But the other said, “Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!”

27 Then the king gave his ruling: “Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother.”

28 When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice. NIV

Earlier in this third chapter of I Kings, Solomon has asked God for wisdom. God granted his request and then immediately provided Solomon with an opportunity to test this wisdom. Solomon was presented with a prickly situation. There were two mothers and one baby. Both claimed to be the real mother of this child. Both had a compelling story to tell. Since Solomon apparently had no knowledge of these women previous to this occasion, he had no background data available to help him decide whom to believe. How was Solomon to solve this dilemma?

Remember the context of this narrative. This event happened early in his reign. Public disputes were often settled in an open court setting. Many people were looking on, wondering how the new king would solve this problem. Would he offer a wise verdict or would he be found lacking? Some of the court side observers were probably thinking that was a rough way to begin a career as king. What would Solomon do?

For his part, Solomon could have waited to render his verdict. He could have told them to come back the next day while he held a conference with others to seek advice. Certainly this was a sobering test. Yet, we see that Solomon does not hesitate at all. His immediate response was to ask for a sword. Then, once the sword was brought in he ordered the living child to be cut in two and then one half given to each of the two women.

Now let’s pause the story for a moment. Place yourself in the court as an observer. Surely, you would have heard gasps of surprise and shock from those crowded around. Perhaps the old sages were thinking that this was the end of a potentially brilliant reign. David’s son was not worthy of him. He had offered a rash, hasty and insensitively cruel verdict. Imagine cutting a baby in half! The young man’s new power had surely gone to his head.

But Solomon had not made a rash judgment. Instead he was following the wisdom he later penned in Proverbs 18:15. Solomon, you see, had been listening. Go back and look at the text. Verses 17-22 are all dialogue. Each of the two women presented her case. There was much to learn from listening. Solomon first speaks in the narrative in verse 23, where he makes a brief summary of the situation. He had been listening, but no solution immediately presented itself. However, Solomon was confident that he would hear something that would show him which woman was telling the truth. Discernment would inform him of which woman was speaking from the position of innocence and truth, and which woman was a guilty liar. He just needed one more set of responses.

Okay, let’s go back to the story.

Solomon gives the order for the baby to be cut in two. One woman cries out in compassion that the child be spared and given to the other woman. Notice she doesn’t make an additional claim for her own status as the child’s mother. No, she says, let the child live, give him to the other woman. However, in stark contrast the other woman speaks in a defiant tone.

No, if I can’t have him, nobody can. Kill the child!

Solomon had been listening. He had active ears. He now had the information he needed to make a wise judgment. Solomon vividly demonstrated the importance of active ears. He had listened carefully to these women. The text records that Solomon spoke only three sentences before rendering his judgment—three sentences. Solomon had carefully sought wisdom with his ears. No doubt the tone of the two women’s answers played into his judgment. As you read the text you can hear the compassion of the child’s real mother as she pleads for her son’s life. You can also hear the sarcasm and bitterness of the woman whose baby had died. Solomon could now connect the first and second set of responses from the two women.

Solomon then speaks two more short sentences. He directs the child be given to the first woman. He then proclaims that she is the child’s mother. He did not order rounds of endless testing and deliberation. This wise verdict came about because Solomon listened well. He had active ears.

One more point about Proverbs 18:15. Examine verse 28 again.

When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.

Solomon established his kingly reign among the people of Israel because he had active ears. Those many observers of the king’s wise verdict spread the news far and wide–there was a wise king on the throne in Jerusalem. The application is there for you as a counselor as well. As you listen actively and demonstrate wisdom, you will gain creditability and trust with your counselee. They will know that they have been heard.

Now, none of us has the wisdom of Solomon. But we do have the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit. Listening well requires humility. It is not our wisdom or words that will make the difference. Rather, speaking the truth in love is the one sure hope that we have.

Active ears rather than an active mouth will serve you, your counselee and God as you counsel the word to those in need. Active ears will inform your thoughts so that the words you do speak will indeed be wise words that will honor God and help bring change to your counselee’s life. 

Posted on June 30, 2012