The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:
What are you doing, my son? What are you doing, son of my womb?
What are you doing, son of my vows?
Do not give your strength to women,
your ways to those who destroy kings.
It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to take strong drink,
lest they drink and forget what has been decreed
and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:1-9)
When I was in College, my Dean told me that it is really important for young men to read Proverbs. And when they are done it, they should read it again. And again. Seeing as it is addressed to a young man, there’s a point to what he was saying. The fact was, I was always mystified by a lot of the comments that were held in there. Lady wisdom seemed elusive. If we are saved by grace through faith and not of works, why this call to pursue lady wisdom with such passion and yearning? Just consider the passion with which we are called to seek Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 2.
Over the last couple years, I have done some research on the Book of Proverbs. It has always bothered me that this book is so scattered. Is there no rhyme or rhythm? Is it a collection of Proverbs like the book of Psalms is a collection of songs? Or is there some sort of thematic organization of these Proverbs. It is probable that most of them were written by Solomon. It may be that Solomon wrote Proverbs 31 under Lemuel’s name. It may be that Solomon compiled the Proverbs of various men in the power of the Holy Spirit. All we have in the immediate text is that Proverbs 30 was written by Augur and Proverbs 31 was written by Lemuel.
I have pieced them together my research from the meager resources in this way. In Proverbs 1, we see that Solomon is speaking to a young man, a prince in this setting. Seeing as young men are rash and easily go astray, all this wisdom is crucial for his development. Over the course of this “narrative” or “drama,” this young man comes in contact with strange women, with rulers, with bands of fools who want him to join their number. Every young man can identify with all these temptations. Through all these various temptations, the young man is called to pursue lady wisdom, a metaphor for Christ. As he pursues Christ, there are some very practical applications in the way he approaches the table of a ruler, the way he deals with fools and conflict, and the way he responds to women and wine.
The height of this “drama” is when he choses lady wisdom as displayed in the choice of a good wife: the Proverbs 31 woman. He has not chosen the wicked woman, he has chosen lady wisdom. Here, it seems that King Lemuel is relating the words of His mother in the form of a Proverb. He is writing, but he is writing down her words. It seems that there are several layers to this passage: this woman of Proverbs 31 summarizes the themes of Proverbs, she represents wisdom, but she also represents the bride of christ, the Church. I also find it interesting that the Hebrew Bible places Ruth right after Proverbs 31. But we shan’t speculate too much.
In Proverbs 31 our primary focus is the man, Prince, or King of Proverbs 31. Sure, Proverbs 31 has become cliché in evangelical culture, but we have to remember that the writer of this passage wrote down the Words of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. We must realize the powerful imagery and wisdom which is presented in the first 9 verses of this text. King Lemuel’s mother is the voice of wisdom. She knows that her son is a King. But as a lady of wisdom she also knows what is the making or breaking of a man or a king. Seeing as she is the king’s mother, or Queen, she has probably seen a number of kings come to destruction. We’ll turn quickly to her first two admonitions and dwell for longer on the last one, since I believe that this one is in great need of emphasis in our culture. Remember Proverbs 1: 20-23 in this context:
Wisdom cries aloud in the street,
in the markets she raises her voice;
at the head of the noisy streets she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
If you turn at my reproof,
behold, I will pour out my spirit to you;
I will make my words known to you.
There are two things which King Lemuel is called to avoid: women who destroy the ways of kings, and wine. This is directly opposed to the culture’s view of masculinity. In our culture, a strong man gets in bed with as many women as possible and can down more shots of whiskey on a Friday night than the other men around him. He drops the F-bomb, if not often, at least on occasion. Donald Trump is a real man to many men. He is considered strong because he is a bull in a China shop.
We could call these the negative commands in this passage, but the verses post vs. 9 show quite the opposite. The result of obeying these commands is glory. These are very positive commands. There is real strength and glory in being a one-woman man, there is real strength in avoiding the abuse of booze. Proverbs has made abundant use of contrasting the way of death to the way of life. “Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her” Often the things that promise life bring death, but the promises of God in Proverbs are true. There is only life in Proverbs. Wisdom will pour out her spirit on you.
One of the reasons we are called not to be given to strong drink is that when we drink to much, we “drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.” The commission of a King is to defend righteousness and to defend the rights of those who are afflicted. This is revealed in the third imperative: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
This is the positive task of the King. Throughout proverbs the true King is called not “to put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great,” for as the following verse says, it is better to be raised up than put down. The focus of a King is not upon money, power, or fame, his focus is on service. He is called to be sensitive to the needs of those suffering in his kingdom. But he is also called to not allow this sensitivity to cripple him. He must stand up. He must open his mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy. This is what it means to have royal authority.
Such is the state of Paul in 2 Corinthians as he sees himself as a servant of the congregation through Jesus Christ. The way of authority in the new testament goes through the cross. And often what you see there are nails, and torn skin, and the Son of God stretched out on a cross, suffering for the sins of the world. For the mute, for the destitute, for the poor and the needy. Christ did it so that we could take up our cross in His strength. He calls us to take up our cross and follow Him.
I find it fascinating that this is his Mom saying this to him. What? Submit myself to a woman? Sure, men are the ones called to have authority in the church. But it is the wisdom of a wise Mother like Lemuel’s Mom which endows authority with wisdom. But listening to a woman!!!! How is this possible? Here, once again is the importance of a King not giving his ways to the ways of women who destroy kings or to the false promises of the bottle. It is the wisdom of a voice like that of his mother which leads him down the path of righteousness. The woman who does not destroy Kings calls him to serve, to stoop down, to defend the needy. Sometimes she has to scream at him from the market square as he goes to his death. So that she might save him from death. This is a very high view of women in the church! They help us to see the need for humility, to see the need for the Kingly task of service.
There is a wisdom that the Lord calls His Princes to, that the world might scoff at, but is the mark of a King: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). This is the way of the cross. But it is also the way of joy, true joy. As seminarians let us rejoice and delight in this path of service that the Lord calls His princes too. “It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.” (Prov. 3:8) “Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth. Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you.” (Prov. 4: 5-6) “But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” (Prov. 4:18)
I wrote this as a chapel message in the first semester of the 2016-2017 school year at CRTS.