Bible Commentary: Proverbs 31:1-9

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Proverbs 31:1-9

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The Words of King Lemuel From His Mother 

It was noted in previous comments that chapters 30 and 31 are two distinct but related sections, each apparently with two subsections—four parts in all. As stated before, some ties between the two chapters may indicate that they should be read together. We will note some of these again as we proceed.

1. Subheading (Proverbs 31:1).

As with Agur, some have thought that King Lemuel—this name meaning "Devoted to God" or "Belonging to God" (repeated in verse 4)—is a pseudonym for Solomon. Yet, as was pointed out in regard to Agur, it seems odd that Solomon would go by another name here considering the clear mentions of his name elsewhere in the book of Proverbs. It is true that he goes by the title of "Preacher" in Ecclesiastes, but his name Solomon is not used elsewhere in that book. Some argue that Proverbs 30 and 31 being separate compositions only later appended to the book of Proverbs could explain this. However, we might then wonder why the later compilers did not clarify Solomon as the author of these sections—in line with his name being used elsewhere in Proverbs (unless, of course, they did not know). Clearly, the matter is strictly a guess either way—but an author other than Solomon seems perhaps more likely. Lemuel, like Agur, could well be a pseudonym—but not necessarily for Solomon. Perhaps it was a nickname for this king used particularly by his mother.

Some maintain that Lemuel was a foreigner. As in Proverbs 30:1, the word in Proverbs 31:1 translated "utterance" in the NKJV (or "oracle" in the NIV) is massa—the Hebrew word meaning "burden" (used frequently by Israel's prophets to denote a message from God, either because it was "carried" by them or was heavy or weighty). It was pointed out previously that the word occurs in Proverbs 31:1 without the definite article (the), a fact some use to support this being the name of a country over which Lemuel was king—especially as there was a Massa son of Ishmael (Genesis 25:13-16; 1 Chronicles 1:29-31), whose descendants were probably the Arabian tribe of that name recorded in Assyrian documents. This opinion is buttressed by the arrangement of the words here in the original Hebrew: dabari lemuel melek massa—"words Lemuel king massa" (it being unusual to say "Lemuel King," rather than "the-King Lemuel" or "Lemuel the-king," unless the word to follow was the name of a land or people). However, recall the use of the definite article with massa (i.e., ha-massa) in Proverbs 30:1—which makes more sense as "the burden" (i.e., the borne or weighty message) than as the name of a country. And it is likely that massa is meant in the same sense in Proverbs 31:1. Why, then, is there no definite article in the latter case? In the Hebrew, the adjective asher (meaning "that") comes immediately after the word massa here, which can serve to make the sense definite rather than indefinite. The subheading should probably be read this way: "Words of Lemuel, king, a weighty message that his mother taught him."

Of course, this gets us no closer to knowing who Lemuel was. We know only that he was a king—whether of Israel or a related people is not clear. Those who contend he was Solomon maintain that Solomon's mother Bathsheba was the source of the instruction here. Yet again, that is indeterminate and seems unlikely. Whatever the case it was the king's mother who taught him what is written here. Some label her the queen mother, but she could have been a lesser royal wife who died before her son ascended the throne. And Lemuel's mother may not have actually written what we read here. Lemuel himself, or another commissioned by him, may have summarized her lifelong instructions in literary form.

How much of the chapter should be attributed to Lemuel's mother or to one who summarized her teaching? Some regard only verses 2-9, meant specifically as instructions for a king, as constituting her counsel. They view the poem of the virtuous wife in verses 10-31 as the product of someone else entirely—an independent, concluding unit to the book of Proverbs. Yet given the absence of a new subheading at verse 10, it seems more natural to view the latter part of the chapter, even though it is unquestionably a distinct unit in itself, as the concluding part of Lemuel's mother's instructions—though, again, someone else could have turned her advice into the remarkable poem here. Of course, being part of Lemuel's mother's counsel does not preclude this poem from also being used as an epilogue or conclusion to the book of Proverbs, which it seems to be.

2. Three Requirements for Righteous Rule (Proverbs 31:2-9)

TYPE: ADMONITION. Chapter 30 closed with an admonition, and chapter 31 opens with one. The lessons here concern kingship. As pointed out earlier, forms of the word "king" are used four times at the end of chapter 30 (Proverbs 30:22, Proverbs 30:27-28, Proverbs 30:31) and four times at the beginning of chapter 31 (Proverbs 31:1, Proverbs 31:3-4). "With remarkable conciseness the mother of Lemuel describes the moral requirements of good government. These lessons are, simply put: do not use your authority as a means to debauchery (v. 3), keep your head clear from the stupefying effects of alcohol (vv. 4-7), and use your power to help the powerless (vv. 8-9)" (New American Commentary, note on verses 2-9).

The previous admonition in chapter 30 concluded with a threefold repetition of two words, "churning…produces" (verse 33). This one opens with a threefold repetition of two words, "what…son" (Proverbs 31:1). The point in each statement seems to be, "What, then, am I to tell you, my son?" This is not because she is unsure. It is simply a device to call to attention—to let Lemuel know she is about to tell him something important. The phrase "son of my womb" is a term of endearment and closeness intensifying the previous phrase "my son"—and showing that she has raised him from birth. Next, "son of my vows" perhaps implies that she had made promises to God in praying for a son when she was yet without child—possibly even that she had particularly vowed Lemuel (which could explain his name, again meaning "Devoted to God").

Proverbs 30 mentioned problem women—the adulteress and odious woman (verses 20, 23)—while Lemuel's mother here warns her son against giving his strength to women, by which kings are destroyed (Proverbs 31:3). This likely pointed to kings amassing large harems as well as sleeping around outside of marriage, both of which could ruin rulers—through disease, through the squandering of national wealth and distraction from state duties, through subjecting themselves to scandal, blackmail, vengeful plotting or palace intrigue between wives trying to exalt themselves and their sons, and through moral degradation leading to other vices.

Verses 4-5 do not mean rulers should never drink alcoholic beverages. The warning is against excess, as shown by the reason given—to prevent interference with proper and just rulership. In strict moderation, alcohol does not impair judgment. Drunkenness, however, is another matter.

There is some debate over the point of verses 6-7. Some think Lemuel's mother was saying that a king should not hoard up drink for his own use (whereby he would become drunk) but should offer it as a comfort to the suffering and needy—as God intended alcoholic beverages to cheer people up (see Psalm 104:15). The contrast with the ruler in this case would not imply that commoners are entitled to drink to excess, as other passages in the Bible show the great dangers involved in that vice (compare Proverbs 23:29-35). Also, the idea here would not be a government welfare program of free beer and wine. The statement would instead be rhetorical—to show that a king should put the needs of his subjects above his own desires for pleasure.

Other commentators, however, take a completely different view here, seeing verses 6-7 of Proverbs 31 as Lemuel's mother telling him to leave to the lowly and downtrodden the drinking away of problems (as they are already inclined to this)—the point having already been made that this is simply not fit for a king, given his responsibilities. It should be noted in this regard that the word at the beginning of verse 6 often translated "give" could be rendered "leave." Along these lines, The New American Commentary says, "The comparison to the suffering poor and to their use of alcohol is meant to awaken Lemuel to the duties that go with his class and status rather than to describe some kind of permissible drunkenness" (note on verses 4-7).

The admonition from Lemuel's mother concludes with the charge in the next two verses. Whereas Agur's admonition to the proud and troublemakers in Proverbs 30:32 is to "put your hand on your mouth," the mother of Lemuel twice tells him, a king who is to judge righteously, "Open your mouth" (Proverbs 31:8-9)—meaning "Speak out." This terminology may have been chosen to contrast with drunkenness (verses 4-5), which also requires the opening of one's mouth. Rather than open his mouth to drink and get drunk and thereby hurt the needy, a king should open his mouth to speak out to help the needy. For a king is supposed to serve his people.

Given the writing down and passing on of his mother's instructions, it is obvious that King Lemuel took her words to heart. It is hoped that he came to exemplify the ideals she expressed. Yet even Solomon, the principal author of the book of Proverbs, while a wonderfully successful ruler for a time, eventually succumbed to self-indulgence and debauchery and failed in his duty to God and others. Certainly such a high degree of principled concern to rule for the good of the governed was rare among ancient Middle Eastern monarchs—and it has remained so among political leaders throughout history up to our own day. But one day a King is coming whose reign over the whole world will be characterized by perfect, altruistic care for the welfare of all subjects, including an overarching concern to provide for the defense of the helpless—and those who serve in positions of responsibility under Him will exercise authority with the same motivation.