1 The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:
2 What are you doing, my son? What are you doing, son of my womb?
What are you doing, son of my vows?
3 Do not give your strength to women,
your ways to those who destroy kings.
4 It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to take strong drink,
5 lest they drink and forget what has been decreed
and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
6 Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
7 let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
8 Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
9 Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy. – Proverbs 31:1-9 ESV
These proverbs are presented as the words of King Lemuel and the first nine verses come in the form of an oracle taught to him by his mother. The Hebrew word translated as “oracle” is maśśā’ and it refers to a message with a heavy burden. These are weighty or substantive teachings that were passed down from mother to son and then collected for distribution in Solomon’s book of Proverbs.
It would appear that Lemuel was a foreign king because his name appears nowhere in the chronicles of the kings of Israel of Judah. He could have been a proselyte to Judaism and, therefore, a worshiper of Yahweh. His mother, the former queen, could have been a descendant of Abraham or a convert to Judaism who passed down her faith to her young son. If the remainder of the chapter is biographical in nature and refers to Lemuel’s mother, it would be safe to say that she was a godly woman and had a tremendous influence on her son.
Verses 2-9 are the loving words of a mother to her son but they are rather unique in that they address the dangers facing a king. These words of warning come from someone who seems to have had firsthand experience in the matters she raises. As the former queen, it is likely that she had seen her husband, Lemuel’s father, struggle with these matters.
Her words are rather succinct and deal with three main topics: Women, wine, and words. She presents the first two as potential hazards to be avoided. It is not that either is particularly evil but that, for a king, they can prove to be dangerous and even deadly. Perhaps her husband had been a philanderer who allowed his love for women to destroy his marriage and weaken his kingdom.
Over the centuries, there has been repeated speculation that Lemuel was a pen name for Solomon. That would make the mother referred to in this chapter none other than Bathsheba. She would have had ample knowledge of the seductive influence that a woman can have on a man. And she knew what it was like to be the target of a man’s fatal attraction. After all, as a married woman, she had been seduced by King David and committed adultery with him. In an attempt to cover up the son their sin produced, David had Bathsheba’s husband murdered. He then took Bathsheba to be his wife and she bore him a son, the fruit of their adulterous affair. But that son died in infancy, a punishment from God for David’s transgression. Then God blessed Bathsheba with another son, Solomon.
And when Solomon grew up and ascended to the throne of his father, it would make sense that Bathsheba would express concern about his apparent weakness for women.
“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.” – Proverbs 31:2-3 ESV
The book of 1 Kings paints a rather lurid picture of Solomon’s attraction to the opposite sex.
Now King Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides Pharaoh’s daughter, he married women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and from among the Hittites. The LORD had clearly instructed the people of Israel, “You must not marry them, because they will turn your hearts to their gods.” Yet Solomon insisted on loving them anyway. He had 700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines. And in fact, they did turn his heart away from the LORD.
In Solomon’s old age, they turned his heart to worship other gods instead of being completely faithful to the LORD his God, as his father, David, had been. – 1 Kings 11:1-4 NLT
Whether Lemuel was Solomon’s pseudonym and the loving mother in this passage was Bathsheba is all nothing more than speculation. But the biography of Solomon provides ample evidence that the maternal counsel found in this passage is more than merited.
But she didn’t stop there. She also warned her son about the dangers of wine.
It is not for kings, O Lemuel, to guzzle wine.
Rulers should not crave alcohol. – Proverbs 31:4 NLT
This loving mother seems to have firsthand experience with the dangers of alcohol. Perhaps she had watched Lemuel’s father struggle with controlling his consumption of wine and had seen how it had negatively impacted his ability to rule wisely. So, she pleads with her son to practice moderation and self-control. Notice her words. She does not forbid the use of alcohol but warns against its abuse. Lemuel is not to “guzzle” wine. He is not to “crave alcohol.” In other words, Lemuel is to avoid addictive behavior.
While the Scriptures do not completely prohibit the use of alcohol, there are plenty of verses that warn against it. And while there are some religious groups that abuse and misinterpret these verses, there are just as many that ignore them altogether.
In our desire to justify our use of alcohol, we tend to portray the Scriptures as seemingly silent on the topic. But repeatedly in the Book of Proverbs, we have seen Solomon warn his sons about the inherent dangers of alcohol consumption. In Proverbs 31, King Lemuel is warned against drinking to excess. This passage isn’t prohibiting the use of alcohol. In fact, in those days, to deny the use of alcohol in the court of a king would have been unheard of. It would have been absurd.
But excessive use of alcohol should be avoided at all times, especially by those who hold positions of responsibility and authority over the lives of others. The problem is that alcohol distorts the senses, muddies the mind, and can lead to poor decision-making. Whether you’re a king, national leader, company president, or a parent, the last thing you should want is to have your mind clouded by alcohol, rendering your judgment impaired and your ability to perform your responsibilities diminished.
There are far too many stories concerning wives whose husbands have struggled with a drinking problem. In many cases, these men were hard workers and loving husbands and fathers, who allowed alcohol to destroy their ability to lead and protect as they should. As Lemuel is warned, when they drink, they tend to make unwise decisions. They lose the capacity to think and rule wisely. Under the influence of alcohol, “they may forget the law and not give justice to the oppressed” (Proverbs 31:5 NLT).
They lose their moral bearings, their sense of right and wrong, and their understanding of justice. In the end, they make poor decisions that put their families at risk – financially, emotionally, and even physically. Alcohol in all its forms can be deadening and even deadly. Solomon warns us, “Wine produces mockers; alcohol leads to brawls. Those led astray by drink cannot be wise” (Proverbs 20:1 NLT). Here are a few of the other admonitions about wine and alcohol in the Book of Proverbs:
Those who love pleasure become poor;
those who love wine and luxury will never be rich. – Proverbs 21:17 NLT
Wine produces mockers; alcohol leads to brawls.
Those led astray by drink cannot be wise. – Proverbs 20:1 NLT
Don’t gaze at the wine, seeing how red it is,
how it sparkles in the cup, how smoothly it goes down.
For in the end it bites like a poisonous snake;
it stings like a viper.
You will see hallucinations,
and you will say crazy things.
You will stagger like a sailor tossed at sea,
clinging to a swaying mast. – Proverbs 23:30-34 NLT
In Proverbs, wine and mixed drinks are closely associated with the wicked and the immoral woman. It is almost always used in the sense of excess and over-indulgence. It appeals to the sensual side of man. It can dull our senses and feed the sinful side of our sensual nature.
There is a need for wisdom when it comes to the use of alcohol. We must be fully aware of its dangers. We must acknowledge its ability to impact and impair our judgment. It is a mind-altering, mood-enhancing substance that, if used wisely and appropriately, can have positive benefits. But it can also be misused and abused. It can destroy and divide. It can be used to escape reality and avoid responsibility. It can bring pleasure but it can also produce immoral behavior.
The final word of motherly advice has to do with words. Lemuel’s mother warns him to watch his tongue. Just as women and wine can have a negative influence, so can words. As a king, Lemuel wielded tremendous power. With a word, he could condemn or commend. He could use his authority for good or evil. So, she calls on her son to use his sovereign power to protect the less fortunate within his kingdom.
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 31:8-9 NLT
A wise king understands that he serves God and acts as a steward of His divine authority. God defends the downtrodden and disadvantaged and He expects His vice-regent to do the same. Lemuel’s mother wanted her son to use the power inherent in his words for the good of all. She longed for him to judge righteously and to rule wisely.
Women, wine, and words. These three simple topics have the capacity to make or break any man, especially a king. And Lemuel’s mother loved him enough to warn him to tread carefully with all three.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.