For years I’ve heard a lot of inaccurate lessons and sermons by some really good people regarding alcoholic beverages. One of the supposed ‘slam dunk’ verses they often use is Proverbs 31:4-5. It’s too bad that all they see is ‘don’t drink wine‘. That’s not really the point that Lemuel‘s momma wanted to make to her son.Lemuel was a king we know nothing about, though a number have guessed that it was Solomon. Jewish legend is the only thing that suggests it is he, but other than that there is no evidence whatsoever. If somehow it was Solomon (why he’s called Lemuel is anybody’s guess) this would be his mother, Bathsheba. But in truth, we don’t know who this woman is. On the other hand, if she really is the king’s mom, then she is royalty and probably knows what she’s talking about. Since we don’t know what to call her, and since I’m feeling rather sentimental, let’s just call her Mom. [No, I haven’t been drinking, but I consider all of my readers my very best friends in the whole wide world]
First we should consider Momma’s goal. She wants Lemuel to be a good king, able to make decisions for the weak and the downcast–those who are, from a sociological point of view, as good as dead:
Open your mouth on behalf of those unable to speak,
for the legal rights of all the dying.
Open your mouth, judge in righteousness,
and plead the cause of the poor and needy. (Prov. 31:8-9 NET)
Remember that a proverb is a kind of poetry, so we should look at these two verses as a whole unit, the parallelisms tying each verse together like a complete tapestry. These folks are unable to speak their case due to a lack of legal status or resources. They are dying/vanishing/diminishing . They are nothing compared to royalty and the wealthy. Lemuel’s momma demands that he speak up and care for those who are not as powerful as he.How can he do that with clarity of mind? Well, first of all, he can’t spend all of his time chasing ladies:
Do not give your strength to women,
nor your ways to that which ruins kings (31:3)
Commentators understand that there’s a lot of wordplay going on here. “giving your strength to women” is a euphemism (more specifically a “metonymy”) for sex. A man’s strength has to do with his ability, which in this case represents Lemuel’s ability to rule as king or his efforts in the bedroom. The word for “ways” can also mean sex in the certain contexts, and the word for “ruins” is relatable to a concubine. With several suggestions driving the point home, it’s clear that momma wants Lemuel to avoid a lust-centered life. He should instead focus his kingly abilities on helping the downcast. But it would go way too far to assume that Mom wanted him to abstain from sex all together. In fact, sex isn’t even the point. Paying attention to the needs of his subjects is.
Now we can get a better perspective on the next verses dealing with wine and strong drink, because they deal with the very same matter:
It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to crave strong drink,
lest they drink and forget what is decreed,
and remove from all the poor their legal rights (31:4-5)
Why shouldn’t the king drink? Again, it will affect his decisions regarding the downcast. How bad could it be? Pretty bad. He could forget laws that protect poor and actually void their rights completely. That’s pretty rash isn’t it? Does this sound like the actions of a ruler who has a glass of wine in him? Doesn’t it sound like he’s drunk off his rocker, making really dumb decisions that he will regret in the morning? In fact, that’s what mom’s so worried about. She’s not anti-wine, she just doesn’t want her son to be a sloppy drunk who destroys the rights of the weak. Just like she’s not anti-women, but just doesn’t want an obsession over sex to cloud the king’s judgment.
In fact, three important themes continue in the proceeding verses:
Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,
and wine to those who are bitterly distressed;
let them drink and forget their poverty,
and remember their misery no more (31:6-7)
The themes are (1) drinking, (2) forgetfulness, and (3) the poor and distressed. It’s obvious, the kind of drinking involved in this whole passage is the kind that makes someone forget things–heavy drinking. Momma tells us that if anyone should drink until they forget, it’s those who are in deep poverty. I’m with Bruce Waltke on this, it’s probably a form of sarcasm. Maybe Mom was warning her son Lemuel that drunk kings are a sad paradox–the wealthiest and most powerful men in the land acting like the poorest. I certainly don’t think she’s giving poor guys advice to drink their poor lives away. Instead, she was likely calling attention to something already prominent in the impoverished communities.
Here’s the main point, Lemuel’s momma is not a teetotaler and she’s not telling Lemuel to never touch the stuff. In fact, wine was a part of daily life in the ancient world. But there is plenty of evidence that drunkenness was condemned by both Jew and Gentile alike.