The Proverbs 31 Man: Lemuel and a two-fold approach to wine?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Proverbs 31 recently, and thought I’d share my unfinished thoughts. I don’t usually do that – I have reservations making this exception, but think I may gain from some wider input into this topic. We’ll see.

The Proverbs 31 biblical chapter is most cited in relation to women. Women’s ministry leaders everywhere breathe a sigh of relief at having a fall-back text while their children are feverishly teething. It forms a manual of sorts for Christian women wanting to be great wives. An important question to ask here I think is, great from whose perspective? I’ve always hated hearing this passage preached by women to other women. I’m married, but my husband has yet shown no desire for me to dress him in scarlet. Luckily, though, most use this text to bounce into talks on interesting and useful modern-day feminine realities. Although the verses remain a Christian wifely measurement of sorts, I’m yet to attend any women’s meeting that provides information on how to do the things featured in Proverbs 31; trade property, plant a vineyard or use a spindle.

As the preceding passage is addressed to King Lemuel, it suggests the instructions weren’t actually written for women to pore over, measuring each other’s capabilities – but were intended for men. Importantly, a king – i.e. a man with a significant amount of capital. (Just quietly, if you give me a lump sum, I’ll see what I can get out of a merchant ship). And it does seem the text is best-suited for this original use – to inform men seeking wives. Given that most married male preachers in Los Angeles are incapable of refraining from sex jokes, perhaps it’s now counter-cultural and better than the advice men currently offer men. Turn to the Word, fellas. I guarantee no man has read this passage and googled “flax”, or tried to assess a lady’s true potential to “rise while it is yet night”. However, if we are going to continue to go there, as King Lemuel’s mother was specific in advice to Lemuel about the traits to look for, I’m sure she was similarly clear with her daughters on how to make bed coverings. Unfortunately, as that information was lost, I think we should cut women a little more slack.

Most interesting  to me is the preceding section addressed to Lemuel, the center of which concerns the use of wine. Here’s the text in context:

Proverbs 31: 1 – 9 The sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him.

Listen, my son! Listen, son of my womb!
Listen, my son, the answer to my prayers!
Do not spend your strength on women,
your vigor on those who ruin kings.

It is not for kings, Lemuel—
    it is not for kings to drink wine,
    not for rulers to crave beer,
lest they drink and forget what has been decreed,
    and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.

Let beer be for those who are perishing,
    wine for those who are in anguish!
Let them drink and forget their poverty
    and remember their misery no more.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

There is a two-fold response to alcohol offered by the King’s mother in this passage. It advocates a “double standard” of sorts, one for Kings (as power holders), and another for oppressed peoples. This is interesting, as I am reviewing the role of religion in development, through outside eyes – for example, in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This classic text argues for different categories of churches – ones that maintain an oppressive status quo, and ‘prophetic churches’ which encourage people to transform. I’ve also researched the “Pentecostal uplift” within Pentecostal churches in the majority or developing world. Robert Brenneman in Homies + Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America is one text that relates the economic uplift so many Pentecostals experience directly to church social norms that reduce, if not end alcohol consumption.

I’m struggling to know what to say as a researcher. I grew up in pretty conservative Pentecostal churches, where drinking was not OK under our denominational charter, so pastors and members drank secretly if they did at all. Then, our rules changed to allow for drinking in moderation. When I was twenty-three, I tried red wine. Mainly because I was in Italy, and it was culturally very normal. Plenty of verses include drinking wine, and indicate that in fact Jesus Himself drank (John 2; Matt 11:18-19; Matt 26:29; Mark 14:23; Luke 7:33-34). Wine “makes the heart glad” (Prov 104:15) but it’s drunkenness the Bible warns about (Rom 13:13; Gal 5:21; Peter 4:3). When I’m with people who don’t drink, I don’t. But I’m not a teetotaler.

This verse is different from most of the teaching I’ve received, however, because it acknowledges there is a social use for alcohol, in particular for those who are oppressed. Lemuel’s mother suggests wine is okay in the second instance, but isn’t great for Kings. She doesn’t say “Lemuel, as the King you have to get those peasants to stop downing the mead so their lives improve”. She sets a rule for how he is to think about himself, and how he is to think about others. There’s both restriction and permissiveness regarding alcohol in this chapter.

I know Pentecostals teach people to “think like kings”. But let’s be honest, most of them do not actually become kings. They become the middle class. Which is King-like, maybe, given our comparative wealth in this era of history. Statistically, in the end, we are talking kingly metaphors. It’s positive because there is measurable economic uplift, but I’m confused as to whether the approach we are using is maybe… anti-biblical. Either way, it works. And I’m all for ending poverty. I’m just confused.

14 thoughts on “The Proverbs 31 Man: Lemuel and a two-fold approach to wine?

  1. I not a theologian but tome this chapter is all about shepherding, protecting the poor. The consumption of wine for the poor seems to be in context of “drowning their sorrows”; but for the king, the one who protects wine to excess is not necessary as he needs to keep his perspective to watch over and protect the oppressed.

    This see,s rudimentary and obvious, but I see no other hidden meaning. Those who are poor, generally are unable to break out of that life station, and so drink to forget. A king, who’s position is honored and revered, needs to maintain sobriety in order to fulfill his role, for his people, with ‘sober’ judgement.

    I don’t feel it’s a class reference, or a superiority comparison.

    And the traits discussed for a ‘good woman’ can be likened to diligently doing what’s in your hand for your family, and livelihood. One may not necessarily wake early, but utilises the day to its full.

    1. Thanks for commenting Sam!

      I reread it, and I definitely think there is evident class distinctions within the text, I’m not just reading them in. I think maybe we today tend to read them *out*… which is interesting when dealing with social policy.

      But in that regards I love what you’re saying about caring for the powerless, as always I’m glad you dropped by. 🙂

  2. Nice post Tanya. I’m so infrequent at blogging that it is embarrassing. Nonetheless a post I upload on the Proverbs 31 Woman early last year (after having preached a series from Proverbs) seemed to resonate with people. Re-reading it now I think I could have made it clearer even more so that the Proverbs 31 woman personifies wisdom. It is wisdom that should be pursued in life *like* a man pursues a good wife OR EQUALLY *like* a woman pursues a good husband. It is wisdom that provides and serves one so well in life.

    Here is the link… http://josephmcauley.blogspot.co.nz/2012/01/proverbs-31-woman.html

    1. Very true, Joseph! I’m glad that you do blog, even if infrequently. Good thoughts!!

      The visuals on your post were a bit of a shake-up… I know that font! Whoops!!!… So I probably should say I wasn’t at the time so much thinking about Sydney’s larger megachurch women’s ministries, as I actually have been too busy to attend them, and don’t personally think they are a problem. They have fantastic ways of stretching the text into some fun and appropriate messages for women. But I get the heebie jeebies thinking about some of ministries of mid-sized and smaller-sized Australian churches that rule the congregation’s pictures of femininity with a carefully manicured nail.

      I did a fantastic class on the Wisdom Literature at Alphacrucis, and you reminded me of some of the things I loved in my exploration of the wider book of Proverbs and the genre.

      I will be honest, because of how this passage has operated oppressively in culture and how it has been co-opted, I like the idea of releasing women from this as a future forward “ideal”, but allowing it to be used as an imaginative, evocative future-forward picture for a wife-seeking male leader – that will be quickly replaced by the positive and negative realities of their chosen spouse. As a passage addressed to a man, perhaps it provides them with counter-cultural measurements that can redress some of the ills we currently face as women, without putting us under bondage to more expectations. I’ve talked to prominent Australian Christian leaders who told me they were waiting for “their Swedish babe” and “looking out for my barbie”. Proverbs 31 seems to speak most directly into this type of culture, which I guess was one point of my post.

      Aside from this, Sophia or Wisdom is a profound picture of God, in all God’s feminine glory. So if your post is true (which I think it is) we can safely use Proverbs 31 for this purpose too! Sophia is a most beautiful depiction of God as Wisdom who cries out on the streets. Which is why we shouldn’t use the word ‘He’ for male God – God is far beyond our understanding, and infinitely amazing!!!

  3. When I read Pro 31:4-5, I always think about King Xerxes – Vashti’s husband. He got drunk and forgot his duty to love, honor, and protect his oppressed wife.
    He made a decision while he was drunk that he might not have made if he had been sober.

    1. That’s a good point, Kim! There are lots of monarchs in the bible who drank and were irresponsible. I have been thinking more about this today, my ideas are forming slowly, slowly…. 🙂

  4. I believe there is something to be gained from the literal interpretation of Pr 31. I’ve never personally felt intimidated by Pr 31 primarily because I’ve also read the whole book of Proverbs- not just chapter 31. You have probably heard it said that the only passages of the New Testament that some men know are the ones where Paul talked about male headship and wifely submission. The same can be applied to the book of Proverbs. The only Proverbs some men (and women) know are the ones directed at women and wives. However, that’s not the way the book of Proverbs is written.

    Solomon wrote and/or collected Proverbs and passed that wisdom along to his son(s). He was a well rounded teacher. He taught his son(s) about the disadvantages of being foolish. He admonished his son(s) to exercise wisdom. Then, at the end of Proverbs, he made sure his son(s) understood the description and value of a virtuous wife. In most Christian circles, males are taught to recognize and expect a virtuous wife. Solomon being a very well rounded, thorough teacher also addressed the duties of men too, but the Christian community often fails to follow Solomon’s teaching example and address both sides. Far too many Christians have become comfortable and satisfied only studying the description of the virtuous wife and omitting the rest of Proverbs and the valuable descriptions and lessons it has to offer.

  5. In the original Hebrew, the following verses contained the words HE or MAN. Unfortunately, many of the modern English translations may use the word PERSON in these verses, thus losing some valuable context.

    Man of Noble Character found scattered throughout Proverbs

    A wise man will hear and increase in learning, And a man of
    understanding will acquire wise counsel. Pr 1:5
    Reprove a wise man and he will love you. Pr 9:8
    Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser, Teach a
    righteous man and he will increase his learning. Pr 9:9
    …a man of understanding holds his peace. Pr 11:12
    The generous man will be prosperous, And he who waters will himself be
    watered. Pr 11:25
    A good man will obtain favor from the LORD. Pr 12:2
    A wise man is he who listens to counsel. Pr 12:15
    A prudent man overlooks an insult. Pr 12:16
    A righteous man hates falsehood… Pr 13:5
    Every prudent man acts with knowledge. Pr 13:16
    He who walks with wise men will be wise. Pr 13:20
    A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children. Pr 13:22
    The sensible man considers his steps. Pr 14:15
    A wise man is cautious and turns away from evil. Pr 14:16
    He who is slow to anger has great understanding. Pr 14:29
    A man of understanding walks straight. Pr 15:21
    …he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Pr 17:27.
    What is desirable in a man is his kindness. Pr 19:22
    House and riches are the inheritance of fathers Pr 19:14
    A righteous man who walks in his integrity– How blessed are his sons
    after him. Pr 20:7
    A wise man scales the city of the mighty And brings down the
    stronghold in which they trust. Pr 21:22
    A prudent man sees danger, and hides himself… Pr 22:3, 27:12
    A wise man is strong, And a man of knowledge increases power. Pr 24:5
    For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again, But the wicked
    stumble in time of calamity. Pr 24:16
    A faithful man will abound with blessings, But he who makes haste to
    be rich will not go unpunished. Pr 28:20
    A fool always loses his temper, But a wise man holds it back. Pr 29:11
    … is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land. Pr 31:23

  6. Of course, those verses are for women too. Likewise, many of the attributes used to describe the Pr 31 woman apply to men too.
    She will do him good … (v.12).
    As believers, men and women are admonished to “do good” to our enemies (Lu 6:27, 35).
    Christian men and women are admonished to “do good” and to share with others (He 13:16).
    She … works with eager hands (v.13).
    Christian men and women are called to live a quiet lives, mind our business and “work with our hands” … (1 Th 4:11).
    She … does not eat the bread of idleness (v.27).
    Paul proclaimed the value of hard work and sternly warned men and women not to be idle (2 Th 3:6-12).
    She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue (v.26).
    The mouth of the righteous man utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just (Ps 37:30).
    She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy (v.20).
    Christian men and women are called to care for the poor and needy (Ma 25:34-40).
    The most emphasized Proverbs are usually the ones about women and wives. However, Solomon wrote about the duties of both men and women. I believe that when women (and men) understand this, it will truly take some of that pressure off women concerning Pr 31.

  7. I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your blogs
    really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site
    to come back down the road. Cheers

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