Do The Words to Lemuel Legitimize Alcohol as an Escape from Troubles?

November 19, 2017

We often think of Proverbs 31 relating to the excellent lady depicted in v. 10 through the end of the book. Less often, we consider the words to King Lemuel by his mother. 


This is one of the more obscure parts of Scripture, particularly the Proverbs, this has been a text that troubled me in the past, and I have heard it distorted by people who really should have known better.


In the NASB, the text reads like this:



1The words of King Lemuel, the oracle which his mother taught him:

2What, O my son?
  And what, O son of my womb?
  And what, O son of my vows?

3Do not give your strength to women,

 Or your ways to that which destroys kings.

4It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
 It is not for kings to drink wine,

 Or for rulers to desire strong drink,

5For they will drink and forget what is decreed,
 And pervert the rights of all the afflicted.

6Give strong drink to him who is perishing,
 And wine to him whose life is bitter.

7Let him drink and forget his poverty

 And remember his trouble no more.

8Open your mouth for the mute,

 For the rights of all the unfortunate.

9Open your mouth, judge righteously,

 And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.


What is so hard about the text?


For one, it does seem random. We don’t actually know the identity of Lemuel. He is not a king in any of the biblical narratives.[1] Of course, randomness to the reader’s mind (especially the postmodern reader) does not sit in judgment over the authoritative nature of the text. It remains something inspired and put there by the Holy Spirit, so it is not for us to ignore it. We can express an honest perplexity saying that the text seems to arise from nowhere and end somewhat abruptly as it moves on to the more well-known portion of Proverbs 31. This creates a problem for us, the readers, but that differs from a problem with the text itself.


Really, the basic message of the text does not prove overly astonishing or even subtle. Sobriety is integral to a just kingdom.[2] The king often acted as judge, holding both life and death, prosperity and ruin in his hands. He could not judge righteously if he could not think straight. As in today’s culture, drinking to excess was both practiced regularly and received disapproval in the ancient world. Such admonishments were not unique to Israel; Egypt possessed its own wisdom literature that warned against losing control to drunkenness due to the social consequences that often followed.[3


The bulk of what the text says should raise no eyebrows. Basically no one desires a king drunk on his throne or a hammered judge swinging his gavel. The verses that seem to challenge the basic biblical prohibition on drinking to a point of inebriation are 6 and 7. At first look, one might interpret these as an imperative for the king to make strong drink and wine available to those who suffer not only physically, but also emotionally, mentally, and financially. An interpretation such as that would run completely contrary to the universal ban on drunkenness. 


Before discussing how these two verses should be read, here’s what should not be done. “Yeah, well, that’s the Old Testament. There’s a lot of weird, outdated stuff in there.” No. Nix that sentiment as undercutting 2 Timothy 3:16. Yes, the New Testament does teach the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ. For example, Hebrews teaches that we do not continue on in the sacrifices detailed in Leviticus 1-7. However, Proverbs 31:1-9 is a text of a different color.


Recall that Proverbs consists of just that—proverbial sayings. Not everything is a blanket, one-size-fits-all command. If we take the Proverbs in such a way, Proverbs 26:4-5 will provide us with an unsolvable quandary. Recall that Proverbs also has a poetic nature to it. Poetry fell out of favor in mainstream American culture a long time ago, which is well and good, excepting that a substantial portion of the Bible consists of poetry. What we read in Proverbs 31:6-7 is not a command to provide the suffering with substances to drown their sorrows. It’s not an ancient way of prescribing painkillers either. Instead, it’s a bit of a sarcasm. It’s a mother saying to her son, “Booze isn’t for you. You’re the king. Drunkenness is for drunks.” It’s also a bit of a word picture. Lemuel’s mother has reminded him that those who suffer severe poverty need him to rule with justice and equity lest they fall into the trap that says substance abuse provides an escape from the problems of poverty.[4] So this text does not promote nor permit drunkenness or abuse of alcohol as a substance. In fact, it represents one of the stronger biblical statements that might curb one’s intake of it.


Scripture often speaks to us in ways we might not expect, especially in our culture of immediate gratification of whatever we want. It was written in space and time—in another place at a different time. To refer to it as the manual for Christian living isn’t wrong, but to say its written like an American human resources book of standard operating procedures would commit a fallacy. 



[1] Derek Kidner, The Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 15 of The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1964), 182. 


[2] Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs,  vol. 14 of The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, eds. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1993), 246.


[3] John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 570.


[4]Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15–31, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 508.


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