Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Toast to Lemuel's Mother

Yesterday my students asked me about an unusual (to say the least) proverb that seems to advocate getting drunk. Proverbs 31:6-7 says "Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to him whose life is bitter. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his trouble no more."

The difficulties are obvious. Scripture elsewhere warns against inebriation (Prov 20:1, 23:29-30; Isa 5:22, 28:7; Rom 13:13, and many others). Why would the Bible advise us to help poor people by tapping a keg?

As usual, context provides some answers. This part of Proverbs contains advice that King Lemuel's mother gave to him about conducting himself as king (Prov 31:1). In Prov 31:2-5, Lemuel's mom warns him about habits that will damage his kingship - wine and women. She points out that "It is not for kings to drink wine... for they will drink and forget what is decreed, and pervert the rights of all the afflicted." Lemuel's mom is saying that it doesn't make sense for a king to get drunk, because 1) drunkenness may make him forget his responsibility to the downtrodden, and 2) he is not suffering, so he doesn't even have a bad excuse for getting sloshed. They may need to forget, but Lemuel needs to remember.

So I suspect that Lemuel's mother is not advising getting tanked - she is pointing out that a king doesn't have any of the normal reasons for getting drunk. We might paraphrase Mrs. Lemuel's advice: "People who are suffering and poor drink to forget their suffering - but as the king, you are not suffering. The suffering and the poor will suffer even more if you drink to forget." Her point is not that getting pickled is a good idea for the poor. She is merely pointing out how foolish it is for the king to get drunk. Proverbs 31:6-7 cannot be read in isolation, but rather as a contrast to Proverbs 31:4-5.

There may be something else going on here. Lemuel's mom is very concerned for the poor: she warns Lemmy (I'm sure that's what she called him) that he must defend the rights of the poor and oppressed in Prov 31:5, 8, and 9. In vv. 6-7, she may be advising that instead of hoarding his wine, he should give it out as gifts to the needy (see Paul E. Koptak, NIV Application Commentary: Proverbs). Although the Bible condemns drunkenness, it never condemns drinking in moderation. In fact, good wine is often used as a mark of God's abundant blessing (see Deut 7:13, 11:14, 14:26, 15:14; Joel 2:19, 3:18 and many others). Think of Jesus' generous gift of high-class wine to the young couple who had run out in John 2:1-12.

By the way, the picture above is a depiction of wisdom, found in an illuminated manuscript from 1170. The top figure is Jesus, the source of wisdom. Below him is Lady Wisdom (as in Prov 8), and below her is Solomon, I think. I'm not sure of the other figures, although the one in armor is probably David, and a few others have the look of Moses, Abraham, James, and perhaps John.


  1. I think I'll name our next son Lemmy. :)

  2. I was thinking that "Lemuel's Mother" might be a good name for a rock band.

  3. Barbie, should we be interpreting your comment as some kind of announcement?


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