"You are not abused"

The Wisdom of Bathsheba

By Kersley Fitzgerald

It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to take strong drink,
lest they drink and forget what has been decreed
and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
Proverbs 31:4-7

Proverbs 31 is known as the handbook for the godly woman, but the first nine verses are actually addressed to a "King Lemuel" (presumed to be Solomon) by his mother. The center portion has caused some confusion. It seems to say that kings should not drink, but let the dying and the homeless drown their sorrows in an alcoholic stupor. I don't think that's really what it's saying.

The passage is instructions on how to be a good king. It starts with:

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

She (presumably Bathsheba) starts with the scariest question ever. The question (in slightly different words) that God asked Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:9, 13). The question that seems to ask, "Hey, what's going on, Buddy?" but really means, "I know exactly what you're doing and you have two seconds to give me an explanation that won't lead to a pounding. Time's up." She then goes straight to Solomon's greatest weakness: women. This is the man who had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (1 Kings 11:3). She's not saying that women are evil and men are good — she's a woman. But she also knew what all those women would do to his heart: "As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God" (1 Kings 11:4). After all, it was her beauty and David's lust that inspired David to murder her first husband (2 Samuel 11).

She's not saying don't associate with women or don't have a wife. She's saying, "Do not give your strength to women." Solomon's father knew that his strength was only in the Lord (Psalm 21:1; 28:1), saying, "The LORD is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed" (Psalm 28:8). Because Solomon gave his devotion and attention to 1,000 women instead of to God, the kingdom was split in the reign of his son (1 Kings 12:16-24).

The second vise or distraction Solomon's mother warns him against is "strong drink." There's discussion about what "strong drink" means and if she meant all wine or just alcohol to excess, but other stories in the Bible do show what tends to happen when a king gets sloshed. In Esther 1, King Ahasuerus threw a huge feast for seven days. On the last day, "when the heart of the king was merry with wine" (Esther 1:10), he called for his wife, Queen Vashti, to bless his feast with her presence. There's debate as to why she refused, possibly because she didn't want to leave her own party or because when he commanded her to come "with her royal crown," that was the only thing she was to wear (Esther 1:11). At any rate, she refused to come, Ahasuerus looked like a fool, and his lackeys led him to banish her.

The other drunk king of note was King Belshazzar who ruled Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 5). When he and his court drank and praised their idols, God caused a hand to appear that wrote on the plaster of the wall. Daniel interpreted the message to mean the Medes and Persians would attack that night and take the kingdom and the king's life. It's fair to say that if he hadn't so enthusiastically praised all his "gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone" (Daniel 5:4), God might have spared him. But it's certain that his kingdom would at least have had a fighting chance had "a thousand of his lords" not been blitzed (Daniel 5:1).

The most confusing part of the royal instructions in Proverbs 31 is verses 6-7 which seem to say those who are dying, in distress, or poor should have all the alcohol they want. Personally, I think Bathsheba was using hyperbole. Any parent, especially parents whose children are of a certain age, know the drill. You ask them the simplest thing — take a shower, feed the dog, mow the law, do the dishes, by all that is holy where is your deodorant?!! More often than we'd like, the response is raised shoulders, a tortured sigh, and a drop of the shoulders so dramatic their hands brush the floor. If you're anything like me, you cry out, "You are not abused!" If you're slightly older than me, your response would be something like, "There are starving children in [third-world area of your choosing] who would love to have a lawn to mow!"

I think that's where Bathsheba's going with this. Solomon is not abused. Being king may be difficult, but he does not need to drown his sorrows in liquor. And he's also got responsibilities. Specifically, to take care of his people:

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

As Ahasuerus and Belshazzar demonstrated, it's hard to have good judgment when you're plastered. In verse 5, Bathsheba warns that too much alcohol will cause a king to "forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted." As the leader of God's people, Solomon was supposed to set the example for right living, which included taking care of the poor and disadvantaged.

So, no, the point of the passage is not that the afflicted, perishing, and poor should be given alcohol. It's that leaders need personal discipline in order to lead justly. Idolatry (of idols or members of the opposite sex) leaches away your power and drunkenness takes your discernment.

And even the wisest person in the world needs to listen to his mother.

Image Credit: Jonathan Warner; "Goblets"; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Sin-Evil

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Published 3-20-17