Chapter 31 (Handout)


The first nine chapters of Proverbs, divided into maybe a dozen topics in my copy of the NIV, pretty much everybody distinguishes them from the rest of the book. We did them in order. Now we have some onesie-twosie filler weeks when Pastor Doug is otherwise occupied. At first I contemplated continuing with chapter 10 and beyond in numerical order, but most of them -- perhaps as much as half -- are little 1- and 2-verse snippets, mostly some variation of (in the words of Al Capp's Mammy Yokum) "Good is better than evil, because it's nicer." OK, Proverbs doesn't give much in the way of reasons, but it has the same feel. So I decided to do the rest of Proverbs backwards, because the advice given in the last half or third is more interesting, perhaps more relevant to us already inside the Kingdom.

So today we start with everybody's favorite, chapter 31, and next time Pastor Doug is away, we'll aim for chapter 30 which has more Good Stuff, not like 31, but at least more interesting than chapter 10.

Sayings of King Lemuel

The first three verses introduce our author and give a piece of advice from his mother [read v.1-3]

Nobody knows who King Lemuel was. Hebrew tradition holds that Lemuel and Agur (chapter 30) were alternate names of Solomon, but not many scholars agree. Some scholars see both names as Minaean-Sabaean and infer that they are Arabian or Aramean (Syrian) people. Some translators read the Hebrew word 'massa' as a place name rather than "oracle" -- from what I know of Hebrew, I guess it could go either way -- making him King of Massa. The Septuagint ("LXX"), which is the Jewish translation of the Old Testament into Greek some 200 years before Christ, moves these nine verses to the end of chapter 24 and completely omits the name Lemuel.

Anyway, in her advice to Lemuel, his mother tells him to avoid women, which is not too different from the warnings Solomon gave his son in chapters 6 and 7, except Solomon's warnings identified her as an "adulteress" (I guess that exempts wives and concubines, or at least a single wife ;-) where Lemuel's mom was not so specific.

The next paragraph (four verses) give us an interesting insight into mind-bending "substances" [read v.4-7]

There are seven other places in Proverbs that mention wine -- all but two in a negative light like here -- it might be instructive to compare them:

[3:9 Honor the Lord with your wealth,] 10 then...your vats will brim over with new wine.
4:17 [The wicked] eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.
9:2 [Wisdom} has prepared her meat and mixed her wine...
  5 "Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed.
20:1 Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise.
21:17 He who loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich.
23:20 Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat,
  21 for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.
23:29 Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints?
  Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
  30 Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.
  31 Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly!
  32 In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper.
  33 Your eyes will see strange sights and your mind imagine confusing things.
  34 You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging.
  35 "They hit me," you will say, "but I'm not hurt! They beat me, but I don't feel it!
  When will I wake up so I can find another drink?"
Excess food or drink leads to poverty [21:17 and 23:21] and alcohol in particular leads the loss of mental faculties [23:29-35], but Lemuel's focus in our text today is on social obligation and (prior) discontent.

Following the King James Bible, which makes us (believers) to be the "kings" in the Christian realm [Rev.1:6 and 5:10], I was going to explain how this applies to us, but the NIV (following the Greek) demotes us to mere citizens of a "kingdom" -- oh wait, 5:10 goes on to say that we "reign" (what kings do) so I guess the KJV translators weren't that far wrong after all. The point is, people who have responsibility for the welfare of other people -- that would be most all of us, to a greater or lesser degree -- should not be ingesting mind-bending substances that diminish our ability to do that properly.

Instead, God has made these substances available to the poor and the hopeless to forget their misery. We are rich [2Co.8:9] and we have the eternal hope of glory, why would we want to forget that? The unbelievers, they need to forget the horror of their present poverty and their future eternity. That's what God (in His grace) made these substances for.

In the spirit of shouldering our responsibility as God's representatives in a lost and fallen world, to Make it a Better Place, we have Lemuel's continuing advice in the same spirit [read v.8-9]

Like Cain, who whimpered "Am I my brother's keeper?" after killing him, we all are indeed responsible for the welfare of the people God gives us to be helping. The second Great Commandment, also known as The Golden Rule, makes that a moral responsibility for all people at all times without exception. In other words, a Moral Absolute. And by God's grace, and in the power of His Holy Spirit, we can do it. And the world is a better place when we do. That's what we're here for.

The Wife of Noble Character

I first learned that this poem is also an acrostic (each verse starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet) while preparing this study. Sometimes it's pretty hard to find words that begin with a particular letter -- not as hard in Hebrew as in English: how many English words begin with X? -- but classic English poets had the same problen getting rhyme and meter to work. My point is, it's probably too much to ask there to be a lot of continuity between verses here. As a result, I was unable to find a significant topical grouping into clusters of verses to think about together. So this is somewhat ad-hoc. Instead, the focus here is on the Hebrew letters of the alphabet and the first word of each verse since that's the nature of the acrostic. OK, it's not heavy theology, but you've heard so many sermons on this poem, what can I add to that?

The first three verses could be thought of as introducing her value to her husband [read v.10-12]

Verse 10 = Aleph (A) 'ishah' = "woman/wife"; v.11 = Beth (B) 'batakh' = "trust"; v.12 = Gimmel (G) 'gamal' = "repay".

Then we have seven verses about her success in commerce [read v.13-19]

Verse 13 = Daleth (D) 'darash' = "seek"; v.14 = Heh (H) 'hayah' = "be"; v.15 = Waw (W) 'w+qum' = "and+rise"; v.16 = Zayin (Z) 'zamam' = "plan"; v.17 = Kheth (Ch) 'khagar' = "tie on"; v.18 = Teth (T) 'tagham' = "taste"; v.19 = Yod (Y) 'yad' = "hand".

Then three verses showing off her wealth [read v.20-22]

Verse 20 = Kaph (K) 'kaph' = "hand"; v.21 = Lamed (L) 'lo' = "not"; v.22 = Mem (M) 'm+rabad' = "spread+ing".

And three more, one of each [read v.23-25]

Verse 23 = Nun (N) 'no+yadagh' = passive+"know"; v.24 = Samekh (S) 'sadin' = "linens"; v.25 'Ayin (Gh) 'ghazaz' = "strong".

Followed by a couple more praising her wisdom and lack of laziness [read v.26-27]

Verse 26 = Peh (P) 'pa'ah' = "blow" ("mouth"); v.27 = Tsade (Ts) 'tsaphah' = "watch".

Finally ending with endorsements by her family and the public [read v.28-31]

Verse 28 = Qoph (Q) 'qum' = "arise"; v.29 = Resh (R) 'rabab' = "many"; v.30 = Shin (Sh) 'shaqar' = "deceive"; v.31 = Tav (Th) 'nathan' = "give".

Tom Pittman
2022 November 12