In the Garden of Eden, there lived a man whose name was Adam (Gen 2:20). The Creator had formed Adam from the dust of the ground (2:7), and the man was made in the image of God as a reflection of God’s glory (1:26-27). He was loved by God and given the task of governing God’s creation in the newly-formed world (1:28). Yet God declared Adam’s condition as not good: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (2:18; cp. 1:31). Notice the significance of God’s statement: Man had been made in the image of God. He possessed physical perfection, a spiritual soul, and intellectual brilliance. He enjoyed every provision needed for life in paradise. He had a mandate from God—a purpose in his work to be in charge of all creation. He dwelt in fellowship with the Holy One himself. Yet still, Adam’s state was declared “not good.” He needed a helper who was like him, yet different. He needed a wife as marriage was never meant to replace God’s love but to demonstrate it. If we make marriage our purpose in life or turn our spouse into a functional god, we will destroy God’s precious gift to us. Marriage fails when we seek our own fulfillment: “What can I get out of marriage? What’s the benefit to myself? How can my spouse fulfill my love language?” Yes, marriage is a blessing, but only to be experienced in the fullness of God’s grace. Marriage only works when selfish sinners, by the grace of God, have chosen to serve each other. For God designed marriage from the very beginning to be one man and one woman serving one another for one lifetime (Gen 2:18-25; Matt 19:1-9). The husband is to faithfully love his wife (Prov 5:18) and the wife to faithfully love her husband (2:17).
So, what happens when you find yourself trapped in a difficult marriage? What happens when the day after the wedding you realize that—(Surprise—Surprise!)—you married a sinner? What happens when you no longer feel “in love” or when your spouse declares you are no longer meeting their needs? What happens when you are tempted to quit? You must turn in hope to the Word of God: “For whatever was written in former days [including the Proverbs] was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4). The Proverbs are God’s wisdom when we don’t know what to do, offering practical skills for living well in a broken world. They are profitable for every subject pertaining to life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3). So, in this final chapter of the book of Proverbs, we consider God’s wisdom for marriage.
Proverbs 31 records “the words of King Lemuel” (v. 1a), but we know almost nothing about this man. There was never a king of Israel by that name (although it could have been a nickname). The following instruction reveals him to be a worshiper of Yahweh, and his name, Lemu-el, meant “belonging to God.” He was most likely a contemporary of Solomon whom history has long since forgotten. So once again, true wisdom depends not on the speaker but the source. We can cherish God’s Word even when it comes by way of an unknown messenger.
Lemuel begins by painting the portrait of a godly man as he remembers “an oracle that his mother taught him: What are you doing, my son? What are you doing, son of my womb? What are you doing, son of my vows?” (Vv. 1b-2). His mother speaks words which parents often say: “What are you doing? Whatever gave you that idea? Here, son, let me set you straight.” She implores based on their familial relationship: “You are my son. I gave birth to you. I vowed to dedicate you to the Lord.” Certainly, most of us would do much better if we listened more to our mothers (4:3; 10:1; 15:20; 19:26; 20:20; 23:22, 25; 29:15; 30:17).
Be wise with women
The Queen mother warns her son: “Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings” (v. 3). Essentially, she tells him, “Do not pursue the forbidden woman whether she be the wife of another man or the worshipper of false gods. Yes, as the king you can get whatever you want. You can seek unrestrained sexual gratification or command women into your chamber. But do not go down that path.”
Notice, however, the reason she gives: She does not say how it is morally wrong, although it is. She does not cite how it demeans women and demoralizes men, although it does. She exhorts her son to self-restraint for the sake of his own good. If he starts chasing after skirts and building up his harem, he cannot serve his people well, govern the kingdom wisely, or sniff out any palace intrigue. He might squander the national treasury or betray his honor for the sake of a woman. This wise counsel has been repeatedly proven true: David with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11), Solomon and his many wives (1 Kgs 11:1-4), Ahab and Queen Jezebel (16:30-33), Herod and Herodias (Mark 6:14-28), and many other kings who have fallen since because of their foolishness with women. This does not mean, of course, that all women should be avoided, simply those who will destroy you: “Stay away from the bad ones! Stay away from wicked women!” Lemuel’s mother tells him to beware.
She then sirens a second warning: “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” (Prov 31:4-5). As only a mother can, she tells her son, “Don’t be a drunkard. Don’t drown yourself in wine.” She does not advocate for prohibition but for prudence: “Be self-controlled. Be wise with alcohol. Don’t forget that you’re a king. You have important work to do. Do not let drinking distort your sense of justice.”
Be compassionate to the poor
Instead of wasting his kingship on himself with wine and women, Lemuel must use his position to demonstrate compassion for others. Therefore, “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” (Vv. 6-7). Too much wine might harm a king by impeding his good judgment, yet wine could also comfort the hurting or relieve the pain of the perishing. However, the relief of free beer and wine would only be temporary, for we are not meant to drown our sorrows in drink. Our problems still remain at the bottom of the keg, so a longer-term solution is in order: “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” (Vv. 8-9). To those in power, “Be the voice of those who have no voice. Speak on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. Make laws and decrees to protect their rights. Use your kingship to show compassion.” Leaders must push for social justice. They must speak on behalf of the helpless and hurting. “O Lemuel, belonging to God, ponder your place in achieving God’s eternal purpose.”
Men, consider now what this teaching has to do with you. Surely you are not a king (of Israel or any other nation), but you do hold some authority in life. You need the wisdom to live life well. So first, be wise toward women. In this wireless age of the internet and social media, you can have any woman you want (or at least pictures of her). Beware, she will destroy you. If you are married, find satisfaction in your wife (5:18). Do not allow your eyes to wander or let your thoughts stray beyond the home, for the adulteress will destroy your life, your family, and your ministry. Be wise toward women.
Second, do not be a drunkard: practice self-control and moderation. Enjoy God’s goodness at the dinner table with a glass of wine, but don’t let alcohol cloud your judgment. Don’t escape your trials with intoxication. Face the world with the wisdom of God and not with foolish measures.
Lastly, leverage your authority for good. You may be the boss of a company: Take care of how you treat your employees. You may be a leader in the church: Consider your ministry to those whom you serve. You may be a husband or a father: Are your decisions best for the family and not just yourself? Are you making decisions and taking the initiative that will lead your family spiritually? Use your power to serve those without. Lemuel’s principles are simple to hear but not always easy to follow.
Tom Sugimura pastors New Life Church in Woodland Hills, CA. He trains church planters, international pastors, and biblical counselors. He has also authored two books, Hope for New Dads and God’s Answers to Life’s Most Difficult Questions. He and his wife, Amanda, are busy raising four rambunctious children.