Saturday, July 20, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (68)

Throughout history kings have been given opportunities to do good and evil on a scale unlike almost anyone else.

When focused on the welfare of their kingdoms, the benefits they could confer on their subjects were immense. When exacting vengeance from their enemies, the damage the greatest of monarchs could inflict was almost incalculable. And when they devoted themselves to self-indulgence, their excesses were the stuff of legends.

Even today, when monarchs are little more than figureheads, these royal celebs have in their grasp the potential to do both harm and good far beyond the ordinary man or woman.

“With great power,” as they say …

The Oracle of King Lemuel (Proverbs 31:1-9)

… Comes Great Responsibility

Another very famous chapter, this one beginning with a few lines of advice that are often overlooked in the head-over-heels rush to express opinions about verse 10 and those that follow it. They are introduced with this:
“The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him ...”
Let’s stop and think about that opener for a minute. These are the “words of King Lemuel”, but he was only the one who wrote them down. They were taught to him by a woman. They come from the unique perspective of a queen mother; privileged just like her son, yet not obligated to deal with the endless responsibilities of rule. She had time on her hands to observe both the conduct of her husband and son, and others as well. She had time to reflect and meditate and learn in a way that few do. She would be educated well beyond her peers, able to see the big picture in a way no mere subject or functionary could. If she were intelligent and God-fearing, which it appears she was, she would be uniquely qualified to give sound advice to kings and to those who would soon be kings.

Missing Info

We do not have the slightest idea who this good woman was. We can’t say for sure who Lemuel was either. Some commentators conjecture that Lemuel (meaning “belonging to God”) was Bathsheba’s pet name for Solomon. Others conjecture it was a name for Hezekiah. Still others point to a Chaldean word and word-ending found in the chapter, speculating that the mother identified in verse 1 was a Jewish wife of a Chaldean monarch (hey, it did happen); this because the reference to “YHWH” in verse 30 marks her as a worshiper of the Israelite God, and not some foreign pseudo-deity. Other theories exist, but none that have any greater substance to back them up.

What we do know is that Solomon was not just the source of a great deal of wisdom but uniquely given the opportunity to share it with “all the kings of the earth” and their representatives, who came from all over the world to hear his wisdom. It would be surprising if the useful information exchanged during these royal visits went only in one direction, since it is obvious Solomon was a keen observer of the human condition and a ready student as well as a formidable teacher. There is no good reason such a man would not have preserved the useful instruction of others, especially concerning an area of life in which his proverbs are otherwise notably lacking.

In any case, on to the words themselves, which are of considerably greater importance than their speculative origin.

Kings and Self-Indulgence

Here begins a mother’s wise instruction to her son:
“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.
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.
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.”
There are Christians who teach alcohol is evil and nobody should ever touch the stuff. Others point out the obvious: that Jesus himself drank wine, and that the practice of drinking in moderation is nowhere condemned in the word of God. Both sides would surely agree that both drunkenness and addiction are things to be avoided even for those who live under grace rather than law. Alcohol has its appropriate uses, as well as its inherent dangers.

Wine, Women and Song

The first three sentences, each beginning with “What?” in Hebrew, may not unreasonably be taken to imply that Lemuel had a drinking problem, and possibly a girl problem as well (“Do not give your strength to women”) in his youth. His mother’s instruction is not merely theoretical. It reads like he has been caught in the act. Perhaps Lemuel was given to the occasional bout of carousing with his peers, which would certainly have been a temptation open to him as a young monarch or monarch-in-waiting. Thus, as with much maternal advice, we are first treated to a dose of expressed love and possibly a smidgen or two of guilt (“son of my womb”, “son of my vows”). These are not bad things. We are least inclined, I hope, to easily dismiss the advice of those who have invested the most in us.

Before she gets to the wine, Lemuel’s mother understandably gets to the subject of women: “Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings.” If Lemuel was indeed Solomon, this would be an unbelievably ironic statement, as the love of women was precisely what undid Solomon’s kingdom and brought division to God’s people. However, the statement is equally applicable to Ahab and numerous other Israelite and Gentile monarchs undermined, compromised, misdirected or weakened by dysfunctional relationships with women.

A Zero-Sum Game

I do not think either this last line or the one that follows it (“It is not for kings to drink wine or for rulers to take strong drink”) are intended as absolute prohibitions on the consumption of strong drink or the attentions of women. Rather, Lemuel’s mother says, “Do not give your strength to women,” and I suspect she meant the same where wine was concerned. It is not the occasional enjoyment of a glass of wine after a long day or reveling in the delights of a godly spouse that destroy kings; rather, it is being devoted to self-indulgence at the expense of other things. It is the giving of your strength to them, partying away days that should have been spent administering the kingdom for the good of God’s people.

I have written before about zero-sum games, which is simply an economic term describing a situation in which a gain by one player is balanced by an equal loss to another. A zero-sum game is any transaction in which the pot never grows. Our lives are zero-sum games. They are as long as they will be, and no longer; therefore, all activities to which I devote my strength and all the hours I spend engaged in them are necessarily subtracted from the total hours I have available for other things.

This, I think, is Lemuel’s mother’s point. It’s an interesting argument, and it’s not the one Solomon makes several chapters earlier in speaking of the evils of abusing alcohol.

The Other Arguments

Solomon’s argument, if you remember, is that drunkards and gluttons are typically lazy and poor; that alcohol abuse brings sorrow, conflict, complaints, injuries and red eyes; that you end up hung over, confused, incoherent, stupid and addicted. Lemuel’s mom leaves all that perfectly reasonable stuff out. As a godly woman she sees one major issue with both alcohol abuse and overindulgence with women that nobody has happened to point out yet, and that is that it makes a king worse at his job. A kingdom cannot afford that.

The wine, she says, is best left to the poor, downtrodden, suffering subjects of the kingdom. “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.” When your life is particularly onerous, there is arguably some value in the occasional moment of forgetfulness. But when you are a king, already afforded every possible privilege, such luxuries are not to be enjoyed at the expense of others. It is neither fair nor reasonable to forget the needs of the poor, or fail to faithfully administer the laws of the land because you are passed out on the royal couch. Instead, she says, “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.”

Extending the Metaphor

If Lemuel’s mom’s advice could be applied only to kings, it would be of limited value to us today. I’d suggest it is applicable to every one of us in whatever measure we have been given responsibility for the care of others. Nobody thinks a mother or father responsible or good when they indulge themselves to the detriment of their children. Respect for God and for the privileges he grants us demand that we care for the needs of others in proportion with the authority granted us.

I’m reminded of a great quote on this subject from C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy:
“ ‘Hurrah! Hurrah!’ said Corin. ‘I shan’t have to be king. I shan’t have to be King. I’ll always be a prince. It’s princes have all the fun.’

‘And that’s truer than thy brother knows, Cor,’ said King Lune. ‘For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scanter meal than any man in your land.’ ”
This is indeed what it means to be a true king. This, and to put your hand over your glass when the waiter comes back with the bottle for the third time.

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