Seeing as I have zero children to date, I hope the above title doesn’t sound presumptuous. What follows is not a naive observation of the mothers I know, or an arrogant judgment about the “mistakes” mothers are making today. Instead I want to discuss a particular passage of Scripture, and if you have sons or think you might one day have sons, I hope these verses will be edifying to you. They certainly challenged me!
If you’re a Christian woman, you are probably familiar with Proverbs 31. This chapter of the Bible describes the “ideal” Christian woman, and when interpreted in a healthy way she provides us with a great example to follow. However, as often as Proverbs 31 is referenced, most women only read the second half of it. This popular second half begins with verse 10 and opens with the memorable question: “A wife of noble character who can find? ”
The first half of the chapter, on the other hand, is often overlooked. In these first 9 verses King Lemuel’s mother gives him instruction on how to be a good king, a passage that not only seems irrelevant to the second half of the passage, but also contains some downright weird advice. You can read through it and see for yourself!
1 The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:
2 What are you doing, my son? What are you doing, son of my womb?
What are you doing, son of my vows?
3Do not give your strength to women,
your ways to those who destroy kings.
4 It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to take strong drink,
5 lest they drink and forget what has been decreed
and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
6 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.
8 Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
9 Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
(Verse 6 is the one that really gets me–what kind of advice is that?)
The more I read it, however, the more I’ve realized how integrally related these two halves of Proverbs 31 are to one another. The second half is a description of what a godly woman looks like, but the first half is a living example of her. King Lemuel’s mother was, herself, a Proverbs 31 woman, and verses 1 through 9 are clear evidence of that.
To understand why King Lemuel’s mother was such a godly woman, we can now return to the opening title of this post. Within these verses we are provided with a great example for raising sons. At first glance that may not seem the case–how many women do you know whose son is king of a nation? Even so, we have more in common with her than we might think.
For those of us living in the United States, we belong to a privileged minority of the world with substantial prosperity and power. If you are white, you are likely to belong to an even smaller circle of privileged individuals. And if you belong to a Christian tradition which places special emphasis on male leadership, then your husband, brothers, and sons belong to an even narrower sphere of power. For those of us who match those qualifications, we are raising sons who will consequently live and lead like kings in their families, churches, and communities.
Side Note: I am not here using the term “king” to imply extravagance or tyranny, but to say that the men in evangelical churches are privileged with a particular role of leadership and power.
Of course the connection between your son and King Lemuel is not a perfect one, but the application of Proverbs 31 is much the same. What does King Lemuel’s mother tell him to do with his power and privilege? She warns him against the worldly temptations that sabotage a leader, and instead encourages him to live wisely (v. 2-5). She urges him to look upon his followers with compassion (v. 7), and she ends with an eloquent commission to defend the poor and “open your mouth” for those who have no voice. (v. 8-9)
The overall progression of these verses is one that becomes increasingly outwardly focused. Rather than fixate on himself and his fleshly desires, she directs him to think of others, and ultimately serve them. That is what it means to be a good king. That is also what it means to be a good leader.
Wisdom, compassion, and service to the weak. These are the principles that a Proverbs 31 woman instills in her son. In a world where our sons will be blessed with great opportunity, there are a lot of Christian books and preachers out there who are shaping young men to implement their power in popular yet unbiblical ways. Like King Lemuel’s mother, mothers today have a responsibility to resist that cultural tide.
Let me close with a story I once heard from Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea. In a radio interview Mortenson explained that the Taliban was preventing Muslim women from receiving an education because educated women were far less likely to allow their sons to go on jihad. Their tradition dictates that a Muslim man cannot go on jihad without the consent of his mother so the Taliban launched an attack on women’s education, intending to undermine the positive influence a mother has on her son.
As much as evangelical culture stresses the relationship between a father and son, this story is a powerful reminder that the mother-son relationship is also important. If you have a son, he is likely to inherit a special degree of power and responsibility when he gets older, and he needs to be equipped for it. Not with macho books about climbing mountains and being assertive, but with the character of Christ. Proverbs 31 gives us that standard.