The identity of King Lemuel is unknown. Some people think that Lemuel is a pen name of King Solomon, the author of most of Proverbs, but like Agur, the author of Proverbs 30 , he may simply be an otherwise unknown wise man whose wisdom remains in the Bible even after he has been forgotten by history. In this case, the wisdom was (according to Proverbs) originally the wisdom of Lemuel’s mother. Unfortunately, Lemuel’s mother, who was presumably a princess or queen herself, has not been recorded in scripture, and as Lemuel’s identity or his realm is forgotten, Lemuel’s mother also has been consigned to historical oblivion.
Nonetheless, what is most important about King Lemuel and his mother is not their identity, or what realm they ruled over, but the worthiness and implications of the advice itself on the duties and responsibilities of kings. Needless to say, the subject is of considerable interest to me. Of course, when the Bible speaks about kings and their duties and responsibilities, kings is a title that refers to civil rulers and leaders in general and is not limited to monarchy, though it is of course applicable at all places and all time.
There are three pieces of advice given to Lemuel by his mother and then recorded in scripture. Let us examine each of them in turn and see what sort of relevant advice we can glean from them. The first piece of advice is recorded in Proverbs 31:1-3: “The words of King Lemuel, the utterance which his mother taught him: What, my son? And what, son of my womb? And what, son of my vows? Do not give your strength to women, nor your ways to that which destroys kings.” It is ironic that Lemuel’s mother tells him not to give his strength to women nor his ways to that which destroys kings. What is meant here? Given the context, that Lemuel is the son of his mother’s womb and vows, that Lemuel was a queen, the lawfully wedded wife of her husband, presumably a king. Giving your strength to women means collecting and being ensnared in a harem by women scheming for influence for themselves and their children. What destroys kings is the luxuriant and corrupt and decadent lifestyle that most monarchs live–a way that destroys them mind, body, and spirit. So, lesson number one for leaders is: don’t amass a harem; stick with one godly wife.
The second piece of advice is found in Proverbs 31:4-7: “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for princes intoxicating drink; lest they drink and forget the law, and pervert the justice of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those who are bitter of heart. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.” This is a wise command, but one that is seldom heeded by rulers. Far too often those who consider themselves elites enjoy parties and banquets and luxury. The Bible forbids leaders from drunkenness (including religious leaders) because it interferes with the duties of a leader to discern and judge justly. Intriguingly, Lemuel’s mother recommends drink for those who are perishing, whose lives are full of misery, so that they can forget their misery for a little while. This seems to be a major reason why people self-medicate their problems and become alcoholics. It is not clear whether this advice is ironic, and intended to point out that drunkenness reflects misery rather than happiness, vanity and futility rather than the proper purposeful life of a ruler, but it is sound advice anyway. Lesson number two for leaders is: stay sober and sober-minded.
The third lesson from Lemuel’s mother is contained in Proverbs 31:8-9: “Open your mouth for the speechless, in the cause of all who are appointed to die. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.” Most kings and rulers may wish to be seen as defending the cause of their people, but in reality most of them plead the cause of elites, be they military leaders or aristocrats or palace courtiers or wealthy businessmen. Elites do not need for rulers to speak on their behalf. They have their own power, their own lobbyists and lawyers and other backers, and do not need the power of the throne to support their interests. Rather, it is the poor and needy and speechless, those who do not have a voice in the corridors of power, nor can afford those to speak on their behalf, that require the support of the ruler. And this support cannot merely be lip service, but needs to be the expenditure of actual political capital and effort on their behalf, for the cause of justice within a realm. Most rulers and leaders, whatever their inclinations, are unwilling to crusade for justice within their realms and institutions, but are content to go with the flow and enjoy the perks of office as well as the benefits of associating with those who are already powerful and well-connected, rather than to disrupt that equilibrium for the sake of justice and equity. Lesson number three for leaders is: godly leaders speak for the powerless and poor, not for the elites.
All of these pieces of advice for leaders cut against the grain of how leaders generally behave. If there are three sins of leaders that are extremely common, the sins of sexual immorality, luxuriant decadence, and casual injustice are high among them. These are especially omnipresent evils in monarchies whose focus is on splendor and luxury and where the power of the monarch and his inner clique is bolstered by some kind of bogus divine right view of leadership and where the responsibility of rulers to uphold constitutional standards is weak or nonexistent. We ought to be careful when we see such standards present to ensure that such rulers are made aware of their obligations to the people and cease from serving only themselves and their favorites. Lemuel’s mother gave immensely wise advice, and advice that is sadly seldom heeded by leaders, whether crowned monarchs or not, to this day. Let it not remain so.