Excuse me? Who?
Sad to say, that was my first thought when invited to write about Lemuel’s mother, a heroic woman of the Bible. I guess it slipped my mind, if it ever lodged there, that King Lemuel wrote the well-known Proverbs 31.
Most of the proverbs are a father instructing his son, but Proverbs ends with a chapter extolling a mother’s love and her wise and loving advice to her son, a king (31:1-9), along with a famous passage praising a noble wife and mother (10-31).
The name Lemuel means “for God,” “devoted to God,” or “belonging to God,” which would be a logical name for a devout mother to give her son. My daughter gave her two birth children, whom a fertility doctor told her she’d never have, names that had great meaning for her. She named her daughter Mariah, close to Moriah, because she thought of faithful Abraham climbing that mountain with his son Isaac and saying, “God will provide.” She named her younger son Sam because it means, “Asked of God.” Whoever King Lemuel was, his mother must have wanted her son to know he belonged to God and for him to be devoted to God.
We know little of Lemuel except that he was a king, a poet, and a man who appreciated his good mother. Some suggest Lemuel was actually Solomon and that Lemuel was Bathsheba’s pet name for him. Some suggest he was King Hezekiah. Another theory is that Lemuel and his mother are fictional characters Solomon created to depict an ideal king and queen mother.
Whoever this king was, his mother was a hero. She has made clear to Lemuel that he is beloved, an “answer to her prayers.” That kind of foundation may have made him open to the things she taught him.
A Mother’s Advice
Lemuel’s mother advised him to live a life of temperance and kindness, two qualities a leader needs to govern any flourishing community, including a kingdom. He would not be able to rule well if he were obsessed with women “who ruin kings.” She advised him not to spend his “strength” and “vigor” on such women; rather, he was to use his time and energy, free of foolishness, to rule well. That may be what the second half of the proverb is about: Blessed is the man who has a “strong” and “noble” and kind wife, one whose husband is respected by all because of her, rather than to “fool around” with women who distract, diminish, and even hurt him.
She also advised him to avoid drinking wine and beer, which would make him “forget what has been decreed, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights” (v. 5). She said to leave drinking to those overwhelmed with anguish and misery. The Message version put it this way: “Use wine and beer only as sedatives, to kill the pain and dull the ache of the terminally ill, for whom life is a living death.” That version seems a bit of a leap from other versions, but as advice goes, it isn’t without merit. Kings—or leaders of any kind—should be wise in their dealings with the opposite gender and drink; leaders should be temperate, no doubt, in all areas of life.
Her final advice was perhaps the best of all three admonitions, although it largely depended on adhering to the other two. This third piece of advice would make all the difference in a kingdom. It would also make all the difference in our 2021 world: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (vv. 8-9).
I doubt this advice is something Lemuel’s mother sat down and told him when he was about to “leave home.” I imagine instead that he grew up hearing these things, and I imagine she modeled these things for him. That might be much of the reason King Lemuel wrote the latter part of Proverbs 31. He had observed this woman—the kind of woman who makes a difference.
A Woman Worthy of Praise
Verses 10-21 have been labeled a hymn, which is a song of praise, most often praising God, but sometimes praising certain people and things. It has also been labeled an epilogue, which is a conclusion to what has been written. Both seem appropriate, but I like to consider it a hymn, for such a woman is worthy of praise, such a woman is a hero.
Unlike the women Lemuel has been warned about, the “wife of noble character” brings her husband “good, not harm.” She takes care of her family and others who need her, as well, including the poor and needy. She’s busy doing things that matter to others. She’s a shrewd working woman as well as a mother and wife. She speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction, so that her children will one day be prepared to take care of themselves and others, not merely surviving in the world, but thriving in it and blessing it.
I think women sometimes roll their eyes when reading about her or beat themselves up, thinking, who can measure up? But I know of many Proverbs 31 women. We live in a different society than the Proverbs 31 wife and mother, but so many good women, in their 21st-century way, work at taking care of their families and others as well. While they know they can’t “do it all,” many have chosen jobs or volunteer to do work that in one way or another help the world that “God so loved,” while also teaching their children they “belong to God” and to rest in that—and teaching them to be temperate and kind and to desire to love like God loves.
Who cares if the family eats pizza some nights because she has no time to cook? Well, someone probably cares, as that seems to be the way it is these days, but most of us would not quibble or stress about eating take-out meals when it’s expedient or otherwise. But there are important things the modern Proverbs 31 woman does see to, things like taking time to tuck in her children at night with stories and prayers and kisses. Children who know they are safe and important and loved have a hero for a mother.
One hero I know of leads an organization that rescues trafficked and at-risk children in several countries. She travels all over the world overseeing safe homes and those who staff them. Meanwhile she home-schooled her two beautiful daughters, one now about to be a doctor and another just getting her master’s degree in sociology. Her son is adopted from another country and is growing into a strong, good man, having been taught much as Lemuel was taught. (His mother says that he is most definitely not suited for home schooling!) Her children and husband “arise and call her blessed,” but she would say the same thing about her husband and children, who enable her to do work that God has surely called her to do. Many other women in her organization, as well as many others serving in benevolent organizations, could be called Proverbs 31 women.
Another hero I know is a doctor of physical therapy who works empathetically and expertly with burn survivors and lymphedema oncology patients. She and her husband are busy loving and teaching their three children. The two older boys have hemophilia, and together the family works with the Hemophilia Association in their state. They spend quality time with their kids, love and serve in their local church, and shovel snow off driveways of their elderly and infirm neighbors. The world should “arise and call her blessed.”
Women Leaving a Legacy of Faith
My daughters, like countless other women, work in schools and make a difference in the lives of young people. They are often able to help the hurting and helpless students—more fit that category than you can imagine. They lavish God’s love on his children. They care for “the least of these” and their lives reflect other words of Jesus to the leper who pleaded with Jesus to make him clean: “I am willing.”
They are willing, because they grew up knowing we loved them, adored them really, and, more importantly, that God did. Loving others is overflow of that security and peace.
I was not what I think of as a “martyr mother,” one who does everything herself and isn’t very happy about it. That, as far as I was concerned, helped no one. Family was a micro-community, and we all helped. I believe God has made me able to match the Proverbs lady in at least the ability to “laugh at the days to come” (v. 25), but I tend to laugh a lot in general. I really laughed when the older of our two daughters left for college and made a point of reminding me where the sweeper was kept. Very funny. But the girls and I spent nine months out of the year at school for most of the day, and then we came home, ate a snack together, and shared stories of our day. But we also worked together (their dad made sure they had their own lawn mowers) to make home a safe, lovely place to be. When our work was done, all four of us “played” together, prayed together, and rested together.
Each of our daughters now has three children, and those children are grown! The grandchildren left home knowing they are beloved children of God and they are finding ways to help the needy and to love like Jesus loves. My daughters, like so many others, are good mothers. Heroes if you ask me.
I’m glad I took a good look at Lemuel’s mother and now know who she is and what she taught and why she and so many like her really are heroes. Mothers who love, not perfectly (who among us does that?), but deeply and unconditionally, and who teach those entrusted to them what they know about life in God, make the world look a little like the “kingdom come,” and wherever they do their good work, his “will is done on earth as it is in heaven.”