an oracle 2 that his mother taught him:
O son 4 of my vows,
it is not for kings to drink wine, 9
or for rulers to crave strong drink, 10
31:5 lest they drink and forget what is decreed,
and wine to those who are bitterly distressed; 15
and remember their misery no more.
for the legal rights of all the dying. 20
and plead the cause 22 of the poor and needy.
1 sn Nothing else is known about King Lemuel aside from this mention in the book of Proverbs. Jewish legend identifies him as Solomon, making this advice from his mother Bathsheba; but there is no evidence for that. The passage is the only direct address to a king in the book of Proverbs – something that was the norm in wisdom literature of the ancient world (Leah L. Brunner, “King and Commoner in Proverbs and Near Eastern Sources,” Dor le Dor 10 : 210-19; Brunner argues that the advice is religious and not secular).
2 tn Some English versions take the Hebrew noun translated “oracle” here as a place name specifying the kingdom of King Lemuel; cf. NAB “king of Massa”; CEV “King Lemuel of Massa.”
4 tn In all three occurrences in this verse the word “son” has the Aramaic spelling, ַַבּר (bar), rather than the Hebrew בֵּן (ben). The repetition of the word “son” shows the seriousness of the warning; and the expression “son of my womb” and “son of my vows” are endearing epithets to show the great investment she has made in his religious place in God’s program. For a view that “son of my womb” should be “my own son,” see F. Deist, “Proverbs 31:1, A Case of Constant Mistranslation,” JNSL 6 (1978): 1-3; cf. TEV “my own dear son.”
5 sn The word translated “strength” refers to physical powers here, i.e., “vigor” (so NAB) or “stamina.” It is therefore a metonymy of cause; the effect would be what spending this strength meant – sexual involvement with women. It would be easy for a king to spend his energy enjoying women, but that would be unwise.
6 sn The word “ways” may in general refer to the heart’s affection for or attention to, or it may more specifically refer to sexual intercourse. While in the book of Proverbs the term is an idiom for the course of life, in this context it must refer to the energy spent in this activity.
7 tn The construction uses Qal infinitive construct לַמְחוֹת (lamkhot, “to wipe out; to blot out; to destroy”). The construction is somewhat strange, and so some interpreters suggest changing it to מֹחוֹת (mokhot, “destroyers of kings”); cf. BDB 562 s.v. מָחָה Qal.3. Commentators note that the form is close to an Aramaic word that means “concubine,” and an Arabic word that is an indelicate description for women.
8 tn Heb “[It is] not for kings.”
9 sn This second warning for kings concerns the use of alcohol. If this passage is meant to prohibit any use of alcohol by kings, it would be unheard of in any ancient royal court. What is probably meant is an excessive and unwarranted use of alcohol, or a troubling need for it, so that the meaning is “to drink wine in excess” (cf. NLT “to guzzle wine”; CEV “should not get drunk”). The danger, of course, would be that excessive use of alcohol would cloud the mind and deprive a king of true administrative ability and justice.
10 tn The MT has אֵו (’ev), a Kethib/Qere reading. The Kethib is אוֹ (’o) but the Qere is אֵי (’ey). Some follow the Qere and take the word as a shortened form of וַֹיֵּה, “where?” This would mean the ruler would be always asking for drink (cf. ASV). Others reconstruct to אַוֵּה (’avveh, “to desire; to crave”). In either case, the verse would be saying that a king is not to be wanting/seeking alcohol.
tn Here “strong drink” probably refers to barley beer (cf. NIV, NCV “beer”).
11 tn The verb means “change,” perhaps expressed in reversing decisions or removing rights.
12 tn Heb “all the children of poverty.” This expression refers to the poor by nature. Cf. KJV, NASB, NRSV “the afflicted”; NIV “oppressed.”
13 sn The word is דִּין (din, “judgment”; so KJV). In this passage it refers to the cause or the plea for justice, i.e., the “legal rights.”
14 sn Wine and beer should be given to those distressed and dying in order to ease their suffering and help them forget.
15 tn Heb “to the bitter of soul.” The phrase לְמָרֵי נָפֶשׁ (lÿmare nafesh) has been translated “of heavy hearts” (KJV); “in anguish” (NIV); “in misery” (TEV); “in bitter distress” (NRSV); “sorely depressed” (NAB); “in deep depression (NLT); “have lost all hope” (CEV). The word “bitter” (מַר, mar) describes the physical and mental/spiritual suffering as a result of affliction, grief, or suffering – these people are in emotional pain. So the idea of “bitterly distressed” works as well as any other translation.
16 tn The subjects and suffixes are singular (cf. KJV, ASV, NASB). Most other English versions render this as plural for stylistic reasons, in light of the preceding context.
17 tn The king was not to “drink and forget”; the suffering are to “drink and forget.”
18 sn The instruction to “open your mouth” is a metonymy of cause; it means “speak up for” (so NIV, TEV, NLT) or in this context “serve as an advocate in judgment” (cf. CEV “you must defend”).
19 sn The instruction compares people who cannot defend themselves in court with those who are physically unable to speak (this is a figure of speech known as hypocatastasis, an implied comparison). The former can physically speak; but because they are the poor, the uneducated, the oppressed, they are unable to conduct a legal defense. They may as well be speechless.
20 tn Or “of all the defenseless.” The noun חֲלוֹף (khalof) means “passing away; vanishing” (properly an infinitive); in this construction “the sons of the passing away” means people who by nature are transitory, people who are dying – mortals. But in this context it would indicate people who are “defenseless” as opposed to those who are healthy and powerful.
21 tn The noun צֶדֶק (tsedeq) serves here as an adverbial accusative of manner. The decisions reached (שְׁפָט, shÿfat) in this advocacy must conform to the standard of the law. So it is a little stronger than “judging fairly” (cf. NIV, NCV), although it will be fair if it is done righteously for all.
22 sn Previously the noun דִּין (din, judgment”) was used, signifying the legal rights or the pleas of the people. Now the imperative דִּין is used. It could be translated “judge,” but in this context “judge the poor” could be misunderstood to mean “condemn.” Here advocacy is in view, and so “plead the cause” is a better translation (cf. NASB, NIV, NRSV “defend the rights”). It was – and is – the responsibility of the king (ruler) to champion the rights of the poor and needy, who otherwise would be ignored and oppressed. They are the ones left destitute by the cruelties and inequalities of life (e.g., 2 Sam 14:4-11; 1 Kgs 3:16-28; Pss 45:3-5, 72:4; Isa 9:6-7).