Listen

We’re winding down our reflections on the end of the book of Proverbs today—
the book of Proverbs ends in the same way that it began:
with poetry.

So let’s read Proverbs 31,
and then we’ll make a couple of reflections,
and then we’ll come to the table:

The sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him.

Listen, my son! Listen, son of my womb!
    Listen, my son, the answer to my prayers!

Do not spend your strength on women,
    your vigor on those who ruin kings.

It is not for kings, Lemuel—
    it is not for kings to drink wine,
    not for rulers to crave beer,
lest they drink and forget what has been decreed,
    and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.
Let beer be for those who are perishing,
    wine for those who are in anguish!
Let them drink and forget their poverty
    and remember their misery no more.

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.

A wife of noble character who can find?
    She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full confidence in her
    and lacks nothing of value.

She brings him good, not harm,
    all the days of her life.
She selects wool and flax
    and works with eager hands.
She is like the merchant ships,
    bringing her food from afar.
She gets up while it is still night;
    she provides food for her family
    and portions for her female servants.
She considers a field and buys it;
    out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She sets about her work vigorously;
    her arms are strong for her tasks.
She sees that her trading is profitable,
    and her lamp does not go out at night.
In her hand she holds the distaff
    and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
She opens her arms to the poor
    and extends her hands to the needy.
When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
    for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
She makes coverings for her bed;
    she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
Her husband is respected at the city gate,
    where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them,
    and supplies the merchants with sashes.
She is clothed with strength and dignity;
    she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom,
    and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
She watches over the affairs of her household
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children arise and call her blessed;
    her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many women do noble things,
    but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Honor her for all that her hands have done,
    and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

The book of Proverbs began with a parent 
giving guidance and direction to their child—

with a parent saying (1.8) 

“my child—
listen to the instruction of your father 
and the teaching of your mother.”

And now the book of Proverbs is ending in the same way:
with a mother giving instruction to her son, King Lemuel.

Who is King Lemuel? 
Nobody knows.

This is the only place that his name shows up 
in Scripture or in any other ancient source.

But whoever complied the proverbs evidently didn’t think 
that it was that it was necessary for us to know much about him or his mother.

This “inspired utterance” (v1)—
this oracle of insight, this prophetic poem—
can stand on its own two feet.

King Lemuel’s mother wants to make sure 
that her son doesn’t waste his life 
pursuing the wrong things.

She wants him to enter into the truly human life—
into the truly alive kind of life.

She doesn’t want him to spend his strength and vigor (v3)
on the things that ruin life.

Because he’s a king—King Lemuel.

We know virtually nothing about him,
so we certainly don’t want to forget the one thing we DO know.

King Lemuel is a king.
His life is not his own.
He’s responsible for more than just himself.

He’s got people who are looking to him—
the oppressed (v5) and those who cannot speak for themselves (v8) 
to make sure that justice is done in the land.

That laws are upheld and that disputes are judged fairly.

And so his mother tells him—
leave the wine and the booze and the beer for other people.

For the suffering and the anguished (v6-7).

They’re the ones who need a stiff drink.
Who need to forget their pain and misery.

Side note:
the rest of the proverbs would tell you that’s a really stupid way to live—
to abuse alcohol and use it to self-medicate.

But King’s Lemuel’s mother isn’t concerned about timeless commands… 
she’s just trying to get her son to pursue the right things in life:

Leave the booze for the guy in the gutter,
you’re a king.

“You have such dignity.
You have such responsibility.

“Who you are and who you’re responsible to
means that you’ve got make sure 
you don’t waste your energy on the wrong things.

“Get your buzz 
by doing the right thing (v8-9).

“Get your fix 
by helping those who depend on you.

“Don’t try to escape this life you’ve been given—
get your buzz by leaning into this life that you’ve been given
and using your life to bring healing to those who need you.

“Lemuel, son of my womb,
don’t chase after the wrong kind of high
and don’t chase after the wrong kind of women.”

And that’s the part of Proverbs 31 that most people seem to remember the most:
the ode to the right kind of woman.

The ballad to the wife of noble character (v10)—
the noble woman, the valorous woman, the heroic woman.

It’s a song
by a woman
about a woman.

Mama Lemuel—can we call her that?—Mama Lemuel doesn’t want her son 
to spend energy or or wealth or resources (v3)
on the wrong kind of woman.

This woven throughout the entire book of Proverbs.

Right in the middle of that nine-chapter poem that begins Proverbs—in chapter seven—
there’s a strong sustained warning against the wrong kind of woman.

Against the adulterous woman—the wayward woman—the woman who says:

(7.16-20) I have covered my bed
    with colored linens from Egypt.
I have perfumed my bed
    with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon.
Come, let’s drink deeply of love till morning;
    let’s enjoy ourselves with love!
My husband is not at home;
    he has gone on a long journey.
He took his purse filled with money
    and will not be home till full moon.

And then chapter seven immediately says:

(7.21-23) With persuasive words she led him astray;
    she seduced him with her smooth talk.
All at once he followed her
    like an ox going to the slaughter,
like a deer stepping into a noose
    till an arrow pierces his liver,
like a bird darting into a snare,
    little knowing it will cost him his life.

Mama Lemuel doesn’t want her son
stepping into the noose of this kind of woman.

And it’s not only the temptation of misusing our physical sexuality,
although that’s certainly in view here.

Affairs and pornography and casual flings
are really stupid things to do according to the Proverbs.

Things that destroy life—
that pierce your liver,
that lead you to the slaughter.

But the adulterous woman is more.

She’s like the embodiment of the foolish life.

The kind of life that has no concern for integrity or responsibility or the future—
the kind of life that just wants to consume.

The kind of life 
that sees the luxurious Egyptian bed coverings,
that smells the cinnamon and the aloes
that hears the invitation of fleeting pleasure,
and just consumes it all.

There’s a physical, sexual dimension about this temptation
but that sounds something like our entire culture, doesn’t it?

Consumer culture.
We love being consumers, right?

Forget integrity or responsibility to others or the future—
we just want what we want and we want it right now.

But consumer culture—whether we’re consuming people or consuming products—
is not what Mama Lemuel wants her son to find.

She wants her son to find the right kind of woman—a woman who embodies wisdom.

She wants her son to find the heroic woman
the woman who doesn’t just consume but who produces.

Who gives.

We tend to think of our homes as the places where we consume things—
where we consume food, consume entertainment, consume Netflix.

But in the Ancient Near East,
the home was the primary economic unit.

The men were out in the fields working the soil and growing food,
and the women were in the home… doing everything else.

There was no Walmart.
There was no Chipotle.

No Home Depot.
No Social Security Administration.

If clothes were to woven, 
if a meal was to be prepared,
if the lamps were to be refilled,
if the poor were going to be helped—

if something was to get done,
it would happen from the home.

Mama Lemuel is singing about 
an alternative to the wayward woman.

An alternative to selfish, stupid, consumer culture.
An alternative to the woman of foolishness.

She’s singing about the life of wisdom.

The kind of life where we use 
our energy and strength and resource 
for more than just ourselves. 

The kind of life where we do something with ourselves—
where we do something with our hands.

Watch the way the heroic woman uses her hands—
the image of “hands” is a golden thread running through this song.

She works eagerly with her hands (v13)
day and night to make sure that children and servants are cared for,

she uses her earnings (v16)—“the fruit of her hands” is literally what the Hebrew says—
to plant a vineyard to provide for children and servants,

she takes distaff and spindle in her hands (v19)—she works the spinning wheel—
to clothe everyone in the household with the finest scarlet coats for winter,

she opens her hands to those in who are in need (v20)
and helps promote social justice outside of her own house.

Verse 31 couldn’t be more right—
she deserves praise and honor for all that her hands have done.

This is the kind of life that Mama Lemuel values—
the life about more than just yourself.

That’s the life of wisdom.
That’s the truly alive life.

This is the kind of life that embodies (v30) the fear of the Lord.
That embodies reverence and awe and wonder for God.

You would think a king’s mother would praise the royal household.

But Proverbs doesn’t end by singing the praises 
religious experts or priests or even the king.

It’s not CEOs or megachurch pastors, presidents or PhDs,
where the life of wisdom can be most clearly seen.

No—it’s a different kind of life that embodies the fear of the Lord.

It’s a different kind of life that speaks with wisdom (v26)
and reveals the deepest and truest of things in all of Israel:
the Torah Hesed, the law of love.

Mama Lemuel seems to forget the throne as she sings the praise 
of the tireless work of the heroic, everyday woman.

The truly alive life almost never looks flashy or extraordinary.

It looks like us doing the work before us.
It looks like us living the life given to us.

It looks like us loving those around us.

The proverbs end by singing the praises 
of the humble, quiet, frequently-forgotten life of caring for others.

The life of wisdom, the life of holiness, 
the truly significant and truly heroic and truly alive life,
looks like the everyday life of quietly serving those around you.

That’s the kind of life that Mama Lemuel sings praises to
and so (of course) that’s the kind of life 
she wants her son to be joining his life to.

That’s the kind of life that we’re all invited into.

It’s a difficult kind of life to find in others (v10)—
and it’s certainly a difficult kind of life to begin to enter into ourselves.

But it’s the best possible kind of life.
A life that is not wasted.

It’s a life that we’re all invited to participate in every single day.

And the reason why it’s good news—
why something that’s so difficult and so challenging can be good news—
is because it’s the life of God himself.

Before Proverbs 31 is about anyone else,
Proverbs 31 is about the life of God himself—
the wisdom of God himself.

The humble, quiet, often forgotten life 
of caring for others 
is the life of God.

Think that’s a stretch?
Just look Jesus.

In Jesus,
we see God caring for those around him,
we see God tirelessly serving and healing those around him,

In Jesus we see most clearly what God is like—
that God spends his strength and vigor
to bring life to others.

To us—if we’ll open ourselves to him. 

In Jesus,
we see the hands of God 
giving food to the hungry,
and embracing the hopeless.

We see the heroic hands of God wrap himself in a towel and wash our feet.

God has eager hands
that open wide to nails that are not his
so that he can clothe us in the finest scarlet.

Proverbs 31 isn’t just a challenge or an invitation to us.
Proverbs 31 is the gospel, my friends.

Many people do noble things, 
but he surpasses them all.

[Because] the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

In just a moment you’ll be invited to come and and receive from this table—
receive some bread, dip it in the cup, and return to your seat.

Father, it’s in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice,
in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.

Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ,
redeemed by his blood.

As we come today to your table, Lord Jesus,
help us see the ways we seek to escape from life—
through food, through sex, through work,

help us see the ways we make our lives about ourselves,
and help us to enter into true life—help us enter into your life.

Help us to come to this table and see your gospel before us,
that you take our sin, our selfishness, our death,
and you give to us back freedom and joy and truest life.

May you wash us and teach us all to be your bride—
spotless and radiant and heroic.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.