Verse 5 describes the results that follow if a king relaxes and rests before the battle is done, if a king indulges in drink too much or at the wrong time. While rejoicing with strong drink and wine is often associated with memorial and memory, in fact drink can cause loss of memory. Memory is essential to good rule. You need to remember the “statutes” ( chaqaq ) or boundaries, both the limits of the king’s authority and the limits imposed by the law. Drink on throne leads a king to forget what the statutes require, and leads him to overstep his bounds and transgress the law. The connection between drinking and forgetting is reinforced by a pun: “Drink” is shatah and “forget” is shachach . Lemuel is especially concerned that the king will forget the law that guards the rights of the “sons of affliction.” That phrase is worth reflecting on a moment. If the afflicted on is a “son of affliction,” then affliction is his father. Affliction is his heritage, the one who gives him his identity. He is not just suffering momentary afflictions; affliction has been with him so long that it now determines who he is. The phrase “sons of affliction” in Hebrew is bene-‘oniy , not far from ben-‘oniy , the original name of Benjamin (Genesis 35:18). The scene in Proverbs 31 elicits a memory of Joseph in Egypt. Joseph is the cup-bearer to the king, but in sitting in judgment remembers Ben-oni/Benjamin, giving him an extra share of food, drink, and clothing. He raises Ben-oni to his right hand.
The word for “affliction” can refer to all sorts of trouble and suffering. Hagar suffers affliction in the wilderness (Genesis 16:11), and Leah is afflicted when her husband doesn’t love her (Genesis 29:32) just as Hannah is afflicted because she is barren (1 Samuel 1:11). Joseph becomes fruitful in affliction (Genesis 41:52), and Yahweh draws near to visit Egypt because He has seen the affliction of His people there (Exodus 3:7; 4:31). Passover is a reminder of Egypt, in that Israel east the bread of affliction during the seven days of unleavened bread (Deuteronomy 16:3). In Proverbs 31, the affliction is an affliction in law, an affliction that the king can correct. But a king who kicks up his heels and relaxes with drink when he should be passing judgments fails to relieve the afflicted. Right is not done, and the afflicted gets no relief.
The verb translated as “pervert” in the NASB (v. 5) literally means “double” or “repeat” (cf. Genesis 41:32; 1 Samuel 26:8; 2 Samuel 20:10; 1 Kings 18:34; Proverbs 17:9). In Proverbs the word sometimes means “return,” since a return is a form of doubling or repetition (cf. Proverbs 26:11). When it is used in Proverbs 31:5, it probably carries this connotation. It is not simply that a drunk, relaxed king twists justice. He doubles the affliction of the son of affliction. Instead of relieving affliction and injustice, instead of breaking the yoke of the oppressor, he doubles its weight. The Hebrew word “judgment” is dyn , which means “case” and can mean “strife.” The inattentive king increases the strife that he should be relieving and diminishing.
Verses 8-9 give the contrasting instruction concerning the king. He is not to guzzle wine when he’s supposed to be delivering an afflicted one from distress. He is supposed to open his mouth in behalf of the afflicted and needy. Yahweh gives him a sword in the mouth, and the breath of fire to destroy the wicked. Like Jesus, the king is supposed to shatter the wicked with the rod of his mouth, cut them in pieces with his mouth-sword. This is what Yahweh does on Israel’s behalf: They are afflicted, victims of Egyptian injustice, and Yahweh judges righteously, with the sword and breath from His mouth, with the fiery sword of His word.
The exhortation to open the mouth appears twice. First, in verse 8, the king is told to open his mouth for the dumb. He is supposed to give voice to the voiceless, and ensure that the voices of everyone get their proper hearing, no matter how poor or powerless they might be. The king opens his mouth to give the mute speech, but the Messiah goes him one better: He gives voice to the voiceless by giving them the power of speech themselves (cf. Isaiah 35:6).
Verse 9 is another exhortation to “open your mouth,” but in this case the king doesn’t speak on behalf of the dumb but speaks out righteous verdicts and sentences. He opens his mouth to judge righteously, to judge according to Torah and the statutes, to judge according to the right. But the king is supposed to take up the case ( dyn ) of the afflicted ( ‘anyi again). This is an interesting picture. Presumably, the king is sitting as judge, deciding the case and passing the sentence. But Lemuel’s mother does not depict the king as a disinterested party. He takes a side, and the side he takes is to judge fairly for the afflicted and wretched of the earth. As I have emphasized before, the Bible doesn’t say that we should judge partially, giving preference to unjust claims because they come from the poor. The point is that the afflicted and needy need the king’s protection in ways that the prospering rich do not. The king is on the side of impartial justice, but in practice that will be most clearly evident when he decides in favor of the poor against the rich, the impotent against the powerful, the mute against the eloquent. In short, the king follows Torah: The righteous king “does not wrest the judgment of the poor in his case” (Exodus 23:6).Because wine and strong drink induce forgetfulness, they do have uses. It’s not for kings to drink and forget, but drink benefits the afflicted who needs to forget. The word “bitter” is mar , root of Marah, the place of bitter waters, and Marah, Naomi’s assumed name. For those whose life is bitter, wine and strong drink are a medicine of forgetfulness. Again, the text reinforces the connection of drink and forgetfulness with the punning use of shatah (drink) and shakach (forget).
Scripture hints at a connection between “spirits” and “spirit,” even “Spirit.” Israel drank wine and strong drink in the presence of God not only to symbolize their rejoicing, but to put them into a spirit of joy. Like singing, drink can be emotionally uplifting. Proverbs 31 points to a different side of this connection: Drinking here does not lift the heavy spirit, but instead eases the heaviness by inducing pleasing forgetfulness. Does this justify the use of anti-depressant drugs, or of drugs that numb and relax us when we’re tense and stressed out? It seems that there is a general principle that would include some limited uses of anti-depressants, but the difference between modern drugs and wine should be noted. Wine’s effects vary by context. When we are at a cocktail party, we don’t drink to forget but to relax and enjoy lower-case sabbath; when we drink at the Lord’s table, we drink as conquering kings relishing the victory won in and for us by Jesus; when we drink to forget, we are easing pains with a good gift of God. (Perhaps there is a dimension of forgetfulness in the wine of the Supper too; we are given the wine of a new covenant, a covenant in which God remembers our sins no more, and that wine induces us to forget the sins God Himself has forgotten.) Drugs are too narrowly specialized to have this sort of variable effect, and that affects our moral evaluation.
In context, it’s possible that the main point of verses 6-7 is not about literal wine-drinking. Yahweh’s cup is a cup of just judgment. It makes the wicked dru
nk, makes them stumble, ultimately makes them fall (Jeremiah 25). The same wine-wrath causes the righteous to rejoice in the fall of the wicked. It brings gladness because it brings justice. It’s possible that verses 6-7 are mainly about the human king’s administration of justice. The king is to open his mouth in advocacy for the rights of the forgotten poor, and by opening his mouth he gives gladdening, easing wine to the afflicted. His judgments are the wine that causes the poor to forget his poverty.
Lemuel’s mother’s advice is addressed to “kings,” but the political wisdom she communicates is not limited to those who actually hold civil office. There are many ways for Christians to act as “kings” pursuing justice even when we cannot pass and enforced sentences. We can open our mouths on behalf of the dumb. There is, for instance, no more mute group in our society than the unborn; in defending them from butchers, we are giving voice to the voiceless. Insofar as we plead the rights of the forgotten and afflicted, we are acting as kings. Historically, Christians have a mixed record on this. In some very important instances (end of slave trade, eg), Christians have spoken up on behalf of the afflicted. But it has too often happened that Christians have taken the place of the afflicters, and have hesitated to speak on behalf of the needy because of imbalanced views concerning submission to governing authorities.