The following is part 2 of an extended blog post. Part one can be found here.
A Mother’s Bold Interest in Her Son’s Spent “Strength”
Raising virtuous sons requires brave mothers who are not afraid to address sexual purity with their own sons. I understand how talking sexual purity with our sons from a mother’s perspective may be personally uncomfortable and culturally awkward. But it certainly is biblical. Lemuel’s mother, for instance, is boldly teaching her son in plain language how to spend his manly “strength” because she knows that before he’s everything else in life, her son is a man.
What are you doing, my son? What are you doing, son of my womb?
What are you doing, son of my vows?
Do not give your strength to women,
your ways to those who destroy kings. (Proverbs 31:2-3)
More intimate to her than his career and positions is her son’s heart spent on godly women. We are not given any biographical details on the mother, and yet her wisdom is evident: she self-consciously distinguishes honorable women from dishonorable ones and begs him to choose wisely. She appeals to her maternal right, well-earned I might say, throughout pregnancy as they forged a nurtured closeness, emboldening her to call on his spending of “strength.” A strength that encompasses his body, his soul, his spirit, his mind. A direct approach from a courageous mother who is not embarrassed or intimidated by cultural taboos.
Three times she asks him what he is he doing with himself. Her raw wisdom is encapsulated in poetic lines, addressing her son with maternal love and emphatic womanly counsel: stay away from debauchery and flimsy women! More intimate than being born from a woman’s womb is the physical and spiritual strength a man spends on a woman. And a mother knows this too well. Therefore, her counsel for her son is for him to foster his strength with the kind of woman that pleases the Lord and will laud his name among the community (31:23). A woman who will dress in her husband’s strength, not spoil it to his ruin (31:17).
Whatever her marital status, this mother knows something deep about how best to love a faithful woman of God. For her, it isn’t a depraved game of drunken’ orgies, or a perverted affair of self-indulged gratifications: “Do not give your strength to women, nor your ways to that which destroys kings. It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for princes strong drink; lest they drink and forget the law, and pervert the justice of any of the afflicted” (31:2-5). Drinking, sex, women, perversions, destruction, abuse—she’s seen them all. She knows enough about them to not keep silent and warn her son of their danger in bringing down the greatest of kings and destroy the strongest of men.
King Solomon and Samson were just a few of her references, I dare think. Like a mother-queen, she presents her plea for wisdom by beckoning him to take note and then act on it. She’s masterfully painting canvases of destructive orgies and loose women, and then quickly directs his eyes onward towards scenes reminiscent of a Parisian flare from a Hugo realistic novel. She parades before his mental eyes clusters of inflicted citizens—the destitute, the ill, the poor, the needy—a noble voicing worth the mental and vocal spent of such virtuous strength of a godly king (8-9).
Teaching our sons how to keep their sexual purity in a corrupt world means having the courage as moms to open conversations about the dangers of sexual immorality. As wise believing moms, we have been given biblical tools to equip our sons with discerning wisdom in detecting foolish, depraved lures of their times. But we’ve also been called as faithful moms to guide our sons in making the right choices in how they spend their sexual strength in the God-honoring way of marriage with a wise woman.
A Mother’s Poem to Her Son—On a Woman of Valor
After teaching him to see beyond the depravity of strength spent on wrong women and causes, Lemuel’s mother begins to build for her son something counter-cultural, holy, and yet daily attainable: the portrait of a woman who honors God above all else. From the pen of a mother, Proverbs 31:10-31 is born. This poetic, maternal charge is not just any oracle. Though spoken through the maternal lips of a woman, this bold divine manifesto is a revelation from God himself. And in a fashion that fits the theme, God uses a woman as his conduit to his teachings. A mother’s heart, to be exact. One who learned to watch closely her son’s body and heart as he bloomed into manhood, raising him up with daily instruction and guiding words.
When Lemuel’s mother composed this acrostic Hebrew poem, she had not a daughter in mind, but her son and his future marriage. Her prayer for her son was that he will spend his strength on a woman “who fears the Lord” (30b), worthy of Godly praise. This woman is “excellent,” “virtuous,” “of noble character,” capable,” “good,” “worthy”—all English translations of the same Hebrew word, chyil in verse 10. She certainly stands in sharp contrast with the depraved, wicked, lose portrait of the promiscuous women from the verses above.
Because it is written by a woman in a form of a twenty-two stanza poem, we risk feminizing the text more often than not. Over the years, it has become plastered on pink banners at women’s events and conferences. It has also become the talk of fuzzy feelings wrapped in vocabulary that belongs to our feminine realm: “Pinterest-perfect woman,” “the ideal wife,” the “Christian Wonder-Woman of all times.” Proverbs 31 is more than just a domesticated Pinterest portrait of an ideal wife. In fact, I’d argue it was never meant to be perceived as such.
The mother would have never taken her time to sit down and write a revelation from God that would deceive her son-king, keeping him single forever, looking for the perfect woman, and at the same time frustrate every Christian woman out there. God doesn’t play fairy tales with his Church-Bride, and Lemuel’s mother certainly is not this naïve, confused, old poetess either! Instead of seeing this as a to-do list of some impossible traits and calls, read Proverbs 31 as the epitome of lived out faith for all of womanhood. The long list of roles that rends any woman faithful in the eyes of her Lord is but a fleshing out of her inner gospel strength. Before she does anything as a woman, wife, or mother—this woman is full of faith in God.
As a woman herself, Lemuel’s mother knew that to set her son’s sight on the right kind of woman, she should describe her in the most practical, tangible, mundane sort of lines and details. How would you help your son see a godly woman from a promiscuous one? How best would you contour a holy portrait of set apart womanhood from all the depriving traits of the otherworldly women? Lemuel’s mother did what every mother would do. She began putting together details to actions, actions to character, and character to faith.
Portraits of godly women must have become for her rich source of inspiration; Queen Esther and Ruth, the Moabite., Eve from Eden, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, Rebekah, Jacob’s wife, Rachel, Issacs’s wife. And the list surely goes on. She gathered faithful traits into a twenty-two verse long poem and began teaching it to her son. Her goal was not to immortalize a perfect portrait of a goddess female, but rather to trace for him practical traits of God-fearing women, living real lives, in real places, with real people. She made sure her son’s eyes recognized the sparkles of godliness “more precious than jewels” in the feminine heart that fears the Lord. The exceptional beauty of such a woman is not her inherent self-confidence and the long list of busy resume accomplishments, but rather her meek fear of the Lord her God.
To women reading Proverbs 31, I can hear Lemuel’s mother beckoning us to acknowledge the versatility of our roles and their limitations. We shouldn’t measure our womanhood by how much we can do and achieve. Instead, our roles should point to Jesus alone, our source of wisdom and perfection for all types of women, giftings, and roles. The only way for us to live well in our modern days is if Jesus increases in these verses and if we decrease our own self-evaluation in making it all about our own (im)perfections. She’d also add that in the context of daily living, Proverbs 31 should be remembered as a safeguard placed on our feminine hearts to draw us not into comparing ourselves with one another, but all of us delighting instead in our Savior’s perfect doings. As Christian women, these verses should liberate us to live boldly and victoriously our holy womanhood.
I find it fascinating that the content of chapter 31 is voiced both by his mother and by Lemuel himself. “The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him” (1). As he cites his mother’s words, we hear from his own mouth his mother’s training to not only see what faith and fear of the Lord does to a woman but to also praise her for that. “Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all’” (28-19). Lemuel’s mother does her son well by teaching him firsthand how well a husband loves his wife when he not only observes her but also praises her for living out her God-given, faithful womanhood. A burst into glorious praise: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all” (29). An intimate declaration born from nearing his eyes and spending his strength on a woman who “fears the Lord” with all her might (30b).