“Son–Marry A Strong Woman”: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Mamma Lemuel, & Prov. 31
When I was a young teenager the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, Simple Man was popular. The band that released Sweet Home Alabama, Free Bird, What’s Your Name?, and Give Me Two Steps, hit the charts again with this power ballad. What struck me about this song, was that it contained words of wisdom from an Alabama man’s mother. She gave him advice on issues such as money, integrity, marriage, and responsibility. Years later the band Shinedown released a simpler version of this song which also spoke to me as a dad, husband, and older man.
When I read Proverbs 31, I often think of the song Simple Man. The singer mentions that his mom shared wisdom with him through the words of this song, “Mama told me when I was young. ‘Come sit beside me, my only son, and listen closely to what I say, and if you do this, it will help you some sunny day’.” Maybe you remember this song—maybe you sang it as well. It, like Proverbs 31, is a powerful song/poem/narrative of a mother’s advice to her son. Today, of all days, I believe that this has equally powerful lesson for each of us.
The book of Proverbs is an interesting work. We will be spending more time on this in later sermons but I thought it would be good to use this “famous” text for Mothers’ Day. The book is a collection of wisdom sayings for young men as those were the ones apprenticed by fathers, school masters, and vocational preparation groups. While we may have traditionally understood the book as addressing children, families, parents, and the community; the book seems more likely to address young men (since women didn’t become apprentices or students) who are in some type of educational or vocational system. Teachers were often referred to as school fathers in ancient Egypt and other wisdom scribal schools. Proverbs, similar to ancient cultures, seems to have this in common with many other school programs or work related training institutions.
What is unique about Proverbs is that wisdom (the Hebrew is the feminine noun Hokmah) is female and she speaks to the young men as teacher supreme, even one created by Yahweh (Prov. 8). In the ancient world of wisdom literature females did not have a voice. In Proverbs, the Jewish community gave a female a voice, authority, and character worth more than money or jewels. Today, in our text, a female (a mother) is not only given a voice—she teaches her son, a king, to find a woman like her.
Mothers’ Day is Not Just a Holiday
Mothers’ Day is a day that people face with mixed emotions. Some were raised by a mother who was absent either physically or emotionally. This can be a painful day as the adult child is faced with shame, a feeling of abandonment, anger, and sometimes guilt for not appreciating their mother. Or someone may grieve the loss of a mother through death, and today may stir fond as well as sad emotions about the passing of a loved one. Our advice to them has always been that this day is a time to find some woman who has been a spiritual mother for them and thank them for their love and support. Some have adopted children and feel a sense of shame on this day because they feel that they did not have “their own” biological child, or are struggling with some of the rejection that often happens to adoptive parents. Or they may be struggling to conceive a child and feel that this is a reminder of the pain they have tried to work through with the hopes of having children. Others have been raised in a home with a loving and caring mother, adoptive or biological, and feel a sense of strong love and support from their mother. Yet others may feel a sense of sadness from their own children as they struggle for a relationship. However, as we watched in the video earlier—we all have had a biological mother. We are here because someone chose to give us life.
Even more, we have had other women spiritually guide, love, and care for us. Maybe a teacher, Sunday school teacher, minister, coach, instructor, employer, neighbor, or other family member stepped in and became a mother to us. These spiritual mothers are many times all around us, and today is a day to remember them—and thank them.
Mama Lemuel and the Strong Woman
What impresses me about Proverbs 31 is that it comes from a king’s mother. Prov 31:1 tells us in the beginning, “The sayings of King Lemuel of Massa, his mother taught him…” Your versions may have “oracle” but this is a difficult word. The word Massa is actually not Hebrew but Aramaic, the language of Mesopotamia and Persia. It can mean oracle but also a region in Mesopotamia. If that is the case then we have a chapter not spoken by Jewish individuals, but a foreign king (Lemuel) from Massa. Even more it would read as if it was spoken by the mother, “The sayings of King Lemuel of Massa. His mother taught him…” showing the emphasis on his mother’s teaching and wisdom.
The next sentence has been translated “O my son,” yet the Hebrew and Aramaic word mah mean “what.” Mamma Lemuel is scolding her son, “What! My son. What! Son of my womb. What! Son of my vows/answer to my prayers.” It is almost as if this young prince came home after a wild night and his mother decided to give him a good scolding. Yet her advice suggests he may have been struggling with some of the issues that many young men experience.
First, in Prov 31:3, she tells him not to waste his energy on women and those who destroy or wipe away kings. The word for wipe away or ruin (some versions) was used in Prov 30:20 of the woman who has affairs on her husband. In Proverbs the young men are told to avoid her since adultery is a sin and, as Prov 30:20 stated, “She eats and wipes/ruins her mouth and says ‘I have done nothing wrong.’” Lemuel was warned about expending his energy on the wrong type of person.
Second, he was told to avoid liquor. While drinking is not wrong, her point must have been in reference to the typical binging that so many young people do today. For young men in America binge drinking and driving while under the influence are common—so common that males 18-25 have some of the highest car insurance premiums of any other age bracket—even females of the same age. There has also been a rise in those who want to “get wasted after a hard week of work.” One thing I find is that those who tend to do this, on a regular basis, not only spend large amounts of money on “forgetting their miserable jobs,” they are not able to use that money to help the vulnerable in society. Even more I find them less inclined to confront racism, abuse, and other forms of oppression. Momma Lemuel’s eternal wisdom is shown as she told her son that strong drink is for those who need to forget their misery, but rulers must have a sober mind and cannot protect the oppressed and rule with integrity when they act as if “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere.”
Finally, Momma Lemuel encouraged him to speak up for the oppressed and afflicted. Prov 31:8-9 is a challenge for him to be just, fair, and protect the vulnerable. If he wanted to be a good king and “make his momma proud,” he needed to seek a strong woman, stay away from chasing alcohol, and protect the vulnerable. Even more, she would show him the way to this lifestyle.
In Prov 31:10 Momma Lemuel began to speak about the ideal wife or partner for this man. She used the term Isshah Chayil, which in Hebrew means “strong wife” or “strong woman.” Many of our versions translate it “noble wife.” This word is used in Prov. 31:3 in reference to Lemuel using his “strength” or “energy.” Momma Lemuel was speaking about a strong woman. If Lemuel wanted to be a good king, he needed a strong wife.
How does a strong wife help a king rule well? Momma Lemuel told us. First, a strong woman is worth more than jewels, money, and status. Everything a king desired would be fulfilled by a strong woman. Second, Lemuel would be respected not simply by his work, but by his wife’s character and work as a strong woman. Third, Momma Lemuel described the Isshah Chayil’s works as caring for the oppressed, vulnerable, her family, and her community. In the ancient world this was the meaning of “Righteous.” In Sumeria and Mesopotamia the word for Righteous was similar to the Hebrew word—Tsadeq. It meant “Right-ness.” To be righteous was to “do right”—not just to “be right.” How does a king “do right” in the ancient world? He takes care of the poor and vulnerable, as Momma Lemuel stated in Prov. 31:8-9. A king also does right when he and his strong wife do right. He was not to find someone who undermined his work but one who complemented, supplemented, and supported his calling to be Tsadeq. Also notice, she is not the only one doing justice—he has the responsibility to do it as well.
Even more, in this chapter the words are written as an Acrostic in Hebrew. While the sayings may have been in Aramaic, the Hebrew writers reworked the speech as a poem. Each line begins with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet in order to the end of the chapter. The center of this poem is Prov. 31:20 = “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the vulnerable.” She is a strong woman who can help Lemuel fulfill his calling (Prov 31:8-9). He can be a just king because she is a just woman.
Finally, the strong woman is respected by Lemuel, their children, and her works. She is praised, blessed, and encouraged by what she does. While Momma Lemuel does not discredit physical appearance (Prov. 31:30) she states that the strong woman is seen by her service, not her extensive makeup, expensive clothes, or titles. These things are “fleeting” or the word is the same as that in Ecclesiastes—“vanity” or “a vapor that quickly dissipates.”
There have been those who try to reproduce the “noble woman” by following this text literally. This has only brought discouragement. The point of Momma Lemuel’s teaching is to guide her son to find true beauty—the strong woman who models the life and character of God, Jesus, and the Kingdom.
Mothers’ Day and the Strong Woman
We live in a day when appearances, expenses, media, and celebrities seek to teach us what beauty, charm, and status involve. Yet, the ancient Proverb teaches us true beauty and what it means to be a strong woman. Dr. Jackson Katz once stated that “Strong women attract strong men, weak men are repelled by strong women.” I say Amen to his statement. I am married to a Isshah Chayil and know that much of the work done at Agape and hospitality shown here happens because Lori not only is righteous, beautiful, and loving—but because she teaches many others that being a strong woman is noble in this world. I am not neglecting the many other strong women in this church, and I know that Carlos would state that Luz is a, p Isshah Chayil. Many of you in here will testify to the many Isshah Chayil’s in your life. We are better people, men and women, because of the Isshah Chayil’s in our life.
Even more, we need to cultivate Isshah Chayil’s in our church, community, and families. We want our daughters, granddaughters, and friends to be Isshah Chayil’s so that our world can be a better place. We want our sons to marry Isshah Chayil’s. Putting women down for having an opinion, being intelligent, successful, and courageous is something King Lemuel would tell us is destructive. Ascribing value to females who fit the media model of a “Barbie Doll” or basing value on appearances does little for our sisters, mothers, and friends. Viewing females as servants does not raise Isshah Chayil’s.
Momma Lemuel tells her son, and us, at the end of the chapter to “Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.” Notice, this is in the imperative in Hebrew, which means it is a command or a strong instruction. Momma Lemuel challenges all of us to give honor, praise, thanks, and a reward to the Isshah Chayil’s in our lives.
Who do you need to thank today?
Who is the Isshah Chayil in your life who needs a reward?
May we always be a people who gratefully receive instruction and follow it, especially when it comes from a Isshah Chayil.
Go now and give the reward and praise to the Isshah Chayil’s in your life.