We are living in a day where how one lives is not considered critical in their ability to be an effective leader. However, that has not always been the thinking in the past, and certainly not in the thinking of the wisdom literature. A person’s moral life has a huge impact on how they will govern others. One of the greatest moral reformers in British history was William Wilberforce, who served as a Member of Parliament for 28 years. Winston Churchill described him as ‘the social conscience of the nation.’ In Kevin Belmonte’s book, ‘A Hero for Humanity,’ writes:

…for twenty years led the fight to abolish the British slave trade – a victory achieved in 1807. Twenty-six years later and just days before his death in late July 1833, Wilberforce would learn that slavery itself would be abolished throughout Britain’s colonies.

…To be sure, Wilberforce’s labors as an abolitionist dominate the landscape of his legacy, but there are many other compelling and important facets of his life and character. Throughout his life he championed some seventy different philanthropic initiatives. He was an advocate of child labor laws and ardently supported the education of the blind and the deaf. He funded hospitals and schools with his own money and was a founder of organizations as diverse as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the National Gallery (of Art). ‘Good causes,’ it has been said, ‘stuck to him like pins to a magnet.[i]

Wilberforce realized that though his personal faith was instrumental in shaping his objectives and conviction, many of his constituents may not have shared the same views, yet he was able to demonstrate to people of diverse backgrounds the validity of the role that religion and morality played in bringing about positive reforms to the nation.   

Wilberforce was also able to serve effectively in a political climate deeply skeptical about and often hostile to the evangelical Christianity that he espoused. As the apostle Paul had done in Athens, Wilberforce invoked the literature and philosophy of the times to make points without imagining a large sympathetic majority standing behind him. This served to generate recognition and support for the vital role he believed religion and morality could play in society.

[Wilberforce related]: It is a truth attested by the history of all ages and countries, and established on the authority of all the ablest writers, both ancient and modern [among them] Machiavelli and Montesquieu… that the religion and morality of a country, especially of every free community, are inseparably connected with its preservation and welfare; that their flourishing or declining state is the sure indication of its tending to prosperity or decay. It has even been expressly laid down, that a people grossly corrupt are incapable of liberty.

One need not be particularly religious to value the role of religion in society, Wilberforce believed. Machiavelli, he said, was not considered either as a religious or moral authority, but…was eminently distinguished for political knowledge and sagacity. [He] stated, that ‘the rulers of all states, whether kingdoms or commonwealths, should take care that religion should be honoured, and all its ceremonies preserved inviolate [to be free or safe from violation], for there was not a more certain symptom of the destruction of states, than a contempt for religion and morals.

…Wilberforce believed that the abolition of the slave trade could not have taken place without a concurrent moral reformation to strengthen the consensus that the British slave trade was a tragic national sin. He realized that [as he himself stated:] attempts at political reform without changing the hearts and minds of people at the same time, were futile.[ii]

He realized that legislation alone was not enough to change society. There needed to be a deeper change of the heart. How does that apply to our time? There needs to be a great move of God’s spirit transforming the hearts of people in many nations. There is a need for an inward change before the culture is prepared for many healthy reforms that benefit society as a whole. Change must come from the inside out. There is an incredible need today for godly, moral leadership in our homes, schools, and in the halls of government. In Proverbs 31:1-9 we find the words of a queen mother warning her son, the king, to avoid two areas that have brought down leaders in the past, as well as instructing him to understand the nature and responsibility of wise leadership. Though we are looking at this from the lens of the role of an ancient King, which included the executive, judicial and legislative aspects of government, all in one person, we will be exploring some of the pitfalls and dangers that each of us should avoid in our lives as parents, employers, religious or spiritual and political leaders. 

Most scholars agree that Lemuel, is a mystery figure. In other words, they do not know who he is. What is significant is the message he conveys, which originated from his mother to us, of the need for a good moral and ethical approach toward our responsibilities as leaders. In many ancient courts young monarch being installed as king, would receive moral instructions from the Queen mother and others. This was a part of that rite of passage into leadership. These words take on canonical significance. In other words, they have a Divine sanction to them. They are wise counsel or instruction that will influence and impact the lives of the hearers, either negatively or positively depending upon our obedient response to them. Here we see two words of counsel that every leader needs to follow.


Leadership is primarily about influence. Who influences the leader is the issue presented here. What are some of the distractions that remove a person from being a diligent and wise leader? Harry Ironside rightly points out: “He who would rule well over a nation must first be master of himself.”[iii] We could add that if we are to oversee a church or even a home, the same is true. We must be able to control ourselves in order to effectively lead others. 

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! [iv]

Here we have a form of parallelism where each expression gives a further insight. The Hebrew word, mah, which is here translated ‘listen,’ is literally, ‘what’ and as Leo Purdue relates: “The Hebrew interrogative pronoun ma, ‘what,’ may be used as an emphatic rhetorical negative.”[v] Some translations start by stating, ‘What, as in what are you doing? It is a question. The idea is that as the king, you need to know what you are about. Here the Queen mother points out that this child, this crown prince now becoming King was an answer to her prayer even before he was born. This is a certain similarity to Samuel’s mother, Hannah who had cried out to God for a son, which she promised to dedicate to the Lord as a Nazirite. Here the Queen is asking for an heir to the throne, a crown prince to rule as a successor to the current king, upon his passing. It begins with a warning that with the power of leadership comes responsibilities that should not be abused.

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.[vi]

The topic of her conversation is something that a wise mother, especially the wise mother of a leader, would want to drive home to her child: women and drink are two large temptations to a man with power and money.[vii]

Richard Clifford explains the importance of the king’s mother in shaping the understanding of the crown prince.

The mother of a king in the Canaanite world played a major role in the palace. Because of her longevity, knowledge of palace politics, and undoubted loyalty to her son, she was in a good position to offer him reliable counsel.[viii]

A. The dangers of illegitimate sexual relationships as an impediment to effective leadership.

How many leaders in politics, ministry and in the average marriage have destroyed their credibility and effectiveness in their leadership? A betrayal of trust destroys not only marriages, but families, churches, and nations. It also disqualifies people from the role of leadership. England’s King Edward VIII abdicated his throne to marry Wallis Simpson, an American, who had previously divorced two husbands, the latter because she became involved with Edward while he was Crown Prince of England. Upon becoming King, Edward, was also the head of the Anglican church of England, but his proposed marriage to Simpson was strongly opposed, not only by the church, but public opinion. After serving as King for less than a year, Edward abdicated his role and married Simpson.

Over the many years, some of us have witnessed the moral failures of many high-profile Christian leaders. The warnings here need to be embraced by all who have a leadership role, no matter how significant that role is. Many fathers have caused havoc in their homes because they did not heed the words from the book of Proverbs of being committed to their spouse.

The wisdom literature, particularly the book of Proverbs, argues that character is at the foundation of being a leader. The following Proverbs gives us some insight into how walking in integrity empowers a leader’s decisions.

The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.

The righteousness of the blameless makes their path straight, but the wicked are brought down by their own wickedness.

The righteousness of the upright delivers them, but the unfaithful are trapped by their evil desires.[ix]

Here we have seen that guidance is given to those who live lives of integrity; but when people live in duplicity (a double life), they are destroyed; and this by their own evil desires. Here in our texts we see the warning against and the negative consequences of moral failure. Two biblical examples immediately come to mind.

First of all there is the abuse of power in David’s life in taking Bathsheba as a wife from one of his loyal servants. One of the issues that a king needs to be able to do is to defend the rights of those who are unable to speak on their own behalf. This is exactly what David did not do, and which Nathan reminded him of when being confronted by his sin. “Nathan’s parable of the poor man’s lamb confiscated by the wealthy man illustrates how such conduct leads to forgetfulness of the poor.”[x]

The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, ‘There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.

The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

‘Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to hm. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this must die!

He must pay that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.

Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man![xi]

David had taken Uriah’s wife, impregnated her and ultimately had her husband sent by orders into the most dangerous assignment in battle, where he was killed. The result was that God judged David. Though David repented, his family suffered as they also participated in David-like sins with devastating consequences.

We also have another example from the life of David’s son, King Solomon. Solomon, though noted for his wisdom; disobeyed these very instructions allowing his many marital alliances to be his downfall. Maybe this is why these particular proverbs are not given to us by Solomon.  

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter -Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites.

They were from the nations about which the LORD told the Israelites, ‘You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.’ Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.

He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.

As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been.[xii] 

The result of Solomon’s sin was that the nation becomes divided and the Northern ten tribes fell into great idolatry.

B. The second area of warning was against abusing alcohol/substance abuse.    

The reason given was that the leader would become self-absorbed and focus primarily on his own physical pleasures rather than the needs of the poor or the mistreated.

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 (Proverbs 31:4-5).”     

We find in Scripture a number of texts that support the undermining of leadership as a result of overindulgence in alcohol. Bruce Waltke writes: “…liquor will befuddle the king’s mind, weaken his will, and drive him to plunder his subjects to pay for his expensive addiction.”[xiii]

In the coup against the northern Kingdom under Elah, he was killed while in a drunken condition.

Zimri, one of his officials, who had command of half his chariots, plotted against him. Elah was in Tirzah at the time, getting drunk in the home of Arza, the palace administrator at Tirzah.

Zimri came in, struck him down and killed him in the twenty-seventh year of Asa King of Judah. Then he succeeded him as king.[xiv]

Isaiah warns that God’s judgment is upon those who are abusing substances and people while to serve their own sinful desires at the expense of the innocent.

Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deny justice to the innocent (Isaiah 5:22-23).”


What is the responsibility of those in leadership? They are to serve those they are leading. They are to do what is right, which is what justice means. They are to advocate for justice especially on behalf of the powerless, and those who have no one to advocate for them. The Queen mother basically states that leaders should not be impaired in their duties. 

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.[xv]

A couple of ideas have been forwarded by different writers as the meaning of these admonitions.

That Lemuel’s mother commends the use of alcohol to the poor may be seen in part as a strategy to discourage her royal son. In other words, she may be saying the equivalent of ‘Don’t act like those derelicts who drink to forget their hardships. Act like the king you are.’ The king is the human representative of God, who protects the rights of those who lack the power (the needy and destitute).[xvi]

That may be a part of the understanding, but I agree with Harry Ironside who sees a subtlety in King Lemuel’s mother’s message.

There is a tinge of undisguised irony in the sixth and seventh verses that must not be overlooked. Strong drink might help the despondent to forget their poverty and to remember their misery no more; but the true remedy is for the judge of the oppressed to hear their cause patiently and render a decision in righteousness, as he cannot do if under the power of wine.[xvii]

Bruce Waltke sees this as a sarcastic expression.

Nevertheless, the command to give intoxicants to all who are dying of hunger to anesthetize them permanently is sarcastic, not a proposed welfare program to provide ‘free beer…as an opiate to the masses. …Drowning one’s sorrows in drink solves nothing; its anesthetic effects merely deepen the drinker’s inability to face his problems.[xviii] 

The role of the person who is responsible for the home, the school, the church, the city, province or nation needs to be the advocate for those who are overpowered and overmatched by the resources of others to oppress them. Again, hear the proverbs speaking to the leader regarding the need for doing justice [right for others] and the results it brings. “By justice a king gives a country stability, but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down (Proverbs 29:4).” In Proverbs 29:12 we read, “If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials become wicked.” Then again we read in Proverbs 29:14, “If a king judges the poor with fairness, his throne will be established forever.”

What are the wisdom writers explaining to us? That leaders need to do the right thing on behalf of those they lead which brings stability to the nation, the home, the church, or the business that they are overseeing. God, ultimately, is the one who sustains the leader in their role. When we build leadership on a strong moral foundation, then the right things can be accomplished. Notice the warning if a leader listens to lies: all their counselors become wicked and ultimately, they will lose their role as a viable leader. How many fathers have neglected their family because of a selfish lifestyle? How many spiritual and political leaders have lost their office because of wrongdoing?

So what is the takeaway from these proverbs? Those who are responsible for others are called to live a self-governed life. Strong moral foundations make for good leaders as they take their responsibilities seriously and realize that they are accountable, not just to those they serve, but ultimately to God.

In Stephen Mansfield’s book, Ten Tortured Words, he discusses what the American founding fathers meant by the idea that is constantly brought up today: the issue of separation of church and state; what that really means and what is the concept behind it is, as well as what it does not mean.

These were the first ten words on the American Bill of Rights, and they were a miracle of history. For the first time in human experience, the legislative power of a nation was forbidden from legislating the conscience of man. There would be no establishment of religion, no state church or official religion. Faith would be celebrated but not commanded. Worship would be protected but not prescribed. The fathers had even guaranteed it with a second phrase they added to these historic first words. Not only would Congress ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion,’ but it would also never ‘prohibit the free exercise thereof.[xix]  

Today, we find a movement away from strong religious and moral foundations and what we see is a movement toward a secular, humanistic approach to life where behavior in leaders is not seen as critical to their function. The results are chaotic, destabilizing, and injurious those they are called to serve and protect. Mansfield writes that the difference between the American experiment and what happened in France in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s can best be expressed by Alexander Hamilton.

Writing to his friend, the Marquis de Lafayette – who was embroiled in the events of the French Revolution at the time – Alexander Hamilton captured the horror of his generation of Americans when he wrote: When I contemplate the horrid and systematic massacres of Jacobins…when I find the doctrines of Atheism openly advanced in the convention and heard with loud applause…I acknowledge that I am glad to believe there is no real resemblance between what was the cause of America and what is the cause of France; that the difference is no less great than the difference between liberty and licentiousness.[xx]

But what about Canada? In the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms of 1982, it states: Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law: 1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.  Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of conscience and religion; (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and (d) freedom of association.[xxi]

We will only retain these freedoms if we understand not in mere words, but truly recognize the supremacy of God and His moral laws.

[i] Kevin Belmonte, A Hero For Humanity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publications, 2002, 2007), 17.

[ii] Ibid, 178-180.

[iii] Harry Ironside, Proverbs and Song of Solomon, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic and Professional, 1933, reprinted in 2006), 284.

[iv] Proverbs 31:1-2, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[v] Leo Purdue, Proverbs, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 271.

[vi] Proverbs 31:3-5.

[vii] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 538.

[viii] Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 270.

[ix] Proverbs 11:3, 5-6.

[x] Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs, 271.

[xi] 2 Samuel 12:1-7.

[xii] 1 Kings 11:1-4.

[xiii] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 507.

[xiv] 1 Kings 16:9-10.

[xv] Proverbs 31:6-9.

[xvi] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, 539.

[xvii] Harry Ironside, Proverbs and Song of Solomon, 284.

[xviii] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, 508.

[xix] Stephen Mansfield, Ten Tortured Words: How the Founding Fathers Tried to Protect Religion in America…And What’s Happened Since, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), xiv.

[xx] Ibid, 6-7.


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