What does Proverbs 31 Teach Us About Advocacy?

Have you ever seen one of those Dawn commercials with the baby ducks? In these high-drama advertisements, a forlorn duckling struggles to escape an oil-coated pond. Luckily, a friendly wildlife rescuer helps the duckling get out, cleans it up with (of course) Dawn dish soap, and returns it to a pristine blue pond.

The ad resonates because it plays on our natural desire to protect the vulnerable. When confronted with suffering, we generally want to do something about it. As Christians, this gut inclination to care for those in need is reinforced by the Holy Spirit and supported by Scripture. Throughout the Bible, we see that our God cares for the vulnerable and wants us to as well. One passage that speaks to this is Proverbs 31:8-9:

“Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

This verse holds a wealth of insight on advocating for vulnerable peoples around us. But before attempting to apply it to our own lives, we need to establish what it meant in its original context: Why was this proverb written? And by whom? If we jump back to the first verse of the chapter, we quickly find some answers:

“The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him” (v.1) 

So, if Proverbs 31:8-9 was an oracle passed on to King Lemuel, we must ask who King Lemuel was. The short answer is that nobody knows. But more important than knowing which specific king Lemuel was, is simply recognizing his station as a king. Inherent in his position were political, judicial, social, and economic capital. Lemuel’s mother did not relay her oracle to a general citizen, but to a ruler with power to make things happen. With this context in mind, we can return to considering verses 8 and 9. In the ESV, verse 8 says,

“Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute.” (v.8)

In this phrase, the concrete image of opening one’s mouth represents the abstract idea of speaking on behalf of someone else. Thus, what Lemuel’s mother is advising in this passage is more along the lines of the NIV translation, “speak up for.”

But speak up for whom? Lemuel’s mother uses various terms to describe the type of person the king should advocate for, the first being “the mute” (v.8). She doesn’t mean that he should limit his advocating to those who are physically unable to speak, but rather, that Lemuel should speak up for those who do not have the power to make their voices heard. Again, the NIV gets this idea across a bit more clearly through its translation, “those who cannot speak for themselves.”

The next word used to describe the person in need of the king’s help is “destitute” (v.8). This term is translated from the Hebrew phrase beney chaloph. Most literally, this phrase means “sons of passing away.” However, beney chaloph has been translated many other ways, including, “the dying,” “those who are left without help,” “those being crushed,” those “appointed for destruction,” and “orphans.” The beney chaloph are those in overwhelming need, but without the power to help themselves. They are those on the margins of society. The author renames them in verse 9 as the “poor and needy” (v.9).

Putting all this information together, we see verse 8 as a divinely inspired instruction from a mother to a king, that he should advocate on behalf of those who are confronted with difficult situations and do not have the power to help themselves.

“Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (v.9)

Lemuel’s mother then provides further direction, instructing him to “judge righteously” and “defend the rights of the poor and needy.” These new directions clarify the setting of the passage a little more. The call to “judge” and “defend” gives the reader an image of a legal proceeding. The NET translates verse 8 as “Open your mouth...for the legal rights of all the dying” (emphasis added). In verse 9, Lemuel’s mother assumes that the king has the power to both “judge” and “defend” the case of the vulnerable person in this judicial setting. In essence, the vulnerable person is on trial, while Lemuel is the judge, jury, and attorney. This reorients the way we see the passage as a whole. Lemuel is not just a political figurehead who might use his clout to “put in a good word” for somebody. No, Lemuel has the power to determine the final verdict. What he says, goes. When his mother tells him to speak on behalf of the voiceless, she wants him to use his sphere of influence to ensure justice for those facing great suffering. She is calling him to effective, decisive action, and not showy, false compassion.

This passage as a whole lays out God’s expectations for somebody in Lemuel’s position; the king should speak up for those on the margins of society and use his power and position to ensure justice for the vulnerable.

Applying it to Advocacy

But what do these two verses mean for us today? I’m guessing not many of you reading this are kings; the power to be judge, jury, and attorney for vulnerable people doesn't lie with you. But we all have beney chaloph in our lives. For most of us, it doesn’t take long to think of somebody we know who is struggling because they don’t have power in a particular area, be it economic, political, social, or legal. Once you identify these beney chaloph in your life, ask yourself: what privileges, powers, or resources (however small) do I have that they don't have right now? How can I use these forms of influence to better their situation in a practical, empowering way?

We all possess different forms of influence and resources, so advocating for the vulnerable will look different for each of us. But regardless of what advocating looks like for you, let it become a core part of your life as you seek to obey Proverbs 31.