“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.” Proverbs 31:8-9.
I posted it on Facebook and asked for thoughts and responses. I had some good ones too.
One person said that they wanted to make this their personal mission statement and speak out for others in need and show the radical love of Jesus to all.
Another said that as a special ed teacher, she strives to do this for her students.
Another commented that they wondered who the oppressed are in our nation today and who is doing the oppressing. His suggestion was that the young minority males in the inner cities were the ones being oppressed.
I think it is very interesting the modern presuppositions we come forward with when we read about the call to speak up for those who cannot do it themselves, to speak up for the rights of the destitute, to defend the poor and the needy. Who are the destitute? Who are the poor and needy? Who are the ones who truly can’t speak up for themselves? And are they being oppressed? And is that different from being destitute, poor, and needy without a voice of their own?
God speaks many times with the command that we are to help the oppressed (my favorite is Isaiah 58:6-9) for the sole reason that the people of Israel were once themselves oppressed in Egypt. God is the god of those who are oppressed and offers them deliverance, victory, and most importantly, salvation. It is through the oppressed that God shows and enacts His mission to bring all of the world back to Himself.
But the word oppression doesn’t appear here. After reading over the passage a few times, that struck me. It isn’t about the oppressed (that gets spoken about a lot in Proverbs as well) but about speaking up, defending, protecting, and being an advocate for someone who doesn’t have a voice.
Now, there are many people (and very well meaning and loving Christians) who do this. And do it poorly and even harmfully. There are many who come in with presuppositions on who exactly is poor, needy, destitute, and voiceless. They then scream loudly on these people’s behalf, not always asking if they wanted it in the first place. Not always stopping to ask exactly what was the deeper need that they were to speak on their behalf in the first place. And in doing so, do more harm than good creating a myopic self-centered mindset that someone else must speak because they can’t find their own voice.
Instead of giving a hand up to help the poor, the needy, the destitute, and the voiceless a way to find their voice, it is done on their behalf in a way that doesn’t fully speak in the voice that those who are voiceless truly need.
An astute old college classmate and fellow pastor pointed out that the preceding verses are actually the address to King Lemuel from his mother.
“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. 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.” Proverbs 31:3-7
There is a time to stand up, speak out, and there is a time to sit down, and be quiet. There is a time to allow others to forget their misery and a time to speak up for them in their misery. There is a need to stand to the side and allow those oppressed (now the word is used) and in anguish take a step to the side and not feel the burdens of oppression and anguish.
Now, this doesn’t excuse vv8-9 either. In fact it reinforces them. The king himself, the leader of the people, is not to forget the oppression, anguish, destitution, nor needs of the people. In fact, they are to be in the forefront of their minds. At the same time, they are to allow for some reprieve. Allow for some rest from the pain of oppression (if that makes sense) and allow for some fun and R & R.
As a follower of Jesus, I have been freed from the oppression of sin in m life, from the tyranny of the devil. I have one who speaks for me on my behalf to God Himself. And in turn, I am to do the same. But there is a time and place for it as well. There is a time, a place, a way to do it that empowers not enables those who are needy, poor, destitute, and voiceless to have a voice.
There are times to stand up and speak out. There are times to sit down and be quiet. And there are times to do both at the same time.
It’s a complicated messy thing, but of course, being a follower of Jesus is a complicated and messy thing. In order to stand up and speak out, we must get to know the needy, the poor, the destitute, the oppressed. We must then learn what their voice is that they wish to have heard. It isn’t for us to tell them what they want to say. We need to listen to what they want to say, and then help be their voice and help them find their voice.
And it will be messy and complicated while doing it.