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Proverbs 31:1-31

September 8, 2015

This last chapter is a wonderful summary and climax to the Book of Proverbs.  The book as a whole is addressed to young men to teach them wisdom in life, and the opening chapters often warn them against being seduced by “strange women.”  Now, in this final chapter, the noble and wise woman is revealed, guiding the young man and complementing him as a partner for a wise and productive life.

The chapter is made up of two parts.  The first part, verses 1-9, is the instruction of King Lemuel (a king otherwise unknown and possibly not Israelite).  Remarkably, his instruction comes from his mother and it is regarded as “an oracle”–words that are divinely inspired.  So here we have one of the few places in the Bible where the teachings are attributed to a divinely inspired woman.  And these words are so important, they form the climax of the entire wisdom collection.

The instruction begins with a warning against promiscuous behavior with women (reflecting the same concerns as the opening chapters).  Rather than a “boys-will-be-boys” attitude toward young male promiscuity, the Book of Proverbs recognizes that promiscuous and sexually addictive behavior is a serious problem.  And the more political power or wealth-based power a man has, the more he is tempted to live “above the law” and engage his sexual appetites regardless of the consequences.  Consider King David taking Bathsheba, or the sexually destructive behavior of his sons Amnon and Solomon.  Or consider the politicians and priests and pastors of today who too-frequently turn up in the news because of sexual misconduct.  A king’s good work must not be undone by sexual selfishness.

Nor must it be undone by drug abuse.  This is the other big problem for young men–especially those with too many resources at hand.  So King Lemuel’s mother counsels him not to drink wine or other strong drink.  Intoxication leads to poor judgment and forgetfulness–which a king cannot afford.  Justice, which is the responsibility of the king, requires a clear head.  Interestingly, the counsel against intoxicating substances is not absolute; the poor and the dying may need it for dulling their pain.  But again, a king cannot afford this.  A king must always be able to “speak out for those who cannot speak” and “defend the rights of the poor and needy.”  The Old Testament has a particular concern for the weak in society; it is government’s primary task to protect them and give them a voice.  This is quite different from how many Americans see the purpose of government today.

Verses 10-31 form the second section in this chapter–a hymn to the “capable” woman.  The hymn is an acrostic:  each line’s first letter forms the Hebrew alphabet.  This popular hymn is still recited by many observant Jewish husbands on the evening of the Sabbath.

What the young man needs to make his life truly wise and productive is an appropriate wife.  Based on reading the Song of Solomon, one might get the impression that the appropriate wife ought to be beautiful and sexually erotic, but this hymn disagrees.  In fact, it concludes by wisely pointing out that “charm is deceitful” and that “beauty is vain”–it doesn’t last.  The truly valuable woman is the one who genuinely cares for the wellbeing of her husband and children and household, and who works diligently and capably to provide the necessities of life.  The range of her work and responsibilities described in these verses is quite remarkable.  Anyone who can do all of these things well is incredibly valuable!

The penultimate verse sums up these qualities by saying, “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”  Nothing has been said about her religious or spiritual life, so what does this reference to fearing the Lord refer to?  It refers to all of her wise and careful work, done with compassion for others.  This is the epitome of wisdom, and to act in such a way is to demonstrate “fear of the Lord.”  In other words, the fear of the Lord is not a numinous encounter with the divine; fearing the Lord means living a life of diligent work and service out of a compassionate concern.

This section is describing the kind of responsibilities a wife might have had in the ancient middle east; it should not be viewed as prescriptive or limiting of what women may or may not do today.  Gender roles differ from culture to culture and from age to age.  Nonetheless, this chapter is quite remarkable in its cultural context and has an exalted view of women.  Wisdom, the topic of this entire book, is given a feminine identity.  Men–who are the ones being addressed by this book–are being told that their own wholeness and wisdom depend on a proper relationship with wise and capable women.

[This concludes my study of Proverbs.  Next week I will begin a new format:  topical studies.  Each Monday I will address a contemporary topic of concern and reflect on it honestly and helpfully from a standpoint of faith.  Join me next Monday, September 14, 2015, when I begin this topical series with the issue of “Shame.”]


From → Proverbs

One Comment
  1. Bob Eshleman permalink

    This has also been a favorite passage of mine, because it most nearly describes the wonderful woman I married! Except for buying fields, she does it all

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