Epilogue to Proverbs: The Wife of Noble Character (Proverbs 31:10-31)
"TYPE: WISDOM POEM, ACROSTIC CHIASMUS" (NAC). We come now to the end of the book of Proverbs with a carefully crafted poem describing aspects of an ideal wife. The Hebrew word that the King James and New King James Versions translate as "virtuous" in verse 10 is hayil. This word has the sense of "strength"—as it is translated in verse 3 of this same chapter. It is also rendered "well" in verse 29. It is elsewhere used in the sense of military valor or bravery (which we will consider further in later comments here). Yet Boaz called Ruth a woman of hayil in Ruth 3:11—the point being that she was a woman of good, strong character. The sense of the word seems to be powerful and elevated. Indeed, note the description of the Proverbs 31 wife as being clothed with "strength and honor" (verse 25)—with high dignity. The word rendered "woman" (KJV) or "wife" (NKJV) can mean either of these. The context here shows that she is a wife. Thus, "wife of noble character" (NIV) seems a good way to render the phrase referring to her in verse 10. We should recall earlier the same expression being used in Proverbs 12:4: "A wife of noble character is her husband's crown" (NIV). This concluding poem of Proverbs 31 extols that point in greater detail and literary richness.
As the latter part of chapter 30 was characterized by the repeated use of a literary device (the numerical sayings), so the latter part of chapter 31 is a brilliantly structured literary composition.
Who is the author of this section? Does it continue the instruction from Lemuel's mother, just as the latter section of Proverbs 30 appears to continue the words of Agur? In chapter 30, there are thematic ties between the sections. Proverbs 31 also contains such ties. The negative image of having one's strength (hayil) sapped through sensual indulgence with women in verse 3 is answered by the positive image of the poem's woman of strong character (hayil). As the righteous king opens his mouth in the cause of social justice (verses 8-9), so this honorable woman opens her mouth with wisdom and kindness (verse 26). And her focus is likewise on serving others.
In its introduction to the poem of chapter 31, The New American Commentary says: "While this poem apparently does not describe the wife of a king and is not addressed to Lemuel, we cannot say that it is not part of the Lemuel text. Ancient wisdom texts could combine material in a way that seems incongruous to the modern reader, and the poem could come from Lemuel or his mother. If it is not part of the Lemuel text, it is an anonymous poem perhaps added as an epilogue to the canonical text. If that is the case, it is probably fairly late since epilogues are a late phenomenon. [Of course, many have suggested that this concluding poem was written by Solomon—attribution being deemed unnecessary since he is named as the principle author of the book at the outset (1:1).] Either way, however, the interpretation of the text is not affected, and the significance that the canonical Book of Proverbs ends in this manner remains."
There are multiple layers of organization in the poem, demonstrating great skill on the part of the writer. First of all, the work is acrostic, meaning that each of the 22 verses begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Thematically, the poem can be seen to "fold along the middle," as it were—with a point just before the center (between verses 19-20) serving as a "seam." Note the following structure, adapted from The New International Commentary on the Old Testament:
The seam at verses 19-20 is itself arranged in chiastic (concentric) fashion, considering the different Hebrew words used for "hand" and "palm":
This unit, an important hinge point in the poem, serves two purposes. Verse 19 concludes the first part of the poem, showing her worth and efforts, while verse 20 opens the next section, showing the results of her character. Moreover the two verses specifically illustrate the point that her activities (work with the hands, v. 19) are in fact done to benefit others (to open her hands to those in need, v. 20).
On top of all this, however, is another chiastic structure spanning the whole of the poem—which places the focal point on another verse. The integration of these various structural elements is astounding. The New American Commentary gives the overlaying chiasmus and comments on it:
"The center point of this chiasmus is v. 23, the declaration that the husband is highly regarded at the gate. The verse has been read as almost an intrusion into the poem; all the other verses praise the wife, but this verse alone focuses on the esteem the husband commands. Far from being an intrusion, however, v. 23 actually establishes the central message of the poem: this woman is the kind of wife a man needs in order to be successful in life. [Indeed, the concentric arrangement of the noble wife's characteristics around this verse may be an allusion to her serving as the husband's encircling crown in 12:4.]
"In short, the original intended audience was not young women ('this is what kind of wife you should be') but young men ('this is what kind of wife you should get'). This does not mean that the poem cannot be used to instruct women, but the interpreter must recognize its primary objective. Although it may seem strange that a wisdom poem on the virtues of a good wife should be directed at young men, it is in keeping with the whole thrust of Proverbs. The book everywhere addresses the young man ('my son') and not the young woman. It expounds in great detail on evils of the prostitute and how she is a snare for a young man; it says nothing about lusty boys and the threats they pose for young women. It is a false reading, however, to suppose that biblical wisdom despises women or views them as fundamentally corrupt (this poem alone contradicts that notion). There is no double standard; the gender slant in Proverbs is a matter of audience orientation rather than ideological bias [just as Ruth, Esther and Song of Solomon may be wisdom texts oriented to young women]. Proverbs directs the reader away from the prostitute toward the good wife because its implied reader is a young man. For the same reason, Wisdom is personified as a woman and not as a man" (note on Proverbs 31:10-31).
As to this latter point, the Zondervan NIV Study Bible says that the poem, besides offering counsel on the kind of wife a young man ought to seek, may be intended "in a subtle way to advise the young man (again) to marry Lady Wisdom, thus returning to the theme of chs. 1–9 (as [begun in 1:20-33 and] climaxed in ch. 9; compare the description of Lady Wisdom in 9:1-2 with the virtues of the wife in 31:10-31). In any event, the concluding epitomizing of wisdom in the wife of noble character forms a literary frame with the opening discourses [of the book], where wisdom is personified as a woman" (introduction to Proverbs). Thus, the poem is not only a brilliant literary creation on its own, but its message and position also makes the whole of Proverbs a greater, more unified literary work.
The Expositor's Bible Commentary says more about the woman here epitomizing wisdom: " The theme of the poem, the wife of noble character, captures the ideals of wisdom that have filled the book....It may well be that this is more the point of the composition than merely a portrayal of the ideal wife" (note on 31:10-31). Expositor's probably veers too far from the practical, literal sense in its assessment of the passage—since the words of the poem do not reveal it to be an obvious personification of wisdom as in Proverbs 1, 8 and 9. But the commentary gives some good reasons for at least seeing important symbolism here and not treating the poem of Proverbs 31 as some kind of numbered checklist of female righteousness.
Continuing in Expositor's with some inserted comments: "The woman here presented is a wealthy aristocrat who runs a household estate with servants and conducts business affairs—real estate, vineyards, and merchandise—domestic affairs, and charity. It would be quite a task for any woman [of average means] to emulate this pattern [though the general pattern of behavior and motives can and should be followed by any godly woman].... Others have also recognized that more is going on here than a description of the ideal wife or instructions for the bride to be.... [One scholar] allows that 'this lady's standard is not implied to be in reach of all [in every respect]'... but rather reveals the flowering of wisdom in domestic life.... [Another commentator] likewise affirms that 'as a whole it cannot be read as a kind of blueprint of the ideal Israelite housewife, either for men to measure their wives against or for their wives to try [in all respects] to live up to'.... Moreover, the work says nothing about the woman's personal relationship with her husband, her intellectual or emotional strengths, or her religious activities [though it does show that her life is based on the proper fear of God—verse 30]. In general it appears that the woman of Proverbs 31 is a symbol of wisdom [though this should not detract from some practical principles on being, choosing or appreciating a godly wife]....Indeed, many commentators rightly invite a contrast to the earlier portrayals of Dame Folly lurking dangerously in the streets—she was to be avoided—and Lady Wisdom, who is to be embraced. The Lady Wisdom in this chapter stands in the strongest contrast to the adulterous woman in the earlier chapters" (note on 31:10-31).
The same commentary notes more about this with regard to structure and composition: "The passage has striking similarities with hymns....Usually a hymn is written to God, but here apparently it was written to the wife of noble character. A comparison with Psalm 111, a hymn to God, illustrates some of the similarities. The psalm begins with halelu yah ('Hallelu Yah'...or 'Praise the LORD'); this is reflected in Proverbs 31:31, which says, 'Her works bring her praise [wihaleluha].' Psalm 111:2 speaks of God's works; Proverbs 31:13 speaks of her works. Psalm 111:2 says that the works of the Lord are searched or 'pondered' (derushim); Proverbs 31:13 says that she 'selects' (dareshah) wool and flax. Psalm 111:3 says that the Lord's work is honorable (hadar; NIV, 'majestic'); Proverbs 31:25 ascribes strength and 'dignity' (hadar) to the woman. Psalm 111:4 says that the Lord is gracious and full of compassion; Proverbs 31:26 ascribes the law of compassion to the woman. Psalm 111:5 says that the Lord gives 'food' (terep); Proverbs 31:15 says that the woman provides 'food' (terep) for her house. Psalm 111:10 says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom—the motto of Proverbs; Proverbs 31:30 describes the woman as fearing the Lord. Psalm 111:10 says that the Lord's praise will endure; Proverbs 31:31 says that the woman will be praised for her works. It is clear [or at least reasonable to think] that Proverbs 31 is patterned after the hymn to extol the works of wisdom" (same note).
Expositor's and other commentaries also point out that the passage bears similarities with heroic literature—seeming like an ode to a military champion. "For example, 'woman of valor' ('esheth-hayil in v. 10...) is the same expression one would find in Judges for the 'mighty man of valor' (gibbor hehayil, Judg 6:12...)—the warrior aristocrat; 'strength' ('oz in vv. 17..., 25) is elsewhere used for powerful deeds and heroics (e.g., Exod 15:2, 13; 1 Sam 2:10); '[gain]' (v. 11) in '[no lack of gain]' is actually the word for 'plunder'...; 'food' (v. 15) is actually 'prey' (terep); 'she holds' (shillehah in v. 19) is an expression also used in military settings (cf. Judg 5:26...); 'surpass them all' (v. 29) is an expression that signifies victory" (same note). Commentator Tremper Longman says: "Perhaps life's struggles here are envisioned as a war and the woman as an active and successful participant in taming life's chaos" (How to Read Proverbs, p. 140).
Longman also points out: "Another of the dominant themes throughout the poem is the woman's boundless energy. It is hard to believe that any single person could ever accomplish as much as this ideal woman, and perhaps the description is meant as a composite sketch. In any case, this woman is described not only as a warrior but also as a merchant ship that brings produce to port, namely her home. She also is active in commercial endeavors, not to speak of philanthropy toward the needy. Not only are her actions praised, but also her qualities of mind and attitude. She is fearless about the future, wise and kind. This woman has nothing at all to do with laziness. The emphasis at the end of the poem, as one might expect, is not on beauty or charm, but on the woman's fear of the Lord. Indeed, this woman is the epitome of wisdom. She is the human embodiment of God's wisdom; a flesh-and-blood personification of Woman Wisdom" (p. 141).
With this in mind, Expositor's is right to point out: "The poem certainly presents a pattern for women who want to develop a life of wisdom; but since it is essentially about wisdom, its lessons are for both men and women to develop. The passage teaches that the fear of the Lord will inspire people to be faithful stewards of the time and talents that God has given; that wisdom is productive and beneficial for others, requiring great industry in life's endeavors; that wisdom is best taught and lived in the home—indeed, the success of the home demands wisdom—and that wisdom is balanced living, giving attention to domestic responsibilities as well as business enterprises and charitable service" (note on Proverbs 31:10-31).
A Woman Who Fears the Lord—the Wise Choice (Proverbs 31:10-31)
Let's now note a few more issues in the text of the passage.
Verse 10 points out the rarity of such a find as the virtuous woman and her supreme value, which should be treasured (again, applying to both a good wife and wisdom more generally).
Verse 11, the second in the poem, is a good illustration of a poetic device corresponding to the acrostic of the passage. "The Hebrew of the bet line... (Prov. 31:11) has a concentration of the letter bet.Betah bah leb ba'lah wesalal lo' yehsar" (Longman, p. 45). This was perhaps done to get Hebrew readers to take note of the acrostic pattern up front.
Verses 13 and 19, mentioning the woman's textile work, serve to frame an inclusio (within the chiastic structure outline above). This should not be taken to imply that women today must take on such work or start a garment business. The point is that she makes good, productive use of her talents for the welfare of her household. The case given is only an example, wherein the wife uses her skills to produce items she can then trade or sell in order to acquire other goods and services for her home. And what of her buying a field in verse 16? This likewise does not mean that wives today should go about making real estate purchases without consulting their husbands. It may well be that, in the example given, the woman's household is well enough off that such investments (the purpose here being for gardening) are within her discretionary spending. Yet if this involved a major expenditure of family resources we can rest assured that the noble wife would speak to her husband, for one of the principles of wisdom expressed throughout Proverbs is to seek counsel in making important decisions. The point of the example is twofold: 1) the husband trusts his valued wife enough to allow her to spend the household income in various ways; and 2) she takes initiative in such matters and is thoughtfully prudent and active in doing so.
Verse 15 does not mean that the woman portrayed here, a wealthy lady of the house, gets up early to personally make breakfast for the servants. "Instead, she supervises preparation of the morning meal and sees to it that all have a fair share. This implies first that she cares even for the servant girls and second that she is diligent about overseeing them" (New American Commentary, note on verse 15).
Verse 17 shows the responsible woman keeping herself fit so as to continue doing her work and serving her family.
Having succeeded so well in providing for her family, the virtuous wife is able to give to others besides—and does so (verse 20). Indeed, this is part of the point of her work, as noted earlier.
Verse 21 shows the woman not fearing for those of her household when it's cold as she has enabled them to be clothed with "scarlet." The Hebrew here is shanim. Some, following the ancient Greek Septuagint translation, change the vowels in the Hebrew to read shenayim, meaning "double"—the idea being that they are wearing layers. However, "scarlet," denoting costly garments, might imply comfort even in inclement weather. Note the wife's clothing of purple in verse 22. The word rendered "tapestry" in this verse means "coverings," which might refer to bedding or other clothing.
In verse 25, where the KJV and NKJV have "she shall rejoice in time to come," the meaning is more likely "she can laugh at the days to come" (NIV). That is, being armed with strength and honor (same verse), she can face whatever the future might bring with confidence (able even to dismiss the idea that she and her family might come to destruction). In the overall chiastic structure, this parallels her being unafraid of the cold in verse 21.
"Verse 27 is a brief, summarizing counterpart to the lengthy description of the wife's diligence in vv. 13-19. Here the text explicitly states that she avoids laziness" (NAC, note on verse 27).
Verses 28-29 show that such a woman is praised by her grateful family. And the next two verses provide us with the summary conclusion. Verse 30 states that charm and beauty are fleeting, while real and enduring praise is for the woman who fears the Lord—returning to the book's opening counsel (1:7). This woman should be rewarded with love and gratitude (30:31).
The New American Commentary summarizes the matter well: "The good wife described here has every virtue wisdom can offer. She is diligent, has a keen sense for business matters, is compassionate, is prepared for the future, is a good teacher, is dedicated to her family, and above all else possesses the primary characteristic of biblical wisdom, the fear of the Lord (looking back to Prov 1:7, the theme of the book). She is no less than Woman Wisdom made real. The riches Woman Wisdom offers (8:18) are brought home by the hard work of the good wife (31:11). Proverbs has, in effect, come full circle. It began by saying that the young man must embrace the imaginary ideal of Woman Wisdom in order to have a fulfilling life [ 1:20-33; 8:1-36; 9:1-6 ], and it ends by saying that one needs a good wife to achieve this goal.
"The young man has no choice but to follow one woman or the other. He will either pursue Woman Wisdom or Woman Folly, and with them he will take their counterparts, the good wife or the prostitute/quarrelsome wife. He cannot attain wisdom without the good wife because she creates the environment in which he can flourish. If he chooses an evil woman, he has little hope of transcending the context she will make for him. Wisdom is not simply a matter of learning rules and precepts but is a matter of socialization, and a man is socialized first by his parents and then by his wife....In Proverbs wisdom is not merely or even primarily intellectual; it is first of all relational. The young person finds wisdom through three specific relationships" (note on 31:30-31)—with God, parents and spouse.
Indeed, the arrangement of the book of Proverbs is ingenious in this respect. It commences with telling a young man that knowledge and wisdom begin with the fear of God, laying out the choice between wisdom and folly, both calling for him. It follows with a great deal of parental advice in the form of short sayings. Then it ends with a "graduation," so to speak, to adult life—with marriage to a godly woman who also wisely lives by the fear of God. Yet for success in life, a young man must not only choose a wise woman. He must choose wisdom itself. This, then, is the culmination of the book. The paramount choice presented lies before us all—men and women, young and old alike. Choose wisely.