The ultimate passage for Christian women and their families, Proverbs 31 is not a call for despair, but for delight.
By Mark D. Harris
Mother’s Day is an ideal time to consider the importance of mothers. The classic passage in the Bible on this topic is Proverbs 31. This scripture is beautiful and appropriate, focusing first on the excellent mother (vv1-9) and then on the excellent wife (vv10-31). The first woman described was the mother of a king and she gave him wonderful words of wisdom. The second woman described had children, but it was in her role as a wife, more so than in her role as a mother, that she was praised.
My daughter attended a college conference last week which featured a special workshop for girls entitled “Am I Enough?” This is a question that everyone asks, but the pressures on women, especially in the Church, are intense. Even a study of Proverbs 31 can make women feel inadequate as no woman can hope to be as perfect as the model portrayed in these verses. However, the theme of Proverbs 31 is not that there are perfect women but those who embrace their relationships, to their children, to their husband, and ultimately to their God, are to be praised. They will succeed as fully as the women portrayed in these verses.
Commentary – The Woman as a Mother
VV 1-2 – Proverbs 31 began by identifying the audience for the teachings that follow, King Lemuel (לְמוֹאֵל Lĕmuw’el – for God), and the source, his mother. There is no king by the name of Lemuel anywhere else in the Bible, but Jewish tradition holds that Lemuel was a pseudonym for Solomon and that the mother was Bathsheba. Unlike the common practice of other Near Eastern wisdom literature, Proverbs has only this verse that directly addressed a king. The word translated prophecy in the KJV and oracle in the NASB (מַשָּׂא massa’) can also be translated as “burden”, suggesting that God’s truth is a burden. Once man discovers it, he is responsible to keep it.
Words of Warning
V3 – “Giving strength to women” refers to indulging in sexual pleasures. “Ways that destroy kings” is a repetition of the same idea, and the need to repeat it shows its seriousness. Sexual intercourse and other such pleasures are blessed in the context of marriage (Proverbs 5:18-19) and, like everything else, in moderation. To make sex a center of a man’s life, however, is to give his strength to women and ultimately to destroy him. Many young lives have been damaged or even lost by lust, and many marriages and children have been harmed by sexual obsessions.
Such temptation is especially dangerous to kings; because of their power and wealth they can have many sexual partners. People are more than sexual beings, and to spend one’s time primarily on sensual pleasures is to neglect the other, more important, things that God has called His people to do.
VV 4-5 – Wine and other strong drink was common in kings’ courts in the ancient world, so it is unlikely that this represents a complete prohibition on drinking alcohol. It is more likely that these verses prohibit drinking to excess. Alcohol depresses the mind and impairs the judgment, so kings could not afford to drink too much. Those who did were ineffective at best and abusive at worst.
Words of Compassion
VV 6-7 – Strong drink and even drunkenness was better used to ease the pain of those near the end of their earthly lives. Drugs such as opium and marijuana were also known and used in ancient times. The compassionate mother knew that there were things on earth that no one could cure or control. In those circumstances, kindness and mercy were the prudent path for the king.
Words of Vision
VV 8-9 – Rather than indulge in the self-serving pleasures of sex and alcohol, the king’s mother wanted him to speak out for those who could not speak out for themselves. The king had to know them, know their concerns, and address them. He also had to protect those who could not protect themselves; the handicapped and those who faced misfortune. Lemuel’s mother was a wise woman who knew the truth and taught it with tenderness and courage to her son.
Commentary – The Woman as a Wife
V10 – While many modern Bibles use the phrase “an excellent wife”, the King James Version (KJV) uses the phrase “a virtuous woman”. The Hebrew allows for either, with אִשָּׁה ‘ishshah being translated as “wife” 425 times, as “woman” 324 times and as a female animal twice in the Old Testament. The underlying assumption was that a woman of marriageable age would be a wife, unless disability or misfortune prevented it. This was the assumption of every culture for most of history. Only in the past 50 years have “woman”, as a biological state, and “wife”, as a relationship to family and society, diverged sharply in Western culture.
To expand, a woman is an individual biological entity, but a wife is a woman who has a certain type of relationship with a man, another individual biological entity known as her husband. A girl is an individual biological entity, but a daughter or sister is a girl who has a certain type of relationship with her parents or siblings, themselves other individual biological entities. Therefore, a society that emphasized “woman” or “girl” was focused on the individual, while one the emphasized “wife”, “daughter”, or “sister” was focused on the relationships. For Hebrew culture to equate “woman” and “wife” was to acknowledge a woman’s biological reality while conferring a set of relational norms as well. Some may see these norms as stifling, but this passage portrays them as liberating, allowing the godly woman in excel in every area of life.
As both woman and wife, an excellent one, a virtuous one, is hard to find. Her value is beyond calculation.
VV 11-12 – The first characteristic of the godly woman was that her husband, and by extension others who knew her, had confidence in her character and in her ability. She was such a blessing to him that his life was overflowing with good things in the same abundance as if he had received the spoils of war. In this picture of the model women, she consistently, albeit not perfectly, did him good.
VV 13-15 – In contrast to the foolish woman, the adulteress, who lay in wait for the foolish man (Proverbs 7:6-23), the excellent wife worked diligently in useful pursuits to bring important items into the household. She did not do this alone but directed others (such as her maidens) with skill and compassion as they contributed to the success of the family.
VV 16-19 – The godly woman not only met the needs of the present but she planned for the future. She was a successful business woman who wished to grow her income by buying a field and planting a vineyard. She carefully and objectively evaluated (זָמַם zamam) a field and bought it, demonstrating her willingness and ability to make a decision and courage to carry it out. Then the godly woman and her helpers did the long (at least three years) and hard work of transforming the bare field into a productive vineyard. Since wine making was lucrative in ancient Israel, her family probably enjoyed more prosperity than ever before. Able to recognize excellence wherever it was found, she knew that her work was good and her industry virtuous. The godly woman is a tireless worker.
V20 – The idleness and self-focus of the wealthy of Victorian England, and many others throughout the world, is legendary. However, such was not the case for the woman of God. She worked hard but she gave liberally to help those with less than she.
VV 21-22 – The excellent wife looked into the future to identify hazards and prepare for them. The winter snows would come but she would make sure that her family was prepared. She made garments that were as high quality as they were beautiful.
V23 – Such a faithful woman ran the household so well that her husband was able to help run the city. His prominence was in part because of his ability and character but in part because of hers. The godly woman generated so much social capital, economic and other benefits derived from cooperation between people, and the reputation of their family was so good, that others in the city accepted him as a leader.
V24 – In addition to everything else, the godly woman ran a textiles business, a common trade among women in the ancient world. There is no indication in the Bible that a woman’s only acceptable position is at home. Women have been in many professions since the beginning of time.
VV 25-26 – In addition to warmth and protection, clothing signified one’s, position, social status and even one’s character. Our clothes are often the most recognizable part of us. The excellent wife, however, was known for her strength, honor, wisdom and kindness more so than her fashion. Organization, industry and competence, not idleness, characterized her.
VV 27-29 – Publicly acknowledging the truth, the husband and children of the excellent wife affirm her privately and before others. Far from taking her for granted, the family of the virtuous woman was eager to let others know of her character.
Commentary – The Woman as a Child of God.
VV 30-31 – The excellent wife is defined as a woman who “fears the Lord.” In fact, her very works would bring her praise at the highest levels of government in town. The relationship between a woman and her Lord is the fundamental one; all other relationships are an outgrowth of this. The virtuous woman is first a child of God, second a wife to her husband, and third a mother to her children.
Each of us has important women in our lives, and our wives and mothers deserve our highest gratitude and praise. No matter how good, they will not be perfect. Neither are we. It is in our relationships to each other, and ultimately in our relationship to God, that we find success, even as the Proverbs 31 woman did. In ourselves none of us are “enough”, but in community with parents, spouse, children, church and others, and ultimately in union with the Lord, we are enough.