Mag. Claudia R. Wintoch
Spiritual Development II: Biblical Interpretation
World Revival School of Ministry
In Proverbs 31 King Lemuel’s mother teaches her son what a desirable wife would look like, describing her character and her deeds. This passage has been on my mind for a few days, as I am preparing to write a paper on women in ministry. My goal is to get a better understanding of what an ideal wife looks like, back in the time the poem was written, and even in our day and time.
2. Literary Structure
The book of Proverbs belongs to the category of wisdom-literature. The writer’s intention is to share his wisdom with the reader, in order to improve that person’s life with the truth. He shares his opinion plainly and straightforward, like in most of the book of Proverbs, but sometimes he also uses more poetic language, like in our chosen passage, to stir the reader’s imagination, create a picture in his mind of that perfect wife he is to desire. There are therefore a number of comparisons and superlatives in the passage. It is important to understand that the passage is wisdom-literature – the author describes the ideal wife, but we are not to take the passage’s meaning literal, making a doctrine of what a wife is supposed to do, but to take the principles and apply them to ourselves today.
The first observation made is that the author applies the literary device of an acronym to form his discourse on the wife of noble character. Every line starts with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order. In English nearly every verse starts with “She” followed by a verb describing what she does: brings (v. 12), selects (v. 13), is (v. 14), gets (v. 15), considers (v. 16), sets (v. 17), sees (v. 18), holds (v. 19), opens, (v. 20), has (v. 21), makes (v. 22), makes (v. 24), is clothed (v. 25), speaks (v. 26), watches (v. 27). The first verse, verse 10, is the introduction to the discourse, starting off with a rhetorical question: A wife of noble character who can find? The wife’s husband is mentioned at the beginning (v. 11), in the middle (v. 23) and at the end (v. 28) of the wife’s description. The last three verses (v. 29-31) praise the wife and show the foundation of the praise she deserves: she fears the Lord (v. 30) – a recurring topic in the book of Proverbs.
What indicates that the author is describing the ideal wife? In the first verse (v. 10) he is using a comparison, declaring that she is worth far more than rubies, using this word picture to illustrate her great worth, since rubies are considered very valuable. In verse 14 he compares her to merchant ships – ships that brought rich foods from many places, ships on whose arrival people could rely on, and ships people were looking forward to arriving. The author uses many strong words to emphasize her qualities: full confidence (v. 11), lacks nothing (v. 22), all the days (v. 12), eager hands (v. 13), works vigorously (v. 17), no fear (v. 21), all of them (v. 21), faithful instruction (v. 26). He reaches a climax as he sums it all up in verse 29, making the husband address his wife: Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.
The author also describes the blessings that come on the husband and children as a result: full confidence in her (v. 11), lacks nothing (v. 11), respected (v 23), among the elders (v. 23), he praises her (v. 28), her children call her blessed (v. 28). Her husband is not only blessed personally, but he has a place of honor among the elders and is respected on account of her.
Who is the author of this passage? King Solomon wrote most of the book of Proverbs. We are told in verse 1 of Proverbs 31 that the words of that chapter came from King Lemuel’s mother. We do not know who King Lemuel is, yet “Jewish legend identifies Lemuel as Solomon and the advice as from Bathsheba”; however, there is no evidence to prove this claim. On the contrary, modern research would suggest that Lemuel was not Solomon.
The origin of the book of Proverbs is dated back to some time between 971 and 686 B.C.. “Most scholars also see chapters 30-31 as non-Solomonic and from a later date, perhaps from a time contemporary with Hezekiah”, which would be approximately the last 30 years of the time period above.
Considering the cultural insights we get from the wife’s description, we know that this wife and husband live somewhere in the Middle East, if not in King Solomon’s kingdom. There is no clue in the passage to determine a location in any more detail (see 4. Word Study).
Finally we have to ask the question why this poem was written and why it was placed at the end of the book of Proverbs. Large parts of the book of Proverbs describe the foolish woman, warning the reader of women like those. After having spent much time describing the negative to warn the reader, the author of Proverbs brings his book to a climax by placing the description of the noble women right at the end, which also leaves the reader with the positive still fresh in mind.
4. Word Study
There are two ways the first verse of chapter 31 is translated, which gives us the information as to the poem’s author. The NIV says: The sayings of King Lemuel – an oracle his mother taught him, while the RSV says: The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, which his mother taught him. While some translate “massa” as “an oracle”, other scholars believe it might refer to a kingdom named Massa “that is attested in the annals of the Assyrian kings from the time of Hezekiah”, which would not only help us date this passage, but locate its origin.
The Hebrew word translated “value” in verse 11, salal, is usually translated “plunder”. Plunder from victories in wars were considered very valuable and prestigious, yet a noble wife provides that prestige at all times.
5. Historical Context
Verse 23 reads that her husband is respected at the city gate. Elders, who acted as judges, were seated at the city gates, where people came to have their cases judges. We therefore learn that the husband was a prominent man and well-known leader. However, verse 31 shows us that she was praised at the city gates in her own rights.
We also learn that is was not unusual for a woman not only to take care of the household, but to conduct business herself (e.g. v. 16, v. 18, v. 24). Her diligent work, at home and in the business, are important components of the wife of noble character. Unfortunately, we have sometimes devalued women who work instead of staying at home and taken an opposing view. History shows how women often became humans that were less valuable than men, whose only purpose was to serve her husband, incapable of being intelligent and watching over the affairs of her household, as the wife of noble character does.
The author’s intent was to close his book of wisdom, having described a lot of foolishness, by picturing the ideal wife all men should look for and all women strive after. He is closing with a glorious high-point that stirs the reader’s heart.
However, while this is the immediate interpretation, it is Israel who is consistently pictured as the Lord’s wife throughout Scriptures. She is also often described as an unfaithful wife and prostitute, or foolish woman as earlier in Proverbs. In the chosen passage, God lays down what the ideal wife looks like, what He expects from His own wife Israel, how she can please Him. The result will be that she will be praised among the nations, that her husband (God) will be respected and honored by them, her children (grafted-in Gentiles) call her blessed.
Another valid comparison is to be made between wisdom, a predominant subject of Proverbs, and the ideal wife. Proverbs 3:15 reads: She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her, and Proverbs 8:11: For wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Both verses talk about wisdom, and both verses remind us of verse 10, where it says that the wife of noble character wife is worth far more than rubies. A wife of noble character is therefore equated with wisdom, while wicked women are equated with foolishness (e.g. Proverbs 9:13-18).
This passage is not only applicable to wives, but also to single people who strive to lead a life that is pleasing to God. It encourages me to work diligently and speak godly words, so that my family and those associated with me will be blessed and respected by others.
It is also a beautiful picture of what the church, the bride of Christ, should look like. It is not about the outward (beauty is fleeting – v. 30), but we are to work diligently on building His kingdom, so His honor will increase on the earth, and He will be praised on account of His church. The fear of the Lord (v. 30) is the wife’s foundation, and the church should make every effort to recover that foundation herself.
After having described the negative side at length, the author now ends his book with a poem describing the ideal wife every husband would be lucky to have. He had warned his readers of foolish wives and then shows them what the desirable wife looks like. Having talked about the fear of the Lord frequently throughout his book, he gives an example of what it produces.
However, every Israelite would always think of his nation as the wife of God, and examine whether they were fearing the Lord, bringing forth the works and fruit described in the passage. They knew that they were worth far more than rubies (v. 10) to their God and that they would either bring shame or honor on their God among the nations.
May we be those who bring honor and praise to our Lord.