There is an extremely popular passage in the Bible that I have recently studied and meditated on. I have written on this passage before and discussed it with friends and in small groups. However, my thoughts on this passage have changed as I have reconsidered my position on the interpretation of this passage. Some of you will ardently disagree with me on this and that is okay. I am by no means the end-all Bible interpreter. However, I pray you will take into consideration my findings and new hermeneutical position and hopefully see a bigger, more general and complete vision into the intent, purpose, and meaning of a beloved Old Testament passage. My prayer is that this will be helpful to you in your study of Scripture.
Another Look at the Proverbs 31 Woman
Proverbs 31:10-31 is one of the more popular passages in the entire Bible. There are many ministries, particularly women’s ministries, that are named after or founded on the principle of the “virtuous”, “good”, “ideal”, or “perfect” wife of Proverbs 31. Countless younger as well as older women cling tightly to these verses as motivation, inspiration, and clarification for how they should live. This passage is typically viewed as being intended for women and it is rare to find men quoting from it or buying coffee mugs with its verses written across it. The cultural contention pertaining to these verses seems to be that the woman admired in Proverbs 31 is a valiant role model for young girls and a measuring stick for wives. Typical interpretations include a lot of incentives for godly womanhood without any mention of godly manhood. However, I think we need to revisit and reconsider the meaning of this passage. We need to give it another look. The question beckons and rings in my ear like a deafening bell: Is this poem that closes the book of Proverbs merely a measuring stick or godly example for wives and women, or is there a more general and deeper interpretation that would be more appropriate to the context? Is the beloved and even envied Proverbs 31 woman more than an example for women? It seems to me that all of the noble efforts to understand, interpret, and apply Proverbs 31:10-31 as a passage that serves solely as an example for women follow a hermeneutical (interpretive) error. What I gather from the original context and from the nature of proverbs and Hebrew poems leads me to believe that the meaning of the text is deeper than mere example, though this woman is worthy of imitating. I take a few things into consideration as I examine this text including: (1) The intent and purpose of the book of Proverbs as a whole, (2) the audience to whom the author wrote, and (3) the language with which the author uses in Proverbs 31 and how it reflects that of earlier portions in the book as a whole. With all of this in mind, I believe that what the author of Proverbs 31:10-31 intends to communicate to his readers is that godly wisdom is a precious and priceless treasure to be desired, pursued, and embodied in all areas of life.
The Passage (Proverbs 31:10-31, ESV)
10 An excellent wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
12She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
13She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
14She is like the ships of the merchant;
she brings her food from afar.
15She rises while it is yet night
and provides food for her household
and portions for her maidens.
16She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17She dresses herself with strength
and makes her arms strong.
18She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
19She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
20She opens her hand to the poor
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21She is not afraid of snow for her household,
for all her household are clothed in scarlet.
22She makes bed coverings for herself;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23Her husband is known in the gates
when he sits among the elders of the land.
24She makes linen garments and sells them;
she delivers sashes to the merchant.
25Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
26She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27She looks well to the ways of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
29“Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
30Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31Give her of the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the gates.
This interpretation is rooted in a hermeneutical device that strives to exegete the original intended meaning that the author gives to the text. Within this hermeneutical device, the context of the book in which this passage is located gives the clearest signs pointing to this meaning.
Who is the Author/Audience?
Firstly, the entire book of Proverbs is written from a fatherly (or more generally a parental) perspective. These proverbs, or short and pithy, wise sayings, are given from a well-seasoned and well-practiced father to his young son. This is most obvious in places like Proverbs 1:8 where it is first used: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction.” And even when the giver of wisdom changes, such as in Proverbs 31:1 as it shifts to an oracle of King Lemuel’s mother (not father), the recipient of the instruction is still her “son.” This is important and pertinent to understanding the wisdom poem of Proverbs 31:10-31. It is clear that the theme is continued in this passage as a parent is addressing a son. This can be seen in the literary elements of this passage. The first thing to notice about Proverbs 31:10-31 is that it is a Hebrew poem. Hebrew poetry has many distinct elements, just like the rest of Ancient Near Eastern poetry. This poem, in particular, is set up as an acrostic (a Hebrew poem in which the initial letters of the lines or stanzas were made to run over the letters of the alphabet in their order) as well as a chiasm (the arrangement of elements in a text in the form of mirror-like reflection: A B C D C’ B’ A’). Duane Garrett notes this and observes that the center point of the poem is verse 23 where the emphasis falls.
“The center point of the chiasmus is v. 23, the declaration that the husband is highly regarded at the gate. The verse has been read as almost an intrusion on 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” (Garrett, Proverbs, NAC, 248).
The center point of this chiasm gives us insight into the intended audience of this poem. It is important to see that the audience of this poetic proverb is still a son. This author in keeping with the flow of the rest of Proverbs leaves his or her son with a description of what kind of wife he should pursue (vis-à-vis the assumed meaning that the author was writing to a daughter to describe the kind of wife she should be. Garrett brings this out in his commentary as well). So, while emphasis is popularly given to the woman and the audience sometimes labeled as Hebrew women, it is more likely that the direct audience or learner under the teaching of this proverb is a Hebrew young man—the same kind of young man who has been urged to “let not your heart turn aside to [the prostitute’s] ways; do not stray into her paths” (Proverbs 7:25). But where is the young man of Proverbs to turn when he turns aside from the prostitute, who is Woman Folly’s counterpart (Proverbs 9:13-18)? He is to call out to Woman Wisdom: “You are my sister…to keep [him] from the forbidden woman” (Proverbs 7:4-5). Why is this observation important to understanding the meaning of the text? The answer is two-fold: (1) Since the author-audience remains congruent to the rest of the book, the meaning of this proverb is probably more in line with the overall purpose of the book and (2) the meaning cannot be that the author was giving Hebrew women (and by application women today) an example of godly womanhood since the immediate audience was a “son” or Hebrew young man. A bit of a caveat, however: I do believe that as an implication, Christian women would do well to look to the wise and godly character of the Proverbs 31 woman. But instead of being the direct meaning, this is an indirect implication.
A Perfectly Wise Woman
Therefore, the entire book of Proverbs is directed toward a son who should flee Woman Folly and pursue and cling to Woman Wisdom in order to lead a fulfilling and godly life of honor and worth. Proverbs thus ends with a bang with the description of a virtuous wife. This woman embodies the wise, godly character advocated for in the previous thirty chapters for all areas of life. She is a treasure that surpasses all others (v. 10, 29). She is trustworthy (v. 11). She is a loving and caring wife seeking after the good of her husband (v. 12). She is a diligent worker in all spheres ranging from business to family matters (v. 13-19, 24, 27). She is charitable to those in need (v. 20). She plans ahead and cares for her family as well as herself (v. 21-22). She honors the name and reputation of her husband (v. 23). She does not worry about the future, but rests in her “strength and dignity” (v. 25). Her tongue is both wise and kind (v. 26). She is praised by her husband and children (v. 28). She fears God and her works are praised by those who see them (v. 30-31). In fact, this woman seems to be the ultimate expression and definition of applied wisdom. This woman has taken the teachings of Proverbs and dramatically and completely obeyed its instruction. Allen Ross observes,
“The theme of the poem, the wife of noble character, captures the ideals of wisdom that have filled the book” (Allen Ross, Proverbs, EBC, 1128).
The purpose of this poem is rooted in the comprehensively good and wise life that this woman is leading—a life that has been exhorted for thirty chapters. This wisdom began with her fear of the Lord (v. 30; Prov. 1:7)—the central element of Proverbs.
Example to Follow?
This woman is so virtuous that she even seems to be perfect. She is ideal to say the least. Can the reason behind this be a desire to present a model for women to follow? I could easily see many women becoming discouraged when comparing their efforts as wives that are marred by sin to this flawless woman. But I am in agreement with Kenneth Aitken when he comments,
“As a whole [Proverbs 31:10-31] 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 to live up to” (Aitken, Proverbs, 158).
While her character indeed is worthy of embodiment by women and wives, the point of this exaggerated praise seems to be a little deeper than that.
Or Wisdom Given a Face?
Earlier in Proverbs, there is a distinct personification. Wisdom is personified as a woman. Woman Wisdom “cries aloud in the street” (Prov. 1:20). Contrary to the calling of the prostitute, Woman Wisdom calls out for young men to come to her (Prov. 1:20-33). This personified woman seems to take bodily form in Proverbs 31. She is the culmination of the wisdom taught in Proverbs. It appears that the author sought to give a celebratory and exalted picture of godly wisdom. Allen Ross even contends that Proverbs 31:10-31 is similar to the praise hymns found in the Psalms. He even sees direct comparisons to Psalm 111. In the words of Ross, Proverbs 31:10-31 is a “hymn to Lady Wisdom” (Ross, 1130). This poem could even be the result of an epilogue added at a later time to this canonical book. This is a possibility due to the reflective nature of the poem as it glorifies themes of wisdom, goodness, and virtue found throughout the rest of the book. With the poetic mastery of combining an acrostic with a chiasm, it would make sense for this poem to be highly figurative and metaphorical. Throughout the book, the authors have been driving home the point that godly wisdom is worthy of pursuit and embodiment in all of life. In the bedroom, the marketplace, the town square, etc., godly wisdom must be applied for a joyful, successful, and abundant life. Misery and calamity will indeed follow those who ignore Woman Wisdom (Prov. 1:24-26).
SIDE NOTE: Of course, since a biblical proverb is to be interpreted as a “general truth concerning life from a divine perspective” (Robert Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, 133), exceptions are possible and assumed. For example, you can apply tremendous godly wisdom, love, character, and diligence and be marred by depression or experience the injustice of not being paid for your hard work or be subjected to poverty through a declining economy.
This truth and plea for the pursuit of godly wisdom is then elevated with a poetic description of what this applied wisdom looks like. The familiar language of desire, diligence, and fear of the Lord echoes the proverbs of the rest of the book. In a real sense, the wisdom personified in the earlier portions of Proverbs becomes wisdom exemplified and embodied in the personhood of the virtuous wife in this closing passage. In a sense, Woman Wisdom of Proverbs 2 is given a face, takes legs, and gets to work in Proverbs 31. Ross similarly notes,
“In general it appears that the woman of Proverbs 31 is a symbol of wisdom” (Ross, Proverbs, EBC, 1129).
The Proverbs 31 woman is better interpreted as being a metaphorical example of the kind of wisdom the book of Proverbs has been calling for. In other words, I do not believe this was an actual woman, nor do I believe the intent of the author was to give us a picture of a woman to pursue or desire to be like (primarily, at least). Therefore, the author was more likely saying something like this: Now, my son, pursue this kind of wisdom. This is what she looks like in action!” If the book of Proverbs was written to show the worth of pursuing the surpassing preciousness and pricelessness of godly wisdom through short and pithy wise sayings, the closing wisdom poem is a long and carefully dictated praise hymn of the embodiment of this wisdom. The author is telling his audience that godly wisdom surpasses all this world has to offer and it is more valuable than precious stones (v. 10, 29); pursue her.
Three Distinct Implications
From this meaning flows distinctive implications that are pertinent to modern readers. One striking implication is that believers should prayerfully seek wisdom in submission to God (aka. Fear the Lord). As redeemed believers in Christ Jesus, our minds are being renewed and being formed after his image—the perfect image of God. Realizing the beauty, preciousness, and pricelessness of godly wisdom, we should pray for God to give us wisdom. When one realizes the worth and preciousness of diamond, he or she does not pass at the opportunity to own such a stone. If this is so, then wisdom, which is far more precious than jewels, should be pursued and sought after all the more. Knowing that wisdom begins with fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7), we should approach his throne of grace and ask for this divine gift humbly in submission to his sovereign wisdom from which all wisdom flows. Seek wisdom and make her your friend. The wiser we are as Christians, the more we will exalt the glory of God’s wisdom as well as his redeeming and regenerating work in us.
A second implication is that we should intend to apply godly wisdom in all spheres of life. Just as the wise wife in Proverbs 31 exemplifies wisdom with her husband, children, household, businesses, and work, so we should strive to be wise in all areas of life. Wisdom does not begin and end with difficult financial or family decisions. Believers should seek to follow the ways of Woman Wisdom and apply this divine gift while at home, work, church, and play. Do not underestimate the heavenly nature of your daily dealings. Glorify God through the mundane activities of your life. Think heavenly thoughts knowing that your life is a vapor. And submit your thoughts and decisions under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Work hard as to the Lord. Seek after what is good and desire justice and righteousness. If you are a Christian, be who you have been reborn to be in every facet of your life. Embody the wise character that the Spirit is transforming you into.
Thirdly, we should be quick to flee from folly. This is similar to the first implication, but it is necessary to mention that while you will be pursuing godly wisdom through prayer and submission to God, you must simultaneously run from Woman Folly. Her counterparts—the prostitute and sin—lead to death. As regenerated believers in Christ, the Spirit of Truth indwells us. As with God, we must consider the wisdom of this world foolishness (1 Cor. 3:19). When we see and grasp the high value and elevated place the poet of Proverbs 31:10-31 places wisdom (in line with the rest of Proverbs), it becomes foolish to seek after the things considered by God as foolish, such as a host of sins like adultery, lust, material riches, and self-sufficiency. Wisdom thus aligns herself with holiness. The wiser we become in the things of God the more holy we will be—in all areas of our lives. We must pursue both and as we do, turn aside from folly and sin. “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all” (Proverbs 31:29). Most of all, godly wisdom surpasses folly. We should flee it with the same urgency that we pursue godly wisdom.
This wisdom poem that closes Proverbs has exceeding significance for my life as well as yours. As a Spirit-superintended writing of wisdom literature, we must submit to the profound truth of the worth of godly wisdom. All wisdom flows from the eternally wise mind of God. This is why fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. In light of my own sinful mind and foolish actions, I am humbled face down before God as I marvel at the prospect of his gift of wisdom to one such as me. It is then vital and also joyful for us to willingly pursue godly wisdom and revel in its preciousness and pricelessness as a gift of God to be embodied in all spheres of life.
Exalt the Glory of God in Wisdom
In closing, Proverbs 31:10-31 is a proverbial wisdom hymn written with the purpose of exalting the value of godly wisdom through the poetic and figurative exemplification of wisdom in the life of a diligent, devoted, and godly wife. Though she is indeed a wonderful example for wives and even all women as well as a model for men to base their search for a wife on, these are secondary to the meaning of the text rooted in the context of a book that exalts and calls for the application of wisdom in all of life to the glory of God. Wisdom from God begins with fear of the Lord. And this wisdom is a precious jewel to be treasured and employed in all of life.