Proverbs 31:10-22

Proverbs 31:10-22 May 19, 2011


Last time, we reviewed the structure of this passage, and noted that it is an acrostic poem, describing the excellent wife from A to Z. This passage fits into the larger structure of Proverbs by picking up on the descriptions of Lady Wisdom from the opening chapters of the book. The book begins with the king instructing his son the prince to choose wisely between the women who vie for his attention. His father warns him about Lady Folly and urges him to seek out Lady Wisdom. In the final chapter, we find that the prince has chosen well: He has made Lady Wisdom his bride. As King Lemuel’s mother urged, he has renounced the women who destroy kings (31:3) and embraces the woman who enables him to rule well.

It’s important to recognize that the woman here is not merely an individual woman. Few individual women are as active, as widely competent, as shrewd, as this woman. But we shouldn’t minimize the application to individual women. Over the course of a lifetime, many godly women have done almost everything described her – working with their hands, bringing food, rising at night to feed her family, purchasing property, shopping carefully for the best merchandise, spinning yarn or sewing clothes, helping the needy, all while their husbands sit in the gates, judging and ruling, entirely confident that their wives are managing the household well.

PROVERBS 31:10-12

The woman is described in verse 10 as a woman of strength (Heb. chayil ). The Hebrew word has a wide range of uses and can refer to anything that confers power. Wealth is “strength” (cf. Genesis 34:29), a king’s armies are his “strength” (Exodus 14:4, 9, 17; 15:4), and mighty men who fight in war are men of “strength” (Joshua 6:2). Several things can be inferred from this. First, as noted in an earlier study, this means that the woman’s domestic work has a heroic quality; what she does in the home is a form of warfare. Domestic activity is the stuff of epic poetry in Scripture, one of the main places where the Seed of the Woman prosecutes war against the seed of the serpent. This once again confirms the emphasis throughout Proverbs on the mother’s Torah and wisdom as a source of guidance for the prince. Moms are on the front because they raise princely, heroic sons and strong daughters. Men who think their wives do nothing ought to think again.

Second, the woman is strong – that seems to include physical strength, but also wealth and substance. She is a capable, competent woman. She can handle herself in a land purchase and can oversee a collection of household servants. She is no Victorian withering flower. And for the Proverbs, the strong woman is the wise woman, the kind of woman that the prince should choose. Many men prefer otherwise; many prefer weak women whom they can browbeat and bully; many men think that a strong woman will make them weaker. On the contrary, marriage is no zero-sum game. A strong wife strengthens her husband; her “substance” and “strength” are a source of “gain” to him (v. 11), not a source of loss. Just as God Himself isn’t proud and protective of His privileges, but shares power and kingship with His creation, delights in the amazing power of Leviathan and the strength of a man, so a husband ought not to be protective and proud in regard to his wife. He should not consider her strength a threat, but rather an enhancement of his own strength.

The second line of verse 10 describes the strong woman’s worth in economic terms. Her “price” is above jewels, and the word “price” means literally “sale price” (cf. the verb form used in Genesis 25:31, 33; 45:4-5; Leviticus 25, passim ; Proverbs 31:24). Some doubtless take this as a sign that women were considered chattel in ancient Israel, but the entire context refutes that interpretation. The same notion is found early in the book, where the prince is exhorted to sell everything to buy wisdom – certainly not a commercialization of wisdom (cf. 3:15; 8:11). The point is that the woman is a source of gain for her husband, economically but in every other way as well. His reputation is bolstered by her competence and wisdom; his power is enhanced; the beauty and order of his house is increased.

Her value is compared to that of precious stones. She enhances her husband’s life, and the other lives around her, far more than even the most precious jewel. Implicitly, it is not just her worth, but the woman herself, who is a jewel. Human beings are made from dust, enlivened and enflamed by the Spirit of God breathed through the nostrils. Dirt hardens into stones, and so men are compared to rocks, like their Father, the heavenly Rock, or their brother Christ, the Rock that followed them in the wilderness. Through the fires of trial and persecution, some human rocks are burnished into precious stones – becoming the gold, silver, and jewels that make up the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3; Revelation 21). This woman is such a jewel. That image does not imply fragility, but glory, beauty, internal fire and light, even hardness and strength in the midst of tribulation. That is the kind of woman that is valuable to her husband.

Because of her virtue, strength, and value, her husband’s heart is at rest. The first part of verse 11 is straightforward. Her husband ( ba’al ) trusts her. Though the verb “trust” can be used of human beings trusting one another, it commonly refers to the trust that we are to place in Yahweh Himself (2 Kings 18:5; Psalm 4:5; 9:10). Our hearts should trust in Yahweh (Psalm 28:7; 62:8, 10). The Psalms tell us that we should put trust in Yahweh rather than in man (Psalm 118:8-9). Yet, the strong woman’s lord, her ba’al, trusts in her, trusts in her from the heart, placing a confidence in her that is analogous to his confidence in Yahweh Himself. He knows that she will do him no wrong; he knows that she will be careful with his wealth, and will enhance rather than destroy his life.

Trust of this sort is the most precious commodity in any marriage, and its loss is the evil that lies at the root of most marital breakdowns. Once lost, it is very difficult to restore. Instead of a narrative of faithfulness and trust, husband and wife develop a narrative of betrayal and failure. Husbands begin to think that their wives are out to get them, and wives begin to think that their husbands mean them harm. Pettiness begins to dominate the marriage. Marriages can be preserved only on the basis of constant, implicit, heart-trust in one another, which is ultimately a fruit of constant, unrelenting, heart-trust in the Lord of marriage.

In the AV, the second line of verse 11 is odd. The NASB gets it better: The point is not that the man who trusts his wife won’t need to gather plunder. Rather, the man who trusts his wife will have no lack of gain, and the gain is described as “plunder” ( shalal ; cf. Genesis 49:27; Exodus 15:9; 1 Samuel 30:20). This is another of the military terms that is sprinkled throughout the chapter. The gain that the strong wife brings is like the gain of a victory in battle. Her labor “plunders” the world around, and enriches her husband. He knows that she won’t plunder and keep part of the plunder for himself. She is no Achan; she will share the plunder with her household. That is what the husband knows from the heart.

The phrase “good and evil” in verse 12 takes us back to the garden and its forbidden tree. Eve became a foolish wife, a wife who could not be trusted, wife to a man who could not be trusted either. The strong woman is no Eve who does evil. She does good for her husband rather than evil. The good she does is persistent and lifelong.

BS 31:13-22

Verses 10-12 describe the strong woman’s worth and value to her husband in general terms, but the section from verses 13-22 (the “dalet” through the “mem” sections) provides a detailed account of her dealings. The activities described in these ten verses are like a Decalogue of Wisdom, the Decalogue of the strong wife.

One of the important typological dimensions of this description is an implicit link between the bride of this song and the Bride of Yahweh, the Bride of Christ, the church. Like this woman, the Bride of Christ is a jeweled bride, sparkling with the glory of her Lord as she descends from heaven. This woman gathers materials for clothing, as Israel gathered wool and linen and other materials for the tabernacle. This woman feeds her family, as the church spreads Christ’s table before His family. This is part of the larger imagery of verse 13: the strong wife seeks wool and flax, materials for priestly garments, and works delightedly, willingly, like those who contributed to the tabernacle. She is also like the church in being like a “ship” (v. 14), traveling across the Gentile sea to bring good news to the world and Gentile goods back home from a distant country. Specifically, the woman-ship brings bread from afar.

Like Israel at Passover, the strong woman rises at night to give food to her household. The word for “food” here is literally “prey,” and suggests that the woman is not only a provider of food in the dark, but a huntress or a lioness who brings the prey back to her family. Again, the picture is a heroic, even masculine one. She distributes portions to her maidens – portions of food, no doubt, but the picture is also of the distribution of property. Mother Israel distributes portions to the maiden cities of Israel; mother Jerusalem is attended by her maidservants, what the Song of Songs calls the “daughters of Jerusalem.”

Verse 16 highlights her sacramental role. She purchases a field, in order to provide wheat and bread to her house; she plants a vineyard, in order to provide wine. The woman again is Israel, not merely the strong woman who is a bride of a man, or Lady Wisdom, but the Bride of Yahweh and Yahweh incarnate who gives bread and wine to her children.

Verse 17 moves from a commercial to a military context. Like a mighty man girding on his armor or his sword, the woman girds herself with strength. Though “strength” is here a different word from that at the beginning of the passage ( ‘oz ), it has the same range of connotation – power, wealth, strength, military prowess. Her harms are strong, like the arms of Yahweh Himself who defeated Egypt with the strength of His arm (Exodus 15:16). Literally, once again, the woman is engaged in economic and domestic tasks, but these are elevated by the military and epic language that the poet uses.

Earlier in the passage, we noted an allusion to Eve. The strong woman is not an Eve who brings evil on her husband, but a new Eve who brings good and not evil. We again have a reference to Eve in verse 18. Eve saw the fruit of the tree of knowledge, that it was delightful to the eyes, good for food, and able to make one wise. She was right on all counts, but was wrong to think this was an encouragement to eat. The strong woman is again a new Eve who perceives the good of the things she buys (the word is “taste,” ta’am ). She had good taste, knowing what is good and when to take it.

Most of the uses of the word nyr , “lamp,” refer to the lamps of the tabernacle (Exodus 25:37; 27:20; 30:7-8; Leviticus 24:2, 4; Numbers 4:9; 8:2-3; 1 Samuel 3:3; 1 Kings 7:49). Like the priests, the strong woman keeps the lamp burning perpetually, a light in the night. Once again, the woman is Israel. No doubt this is also meant to be a description of her own luminous character and work: She is a light that burns perpetually, whose good works are displayed so that men may see them and glorify the Father in heaven.

Her hands are busy spinning but they are also stretched out to the poor (v. 20). Typically, stretching out a hand also has a military connotation. Yahweh stretches out his hand against Egypt to destroy it. If the strong woman is stretching out a hand to help the poor, it is because her hands are not only full of gifts but also strong in grappling with oppressors. The specific word for “stretch out” here ( paras ) carries the sense of “spread out.” Moses “spreads out” his hands in prayer (Exodus 9:29, 33), the cherubim spread their wings over the ark cover (Exodus 25:20; 37:9; 40:19), and various layers of covering are spread out over the furnishings of the tabernacle (Numbers 4:6-8). Yahweh Himself spreads out His cloud to cover Israel (Psalm 105:39). This is not only an image of generosity but of protective covering. The afflicted have an ally and support in the strong woman. She uses her strength/wealth/influence to assist those who are in need. Of course, here again we have an image of the church, stretching out her hands to the Lord in prayer on behalf of the needy, stretching out her hands in gifts to the poor, stretching out her hands against the wicked who trample down the weak.

The clothing of the house in scarlet is again a tabernacle reference. Scarlet is one of the main colors of the tabernacle furnishings, and of the priestly garments (Exodus 25:4; 26:1, 31, 36; 27:16; 28:5;, 6, 8, 15). Israel is the willing contributor to the building of her “house,” the house of her ba’al, Yahweh, giving scarlet and purple along with gold and silver and bronze for the building of the house. Purple is also a tabernacle color (Exodus 25:4; 26:1, 31; etc.). These are also royal colors: Not only the strong woman herself, but her entire household is dressed in the colors of kings.

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