Proverbs concludes with the portrait of the “excellent wife” (31:10). The portrait reaches back to the beginning of Proverbs and the portrait of wisdom. Like Lady Wisdom, the excellent wife’s value is far above jewels (v. 10; cf. 3:15; 8:11). Like Lady Wisdom, the excellent wife offers food (31:15; cf. 9:2, 5). The excellent wife brings gain (31:11), like Wisdom (cf. 3:14). Wisdom begins from the fear of Yahweh, which is precisely what animates the excellent wife (31:30).
The final section of Proverbs is organized as an acrostic. The first letters of the verses of the poem move through the Hebrew alphabet in succession. JA Motyer has described acrostics as “a poetic way of saying that a total coverage of the subject was being offered.”
He goes on: “In the common form of acrostic found in Old Testament Poetry, each line or stanza begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. This literary form may have been intended as an aid to memory, but more likely it was a poetic way of saying that a total coverage of the subject was being offered — as we would say, ‘from A to Z.’ Acrostics occur in Psalms 111 and 112, where each letter begins a line; in Psalms 25, 34, and 145, where each letter begins a half-verse; in Psalm 37, Proverbs 31:10-31, and Lamentations 1, 2, and 4, where each letter begins a whole verse; and in Lamentations 3, where each letter begins three verses. Psalm 119 is the most elaborate demonstration of the acrostic method where, in each section of eight verses, the same opening letter is used, and the twenty-two sections of the psalm move through the Hebrew alphabet, letter after letter.”
These acrostics have different rhythms. Psalms 9, 10, and 37 devoted two verses each to a letter; 25, 34, and 145 only one verse each; Psalms 111 and 112 have a line – a half verse – for each letter.
Because of its link with the Hebrew alphabet, the number 22 figures prominently in Jewish speculation. It is the number of generations from Adam (alpha man) to Jacob (omega man) – Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah, Shem, Arpachshad, Shela, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, Terah, Abram, Isaac, Jacob.
The Hebrew canon is also sometimes organized in a 22-structure. The MT is set up as a twenty-four book list, but Josephus refers to 22 books. These are probably the following: the five books of Moses, the eight books of the prophets (Joshua, Judges + Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah + Lamentations, Ezekiel, and the Twelve), and the nine writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles). The Scriptures are an “alphabet” of God’s revelation.
In some Jewish writing, this goes off into speculations about the Hebraic alphabetic structure of the cosmos. The Sefer Yetzirah is based on the idea that God speaks Hebrew, and therefore when he speaks the world into existence, He is using different combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters. The author finds the number 22 in various cosmic structures. There are three mother letters, seven doubles, and twelve simples, and the combinations of these different sorts of letters structures the world. Three is God’s number (the three letters of Yahweh), seven the number of creation, and 12 the number of Israel.
Waltke gives an insightful analysis of the structure of the poem. He points out that the whole is framed by seven verses (3 at the beginning, 4 at the end) that refer to her “worth” (vv. 10-12) and her “praise” (vv. 28-31). These are conceptually linked, since her worth is what makes her praise-worthy, and this conceptual connection is reinforced by several verbal links between the beginning and end of the poem: wife/woman (vv. 10, 30), strength (vv. 10, 29; Heb. chayil , translated as “excellent” and “nobly” in NASB); and husband/lord (vv. 11, 28; Heb. ba’al ).
A. General: Worth of the strong woman, v 10
B. Gain to her husband, vv 11-12
B’. Praise from her children and husband, vv 28-29
A’. General: Praise of the strong woman, vv. 30-31
Waltke discusses Al Wolters’s suggestion that this poem at the end of Proverbs is connected to the enumeration of the virtues of the man who fears God in Psalm 112. The two passages share a good deal. Both are acrostic poems, both describe the virtues of a particular person, including the virtue of fearlessly facing the future. Both accent the generosity of the person: The strong woman gives and assists the poor, and the righteous man of the Psalm also shows compassion, is gracious, and lends.
Waltke also suggests, following Wolters again, that the portrait of the strong woman in Proverbs 31 is indebyed to “Israel’s heroic poetry, characterized by recounting the hero’s mighty deeds, usually his military exploits.” Wolters compares the poem to the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 (which celebrates another heroic woman, Jael) and to the women’s songs for Saul and David. There are a number of verbal connections. First, the woman is called “valiant” or “strong,” and the word frequently has military connotations (Pharaoh’s “strength” in Exodus 14:4, 9, 17, 28; 15:4).
Second, another word for “strength” ( ‘oz ) is also used (vv. 17, 25), and this too has a military connotation, applied to Yahweh as the strong warrior of Israel (Exodus 15:2, 13; cf. Judges 5:21). Third, the poem includes various terms that are often used in battle accounts: plunder (v. 11), “prey” (v. 15), ascend (v. 29), stretches out a hand (v. 19).
Fourth, the woman is “extolled,” and the verb is used in heroic poetry (Judges 5:10; 11:40). Fifth, the woman laughs (v. 25), like a victorious warrior or a victorious king. And finally, she “girds herself with strength” (v. 17), as if going out to battle.
Two conclusions may be drawn from these connections: First, the woman’s work is domestic, economic, craft-work, and yet the poem celebrates it in heroic terms. A heroic poem for someone engaged in domestic labor is remarkable in the ancient world, and shows something of how God regards the work of women. The great battle of the world is between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman – not the seed of the man! In their care for their households, wise women are on the front lines of God’s holy war.
Second, Waltke points out that the emphasis throughout the poem is on action and strength, not on beauty. In fact, the poem ends debunking beauty by stressing its impermanence. Of course, Scripture also includes the Song of Songs, and that too is wisdom literature. But the emphasis here is on the glory and beauty of the woman’s strength, productivity, wisdom, and prudence. Those don’t fade.