Proverbs 31

The Words of Lemuel

The words of King Lemuel,
Nothing else is known about King Lemuel aside from this mention in the book of Proverbs. Jewish legend identifies him as Solomon, making this advice from his mother Bathsheba; but there is no evidence for that. The passage is the only direct address to a king in the book of Proverbs – something that was the norm in wisdom literature of the ancient world (Leah L. Brunner, “King and Commoner in Proverbs and Near Eastern Sources,” Dor le Dor 10 [1982]: 210-19; Brunner argues that the advice is religious and not secular).

an oracle
Some English versions take the Hebrew noun translated “oracle” here as a place name specifying the kingdom of King Lemuel; cf. NAB “king of Massa”; CEV “King Lemuel of Massa.”
that his mother taught him:
The form מַה (mah), normally the interrogative “what?” (so KJV, ASV, NAB, NASB) is best interpreted here as an exclamation. Tg. Prov 31:2 has “Woe!”
my son, O son of my womb,
O son
In all three occurrences in this verse the word “son” has the Aramaic spelling, ַַבּר (bar), rather than the Hebrew בֵּן (ben). The repetition of the word “son” shows the seriousness of the warning; and the expression “son of my womb” and “son of my vows” are endearing epithets to show the great investment she has made in his religious place in God’s program. For a view that “son of my womb” should be “my own son,” see F. Deist, “Proverbs 31:1, A Case of Constant Mistranslation,” JNSL 6 (1978): 1-3; cf. TEV “my own dear son.”
of my vows,
Do not give your strength
The word translated “strength” refers to physical powers here, i.e., “vigor” (so NAB) or “stamina.” It is therefore a metonymy of cause; the effect would be what spending this strength meant – sexual involvement with women. It would be easy for a king to spend his energy enjoying women, but that would be unwise.
to women,
nor your ways
The word “ways” may in general refer to the heart’s affection for or attention to, or it may more specifically refer to sexual intercourse. While in the book of Proverbs the term is an idiom for the course of life, in this context it must refer to the energy spent in this activity.
to that which ruins
The construction uses Qal infinitive construct לַמְחוֹת (lamkhot, “to wipe out; to blot out; to destroy”). The construction is somewhat strange, and so some interpreters suggest changing it to מֹחוֹת (mokhot, “destroyers of kings”); cf. BDB 562 s.v. מָחָה Qal.3. Commentators note that the form is close to an Aramaic word that means “concubine,” and an Arabic word that is an indelicate description for women.
It is not for kings,
Heb “[It is] not for kings.”
O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
This second warning for kings concerns the use of alcohol. If this passage is meant to prohibit any use of alcohol by kings, it would be unheard of in any ancient royal court. What is probably meant is an excessive and unwarranted use of alcohol, or a troubling need for it, so that the meaning is “to drink wine in excess” (cf. NLT “to guzzle wine”; CEV “should not get drunk”). The danger, of course, would be that excessive use of alcohol would cloud the mind and deprive a king of true administrative ability and justice.

or for rulers to crave strong drink,
The MT has אֵו (’ev), a Kethib/Qere reading. The Kethib is אוֹ (’o) but the Qere is אֵי (’ey). Some follow the Qere and take the word as a shortened form of וַֹיֵּה, “where?” This would mean the ruler would be always asking for drink (cf. ASV). Others reconstruct to אַוֵּה (’avveh, “to desire; to crave”). In either case, the verse would be saying that a king is not to be wanting/seeking alcohol.
Here “strong drink” probably refers to barley beer (cf. NIV, NCV “beer”).

lest they drink and forget what is decreed,
and remove
The verb means “change,” perhaps expressed in reversing decisions or removing rights.
from all the poor
Heb “all the children of poverty.” This expression refers to the poor by nature. Cf. KJV, NASB, NRSV “the afflicted”; NIV “oppressed.”
their legal rights.
The word is דִּין (din, “judgment”; so KJV). In this passage it refers to the cause or the plea for justice, i.e., the “legal rights.”

Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,
Wine and beer should be given to those distressed and dying in order to ease their suffering and help them forget.

and wine to those who are bitterly distressed;
Heb “to the bitter of soul.” The phrase לְמָרֵי נָפֶשׁ (lemare nafesh) has been translated “of heavy hearts” (KJV); “in anguish” (NIV); “in misery” (TEV); “in bitter distress” (NRSV); “sorely depressed” (NAB); “in deep depression (NLT); “have lost all hope” (CEV). The word “bitter” (מַר, mar) describes the physical and mental/spiritual suffering as a result of affliction, grief, or suffering – these people are in emotional pain. So the idea of “bitterly distressed” works as well as any other translation.

let them
The subjects and suffixes are singular (cf. KJV, ASV, NASB). Most other English versions render this as plural for stylistic reasons, in light of the preceding context.
drink and forget
The king was not to “drink and forget”; the suffering are to “drink and forget.”
their poverty,
and remember their misery no more.
Open your mouth
The instruction to “open your mouth” is a metonymy of cause; it means “speak up for” (so NIV, TEV, NLT) or in this context “serve as an advocate in judgment” (cf. CEV “you must defend”).
on behalf of those unable to speak,
The instruction compares people who cannot defend themselves in court with those who are physically unable to speak (this is a figure of speech known as hypocatastasis, an implied comparison). The former can physically speak; but because they are the poor, the uneducated, the oppressed, they are unable to conduct a legal defense. They may as well be speechless.

for the legal rights of all the dying.
Or “of all the defenseless.” The noun חֲלוֹף (khalof) means “passing away; vanishing” (properly an infinitive); in this construction “the sons of the passing away” means people who by nature are transitory, people who are dying – mortals. But in this context it would indicate people who are “defenseless” as opposed to those who are healthy and powerful.

Open your mouth, judge in righteousness,
The noun צֶדֶק (tsedeq) serves here as an adverbial accusative of manner. The decisions reached (שְׁפָט, shefat) in this advocacy must conform to the standard of the law. So it is a little stronger than “judging fairly” (cf. NIV, NCV), although it will be fair if it is done righteously for all.

and plead the cause
Previously the noun דִּין (din, judgment”) was used, signifying the legal rights or the pleas of the people. Now the imperative דִּין is used. It could be translated “judge,” but in this context “judge the poor” could be misunderstood to mean “condemn.” Here advocacy is in view, and so “plead the cause” is a better translation (cf. NASB, NIV, NRSV “defend the rights”). It was – and is – the responsibility of the king (ruler) to champion the rights of the poor and needy, who otherwise would be ignored and oppressed. They are the ones left destitute by the cruelties and inequalities of life (e.g., 2 Sam 14:4–11; 1 Kgs 3:16–28; Pss 45:3–5, 72:4; Isa 9:6–7).
of the poor and needy.

The Wife of Noble Character

The book of Proverbs comes to a close with this poem about the noble wife. A careful reading of the poem will show that it is extolling godly wisdom that is beneficial to the family and the society. Traditionally it has been interpreted as a paradigm for godly women. And while that is valid in part, there is much more here. The poem captures all the themes of wisdom that have been presented in the book and arranges them in this portrait of the ideal woman (Claudia V. Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs, 92–93). Any careful reading of the passage would have to conclude that if it were merely a paradigm for women what it portrays may well be out of reach – she is a wealthy aristocrat who runs an estate with servants and conducts business affairs of real estate, vineyards, and merchandising, and also takes care of domestic matters and is involved with charity. Moreover, it says nothing about the woman’s personal relationship with her husband, her intellectual and emotional strengths, or her religious activities (E. Jacob, “Sagesse et Alphabet: Pr. 31:10–31, ” Hommages ʿ A. Dont-Sommer, 287–95). In general, it appears that the “woman” of Proverbs 31 is a symbol of all that wisdom represents. The poem, then, plays an important part in the personification of wisdom so common in the ancient Near East. But rather than deify Wisdom as the other ANE cultures did, Proverbs simply describes wisdom as a woman. Several features will stand out in the study of this passage. First, it is an alphabetic arrangement of the virtues of wisdom (an acrostic poem). Such an acrostic was a way of organizing the thoughts and making them more memorable (M. H. Lichtenstein, “Chiasm and Symmetry in Proverbs 31, ” CBQ 44 [1982]: 202-11). Second, the passage is similar to hymns, but this one extols wisdom. A comparison with Psalm 111 will illustrate the similarities. Third, the passage has similarities with heroic literature. The vocabulary and the expressions often sound more like an ode to a champion than to a domestic scene. Putting these features together, one would conclude that Proverbs 31:10–31 is a hymn to Lady Wisdom, written in the heroic mode. Using this arrangement allows the sage to make all the lessons of wisdom in the book concrete and practical, it provides a polemic against the culture that saw women as merely decorative, and it depicts the greater heroism as moral and domestic rather than only exploits on the battlefield. The poem certainly presents a pattern for women to follow. But it also presents a pattern for men to follow as well, for this is the message of the book of Proverbs in summary.
10  Who can find
The poem begins with a rhetorical question (a figure of speech known as erotesis). This is intended to establish the point that such a noble wife is rare. As with wisdom in the book of Proverbs, she has to be found.
a wife
The first word in the Hebrew text (אֵשֶׁת, ’eshet) begins with א (alef), the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet.
of noble character?
Heb “a woman of valor.” This is the same expression used to describe Ruth (e.g., Ruth 3:11). The term חַיִל (khayil) here means “moral worth” (BDB 298 s.v.); cf. KJV “a virtuous woman.” Elsewhere the term is used of physical valor in battle, e.g., “mighty man of valor,” the land-owning aristocrat who could champion the needs of his people in times of peace or war (e.g., Judg 6:12). Here the title indicates that the woman possesses all the virtues, honor, and strength to do the things that the poem will set forth.

For her value
This line expresses that her value (Heb “her price”), like wisdom, is worth more than rubies (e.g., 3:15; 8:11).
is far more than rubies.
11  The heart of her husband has confidence
The first word of the second line begins with בּ (bet), the second letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The verb בָּטַח (batakh) means “to trust; to have confidence in.” With the subject of the verb being “the heart of her husband,” the idea is strengthened – he truly trusts her. Cf. NCV “trusts her completely”; NIV “has full confidence in her.”
in her,
and he has no lack of gain.
The Hebrew word used here for “gain” (שָׁלָל, shalal) is unusual; it means “plunder; spoil” of war primarily (e.g., Isa 8:1–4 and the name Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz). The point is that the gain will be as rich and bountiful as the spoils of war. The wife’s capabilities in business and domestic matters guarantee a rich profit and inspire the confidence of her husband.

12  She brings him
The first word of the third line begins with ג (gimel), the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
good and not evil
The joining of these two words, “good” and “evil,” is frequent in the Bible; they contrast the prosperity and well-being of her contribution with what would be devastating and painful. The way of wisdom is always characterized by “good”; the way of folly is associated with “evil.”

all the days of her life.
13  She obtains
The first word of the fourth line begins with דּ (dalet) the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The verb דָרַשׁ (darash) means “to seek; to inquire; to investigate.” The idea is that she looks for the wool and flax to do her work, but the whole verse assumes she has obtained it. This verb also occurs in the hymn of Ps 111, which says in v. 2 that “the works of the Lord are searched.” One word used in another passage is not that significant; but the cumulative effect of words and ideas suggest that the composition of this poem is influenced by hymnology.
wool and flax,
and she is pleased to work with her hands.
Heb “and she works in the pleasure of her hands.” The noun חֵפֶץ (khefets) means “delight; pleasure.” BDB suggests it means here “that in which one takes pleasure,” i.e., a business, and translates the line “in the business of her hands” (BDB 343 s.v. 4). But that translation reduces the emphasis on pleasure and could have easily been expressed in other ways. Here it is part of the construct relationship. The “hands” are the metonymy of cause, representing all her skills and activities in making things. It is also a genitive of specification, making “pleasure” the modifier of “her hands/her working.” She does her work with pleasure. Tg. Prov 31:13 has, “she works with her hands in accordance with her pleasure.”

14  She is like
The first word of the fifth line begins with ה (he), the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
the merchant ships;
The point of the simile is that she goes wherever she needs to go, near and far, to gather in all the food for the needs and the likes of the family. The line captures the vision and the industry of this woman.

she brings her food from afar.
15  She also gets up
The first word of the sixth line begins with ו (vav), the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
while it is still night,
and provides food
The word for “food” is טֶרֶף (teref, “prey”; KJV “meat”), another word that does not normally fit the domestic scene. This word also is used in a similar way in Ps 111:5, which says the Lord gives food. Here it is the noble woman who gives food to her family and servants.
for her household and a portion
The word חֹק (khoq) probably means “allotted portion of food” as before, but some suggest it means the task that is allotted to the servants, meaning that the wise woman gets up early enough to give out the work assignments (Tg. Prov 31:15, RSV, NRSV, TEV, NLT). That is possible, but seems an unnecessary direction for the line to take. Others, however, simply wish to delete this last colon, leaving two cola and not three, but that is unwarranted.
to her female servants.
16  She considers
The first word of the seventh line begins with ז (zayin), the seventh letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
The word “considers” means “to plan carefully” in accordance with her purposes. The word is often used in the book of Proverbs for devising evil; but here it is used positively of the woman’s wise investment.
a field and buys it;
from her own income
Heb “from the fruit of her hands.” The expression employs two figures. “Hands” is a metonymy of cause, indicating the work she does. “Fruit” is a hypocatastasis, an implied comparison meaning what she produces, the income she earns. She is able to plant a vineyard from her income.
she plants a vineyard.
17  She begins
The first word of the eighth line begins with ח (khet), the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Heb “she girds her loins with strength.” The idea is that of gathering up the long robes with a sash or belt so that they do not get in the way of the work. The point of the figure is readiness for work. But to say she girds herself with “strength” means that she begins vigorously. “Strength” here would be a comparison with the sash.
her work vigorously,
and she strengthens
The expression “she makes her arm strong” parallels the first half of the verse and indicates that she gets down to her work with vigor and strength. There may be some indication here of “rolling up the sleeves” to ready the arms for the task, but that is not clear.
her arms.
18  She knows
The first word of the ninth line begins with ט (tet), the ninth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
This is the word for “taste.” It means her opinion or perception, what she has learned by experience and therefore seems right.
that her merchandise is good,
and her lamp
The line may be taken literally to mean that she is industrious throughout the night (“burning the midnight oil”) when she must in order to follow through a business deal (W. McKane, Proverbs [OTL], 668); cf. TEV. But the line could also be taken figuratively, comparing “her light” to the prosperity of her household – her whole life – which continues night and day.
does not go out in the night.
19  Her hands
The first word of the tenth line begins with י (yod) the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
The words for “hands” are often paired in poetry; the first (יָד, yad) means the hand and the forearm and usually indicates strength, and the second (כַּף, kaf) means the palm of the hand and usually indicates the more intricate activity.
take hold
The verb שִׁלַּח (shilakh), the Piel perfect of the verb “to send,” means in this stem “to thrust out; to stretch out.” It is a stronger word than is perhaps necessary. It is a word that is also used in military settings to describe the firmness and forthrightness of the activity (Judg 5:26).
of the distaff,
and her hands grasp the spindle.
20  She extends
The parallel expressions here underscore her care for the needy. The first part uses “she spreads her palm” and the second “she thrusts out her hand,” repeating some of the vocabulary introduced in the last verse.
her hand
The first word of the eleventh line begins with כּ (kaf), the eleventh letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
to the poor,
and reaches out her hand to the needy.
21  She is not
The first word of the twelfth line begins with ל (lamed), the twelfth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
afraid of the snow
“Snow” is a metonymy of adjunct; it refers to the cold weather when snow comes. The verse is saying that this time is not a concern for the wise woman because the family is well prepared.
for her household,
for all of her household are clothed with scarlet.
For the MT’s “scarlet” the LXX and the Latin have “two” or “double” – the difference being essentially the vocalization of a plural as opposed to a dual. The word is taken in the versions with the word that follows (“covers”) to means “double garments.” The question to be asked is whether scarlet would keep one warm in winter or double garments. The latter is the easier reading and therefore suspect.

22  She makes for herself coverlets;
The first word of the thirteenth line begins with מ (mem), the thirteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The word rendered “coverlets” appears in 7:16, where it has the idea of “covered.” K&D 17:335 suggests “pillows” or “mattresses” here. The Greek version has “lined overcoats” or “garments,” but brings over the last word of the previous verse to form this line and parallel the second half, which has clothing in view.

her clothing is fine linen and purple.
The “fine linen” refers to expensive clothing (e.g., Gen 41:42), as does the “purple” (e.g., Exod 26:7; 27:9, 18). Garments dyed with purple indicated wealth and high rank (e.g., Song 3:5). The rich man in Luke 16:19 was clothed in fine linen and purple as well. The difference is that the wise woman is charitable, but he is not.

23  Her husband is well-known
The first word of the fourteenth line begins with נ (nun), the fourteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The form is the Niphal participle of יָדַע (yada’); it means that her husband is “known.” The point is that he is a prominent person, respected in the community.
in the city gate
Heb “gate”; the term “city” has been supplied in the translation for clarity.
The “gate” was the area inside the entrance to the city, usually made with rooms at each side of the main street where there would be seats for the elders. This was the place of assembly for the elders who had judicial responsibilities.

when he sits with the elders
The construction uses the infinitive construct with the preposition and a pronominal suffix that serves as the subject (subjective genitive) to form a temporal clause. The fact that he “sits with the elders” means he is one of the elders; he sits as a judge among the people.
of the land.
24  She makes linen garments
The first word of the fifteenth line begins with ס (samek), the fifteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
The poet did not think it strange or unworthy for a woman of this stature to be a businesswoman engaged in an honest trade. In fact, weaving of fine linens was a common trade for women in the ancient world.
and sells them,
and supplies the merchants
Heb “to the Canaanites.” These are the Phoenician traders that survived the wars and continued to do business down to the exile.
with sashes.
25  She is clothed
The idea of clothing and being clothed is a favorite figure in Hebrew. It makes a comparison between wearing clothes and having strength and honor. Just as clothes immediately indicate something of the nature and circumstances of the person, so do these virtues.
with strength
The first word of the sixteenth line begins with ע (ayin), the sixteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
and honor,
This word appears in Ps 111:3 which says that the Lord’s work is honorable, and here the woman is clothed with strength and honor.

and she can laugh
Here “laugh” is either a metonymy of adjunct or effect. The point is that she is confident for the future because of all her industry and planning.
at the time
Heb “day.” This word is a metonymy of subject meaning any events that take place on the day or in the time to come.
to come.
26  She opens her mouth
The first word of the seventeenth line begins with פּ (pe), the seventeenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
The words “mouth” (“opens her mouth”) and “tongue” (“on her tongue”) here are also metonymies of cause, referring to her speaking.
with wisdom,
and loving instruction
The Hebrew phrase תּוֹרַת־חֶסֶד (torat-khesed) is open to different interpretations. (1) The word “law” could here refer to “teaching” as it does frequently in the book of Proverbs, and the word “love,” which means “loyal, covenant love,” could have the emphasis on faithfulness, yielding the idea of “faithful teaching” to parallel “wisdom” (cf. NIV). (2) The word “love” should probably have more of the emphasis on its basic meaning of “loyal love, lovingkindness.” It also would be an attributive genitive, but its force would be that of “loving instruction” or “teaching with kindness.”
is on her tongue.
27  She watches over
The first word of the eighteenth line begins with צ (tsade), the eighteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
The expression bread of idleness refers to food that is gained through idleness, perhaps given or provided for her. In the description of the passage one could conclude that this woman did not have to do everything she did; and this line affirms that even though she is well off, she will eat the bread of her industrious activity.

28  Her children rise up
The first word of the nineteenth line begins with ק (qof), the nineteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
The deliberate action of “rising up” to call her blessed is the Hebrew way of indicating something important is about to be done that has to be prepared for.
and call her blessed,
her husband
The text uses an independent nominative absolute to draw attention to her husband: “her husband, and he praises her.” Prominent as he is, her husband speaks in glowing terms of his noble wife.
also praises her:
29  “Many
The first word of the twentieth line begins with ר (resh), the twentieth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Or “women” (NAB, NIV, NRSV, NLT).
have done valiantly,
The word is the same as in v. 10, “noble, valiant.”

but you surpass them all!”
30  Charm is deceitful
The first word of the twenty-first line begins with שׁ (shin), the twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The graphic distinction between שׁ (shin) and שׂ (sin) had not been made at the time the book of Proverbs was written; that graphic distinction was introduced by the Masoretes, ca. a.d. 1000.
and beauty is fleeting,
The verse shows that “charm” and “beauty” do not endure as do those qualities that the fear of the Lord produces. Charm is deceitful: One may be disappointed in the character of the one with beauty. Beauty is vain (fleeting as a vapor): Physical appearance will not last. The writer is not saying these are worthless; he is saying there is something infinitely more valuable.

but a woman who fears the Lord
This chapter describes the wise woman as fearing the Lord. It is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom – that was the motto of the book (1:7). Psalm 111:10 also repeats that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
will be praised.
31  Give
The first word of the twenty-second line begins with ת (tav), the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
her credit for what she has accomplished,
Heb “Give her from the fruit of her hands.” The expression “the fruit of her hands” employs two figures. The word “fruit” is a figure known as hypocatastasis, an implied comparison, meaning “what she produces.” The word “hand” is a metonymy of cause, meaning her efforts to produce things. So the line is saying essentially “give her her due.” This would either mean give her credit for what she has done (the option followed by the present translation; cf. TEV) or reward her for what she has done (cf. NAB, NIV, NLT).

and let her works praise her
Psalm 111 began with the imperative יָה הָלְלוּ (halelu yah, “praise the Lord”), and this poem ends with the jussive וִיהָלְלוּהָּ (vihaleluha, “and let [her works] praise her”). Psalm 111:2 speaks of God’s works, and this verse of the woman’s (or wisdom’s) works that deserve praise.
in the city gates.
“Gates” is a metonymy of subject. It refers to the people and the activity that occurs in the gates – business dealings, legal transactions, and social meetings. The term “city” is supplied in the translation for clarity. One is reminded of the acclaim given to Ruth by Boaz: “for all the gate of my people knows that you are a noble woman [אֵשֶׁת חַיִל, ’eshet khayil]” (Ruth 3:11).

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