Question: "What should we learn from the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31?"
Answer: Proverbs is a book based on metaphor. It is packed with word-pictures of universal truths. Throughout Proverbs, wisdom is anthropomorphized as a woman. As early as Proverbs 1:20, wisdom is compared to a woman who shouts in the streets, chastising fools and scoffers. Proverbs 31 provides a detailed metaphor of feminine wisdom in the context of a family and a community.
The most quoted section, verses 10–31, is a chiastic poem, that is, a poem that cycles through repeated thoughts in a particular order. The chapter speaks of the worth of a good wife to her husband, the manual labor that she does, her fulfillment of responsibilities to those who need her, her ability to provide for her family, and her wisdom in caring for herself so she can share her strength with others. These ideas are presented in a kind of circular pattern throughout the section.
The chapter begins with King Lemuel recounting advice his mother had given him. She exhorted him to not fall to weaknesses that would compromise his position as king, but to care for the poor. One of the weaknesses the king’s mother mentioned was the susceptibility of his strength—or “noble character” (31:10)—to be harmed by improper relationships with women. Although verses 10-31 do not directly follow this warning in the original, they do illustrate a fitting description of what kind of woman Lemuel should seek.
10An excellent wife, who can find?
For her worth is far above jewels.
11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
And he will have no lack of gain.
12She does him good and not evil
All the days of her life.
A good, supportive, trusting wife is a blessing to a man. A woman who partners with her husband, who is reliable and looks out for his interests, gives a man a security that is greatly lacking in the world. She is worth more than a substantial paycheck. To bring in the metaphor, wisdom provides the same benefits—it is worth more than money, you can always trust it to make the right decision, and it provides blessings for those who have it.
13She looks for wool and flax,
And works with her hands in delight…
19She stretches out her hands to the distaff,
And her hands grasp the spindle…
27She looks well to the ways of her household,
And does not eat the bread of idleness.
The wife of Proverbs 31 isn’t afraid of work. She gets up in the morning and gets things done. In the time of Solomon, this involved making fabric and sewing clothes, but verse 27 certainly applies directly to us today—taking care of our responsibilities is a characteristic of wisdom.
15She rises also while it is still night
And gives food to her household
And portions to her maidens…
21She is not afraid of the snow for her household,
For all her household are clothed with scarlet.
20She extends her hand to the poor,
And she stretches out her hands to the needy.
Another characteristic of wisdom is the grace to help others. The Proverbs 31 wife ensures that those under her care receive what they need—food, clothing, protection. And she is able to serve others out of the excess of her work and the leaning of her heart. She has so internalized her role as a provider that it extends past her immediate responsibilities and into the community.
14She is like merchant ships;
She brings her food from afar…
16She considers a field and buys it;
From her earnings she plants a vineyard…
18She senses that her gain is good;
Her lamp does not go out at night…
24She makes linen garments and sells them,
And supplies belts to the tradesmen.
Beyond that, she’s savvy. She’s educated about the world and the world of business. She knows how to use her skills to provide for her family, and she’s not afraid to go interact with that world, whether it be as a merchant or a buyer. She knows how to use her strengths to her best advantage, and she fully realizes how valuable her efforts are.
17She girds herself with strength
And makes her arms strong…
22She makes coverings for herself;
Her clothing is fine linen and purple.
25Strength and dignity are her clothing,
And she smiles at the future.
26She opens her mouth in wisdom,
And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
The Proverbs 31 woman not only knows her worth, she knows her responsibilities to herself. She would not be able to provide for others if she neglected her needs—both physical and spiritual. She makes sure her appearance reflects her respected position as an influence in her community. Her greatest strength is her wisdom—her accurate judgment about the world and her influence in it. And she is quick to share the wisdom she has gained to encourage others to reach their potential.
23Her husband is known in the gates,
When he sits among the elders of the land…
28Her children rise up and bless her;
Her husband also, and he praises her, saying:
29"Many daughters have done nobly,
But you excel them all."
30Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain,
But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.
31Give her the product of her hands,
And let her works praise her in the gates.
She knows that, as a partner in her marriage, she has a tremendous influence on her husband’s ministry. She can integrate her life—both domestic and professional—with her ministry in such a way that her husband has the freedom to serve. In fact, her reputation is so established, that it bleeds off onto him.
The Proverbs 31 wife is a fierce provider and protector for those she cares about. She is wise to the ways of the world, but lives by the wisdom of God. As in the rest of the Proverbs, these specific examples provide a metaphor for the larger truth. How any individual woman exemplifies these characteristics will depend on her situation, gifts, and abilities. The key is in verse 30, just as it is in the beginning of Proverbs, in 1:7:
But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.