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Proverbs 31:1012, 1520, 2531comment (0)

May 9, 2013

By Scott McGinnis

Related Scripture: Proverbs 31:1012, 1520, 2531

Bible Studies for Life
Associate Professor of Religion, Samford University

Building the Home I Need

Proverbs 31:10–12, 15–20, 25–31 
This famous passage that concludes the Book of Proverbs comes in the form of an acrostic poem wherein the first letter of each verse follows the Hebrew alphabet. (A similar pattern may be observed in the stanzas of Psalm 119.) The subject of the ode is the capable or virtuous wife, making it an appropriate choice for study on Mother’s Day.

Yet the chapter also sits more generally as a fitting capstone to a book of wisdom. Indeed, in last week’s lesson we saw how wisdom, personified as a woman, is herself judged to be “more precious than jewels” (3:15), the same phrase used here to speak of the capable wife (v. 10). Since wisdom is not the special possession of any one group, everyone — man or woman, married or not — can emulate the virtues of this wise woman who “fears the Lord” (v. 30).

Be Trustworthy (10–12)
The patriarchal culture of ancient Israel can be seen throughout much of Proverbs: chapters 1–9 are couched in the language of a parent’s advice to son, including the instruction to manage desire carefully so as not to be seduced by the adulteress, who represents folly (chapter 7). Similarly, in chapter 31 King Lemuel — otherwise unmentioned in the Bible and unknown in history — relates the advice that his mother gave him concerning a suitable spouse.

A good wife is a trustworthy wife. Her merit may be measured in that she wishes her husband good and not ill. The result of her support is that he will be “known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders” (v. 23). In ancient cities the gate was the place of commerce as well as justice: deals were made and disputes resolved. Lemuel’s mother thus advises him that public prominence requires family stability and support.

Be Responsible (15–20)
The heart of the poem is a list of activities and attitudes that mark the capable wife. She is industrious and entrepreneurial, even to the point of engaging in real estate transactions (v. 16). This last item is a curious highlight inasmuch as women in ancient Israel generally did not own property.

Beyond her economic identity, a wise and capable wife also exhibits charity toward the poor. In a beautiful turn of phrase, the hands that spin thread (v. 19) are also “open to the poor” (v. 20). As seen in last week’s lesson, the general outlook of Proverbs stresses the relationship between actions and consequences. However, this is not to be equated with a wholesale condemnation of the poor.

Be Godly (25–31)
Wise living has the potential to free one from anxiety. Again, the poetic image is striking, with the wise wife as one who “laughs at the time to come” (v. 25). Making wise choices does not guarantee outcomes or avoidance of hardship but simply indicates the kind of resiliency and peace that comes from dwelling on the ways of God.

The wisest among us often go unnoticed, and the ode concludes with a call for her children, husband and even the community itself to praise her (vv. 28, 31). As a society we tend to find greatness in those who do great things — large acts of public generosity or notable acts of bravery or sacrifice — but there is much about this godly woman’s life that is ordinary. She works with her hands, makes clothes, tends daily for those she loves and is responsible. There is much to be said for godliness in small things.

The English poet William Blake said that “he who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer, for Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars.” Proverbs encourages us to tend to the particulars of our lives and in so doing discover the wisdom of God.

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