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Thursday, May 30th, 2024
the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
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Bible Commentaries
Proverbs 31

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-31



"O woman-hearts, that keep the days of old

In living memory, can you stand back

When Christ calls? Shall the heavenly Master lack

The serving love, which is your life’s fine gold?"

"Do you forget the hand which placed the crown

Of happy freedom on the woman’s head

And took her from the dying and the dead,

Lifting the wounded soul long trodden down?"

"Do you forget who bade the morning break,

And snapped the fetters of the iron years?

The Savior calls for service from your fears

Rise girt with faith, and work for His dear sake."

"And He will touch the trembling lips with fire, -

O let us hasten, lest we come too late!

And all shall work; if some must stand and wait

Be theirs that wrestling prayer that will not tire."


THE last chapter of the book of Proverbs consists of two distinct compositions, and the only connection between them is to be found in their date. The words of King Lemuel, "a saying which his mother taught him," {Proverbs 31:1-9} and the description of a good woman, {Proverbs 31:10-31} must both be referred to a very late epoch of Hebrew literature. The former contains several Aramaic words and expressions which connect it with the period of the exile; and the latter is an alphabetical acrostic, i.e., the verses begin with the successive letters of the alphabet; and this artificial mode of composition, which appears also in some of the Psalms, is sufficient of itself to indicate the last period of the literature, when the Rabbinical methods were coming into use.

About the words of Lemuel, of whom it may be observed we know nothing at all, enough has been said in previous lectures. We need here only notice that the mother’s influence in the education of her son, even though that son is to be a king, comes very suitably as the introduction to the beautiful description of the good woman with which the chapter closes. It is said that the mother of George III brought him up with the constantly-repeated admonition, "George, be a king," and that to this early training was due that exalted notion of the prerogative and that obstinate assertion of his will which occasioned the calamities of his reign. Kings have usually been more ready to imbibe such lessons than moral teaching from their mothers; but whatever may be the actual result, we all feel that a woman is never more nobly occupied than in warning her son against the seductions of pleasure, and in giving to him a high sense of duty. It is from a mother’s lips we should all learn to espouse the cause of the helpless and the miserable, and to bear an open heart for the poor and needy. {Proverbs 31:8-9} But now before coming to examine in detail the poem of the virtuous woman, let us briefly recall what the book hitherto has taught us on the subject of womanhood. It began with solemn and oft-repeated warnings against the "strange woman," and echoes of that mournful theme have accompanied us throughout: the strange woman is a deep ditch, a narrow pit; he that is abhorred of the Lord shall fall therein. {Proverbs 22:14, Proverbs 23:27} And even where the woman’s nature is not corrupted by impurity we are several times reminded how he may destroy the peace of man’s life by certain faults of temper. If she is contentious and fretful she can make the house utterly unbearable; it will be better to live in a corner of the housetop or in a desert land, exposed to the continual downpour of the autumn rains, than to be assailed by her tongue. {Proverbs 19:13, Proverbs 21:9, Proverbs 25:24, Proverbs 21:19, Proverbs 27:15} The attempt to restrain her is like trying to grasp the wind, or to seize an object which is smeared with oil. {Proverbs 27:16} We are reminded too how incongruously sometimes great beauty of person is combined with inward faults. "As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion." {Proverbs 11:22} But we must distinctly understand that these severe strictures on woman corrupted and woman imperfect are only so many witnesses to her value and importance. The place she fills in life is so supreme that if she fails in her duty human life as a whole is a failure. In her hands lie the issues of life for mankind. "The wisdom of woman builds her house, and the folly of woman plucks it down with her hands." {Proverbs 14:1} What the homes of a nation are, the nation is; and it is woman’s high and beautiful function to make the homes, and within her power lies the terrible capacity for marring them. She, much more than the king, is the fountain of honor. {Proverbs 11:16} The honor she gives and the honor she commands will decide the whole tone of society. Pure, true, and strong, she makes men worship purity, truth, and strength. Corrupt, false, and vain, she blights and blasts the ideal of man, lowers all his aspirations, excites his evil passions to a frenzy of iniquity, degrades his soul to a level below the brutes. The condition of woman is the touchstone of a civilized society. Again, there is a sense in which woman is an interpreter and revealer of God to the human race. She has religious intuitions and spiritual susceptibilities in which the other sex is usually deficient. Most religious systems in the world’s history have overlooked her, and have suffered accordingly. The religion of Jesus Christ recognized her, claimed for her, her rightful place, and to this day does much of its best work in the world through her gracious ministrations, through her unquestioning faith, through her unquenchable love. It is as a foreshadowing of this religious significance which Christ was to give to womanhood that the Proverbs recognize the beautiful direct relation between God and the possession of a good wife. "Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favor of the Lord." {Proverbs 18:22} Wealth, as it is ordinarily understood, is of the earth, -it can be derived from ancestors by inheritance, or it can be earned by toil of hand and brain, -but every wife worthy of the name is far above all wealth: she cannot be earned or inherited; she comes, as the mother of mankind came, direct from the hand of the Lord. The marriage tie is a thought of God’s heart. He Himself has arranged the exquisite blending of life with life and spirit with spirit; He has fitted man to woman and woman to man, so that the perfect man is not the man alone, the perfect woman is not the woman alone, but the man and woman one flesh, mystically united, the completeness each of the other; not two, but a single whole.

We may now examine in detail this connected description of the virtuous woman, whose value is not to be measured by material wealth, and who yet, from a merely material point of view, is a source of wealth to those who are fortunate enough to call her theirs.

She is a wife. The modern conception of a woman as an independent person, standing alone, engaged in her own business or profession, and complete in her isolated life, is not to be looked for in the book of Proverbs. It is the creation of accidental circumstances. However necessary it may be in a country where the women are largely in excess of the men, it cannot be regarded as final or satisfactory. In the beginning it was not so, neither will it be so in the end. If men and women are to abide in strength and to develop the many sides of their nature, they must be united. It is not good for man to be alone; nor is it good for woman to be alone. There are some passages in the New Testament which seem to invalidate this truth. The advocates of celibacy appeal to the example of Christ and to the express words of St. Paul. But the New Testament, as our Lord Himself expressly declares, does not abrogate the eternal law which was from the beginning. And if He Himself abstained from marriage, and if St. Paul seems to approve of such an abstention, we must seek for the explanation in certain exceptional and temporary circumstances; for it is precisely to Christ Himself in the first instance, and to His great Apostle in the second, that we owe our loftiest and grandest conceptions of marriage. There was no room for a personal marriage in the life of Him who was to be the Bridegroom of His Church; and St. Paul distinctly implies that the pressing troubles and anxieties of his own life, and the constant wearing labors which were required of the Gentile Apostle, formed the reason why it was better for him, and for such as he, to remain single.

At any rate the virtuous woman of the Proverbs is a wife: and the first thing to observe is the part she plays in relation to her husband. She is his stay and confidence: "The heart of her husband trusteth in her." She is his natural confidante and counselor; her advice is more valuable than that of much cleverer people, because it is so absolutely disinterested; the hearts are in such vital contact that the merely intellectual communications have a quality all their own. One may often observe in an ideal marriage, though the husband seems to be the stronger and the more self-reliant, the wife is really the pillar of strength; if death removes her, he is forlorn and bereft and helpless; the gradual work of the years has led him to depend on her more and more, to draw from her his best inspirations, and to turn instinctively to her for advice and direction.

"She doeth him good, and not evil, all the days of her life." {Proverbs 31:12} It is not only when she comes as a young bride into his house, bright with youth, encircled with the glamour of early love, -then, it is true, the thought of her nerves his endeavors and quickens his eager steps as he turns homeward in the evening, -it is not only while her fresh charms last, and her womanly beauty acts as a spell on him, while the desire to retain her love disciplines and strengthens whatever is good in his character; but right through to the end of her life, when she has grown old, when the golden hair is grey, and the blooming cheeks are wrinkled, and the upright form is bent, -when other people see nothing beautiful about her except the beauty of old age and decay, he sees in her the sweet bride of earlier years, to him the eyes appear unchanged and the voice thrills him with happy memories; she ministers to him still and does him good; not now with the swift alacrity of foot and the deft movement of the hand, but with the dear, loyal heart, with the love which the years have mellowed and the trust which the changing circumstances of life have tested and confirmed.

It is this strong, sweet core of life in the home which gives the man dignity and honor in public. She is a crown to her husband. {Proverbs 12:4} His influence in the life of his town or of his country is not always directly traced to its true source. But it is that woman’s noble sway over him, it is the constant spur and chastening of her love, which gives him the weighty voice and the grave authority in the counsels of the nation. "Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land." {Proverbs 31:23} He can make but a poor return to her for all her quiet unobtrusive and self-sacrificing help year after year and on to the end, but he can at least repay her with growing reverence and loyalty; he can tell her, as it were with the impassioned lips of a lover, what he owes to her; when her children rise up and call her blessed, he can praise her, saying, "Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all." {Proverbs 31:29} Indeed it will be his growing conviction that of all the daughters of woman there is none equal to his wife. Her charms have grown upon him, her character has. ripened before his eyes, her love has become at once stronger and more precious every year, It is no flattery, no idle compliment of courting-days, no soft word to win the coy heart of the maiden, but it is his own deep and sincere feeling; it is said to her who is his and has been his for years, and in whose assured possession he finds his greatest peace: "I do not question that other women are good and true, but I am sure that you are better than all." And so she is. Every true wife is the best wife.

The next point in the virtuous woman to which our attention is drawn is her unflagging industry. Her husband "shall have no lack of gain." {Proverbs 31:11} In addition to all those treasures of mutual love and spiritual converse, all those invaluable services of counsel and guidance, of criticism and encouragement, she is a positive source of wealth to him. She is the house-manager. If he earns the bread in the first instance, it is in her hands that it seems to be miraculously multiplied. If he brings home the money which is enough for their wants, it is she who turns the silver into gold and makes the modest means appear great wealth. The fact is her hands are always busy. The spindle, the distaff, the loom, are within her reach and are constantly plied. While she unravels the knotted cares of her husband in the evening with her bright and cheery talk, while she encourages him in all his plans and heartens him for all his duties, her busy fingers are making clothes for the children, repairing, adapting, improving, or else are skillfully constructing ornaments and decorations for the household, turning the poor room into a palace, making the walls beam with beauty and the hearts of all within laugh for joy.

There is something quite magical and impressive in woman’s economy: "She is like the merchant ships; she bringeth her food from afar." {Proverbs 31:14} No one knows how it is done. The table is well spread, the food is daintily served, on infinitesimal means. She finds out by the quick intuitions of love how to get the things which the loved ones like, and by many a little sacrifice unperceived she produces effects which startle them all. She has a secret of doing and getting which no one knows but she. Early passers-by have seen a light in the house long before the day dawns; she has been up preparing the breakfast for the household, and mapping out the work for all, so that no hours may be wasted and no one in the family may be idle. {Proverbs 31:15} Her boundless economies produce astonishing results. One morning she has to announce to the husband and the children that she has managed to put together a little sum which will purchase the freehold of their house and garden. {Proverbs 31:16} Her husband exclaims, Why, how has it been done? Where has the money come from out of our little income? She smiles significantly and will not tell; but the tears moisten his eyes as he looks into her face and reads the story of self-denials, and managings, and toils, which have issued in this surprise. And the children look up with a sense of awe and wonder. They feel that there is something of the supernatural about mother; and perhaps they are right.

She has all the delicacy and even weakness of a woman, but the life of constant activity and cheerful toil preserves her health and increases her strength. Idle women, who lounge their days away in constant murmurings over their ailments, speak contemptuously about her-"She has the strength of a horse," they say, "and can bear anything." They do not know, they do not wish to know, that she is the author of her own strength. It is her own indomitable will, her own loving heart, which girds her loins with strength and makes strong her arms. {Proverbs 31:17} There are others who carp at her on different grounds; they do not understand how one with her husband’s income can keep so comfortable a household or dress her children as she does. Those cushions of tapestry, that clothing of fine linen and purple, are an offense to her critics. "How she does it I am sure I don’t know," says one, implying that there is something quite uncanny and disreputable about it. "She works like a slave," says another, with the tone of scorn that one would employ for a slave. But that is the truth: "She perceiveth that her merchandise is profitable: her lamp goeth not out by night." {Proverbs 31:18} She is indeed indefatigable. She actually makes garments which she can sell, girdles for the merchant {Proverbs 31:24} in addition to looking well to the ways of her household. Certainly she does not eat the bread of idleness. {Proverbs 31:27}

She can, however, very easily bear the contemptuous criticisms of others. The practical results of her life are sufficiently satisfying to make her a little independent. She has secured herself and her household against the contingencies which harass other housewives. The approach of winter has no alarms for her: all the children and servants are warmly and sufficiently. {Proverbs 31:21} The uncertain future has no terrors for her: she has made ample provision for it, and can regard the unknown chances with a smile of confidence. {Proverbs 31:25} And indeed, whatever detractors may say behind her back, it is not easy for anyone to say anything severe in her presence. For the same loving, earnest, diligent ways which have made her household comfortable and secure have clothed her with garments better than scarlet and linen. "Strength and dignity are her clothing,"-robes so gracious and beautiful that criticism is silenced in her presence, while the hearts of all good and honest people are drawn out to her.

But here is another characteristic of the virtuous woman. Economy and generosity go hand in hand. Frugal livers and hard workers are always the largest givers. This woman, whose toil late at night and early in the morning has enriched and blessed her own, is ready to help those who are less fortunate. "She spreadeth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy." {Proverbs 31:20} Most women are naturally pitiful and shrink from the sight of suffering; but while idle and self-indulgent women try to avoid the painful sight, and turn their flow of pity into the channels of vapid sentimentality, the good woman trains her sense of pity by coming into contact with those who deserve it, and only seeks to avoid the sight of suffering by trying everywhere and always to relieve it.

Among all the noble and Christlike offices of woman this is the one which most strikingly connects her with the human life of our Lord. It is her function to excite and to cherish the quality of compassion in the human heart, and by her trained skill and intuitive tact to make the ministrations of the community to the poor, truly charitable instead of dangerously demoralizing. Man is apt to relieve the poor by the laws of political economy, without emotion and by measure: he makes a Poor Law which produces the evil it pretends to relieve; he degrades the lovely word Charity into a badge of shame and a wanton insult to humanity. It is woman that "spreads out her palm and reacheth forth her hand" to the poor, bringing her heart into the work, giving, not doles of money, but the helpfulness of a sister’s love, the tenderness of a mother’s solicitude, the awakening touch of a daughter’s care. And the hand which is thus held out to the poor is precisely the hand which has been laid on the distaff and the spindle; not the lazy hand or the useless hand, but the hand which is supple with toil, dexterous with acquired skill.

There are two reflections which must have occurred to us in following this description of the good woman. Her portrait has risen before our eyes, and we ask, Is she beautiful? We have watched her activities, their mode and their result, and we wonder whether she is religious. "Favor is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman that feareth the Lord she shall be praised." {Proverbs 31:30} That this woman has a beauty of her own seems clear, and that she fears the Lord is a fair inference to make. It is idle to declaim against the charms of personal beauty; we may call it deceitful and vain, but it will not cease to be attractive. Men will not be reasoned or ridiculed out of that instinctive homage which they pay to a lovely face; the witchery of bright eyes and arch looks, the winsomeness of sweet contours and delicate hues, will last, we may surmise, as long as the sun and moon endure; and why should we dishonor God by supposing that He did not make the beauty which attracts and the attraction which the beauty excites? But it is not impossible to open men’s eyes to the beauty of a less transient and more satisfying kind which lies in the character and conduct of women. If mothers accustom their sons to see those sterling attractions which permanently secure the affection and the devotion of a husband, the young men will not be content with superficial beauties and vanishing charms in the women whom they choose.

And is not the beauty of woman such beauty as we have been contemplating the result of fearing the Lord? Is it possible, apart from a living faith in a living God, to maintain that lovely wifeliness, that self-sacrificing, diligent love, that overflow of pity to the poor and needy, which constitute grace and loveliness of character? Has anyone succeeded in even depicting an imaginary woman devoid of religion and yet complete and beautiful? We have already noticed how suited the woman’s nature is to receive religious impressions and to communicate religious influences; we may now notice, in concluding, that this very characteristic renders a woman without God even more imperfect and unsatisfying than a man without God. She is naturally inclined to cling to a person rather than to an idea, to follow a person rather than a theory. The only Person to whom she can cling with absolute good and hallowing results is God; the only Person whom she can follow and minister to without detriment to her womanhood and with gain to her spirit is Christ. A godless woman makes a sore shipwreck of life, whether she becomes sensual and depraved, or ambitious and domineering, or bitter and cynical, or vain and conventional. In her ruin there is always a power as of a fallen angel, and she can drag others with her in her fall.

If a man is wise then in choosing for himself a wife, the first thing he will demand is that she shall be one that fears the Lord, one who shall be able to lead him and help him in that which is his truest life, and to maintain for him a saving intercourse with the world of spiritual realities. He may be assured that in her love to God he has the best guarantee of her love to him, and that if she does not fear and love God the main sanction for their wedded happiness will be wanting.

Finally, where the woman who has been described is actually found in real life it is for us to recognize her and to reward her. Let society take note of her: "Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates." The great Greek historian said that woman’s highest praise consisted in not being mentioned at all. That is not the teaching of Revelation. Woman’s best work is often done in silence and without observation, but her highest praise is when the seeds sown in silence have grown into flowers of loveliness and fruit that is sweet to the taste, and the whole community is forced to yield her the honor which is her due, exalting, with heartfelt admiration and with deep gratitude to God, the Wife, the Mother, the Ministrant to the Poor.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Proverbs 31". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/proverbs-31.html.
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