Many women, and men, too, avoid studying Proverbs 31:10-31 because they think it presents an unrealistic and unattainable standard for women. I can’t tell you how many articles I have read that describe this lady as ‘superwoman’ and, therefore, not applicable for the average female.
But would God really put a job description in His Word if it were unattainable? Surely our knowledge of Him says the description of the woman of noble character was placed in the Scriptures to encourage us, male and female. It’s for our edification; there is much we can learn from it about becoming wise women.
Proverbs is a textbook on wise living. The phrase “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” is found 14 times in Proverbs and notably, the book closes with a flesh-and-blood example of one whose whole life has been given to the pursuit of wisdom—the Proverbs 31 woman. She demonstrates in daily life that wisdom is not an esoteric idea dispensed to learners; it is living in wise ways, living in harmony with God’s creation and His laws. Wisdom is right living, good decisions, and honorable choices.
The poem opens with the idea that a wise woman—one who fears the Lord—is valuable, though quite rare. And she is worth the search! For when found, she will be of the highest personal character and fiscally responsible. She is described in verse 10 as being of “noble character” and “worth far more than rubies.” Verses 11-12 speak of her financial savvy. Her husband has “full confidence” in her and “lacks nothing of value.” Those are monetary words. And so are these: “she brings him good, not harm.” She not only guards the family assets; she also brings in a significant amount of income. She’s a moneymaker!
The first major section of the poem, verses 13-19, delineates how hard this woman works to provide for her family and to earn income. It’s arranged in a chiastic structure, with ideas leading up to the main idea and then backing away with parallel ideas. Kinda like the way my sister and I communicate. If you hear us talking, you may be confused—we give each other an idea, and then another and maybe one more before we finally get to the main point. Then we back out, repeating our ideas as we go. That is what the chiasm does.
So as we work our way in and out the chiasm, we see that the wise woman works hard to provide and to bring in income for her family. She works hard with wool and flax (verse 13), using the distaff and spindle (verse 19), tools that enabled her to make the sheep’s fleece into woolen thread and the flax plant into linen so they could then be woven into fabrics. Wool, of course, was the winter fabric, snuggly guarding its wearer against the chill. And linen was the comfortable, breathable cloth for warm summer time.
She plans and trades, using her resources well and bringing profit from her endeavors (verses 14 & 18). And she works vigorously at all she does—rising early—using the strength of her body to finish her tasks (verses 15 & 17).
All this is done to turn a profit so she can invest the money in a vineyard; this is the climax of the chiasm in verse 16. She buys a property she has been eyeing—one that would bring grapes, wine, and income to her family.
As this first section of this beautiful poem ends, we see a younger woman, intent on blessing her family with her skills by acquiring wealth for her husband and herself. It reminds me of our early marriage. My ‘vineyard’ was a public school where I taught to provide for our family of two while my husband pursued his seminary degree and two doctorates. The investment I made in his education has blessed us financially for many years since because he has had options for ways to support our growing family. Both of us look back with joy on the years that I supported our family.
In the next section we learn what the woman who fears the Lord does with the profit from all her hard work and planning. Yes, it has taken her a number of years to get here, but now she has wealth and wisdom and she uses it to bless others, in verses 20-27. She has accumulated much, not to be greedy, but so that she can give it to others. She has, not only wealth to give, but she also has wisdom to give. The point of this second section, which is also a chiasm, is that this the kind of woman who brings honor to her husband. He is known in town as “noble woman’s lucky husband.”
Again, we see the corresponding ideas as we work to and from the central point. The first idea is that she gives—of her wealth to the poor and of her wisdom to those who need it (verses 20 & 26-27). To the poor, she is benevolent, actively involving herself for the needy in her community. To her household, she gives wisdom laced with kindness. She wisely watches over her household, ruling it with kindness. These two endearing qualities are the hallmark of her mature years—she is benevolent and she is kind.
She faces the future with confidence in verses 21 and 26; she has provided for her family, as fully as she can, for predictable essentials (the children will grow and will need new clothes for school) and unforeseen events (while it snows only rarely in Jerusalem, her household is prepared for it). She does not fear the future. She goes into old age smiling with confidence in her God.
She continues to use her talents to enrich the family as she trades the quilts and linen garments that are manufactured in her household (verses 22 and 24).
And her greatest gift is to her husband, because the respect she has earned in their community brings honor to her husband when he meets with the leaders of the township. They are well aware of her contributions and her talent for making money. They recognize that she is a kind and benevolent woman who has blessed their entire community. He receives reflected honor from her achievements, though he has achievements of his own as a leader in the community.
The poem concludes with her rightful receiving of the love and respect from her family in verses 28-31. They have observed this woman in all the seasons of her life and they give her praise and bless her. This probably didn’t happen when her children were small. So, those of you with small children, don’t hold your breath! But as the children grew up, they realized what she had done for them and they expressed appreciation. Some of you reading this may need to make a phone call or write a letter to your mom to tell her how glad you are for the good job she did. It will encourage her to hear that from you.
The author concludes by noting that all of this didn’t just randomly happen; this was a life lived in fearing the Lord. The woman of noble character shows us what it looks like to live a life of wisdom, from the beginning of adulthood to the end. She is the embodiment of wisdom, right living.
And she is in the Scriptures as an example, and an encouragement to us 21st century women, that we might fear the Lord and live as wise women.
For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.