Proverbs 31:1-31

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No Israelite king was known as Lemuel (meaning “belonging to God”), and it seems questionable that, in a work that is specifically linked to Solomon, he would also be called by a name that does not appear elsewhere in the Hebrew text. The Septuagint makes no reference to Lemuel. It opens the words of chapter 31 with the phrase, “My words have been spoken by God,” indicating that the words were divinely inspired. If the Hebrew word massá’ here designates the territory of Massa in northern Arabia where descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael are thought to have lived (Genesis 25:12-14), Lemuel was the king in that region. It is also possible that, in this context, massá’ is not a proper noun but indicates the “words” to be an “oracle, a “pronouncement,” a “declaration,” or a “message” that Lemuel’s mother taught him. The Septuagint rendering could be understood to refer to an “inspired response of a king whom his mother instructed.” (31:1)

Lemuel’s mother is quoted as identifying him as “my son,” “son of my belly” (or the son who came from her womb) and the “son of my vows,” indicating that she had made vows when petitioning God for a son. The Septuagint contains additional words. “What, child, will you observe? What? The sayings of God. O firstborn, I am speaking to you, son. What, child of my belly? What, child of my vows? These questions suggest that the mother was concerned that her son would be one who heeded the “sayings of God.” (31:2)

The mother admonished Lemuel not to give his “strength to women,” not giving himself over to a life of dissipation for sexual pleasure. According to the Septuagint, he was exhorted not to give his “wealth to women.” The next exhortation could be understood to be for Lemuel to shun “ways” that lead to the ruin of kings. In view of a measure of obscurity in the Hebrew text, translations vary in their renderings, with some making use of an emendation. “Give not your vigor to women, nor your strength to those who ruin kings.” (NAB) “Do not give the vigour of your manhood to women, or consort with women who bring down kings.” (REB) “Don’t waste your life chasing after women! This has ruined many kings.” (CEV) “Do not expend your energy on women nor your wealth on those who ruin kings.” (NJB) The concluding thought of the Septuagint could be understood to indicate that the king was not to give his mind and means of living for something he would later regret. (31:3)

Kings needed to be in full possession of their senses, not dulling them with intoxicants. Lemuel’s mother taught him that it was “not for kings to drink wine and for rulers [to want] strong drink.” (31:4; see the Notes section.) Rulers should use restraint respecting intoxicants so that they do not forget “what is decreed” (or fail to follow what is set forth in the law [forget wisdom (LXX)]) and pervert the rights of all the afflicted (literally, “sons of affliction”) or, according to the Septuagint, “not be able to judge the weak [or powerless] aright.” (31:5; see the Notes section.)

In certain cases, the ancients considered the dulling of the senses as appropriate. “Give strong drink to one who is perishing [or about to die (those in sorrows [LXX])] and wine to those bitter of soul [or persons who have lost all hope (those in pains [LXX])].” (31:6) Under the influence of intoxicants, they would forget their poverty and no longer remember their misery or trouble. (31:7)

The king was to “open [his] mouth,” or speak out, for the “speechless one,” the helpless person who had no voice to make a defense, and for the rights of “all sons of passing away” (persons whose dire circumstances were such as to appear as though they were about to perish). According to the Septuagint, the admonition is, “Open your mouth [with or for] a word of God” (or a divine word), “and judge all fairly [or soundly].” (31:8) The directive to the king continued, “Open your mouth [or speak up]; judge righteously and [defend] the rights of the poor one and the needy one [weak or powerless one (LXX)].” (31:9; see the Notes section.)

The rhetorical question is, “Who can find a woman of strength [a strong or vigorous woman (LXX)]?” Based on the context, “a woman of strength” is a wife who has strength of character and is outstanding in caring for the family and managing household affairs. She is industrious, dependable, compassionate, and exemplary in her conduct. Her value is represented as being greater than the precious items to which the Hebrew word peniním is applied and has been variously understood to designate “pearls,” “rubies,” “coral,” or “red coral.” The Septuagint rendering is “precious stones.” (31:10)

The “owner” or husband of a “woman of strength” trusts her completely. This trust is linked to his “heart,” suggesting that it is a trust that is bound up with his inmost self. His trust is not misplaced, for she benefits him and does not contribute to loss or disappointment. “No gain” is lacking from the manner in which she cares for her responsibilities. According to the Septuagint, this vigorous woman would have no lack of “good spoils” or good returns from her labors. (31:11) “All the days of her life,” or throughout her life as a married woman, she does “good” for her husband, always benefiting him, and never doing “bad” or harm to him. (31:12; see the Notes section.)

The “woman of strength” procures (literally, “seeks”) “wool and flax.” With fabrics from wool and linen, she makes clothing and other needed items for the household. The Hebrew expression for “delight of her hands” suggests that she finds joy and satisfaction from everything she does. The Septuagint refers to her as “spinning wool and flax,” apparently making the yarn into something useful “with her hands.” (31:13)

The “woman of strength” puts forth effort to obtain “bread” or food for the household. She is represented as being “like ships of a merchant,” bringing her “bread” or food from far away. The Septuagint refers to the woman as becoming like a ship used for distant commercial activities and gathering the means of living or livelihood. (31:14)

While it is still “night,” or early in the morning before sunrise, the industrious wife rises to be prepared to give “bread” or food to her household and that which is allotted to the maidens, the young female servants in the large household. That which is allotted or prescribed could refer to their portion of the food or to their assigned tasks. According to the Septuagint, the wife gives her female servants work to do. (31:15)

The astute wife recognizes the worth of good land, and she “considers” a certain “field,” apparently one that she finds suitable for her purposes, and then acquires it. “From the fruit of her hands,” either with her own labors or with the earnings from her work, she plants a vineyard, apparently on the purchased land. The Septuagint rendering indicates that she did planting on the acquired possession. (31:16)

The industrious wife is willing to exert herself as a woman who prepares herself to labor, girding her “loins” or hips with strength and making her arms strong (“for work” [LXX]). (31:17)

The capable wife “tastes” or perceives that her business is “good” or that all the work she does is profitable. According to the Septuagint, she “tastes” that it “is good to work.” Even after the sun sets, she does not stop laboring. “Her lamp [fueled with olive oil] does not go out at night [the whole night (LXX)],” providing her with the needed illumination to perform her chosen tasks before finally going to bed. (31:18)

The industrious wife busies herself in spinning yarn. “She puts her hands to the distaff.” From the distaff, she pulls the loosely attached wool, flax, or tow and, with her fingers, attaches the material to the spindle. (31:19; see the Notes section.)

The exemplary wife is compassionate and generous. She extends her open “palm” to give something to the poor person (“opens her hands to the poor one” [LXX]) and “reaches out her hands [her fruit (LXX)] to the needy one.” (31:20)

The industrious wife has no fear or anxious concern about whether members of her household will be dressed warm enough in the winter when it snows. All members of her household “are clothed in scarlet.” Based on a departure from the vowel pointing of the Masoretic Text, a number of translations do not contain the rendering “scarlet” or “crimson” but variously read “doubly clothed” (NAB), “wrapped in double cloaks” (REB), and “warmly clothed” (NJB). According to the Septuagint, her husband does not concern himself with matters of the house whenever he spends time somewhere outside the home, “for all” who are with her “are being clothed.” This rendering suggests that his wife is caring well for everyone and that her husband has no reason for concern when he is away from the house. (31:21)

The wife has made “coverlets” (“coverings for her bed” [NIV], “bed coverings” [REB], “quilts” [NJB]) for herself. Her clothing is made of “linen and scarlet.” The Septuagint says that “she makes double garments for her husband and clothes of linen and purple for herself.” (31:22)

The husband (literally, “owner”) of the noble wife is “known in the gates,” the open area near the gates where important business and legal matters were handled by the elders of the community. As one of the elders, the husband would seat himself with the “elders of the land” or the area. The Septuagint says that the man “is admired in the gates.” (31:23)

The industrious wife has made linen garments and sells them, and she provides traders with girdles, belts, or sashes. In Hebrew, the term that means “traders” in this context is the proper noun Canaanites, and this is the rendering of the Septuagint (“and girdles for the Chananites [Canaanites]”). (31:24)

The ideal wife has “strength and dignity” as her clothing. This could mean that her outstanding abilities and dignified bearing are like splendid attire for her. She has prepared herself well for the future and, therefore, is represented as laughing at a future day or time or as looking to the future with joyous confidence and having no anxiety about what might develop. The Septuagint says that “she rejoices in the last days.” (31:25 [31:26, LXX])

The expressions that come from the mouth of a noble wife are words of “wisdom,” and the “law of kindness” is on her tongue. This “law” probably consists of the wife’s instruction that promotes having compassionate concern for others. According to the Septuagint, “she opened her mouth heedfully and lawfully,” exercising care in what she says and in how she expresses herself to make sure that she does not err when speaking. She “set order on her tongue” or exercised control over it. (31:26 [31:25, LXX])

The capable wife “watches over the ways [or the conduct and affairs] of her house” or household, making sure that everything is in good order. She does not “eat the bread of laziness,” never idling away her time but proving herself to be a diligent and productive worker. (31:27; see the Notes section.)

The children of the ideal wife and mother stand up and declare her to be “blessed,” happy, or fortunate. Also her husband (literally, “owner”) stands up and praises her. (31:28; see the Notes section.) The appreciative husband lauds her with the words, “Many daughters [or women] have done admirably [more literally, acted with strength], but you have surpassed them all.” According to the Septuagint, the words of praise are, “Many daughters acquired wealth; many did mighty things [or impressive things], but you have surpassed and excelled [them] all.” (31:29)

Impressive accomplishments, however, are not what primarily distinguish the ideal wife and mother. “Charm” or graciousness can be a “deception,” concealing what a woman may really be in her inmost self. The Septuagint indicates that a desire to please may be “false.” “Beauty” (“beauty of a woman” [LXX]) is “vain,” empty or fleeting. The truly noble woman is praised for having the “fear of YHWH,” a reverential regard for him and an earnest desire to do his will. In the Septuagint, the thought is expressed differently. “For a prudent woman is lauded, but let her praise the fear of the Lord.” (31:30)

To the ideal wife and mother, the “fruit of her hands” or the reward of her labors should be given. In view of her diligence, her works would become known far and wide. Therefore, in the open area at the city gates (in the most public location), her “works” should be praised. The Septuagint concludes with the words, “Let her husband be praised in the gates.” (31:31)

Notes

In verse 4, the Septuagint contains wording that is not found in the extant Hebrew text. “Do everything with counsel; with counsel, drink wine” (or be guided by the sound counsel you have been given when drinking wine). “Mighty ones [those exercising authority or rulers] are prone to anger, and let them not drink wine.”

In verse 5, the Greek verb translated “be able” is preceded by two words for “not,” giving it an emphatic sense and could be rendered “by no means be able.”

In the Septuagint, verse 9 is followed by the material of chapters 25 through 29 of the Hebrew text and then with that of verses 10 through 31 of chapter 31.

From verse 10 onward, each verse of the Hebrew text begins with a different letter, starting with aleph, continuing in consecutive order through the 22 Hebrew consonants, with taw as the last letter. This arrangement probably served as a memory aid, and no attempt was made by the Septuagint translator to follow the acrostic style.

In verse 12, the Septuagint only mentions the wife’s doing good things for or benefiting her husband and makes no reference to “bad.” Fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus, however, reads “good and not bad.”

The wording of the Septuagint in verse 19 differs from that of the extant Hebrew text. There is no reference to the distaff, but the woman is represented as stretching out her forearm to profitable things and strengthening “her hands for the spindle” or for doing spinning.

Verse 27 in the Septuagint could be understood to indicate that the wife managed household affairs carefully (“sheltered are the ways of life at her houses” [a possible literal translation]).

In verse 28, the Septuagint contains additional wording that is much like that of the initial phrase of verse 25. “But she opens the mouth wisely and lawfully, and her compassion raised up her children, and they became rich, and her husband praised her.”