Proverbs Week 11: A wife of noble character
The closing passage of Proverbs is a poem extolling a noble or virtuous wife. The poem is an acrostic such that each line begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There are two main views of this poem. The first is that it is a description of the ideal wife. The second is that it is another personification of Lady Wisdom as we have seen in Chapters 1, 8-9.
Discussion question: What are the characteristics of this passage that would favor the first interpretation? What characteristics favor the second?
In favor of the first interpretation are the facts that:
1. Nowhere is the woman characterized as Lady Widsom, as in the previous allegories (see 1:20, 8:1, 9:1)
2. The activities performed by the noble wife are much more specific and less obviously allegorical than those performed by Lady Wisdom in previous chapters (“considers a field” (31:16), “holds the distaff” (v. 19), “makes linen garments and sells them” (v. 24)).
3. Her family is mentioned repeatedly in the story, unlike the previous allegories in which Lady Widsom is central (see v. 21, 23, 27-28)
In favor of the second interpretation are the facts that:
1. The noble wife is worth “more than rubies” as is wisdom in 3:15
2. Many of the activities mentioned are reflections of the virtues taught in proverbs: hard work (21:5), generosity (22:9), fear of the Lord (2:5)
3. Many of the blessing accrued by the noble wife are blessings of wisdom: wealth (22:9), honor (4:8-9)
4. She has maidens like Lady Wisdom (v. 15)
5. Much of the language in the poem is very active and heroic (v.11,17, 19-20), with reflections (apparently) of Psalm 111, also an acrostic poem which praises the Lord for his great works
In general, I favor the first interpretation, although I agree that this is certainly an idealization of a noble wife. But I think that is precisely the point! A noble wife is the embodiment of wisdom. Through fearing the Lord, she grows to resemble Wisdom personified!
v10. “noble character” used to describe Ruth in Ruth 3:11. It literally means ”woman of valor” and can be used to describe warriors (see Judges 6:12 where the angel addresses Gideon)
“who can find?” It’s difficult! As is finding a man of noble character.
“worth more than rubies” – as is wisdom. The thought seems to be that having a noble wife is as valuable as possessing wisdom. This is a remarkable statement given that the whole thrust of the book of Proverbs has been to commend wisdom to us as of the highest value.
v11. more literally “the heart of her husband trusts in her” (NASB). An expressive way of saying that he has complete confidence in her.
“lacks nothing of value” or “has no lack of gain” (NET). The word gain (= “shalal) is often used of plunder or spoils of war as in Is. 8:1-4. Another interesting active and heroic characteristic of the noble wife.
v12. “brings him good, not harm” – what a blessing, and what a tender sentiment.
Discussion question: What does it mean for a husband to have “full confidence” in his wife? What kind of relationship does it express?
v13. “eager hands” – she delights in her labor. See 1 Thes. 4:11.
v14. “bringing food from afar” – the point seems to be that she is enterprising and active. Also, it would have been difficult to obtain imported food and possibly this verse implies that she is supplying her family with delicacies.
v15. “gets up while it is still dark” – she is hard working.
“food for her family” – the word used is unusual. It means “prey”; again a more active word than might be expected for a domestic duty!
v17. “her arms are strong for her tasks” – literally, “she girds her loins with strength”. Again, the language of activity.
v18. “her lamp does not go out at night” – just as she rises early in the morning, she stays up late into the night. Perhaps this also implies that she has plenty of oil to light her lamp?
v19. “In her hand, she holds” – the word “hold” is again quite strong (e.g. “take hold” or “grasp”), and is used of military activity (see Jdg. 5:26)
“distaff” – a staff use to hold unspun fibers during spinning. “spindle” – a rod on which fibers are spun into thread.
v24. “makes linen garments… supplies the merchants” – again, evidence of her entrepreneurship.
v27. “does not eat the bread of idleness” – does not eat food that is merely given to her; she earns it.
Discussion question: What is our idea of femininity? Is it passive or weak? Would we ever compare household activities to warfare? What is the author’s purpose in using such active language in describing the wife’s activities?
v16. “considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.” – She is financially astute and a wise steward of her wealth. See the parable of the talents Mt. 25:14-30
v20. “opens her arms” – we shouldn’t lose sight of this gesture. She is going to embrace them, not just give them something. “extends her hands to the needy” – and yet she does not give only emotion, but also practical assistance
v21. “clothed in scarlet” – costly material, because she can provide for them through her industry in v. 16-17
v22. “clothed in fine linen and purple” –Costly and prestigious garments! See Esther 8:15.
Discussion question: In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man is clothed in “purple and fine linen” (Lk. 16:19). What is the contrast between the rich man and the noble wife?
v23. “is respected at the city gate” – given that the entire passage is about the wife’s accomplishments, the implication is that it is the wife’s labor that has led to her husband’s honor. The elders met in rooms near the city gate to settle disputes and adjudicate cases.
“among the elders of the land” – he is himself an elder
v26. “speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction is on her tongue” – she is wise and gives wise counsel as does the writer of Proverbs and Lady Wisdom.
v28. “rise up” or “arise” – denotes an important action.
v29. “you surpass them all” – her husbands praise is well-deserved and extravagant.
v.30 “beauty is fleeting” literally “a breath” (Heb. hebel).
Discussion question: What is the contrast between the first and second halves of v. 30? What does this parallelism imply? (see 1 Jn. 2:17)
Discussion question: What is the command given to husbands in v. 31? Are we obeying it?