THE INTERPRETATION OF PROVERBS 31:10-31
Proverbs 31:10 begins an extended discourse on the “excellent wife”. The opening question of v. 10 could be restated “So, you want a wife? Here is what you need to look for. Oh, and by the way, she isn’t a common breed.” What the author intends to communicate to his reader is what to look for in a wife. He spends numerous verses describing the character of that “Good thing” of Proverbs 18:22.
Consistent with the rest of the book, this is an admonition from parent to child. This passage comes directly after the oracle of King Lemuel that he learned from his mother. (Proverbs 31:1-9) It is debated as to whether verses 10- 31 are a continuation of the wisdom of Lemuel or an independent poem. Either way it is still an address describing the virtues of a good wife. The passage itself is an acrostic. In the original Hebrew, each letter has a corresponding line. This particular pattern of poetry was common in Hebrew literature. Many of the Psalms follow the pattern of one line or stanza correlating to a letter of the alphabet.1 Probably the most well know example of this is Psalm 119 where each stanza begins with a Hebrew letter. More specifically, Proverbs 31:10-31 is a heroic poem extolling the virtues of the woman who fears the LORD.2
Some commentaries of the passage argue that the virtuous woman is a summary of Proverbs that yet again personifies wisdom in a similar fashion as previous places in the book. This conclusion is drawn based on the following criteria: idealistic model, lack of description of intimate personal relationships that a godly woman would have as well as literary style and structure.3 I do not ascribe to this interpretation. The following describes why.
The NETBible commentators, who ascribe to the above view, say that “Any careful reading of the passage would have to conclude that if it were merely a paradigm for women what it portrays may well be out of reach…” 4 While a true statement, it does not add to the credibility of their argument. According to the basic rules for the interpretation of Proverbs, we know that Proverbs are not hard and fast rules but rather principles to follow or generalizations made. It is perfectly consistent to have a model that is idealistic. Remember, proverbs are words to live by.
The relationship of the “excellent wife” to God, her husband, and others as well as her own mental and emotional stability may not be seen in glorious detail as would be consistent with narrative literature, but they are touched upon in the passage. Bite sized pictures of her character give way to deeper implications that reveal the more intimate aspect. This woman of faith (v.30) has a good relationship with her husband (v.11). She does her husband “good and not harm, all the days of her life.” (v.12.). She sees to the needs of her servants and is known for her compassionate giving to the poor (v. 15, 20). A woman who is feeble of mind and unstable emotionally would not be able to perform the rigorous tasks described. Again, it is an idealistic picture but it is one that can be emulated at least in part.
With similarities to the poetry of Psalms of praise such as Psalm 112, it is argued that this eulogy is actually an ode praising the heroic woman wisdom. In other words, just as wisdom is personified as a woman in Proverbs 1 and 8, this passage too is purely allegorical. Yet the word choice of “excellent wife” is inconsistent with the previous passages that declare that “Wisdom cries aloud (ch.1) and “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence” (ch.8). Wisdom is identified as such in previous passages not so in chapter 31. The parallels between the virtues of Ruth and the woman described serve to strengthen the idea that the “excellent wife” indeed speaks of an incarnate being. 5
Having laid the foundation that this passage is indeed referring to a flesh and blood model, we can begin to look at the characteristics of this woman. A full exegesis is beyond this paper (and my skills) at this given time. I have highlighted some key qualities revealed in the passage.
to be continued...