A Virtuous Woman Who Can Find? Proverbs 31:10–31

This passage is one of several that are often used to celebrate Mother’s Day, as it directly describes the practical, everyday life of one who is an example of a wise mother. However, I am not going to address this passage as if it were only for Mother’s Day. I think it is intended to be relevant for every person. There are many themes, phrases, and words that are repeated here that are found throughout the rest of the book of Proverbs. This passage may have been intended to summarize the whole book.

We are not certain who wrote this passage. The first half of Proverbs 31 was attributed to King Lemuel’s mother. It seems the last few chapters of Proverbs were written by authors other than Solomon, almost as an appendix to Solomon’s Proverbs. Some note King Lemuel’s name has the name for God (El) in its suffix and think Lemuel may have been another name for Solomon.1 Solomon did have at least one other name, Jedidiah (2 Samuel 12:25). But since the rest of Proverbs is directly attributed to Solomon, I see no reason for a change to a pseudonym here, especially when the previous chapter was also written by Agur, whose name is probably not even Hebrew. It is for these reasons that I do not think Lemuel was Solomon (in which case Lemuel’s mother would have been Bathsheba).
Some think that chapter 31 was from King Lemuel’s mother, as she was the source of the first half of this chapter.2 The suggestion is that King Lemuel’s mother was trying to help her son find a wife of excellent quality by describing the perfect wife. She had previously warned him against “giving his strength to women” (31:3). But it is difficult to see how a woman who already cares well for her children could be presented as an ideal mate. This section is also separated from the first half of chapter 3. It is an acrostic poem in Hebrew. Verse 10 begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, verse 11 the second letter, and so on, until the chapter ends. Others think Solomon wrote this passage, as the language is so similar to earlier Proverbs that were written by Solomon, and the themes throughout the book seem to be summarized here.

However, neither the theory of King Lemuel’s mother as author nor that of Solomon as author seem to make sense in light of verse 23, which says that this woman’s husband “is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land.” Both Lemuel and Solomon were princes and then kings, as were their sons. Therefore to say that this woman’s husband would be one of the many more common elders in the land would be a significant step down in terms of office, while the intent of the passage is to impress us with the benefits of having a wise wife, who is able to help her husband achieve a high status in the community. Had kingly types been in mind, then the benefit of having a wise wife would help establish the king’s rule, not just confirm him as one of several elders in a town.

Another reason to doubt Solomon or Lemuel wrote this was because Solomon (and likely King Lemuel) had many wives, as was the common practice for rulers in that context—although Israelite kings were forbidden such by Deuteronomy 17:17. It was Solomon’s many wives, including foreign ones, that led his heart away from the Lord by directing him towards idols and false gods (1 Kings 11:1–4). So it seems improbable that Solomon would encourage others to find “the one perfect wife” or to complain about himself not being able to find “the one perfect wife.”

And yet I do think it is possible that Solomon wrote this passage with a different focus in mind. Earlier in Proverbs, Solomon went to great lengths to personify the character of Lady Wisdom, and perhaps he returns to that theme here to close his Proverbs. He may be encouraging his citizens to try to find a quality wife (or to be one), but above all perhaps he is extolling the many praiseworthy attributes of wisdom. He is encouraging us to value and praise wisdom, and he is calling for God’s people to seek out wisdom.

Instead of thinking primarily about “the perfect wife,” it is more likely that Solomon was asking, as the KJV puts it, “Who can find a virtuous woman?” The Hebrew word can mean either. It is apparent from the rest of the passage that this is a married woman with children, but that does not necessarily mean that this lady’s role as a mother or wife should be the focus here. Beginning in chapter 1 Solomon described a specific woman, Lady Wisdom, as a woman who speaks, acts, and lives a certain way. Indeed one of her primary acts early in Proverbs is that she is constantly “calling out,” trying to “find” those who will listen to her.

Now perhaps Solomon is reversing the picture, asking who is able to recognize the value of wisdom and search for it (“Who can find a virtuous woman?” in v. 10). Throughout the book of Proverbs Solomon has taught that finding wisdom is difficult. Many people do not undertake the journey. Even when they do, difficulties arise. Even the wise should not be wise in their own eyes, because perfect wisdom is never fully grasped in this world. We should continually seek after it all the days of our lives, as we will never fully reach the destination.     

A second phrase in verse 10 also indicates that Solomon is the author. The saying that wisdom is worth “far more than jewels” occurs three times in Proverbs. Solomon wrote the first two, so it is likely that he wrote the third, found here, as well. That phrase also seems to indicate that Lady Wisdom is in view here. The only times the word jewels is used in the book of Proverbs is these three references. The first was in chapter 3 verse 15: “She is far more precious than jewels.” The second was in chapter 8 verse 11, which says, “Wisdom is better than jewels; all that you desire cannot compare to her.” It is a solid indication that, since 31:10 uses the same phrase, this woman in Proverbs 31 is Lady Wisdom herself, and that Solomon wrote this passage.

Certainly the truths applied to the life of the married woman with children in chapter 31 are relevant to the life of a married woman in real life. But the picture of this woman is idealized and cannot be taken fully literally. If one were to try to apply verses 15 and 18 literally, it would mean that a mother should never sleep. Verse 18 says, “Her candle does not go out at night,” while verse 15 says that “she rises while it is still dark.” Perhaps the point is that there are times when, in order to meet the needs of the household, she is willing to stay up late or get up early. Sometimes Christian women feel guilty reading this passage because they do not feel like they are living up to the picture before them. Indeed it is an unattainable standard!

If we recognize that perhaps Solomon was using this imagery to summarize the whole book of Proverbs and to describe the fictional character of Lady Wisdom, it can help bring some perspective. The principles of wisdom found in this passage are just as relevant for any other person as well. In most of the book of Proverbs, Solomon was writing to his son, the prince, who would be king one day. For that very reason, many of the Proverbs have to do with ruling well, judging justly, and dealing with people. Yet no one would suggest that only princes who will be kings can learn from the lessons of wisdom taught throughout the whole book. Neither here is the intended audience only mothers but also all people who are interested to learn from Lady Wisdom and to heed her advice. Whether you are a man or a woman, married or single, child or adult, wealthy or poor, wisdom is worth getting.

So Solomon is probably asking, “Who can find wisdom” in verse 10 rather than, “Who can find the perfect wife and mother of his children”—as if most Christian wives and mothers were not very good ones and a good one is incredibly rare! Likewise verse 29 seems to contradict the idea in saying, “Many women do excellent things [same word, ‘excellent,’ as in v. 10], but you surpass them all.” The point here is not that there should be some kind of competition or comparison between different wives and mothers, but rather that godly Wisdom is superior to all alternatives.

A few possible alternatives to true wisdom are given in verse 30: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Worldly wisdom is a false kind of wisdom and very different from biblical wisdom. There are many false alternatives to biblical wisdom. The kind of godly wisdom found in the Bible is very closely related to righteousness. Many proverbs are moral and ethical commandments. Worldly wisdom can include living selfishly, greedily, for power or fame or pleasure. But godly wisdom is superior to and better than the false alternatives, though they may be charming and superficially appealing.

And then there is the phrase, “A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (v. 30). That is a reference to chapter 1 where we find almost the same phrase. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” Guess what? Wisdom begins and ends with the “fear of the Lord,” and this is one more indication that the woman in view in chapter 31 is Lady Wisdom herself.

There are many other parallels to verses found earlier in the book of Proverbs. Verses 11–12 say that wisdom is a trustworthy guide who will bring good and not harm all the days of our lives. Godly wisdom isn’t the critical, cynical, self-righteous, arrogant wisdom of the world that often tramples others underfoot. Godly wisdom is gentle and kind. She brings good and not harm. Verse 26 says that she is a teacher of kindness when she speaks. The word for kindness here is the same word used often to describe God in the Old Testament. It is the Hebrew word chesed, which means lovingkindness and faithfulness and describe God’s relationship with his people. Wisdom is ultimately an attribute of God and his righteousness.

Verses 13–19 contain more parallels to earlier themes in Proverbs. Wisdom is hard working, smart working, not lazy, responsible, financially cautious and fruitful, meeting the needs of her family and those in her household. Verse 20 speaks of concern for the poor, which is a theme often repeated in earlier proverbs. Verses 21 and 25 speak of her confidence and trust in God with her life and her future. She has so firmly placed her life and times in God’s hands that she can “laugh at time to come.” She trusts God so much with her circumstances that she is not afraid for her household in the winter (v. 21). Yet she does not use her trust in God as an excuse to neglect taking appropriate precautions but prepares her household for winter. She simply is content to leave the results up to God. She knows where her responsibility ends and God’s begins, and she recognizes His prerogative above hers. These principles are certainly applicable to the life of a wife and mother but no less so to every other person, regardless of age or position in life.

As we come to the end of the book of Proverbs, the gospel is immediately relevant. Many times we do not pursue wisdom; many times we make foolish decisions. The very presence of the book of Proverbs with all of its moral instruction implies that God’s people have much to learn from it, as we fall short due to the sinful nature that still remains even in the Christian. Jesus came not just to teach us more wisdom—though He did that. But Jesus came to be our wisdom for us. There is a close connection between godly, biblical wisdom and righteousness; perhaps they are identical. First Corinthians 1:30 connects these two ideas with Jesus, saying that “[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

Jesus did not come primarily to be our teacher but to be our Savior. He actually accomplished all that we fail to do, and He earned our salvation for us. In the double exchange in the gospel, Jesus takes all His wisdom and righteousness and credits it to our accounts so that we can be clothed in His righteousness before God, acceptable and pleasing to Him through Christ. Jesus also took all our sin and put it on Himself on the cross to pay the penalty for our rebellion against God. And Jesus is still willing and able to receive and forgive anyone who will look to Him by faith and to trust that He has provided everything we need for life and salvation before God. “To all who received Him, he gave them power to become children of God who believed in His name” (John 1:12).
            
1. Matthew Henry wrote “Most interpreters are of opinion that Lemuel is Solomon” Commentary on the Whole Bible Vol. 3 (Public Domain, 1706), 31:1.
2. This was the view of Charles Bridges, Proverbs, The Crossway Commentaries, ed. Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Book, 1998), 280.

Rev. Bryan Miller is the pastor of the Spout Springs PCA in Ripley, MS

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