By Marcia Hornok
Raise your hand if you have heard a Proverbs 31 sermon on the second Sunday in May.
I see a great many hands.
The problem with Mother’s Day is that it marginalizes women who are not mothers. However, Prov 31:10−31 does not.
Yes, it mentions a husband and children, but the topic of virtue fits all categories of females.
As proof, consider the only woman in Scripture who was called virtuous (Ruth 3:11).1 At the time, Ruth was not married and had no children. So what does that say about virtue, except that all women should attain it?
Furthermore, if this acrostic poem is part of the utterance which King Lemuel’s mother taught him, then the passage speaks about a marriageable (single) woman of virtue, which Lemuel should seek until he finds.
A problem arises, however, with those qualities. Some say this idealistic poem was relevant for Solomon’s culture but not for ours. Others take a literal approach, encouraging women to live up to God’s paragon of virtue. She burns the candle at both ends by getting up early (v 15) and staying up late (v 18). With income from her manufacturing business (v 24), she buys real estate (v 16), while making clothes for herself and her family (vv 21−22). Besides meeting the needs of her household, she helps the poor (v 20) and never neglects her relationship with God (v 30).
Neither view suffices.
The first disregards Biblical relevance, and the literal view is exhausting.
The answer lies in seeing Proverbs 31 as a photo album of a godly woman’s lifetime, rather than as selfies of her daily activities. Thus by her senior years, assuming she is elderly along with her husband in v 23, her virtue and accomplishments result in praise (vv 28−31).
This interpretation invites two questions: First, can the passage be outlined with reference to a woman’s entire life rather than her daily chores?Se cond, what comprises virtue?
A Logical Outline of Proverbs 31:10−31
Martha Montgomery (1909−1997), a home Bible teacher in Dallas for over 30 years, identified a unique literary structure to these 22 verses: three verses of introduction, five verses for each of the three stages of life—the early, middle, and later years—and four concluding verses.2
Each of the three stages includes a statement about her household and a note about apparel or qualities she wears.
The Introduction (vv 11−12)
The poem opens with a preview, not a predicament (v 10). Like a precious gem, this woman’s worth increases with age. Her husband gets an early mention because if a woman is married, her focus needs to be husband-centered at every stage of life. He can trust her and has no reason to seek “plunder” by looking elsewhere for his needs to be met. She routinely asks—what good thing can I do for my husband today? (v 12).
The Early Years (vv 13−17)
She provides winter clothing (wool) and summer clothing (flax) and goes to great lengths to feed her household (v 14). She puts her maidens (by application, appliances) to their tasks early in the day (v 15).
Some commentaries impose a real estate business on v 16, mistranslating the fruit of her hands as “earnings.” However, v 31 defines the fruit of her hands as “her own works.” She works in her vineyard, where presumably her children are with her. Indeed, seven verses in the Hebrew text talk about her hands/palms, but popular English versions substitute “earnings” in this verse.
Another unfortunate translation in v 16 is the word “buys.” This Hebrew word means “to take, receive, capture,” and hardly ever refers to money.3 She considers a field, not to buy it, but how best to use it, and then takes it over.
This early stage concludes with what she wears—strength—in her loins (childbirth area), and her arms as she runs her household effectively. Although the passage portrays a married woman with children, single women will benefit from an organized home. Likewise, mothers who need to have a career should carefully focus priority on their families. Most women today spend only one-third of their lives—less than 20 years—raising children. Equipping the next generation trumps all other pursuits for that short time.
The Middle Years (vv 18−22)
She senses her involvements are good. This most likely refers to shopping! She bartered or traded wisely. Thus she is prepared with adequate oil so her lamp does not go out at night (v 18). The burning lamp may also speak of availability, not lack of sleep. If her family or travelers needed help during the night, she was ready.
With her children growing up, she widens her areas of usefulness. Her hands reach out to provide for her household (v 21), herself (v 22), and for the poor and needy (vv 19−20). Without guilt, women can postpone the time for volunteer work and community interests until the stage when their children can do more for themselves and help with chores. Verse 22 makes another reference to what she wears. Fine linen and purple speak of dignity and honor, emphasizing strength of character.
The Later Years (vv 23−27)
In the empty-nest stage, her husband sits with the elders, a position of authority (v 23). We may assume she also is elderly and shares his good reputation. With children grown and years of experience under her belt, the virtuous woman’s expertise in making garments generates income (v 24).
Again she wears strength (from the early years) and dignity (from the middle years). These qualities, ripened by life, give her a positive outlook on the future (v 25) and wisdom to share with kindness (v 26).
Notably, only one out of 22 verses mentions her tongue. In this stage, she watches over the ways of her household and does not become idle (v 27).4
Aging women must resist the urge to withdraw from helping others. Eventually, they may be unable to do more than pray, but what a valuable ministry that is. (See 1 Tim 5:5.)
The Conclusion (vv 28−31)
This passage gives the virtuous woman’s secret—fearing God. Charm deceives, and beauty dissipates, but godliness never goes out of style and has a great reward. All her life she has excelled at giving. Now at the end, something is given to her: her children bless her; her husband praises her for her virtue; her own works praise her (public recognition), but the source of praise for her godliness (v 30) is obscure. Could it foreshadow praise from God in eternity?
What Comprises Virtue?
Having viewed the passage, not as a daily to-do list, but as a lifetime of fruitfulness, we can then ask, what is virtue? Does virtue mean women should make their own clothing or do things from scratch? It does seem like the Proverbs 31 woman excelled at sewing, but what was Ruth’s virtue?
Care-taking for her mother-in-law (Ruth 2:11).5
Virtue simply means being good at something that benefits others. The emphasis of Proverbs 31 is on usefulness, not busyness.
This makes Proverbs 31 practical and attainable. (Remember v 29: “Many daughters have done virtuously….”) As time increases the value of jewels, so women become virtuous with age and experience by fellowshipping with God, while cultivating abilities that help their own households, people in need, and the business community.
Women today are told to advance themselves and seek personal success, but self-fulfillment comes from working toward a greater purpose—that of honoring God by what they do. That makes even menial tasks delightful (v 13). However, women usually enjoy the things they do well, which means that attaining virtue is fun.
This user-friendly look at virtue in Proverbs 31 requires answering two questions: What are you good at? How does that expertise benefit others?
The next time you hear a Mother’s Day sermon on Proverbs 31, don’t feel guilty for not measuring up. If you fear God and are using your skills to help people, you are a virtuous woman.6
Marcia Hornok is a retired editor and wife of a retired pastor.
1. Consider also that the Hebrew Bible places Ruth immediately after Proverbs. (See soniclight.org Study Notes for Ruth, 2017 Edition, p. 2.)
2. Martha’s series titled “Every Wise Woman” was taught to many wives of Dallas Theological Seminary students, and Martha’s husband John served on the Board of Trustees of DTS during the 1960s.
3. The BDB Hebrew and English Lexicon lists 965 uses of the word laqach. Only in Prov 31:16 is it translated “buys.” The only other occurrence of the exact construction is Ezek 33:4 where the sword “takes” a life.
4. The word implies peering into the distance like a watchman.
5. In Ruth 2:12 Boaz blesses Ruth: “The Lord repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the Lord God of Israel.”
6. For further discussion, see the author’s article on Prov 31:10-31 in The Journal of Dispensational Theology (Summer/Fall 2013), pp. 143-158.