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January 2014: Proverbs 31 by Doug

Proverbs 31. It strikes fear into the hearts of some people, because the last 21 verses are an extensive discussion of the “virtuous wife.” And trying to live up to all of that is intimidating. In fact, the only thing I can think of more intimidating than trying to perfectly live every detail of that passage is trying to live with someone trying to live every detail of that passage perfectly. More in a moment on that section, though.






First, we need to remember that Proverbs 31 does not start with “A wife of noble character, who can find?” It starts with a reference to King Lemuel, and this guy’s problematic. Why? Because he is either a pseudonym for Solomon or someone we’ve never heard of anywhere else. I don’t think taking Lemuel as not-Solomon hurts the authority of Proverbs, as I would put Solomon as having compiled and included this section. It’s also not impossible that Lemuel is a rename of Solomon, but that seems a stretch since there is no extant Biblical evidence that he had used another name in Israel. Proverbs would have to be the evidence.





(There’s also the possibility, per the UBS Handbook on Proverbs, that this should read Lemuel, king of Massa. Massa possibly being an Arabian kingdom. One might stretch this into a Solomon-influenced king related to the Queen of Sheba incident in 1 Kings 10. If you’re going to imagine that, though, you’ve gone farther than figuring Solomon used the name Lemuel.)





These first 10 verses speak to Lemuel’s overall duty as a king. They are valuable, and I’ll revisit them as we work through all of Proverbs. There’s a lot of year left, after all.





Then we come to the “Wife of Noble Character” passage. There are debates about whether or not this is from Lemuel or another source, but I find the argument to separate it weak. There is no reason to take it as an appendix after the advice to Lemuel about being a king. In fact, this fits well with advising him regarding his choice of a queen.





That is one of the debates regarding the overall description of the “Proverbs 31 Woman.” Is this an ideal to live up to for a woman or the qualifications a man should seek in a wife? Or is it, as I have seen suggested, that the conclusion here is in praise of wisdom itself, personified again at the end of Proverbs as at the beginning, in feminine form?





I side with the idea that this is an idealized description of real woman, especially of the type fit to be a queen. While I can see the secondary subtly of the “P31 Woman” as Wisdom, I think the reverse is accurate: wisdom is personified as a woman because there is often overlooked wisdom in the actions of women. In many cultures, then and now, wise men sit about and discuss life and knowledge. All the while, there are women making things happen.





So I think this description is to point out that Lemuel should seek a wife that does more than a wife fits a beauty picture. And that women should see their efforts go to building a heritage more than to chasing after vanity. Men would do well to do the same.





In this, we come to Proverbs 31:11 where the man is reminded to trust in her. Men, if you would praise the virtue of your wife to others, then you should demonstrate that by your trust in her. Trust her abilities, her knowledge, her foresight. You will not lack for gain when you do so.

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