Chapter 31: Commentary

Chapter 31 (momma always gets the last word)


31:1 The sayings of King Lemuel—an oracle his mother taught him:

     This is the second of only two chapters in Proverbs not attributed to Solomon (see 30:1). It contains things King Lemuel learned from his mother. We do not actually know who King Lemuel was (his name means "belonging to God").
      Although many have suggested it is simply another name for Solomon, himself (he is called by another name – Jedidiah – in 2 Sa 12:25).
      Either way, whoever Lemuel was, this chapter is still a message from his mother. While most chapters in Proverbs are directed to "my son" from a male perspective, the last chapter comes from a mother – a woman's perspective.
      I find it so interesting that momma gets the last word! The guys can talk all they want – but in the end, momma will finish the discussion.

31:2 Listen, my son! Listen, son of my womb! Listen, my son, the answer to my prayers!

     This chapter is a message to King Lemuel from his mother (:1). Her words start in our verse - with her telling him three times to "listen!"
      One of the things most of us do not appreciate is someone telling us to listen to them, but that's exactly what Lemuel's mother says to him. She says so, based on the relationship they have - "son of my womb" and "the answer to my prayers."
      I'd like to suggest that momma's got something here. The single best way to get a hearing to what I've got to say to others is for me to be in a meaningful relationship with them!
      Just telling me to listen and then announcing what you want to say doesn't always impact me. But I am much more willing to hear what you want to tell me if I believe you care about me and have taken the time and energy to show it.
      So, while most of us hate hearing someone say "listen to me," we will generally listen, if we believe they have something of value for us. That will start with taking the time to invest something in our lives.
      I'm sure you have something good to say...and momma gives us a good idea about how it can make an impact!

31:3 do not spend your strength on women, your vigor on those who ruin kings

     Proverbs 31 is a series of statements from the mother of King Lemuel and this verse begins her instructions. Like any good momma, she warns her son about people, place and things that are not good for him. In this case, she starts out discussing women. She says focusing on women – even one at a time! – is not a good thing for guys to do.
      Momma's right. The best thing us boys can do for ourselves is to stop focusing on finding the right women - and, instead, start focusing on being the right man! When we are the man we are supposed to be, God will make sure the right woman finds us. In fact, she might even be in our lives right now, but she doesn't recognize us because we are not yet the man we're supposed to be.
      But beyond women, there's lots of other stuff out there that can get us off track. And once we lose focus its hard to get back to doing the things we're supposed to do. I have talked with plenty of guys, inside and outside HUM, who have really messed things up by chasing after things that ruined them.
      But there's good news for those who've already gone down that road! The Biblical principles behind the 12 Steps that we practice at Helping Up Mission can take us from where we are to where we're supposed to be.
      The God of the Bible is in the restoration business. He can - and will - do it for all of us.

31:4 "It is not for kings, O Lemuel— not for kings to drink wine, not for rulers to crave beer,

31:5 lest they drink and forget what the law decrees, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights

     Beer made from barley and wine made from grapes or some other summer fruit (date or pomegranate) are the intoxicants spoken of here. Corn liquor was unknown in that part of the world.
      When leaders drink alcohol there is the probability that they will make decisions which will hurt others, especially those in need. Leadership has special responsibilities for the greater good and alcohol doesn't contribute toward that.

31:6 Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish;

31:7 let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.

     The preceding verses in this chapter (:4-5) spoke negatively about beer and wine for kings, so it seems a bit strange that it would be recommended for others. In fact, this verse has troubled guys at our Helping Up Mission zero-tolerance drug and alcohol recovery program.
      These ancient words from King Lemuel's mother (:1-2) suggested the only analgesic they knew to offer one who was dying ("perishing" and the parallel phrase "in anguish"). It would hopefully give them some relief at the end - that they could "forget their poverty and remember their misery no more."
      Of course, anyone who ever drank to excess knows they don't really help us "forget" and "remember...no more" our difficulties. They are still there - maybe even worse now(!) - and we will still have to face them. That is unless we are dying - this is hospice end-of-life pain management.
      Chemically, alcohol is a depressant. It depresses or inhibits the central nervous system – offering a temporary sedative effect. That is exactly what this verse suggests. It can only provide temporary relief to those in great suffering, but nothing of lasting value.
      This verse is not about someone "drowning their sorrows." Based on the preceding verses and many others in Proverbs (20:1; 23:29-35), the king's mother suggests the only real value for these intoxicants was as ancient pain management to the dying. It appears to be the only good momma could see for this stuff!

31:8 "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.

31:9 Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy."

     The Biblical responsibilities of a king are to support those who can't speak up for or take care of themselves. This directive is still part of King Lemuel's message from his mother. It is a continuation of her discussion about keeping focus and not letting other things (particularly women and booze) take him off point.
      As Americans, we don't really talk about kings in our daily lives. But the concept of the king in Proverbs should be simply understood and applied as the authority in our lives. For at least part of my life, my king might be my boss or supervisor.
      This verse is instruction to those who are bosses or supervisors. The reason you have been given this role and responsibility is to help those under you. You are not there for them to serve you, but for you to serve them. Speak up and offer support to those who need it. "And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?" (Est 4:14).

31:10-31 An alphabetic acrostic poem about the virtuous woman

31:10 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.

     We are talking about a wonderful wife who is worth more than precious stones. When I was studying Old Testament at Baltimore Hebrew University, Professor Moses Aberbach suggested that this was a rhetorical question with a negative answer – no wife could ever measure up to this!
      Well, professor Aberbach, I respectfully disagree. I have met many women who daily practice the principles of Proverbs. In fact, I happen to be married to one. Yes sir, I got me one of those!
      The phrase "of noble character" is a term with a basically positive connotation in Hebrew – carrying the basic meaning of "strength." Of course, the idea here is not a woman of physical strength but of moral strength, strength of character.
      As a side note, the phrase "virtuous woman" (KJV) or "wife of noble character" (NIV) is a bit unique and doesn't offer a straight forward translation. In the 1980's, when Israeli television was just developing, they imported lots of American television reruns. One of them was "Wonder Woman," the DC Comics super-heroine, and namesake of the 1970's TV series (played by Lynda Carter). For Israeli TV, then didn't quite know how to translated Wonder Woman into the Hebrew TV guide. So they settled on this phrase – so "Wonder Woman" became the "Virtuous Woman" or the "Woman of Noble Character."

31:11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.

31:12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.

     This verse pretty well sums up what this wife of noble character /virtuous woman is all about. Her husband has married a woman in whom he trusts implicitly and she adds great value to his life every day. Consequently, she will bring good things into his life and not harmful things all her days. For a guy, I think this verse is about as good as it gets.
         I would like to offer three thoughts:
    1.) A man makes a conscious decision to marry a woman like this. While he may not have
         been smart enough to find her – and God had to bring her to him – he was smart
        enough to marry her – and keep her.
    2.) It seems reasonable to me that a man who gets a wife like this is going to have to be the
        right kind of guy, himself, in order to expect this kind of support every day.
    3.) I think God brought such a lady into my life 37 years ago this month. While she is not
        perfect, she didn't marry a perfect man, either! But together we have learned how to
        live Honest, Open and Willing (HOW) one day at a time before God and that has worked
        out pretty good for us (me!).

31:13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.

31:14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.

31:15 She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants.

31:16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.

31:17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.

31:18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.

31:19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.

     These verses are central in the discussion about the famous "virtuous woman" or "wife of noble character" (:10-31). The focus here is on her knowledge, skills and industrious nature (:17-18) - she can get 'er done!
      The "wool and flax" mentioned probably came from her own flocks and fields (:13). She has the knowledge to choose the best as well as the skill and industry to weave both into whatever she wanted to make (:19).
      The abilities of this lady enabled her to also go out and find the food necessary to feed her family (:14). Back home, she was also willing to get up as early as necessary to insure there was sufficient on the table for everyone every day (:15). Admittedly, she probably didn't do all the cooking, but she insured they had what they needed.
      Sounds like she was capable of running a pretty big operation there at the homestead (:15). But she was also a business woman with the knowledge and skill to check out and purchase an appropriate field nearby to grow additional food for her growing operation at home.
      Yet, she was hardworking and industrious enough to go out and plant a vineyard, herself (:16).
      I'm not sure what her husband was doing while she was doing all this stuff...but she was one impressive lady! Blessed was the guy who married her!
      I'm happy to report I got me one of these - 40 years and counting!

31:20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.

     To no one's surprise, this woman of moral character takes the time and invests her resources in the poor and needy of the community. She appears very busy and seems to have quite a bit of stuff. She seems very willing to use it for good in the lives of others. It really doesn't matter how much we have, we can all make ourselves available and do something to help those less fortunate than us.

31:23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.

     Any man married to a woman like this would probably be doing okay. First, he had to be pretty smart and capable just to get a woman like this to marry him. Second, if he was willing to let her do the things the woman does in this chapter, it is reasonable that he would be doing all right.
      She helps him become successful and that also made him respected at the city gate where community business was done among the political leaders of the land. This verse was the earliest version of the modern day wise saying – behind every successful man there stands a woman who helped him get there!

31:26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.

     Wisdom and faithful instruction to others is what characterizes this woman's speech. While she is best known for doing good things, she also says things that are appropriate.
      I would characterize he speech as tough love talk. She speaks wisdom (seeing life from God's point of view), not necessarily what people want to hear. Her instruction/law/teaching was one of loyal love, unfailing kindness or steadfast devotion – this is a rather famous Hebrew word of the Old Testament for a very special commitment of devotion.
      This totally dedicated instruction would, by definition, not be wishy-washy feel-good stuff. Her words would be so loyal and faithful that she would tell it straight in order to offer real help to the one to whom she is speaking. This is a lady committed to helping others and making a difference in their lives.

31:28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:

     When the smoke all clears and the dust all settles at the end of our lives, there is no one in this world better to comment our lives than our immediate family. For a woman, her husband and children would know her best.
      If our loved ones could really write the epitaph on our tombstone that they want to say, would it sound anything like this verse? After experiencing their mother's actions (and attitudes) as described in the previous 15 verses, her children stood up and call out a blessing on their mother. Her husband, who had been an obvious beneficiary of her good actions and attitudes in these verses also spoke up with nothing but praise to say about her.
      I am happy to say I married such a woman. Admittedly, my two children and I never considered her perfect. Her actions and attitudes were often not appropriate and we had lots of struggles at our house. But my wife learned the Biblical principles of the 12 Steps and began to practice them daily. She came to each of us and asked our forgiveness for bad choices and attitudes in the past. Even better, she has continued to live and practice these principles day by day over the years.
      My wife is still not perfect, but neither is her husband! I am blessed to be married to Gayle and I praise her for the way she practices her spiritual walk every day. I am married to the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31.

31:29 "Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all."

     This chapter is a message from King Lemuel's mother to her son (:1). Beyond these directives (:2-9), mom also gives him a lesson on what a good wife is really like (:10-31).
      At the end of her insightful discussion about this "wife of noble character' (:10), mom offers this verse. In our translation (NIV), it's in quotation marks, because it's the only verse where she addresses this woman directly.
      Mom says to her, "many women do noble things." That suggestsd there are lots of these kind of ladies out there - that means us guys still have a chance to find us a good one! It also suggests that the guy who already has one is very blessed!
      Probably the most important word in the verse is "noble"(see also :10). The word denotes strength, capacity, excellence and power -- these are special ladies!
      But, then, mom suggests this particular lady "surpasses them all" in her noble activities. Of course, she doesn't mention her by name, so we don't know who she is.
      But that's a good thing, because she could be any lady out there. Any woman who wants to think and live like this...can do it! And the whole world will benefit from your life!

31:30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

     "Charm" (or "favor" or "grace") could refer to either inner or outer qualities, but either way, it is described here as false or deceptive. Maybe here it is the inner quality – or at least the appearance of "charm" – is not what it might appear to be. As an outward quality, "beauty" is physical and described as fleeting, empty, vanity. In other words, these two qualities, as valuable and important as they may seem to be to a woman, they can't stand up to the long-term test of time.
      But a woman who "fears the LORD" is a spiritual, heavenly, even eternal quality that is praiseworthy. Interestingly, the book of Proverbs begins with a "fear of the LORD" (1:7) message from father and ends with a "fears the LORD" message from mother. The "fear of the LORD" is the important spiritual quality of seeing and understanding God as He really is (see 1:7).

31:31 Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

     The "wife of noble character" can expect that all her good effort and appropriate words will be rewarded with good things – for her and her household. This woman has done right things with proper motives and attitudes and she will receive appropriately – from God and other people.
      In particular, this verse notes that other people will notice and speak well in public of what she had done. In fact, she will be praised at the city gate, the same place where her husband his held in respect by his peers and sits among the elders (:23).
      But we can be absolutely confident that, regardless of what other people think or do, our good efforts will be honored God, both in Heaven as well as here on earth. Admittedly, we may never become rich, famous, important or powerful, but we can know that our good works will be recognized, rewarded and praised.