The Words of King Lemuel
Text: Proverbs 31:1-31
As was mentioned in Proverbs 30:1, the Hebrew word massa is normally translated as “burden” and not "oracle." It is only translated this way here because the writing is not a prophecy of doom and gloom. But there is another way to translate it: as a location. In that case, it would mean that Lemuel was a king in Massa, which was one of the Arab tribes. This would explain why you don’t find Lemuel listed among the kings of Israel or Judah.
Since Lemuel’s name means “belonging to God” in Hebrew, it is likely that Lemuel’s mother was an Israelite and gave her son an Israelite name. The situation would not be unheard of. Esther was a Jew but became queen in Persia during the captivity.
Interestingly, Lemuel says these are the words his mother taught him, which would imply that it was Lemuel’s mother who was a prophetess and Lemuel was only the recorder.
Lemuel’s mother started out emphasizing her relationship with her son. He might be king, but she remained his mother. She was his mother, she physically gave birth to him, and he was the result of her marriage vows (Malachi 2:14). For all these reasons, she had the right to advise him.
Behavior Unfit for Kings
Her first warning is against sex with multiple women because that has led to the downfall of many kings, including Solomon (I Kings 11:1-10). The Hebrew word for strength, chelekha, is a military term for power but can be used figuratively of physical strength (Ecclesiastes 12:3) or fertility (Joel 2:22). It is a waste of time and effort to be having sex with multiple women (Proverbs 5:9), especially for a king who has a kingdom to run. Consider the damage David did to his kingdom by committing adultery with Bathsheba. It nearly cost David his life (II Samuel 12:13). As a side note, the word for “kings” in Proverbs 31:3 is in Aramaic instead of Hebrew – hinting that the writer is from another country.
Alcohol is also not fit for rulers because it interferes with their ability to recall the laws and it distorts their judgment (Proverbs 23:33; Leviticus 10:9-10; Isaiah 28:7-8). Like fornication, alcohol makes the user weaker while deceiving him into thinking he is stronger.
In both the case of fornication and drunkenness, there is a lack of restraint on the physical appetites. This is another bad characteristic in a ruler as choices revolve around what the ruler wants instead of what is right or good for the people (Hosea 4:11).
Instead, alcohol is more fit for those who are dying as it will numb their pain. Or those who are depressed or overwhelmed by life since alcohol causes people to temporarily forget their problems. It isn’t that Lemuel’s mother is recommending that people get drunk, but rather she is emphasizing what alcohol does to the mind and that at least these types of people might have a reason to want those effects. It could be used medicinally for physical or mental anguish. Alcohol is a depressant and can be used to manage pain, though we have better pain medications today. When someone is severely depressed or in anguish, alcohol can take the edge off for a while, though we have better antidepressants today. But like the medications of today, continued use after the need is gone is not good for a person. In contrast, rulers should never desire alcohol.
Behavior Fit for Kings
What a king ought to be doing is being outspoken for the rights of the unfortunate, afflicted, and needy. He should speak for those who have no voice, not necessarily to speak for them but to make sure their words are not ignored. When he judges, his decisions should be righteous. This is not to say that the poor are given an advantage over the rich (Exodus 23:3); rather, there is to be no partiality (Deuteronomy 1:16-17; 16:18-20).
Finding an Excellent Wife
The Book of Proverbs ends with a complex poem. It has 22 verses, each verse begins with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet; thus, creating an acrostic. It also goes through the phases of married life in roughly chronological order: dating (verse 10), youth (verses 11-18), middle-age (verses 19-22), late middle age (verses 23-25), old age (verses 26-29), and her memory (verses 30-31. It is also a chiastic poem that contains smaller chiasms. To combine a chiasm while restricting word choices to match an acrostic and all the while describing a growth through life is an art of the highest degree.
The following attempts to give a more literal reading of Proverbs 31:10-31 so that the word order is better preserved.
|Dating||A||10||A wife of valor, who can find?
For far above jewels is her worth.
|Early Years||B||11||The heart of her husband trusts in her,
And gain he will not lack.
She rewards him with good and not evil
All the days of her life.
|1||13||She searches for wool and flax
And works in delight with her palms.
|2||14||She is like the ships of a merchant ;
From afar she brings her food.
|15||She rises also while it is still night
And gives food to her household
And instructions to her maidens
|4||16||She considers a field and buys it;
From fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
|3||17||She girds herself with strength on her hips
And makes strong her arms
|2||18||She senses that her gain is good;
She does not extinguish at night her lamp.
|Middle Years||1||19||Her hands she put forth on the distaff,
And her palms grasp the spindle.
|D||20||Her palms she extends to the afflicted,
And her hands she stretches out to the needy.
|E||21||She is not afraid of the snow,|
|F||For all her household are clothed with scarlet.|
|G||22||Coverings she makes for herself;
Fine linen and purple are her clothes.
|Later Years||H||23||Known in the gates is her husband,
When he sits with the elders of the land.
|G||24||Undergarments she makes and sells them,
And belts she supplies the merchant.
|F||25||Strength and dignity are her clothing,|
|E||And she laughs at the future.|
|Elderly Years||D||26||Her mouth she opens in wisdom,
And the teaching about kindness is on her tongue.
|C||27||She watches the ways of her household,
And the bread of idleness she does not eat.
|B||28||Her children rise up and declare her blessed;
Her husband, he praises her:
"Many daughters have acted with valor,
But you excel them all."
|Memory||A||30||Deceitful is charm and vain is beauty,
But a wife who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.
Give her the fruit of her hands,
And may they praise her in the gates for her deeds.
In a chiastic poem, the main point is found in the center of the nested ideas. It is Proverbs 31:23, but it is not what you might expect in a poem that praises the accomplishments of a valiant woman. Commentators have called this verse an interrupting thought, but it cannot be. The layout states that this is the focus of everything else that is being discussed.
Recall that “An excellent wife is the crown of her husband” (Proverbs 12:4). The phrase “excellent wife” is the same phrase that begins this poem. Remember also that this was advice that Lemuel’s mother gave him and that the general theme of Proverbs is advice to young men. Thus, the praise of an excellent wife is not just about her accomplishments but also about the impact she has on her husband’s life. This goes all the way back to the consequences God laid out for Eve because of her sin: “Yet your desire will be for your husband” (Genesis 3:16).
The Search for a Valiant Wife
But we need to return to the question asked at the start of this poem: How can you find a valiant wife? Clearly for any man, let alone a king, the outcome of that decision will have a significant impact on his future. But oddly, the poem doesn’t answer the question; instead, it lays out what a valiant woman’s life might be like through the years. I suspect the reason it is not directly answered is that no future is guaranteed. The resulting life is not just the man’s decision but also the woman’s choices.
The Hebrew word, chayil, is a military term carrying the meaning of strength, whether we are talking about military might in the form of an army, economic might in the form of wealth, the strength of character, physical strength or competency in a job. The woman Lemuel is urged to find is a strong woman and the poem proceeds to show a woman who is strong in a variety of ways. In our Bible, Ruth is described as being that type of woman (Ruth 3:11).
The value of such a woman to her husband is extremely valuable. She cannot be purchased or hired. She only can be found but, like jewels, it takes effort to find such a woman.
It starts with how a husband treats his wife. For the strength to develop and grow, there has to be freedom to face challenges. A wise husband puts his trust in the one he loves (I Corinthians 13:7). Too many young men believe they have to exert control in a marriage in order to be the head of the family. They fear a wife who makes her own decisions, but as Lemuel’s mother points out, a man who places his trust in his wife will not suffer loss.
The term “gain” in Proverbs 31:11 refers to plunder or the spoils of war. Because the husband did not earn what his wife produces but still benefits from it, it is referred to as plunder – a far greater gain than the effort to obtain it. She rewards his trust with good and not evil (Proverbs 18:22). She wants the best for her husband.
The third level in the chiasm ( C ) is itself a chiasm in the first half. It describes the planning and effort the wife puts into benefitting her husband. It is longer than level C in the second half because it seems the hard work in our youth takes longer.
She searches out sources of raw material to work with and she works with delight. The marriage is new and the excitement of establishing herself carries through the hardships of working. She searches for the best bargains in the markets, even if that means traveling further to get them. In this, she is compared to a merchant ship, which goes to far ports to find the best deals to sell in other places.
The wife also rises early in the morning, before sunrise, to fix food for the family. Here we see that the family is prospering because she now has servant girls helping her and she sets out their tasks each day. The word translated as “portions” can mean either prescribed potions of food or prescribed duties. Most translators use the first meaning since it parallels giving food to the household, but since the servants are a part of the household, it would be a duplication of meaning. More likely it is referring to giving the servants their duties.
She also uses some of the income available to her to purchase a field after careful consideration. She then uses the money she has been earning from her work to improve the land and plants a vineyard that will supply the family with food and the excess can be sold. What becomes notable is that her husband does not seem to be involved in these transactions. She is improving the family’s position and her husband trusts her decisions. She is not impulsively spending large sums of money. The emphasis is on her weighing out the consequences of her choices and selecting an option that brings long-term benefits to the family. Of course, in any major decision, the wise person gets advice from multiple sources, which should include her husband (Proverbs 11:14; 12:15; 15:22; etc.).
Proverbs 31:16 is the main point of the chiasm regarding her efforts in improving her household. She is using the “fruit of her hands” to better herself and her household. Going into the chiasm, the emphasis is on the various preparations, plans, and efforts she does that eventually leads to her making a significant purchase. As we work out from this point, she evaluates her efforts to this point.
She has shown her willingness to work and she prepares herself to work hard. “Girding” refers to hitching up garments in advance of physical labor. This valiant woman demonstrates one aspect of strength - physical strength.
She also looks at the gains she has made and sees that it too has been good. The word for “gain” refers to transactions with a merchant. Those searches for bargains and selling the excess of what she makes is paying off. It demonstrates her economic strength and is illustrated by her lamp. It could mean that not only is she the first up, but she is also the last to go to sleep. Or, it means that she is doing well enough, that she can afford to leave a lamp burning all night as a night light.
While Proverbs 31:19 closes out the chiasm that started in Proverbs 31:13, it is also closely tied to the next verse with an introversion, which smooths out the transition back into the main chiasm. The introversion is lost in most English translations because of the need to change the word order. The first line of 19 and the last line of 20 uses the Hebrew word for “hands.” The last line of 19 and the first line of 20 uses the Hebrew word for “palms.”
She works to spin the fibers she shopped for and from the profits she is able to give generously to the poor (Proverbs 19:17; 22:9; Psalms 112:9). “He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need” (Ephesians 4:28). It is through hard work, and not laziness, that got her to this point. The lazy usually don’t have enough for themselves, let alone being able to give to others (Proverbs 19:15; 20:13).
She has no fears about the coming winter because she has adequate clothing for all her household. In fact, she has been doing so well, she is able to afford to use scarlet dye for the cloth. Red dye was a luxury. Nor has the wife been neglecting herself, she makes bedspreads for herself and her own clothing is fine linen, also dyed with an expensive color – purple. These incidentals demonstrate that her household is prosperous.
Proverbs 31:23 is the central point of the main chiasm. It becomes the turning point of the poem. Because of her hard work, her husband’s reputation has been enhanced. He is well-known to the elders of the city and often joins them. The elders served as judges for the city to settle smaller matters. As we continue from this point the emphasis shifts to the benefits she gains from her labors, though these continue as well.
She has moved from producing thread and cloth to making and selling linen undergarments and belts. The garments were linen wraps (like housecoats) that went under normal clothing and were more comfortable to wear against the skin. It was an item that generally only the wealthy could afford. The belts or girdles were either belts worn by soldiers (I Samuel 18:4; II Samuel 20:8) or perhaps decorative cloth sashes used to tie robes (Jeremiah 13:1) or loincloths (Ezekiel 23:15). The items were sold to merchants who would then sell them to others. She is now producing high-end items for sale.
Her clothing was mentioned as we entered the chiasm (Proverbs 31:22), but as we exit the chiasm it isn’t her physical clothing that is what we notice about her. She carries herself with strength and dignity. Thus, she now has another aspect of strength – a strength of character and confidence. By this time in her life, she has her household and business well-managed. Her supplies are stocked and she is prepared as well as anyone for the future. This is not a family living from paycheck to paycheck.
The Elderly Years
Her experience and success give her an audience wanting to learn from her, and she is able to pass on her wisdom and teach about generosity (Proverbs 31:20). Another way this could be read is that she teaches in a way that is kind and not harsh.
Despite growing older, she continues to manage her household details, watches over her children and those who work for her, and doesn’t allow herself to be idle.
The years of hard work have paid off. Her children honor her by standing when she enters (Leviticus 19:32) and say that she is blessed. Her husband also honors her and praises her, telling her that there are many valiant women, but she excels them all in his view. This statement answers the original question: How do you find a noble woman? You don’t. She grows into the part through her hard work. Then one day you realize that you received more than you expected (Proverbs 18:22).
How She Is Remembered
The summary of what we’ve learned is given in the last two verses. Eloquent manners can hide the true character of a person. Beauty is only temporary. However, a follower of God, a woman who fears the Lord (Proverbs 1:7), will receive praise. She deserves the results of her labors and those efforts will praise her to the community where she lives (Ruth 3:11).
Notice that “the fruit of her hands” is the same key phrase from Proverbs 31:16, which was the central point of the inner chiasm. Also, “in the gates” is the same key phrase from Proverbs 31:23, which was the central point of the main chiasm. But also notice that these echos the statement at the beginning in Proverbs 31:3, a man should not give his strength to immoral women which will destroy him, but he should give his wife the products of her hands which will establish him (Proverbs 31:23).
What does this mean to a young man looking for a wife? He needs to find someone who puts God first, just as he should have God foremost in his life. He is not looking for someone of great beauty or exquisite charm. You could understand that this might be tempting for a young man, who is a king, to have a “trophy wife” like King Ahasuerus wanted (Esther 1:10-11; 2:12-14). But even laboring young men tend to get distracted by beauty or charm and not look at the true character of the woman in whom they are interested. The best wife is a strong woman whom you can trust with your whole heart, an industrious woman who is able to make good decisions. Such a woman improves over the years and brings her husband joy all the days of his life.
When people live wisely, happiness is the result.
- Why do you think that a book aimed primarily toward young men, ends with a description of an ideal woman?