Proverbs 31

Proverbs 31:1-2
Sayings of King Lemuel
The sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him.
2 Listen, my son! Listen, son of my womb!
Listen, my son, the answer to my prayers!
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King Lemuel is mentioned as the author of Proverbs 31, at least of the first nine verses. It seems that as Lemuel was growing up, his mother gave him sage advice, which he later arranged in poetic form and recorded for later generations.

We don’t know much about King Lemuel, other than what is revealed in Proverbs 31. The name Lemuel means “for God” or “devoted to God.” Based on the one passage attributed to Lemuel, we know that Lemuel was a king, he had a wise mother, and he wrote some poetry.

Many commentators have suggested that Lemuel is actually King Solomon —in which case the mother would be Bathsheba. It could be that Lemuel was a pet name for Solomon, used by his mother in tender address, and that Solomon wrote down her advice in the manner she would have expressed it.

Another theory is that Lemuel is actually  King Hezekiah. A third theory is that Lemuel and his mother are fictional characters created by Solomon as a picture of an ideal king and queen mother.

The counsel from King Lemuel’s mother is good advice for any leader of men. She warns Lemuel not to fall into the trap of immorality; chasing after women will sap a king’s strength (Proverbs 31:3)Then she warns her son against the dangers of alcohol; a drunken king is never a good king. A ruler who craves beer and wine will pervert justice and act lawlessly (verses 4–7).

Finally, King Lemuel’s mother instructs her son about the necessity of true justice: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, / for the rights of all who are destitute. / Speak up and judge fairly; / defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9).

These are all warm and thoughtful words, the kind we would hope for from a mother. It paints a picture of a generous, gentle, nurturing spirit. As I read the words I want them to be Bathsheba’s words and wonder about her story and how everything effected her.

We are not privy to her story but essentially her husband murdered or at least had her original husband killed and what of her desire for David …Did she bring it on or was she a victim in the situation. How did she or indeed did she feel secure with David being part of such a tragic story.

If these words came from Bathsheba it is inspiring to think about the work of reconciliation that God had being doing in her through darkness, heartache and suffering. 

It makes me think of our story and in particular my wife’s journey through all the betrayal and rebuilding trust with the same man that lied to her, stole from her and was repeatedly unfaithful to her. Surely God is the master and architect of such a great reconciliation. His work in human trauma, flaws and error is beyond comprehension. 

Verses 1-2 reveal Lemuel’s birth was the answer to his mother’s prayers (verse 2).

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Proverbs 31:3

3 Do not spend your strength on women,
your vigor on those who ruin kings.
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Verse 3 is poignant to my story. There is an irony in the words coming from Solomon. First David his father had an issue with adultery and his story is well documented. We know that Solomon was the serial womaniser. He appeared to collect wives and concubines at a rate beyond what seems realistic and though many of these liaisons were political moves to bring and maintain stability to the area I am sure that these foreign wives were alluring and that his life was underpinned by lust.

There is a well known preacher’s saying that lust took down the strongest, the wisest man and the man after God’s own heart in the Bible. I don’t need to remind myself that it never delivers what it promises to deliver and though the initial intoxication may give moments of pleasure, they are indeed momentary and fleeting.They create a mental obsession for more which becomes a relentless pursuit. I found myself contemplating sleeping with women for the sake of it. My behaviour was frequently cruel and manipulative. Often I was addicted to the attention more than the act. One woman wrote to me once she realised my game “enjoy your harem”.

Solomon’s harem did not make him happy (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). The women led him astray (1 Kings 11:1-13). I know the story. I lived it.
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Proverbs 31:4-7

4 It is not for kings, Lemuel—
it is not for kings to drink wine,
not for rulers to crave beer,
5 lest they drink and forget what has been decreed,
and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.
6 Let beer be for those who are perishing,
wine for those who are in anguish!
7 Let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.

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Alcohol is not for kings, it’s not for leaders or people with responsibility. 

Intoxication impairs judgment. It’s not really for anyone! Although we have these curious verses about those who are perishing. The Jews say that this is grounded in the practice of giving an intoxicating drink to condemned prisoners as was offered to Jesus on the Cross.

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Proverbs 31:8-9

8 Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
9 Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
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We all should feel some sense of responsibility for the poor and needy, for those without a voice and the vulnerable.

 A KIng or a leader should feel a great sense of responsibility. King Lemuel was also a judge, his mother asserted that he should advocate for the poor and needy and judge fairly.
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The wife of noble character

The Book of Proverbs ends with this much revered poem. It is often used as a model to teach women about “how they should be or at least what they should aspire to be” but actually it appears to be a poem wriiten to a man to say this is what you want to look for in a wife.
In Solomon’s day the most important public officials were men. (1 Kings 4:1-19), The soldiers and workmen were men (1 Kings 9:22-23).

But women were important in their families. Women were important in their towns and villages. And women were important in the palaces (1 Kings 10:1-13; 1 Kings 9:16; 11:19). Solomon even describes wisdom as a woman (Proverbs 8).

So someone wrote this poem to describe the perfect wife. Solomon had many wives. And his wives caused trouble for him (1 Kings 11). I am not convinced that Solomon wrote it although maybe he was reflecting on the challenges that having multiple wives had brought on him and hankering for this ideal.

But I think it fits better as a tangible expression of the book’s celebrated virtue of wisdom. The author is essentially showing us what wisdom looks like in action. The astute reader will immediately make a connection between the Proverbs 31 Woman and “Woman Wisdom,” found in earlier chapters of Proverbs.

Packed with hyperbolic, militaristic imagery, the subject of a twenty-two-line poem is meant to be a tangible expression of the book’s celebrated virtue of wisdom. The author is essentially showing us what wisdom looks like in action.

The fact that it is an acrostic poem communicates a sense of totality as the poet praises the everyday achievements of an upper-class Jewish wife, a woman who keeps her household functioning day and night by buying, trading, investing, planting, sewing, spindling, managing servants, extending charity, providing food for the family, and preparing for each season.  Like any good poem, the purpose of this one is to draw attention to the often-overlooked glory of the everyday ordinary life.

This is something Jesus himself further explored in the context of parables. The parables however were ordinary everyday situations that challenged the worldview of his hearers.

God is involved with ordinary everyday situations as much as mountaintop moments.

As a poem, Proverbs 31 should not be interpreted prescriptively as a job description for all women. Its purpose is to celebrate wisdom-in-action, not primarily to instruct women.

In fact it appears to be written for men with the only instructional element aimed at men “Praise her for all her hands have done”.

Sadly many well meaning religious teachings no longer present it as a poetic song through which a man offers a woman praise, Proverbs 31 is presented as a task list through which a woman earns the right to be “good enough”.  

This, somewhat misses the point.
The Hebrew is eshet chayil, which translates as “woman of valour”;  valour isn’t about what you do, but how you do it. It’s about being courageous, wholehearted and having integrity in whatever it is that you do.
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Proverbs 31:10-11

10 A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
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There is a scarcity in the search for a woman of valour. There is a scarcity of valour and wisdom …full stop. it really is a great treasure to meet anyone with the kind of heart and attitude in this poem. The call is for us men to appreciate our wives, sisters, daughters …They are indeed more precious than rubies.
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Proverbs 31:12-15

12 She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her female servants.

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A remarkable connection between the book of Proverbs and the world of work occurs at the end of the book. Lady Wisdom, who we meet at the beginning of the book (Proverbs 1:20-33, 8:1-9:12), reappears in street clothes in the final 22 verses of the book as a living, breathing woman, termed “the virtuous woman” (KJV). Some translators use “wife” instead of “woman,” probably because the woman’s husband and children are mentioned in the passage. (Both “wife” and “woman” are possible translations of the Hebrew ishshah.) Indeed, she finds fulfillment in her family and ensures that “her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land” (Proverbs 31:23). But the text focuses on the woman’s work as an entrepreneur with a cottage industry and its servants/workers to manage (Proverbs 31:15)
Proverbs 31 does not merely apply to the workplace; it takes place in a workplace.

The book of Proverbs is summarized, then, in a poem praising a woman who is the wise manager of diverse enterprises ranging from weaving to wine making to trade in the market. Translators variously use the words “virtuous” (KJV), “capable” (NRSV), “excellent” (NASB), or “of noble character” (NIV) to describe this woman’s character in Proverbs 31:10.

But these terms fail to capture the element of strength or might present in the underlying Hebrew word (chayil). When applied to a man, this same term is translated “strength,” as in Proverbs 31:3 In a great majority of its 246 appearances in the Old Testament, it applies to fighting men (e.g., David’s “mighty warriors,” 1 Chronicles 7:2).
Translators tend to downplay the element of strength when the word is applied to a woman, as with Ruth, whom English translations describe as “noble” (NIV, TNIV), “virtuous” (NRSV, KJV) or “excellent” (NASB). But the word is the same, whether applied to men or women. 

In describing the woman of Proverbs 31 its meaning is best understood as strong or valiant, as further indicated by Proverbs 31:17, “She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong.”
To some people in the ancient near east, and even to some now, portraying a woman as a model of wise entrepreneurship would be surprising, even challenging and counter cultural like Jesus’ parables.

Despite the fact that God gave the gift of work to men and women equally (Genesis 1 & 2), women’s work has often been denigrated and treated with less dignity than men’s work.

As always in the book of Proverbs, the way of wisdom flows out of the fear of the Lord. We celebrate this remarkable woman’s virtues but in the final breath of the book, the source of her wisdom is revealed. “A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:31).

Verse 12 informs us that she is a blessing to her husband. Verse 13 shows us that she is industrious. Women, even of the highest ranks, among the Greeks, Romans, and Israelites, worked with their hands at every kind of occupation necessary for the support of the family. 

This kind of employment was not exclusive to the woman in the text. However, it is her propensity to work hard that is celebrated.

Verse 14 celebrates her entrepreneurship and finally in verse 15 we read about her time management. She is an economist of time; No microwave meals but preparing food for her family and to those who are going to the fields gives the food necessary for the day:  And to the women who are to be employed within she gives חק chok, the task – the kind of work they are to do, the materials out of which they are to form it, and the quantity she expects from each. All the servants are organised: their food, work, and tasks appointed. Every thing is done and prepared.
It’s perhaps not so much the tasks that we are called to think about but the principle that lady wisdom does not waste time. She uses her time well.
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Proverbs 31:16-20

16 She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff
and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.

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This woman is wise. She prepares for the future. Her fruit bushes will not provide fruit this year. And perhaps the bushes will not provide fruit for a few years. (Compare Leviticus 19:23-25. God told the people not to eat fruit from a new tree for 4 years. Young fruit trees are weak if you allow the fruit to develop too soon.)

But afterwards, the family will enjoy the fruit for many years.
She herself works with her hands. She has servants (verse 15), but she is not lazy. She works with them.
This woman starts to work before dawn (verse 15). And she continues to work late at night (verse 18). She buys and sells.

But this woman does not work so that her family will be wealthy. She cares about everyone. She earns money so that she can help the poor. She is kind and generous.

Lady wisdom is an entrepreneur with a heart to care for others. She is hard working fair and kind.
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Proverbs 31:21-24

21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed;
she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate,
where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes

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Lady wisdom continues to demonstrate her caring, nurturing nature and that her heart reveals her constant attention on caring for others. In this case her children are taken care of, her husband are taken care of, she takes care of the merchants providing them with their needs and she takes care of herself.
Wisdom does that. It ensures that needs are met. It is sensitive to others.

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Proverbs 31:25-29

25 She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.”
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You get a sense from lady wisdom that she lives with a deep peace in her heart. There is no anxiety because she is in sync with the universal wisdom. She lives in harmony with the laws of wisdom.
She receives verbal affirmation and praise from her husband.

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Proverbs 31:30-31

30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
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Verse 30 gives us the why. Her special qualities are not beauty or charm or any of the things that might immediately attract a man to a woman. Clearly this woman loves God and her wisdom is gained from her connection and alignment to God and his ways. 

This is the practice of wisdom. This is Proverbs 1:7 in action. This is lady wisdom in street clothes. This is what it looks like. This woman of course is not a real person but is an ideal and someone to inspire us and be a kind of benchmark but we do have wisdom in street clothes, a real example. God manifested as flesh, Jesus is our model of wisdom.

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