Proverbs 31:10-32

   Print this page

Proverbs 31: 10 - 32

Background to the Book of Proverbs

This book is part of what is referred to as the Wisdom literature. This includes besides the book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon and Job. The emphasis in wisdom literature is, 'the lessons and insights of experience on the basis of human conduct '(Murphy 1981).

Certainly, the emphasis is on human endeavour and how one ought to live life. In order to sustain right behaviour the book of Proverbs is the guide that will secure a life of well-being, decency, and dignity (Fox: 3). The universal nature of wisdom contrasts with the Israelite election traditions (God chose them for his own) encompassing exodus, giving of the Law, entry into land, all of which are the basis for prophetic and legal traditions (Perdue: vii). Relationship to God takes a minor place in the wisdom literature. However, God is portrayed as the genesis of Wisdom, which people can possess when taught. Wisdom properly begins from the stance of awe (Hebrew uses 'fear') in God, which after instruction by the sages provides the means of 'a life of success - materially, physically, socially, and morally' (Fox: 6).

The sayings for this instruction are drawn from a number of social and religious situations: the folklore of ordinary people, court circles, schools, cult and government are places in which it was generated. The question of whether there was a school of sages or wise men is a mute point, but certainly the wise are mentioned as if they are a significant group in Israel. The sayings and instruction was significant enough to be gathered into collections as time went on.

Israel was not alone in having this particular genre. Proverbs 22:17 - 24:22 and the Egyptian 'The Instruction of Amenemope' are very similar. Scholars have considered whether one source is dependent on the other without arriving at a consensus (it was accepted for many years that Proverbs was dependent on the Egyptian Instruction). Wisdom is part of the culture of many countries in the ancient near east (Egypt, Phoenicia, Syria, Mesopotamia).

The book of Proverbs consists of sayings that have been gathered into collections under various headings (8 named by Perdue: ix-xi). When this occurred is difficult to ascertain, however it is clear that Proverbs had a long prehistory of oral tradition before their collection into blocks of material and then finally into the canon. This occurred in 3rd century BCE when the third part of the Hebrew Scriptures was gathered under the heading of the Writings. After the final revolt against the Romans and the fall of Jerusalem the Council of Jamnia (70 CE) met to deal with this crisis and closed the canon.

Context of Proverbs 31: 10 - 32 What's happening in the Literature around Proverbs 31: 10 - 31)

These verses are the final ones in the book of Proverbs and titled 'The Ideal Woman' or 'Ode to a Capable Wife'. There are many other titles given to these verses and it is worthwhile just going through some bible translations to see the different headings. Sometimes it is described as a separate collection: 'The Eighth Collection' or one of a number of Appendices (Martin: 72 - 81).

Collections Six and Seven carry the description, The Words of Agur (Proverbs 30) and, The Words of King Lemuel of Massa, which his mother taught him (Proverbs 31:1 - 9). The former are the words of Agur admitting that he has failed to learn, does not seem to know God as creator and then seeks the wisdom (food) to redress his failings. Some scholars suggest there has been quite a bit of redactional activity in this chapter, but since we aren't dealing with it in detail I will summarise the message as one of the texts prior to the lectionary Reading Proverbs 31. The remainder of Proverbs 30 details the wickedness of different groups of people, things that disturb the social order and arrogance is named as one of the major sins challenged in these verses.

Proverbs 31:1 - 9 are the words of a mother to the king which gives advice about appropriate behaviour: excess or strong drink is not advisable because this will prevent the application of true justice. A king needs to be able to speak for and defend the rights of the poor and destitute. While there is no mention of God the principles of justice and righteousness are part of the requirements of a king and named frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures.

There is no apparent pattern to these last few chapters and the context has no direct bearing of the message of Proverbs 31:10 - 31

Insights/Message of Proverbs 31: 10 - 32 (Message/theology in Proverbs 31:10 - 31)

Two main messages are suggested for these verses. One group of scholars see it as the ideal picture for a young woman who is contemplating marriage. Another group suggest it continues the picture of ideal Wisdom, which is the reason for its placement at the end of the book. The picture of Wisdom Woman doesn't seem to fit with the teacher who makes outspoken demands for appropriate behaviour in the early chapters of the book (Proverbs 1, 8, 9).

The picture of the woman which is painted in this poem is a person who can manage a household competently in all areas: spinning, weaving, physical work, ensures supplies are in store, she is able to deal with finances and indeed can see a good investment when it arises. She is loved by her husband and an asset to his business dealings. Neither her husband or children are deprived of her care among this busy life, and they praise her. She cares for the needy and is in right relationship with God. This picture sounds like the ideal woman any man would dream of for a wife. Unlike the beauty of the woman described in the Song of Solomon this is not an attribute, which is required here. Indeed, beauty is named as vain.

In the light of the worldview about women and the roles, which have been part of their life for centuries, this picture is unsurprising in most of its aspects. However, the suggestion that the woman can buy a field and arrange for a vineyard to be planted is an unexpected attribute named in this list. Many households were largely self-sufficient units and the description of the woman and her role fits into this picture. The mention of linen garments and the use of the colour purple indicates a household of some wealth because these things were luxuries not available to the average household.

While these verses name activities which are particular to the role of woman (other than v.16) in that time, it is not so very far from pictures of woman painted by the media and indeed, taken on by women themselves in our age. The wife who is caring and considerate, a lover and competent manager of the household for her husband while at the same time managing a job, an infant or two and she always stays calm. This is slowly changing, but is not easy to work out new roles and behaviour in the present situation. Some women want to manage a household and family without the desire or need to work. Others want to work and not have children. Consequently, I don't think pictures of the ideal wife; husband, lover etc. are in the best interests of anyone.

Indeed, it we are going to set up pictures of the ideal then I suggest we paint a picture of the ideal Christian, which all of us can hold up as the model to measure ourselves against.

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Mark 9:30-37, the ideas in verse 31 appear in earlier Marcan material (8:31, 9:12) and refer to both the servant song in Isa 52:13-53:12 and Daniel 7:25. Whether Mark is wanting to suggest that Jesus being 'handed over' to the authorities // the fourth beast as in Daniel 7:25 is a matter of some debate. However, he clearly is placing the authorities as siding with Rome and against Jesus. James 3:13-4:3,7-8a; these verses have no obvious allusions or quotes from the Old Testament.

Resources/Worship for Proverbs 31: 10 - 32 (Worship and the Old Testament message; are there new ways to present the reading?)

It would be helpful to give some background to the Book

You may want to ask people to think about the picture painted in the verses as you read it and have some dialogue about them after you have finished reading.

What are their reactions?

Are there similarities today?

What is the ideal picture, which people have in mind for a partner?


Martin, James D. Proverbs. OTG. Sheffield Academic Press: Sheffield, 1995.
Murphy, Roland E. Proverbs. WBC. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 1998
Perdue, Leo G. Proverbs. John Knox Press: Louisville, 1989.
Van Leeuwen, Raymond C. The Book of Proverbs. Vol V, NIB. Abingdon Press:
Nashville, 1997

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: