The virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 is formidable and impressive. Her accomplishments and commitment to her family are often held up as the ideal Christian women should emulate. In college, I read this Scripture passage and felt intimidated. The standard looked even more unreachable when I became a wife and mother. I’ve often wondered—is the Proverbs 31 woman truly who I am supposed to become? If so, how?
Let’s examine Proverbs 31 together. First, we will evaluate the structure of the text within its own historical and cultural context. Then, we will consider how it applies to our lives today.
The final chapter of Proverbs actually contains two poems. The first is about a noble king, while the second is an acrostic poem—based on the Hebrew alphabet—about a noble wife (Waltke, de Silva, Collection VII). In an oral culture during a time when books were handwritten and rare, various tools were used to help people remember a passage, like putting the verses to music (the Psalms) or using successive letters of the alphabet.
The Good King
The first poem (vv. 1–9) begins by sharing the author of the poems and their origin. King Lemuel of Massa, an Arab sage, records both poems (Bailey, 189). Lemuel, which means dedicated to God, first learned them from his mother (v. 1). According to the authors of The IVP Bible Background Commentary, we have no other known record of a mother’s wise sayings in the ancient Near East (570).
The first poem describes the attributes of a good king. He is to show restraint regarding women (a lesson many kings failed to learn, including David and his son Solomon) and intoxicants. Self-control is crucial so he doesn’t become drunk and forget the laws that protect the poor (v. 5). The final verse repeats the necessity of remembering the poor and helpless, giving a voice to the voiceless (v. 9). Those in power have a responsibility to ensure the well-being of those under their care, a theme we’ll see repeated in the second poem.
The Proverbs 31 Woman
The acrostic poem of the courageous wife (vv. 10–31) paints a picture of the woman a good king should marry. This woman is strong and heroic, and Lemuel’s mother taught him that she is “more precious than jewels” (v. 10). Her bride-price would be exceptionally high. Her expertise spans from successfully managing her own business (vv. 18, 24), to buying land and farming it (v. 16), and wisely handling issues in her household (v. 27). These wide-ranging achievements greatly exceed anything allowed to most women in Mesopotamia during this time period (Walton, Matthews, Chavalas, 570).
Her freedom likely stems from two sources. The first is her privileged status in the nobility—she and her husband, who is the king, wear expensive purple or scarlet clothing (vv. 21–22), and she has maidservants (v. 15). Even more importantly, she has a husband who cherishes her (vv. 28–29) and allows her to reach her full potential.
The king’s wife contributes substantially to the economy and well-being of both her family and community. The line associated with the Hebrew letter waw (v. 15) can be translated “and she arises [like a lioness] while it is still night to provide prey for her household” (Waltke, de Silva, Collection VII). This woman, like her husband, “reaches out her hands” to the poor and needy (v. 20), who benefit from her hard work and profits. She ensures that her children and husband are clothed warmly in expensive cloth, protected from the snow (v. 21). “Her children rise up and call her blessed” (v. 28). Because she is not lazy or idle (v. 27), she laughs at the future, knowing she is well-prepared (v. 25). Similar to the beautiful and costly cloth, she is clothed in strength and dignity (v. 25), and she joins her husband to promote justice and righteousness in their land.
A few verses are easily misunderstood when separated from their culture and time. The phrase “Her lamp does not go out at night” (v. 18) does not mean she never sleeps. In a world without electricity, the darkness of night was both impenetrable and dangerous. In a well-ordered household with adequate money, the lamp burned all night, usually tended to once or twice by the wife who added oil as needed to keep the light burning. In verse 22, we see that not only does she care for her household, community, and the poor—she also cares for herself, making luxurious bed coverings for her room and valuable fine linen garments dyed purple (Waltke, De Silva, Collection VII). And when her husband “sits among the elders of the land” at the gate (v. 23), this does not mean he relaxes and enjoys himself while she does all the work. The gate signified the place of a city’s authority and power, while sitting was a symbol of teaching (Waltke, De Silva, Collection VII). This couple is well-respected and wields great influence.
I’ve always loved verse 30, which goes with the Hebrew letter shin: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” This woman is no trophy wife, valued only for her outward appearance. Her beauty and strength flow directly from her fear of God. Psalm 25:14 says, “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him.” Through her friendship with God, she slowly becomes more like Him, growing more lovely as she ages and draws nearer to Him. She moves with confidence through her days, and she is praised even by those with power at the gates (v. 31).
Proverbs 31 Today
Extracting and applying wisdom from ancient literature should be done carefully. This woman, unlike most of us, was a queen with far more resources than the average middle-class woman today. At the same time, her culture was primarily agricultural. If you wanted to eat, you grew food. If you wanted wool for winter clothes, you sheared sheep. She had servants to help with many chores, of course, but application must account for these cultural differences.
A few things stand out to me. First, this woman’s integrity and resourcefulness receive distinct reactions from her husband: he trusts her (v. 11) and lavishes praise on her (vv. 28–29). King Lemuel is not intimidated by a strong, competent wife. He does not insist that the man must be the only contributor toward family finances. He does not rigidly relegate her to cooking, cleaning, and sleeping in his bed. Though he is a literal king, he does not expect her to constantly defer to him or wait for him to make the decisions. Instead, he rightly understands that a strong partner benefits not only him, but also his children and entire community. They rise—or fall—together. He encourages her to pursue her dreams, knowing that she “does him good…all the days of her life” (v. 12). If she flourishes, so will he and their children.
Second, this woman exhibits impressive discipline. She doesn’t take advantage of her privileged status, demanding that everyone else do the work and serve her. She uses her resources—including her time—carefully. She has goals and makes plans to reach them. She also clearly prioritizes the well-being of her family, even in endeavors outside the home. Both her husband and children know that she loves and cares for them.
Third, she and her husband work together for the good of those in their care, including the poor and needy. Caring for the downtrodden and powerless is a vital theme throughout both the Old and New Testaments. In caring for the poor and stooping to help those in need, they foreshadow Jesus. They see the inherent worth of people and ensure that they thrive. In short, they do what we were created to do: love and be loved.
The Proverbs 31 woman joins other strong and praiseworthy women in the Bible—women like the prophetess Huldah, the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Deborah, Esther, and Ruth. All of these women feared God. Despite cultural constraints and sometimes ominous circumstances, they resolutely walked the paths before them, influencing entire nations for generations.
Both man and woman were made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), and though that image was tarnished by the fall, God’s Spirit is remaking us so that we again “bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49). Through Proverbs 31 and other verses about women in the Bible, we are inspired to persevere in the slow, sometimes monotonous process of becoming who we were created to be, trusting in the One who walks with us and directs our paths.
Laura Richie is a wife, homeschooling mom, and registered nurse. A missionary kid for several years, Laura confesses she didn’t truly understand her need to be rescued until later in life. Now she delights in sharing the beauty and grace of her Rescuer through her books, The Advent Storybook, The Easter Storybook, and The Go-and-Tell Storybook. Laura resides in Oklahoma with her husband and four children.
Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008).
Bruce K. Waltke and Ivan D.V. De Silva, Proverbs: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021), eBook, Collection VII.
John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).