Proverbs 31: Context, Wisdom, the Woman who Fears the Lord

The Proverbs 31 Woman is renowned. This Wife of Noble Character is a women’s ministry icon--her image hangs as a measure of success. I searched “Proverbs 31” online and found devotions, t-shirts, mugs, bracelets, totes, key chains and wall art. We have made a celebrity of “the Lady.” Perhaps this is why Proverbs 31:10-31 is often elevated and even isolated from the broader context of the book of Proverbs.

We tend to approach Proverbs 31:10-31 as a recipe to be tried and tested. And as done with most recipe books, we dog-ear and separate favorite pages from the rest. But Proverbs 31:10-31 is not a “formula” for biblical womanhood. The verses are God-breathed Scripture—profitable for our teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). For this reason, we do well to study the passage within its context.

Proverbs 31:10-31 follows thirty chapters within the book of Proverbs: how do these preceding verses help us to understand this excellent wife? And how can a contextual view of the text shape our own desire for godly femininity?   

Proverbs 31: Background

To begin, Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic poem, each of its verses begins a new line of the Hebrew alphabet in successive order—twenty-two letters give us twenty-two verses. The poem’s authorship is contested. Some link the verses to the words of King Lemuel in 31:1-9, thus crediting him for the whole chapter. Proponents here have even suggested his mother as the possible subject of the poem.

This, however, is uncertain—particularly since the identity of Lemuel is itself disputed. Ancient Jewish tradition identifies him as King Solomon while some recent commentaries point to a foreign (either Egyptian or Babylonian) king.[1] The Reformation Study Bible offers this thought: “Some include verses 10-31 in the words of King Lemuel, but they are better taken as a concluding poem for the entire book...This section is primarily a final portrayal of Lady Wisdom in all her beauty.”[2] If so, the Proverbs 31 Woman is best seen in the light of the whole book of Proverbs.

Seeing Proverbs 31 with a Wider Lens

A reading of Proverbs 31:10-31 ought to send us back to preceding sections of the book. For instance, verses 10-12 states: “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.” In the same way, Lady Wisdom is said to be “better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her" (Proverbs 8:11). She does good to those who embrace her, they are kept, guarded, exalted, and honored (Proverbs 4:5-9).

The woman of Proverbs 31 “seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands” (verse 13). She resembles the proverbial ant of Proverbs 6:6-8, disciplined and prudent, her hands are busy in the everyday life of her family. Just notice the number of times the words “hands/arms” are mentioned in the passage. Whether it’s wool, flax, a vineyard, strength, a distaff, a spindle, or the poor and needy, this woman’s hands are full and moving! She encapsulates Proverbs 14:1: “The wisest of women builds her house.” In wisdom, she “looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness” (Proverbs 31:27).

She is sustained with confidence (Proverbs 3:24-26). She doesn’t fear for her household (Proverbs 31:21). “Strength and dignity are her clothing and she laughs at the time to come” (Proverbs 31:25). And this doesn’t surprise us for “whoever listens to [Wisdom] will dwell secure and will be at ease without dread of disaster” (Proverbs 1:33).

The Lady’s mouth is a fountain of life filled with honeyed words (Proverbs 10:11; 16:24). “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26). She sows care with both her tongue and hands and reaps the fruit of her husband’s trust, the blessing of her children, and the respect of her people (Proverbs 31:10-11; 31:28-31). “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1). Blessed is the one who fears the LORD, Wisdom herself will exalt her (Proverbs 4:7-8; 28:14; 31:30-31).

Being a Proverbs 31 Woman

The Proverbs 31 Woman is more impressive when held against the black velvet of the entire book of Proverbs. She shines as the Book’s crowning portrayal of the wise person who fears the Lord (Proverbs 1:7). She captures Wisdom’s faithful instructions in Proverbs 1:8-9:18. She exemplifies Solomon’s words in Proverbs 10:1-22:16, and is seen in the wisdom sayings of Proverbs 22:17-31:9. This everyday working wife and mother is the Book’s culminating picture of godly wisdom.

And we can’t help but admire her. Like her, my hands are often full, but they tend to drop the ball. How can I measure up? Yet Proverbs 31:10-31 is more than flawless domesticity— it’s Spirit-empowered holiness. Biblical womanhood is conformity with Christ irrespective of marital or parental status. The Proverbs 31 Woman does more than spin wool and carries food from afar, she displays the image of God. Her fear of God and gracious self-giving reflects the exalted Servant Savior who emptied and humbled Himself even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:8-9).

We can celebrate the Proverbs 31 Woman because she doesn’t stand apart from the rest of the Scripture. She embodies the principles of Proverbs and she points to Christ, God’s true wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:24). This ought to make us eager to be “Proverbs 31 Women”--married, single, at home, at work, at all times, imperfect yet persevering women (and men) whose lives display the manifold wisdom of God.  

*Thanks for reading! This post is part of my Mothers in the Bible Series; we are looking for glimpses of the gospel in the lives of biblical women--from Eve to Mary, the mother of Christ. Click here to see other writings. And please let me know your thoughts!

[1] The Reformation Study Bible, (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015) 1070.

[2] Ibid, 1070-1.