Proverbs 31
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The words of king Lemuel, the prophecy that his mother taught him.
1. The words of king Lemuel, the prophecy &c. Like Agur (Proverbs 30:1) Lemuel is some unknown king, whose oracle or prophecy is here preserved for us among the “words of the Wise.”

The rendering of R.V. marg. King of Massa, is arrived at by neglecting the accents, and taking the word massa, oracle, as a proper name.

Professor Sayce (The Higher Criticism and the Monuments, pp. 478–80), who adopts this rendering, calls attention to the fact that Massa is “mentioned in Genesis 25:14 among the sons of Ishmael, and is there associated with the Nabathæans, the Kedarites, and the people of Dumah andTeman”; and that “in Genesis 10:23 Mash is along with Uz one of the four sons of Aram.” The country of Massa “corresponded roughly,” he says, “with the Arabia Petræa of the geographers,” and the Nabathæan and other inscriptions found on the rocks and tombs of Northern Arabia show that the early language of the country was Aramaic, as it continued to be not only in O.T. but in N.T. times “till the sword and the language of Islâm” changed it to “Arabic” as we now call it.

“That the proverbs of a king of Massa should be included in the literature of the O.T. is of interest from several points of view. On the one hand it makes it clear that the books with which the library of Jerusalem was stored were not confined to the works of Jewish or Israelitish authors. On the other hand it indicates that the language spoken in Massa was not very dissimilar from that spoken in Palestine.”

VII. The Words of King Lemuel. Chap. Proverbs 31:1-9We have here another short Appendix. King Lemuel records, as his oracle, or wise teaching, the counsel given him by his mother (Proverbs 31:1). With terms of ardent affection (Proverbs 31:2) she bids him beware of lust (Proverbs 31:3), and excess of wine (Proverbs 31:4-7), and urges him to befriend the helpless (Proverbs 31:8), and to judge righteously (Proverbs 31:9).

What, my son? and what, the son of my womb? and what, the son of my vows?
2. What] This word thrice repeated finds its sufficient explanation in the yearning earnestness of a mother’s heart. The LXX. expand it, “What, my son, shalt thou keep? What? the sayings of God.” Similarly Maurer and Rosenmuller, “What shall I say unto thee? With what precepts shall I be able sufficiently to instruct and inform thee, so that thou mayest be truly wise and mayest rule well thy kingdom?”

Song of Solomon of my vows] “For whom I have made so many vows, if I might bring thee safely into the world, and rightly educate thee.” Maur. Comp. 1 Samuel 1:11.

The word here used for son is not the usual Heb. word, ben (as in Benjamin), but the Aramaic word bar (as in Bar-jona, Bar-Jesus); and this Aramaism is in keeping with other dialectic peculiarities of this Section of this Book.

Give not thy strength unto women, nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings.
3. that which] Or, with a slight change in the Heb., “them that”; thus preserving more exactly the parallelism with the first clause of the verse. Comp. Deuteronomy 17:17; 1 Kings 11:1-8.

It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink:
4. It is not for] or, Far be it from.

for princes strong drink] Rather, for princes to say, Where is strong drink? This is the corrected Heb. reading for that noticed in R.V., marg., “Another reading is, to desire strong drink.”

Lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted.
5. of any of the afflicted] “Heb. of all the sons of affliction,” A.V. and R.V. marg.

Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.
6. of heavy hearts] Better, with R.V. text and A.V. marg., bitter in soul. Comp. 1 Samuel 1:10, where the same Heb. expression is used.

Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.
Open thy mouth for the dumb in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction.
8. for the dumb] for all who cannot plead their own cause.

such as are appointed to destruction] Lit. the sons of passing away. We may understand this either of those who are in danger of ruin by being condemned to loss of life or goods; or of those who are left desolate (R.V. text), and have no one to plead their cause. Comp. “the fatherless children and widows, and all that are desolate and oppressed.”

Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.
9. plead the cause of] Rather, minister judgement to, R.V. Lit judge.

Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.
10. Who can find] It is no easy thing to do.

a virtuous woman] The R.V. follows the order of the Heb.: A virtuous woman who can find?, giving emphasis by the arrangement of the words to the subject of the whole Section.

virtuous] Lit. a woman of might, or power, or capacity; γυναῖκα ἀνδρείαν, LXX; mulierem fortem, Vulg. The conditions of woman’s life and her social position in those times and countries must be borne in mind. Comp. Proverbs 18:22; Proverbs 19:14. The rendering virtuous is retained in R.V., and no better English representative of the Heb. word could probably be found. But virtuous must here be understood, not in the restricted sense which, in this connection, it has come to have in our language (though in that sense the phrase appears to be used in Proverbs 12:4, and perhaps in Ruth 3:11), but in the wider sense of “all virtuous living” (Collect for All Saints’ Day), or of “all virtues” (Collect for Quinquagesima Sunday). The idea of capacity (comp. men of capacity, Genesis 47:6, where the Heb. word is the same) is involved in the description which follows. Our English word honest (=honourable, as in Romans 12:17) has in like manner come to have a restricted meaning, as it is now commonly used.

rubies] See Proverbs 3:15 note.

VIII. The Virtuous Woman. Chap. Proverbs 31:10-31This short Appendix differs from the other Sections of the Book of Proverbs in having one subject throughout, and in being in form acrostic or alphabetical. Each verse begins with a letter, taken in order, of the Hebrew alphabet. There is nothing in the contents of the Section to throw light upon either its age or authorship. The alphabetical arrangement cannot safely be regarded as a proof of a late date of composition. A similar arrangement occurs in several Psalms and in the opening chapters of the Book of Lamentations; and some at least of these must be assigned to a comparatively early date. It is more probable that the arrangement in question, belonging as it does for the most part to didactic poems, was a device adopted to assist the memory. (See The Book of Psalms, Vol. i. Introd. p. xlviii. in this Series; and Bp Perowne on Psalm 25:1.)

The LXX reverse the order of two letters of the Hebrew alphabet here. The same two letters are transposed in the Hebrew in three (chaps, 2, 3, 4) out of the four alphabetical poems in the Book of Lamentations. See Comm. on that Book in this Series. Introd. pp. 354, 5.

The picture here drawn of woman in her proper sphere of home, as a wife and a mother and the mistress of a household, stands out in bright relief against the dark sketches of woman degraded by impurity, or marred by imperfections, which are to be found in earlier chapters of this Book (Proverbs 2:16-20; Proverbs 5:1-23; Proverbs 7; Proverbs 22:14; Proverbs 23:27-28, and Proverbs 11:22; Proverbs 19:13; Proverbs 21:19). Corruptio optimi pessima. We have here woman occupying and adorning her rightful place, elevated by anticipation to the high estate to which the Gospel of Christ has restored her. It is an expansion of the earlier proverb: “Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22).

The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
11. doth safely trust in her] Or, trusteth in her, R.V. “The very first item in the catalogue of good qualities is the rarest of all: ‘the heart of her husband doth safely trust in her.’ The husband in nine cases out of every ten does not feel very confident that ‘she will do him good and not evil,’ and he sets a jealous watch over her, and places every valuable article under lock and key. His heart trusts more in hired guards and iron locks than in his wife.” Thomson, Land and Book.

so that he shall have no need of spoil] Rather: and, as a consequence, shewing that his trust is not misplaced, he shall have no lack of gain, R.V. “Heb.; spoil,” R.V. margin. Comp. “we shall fill our houses with spoil” (same Heb. word) Proverbs 1:13. The gain which accrues to him from her thrift and industry shall be as rich as spoil.

She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
13. seeketh] Some would render, applies herself to, busies herself about. The LXX. have draws out; μηρυομένη.

She is like the merchants' ships; she bringeth her food from afar.
14. She is like the merchant’s ships] The principles of profitable exchange which regulate foreign trade are exemplified in the narrower sphere of her wise domestic economy. The reference to merchant-ships is interesting as pointing to an age when trade with foreign countries was common.

She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
15. a portion] So R.V. margin. But R.V. text, their task, the pensum, or amount of wool weighed out to each maiden for her day’s task. Comp.

“Noctem addens operi, famulasque ad lumina longo

Exercet penso.”

Virg. Æn. VIII. 411, 412.

Dean Plumptre (Speak. Comm.) compares the picture of Lucretia, Liv. i. 57: “nocte sera, deditam lanæ, inter lucubrantes ancillas in medio ædium sedentem invenerunt”

She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.
She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.
18. perceiveth] Lit. tasteth, A.V. margin (ἐγεύσατο, LXX.; gustavit, Vulg.), finds by experience.

good] i.e. profitable, R.V. Comp. “better than the merchandise of silver,” Proverbs 3:14.

her candle] Rather, lamp. To be understood literally, see Proverbs 31:15, not figuratively as in Proverbs 13:9; Proverbs 20:20.

She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
19. spindle … distaff] Rather, distaff … spindle, with R.V. Of the two Heb. words here used the first occurs nowhere else, but it is derived from a root which means to be straight, and therefore may properly denote the distaff, or straight rod. Of the second word, the root-meaning is to be round. It is used of the circuit or circle round, the environs of, Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3:12; Neh. 14:15).

“Till comparatively recent times the sole spinning implements were the spindle and distaff. The spindle, which is the fundamental apparatus in all spinning, was nothing more nor less than a round stick or rod of wood, about 12 inches in length, tapering towards each extremity, and having at its upper end a notch or slit, into which the yarn might be caught or fixed. In general, a ring or whorl of stone or clay was passed round the upper part of the spindle to give it momentum and steadiness when in rotation. The distaff or rod was a rather longer and stronger bar or stick, around one end of which, in a loose coil or ball, the fibrous material to be spun was wound. The other extremity of the distaff was carried under the left arm, or fixed in the girdle at the left side, so as to have the coil of flax in a convenient position for drawing out to yarn.” Encyclop. Britann. Art. Linen, vol. xiv. p. 664. 9th edition.

An illustration of the use of these implements is found in Catullus, Epithal. de nupt. Pel. et Thet. 312 sqq.:

“Læva colum molli lana retinebat amictum:

Dextera turn leviter deducens fila supinis

Formabat digitis; turn prono in pollice torquens

Libratum tereti versabat turbine fusum.”

She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
20. stretcheth out] Rather, spreadeth out.

her hand] Lit. her palm. The whole expression, spreadeth out her palm (holding out the gift for acceptance) denotes the open-handed liberality with which she disperses abroad and gives to the poor (Psalm 112:9; 2 Corinthians 9:9).

“The hand which is thus held out to the poor is precisely the hand which has been laid on the distaff and the spindle; not the lazy hand or the useless hand, but the hand which is supple with toil, dexterous with acquired skill.” Horton.

She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.
21. scarlet] It has been proposed to change the Heb. vowel-points and render, double garments, or garments of double texture and warmth, δισσὰς χλαίνας, LXX; duplicibus, Vulg. There is no reason, however, to alter the word. There is a touch of poetry in the contrast between the white snow, the emblem of cold, and the scarlet garment, which is the very picture of warmth in its glowing colour. That its texture does not belie its appearance goes without saying.

She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.
22. coverings] i.e. carpets or cushions, to be spread out on the bed or divan. Comp. Proverbs 7:16.

silk] Rather, fine linen, as the word is rendered both of Egyptian robes of honour (Genesis 41:42) and of the Jewish High-priest’s garments (Exodus 28:39), as well as of the coverings of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:1; Exodus 27:9; Exodus 27:18).

Though it is not improbable that silk may have been among the articles of commerce introduced by Solomon, there is no certainty as to when it was first known to the Hebrews. See Smith’s Dict. of Bible, Art. silk. The rendering of the LXX. here (ἐκ δὲ βύσσου καὶ πορφύρας ἑαυτῇ ἐνδύματα) is interesting when compared with the “purple and fine linen” (ἐνεδιδύσκετο πορφύραν καὶ βύσσον) of the rich man in the parable (Luke 16:19). His fault was not that he dressed richly and fared sumptuously, but that he did not “spread forth his hand to the poor, and reach forth his hands to the needy” (Proverbs 31:20, above).

Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.
23. is known] both by the fitting attire and by the freedom from anxiety and distraction, which her care and industry secure to him. Dean Plumptre in Speaker’s Comm. quotes the words of Nausicaa to her father in Hom. Odyss. vi. 60:

“’Tis meet for thee to sit among the princes,

And hold thy council, with thy body clad

In raiment fair and clean.”

She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.
24. fine linen] Rather, linen garments. The word, which is not the same as that rendered fine linen in Proverbs 31:22, denotes not the material but a made-up garment, σινδόνας LXX.; sindonem, Vulg. It is rendered sheets, A.V., but linen garments, R.V., in Jdg 14:12-13, where it is described in the note in this Series as “a wide flowing under-garment of linen, worn next the body.” See Isaiah 3:23.

girdles] These were often richly worked and very valuable. See 1 Samuel 18:4; 2 Samuel 18:11.

the merchant] Lit. the Canaanite (as in Job 41:6 [Heb. 40:30]; Isaiah 23:8), because the Canaanites were the great merchants of the time. See note in this Series on Zechariah 14:21.

This verse adds as it were the finishing stroke to the picture. While all home duties in every relation, to her husband, her children, her servants, and to the poor around her, are fully and faithfully discharged, she is yet able to increase her store by the sale of what the industry of herself and her maidens has produced. At the same time it throws an interesting light upon the state of society, in which the mistress of a large household and the wife of one who took his place “among the elders of the land’ did not think it unworthy of her to engage in honest trade.

Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
25. she shall rejoice in] Rather: she laugheth at, i.e. so far from regarding it with apprehension, she can look forward to it with joyful confidence. Comp. “He laugheth at the rushing of the javelin,” in the description of Leviathan, Job 41:29.

She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.
26. the law] “Or, teaching,” R.V. marg. The wise instruction and counsel she gives is so combined with kindness, as to win rather than compel obedience. Comp. “the gracious words which proceeded out of His lips.” Luke 4:22.

She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.
27. looketh well to] a happy rendering. Lit. keepeth watch upon, as in Proverbs 15:3. As Almighty God, from His lofty watch-tower in heaven, observes all the minutest details of the manifold work that is going on in the busy hive of earth, so does she from her exalted position in which He has placed her, as mistress of the family, and as responsible to Him, observe “the ways of her household.” Comp. “He that ruleth (let him do it) with diligence,” Romans 12:8.

Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.
Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.
29. done virtuously] This rendering, which recalls the same word in Proverbs 31:10 (“a woman of virtue,” “have done virtue”), is much to be preferred to the rendering of LXX. and Vulg. and A.V. marg., gotten riches.

excellest them all] Regarded as the commendation of her husband and children, this is true to nature, and it accords better with their partial, or at any rate limited view, than with the wider range of the author himself. “With him every virtuous woman would merit such meed of praise.

29–31. This concluding paragraph may be regarded either as the comment of the author himself upon the picture he has just drawn, or as being the actual words of the “praise” bestowed by her husband and her children upon the “virtuous woman.” The latter view is taken by R.V., which introduces the paragraph by the word saying, at the end of the preceding verse.

Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised.
30. that feareth the Lord] Thus does Wisdom, true ever to herself, return in her last utterance to her first (Proverbs 1:7), and place once again the crown on the head of the godly.

Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.
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