Part IX. THIRD APPENDIX TO THE SECOND COLLECTION.
This section contains an ode in praise of the virtuous woman, derived from a different source from that of the words of Agur, and belonging to a different age (see Introduction). It is an acrostic; that is, each verse begins with one of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, arranged in the usual order. We may compare this mashal with the alphabetical psalms, “Psalmi abcedarii,” which are, more or less, of similar structure, but of which one only, the hundred and nineteenth, is so marked in the English versions. Other examples are Psa_9:1-20; Psa_10:1-18; Psa_25:1-22; Psa_34:1-22; Psa_37:1-40; Psa_111:1-10; Psa_112:1-10; Psa_145:1-21; also Lam_1:1-22; Lam_2:1-22; Lam_3:1-66. One object of this artificial construction was to render the matter easier to commit to memory. The spiritual expositors see in this description of the virtuous woman a prophetic representation of the Church of Christ in her truth and purity and influence.
ALEPH. Who can find a virtuous woman? The expression, ishshah chayil, “woman of force,” has occurred in Pro_12:4 (where see note). Mulierem fortem, St. Jerome terms her; γυναῖκα ἀνδρει ́αν is the rendering of the LXX; which places this section as the end of the whole Book of Proverbs. The expression combines the ideas of moral goodness and bodily vigour and activity. It is useless to try to fix the character upon any particular person. The representation is that of an ideal woman—the perfect housewife, the chaste helpmate of her husband, upright, God-fearing, economical, wise. See an anticipation of this character (Pro_18:22; Pro_19:14); and a very different view (Ecc_7:26). It is very remarkable to meet with such a delineation of woman in the East, where the female generally occupies a most degraded position, and is cut off from all sphere of activity and administration. To paint such a portrait needed inspiration of some sort. Such a one is hard to find. Her price is far above rubies; or, pearls (see on Pro_20:15 and Pro_3:15). Septuagint, “Such a one is more valuable than precious stones.” There may be allusion to the custom of giving treasure in exchange for a wife, purchasing her, as it were, from her friends (comp. Hos_3:2). At any rate, few only are privileged to meet with this excellent wife, and her worth cannot be estimated by any material object, however costly. St. Jerome, with a slight difference in the reading, has, Procul, et de ultimis finibus pretium ejus. You may go to the ends of the earth to find her equal in value.
BETH. The heart of her husband cloth safely trust in her. The husband of such a wife goes forth to his daily occupations, having full confidence in her whom he leaves at home, that she will act discreetly, and promote his interests while he is absent (see the contrast in Pro_7:20). So that he shall have no need of spoil; rather, he shall not lack gain (shalal). The wife manages domestic concerns so well that her husband finds his honest gains increase, and sees his confidence profitably rewarded. Septuagint, “Such a woman shall want not fair spoils.” It is obvious to see in this an adumbration of the Church winning souls from the power of the enemy, especially as shalal is used for an enemy’s spoils (Psa_68:12; Isa_53:12; and elsewhere).
GIMEL. She will do him good and not evil (comp. Ec Pro_26:1-3). She is consistent in her conduct towards her husband, always pursuing his best interests. All the days of her life; in good times or bad, in the early spring time of young affection, and in the waning years of declining age. Her love, based on high principles, knows no change or diminution. The old commentator refers to the conduct of St. Monies to her unbelieving and unfaithful husband, narrated by St. Augustine in his ‘Confessions,’ 9.9: “Having been given over to a husband, she served him as her lord; and busied herself to win him to thee, revealing thee to him by her virtues, in which thou madest her beautiful, and reverently amiable, and admirable to her husband.”
DALETH. She seeketh wool, and flax. She pays attention to these things, as materials for clothing and domestic uses. Wool has been used for clothing from the earliest times (see Le 13:47; Job_31:20, etc.), and flax was largely cultivated for the manufacture of linen, the processes of drying, peeling, hackling, and spinning being well understood (see Jos_2:6; Isa_19:9; Jer_13:1, etc.). The prohibition about mixing wool and flax in a garment (Deu_22:11) was probably based on the idea that all mixtures made by the art of man are polluted, and that what is pure and simple, such as it is in its natural state, is alone proper for the use of the people of God. And worketh willingly with her hands; or, she worketh with her hands’ pleasure; i.e. with willing hands. The rendering of the Revised Version margin, after Hitzig, “She worketh at the business of her hands,” is feeble, and does not say much. What is meant is that she not only labours diligently herself, but finds pleasure in doing so, and this, not because she has none to help her, and is forced to do her own work (on the contrary, she is represented as rich, and at the head of a large household), but because she considers that labour is a duty for all, and that idleness is a transgression of a universal law. Septuagint, “Weaving (μηρυομένη) wool and flax; she makes it useful with her hands.”
HE. She is like the merchants’ ships. She is like them in that she extends her operations beyond her own immediate neighbourhood, and bringeth her food from afar, buying in the best markets and on advantageous terms, without regard to distance, and being always on the look out to make honest profit. Septuagint, “She is like a ship trading from a distance, and she herself gathereth her livelihood.” The expressions in the text point to active commercial operations by sea as well as land, such as we know to have been undertaken by Solomon, Jehoshaphat, and others (1Ki_9:26; 1Ki_22:48), and such as the Hebrews must have noticed in the Phoenician cities, Sidon and Tyre.
VAV. She riseth also while it is yet night. Before dawn she is up and stirring, to be ready for her daily occupation. A lamp is always kept burning at night in Eastern houses, and as it is of very small dimensions, the careful housewife has to rise at midnight to replenish the oil, and she often then begins her household work by grinding the corn or preparing something for next day’s meals (comp. Pro_31:18). Early rising before any great undertaking is continually mentioned in Scripture. And giveth meat to her household; deditquae praedam domesticis suis, Vulgate. The word for “meat” is tereph, which means “food torn in pieces” with the teeth (Psa_111:5), and hence food to be eaten. The wife thus early prepares or distributes the food which will be wanted for the day. And a portion to her maidens. Chok, “final portion,” may apply either to work or food. The Vulgate has cibaria, “meat;” Septuagint, ἔργα, “tasks.” The former, which is in accordance with Pro_30:8, would be merely a repetition of the second clause, the meat mentioned there being here called the allotted portion, and would be simply tautological. If we take it in the sense of “appointed labour,” we get a new idea, very congruous with the housewife’s activity (comp. Exo_5:14, where the same word is used in the ease of the enforced labour of the Israelites).
ZAYIN. She considereth a field, and buyeth it. She turns her attention to a certain field, the possession of which is for some cause desirable; and, after due examination and consideration, she buys it. One is reminded of Christ’s parable of the treasure hidden in a field, which the finder sold all that he had to purchase (Mat_13:44). With the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard. Her prudent management and economy give her means to buy vines and plant a vineyard, and thus to increase her produce. Possibly it is meant that she sees the field she has gotten is more fitted for grapes than corn, and she cultivates it accordingly.
KHETH. She girdeth her loins with strength (Pro_31:25). This seems at first sight a strange assertion to make concerning one of the weaker sex; but the phrase is metaphorically expressive of the energy and force with which she prepares herself for her work. Strength and vigour are, as it were, the girdle which she binds round her waist to enable her to conduct her operations with case and freedom. So we have a similar metaphor boldly applied to God (Psa_93:1): “The Lord reigneth, he is apparelled with majesty; the Lord is apparelled, he hath girded himself with strength” (cf. Job_38:3). Strengtheneth her arms. By daily exercise she makes her arms firm and strong, and capable of great and continued exertion.
TETH. She perceiveth that her merchandise is good; Vulgate, Gustavit et vidit quia bona est negotiatio ejus, where the paraphrase, “she tastes and sees,” expresses the meaning of the verb taam here used. Her prudence and economy leave her a large surplus profit, which she contemplates with satisfaction. There is no suspicion of arrogance or conceit, The pleasure that is derived from duty done and successfully conducted business is legitimate and healthy, a providential reward of good works. Septuagint, “She tastes that it is good to work.” This comfort and success spur her on to further and more continued exertion. Her candle (lamp) goeth not out by night. She is not idle even when night falls, and outdoor occupations are cut short; she finds work for the hours of darkness, such as is mentioned in the next verse.
Some take the lamp hers in an allegorical sense, as signifying life, happiness, and prosperity, as Pro_13:9 and Pro_20:20; others, as denoting a bright example of diligence and piety (Mat_5:16). But the simple meaning seems to be the one intended. Wordsworth notes that the passage in Rev_18:1-24, which speaks of the “merchandise” of the false Church, also affirms that “the light of a candle” shall shine in her no more, the two metaphors in our passage applied to the true Church being there applied to Babylon.
YODH. She layeth her hands to the spindle. כִּישׁוֹר. (kishor, a word not occurring elsewhere) is probably not the spindle, but the distaff, i.e. the staff to which is tied the bunch of flax from which the spinning wheel draws the thread. To this she applies her hand; she deftly performs the work of spinning her flax into thread. Her hands hold the distsaff. פֶלֶךְ (pelek) is the spindle, the cylindrical wood (afterwards the wheel) on which the thread winds itself as it is spun. The hands could not be spared to hold the distaff as well as the spindle, so the first clause should run, “She stretches her hand towards the distaff.” In the former clause kishor occasioned some difficulty to the early translators, who did not view the word as connected with the process of spinning. The Septuagint translates, “She stretches out her arms to useful works (ἐπὶ τὰ συμφε ́ροντα);” Vulgate, Manum suam misit ad fortia. So Aquila and Symmachus, ἀνδρει ͂ α. This rather impedes the parallelism of the two clauses. There was nothing derogatory in women of high rank spinning among their maidens, just as in the Middle Ages noble ladies worked at tapestry with their attendants. We remember how Lucretia, the wife of Collatinus, was found sitting in the midst of her handmaids, carding wool and spinning (Livy, 1.57).
CAPH. She is not impelled by selfish greed to improve her means and enlarge her revenues. She is sympathizing and charitable, and loves to extend to others the blessings which have rewarded her efforts. She stretcheth out her hand to the poor. “Hand” is here caph, “the palm,” evidently containing alms. She knows the maxim (Pro_19:17), “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord,” etc.; and she has no fear of poverty. Yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy. “Hand,” is here yod, with its nerves and sinews ready for exertion (see on Pro_10:4); and the idea is that she puts forth her hand to raise and soothe the poor man, not being satisfied with dealing alms to him, but exercising the gentle ministries of a tender love. Septuagint, “She opens her hands to the needy, and reaches forth her wrist (καρπὸν) to the poor.” Like Dorcas, she is full of good works and alms deeds (Act_9:36). It is doubtless implied that the prosperity which she experiences is the reward of this benevolence (Pro_22:9).
LAMED. She is not afraid of the snow for her household. “Show,” says Dr. Geikie (‘Holy Land,’ 2.58), “covers the streets of Jerusalem two winters in three, but it generally comes in small quantities, and soon disappears. Yet there are sometimes very snowy winters. That of 1879, for example, left behind it seventeen inches of snow, even where there was no drift, and the strange spectacle of snow lying unmelted for two or three weeks was seen in the hollows on the hillsides. Thousands of years have wrought no change in this aspect of the winter months, for Bennaiah, one of David’s mighty men, ‘slew a lion in the midst of a pit in the time of snow’ (2Sa_23:20).” She has no fears concerning the comfort and health of her family even in the severest winter. For all her household are clothed with scarlet; with warm garments. The word used is שָׁנִים (shanim), derived from a verb meaning “to shine,” and denoting a crimson or deep scarlet colour. This colour was supposed, and rightly, to absorb and retain heat, as white to repel it; being made of wool, the garments would be warm as well as stately in appearance. St. Jerome has duplicibus (shenaim), “with double garments,” i.e. with one over the other. Warm garments were the more necessary as the only means of heating rooms was the introduction of portable chafing dishes containing bunting charcoal (see Jer_36:22, etc). The Septuagint has taken liberties with the text, “Her husband is not anxious concerning domestic matters when he tarries anywhere [χρονίζη for which Delitzsch suggests χιονίζ], for all her household are well clothed.” Spiritually, the Church fears not the severity of temptation or the chill of unbelief, when her children take refuge in the blood of Christ.
MEM. She maketh herself coverings of tapestry (marbaddim); as Pro_7:16 (where see note). Pillows for beds or cushions are meant, though the translators are not of one mind on the meaning. St. Jerome has, stragulatam vestem; Aquila and Theodotion, περιστρώματα, Symmachus, ἀμφιτ άπους, “shaggy on both sides;” Septuagint, “She makes for her husband double garments (δισσὰς χλάινας).” Her clothing is silk and purple. שֵׁשׁ (shesh) is not “silk,” but “white linen” (βύσσος, byssus) of very fine texture, and costly. Purple garments were brought from the Phoenician cities, and were highly esteemed (see So Pro_3:10; Jer_10:9). The wife dresses herself in a way becoming her station, avoiding the extremes of sordid simplicity and ostentatious luxury. “For my own part,” says St. Francois de Sales, quoted by Lesetre, “I should wish any devout man or woman always to be the best dressed person in the company, but at the same time, the least fine and affected, and adorned, as it is said, with the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit. St. Louis said that every one ought to dress according to his position, so that good and sensible people should not be able to say you are overdressed, nor the younger under dressed” (‘Vie Devot.,’ 3.25). So the Church is clothed in fine linen, clean and white, even the righteousness which Christ bestows (Rev_19:8), and invested in her Lord’s royal robe, who hath made her children kings and priests unto God (Rev_1:6; Rev_5:10).
NUN. Her husband is known in the gates. Such a woman advances her husband’s interests, increases his influence, and, by attending to his domestic concerns, enables him to take his share in public matters, so that his name is in great repute in the popular assemblies at the city gates (Pro_31:31; Pro_8:3). She is indeed “a crown to her husband” (Pro_12:4). When he sitteth among the elders of the land. Homer introduces Nausikaa speaking to her father of her duty to see that he is honourably clad when he goes to the council—
Καὶ δὲ σοὶ αὐτῷ ἔοικε μετὰ πρώτοισιν ἐόντα
Βουλὰς βουλεύειν καθαρὰ χροί εἵματ ἔχοντα.
“For our costly robes,
All sullied now, the cleansing stream require;
And thine especially, when thou appear’st
In council with the princes of the land,
Had need be pure.”
St. Gregory sees here an adumbration of the day of judgment: “For the Redeemer of mankind is the “Husband” of holy Church, who shows himself ‘renowned’ (nobilis, Vulgate) in the gates. Who first came in sight in degradation and in mockings, but shall appear on high at the entering in of his kingdom; and ‘he sitteth among the elders of the land,’ for that he shall decree sentence of condemnation together with the holy preachers of that same Church, as himself declares in the gospel (Mat_19:28)” (‘Moral.,’ 6.9).
Cambridge Bible Perowne
24. fine linen] Rather, linen garments. The word, which is not the same as that rendered fine linen in Pro_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 Isa_3:23.
girdles] These were often richly worked and very valuable. See 1Sa_18:4; 2Sa_18:11.
the merchant] Lit. the Canaanite (as in Job_41:6 [Heb. 40:30]; Isa_23:8), because the Canaanites were the great merchants of the time. See note in this Series on Zec_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.
AYIN. Strength and honour are her clothing (Pro_31:17); ἰσχυ ̀ν καὶ εὐπρέπειαν, Septuagint. She is invested with a moral force and dignity which arm her against care and worry; the power of a righteous purpose and strong will reveals itself in her carriage and demeanour. And thus equipped, she shall rejoice in time to come; or, she laugheth (Job_5:22; Job_39:7) at the future (Isa_30:8). She is not disquieted by any fear of what may happen, knowing in whom she trusts, and having done her duty to the utmost of her ability. The Greek and Latin versions seem to take the expression as referring to the day of death; thus the Vulgate, Ridebit in die novissimo; Septuagint, “She rejoices in the last days (ἐν ἡμέραις ἐσχα ́ταις).” But it is best interpreted as above. The true servant of God is not afraid of any evil tidings, his heart being fixed, trusting in the Lord (Psa_112:7).
PE. She openeth her mouth with wisdom. She is not merely a good housewife, attending diligently to material interests; she guides her family with words of wisdom. When she speaks, it is not gossip, or slander, or idle talk, that she utters, but sentences of prudence and sound sense, such as may minister grace to the hearers. The Septuagint has this verse before Pro_31:25, and the first hemistich Again. after Pro_31:27. So in Lam_2:1-22, Lam_3:1-66, Lam_4:1-22, the pe and ayin vetoes change places. This is also the case in Psa_37:1-40. In the former passage the LXX: renders, “She openeth her mouth heedfully and lawfully (προεχόντως καὶ ἐννόμως);” and in the other, “wisely and in accordance with law (σοφῶς καὶ νομοθέσμως).” In her tongue is the law of kindness (thorath chesed); i.e. her language to those around her is animated and regulated by love. As mistress of a family, she has to teach and direct her dependents, and she performs this duty with gracious kindness and ready sympathy. Septuagint, “She places order on her tongue.”
TSADE. She looketh well to the ways of her house; the actions and habits of the household. She exercises careful surveillance over all that goes on in the family. Eateth not the bread of idleness; but rather bread won by active labour and conscientious diligence. She is of the opinion of the apostle who said “that if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2Th_3:10). Septuagint, “The ways of her house are confined (στεγναὶ διατριβαὶ οἴκων αὐτῆς), and she eats not idle bread.” The first of these clauses may mean that the proceedings of her household, being confined to a narrow circle, are readily supervised. But the meaning is very doubtful; and Schleusner renders, “continuae conversationes in aedibus ejus.” St. Gregory applies our verse to the conscience, thus: “She considers the ways of her house, because she accurately examines all the thoughts of her conscience. She eateth not her bread in idleness, because that which she learned out of Holy Scripture by her understanding, she places before the eyes of the Judge by exhibiting it in her works” (‘Moral.,’ 35.47).
KUPH. Her children arise up, and call her blessed. She is a fruitful mother of children, who, seeing her sedulity and prudence, and experiencing her affectionate care, celebrate and praise her, and own that she has rightly won the blessing of the Lord. Her husband also, and he praiseth her; in the words given in the next verse. Having the approbation of her husband and children, who know her best, and have the best opportunities of judging her conduct, she is contented and happy. Septuagint, “Her mercy (ἐλεημοσυ ́νη) raises up her children, and they grow rich, and her husband praises her.”
RESH. Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all. The versions and some commentators take the encomium in the mean and restricted sense of praise for the acquisition of riches. Thus the Vulgate, Multae filiae congregaverunt divitias; Septuagint, “Many daughters have obtained wealth.” But it adds another rendering, “Many have wrought power (ἐποι ́ησανδύναμιν),” which is nearer the meaning in this place. Chayil (as we have seen, Pro_31:10) means “force,” virtus, “strength of character” shown in various ways (comp. Num_24:18; Psa_60:12). “Daughters,” equivalent to “women,” as Gen_30:13; So Gen_6:9. Roman Catholic commentators have, with much ingenuity, applied the whole description of the virtuous woman, and especially the present verse, to the Virgin Mary. We may regard it as a representation of the truly Christian matron, who loves husband and children, guides the house, is discreet, chaste, good, a teacher of good things (1Ti_5:14; Tit_2:3, etc.).
SHIN. The writer confirms the husband’s praise by assigning to it its just grounds. Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain. Chen, “favour,” may signify either the good will with which one is regarded, or gracefulness, beauty. As being in close parallelism with the next words, it is best taken as referring to loveliness of form. Mere gracefulness, if considered as a token of a wife’s work and usefulness, is misleading; and beauty is transitory and often dangerous. Neither of them is of any real value unless accompanied by religion. As the gnomic poet says—
Μὴ κρῖν ὁρῶν τὸ κάλλος ἀλλὰ τὸν τρόπον.
“Judge not at eight of beauty, but of life.”
But a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised. So we come back to the maxim with which the whole book began, that the foundation of all excellence is the fear of the Lord (Pro_1:7). Such, too, is the conclusion of Ecclesiastes (Ecc_12:13), “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” Septuagint, “False are charms (ἀρεσκειαι), and vain is the beauty of woman; for a prudent woman is blessed, and let her praise the fear of the Lord.”
TAV. Give her of the fruit of her hands. So may she enjoy the various blessings which her zeal, prudence, and economy have obtained. Psa_128:2, “Thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands; happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.” Septuagint, “Give her of the fruit of her lips.” And let her own works praise her in the gates. She needs no farfetched laudation; her life long actions speak for themselves. Where men most congregate, where the heads of the people meet in solemn assembly, there her praise is sung, and a unanimous verdict assigns to her the highest honour. Septuagint, “Let her husband be praised in the gates.” This frequent introduction of the husband is cuprous. St. Gregory thus spiritualizes the passage: “As the entrance of a city is called the gate, so is the day of judgment the gate of the kingdom, since all the elect go in thereby to the glory of their heavenly country ….Of these gates Solomon says, ‘Give her of the fruit of her hands, and her own works shall praise her in the gates.’ For holy Church then receives of ‘the fruit of her hands,’ when the recompensing of her labour raises her up to the possession of heavenly blessings; for her ‘works then praise her in the gates,’ when in the very entrance to his kingdom the words are spoken to his members, ‘I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat,’ etc.” (‘Moral.,’ 6.9).