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This chapter is considered another supplement to the book, or, perhaps, as embracing two supplements, the first one ending with Proverbs 31:9, and the second comprehending the remainder of the chapter. This portion was probably added by “the men of Hezekiah.” See Proverbs 25:1. The common opinion of the Jewish and of the earlier Christian expositors was, that Lemuel is a title of Solomon, and that this chapter contains the instructions given to him by his mother, Bathsheba. This opinion, however, is not accepted by many of the modern critics, for reasons which they assign. (See Dr. Clarke.) It comports not with our plan to enter into the question fully, but it may be proper to observe that the reasons assigned for rejecting the ancient opinion are not entirely conclusive. Nevertheless, there is no serious objection to the theory that Lemuel was a prince of some neighbouring country, and that his wise mother, probably an Israelitish lady, was capable of giving him the excellent admonitions and instructions found in this place. Houbigant, and a number of others, take משׂא , ( massa,) (rendered prophecy, see chap. Proverbs 30:1,) as a proper noun, and translate, “Lemuel, king of Massa.” Professor Stuart strongly supports this translation by arguments drawn from the grammatical construction of the words, and thinks that Agur of the preceding chapter and Lemuel were brothers, sons of the queen of Massa. See on Proverbs 30:1.
1. Words of King Lemuel This must be understood in a loose sense, not as if he was the author of them, but rather the subject, or the person to whom they were addressed; unless, indeed, we suppose, as is possible, that what we have here are indeed the words composed by Lemuel himself, in which he reduces to poetic form the wholesome instructions and precepts in which he was educated by his excellent mother. Thus they would be the “words of Lemuel,” but comprehending the teachings of his mother. The Syriac takes the first letter of the name as the lamedh auctoris, like לדוד , ( ledhavidh,) a psalm of David, and thus gives the name simply as Muel.
This might be admissible in the first verse, but not in the fourth, where we have the name in the vocative, and where the lamedh could not be so resolved. Miller translates the word, “Seed of God.” With him Muel is Christ, and his mother is Mary!
2. What, my son? This is the language of strong emotion and affection brief, elliptical, and leaving something for the imagination to supply. These repeated interrogations denote great earnestness in demanding attention. Zockler renders: “O, my son! O, thou son of my womb!” etc. “She claims heedful attention to what must readily suggest itself, his relations and duties as a son and a sovereign.” Conant. In this verse we meet with the unusual word בר , ( bar,) son, instead of the usual בן , ben. It occurs three times here, and only once elsewhere, in the Hebrew portion of the Bible, (Psalms 2:12,) though it is usual in the Chaldee parts of the book, and is the ordinary Chaldee word for son. Hence some have been disposed to regard this chapter as of Chaldee origin, or, at least, as belonging to the later Hebrew, in which Chaldaisms are found. To this purpose is adduced the form מלכין , ( melakhin,) in Proverbs 31:3, instead of מלכים , ( melakhim,) kings. But this conclusion does not necessarily follow, for poetry often avoids common terms, and employs for its peculiar purposes those which are either new, antiquated, or unusual. Besides, bar, in this sense, is not necessarily Chaldee, but may be legitimately derived from bara, (see Gesenius,) or from barar, as a term of affection or endearment my beloved my precious one.
Son of my womb A son given in answer to vows made before his birth, (see 1 Samuel 1:11,) or concerning whom she had offered many prayers and vows subsequently, that he might be preserved, rightly guided, and rightly influenced. The words express vehement maternal tenderness, and solicitude for the welfare and well-doing of a beloved child, and are probably to be understood as the habitual mood and manner of the queen mother.
3. Give not thy strength The first clause warns Lemuel against the excessive indulgence of the appetites, (Proverbs 31:3-4.) Youths of every class are in great danger from this cause; but particularly youthful princes, who have greater opportunities of indulgence than others. The same is true of all in the more elevated positions of affluence. They can more readily command the means of gratifying their unlawful desires. This has always been remarkably the case with the more wealthy and powerful in Asiatic countries, where polygamy and concubinage exist as ancient and accepted institutions, sanctioned by immemorial usage. Indeed, a large harem, or seraglio, is rather regarded as a part of the necessary state of a chief or ruler, and indispensable to the respectability of the throne. This thoughtful mother had seen the evils flowing from this fruitful source, and warned her beloved son against them. This was the rock on which Solomon himself was wrecked. “Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? yet among many nations was there no king like him, who was (or had been) beloved of his God, and God made (had made) him king over all Israel: nevertheless even him did outlandish (foreign, strange) women cause to sin.” Nehemiah 13:26.
4. Nor for princes strong drink Or, the desire of strong drink. שׁכר , ( shekhar,) rendered strong drink, usually means any kind of fermented drink other than wine, and sometimes means wine, or is so rendered, as in Numbers 28:7. There is nothing in the etymology of the word requiring our qualifying term strong. Nor is the qualifier used as distinguishing it from wine, or as compared with wine; but as distinguishing it from other drinks, as water, milk, etc., which possess no inebriating properties. It is the sikera of the Greeks, (see Luke 1:15.) Besides wine, which is properly the juice of the grape, the Hebrews and other ancients manufactured drinks possessing exhilarating and intoxicating qualities from other fruits also, as the date and apple; from grain, as barley; from honey, etc. Shekhar, or sikera, seems to have been a generic term applied to any and all of these drinks. It is generally distinguished from wine, and the poets often use shekhar in one member and יין , ( yayin,) wine, in the other member of a verse or distich. It is probable that fermented wine was the strongest drink known to the Hebrews, except such as were mixed with drugs to increase their intoxicating properties. These mixed wines, or other mixed beverages, are also sometimes called shekhar. Isaiah 5:22. Compare Proverbs xxiii, 29, et seq., and notes.
5. Lest they Rather, he.
Drink,… forget… law מחקק , ( mehhukkak,) that which is prescribed, the statute applicable to the particular case. The reasons here given for rulers, judges, princes, etc., abstaining from intoxicating drinks, are very similar to those given to the priests in Leviticus 10:10-11. No drunkard should be intrusted with authority or rule, either in civil, military, or ecclesiastical affairs. Property, character, life, and the immortal interests of the soul, are too precious to be committed to the decisions of a man whose intellect is at all beclouded by the fumes of alcohol. For a biblical example of kingly drunkenness, See 1 Kings 16:9.
These verses should not, perhaps, be construed as containing a positive prohibition of wine and other strong drinks, even to Lemuel, any more than the caution in the third verse against giving his strength to women is to he considered as a prohibition of marriage. The object of the language was probably to guard him against excess in the gratification of his appetites. But, on the other hand, whatever may have been the implied limitations of the self-denial commended, it remains true, as a matter of fact, that the great danger lies in too much rather than in too little indulgence; and that, so far as the use of intoxicating drinks is concerned, the general rule is, that he who uses them least, or not at all, is the safest. For, as shown elsewhere, (Proverbs 23:29, et seq.,) the habit of using these beverages is insidious, and ever tending to greater and greater strength and greater danger of excess. Moreover, the sacred word is not without commendations of total abstinence, as in the case of the Rechabites, (Jeremiah 35:6-7; 1 Chronicles 2:55,) and the superior excellence of total abstinence is implied in the case of the Nazarites and others. When we come to the new dispensation, though the drinking of wine and strong drink is not prohibited in form, but, on the contrary, has the seeming sanction of our Saviour and his apostles, as pertaining to a Christian man’s liberty, yet, when from any cause that liberty becomes an occasion of stumbling to others, it is most imperatively obligatory upon us to abstain totally from the exercise of it. The principle is broadly laid down by the apostle, (Romans 14:20-21,) “All things [all kinds of food] indeed are pure; [in themselves they are not ceremonially unclean to the Christian;] but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.” While, therefore, a Christian may not always feel himself under obligations to abstain from wine for his own sake, either because it is directly prohibited or is injurious to him, he may, nevertheless, feel himself obliged to practise self-denial for the benefit of others and the general good. Most Christian men in this country feel that this is no time to give the sanction of their example to a custom so terribly fruitful of evil as is the use of intoxicating beverages.
6, 7. Give strong drink That is, rather give it in suitable quantities to those who really need it, to support their fainting spirits under the influence of any trouble or calamity. The use prescribed here is a medicinal one.
Him… ready to perish Or the perishing one faint of body or of mind, or both. Such a one may need a stimulant.
Heavy hearts Bitter of soul or life; those who are bowed down under the weight of grievous troubles. From this passage is said to have arisen the custom of administering stupifying potions wine mingled with myrrh or gall to criminals when going to execution, for the purpose of rendering them less sensitive to pain. Such was offered to our Lord, (Matthew 27:34; Mark 15:23,) “but he received it not.” In accordance with this passage, it was a custom among the Jews to carry provisions to those who were mourning for the dead, especially alter the funeral. Jewish mournings were excessive and long continued. They sat on the ground, and sometimes refused to eat. They spoke not unless spoken to. Their friends, in due time, visited them to comfort them, and supply their wants with bread and wine. The bread was called the bread of bitterness, and the wine, the cup of consolation. Compare 2 Samuel 3:35; Psalms 104:15; Jeremiah 16:4; Jeremiah 16:7; Hosea 9:4; Ezekiel 24:16-17; John 11:19.
8. For the dumb Not merely those deprived of speech, but also those who are unable from any cause to plead their own cause; defend the defenceless.
Such as are appointed to destruction Sons of those passed away; that is, for every orphan. Be the patron of all the bereaved and helpless. “Favour the cause or right of all orphan children.” Zockler and Conant.
9. Plead the cause Vindicate the right of the poor and the needy. The language and ideas are very similar to some portions of Psalms 72:0. Compare Proverbs 31:2; Proverbs 31:4, Proverbs 31:12-14 of that psalm. It is possible that the author was familiar with that beautiful production.
10. Who can find a virtuous woman This translation is unhappy.
First, the word “virtuous,” whatever may have been its original sense, now lost, according to its common modern use, as applied to woman, does not convey the idea of the original: for אשׁת חיל , ( esheth hhayil,) does not mean a chaste woman. Chaste the woman is who here sits for her picture; but this is a matter of course, and is quietly assumed, not only here, but throughout the whole piece. There is a beauty in this fact. It would have been a poor compliment to a noble-minded. God-fearing Hebrew lady, as it is to a Christian, to say that she was a chaste woman. She is in this respect not only above reproach and above suspicion, but her character forbids the matter to be raised as a subject of thought. It is not mentioned or alluded to. We have scarcely any English word that conveys the exact and full force of the original hhayil. The versions generally render it by strength, or some equivalent that is, a strong wife. The Septuagint has ανδρειαν manly, brave, courageous; the Vulgate, followed by the Douay, valiant, which is not a bad rendering. Stuart translates, “a woman of energy,”
which comes as near the idea as any other one word. The original involves the notion of strength, force, energy, ability, capability, bravery, valour, (with such modification as female character would imply,) every element fitting her for her station, and those in a high degree. It embraces the physical, intellectual, and moral: a woman capable of doing, being, and enduring all that pertains to a wife, and that in an heroic manner: not the wife of a person in lowly station, but in the higher walks of society the wife of a magistrate or prince.
Secondly, the translation is rather too literal to convey what we conceive to be the meaning and force of the original sentence. The interrogative form in our language implies a negation: “Who can find?” equivalent to, no one can find. This would be horrible, if we were to take virtuous, here, in our modern sense, as applied to a woman. The writer evidently intended no such disparagement of woman in general; not even if we tone down the implied answer into, such a one can scarcely be found. The true link will appear by a very slight change, abundantly warranted by the Hebrew idiom Who will find (me) a suitable wife? which again is equal to, “O that I might find,” etc. It is the expression of an ardent desire to find a wife of superior excellences, rather than a reflection on the sex and a note of despair. The Hebrew scholar need scarcely be reminded of the frequent use of the particle מי , ( mi,) as expressing a wish or desire. (See Gesenius under the word.) The following is a free translation according to the sense:
O that I might find a brave wife!
For her value is far beyond that of pearls!
This makes a proper introduction to the particulars that follow. The common version does not.
11. No need of spoil Rather, he shall not lack income, domestic prosperity. “Spoil” is here used in a tropical sense, though one of its definitions suits well here: “That which is gained by strength or effort.” Webster.
The heart of her husband confides in her:
He shall never lack domestic prosperity.
The meaning is, that such is her skill and care in the management of her domestic affairs, that her husband has full confidence that he shall suffer no loss; but, on the contrary, be largely benefited by her vigorous and well-directed exertions. “The Oriental husband, in many instances, is by no means confident that his wife can be trusted, and that she will always consult his interest, and not his injury. Hence, he commonly keeps a watch over her, and places all articles under lock and key. He trusts more in hired guards and iron locks than in his wife.” Muenscher. This is one of the natural results of polygamy and concubinage.
12, 13. She will do him good This is a continuation of the thought in the latter part of the preceding verse. So far the terms are general. The speaker now descends to particulars.
Seeketh wool… flax Either from flock or field.
Worketh willingly with her hands Literally, with the delight of her hands. “Every kind of drapery for the person, the tent, or the house, was manufactured by the women at home, who made it a matter of pride to be able to boast that their husband and children were entirely clad by the labour of their own hands.” Kitto. Women of the highest rank, the wives and daughters of nobles and kings, in ancient times devoted themselves to spinning, weaving, and other processes in the manufacture of clothing for their own use, and that of their families, as also for sale in the markets. There are frequent allusions to this in the Scriptures, and in the Greek and Roman classics. While the pursuits of husbandry the labours of the field employed:
“The king and awful fathers of mankind,”
the women of their households managed the domestic affairs, preparing both the food and the clothing of their families. Where so much had to be accomplished in the home circle, we see the reason of the value attached to capability and energy in the wife, that she might attend wisely and well to the complicated arts of her establishment.
14. She bringeth her food from afar What she needs for sustenance, for convenience, for ornament, which she does not produce herself, she procures by exchange of commodities. She exports and imports. She carries on a profitable commerce.
15. A portion The allotted portion, or the assigned tasks. It is the same word as in Proverbs 30:8, which see.
While it is yet night That is, before daylight. The Orientals generally rise very early in the morning. The excessive heat of the day frequently renders labour, especially out of doors, insupportable. Hence, a great deal of business is transacted, even in royal courts, at a very early hour. The women usually rise earlier than the men, often long before day, engaging busily in the preparation of their meals, and in the various manufactures for the household and for sale.
16. She considereth a field Sets her mind upon it, estimates its worth, and plans the means of purchasing it. Literally, she takes it.
With the fruit of her hands The product of her labour.
She planteth a vineyard Or, as some read, the fruit of her hands is the planting of a vineyard. These various items mark the industry, economy, and thrift of the energetic and capable woman. They are strongly “in contrast with the degradation to which woman has fallen under the later polygamy of the East.” Speaker’s Com.
17. She girdeth her loins with strength The Orientals wear loose flowing robes, which need to be girded close to the body, or tucked up, when they engage in any active employment. The figure denotes her activity and energy. “She walks about.” says Patrick, “with great expedition, tucking up her garments that she may be fit for motion anywhere, and not minding clothes more than her business, nor neglecting it for fear of spoiling them; but prefers strength in her arms, acquired by labour, before the ornaments wherewith they are wont to be adorned.”
18. She perceiveth Literally, tastes, proves.
Her merchandise is good Valuable, profitable, and highly appreciated, and this makes her all the more industrious; so that sometimes, at least, she works at it all night in order to supply the great demand for her goods.
Her candle Lamp.
Goeth not out by night Some suppose that this may be intended to mark a wise precaution against robbers or banditti, which, from time immemorial, have infested those Eastern countries. It is more probable, however, that it is intended as another mark of her extraordinary energy in accomplishing some important contract or task in the given time. When necessary she drives her work by night as well as by day.
19. The spindle… the distaff It is not entirely certain to which parts of the Eastern spinning apparatus these terms were applied. Stuart renders the first word by distaff, and the second by spindle. “In the East the spindle is held in the hand, often perpendicularly, and is twirled in one, while the other draws out the thread.” Gesenius. The distaff is the staff for holding the bunch of flax or wool from which the thread is drawn when spinning. “I saw a woman sitting at the door of her hut on Zion spinning woollen yarn with a spindle, while another near her was twirling nimbly the ancient distaff.” Land and Book, vol. ii, p. 572.
20. Stretcheth out… to the poor She spreads out or opens her palm. While exceedingly thrifty and industrious, she is not “close-fisted;” but generously opens her hand to every case of distress and need: an example of good economy and liberality two virtues but rarely blended, unhappily, in the same person, either man or woman.
21. Scarlet שׁנים , ( shanim,) a deep red, or bright crimson. This word has troubled the critics. Some suppose it means double garments, or garments of double texture, or changes of clothing; clothed double for the winter. This gives a good sense, though it is not generally accepted by the more modern critics. It may have been “some well known articles of dress conspicuous at once for their colour and their warmth.” Speaker’s Commentary.
22. Coverings of tapestry Coverlets woven of wool and silk, often enriched with gold and silver, representing various figures. Latin critics render the passage simply, “She maketh for herself coverlets.” But some kind of ornamental work seems to be intended.
Silk שׁשׁ , ( shesh,) rather, fine white linen or cotton cloth, probably the byssus of Egypt. The word is applied to both linen and cotton fabrics. Silk was probably not known to the Hebrews in the age of Solomon.
Purple ארגמן , ( argaman.) The root of the word is uncertain. Gesenius derives it from the Sanscrit. The Septuagint renders it porphura, and the Vulgate purpura. It is applied both to the purple fish and the purple colour. Here it means purple cloth. Purple and fine linen seem to have been used by the ancients conventionally for rich and elegant clothing. Comp. Luke 16:19. The editor of Calmet contends that argaman signifies “variegated,” or of different talents. He translates thus: Her upper garments (gown, robe) she makes of fine cambric, etc., wrought in pattern; and of brocade or tissue, her lower garment, (petticoat.) This good housewife does not despise the esthetic in her person and household. She discovers the utility of beauty as well as the beauty of utility.
23. Known in the gates He is recognised and honoured in the courts, or public assemblies.
When he sitteth among the elders The senators or magistrates, who sit by the gates to decide cases and to transact public business. He is eminent among the public men. It is intimated that something of this is due to his wife’s thrift and good management. She conducts the domestic affairs so well and so profitably as to allow him time and means to devote to the public service. His genteel deportment and becoming attire indicate the wife of good taste and rare accomplishments. Blessed is the man that has a wife capable of correcting his foibles, smoothing down his rough points, and teaching him becoming deportment. Many a man is more indebted to his wife than he is aware of for his advancement in the world.
24. Fine linen סדין , ( sadhin,) fine undergarments; those worn next the body shirts. In the East these are frequently made of very fine and elegant texture transparent gauze and worn by persons of rank, especially ladies.
Girdles Esteemed a necessity among the Orientals, where the flowing outer robe is worn. (See on Proverbs 31:17.) They are also made very ornamental, of costly materials and workmanship. Curiously wrought or embroidered girdles are an essential part of Eastern finery, both of men and women. The kings of Persia sometimes gave cities and provinces to their wives for the expense of their girdles. This was probably like our institution of “pin-money.” The girdle was used as a purse. Our Saviour (Mark 10:9) forbids the apostles to carry money with them in their purses or girdles. So Horace says, ( Epis., lib. Proverbs 2:1,) “He who has lost his girdle (that is, his purse) is ready for any thing.”
The merchant Literally, the Canaanite. The Canaanites, or Phoenicians, were the great merchants of antiquity, and hence the name was applied to merchants in general, like כשׂדים , ( kasdim,) Chaldeans, for astrologers. Some, however, are of opinion that the name Canaan strictly means a merchant or trader, and that the Canaanites were so denominated from their prominent occupation. Compare Isaiah 23:8; Ezekiel 17:6.
25. Strength and honour Or, beau ty; (the abstract for the concrete;) her clothing is strong and beautiful, both that which she wears and that which she sells; and, therefore, she has no depressing solicitude for the future.
Shall rejoice in time to come Rather, rejoices, or is cheerful for the future; literally, she laughs at the after day. Fearing God and working righteousness, pursuing a lucrative business and blessed of Providence, she is cheerful in view of the future.
26. With wisdom She has not neglected the cultivation of her mind, consequently she is no idle talker, no mere prattler; spends not her breath in trifling gossip; but converses with intelligence and discretion. Moreover, she is habitually kind in her deportment and discourse.
The law of kindness Or pity, is on her tongue. Dr. Clarke, who was not an admirer of “strong-minded women,” thinks this the most remarkable characteristic of this remarkable woman. Hear him: “There are very few of those called managing women who are not lords over their husbands, tyrants over their servants, and insolent among their neighbours. But this woman, with all her eminence and excellence, was of a meek and quiet spirit.”
27. Looketh well to… her household Watches over, controls, directs, cares for, all the affairs and persons of her family.
Eateth not the bread of idleness She is neither idle herself nor suffers any of her family children or servants to be idle, well knowing that idleness is the parent of vice. She assigns employment to each, and sees that each is diligent in it.
28. Her children… call her blessed As a consequence of the above ordering and control of her family, her children grow up in virtuous habits, regularity of life, and respectfulness of demeanour. They rise up to do her honour, and pronounce blessings on such a mother.
Her husband… praiseth She also commands the respect and homage of her husband, as well she may. Even good husbands are not always as careful to recognise the services and virtues of their wives as they ought to be. A good wife looks for and deserves expressions of approbation and encouragement.
29. Many daughters That is, according to a well-known Hebrew idiom many women. This is generally regarded as the eulogium of the husband.
Have done virtuously Have done bravely, or worthily. It is the same word, hhayil, which we met in Proverbs 31:10. There the supposed writer wished for a wife of energy and capability: here he acknowledges that he has found one that displays these qualities in the highest degree.
Excellest them all Literally, hast ascended above them all ascended, that is, in the scale of the virtues and excellences of true, noble womanhood. עשׂו חיל , ( ‘ hasu hhayil,) rendered “hast done virtuously,” is sometimes translated, acquired wealth, gotten riches, but it is like our expression, “Has done well, or bravely,” which may be, and often is, applied to the acquisition of wealth, but not necessarily confined to this sense. Doubtless, this was included in the woman’s well-doing. But this was only a part.
30. Favour חן , ( hhen,) grace; that is, gracefulness of person comeliness.
Is deceitful Illusive.
And beauty is vain “Elegance of shape, symmetry of features, dignity of mien, are all הבל , ( hebhel,) ephemeral, a vanity, a breath. Sickness impairs them, suffering deranges them, and death destroys them.” Clarke.
A woman that feareth the Lord And, therefore, has in her own heart the principle whence all true womanhood springs.
She shall be praised “She is to be praised.” Gesenius. She should be celebrated for her many virtues. תתהלל , ( tithhallel,) may be rendered, She shall glorify herself; that is, in a good sense, indirectly, by her excellent character and pious behaviour. She shall secure for herself immortal honour. It is to be observed here, that the book concludes, as it begins, with a significant emphasis on the fear of the Lord, which is now not merely the beginning of wisdom, but “the condition of all womanly as well as manly excellence.” Speaker’s Commentary.
31. The fruits of her hands The product and results of her labours.
And let her own works Of industry, of thrift, of economy, of kindness, of piety, of wise and careful household management, (the word means all these.)
Praise her in the gates Let them be held up for imitation in the public assemblies, and for the incitement of others to like virtues. Here is a specimen of the “strong-minded” woman of the ancient Hebrew race. Let those of her sex who feel within them the stirrings of energy and the aspirations for distinction, take this “looking-glass for ladies,” as the old commentators call it, and dress themselves by it, and they will crown themselves with true womanly dignity and enduring fame.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Proverbs 31". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26