Certain passages in the Bible remind me of comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s line: they “just don’t get no respect.” One of those texts is Proverbs 31:10-31. Many men slide over this text because they’re sure it’s written only for women. Many women slide over it because they’re sure it says something they don’t want to hear. While most Christians know something about the passage, many choose to ignore it. But all of us—both men and women—need this important passage for three reasons. First and most basically, we need it because, under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit, it is included in the Bible. The apostle Paul reminded Timothy that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable to us for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness. And that includes Proverbs 31.
Second, this passage lays out a summary of the wisdom of the people of God. The book of Proverbs opens talking about the fear of the Lord as the beginning of knowledge (1:7), and it closes with praise for the person who fears the Lord (31:30). Chapter 1 introduces us to Lady Wisdom crying out in the streets of the city, calling young men to rethink their lives and their choices, and telling them to choose the fear of the Lord. Chapter 31 puts Lady Wisdom in street clothes, showing us what someone looks like who has wisely chosen to fear the Lord.
The third reason we need this important passage is the structure of the last twenty-two verses of the chapter itself. Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic poem. Each verse of that section starts with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph, beth, gimel, daleth, he, waw, etc.). What’s the point of that? In the ancient world, acrostics were used as memory devices. If you knew the letters of the alphabet, you could recall a series of ideas simply by recalling the next letter of the alphabet. We use this today, but it was even more important in the ancient world, in oral cultures in which the wisdom of a people was passed down from one generation to the next from mouth to ear. Children learned orally what they needed to know. An acrostic poem was one way to help them remember. Proverbs 31:10-31 was written as an acrostic poem so that it could be memorized easily. It was meant to be learned by heart. Why? Because it summarizes the wisdom of God’s people that is found throughout the book of Proverbs. It is for all of us to help us know how to live life wisely.
The poem opens in verse 10 with a question and a statement: “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.” That is how the New International Version of the Bible translates the Hebrew text. If you’re reading in a New American Standard Bible, you’ll find, “Who can find an excellent wife?” But if you’re reading in the New King James Version, it asks, “Who can find a virtuous wife?” When we see different translations of a Hebrew word that don’t seem to mean exactly the same thing, we have to go back and ask how that Hebrew word was used in other parts of the Old Testament. This highly desirable woman, whose worth is far above rubies, is a chayil woman in Hebrew. In a sense, none of our translations—noble character, excellent, or virtuous—captures the feel of this Hebrew word. Chapter 31 has already used that Hebrew word in verses 2-3: “O my son, O son of my womb, O son of my vows, do not spend your strength (chayil) on women, your vigor on those who ruin kings.”
When we look at the usage of this Hebrew word throughout the Old Testament, we see that verse 3 more accurately translates it as strength. It’s a common word in the Bible, used 246 times. Three times it is used of a woman (ruth 3:11, proverbs 12:4, and here in proverbs 31:10), but most often it describes soldiers or armies. The basic meaning of the word is strength or power, and in the majority of cases it refers to military prowess. David’s mighty men are chayil men.
The word is often translated as valiant, referring to a quality of valor needed in combat. A soldier stands firm in battle, refusing to desert his post or run away from duty. So a person who is chayil (like David’s mighty men) has an inner strength to carry through on responsibilities and to overcome obstacles. Proverbs 31:10 is about this kind of person—strong, valiant, a person with inner strength who can overcome obstacles.
Some translations of verse 10 ask, “Who can find a virtuous wife?” The word translated wife is the same as for woman. Some translators have probably chosen the word wife because the next two verses talk about her husband. But this doesn’t let single people off the hook! This strong, valiant person has wisdom or a skill for living, and in Proverbs 31 we see it personified in a wise woman. As we look at her, we see what wisdom looks like in daily life. The qualities of this woman are qualities that summarize the wisdom of the people of God. They are qualities for singles as well as married, for men as well as for women.