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1The words of Lemuel, king of Massa,* the instruction his mother taught him:
2What are you doing, my son!*
what are you doing, son of my womb;
what are you doing, son of my vows!
3Do not give your vigor to women,
or your strength* to those who ruin kings.
4It is not for kings, Lemuel,
not for kings to drink wine;
strong drink is not for princes,
5Lest in drinking they forget what has been decreed,
and violate the rights of any who are in need.
6Give strong drink to anyone who is perishing,
and wine to the embittered;
7When they drink, they will forget their misery,
and think no more of their troubles.
8Open your mouth in behalf of the mute,
and for the rights of the destitute;
9Open your mouth, judge justly,
defend the needy and the poor!
Far beyond jewels is her value.
11Her husband trusts her judgment;
he does not lack income.
12She brings him profit, not loss,*
all the days of her life.
13She seeks out wool and flax
and weaves with skillful hands.
14Like a merchant fleet,*
she secures her provisions from afar.
15She rises while it is still night,
and distributes food to her household,
a portion to her maidservants.
16She picks out a field and acquires it;
from her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17She girds herself with strength;
she exerts her arms with vigor.*
18She enjoys the profit from her dealings;
her lamp is never extinguished at night.*
19She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her fingers ply the spindle.*
20She reaches out her hands to the poor,
and extends her arms to the needy.
21She is not concerned for her household when it snows—
all her charges are doubly clothed.
22She makes her own coverlets;
fine linen and purple are her clothing.
23Her husband is prominent at the city gates
as he sits with the elders of the land.*
24She makes garments and sells them,
and stocks the merchants with belts.
25She is clothed with strength and dignity,
and laughs at the days to come.*
26She opens her mouth in wisdom;
kindly instruction is on her tongue.
27She watches over* the affairs of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband, too, praises her:
29“Many are the women of proven worth,
but you have excelled them all.”
30Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting;
the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.*
31Acclaim her for the work of her hands,
and let her deeds praise her at the city gates.
* [31:1–9] Though mothers are sources of wisdom in Proverbs (1:8; 6:20), the mother of Lemuel is special in being queen mother, which was an important position in the palace. Queen mothers played an important role in ancient palace life because of their longevity, knowledge of palace politics, and loyalty to their sons; they were in a good position to offer him sound counsel. The language of the poem contains Aramaisms, a sign of its non-Israelite origin.
The first section, vv. 3–5, warns against abuse of sex and alcohol (wine, strong drink) lest the king forget the poor. The second section, vv. 6–9, urges the use of alcohol (strong drink, wine) so that the downtrodden poor can forget their poverty. The real subject of the poem is justice for the poor.
* [31:2] My son: in the Septuagint, “my son, my firstborn.”
* [31:3] The Hebrew word here translated “strength” normally means “ways,” but the context and a cognate language support “authority” or “strength” here.
* [31:10–31] An acrostic poem of twenty-two lines; each line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. As with many other acrostic poems in the Bible, the unity of the poem is largely extrinsic, coming not from the narrative logic but from the familiar sequence of letters. The topic is the ideal woman described through her activity as a wife. Some have suggested that the traditional hymn extolling the great deeds of a warrior has been transposed to extol a heroic wife; the focus is on her exploits. She runs a household distinguished by abundant food and clothing for all within, by its trade (import of raw materials and export of finished products), and by the renown of its head, her husband, in the community. At v. 28, the voice is no longer that of the narrator but of her children and husband as they praise her. The purpose of the poem has been interpreted variously: an encomium to offset the sometimes negative portrayal of women in the book, or, more symbolically (and more likely), a portrait of a household ruled by Woman Wisdom and a disciple of Woman Wisdom, i.e., he now has a worthy wife and children, a great household, renown in the community.
* [31:12] Profit, not loss: a commercial metaphor.
* [31:14] Like a merchant fleet: she has her eye on the far horizon, like the ship of a merchant ready to bring supplies into her larder. It is the only simile (“like”) in the poem.
* [31:19] The wife weaves linen cloth from flax and wool from fleece, which she cultivated according to v. 13. Distaff: staff for holding the flax, tow, or wool, which in spinning was drawn out and twisted into yarn or thread by the spindle or round stick.
* [31:25] Laughs at the days to come: anticipates the future with joy, free of anxiety.
* [31:27] Watches over: Hebrew ṣopiyyâ, perhaps a pun on the Greek sophia (= wisdom). Bread of idleness: she does not eat from the table of others but from her own labors.
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