These are the proverbs of Solomon, one of the most renowned kings in the history of Israel. The word translated “proverb” is the Hebrew word “mashal.” The root of the word contains the idea of “compare”—it is translated throughout Scripture as “parable” just as often as “proverb.”
This gives us some insight into the nature of these sayings. Proverbs are not prescriptions. It is not about a formula for how to manipulate circumstances and bend them to our will. That might be wishful thinking, but doesn’t work in reality. The proverbs are, in a sense, “comparing” our human perceptions to the reality of God’s world; trying to connect the two by providing principles that shape our perspective and inform our choices such that we live constructively—that is to say, wisely.
Like parables, the proverbs are meant to guide us “to wisdom”, that is, into a way of living. A way of thinking and perceiving. It is about molding and shaping our perceptions, values, and character into something that is consistently in tune with God, not just as a rule-follower but as someone who understands and practices the essence of the divine. One who sees the world through God’s eyes, and acts accordingly.
Ecclesiastes might be thought of as a philosophical foundation for wisdom. It shows the way to properly view the many aspects of life we cannot control, the “hebel” or vaporous nature of all that surrounds us. The main thing Ecclesiastes shows us is the importance of choosing to trust God, and make good choices based on that trust.
Proverbs will reiterate the philosophical foundations of Ecclesiastes, then zoom in and expand upon the practical application of trusting God and choosing a true perspective within certain areas of life. Proverbs leads us to choose a true perspective in all areas of life, and creates a foundation from which we can choose actions that are constructive, beneficial, and fulfilling.
There are only three things we control in life: who we trust, our perspective, and what we do—our actions. Ecclesiastes makes this reality abundantly clear. Trying to control what we cannot leads to complete futility. Trusting God, however, provides a foundation for constructive living. Proverbs teaches us how best to steward the choices we have—how to trust God, how to choose His perspective, and the key actions to take that lead us to the path of wisdom.
The last chapter of The Book of Proverbs is best known for its description of The Virtuous Wife, which begins in verse 10.
The prior nine verses contain words from a mother to her son. The mother is unnamed and the son is King Lemuel, of whom we have no extra-biblical historical information.
Lemuel’s mother is primarily concerned with her son’s ability to steward his life well. She warns about temptations like promiscuity and drunkenness. She implores him to stand up for those less fortunate and to speak for those unable to speak for themselves.
Then she tells him about the virtuous wife. Lemuel’s mother sees the importance of her son partnering with someone of noble character. In twenty-two verses (each beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet), the mother describes this excellent wife—what does she do? What is her focus, her priorities? How is her work ethic? What impact does she have on her family and the community?
The excellent wife works hard and elevates those around her. She is the personification of Lady Wisdom (described in chapter 8). If The Book of Proverbs is about encouraging people (especially young men) to choose a path of wisdom, this final piece is about choosing to partner with a woman who has also chosen the wise path. This makes clear that the instructions of Proverbs are applicable to all.
Implicit throughout is the idea that the virtuous wife pairs with a virtuous husband. Lemuel’s mother is describing the excellent wife so that Lemuel will look for a woman of the kind of character described, and to be worthy of her when she is found. It is inferred that the woman should do likewise for a husband of noble character.