I recently had the opportunity to teach a college class called Exposition of Proverbs. Proverbs is a much loved book, but I discovered that it is not a book without controversy. This was a surprise to me.
The controversies of Proverbs center around the composition, author, and date of the book. Having read Proverbs devotionally for many years, these controversies were unexpected. Unfortunately, however, here again we find critical opinion subtly attacking inspiration by questioning the integrity of inspired Scripture. Even evangelicals are swept up in these notions and many question whether Solomon wrote much, if any, of the book. This in a book that bears his name three times! I don’t intend to get into these matters in this paper, but I will affirm my belief in the accuracy of this statement: “The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel.” I believe that Scripture means what it says. It may well be that chapters 30 and 31 were written by other men (Agur and Lemuel), but there is no good reason to think that Solomon isn’t responsible for placing these chapters at the end of his collection when the book was originally composed.
Starting, then, with a premise that Solomon is responsible for the composition and/or collection of all the material in Proverbs, it is interesting to consider Proverbs 31 and the placing of “An Alphabet of Wifely Excellence” (Derek Kidner) as the concluding section of the book.
We should say a few words about the structure of the poem of the ideal wife. It is well known that the poet uses a fairly common Hebrew device of an alphabetical acrostic in composing the poem. That is, each verse of the poem begins with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This device is used in other Scriptures, most notably the massive Psalm 119, where each verse of each section begins with a particular Hebrew letter, and all the sections are arranged in alphabetical order. For a Hebrew poet to construct a poem in this way requires a high level of skill.
The skill on display in Prov 31 doesn’t stop there, however, at least according to commentator Duane Garrett. He suggests that the poem is also a ‘chiasm’, constructed with parallel thoughts in its construction from beginning to end that can be arranged to resemble the letter X, which in Greek is called ‘chi’, hence the term ‘chiasm’. Since it is difficult to recreate this kind of outline with html, I offer a ‘picture’ below of what this suggested outline looks like:
You should be aware that structural analyses like this are very subjective. Someone may see one in a certain text, others are sceptical. Nevertheless, certain features of this suggestion are attractive. The presence of verse 23, focused entirely on the husband, is interesting in a poem so devoted to a description of the wife. Garrett makes it the focal point of the poem as the centerpiece of the chiasm. It is also true that at least some of the themes prior to verse 23 are repeated after verse 23, so Garrett’s suggestion is at least plausible. Bruce Waltke, the author of a massive commentary on Proverbs, probably the definitive commentary, also sees chiastic structure in the poem although he divides the material differently.
The key feature of Hebrew poetry is the parallelism where thoughts are compared, contrasted, and laid alongside one another in thought provoking ways. This is easy enough to see in individual verses as we see everywhere in the Hebrew poetical books. The art is highly developed when one adds the acrostic structure to the poetry – one is constrained by the alphabet to compose thoughts using the appropriate initial letters. To combine an acrostic with a chiastic system of parallelism would be high art indeed. If Garrett is right in his analysis, Proverbs 31 is an exceptionally beautiful poem.
Of course, Proverbs 31 isn’t merely an art form, it is part of God’s Holy Word and has a spiritual purpose that exceeds whatever art with which it is contrived. The art form may be used to communicate the truth of the passage, but it is the truth of the passage that is of paramount importance.
In considering the message of Proverbs 31, then, we are led to consider two questions: Why does Proverbs conclude with this poem? What is the message of this poem?
The major theme of the book of Proverbs
When I read Proverbs, I think of a one-word theme: Wisdom. Proverbs is all about wisdom, I assume. In a very general sense that is true. Wisdom and its permutations are much on display in Proverbs. If you miss that, you probably are incapable of reading at all. But the book is more than a mish-mash collection of wise thoughts, despite the appearances of some of its chapters (10-30 to be specific).
The theme is established in chapters 1-9. The wise father is presenting two paths of life to his son. The son is not a little child, but a young man. He is setting out on life, or is about to set out on life. His father lays out for him in considerable detail the diverging paths that lay before him.
I should add that we also hear the voice of the wise mother in these pages. She is as concerned as her husband for her son, but her speaking parts in this piece are more limited. We should also suggest that the young man is something of an Everyman, or maybe, for the comfort of the ladies, an Every Person. He is a representative man, and women as well as men must consider the advice he receives and the choice (and choices) he is faced with as he sets out on life.
The two choices are presented in two ways, one of them the usual warnings of parents against evil companions, and the other by personifying the concepts as two women. On the one hand is Lady Wisdom. On the other is Madame Folly. The way of Lady Wisdom is the way to life; the way of Madame Folly is the path to death and hell. The choices are laid out starkly, climaxing in Proverbs 9 with almost identical invitations from the two women.
What follows the introductory chapters is what we might call “Proverbs Proper” (chapters 10-30) where bits of wisdom are strung together with little thought to organization or categorical themes. Most of these bits are one verse long, some are a bit longer. They jump from topic to topic, highlighting wisdom or folly or both and seem to be a bit of a hodge-podge. They are a lot like life, actually. Different choices face us every day, challenges of various kinds. Opportunities abound, friends and foes cross our paths at inexact intervals, the way is often confusing and sometimes wisdom is not very clear (at least not as we confront life face to face). These proverbs, as we study them, are meant to give insight and assistance to our thinking as we confront the scattered challenges of daily life.
The conclusion of the whole matter
Finally, we come to the grand end of the book. Here, at the pinnacle of the book, sits a woman. (Or… does she? More in a bit…) This woman is neither Lady Wisdom nor Madame Folly. She is certainly an industrious, skilled woman, a wise woman, one who seems to embody the lessons of the book very well. But why do we close with her and not with ‘my son’? What has happened to him? Has he disappeared?
Look again at the verse that is the center of Garrett’s chiasm, verse 23:
Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.
Who is this man? He is a mature man, wise, respected, he has sons and daughters (Pr 31.28), he is a leader (sitting in the gates is akin to being on the town council).
May I suggest that here is where we find ‘my son’. He has made his choice. He has gone through a few pages of life, but he set out by choosing Lady Wisdom, and he has heard the voice of his father when he said, “Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the LORD.” (Pr 18.22)
Everything in Proverbs points to this final emphasis, on the man sitting in the gates who has chosen his wife (and his life) well. A man who follows the way of wisdom – God’s way – and lives a life honoring and well pleasing to the Lord.
Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.