Wisdom, Gender, and Strength in Proverbs

Why isn’t Proverbs better known as the Bible’s book on “manliness”?

I use quotation marks because the term almost seems archaic in our present culture, along with “manhood.” Perhaps the Church is too embarrassed to admit the Bible addresses that much attention to the topic.

But another reason can be found in Proverbs itself. Solomon doesn’t seem to feel a need to contrast men and women as much as he is concerned about differentiating adulthood from childhood. He appears to take for granted that men and women are different. He shows more concern with explaining that a man is no longer a boy and shouldn’t act like one.

Proverbs is aimed at guiding young men in growing into mature adults. It, thus, is the Bible’s manual on becoming a man. Even Proverbs 31:10ff, often considered a passage addressed to women, is addressed to men. Only by separating the passage from 31:1-9 and asserting that verse 10 is a new section, can one argue it is not primarily aimed at young men. But every other section in Proverbs begins with an assertion of authorship—“The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1:1), “The proverbs of Solomon” (Proverbs 10:1), “Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise” (Proverbs 22:17), “These also are sayings of the wise” (Proverbs 24:23), “These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied” (Proverbs 25:1), “The words of Agur son of Jakeh” (Proverbs 30:1), and finally “The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him” (Proverbs 31:1).

The description of the godly wife may be used by women, but it is clearly aimed at young men to teach them what to value in a wife. King Lemuel’s mother made him memorize this list so he would remember that “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30).

Within that framework, a few of Proverb’s references to gender and strength are interesting.

One of the defining features of a godly wife is that she cultivates her strength. “She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong” (Proverbs 31:17). One might assume this is being figurative, and King Lemuel’s mother is describing the advantage of wisdom as is done in Proverbs 24:5–6: “A wise man is full of strength, and a man of knowledge enhances his might, for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.”

But there’s no need to limit the application to that meaning of “strength.” The godly wife of vv. 10-31 who cultivates her own strength is described as the opposite of another type of woman: “Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings”(Proverbs 31:3). This too, undoubtedly is a metaphor for how one can be “weakened” in all sorts of ways. But in the context of telling her son to avoid drunkenness as well as immoral women, there is no reason to think she doesn’t also have in mind the physical consequences of intemperate indulgence. After all, the story of Samson and Delilah involved a literal loss of strength.

But while the godly woman conserves and enhances all her powers, probably including her physical strength, nothing like that is said to the young man. The “son” is advised that wisdom is strength but not told to “make his arms strong.”

Yet Proverbs recognizes that “the glory of young men is their strength” (Proverbs 20:29). A young man’s strength is obviously an issue from the beginning of Proverbs. The first temptation of a young man is to provide for himself through violence. A violent gang (at least before the invention of firearms) would want to recruit a young man precisely because he is strong. Apparently, Proverbs is written by people aware that young men are strong but who want to encourage them in other areas.

Indeed, Solomon directly contrasts the temptation to profit by violence with the way women try to get what they want.

A gracious woman gets honor,

and violent men get riches.

A man who is kind benefits himself,

but a cruel man hurts himself.

The wicked earns deceptive wages,

but one who sows righteousness gets a sure reward.

Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live,

but he who pursues evil will die.

Those of crooked heart are an abomination to the LORD,

but those of blameless ways are his delight.

Be assured, an evil person will not go unpunished,

but the offspring of the righteous will be delivered.

Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout

is a beautiful woman without discretion (Proverbs 11:16-22).

Since these verses begin and end with a reference to women, I take them to form unified passage. We see here a straightforward progression: Men use their strength to take what they want, while women often don’t have that option and get honor by more ethical means. But the riches that men get this way are “deceptive wages.” Eventually, they are punished for the violence they use. A man only hurts himself using his strength in this way.

Finally, the passage ends with an acknowledgment that women sometimes engage in folly just like men do.

So while Proverbs acknowledges a young man’s strength, it is more concerned with the temptations to which his strength makes him vulnerable than with celebrating that advantage. After all, eventually literal strength fades. One will have to rely on other assets one has wisely cultivated during one’s life. “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair” (Proverbs 20:29).

Thus, while Solomon assumes that men and women tend to have different roles, he seems to warn against a kind of violent “hypermasculinism.” Men can actually learn wise behavior from women who don’t have strength to misuse.

Mark Horne holds an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary and is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He is the executive director of Logo Sapiens Communications and  writes at www.SolomonSays.net.