The Excellent Woman of Proverbs 31
SHE STRETCHETH OUT HER HAND TO THE POOR;
YEA, SHE REACHETH FORTH HER HANDS TO THE NEEDY.
It would be impossible for any reader of the Holy Scriptures not to see how careful the great Jehovah has been, both under the old and new dispensation, to recommend to the care of the rich, the wants of their poorer brethren. The law of Moses abounded in humane institutions respecting the poor, and these would be familiar to the Jewish woman. Though her Bible had not the Gospels, with their illustrations of the living and dying love of the Redeemer; though the sacred volume of the ancient Hebrew told not of the self‐denying zeal of St. Paul, or other holy men of old, who lived and laboured and suffered for others; though it had not the gentle and affectionate tenderness of the lovely and beloved disciple, yet its law made provision for kindness and humanity; and the poor and the destitute, the fatherless and the widow, were ever described as the peculiar objects of God’s love and compassion, and were recommended to the care of those to whom God had given wealth. “Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble” (Psa 41:1) had been sung by the psalmist; and still the words resounded in the tabernacle of the righteous, and still were met by answering feelings, in the hearts of those who loved and feared Israel’s God. It was in the exact spirit of the Divine law, that this woman acted: Moses had said, “The poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land” (Deu 15:11).
There is something very expressive in the figure of the text: “She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.” It would seem to imply an attention to the wants of the poor, not forced upon her by immediate neighbourhood. She waited not for the poor man to come to her door, but she went out to look for him. She did not deal out her bounty grudgingly, and by slow degrees, but gave with bounteous hands, and anticipated the duty taught afterwards: “Freely ye have received, freely give.” She might have been seen, like Dorcas, making clothing for the poor, and distributing it with cheerful and willing kindness. She knew well that God loveth a cheerful giver. She was described as a woman “who feared the Lord,” and his commands were her standard of duty. She would feel that the destitute ought to have a portion in all riches, so that God’s blessing might rest on the wealth which she had gained. Such a woman could appreciate the kind and considerate command of her holy law, so suited to the agricultural habits of the people of a rich and fertile land: “When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow; that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the works of thine hands. When thou beatest thine olive‐tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it afterwards; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow” (Deu 24:19-21). And whether it were the gleanings of her harvest field, or the wool of her flock, it was given with gladness. The poor who were near her rejoiced in her bounty, and the poor afar off were not forgotten. Even so may we see the ripplings of the waters around the pebble which is cast into the stream; and the ridges of water are fuller and larger nearest to the stone, and though they lessen as they recede, yet they form widening circles still, until they enclose the whole lake: just so were the deeds of love wrought by this woman, fullest in the charities of home, yet widening ever, until they encompassed the whole world in their embrace.
Dr. Adam Clarke considers the expression “needy,” as applying especially to the afflicted poor. The poor whom sickness prevented from labour; the aged man whose limbs refused to bear the weight of toil; the little child, too young to help himself; or the houseless stranger, who came to the gate of the Israelitish city to ask for succour—the latter had been especially commended to the pity of the ancient Hebrew: “Love ye therefore the stranger,” said the Lord to his chosen people; “for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deu 10:19). And he whom adverse circumstances had brought low, was cared for in the humane precepts of the law. “If thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee, then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger or a sojourner; that he may live with thee” (Lev 25:35).
If we find it commanded as a duty, and named as a praise, of the Hebrew woman, that she reached forth her hands to the poor and needy, how much more should this kindness to the indigent be expected of women reared in a country, in which the gentle and loving spirit of the gospel is fully known! The ancient duty of remembering the poor, so far from being abrogated by the New Testament, is enforced by more numerous and direct commands, and by the living example of our blessed Saviour, who “went about doing good” (Act 10:38).
One thing which must ever endear to the Christian his poorer brethren, is the remembrance that Jesus Christ himself was the member of a poor family. The disciple of the Lord, who had not where to lay his head, and who was supplied by the kind women who ministered to him, should feel a sincere pity and regard for the poor, for verily the Lord of glory took not upon him the nature of an angel; he came not with wealth or power, but made himself of no reputation, and for more than thirty years endured poverty and privation, that we might have everlasting happiness; that to the poor the gospel might be preached, and that they might be made “rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom.” In all the solemn and affectionate appeals made in God’s holy word in behalf of the poor, there is not one which comes home more fully than this to the heart of God’s children: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2Cr 8:9). Oh! if we could ever remember how short our time is for doing good, that our sun may go down suddenly, while it is yet day; that if even the threescore years and ten of this mortal life should be allotted to us, it will be too short for half our projects, surely we should hasten to‐day to labour in God’s vineyard; making sacrifices of time, and talents, and property, for the poor and needy of God’s heritage; and labouring diligently ere the night cometh, when no man can work.
Nor must it be forgotten, that on a Christian devolves the duty, not only of doing good to the body, but to the soul. Every one who has himself received the gift of God’s Spirit—whose sins are pardoned through the Redeemer’s grace, is bound to study and promote the eternal welfare of others. Woe be to us, if our poorer brethren shall say at the day of judgment, “No man cared for my soul!” If we have the tongue of the learned, and can give good instruction, yet forbear to give it; if we can help the ignorant with a word of counsel; if we can bestow upon him the word of life, or induce him to join the assembly of God’s earthly worshippers on the Sabbath day; if we can set before him a holy example; if we can send the missionary to the crowded alleys of our cities, or help him to traverse the wide waters to the dim and dark recesses of ignorance and cruelty,—and yet sloth, or carelessness, or self‐indulgence, or parsimony, lead us to inertness; then we are robbing those whom God has given into our care, and God will require their souls at our hands. But if we stretch out our hands to the needy, then may we hope for God’s promised blessing, and our own spiritual wants will be supplied while we are aiding others.
There is also a peculiar feature in love to the poor, which is impressed on the doctrines of the New Testament with greater distinctness than on those of the Old. Besides the general commands to love our poorer neighbour, we are especially “to do good to them who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). So much is this love to the disciples of Christ inculcated in the writings of the evangelists and apostles, that we are told we ought to “lay down our lives for the brethren” (1Jo 3:16). It is even made a test of our love to God. “Whoso hath this world’s good,” saith St. John, “and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (1Jo 3:17). The contributions for the poor saints were not forgotten by the apostle Paul and the early Christians; and while it is the duty of Christians to do good to the bodies and to the souls of all, to stretch out the willing hand to the poor and needy, the poor of God’s adopted family should be the especial objects of their love and care.