Did Proverbs 31 woman really exist? Here is what John Gill, a famous Protestant Bible scholar from the 18th century has to say on the issue:
...the description (of this woman) is drawn up to such a pitch, and wrote in such strong
lines, as cannot agree with any of the daughters of fallen Adam,
literally understood; not with Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon; nor
with the Virgin Mary...; nor indeed with any other; for
though some parts of the description may meet in some, and others in
others, yet not all in one; wherefore the mystical and spiritual sense
of the whole must be sought after (emphasis mine).
Some by the "virtuous woman" understand the sensitive soul, subject to
the understanding and reason, as Gersom; others the Scriptures, as Lyra,
which lead to virtue, contain much riches in them, far above rubies; in
which men may safely confide as the rule of their faith and practice;
and will do them good, and not evil, continually. Others, "Wisdom", who
in the beginning of this book is represented as a woman making provision
for her household, and said to be more precious than rubies...
...many of the ancient Christian writers, as Ambrose, Bede, and others; and whoever compares Proverbs 31:28, with Song of Solomon 6:8,
will easily see the agreement; and will be led to observe that Solomon
wrote both, and had a view to one and the same person, the church of
Christ, who is often represented by a "woman"...
It's interesting that he notes that if you take the passage literally, no mortal woman could be described in these terms, or simply put, it's a standard impossible to keep, and that some ancient Christian writers apparently agreed with the point of view that the chapter has a symbolical meaning only. Of course, nowadays Proverbs 31 lady is often used to shame traditional housewives into "doing more", starting home businesses and other money-making pursuits (because nowadays only sex and money are considered important).
John Gill continues:
...a woman, the weaker vessel, unable to do anything without him, yet
everything through him: a "virtuous" one, inviolably chaste in her love
and affection to Christ, her husband; steadfast in her adherence, to him
by faith, as her Lord and Saviour; incorrupt in doctrine, sincere and
spiritual in worship, retaining the purity of discipline, and holiness
of life; and holding the mystery of faith in a pure conscience: or a
"woman of strength"F21, valour, and courage, as the word signifies, when used of men...
So now let's look at his explanation of some of the more "feminist" verses of this chapter:
She is like the merchant ships,....
Not like a single one, but like a navy of them, that cross the seas, go
to foreign parts, and come back laden with rich goods: so the church of
Christ, and her true members, like ships of burden, trade to heaven, by
prayer and other religious exercises, and return with the riches of
grace and mercy, to help them in time of need; and though they have
often difficult and dangerous passages, are tossed with tempests, and
covered with billows; yet, Christ being their pilot, faith their sail,
and hope their anchor, they weather the seas, ride out all storms, and
come safe home with their merchandise;
She considereth a field, and buyeth it,....
The field are the Scriptures, in which are hid the rich treasures of
Gospel doctrines and promises; and the church, and all truly enlightened
persons, consider to what use this field may be put, to what account it
will turn; how profitable the Scriptures are, for doctrine, reproof,
correction, and instruction in righteousness; what a rich mine and
valuable treasure is in them; things more desirable, and of greater
worth, than thousands of gold and silver;
Unlike many modern Christians, he actually appears to think that true riches are spiritual, such as grace and mercy, and that they are of a greater worth than gold and silver.
...with the fruit of her hand she planteth a vineyard; her own vineyard, whose plants are an orchard of pomegranates, Song of Solomon 1:6;
who through the ministry of the word, are planted in the house of the
Lord, and flourish there; this the church is said to do by her
ministers, who plant and water, as Paul and Apollos did, 1 Corinthians 3:6.
And it is observable, that in the Hebrew text there is a double
reading; the "Keri", or marginal reading, is feminine; but the "Cetib",
or writing, is masculine; to show that she did it by means of men, she
made use of in her vineyard for that service; it being, as Aben Ezra
observes, not the custom and business of women to plant vineyards, but
Wait, it's getting more interesting. Apparently, even if you take the text at its face value, the Proverbs 31 lady used men to do the planting for her.
She perceiveth that her merchandise is good,....
That it turns to good account; that her trading to heaven is of great
advantage; that she grows rich hereby; that her merchandise with Wisdom,
or Christ, is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain
thereby than fine gold...
Again Rev. Gill points out that there are pursuits nobler than acquisition of gold and silver.
She maketh fine linen, and selleth it,....
She not only seeks wool and flax, and spins it, but makes it up into
fine linen, which she disposes of to advantage to herself and family.
Kimchi saysF25, the word signifies
coverings for the night, as well as day he seems to design linen sheets:
the Arabic version adds, and "sells it to the inhabitants of Bosra."
This, in the mystic sense, may signify either the good works the church
does, and which she proposes as a pattern and example to her members; or
divine instruction, as others, the preaching of the Gospel, and the
truths of it; which she sells, and others buy, though both without money
and without price; for, as she freely receives, she freely gives...
...and delivereth girdles unto the merchant;
to dispose of them for her; either to sell to others, to the Egyptian
priests which wore them; or for their own use, to put their money in,
girdles being used for that purpose; see Gill on Matthew 10:9. Or, "a girdle to the Canaanite"F26; the Canaanites or Phoenicians being generally merchants, the word is put for one. By these may be meant ministers of the word...who trade for the good of souls, and seek not theirs, but them, and not
their own things, but Christ's, may be called merchants: and to these
"the girdle of truth" is given; and these the church exhorts to gird
their loins with it, as well as all her members, that they may be ready
to every good work, and particularly prepared to preach the Gospel of
(Quoted from here)
I'd like to point out that if you interpret the text literally, as an instruction for modern wives on how to run the household, you'll have to deal with the problem of "maidens" who were in all probability slave girls or even concubines as OT didn't forbid polygamous marriage. It was one of the duties of the wife in such a household to oversee the work of the female servants or slaves who were put up to some productive labour, like making girdles, for instance (which the text doesn't mention she made herself) which were later delivered to the merchants for sale.
Polygamy is abolished in NT times, and instructions for Christian wives are much simpler:
I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house,
give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully.
And, of course, Titus 2:
That they may teach the young women to be
sober, to love their husbands, to love their children,
discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands,
that the word of God be not blasphemed.
Making money from home isn't wrong or sinful, but it doesn't make one more spiritual or a better woman, either. There is more to life than material wealth.