It’s interesting to read this account of the ‘wife of noble character’ (verse 10) or ‘woman of valour’, as some translations have it this week, in the wake of the Anglican General Synod’s vote on women bishops. Proverbs 31 describes an amazing woman: trusted by her husband, managing businesses, providing for the servants, running the household, and all the while speaking words of wisdom.
Does such a woman exist? I know women are always telling us men how they can multi-task and we can’t, but the answer is ‘no’. The question with which this begins, ‘A wife of noble character who can find?’ is clearly rhetorical, and expects the answer ‘no.’ Or at least, ‘Only once in a blue moon.’
The Proverbs 31 woman does not exist, for an obvious reason: this is a poem made up in praise of women. We can tell that not only from the fact that it is written in a poetic form, but also because it is an acrostic. There are twenty-two lines here, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each line starts with the next successive letter of that alphabet. It is entirely a poetic device.
But to what end? In some church traditions, Proverbs 31 has been so held up as the exemplary pattern of Christian womanhood that it has become a burden to women, an impossible plumbline to attain. Yet if it is about one imaginary woman I do not think it should be used that way.
I think we should take note of this:
‘Pious Jewish husbands still recite this poem every Sabbath eve in praise of their own wives.’1
In other words, we should see Proverbs 31 as an opportunity to praise women of faith, not to burden them. Not every section of the poem will apply to every woman: not all of you are married, not all of you run businesses, few (if any) of you have servants – although you might be keeping some secrets from me! But there will be some parts of this poem which affirm you and encourage you as you live each day for Christ. Men: this is a chance for us to make sure we value and support every area of life where the women we love are called to make a difference for Christ. And that will go a long way beyond us donning a cookery apron for them once in a while.
Firstly, let us praise the strong wife. If you know Debbie and me at all, you cannot miss what different personalities we are. If you wanted the traditional image of the demure minister’s wife (if ever such a person truly existed), then you certainly didn’t get that in Debbie. Indeed, a couple of years ago, a single female friend of ours who is also a rather feisty person said to me that she admired the fact I hadn’t been afraid to marry a strong woman. I got the impression that our friend had been on the end of some nonsense from some young Christian men who clearly expected a potential wife to be meek and mild in all the wrong ways. I’m sure she is rightly frustrated if this is the case.
What has this to do with Proverbs 31? It isn’t immediately obvious from the verses about a wife at the beginning of this poem, but it is hidden there:
A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
Here in Proverbs is a book which contains much instruction to young men on the cusp of marriage. Whatever the differences in the nature of marriage between the ancient world and ours, there is so much here that the writer holds before young men about good wives. You want someone in whom you can have ‘full confidence’, he says. Now, granted, trust can take time. It’s so easy in a marriage when you don’t understand what your spouse is doing to start asking anxious questions that betray a low level of trust. Sometimes trust takes time, but it’s worth having. Without it, the foundations of a marriage begin to crumble. Everything is under suspicion.
But where is the strong wife in this this? After all, you could have a relationship of trust with a traditional, submissive wife. Well, note that the trustworthy wife ‘brings [her husband] good, not harm all the days of her life’. One of the Hebrew words used here is the one used elsewhere for booty brought home from victories in wars2. Does that sound like the ‘little woman’? Not to me it doesn’t!
Some people will object to this, saying that elsewhere the Bible tells wives to submit to their husbands. Well, yes it does, but in that passage in Ephesians ‘submit’ seems to be parallel to the word ‘respect’, all Christians are told to respect each other and the husband is told to be willing to sacrifice himself for his wife. So any idea that ‘submission’ should ever be used as a way of keeping women down is monstrous.
Proverbs 31 is not an excuse for men to wimp out, but it is a call to celebrate women who rise up into their destiny as fully gifted participants in life. To celebrate the strong wife is also to praise the God who distributes his gifts among all, women as much as men. I am glad I belong to a denomination that believes that, and I hope it is something we shall honour in a local congregation, rather than merely seeing women as church mice.
Secondly, we praise women who acquire and provide (verses 13-20). Again, we are far from the territory that some fundamentalists would tell us is ‘biblical womanhood’. They would tell us that the husband is the provider and that he takes all the initiative. Proverbs 31 knows nothing of this distortion. Here is a craftswoman, a businesswoman who acquires materials for her work and provides for a large household that includes not only her husband and children but also female servants. It may be miles away from the experience many of us have, but while we do not inhabit the same lifestyle, there is much we can take from this example from a different culture and background.
What I love about this section of the poem, though, is that if we just talked about acquiring and providing, we would not be very different from many people in our society. They work to gain as much money as they can, and to live as high a material standard of living as it is possible for them to attain. However, the women praised in Proverbs 31 are better than that. Look how this section of the poem ends at verse 20:
She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.
The godly woman who acquires and provides does not do so simply in order that her family becomes more materially prosperous. She acquires and provides, not only so that her family has what it needs, but so that she may reach out to the poor and make a difference.
In 1998, Mark and Cheryl Frost were among three thousand wealthy Californian Christians listening to a sermon by a preacher called Dr Jack Reese. He made it clear that Jesus had dire warnings for the rich and the wealthy had obligations to the poor. Afterwards, as Mark anticipated a tasty lunch, Cheryl said to him, “I know what I’m going to do about that sermon. And it’s going to cost you a lot of money.”
Cheryl knew that another American state, Michigan, had passed a law requiring all able-bodied welfare recipients to seek employment. As a result, single parents were having to leave eight-year-old children looking after three-year-old siblings. The social consequences were dire. With a friend called Emma who had told her about the need, she founded a ministry called Children’s Outreach, providing small day care facilities in the poorest part of Detroit. Eventually she recruited some of the women from these projects and trained them to work there. One reason the ministry survived is that for ten years Cheryl didn’t draw a salary.
In March this year, Cheryl Frost died of pancreatic cancer. But this ‘noble wife’ left a legacy through having opened her arms to the poor. Cheryl and Mark’s daughter Caren is now the Director of Business Development at a charity which seeks to empower Burmese women. And who is the Executive Director of that organisation? Jessica Reese, daughter of Dr Jack Reese, whose sermon transformed Cheryl.
Women of KMC, are you open to acquiring and providing so that you can open your arms to the poor in Jesus’ name? Let us have an opportunity to praise God for what you do.
Thirdly and finally, we praise women of wisdom. If you’ve picked up anything from this sermon series on Proverbs, it’s the importance of godly wisdom. We began with it in chapter 1, where the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Now, as we arrive at the final chapter, the book closes with an example of wisdom in the woman who is praised in this poem.
How so? You will remember that wisdom here is not intellectual knowledge but the ability to live a good and godly life. The woman of Proverbs 31 is depicted in just such terms in the final verses of the poem. Take verses 21 to 27: here we see her living a righteous life, in doing her part to look after her family, as she provides clothing and bedding, and generates income from her business by selling to merchants. It is epitomised in verse 27:
She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Idleness’ is the opposite of wisdom in Proverbs. In passages we haven’t looked at, the sluggard is unwise because he is lazy. Hence here, because the woman is not idle, we assume her particular industry makes her wise.
And we also see wisdom pouring forth from her mouth:
She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
Is this imaginary woman not an example to all who believe? Her hands are full of godly deeds, not necessarily in the most spectactular ways but in the ordinary and necessary routines of life. And her mouth is full of godly deeds. Word and deed, belief and action are in harmony. This is true wisdom. What is the clue to her wisdom?
Well, just as chapter 1 introduced us to that revelation that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the same is hinted at here. This final section from verse 21 onwards is enveloped by ideas of fear. On the one hand, the godly woman has no fear for her household when it snows, because they are all clothed in scarlet (verse 21). And on the other hand we read in verse 30,
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
She knows what to fear and what not to fear. Honouring and revering the Lord, she lives appropriately and consequently has no need to fear. This balance of awe for God and faith in daily life (not just the obviously religious bits) makes her wise in word and deed.
This woman is praised by her children and her husband for all the right reasons (verses 28-29). If you long to he honoured for all your hands have done (verse 31) – if indeed you long to hear Jesus say one day, “Well done, good and faithful servant”, that is, if you long to be praised for your godliness rather than your star quality, the woman of Proverbs 31 epitomises all this book has wanted to tell us from the beginning.
Fear Him, ye saints, and you will then
Have nothing else to fear;
Make you His service your delight;
Your wants shall be His care.