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.
For the most part, classical music is a realm of closed-off mystery to me. I cannot understand it or appreciate it. A Local Preacher in my first circuit tried to educate me with the beauties of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, and while I did indeed think it was beautiful and even bought a CD of it, Wolfgang Amadeus didn’t open the doors of heaven for me.
Nor did a girlfriend who loved classical music. When I tried to show an interest and started to like some baroque music, she scorned that style because it wasn’t as demanding as her beloved Sibelius. I tried him too, but beyond Finlandia it all washed over me.
Yet there are other areas of life which I enjoy but which remain a strange land to others. Cricket, for example. To me it is the sport of heaven, especially in the glory of its full five-day Test Match version. Innovations like Twenty Twenty are to me a dumbing down into crash bang wallop territory that lose the subtlety of the game in its fullest expression.
What is the difference? When it comes to classical music, I have never truly learned an instrument or had a mentor. But with cricket, I had a mentor and I used to play. As a child, I watched my father play every time his club team had a home fixture in the summer. I picked up the bug from him. When I started to play, he would take me over the park and place a ten pence piece on the ground to show the exact place where I as a bowler should pitch the ball. When I was slightly older, he took me with him to winter nets practice with his club. Only as an adult did he tell me that the batsmen couldn’t read my Chinaman. If only I’d known that as a teenager, I would have developed as a spinner, not a seamer.
And yes, I realise that the last couple of sentences are gobbledygook to some of you.
What about wisdom, though? What if wisdom is – as I said in the all-age service a fortnight ago – the ability to live well for God? Is that not something we all desire? Yet do we not struggle with it? Is the competence to live for God’s glory a mystery to some of us? Could we not do with a mentor to help us play?
Step forward Lady Wisdom herself. In Proverbs chapter eight she presents her CV for guiding people in the way of wisdom. Is she someone you would take on? Let’s compare the way things are with what she can offer. Of course, this being an ancient document her CV won’t tally exactly with how we write them today, but we do see how she presents herself as qualified for the position.
Firstly, Lady Wisdom offers her skills to everyone. Imagine the dilemma like this. Could it be that the average person is short on wisdom, lacking in the ways to live a life that pleases God? Could it be that many a typical Christian earnestly longs to please God but struggles to do so? And might it also be that the same typical Christian thinks, “I can’t be wise, because I don’t have the theological education or the special gifts that others do”? If so, we face a situation where those who would love to be wise in the biblical sense feel unable to meet their good and godly aspirations.
I wonder whether that is how you feel at times. Do you long to please Christ, yet regard yourself as some kind of second-class Christian?
If you do, Lady Wisdom has something on her CV for you. She is everywhere, and therefore available to everyone. She calls out at the meeting of the paths and at the entrance to the city (verses 2-3). She calls out to ‘all humanity’ (verse 4), including the ‘simple’ and the ‘foolish’ (verse 5). Lady Wisdom’s special attributes are not for the élite but for all. Why? Because they are not about cleverness, talent or charisma. Lady Wisdom empowers all and sundry to live for God’s pleasure. She doesn’t require you to gain alphabet soup after your name, she only requires a heart of obedience and a willingness to depend on God’s Spirit.
Secondly, consider some of the reasons we as Christians feel uncomfortable with the values and priorities of our society. An emphasis on wealth and possessions. An undue attachment to celebrity. Lies, deception and spin. Do we not get frustrated and disheartened by the shallow and tawdry things that capture the imagination of our world?
Lady Wisdom says, I bring qualities of true value. If you want something truly precious, she says, I have it, and I can give it to you. Her words are ‘trustworthy’ (verse 6), ‘true’ (verse 7), ‘just’ (verse 8), ‘right’ (verse 9) and more valuable than silver, gold or rubies (verses 10-11).
She says we can have a choice between a culture that is tone deaf to goodness and one that rejoices in her pure and beautiful teaching. Which do we want?
Thirdly, Lady Wisdom invites us to think about the civil and social order and imagine what it could be like. Christians are not immune to the popular perception of politicians as only being in their profession for the amount of gravy they find on the train. We are used to viewing them as having their fingers in the trough and their ducks in the moat.
And of course in the wider public culture we have the corruption of journalism. We await Lord Leveson’s report into the role of the press and the police in the phone-hacking scandals.
However much we also know that in truth there are many decent politicians, journalists and police officers, it’s hard to evade the conclusion that smell of rotting vegetables in our public life.
That is where Lady Wisdom offers her gifts again. Verses 12 to 16 centre on the place of wisdom in public life. Wisdom brings prudence, knowledge and discretion to the public square (verse 12) and evicts evil, pride, arrogance and perverse speech (verse 13). Instead, she says,
Counsel and sound judgment are mine;
I have insight, I have power.
By me kings reign
and rulers issue decrees that are just;
by me princes govern,
and nobles – all who rule on earth. (Verses 14-16)
It’s a common thread from the ancient world, applied here in terms of Israel’s God:
In the ancient Near East, kings ruled, judged, waged war, protected the weak, and gave laws by means of the authority and gifts of the gods. They mediated divine blessings to the people and ensured peace and prosperity.
I’m not simply saying we should always vote for Christian politicians, but I am saying this: Lady Wisdom invites us to dream of a different social and political order from the one we have.
Fourthly, and related to this, do we not also dream of a society where righteousness and justice are rewarded? Goodness is sometimes rewarded in our culture, but we also witness the way the unrighteous gather power for their own benefit and use it against others. If the allegations about the late Jimmy Savile are true – and the Met Police seem to be talking as if there is clear evidence – then we have a case of someone who garnered fame and fortune and then used his power base and his connections with those in authority to carry out and cover up great wickedness.
It is Lady Wisdom who says that a society which rewards goodness is possible. When wisdom is exalted, truth, righteousness and justice receive their reward. It is not celebrities and entertainers who flourish; rather, it is the wise, who walk in the ways of God, are recognised. Verses 17 to 21 describe a place where wisdom receives riches and honour. Surely we long for a world like that.
Fifthly, let me suggest that we long for a world that needs more than science as an explanation. Science cannot tell us whether anything has a purpose. It can only analyse cause and effect. The trouble is, we have people so committed to science as the answer to everything that they speak about a world that is only explained by cause and effect. They rule out any sense of purpose. The logical end product of this is the claim of Richard Dawkins that the universe displays what he calls ‘pitiless indifference’. It is a cold, purposeless, pointless place.
I am not denigrating science. I am saying it cannot explain everything. It is one important discipline among many. And although the ancients did not conceive of science in the way we do, in our passage Lady Wisdom alerts us to the fact that there is purpose in the universe. We see this from the extended description of Wisdom as having been present before all things in verses 22 to 31 (‘given birth’ in the NIV may be misleading). Not only that, wisdom was involved in creation itself. It is a rich passage that I cannot examine in detail this morning. But if the wisdom of God was present before all things and involved in creation, then we have a guarantee that God baked purpose into the universe.
So – is this what you want? Do you reject a world where only the élite are candidates for wisdom and long instead for a world where wisdom is open to all who wish to live well for God? Do you despair of a culture that values vacuous celebrity and long instead for one where wisdom is prized? Are you sick of the corruption of the powerful and pray for a society where wisdom rules with justice? Are you fed up with a world where the influential use power for themselves and earnestly desire instead a place where goodness is rewarded? And do you say ‘no’ to those who insist on describing life as meaningless, mocking those who disagree as stupid, because you know deep down there is purpose ingrained into life?
And if this is what you want, then what to do? The concluding five verses of this chapter urge us to get familiar with wisdom, the wisdom of God. Ultimately in New Testament terms that means Jesus Christ. What we need to do is embrace the teaching of Jesus with the help of the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus, God’s true wisdom, who turns the values of our world around. His is what one author called ‘The Upside-Down Kingdom.’ He reverses the priorities of this world. He is ‘making all things new.’
To follow God’s wisdom in Jesus will likely never win a majority at the ballot box. It will not be widely popular, except in versions so diluted they lose their power. We are likely to be a minority, operating at the margins of society rather than in the corridors of power.
How, then, can this change the world? It’s a curious thing, but often the most powerful social movements are those who which are minorities operating on the margins. Jesus certainly works this way.
Does anybody want to start a revolution?
 Raymond van Leeuwen describes verses 6-21 as ‘Wisdom’s self-presentation. Self-praise seems strange to Westerners today, for whom it seems immodest and naïve. But the function of such speech is like a modern résumé, in which people present their qualifications for such a position.’ (New Interpreter’s Bible Volume V, p90.)
 op. cit., p91.
 op. cit., p92.