Proverbs 31: Female Wisdom
September 25, 2022
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Proverbs 31 is famous for what it says about the ideal wife and mother, but first it starts with “the sayings of King Lemuel”—but again these are sayings that were taught to him by his mother. This chapter gives us insight into the wisdom of a godly woman.
“The sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him.”
“Listen, my son! Listen, son of my womb! Listen, my son, the answer to my prayers!” (31:1-2)
Note how the proverb encourages us to listen to our (godly) mothers. In some cultures, sons are discouraged from giving serious attention to their mother’s wisdom, as if they should only learn from their fathers. But the Bible encourages men, sons, to listen to their mothers. If your mother is still alive, and she is a godly and good woman, make sure that you give her the attention that is right—especially if you are still living under the roof of your parents.
“Do not spend your strength on women, your vigor on those who ruin kings” (31:3).
The first bit of advice, from Lemuel’s mother no less, is that he not spend his strength on women. It is tempting for men to use their energy chasing women or to have affairs with many women or to think of nothing but women. But, speaking as a woman, Lemuel’s mother urges him not to waste his energy on many women (note the plural: a faithful marriage to a godly woman is a different matter entirely). You have been given certain gifts and only a certain amount of time in this life; use those gifts for something beyond mere sensual pleasure.
“It is not for kings, Lemuel—it is not for kings to drink wine, not for rulers to crave beer, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights. Let beer be for those who are perishing, wine for those who are in anguish! Let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more” (31:4-7).
Having discouraged her son from using all his energy just chasing women, she now turns to another classic part of the “party scene”: alcohol. The Bible has a nuanced approach to alcohol. Jesus turned water into wine. The Bible says that wine makes glad the heart of man (Psalm 104:15). We are told not be drunk on wine, but instead be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). The Bible nowhere forbids us from ever drinking any alcohol at all; in the ancient world alcohol was used to provide drink that was not contaminated. But while the Bible does not tell us never to drink alcohol, it is clear that drinking too much alcohol is wrong and, as it describes it here in this part of Proverbs, foolish too. The point that Lemuel’s mother is making is not that it is okay for some people to get drunk, but not for him. The point is that he should especially consider his responsibilities. Here is a biblical way of thinking: instead of using what we have to give ourselves the most pleasure and the maximum advances, instead we should use what we have to serve others and help other people. This is leadership, biblical leadership, not amassing more and more pleasure for ourselves, but using what time and talents and resources we have in the exercise of our responsibilities and for the benefit of other people.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (31:8-9)
Finally, Lemuel’s mother advises him to be an advocate for those who are less fortunate than he is. Some people are less articulate and so not able to mount a good-sounding defense; others do not have the ear of those in authority and so cannot be present when their name is being tarnished. If we have any authority or opportunity, use those openings to defend the defenseless. How? By speaking up.
Now we come to the famous epilogue of “the wife of noble character.”
“A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies” (31:10).
To begin with, we are told that a wife who has “noble character” is very rare. The most important decision you will make in your life (after the decision to follow Christ) is who you are going to marry. Marry a wife of noble character! This proverb does not extol the virtues of a man of noble character but is focused on the wife. That said, a woman needs to be equally careful, too, about whom she marries. Find someone of this noble character—that is one who fears God, as will be explained by the rest of this ending section of the book of Proverbs.
“Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value” (31:11).
What does it mean for a wife to have noble character? One sign of such a woman is that her husband has “full confidence” in her. He can trust her with whatever it is that he cannot attend to. He does not worry that she will spend too much or spend money on foolish purchases; he does not worry that the children will be left in chaos; he does not worry that the household will fall into disrepair. He knows he can rely upon her, at home, at work, wherever she is.
“She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life” (31:12).
How true this is of a wife of noble character! The reverse is true of a godly man to a wife, but again in this section we are talking about the wife. And her character is such that she brings her husband good, not harm, all the days of her life. How does she do this? The hymn to the wife of noble character continues:
“She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands” (31:13).
One way she is so effective and such a blessing to her husband and her family is her work ethic. A godly woman who fears God works hard. That does not mean there is not ever any room for entertainment, but it means that when the author thinks of such a woman of godly character, the first thing he thinks of is how hard she works.
“She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar” (31:14).
A wonderful picture: she is constantly trading like the trade routes of the ancient (and modern) world. Rapidly you get the sense that this woman is not a repressed, mousey, do-nothing woman. She’s running a domestic economy that is hugely profitable.
“She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants” (31:15).
Again, you get the sense that she works hard: “she gets up while it is still night.” No lounging around in bed for this woman. She ensures that everyone eats well.
“She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard” (31:16).
But note she is not just a cook or a cleaner. She is someone who earns money from purchasing fields. Different seasons of life will, in the modern world, provide different opportunities for a wife and mother in terms of working experience. But overall, this is a woman who knows how to buy property, sell it, make a profit, and then invest her earnings in another project that will make more money.
“She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers” (31:17-19).
More pictures of her hard work. Notice her “trading,” and that it is “profitable.”
“She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy” (31:20).
She is also a woman of compassion. She does not only look after her own household, she has a broader vision for the well being of the poor and needy.
“When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet” (31:21).
One way or another, not only does she ensure that her household is well-fed, she also ensures that they are well-clad with warm clothes even in winter.
“She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple” (31:22).
This ideal woman is also able to make bedclothes! And she herself is dressed well—in “fine linen and purple.”
“Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land” (31:23).
What about her husband? With such a wife, most men would manage to succeed. And indeed, this man is “respected at the city gate.” In the ancient world, the city gate was where people met to do business, to discuss politics, and make decisions that impacted the city at large. He was known in the town council. When people talked about him in the marketplace, they talked about him with respect. He “takes his seat among the elders of the land.” He is a leader; with the support of such a godly wife, he is able to have the resources—emotional and practical—to serve well in leadership.
“She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes” (31:24).
Again, we see her trading. The noble wife is one who makes money by selling things she has made.
“She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come” (31:25).
A noble wife is not only strong, she is also clothed with dignity too. She has a bearing that naturally carries a sense of poise and esteem.
“She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue” (31:26).
Such a woman should be listened to, for “she speaks with wisdom.” A wise man will listen carefully to such a wife. She has wisdom and “faithful instruction is on her tongue.” Men if you have a godly wife, listen to her.
“She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness” (31:27).
Once again, we are reminded of her diligence. She “does not eat the bread of idleness.”
“Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her” (31:28):
The result of all this is that her family praises her! Her children call her blessed, and her husband likewise also praises her. This isn’t to suggest that such a woman never experiences any criticism or complaining from her family! That would be heaven indeed, but not very likely in this world. But it means that overall, the impact of her behavior means that her family recognizes what she is doing and are quick, and frequent, to speak well of her.
“‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all’” (31:29).
Clearly this is an extraordinary woman: she has surpassed even the noble things that many women do. What is her secret?
“Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (31:30).
The source of her effectiveness is not the way she looks (her beauty), nor is it her charisma or sparkling personality (her charm). The basis, foundation, and inspiration for all this brilliant activity and personality is one simple thing: she fears God. “A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Therefore, do what you can by reading the Bible, by reflecting on the majesty of God, by steeping your mind and heart in the wonders of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to grow within you a fear of God. It is the foundation of all wisdom, even the practical daily wisdom of this woman of noble character.
“Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate” (31:31).
What should we do or say in regard to this wife of noble character? She should be honored. In the city, in public affairs, women of noble character should be held up for praise and acclaim.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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