May 072010

By Eric M. Pazdziora

Once upon a time on Mother’s Day, the preacher at whatever church we were attending made this remark: “Proverbs 31 has been used, probably more than any other passage of Scripture, to beat women over the head.”

One can certainly see his point.  How many times have we seen women struggling to measure themselves against the “virtuous wife” so eloquently described in the final chapter of Proverbs?  Isn’t that exactly what every woman really wants, a list of ideal character qualities to live up to?  And what about that kicker of an opening: “Who can find a virtuous wife?”  Good luck (seems to be the implication); it’s going to be a tough search.

But as I studied through Proverbs 31, I made a discovery so breathtakingly obvious that I’m not surprised so many people have missed it.

Let me put it this way: Using Proverbs 31 to “beat women over the head,” to require them to live up to an impossible ideal, is like using the epistle to the Romans to prove that you are saved by keeping the Law, not by grace.  It’s like using the book of James to prove that you don’t have to live out your faith.  It’s like using the gospel of John to prove that Jesus is not the eternal Son of God.  Not only does that interpretation completely miss the point of the text in question, it completely contradicts the point.

Look closely at the opening of this chapter of Proverbs:

The words of King Lemuel, the utterance which his mother taught him.

There’s some debate among commentators as to the precise identity of this King Lemuel.  The more significant point, however, is the second person here: “Which his mother taught him.”  This is advice given to the king by his mother.  What advice would you give a king if you were his mother?  Probably, to put it in a nutshell, “Make wise decisions.”  That’s how Lemuel recounts her words:

What, my son?
And what, son of my womb?
And what, son of my vows?
Do not give your strength to women,
Nor your ways to that which destroys kings.
It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
It is not for kings to drink wine,
Nor for princes intoxicating drink;
Lest they drink and forget the law,
And pervert the justice of all the afflicted.
Give strong drink to him who is perishing,
And wine to those who are bitter of heart.
Let him drink and forget his poverty,
And remember his misery no more.
Open your mouth for the speechless,
In the cause of all who are appointed to die.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
And plead the cause of the poor and needy.

So far, this is all excellent advice for anyone in a position of authority.  Don’t waste your time chasing after women; that would be a bad decision.  Don’t drink anything (ahem) that could impair your judgment, since you will need to make important decisions.  Stand up for social justice for the less fortunate; that would be a good decision.

Then we come to the Mother’s Day passage, about another very important decision.  (Interestingly, it forms an acrostic poem in Hebrew, each verse beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet.)  Again, watch the opening very carefully:

Who can find a virtuous wife?
For her worth is far above rubies.

We’re so familiar with these words that I think we’ve forgotten to ask a painfully obvious question.  Here it is: What kind of person is interested in finding a good wife?  Painfully obvious answer: A man.  A single man, to be exact.  This passage is motherly advice for young, unmarried men.  Women aren’t being addressed here; a woman is doing the addressing.  Picture a good Jewish mama: “So you want to know how to get a good woman?  Let me tell you how to get a good woman.”

In case you missed that (which, in fairness, a great many people do), notice that the very first bit of description tells us how the husband of this virtuous wife will act:

The heart of her husband safely trusts her;
So he will have no lack of gain.

This is a cause-and-effect statement.  The cause is simple enough: The husband trusts his wife with all his heart.  He lets her know that he believes in her.  He encourages her.  He affirms her.  He builds her up.  He makes her feel safe.  And he never, ever beats her over the head, even metaphorically.

The effect—“So”—is dramatic: “he will have no lack of gain.”  And then the poem launches into a rhapsodic litany of all the things the husband will gain from his simple act of trust:

She does him good and not evil
All the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax,
And willingly works with her hands.
She is like the merchant ships,
She brings her food from afar.
She also rises while it is yet night,
And provides food for her household,
And a portion for her maidservants.
She considers a field and buys it;
From her profits she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength,
And strengthens her arms.
She perceives that her merchandise is good,
And her lamp does not go out by night.
She stretches out her hands to the distaff,
And her hand holds the spindle.
She extends her hand to the poor,
Yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid of snow for her household,
For all her household is clothed with scarlet.
She makes tapestry for herself;
Her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the gates,
When he sits among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them,
And supplies sashes for the merchants.
Strength and honor are her clothing;
She shall rejoice in time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
And on her tongue is the law of kindness.
She watches over the ways of her household,
And does not eat the bread of idleness.

Now seriously, what sensible man at this point isn’t nodding his head vigorously, his eyes opened really wide, and thinking, “Yeah!  That’s the kind of wife I’m looking for!” This woman has made it her ambition to be a benefit to her husband—“She does him good and not evil.”  She works to improve his finances, his household, even his clothing.  She’s business savvy.  She’s wise, diligent, kind, ready with a word of advice or encouragement. As a result, “her husband is known in the gates,” that is, he’s well respected in the community. As the saying goes, behind every great man there is a great woman.  As the saying should go, behind every great man there is a greater woman.

But what caused all this?  It was not that the woman read this chapter and struggled to live up to it.  It was simply that her husband affirmed his heartfelt trust in her.  Thus the poem concludes:

Her children rise up and call her blessed;
Her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many daughters have done well,
But you excel them all.”
Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing,
But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands,
And let her own works praise her in the gates.

What is the emphasis here?  Praise her—not in the sense of worship, but in the sense of affirmation.  Let her know how remarkable is everything she’s accomplished.  Let her know that you think highly of her, more highly than any other woman.  Let her know that she has a special blessing from the Lord.  Let her know how much it means to you that she serves the Lord.

This forms a sort of bookend around the poem.  All those great things that were listed earlier?  All that is the result, not the cause, of the very simple action of affirming your wife.  Deep down, all women want to feel secure in a man’s affection; they need to know for sure that they are loved; they need to know that they are valued and trusted.  This (I am told) is one of the fundamental needs of the human female.  If you, as her husband, supply this need for her, then the result will be this marvelous “virtuous wife.”  It is not that she will live up to this list—it is that she will live out this list.

That’s the advice of Lemuel’s mother: “How did your father find a woman who was willing to do all the things that I do to help him?  He encouraged me.  He let me know he trusted me.  And then I couldn’t help but do all the rest for him.”

This advice is echoed by Paul, well schooled in the rabbinic tradition, in his letter to the Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. (Ephesians 5:25-30)

Paul sets up Christ as the ultimate example here.  Christ regards His bride (the Church) as flawless and perfect, and it is His self-sacrificial love that makes her that way.  Christ nourishes and cherishes His bride as His own body, because she is His own body.

So where’s the advice for the ladies?  Back in Proverbs 31 is this gem:

Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing,
But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.

If you make it your goal in life to be externally attractive, then you will attract people who are attracted to externals.  If you make it your goal in life to serve the Lord, then you “will be praised.”  You will find the kind of encouragement and love that this chapter aims to inspire.  Oh, wait—you already have it.  There is already a man who loves you unconditionally and thinks you are pure and beautiful, and His name is Jesus.

The character qualities here are not things you need to aspire and work to have.  This is what Jesus is making you into.  This is what a good husband will see in you. Hold out for that man who loves you as Christ loves the church.  Who can find the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31?  Only the virtuous husband of Proverbs 31.