American Journal of Biblical Theology
May 13, 2007
Copyright © 2007, John W. (Jack) Carter Scripture quotes from KJV
It was Memorial Day, 1867. America had just come through the most difficult years of its existence as a country when nearly 700,000 Americans died at one another's hands during the Civil War1. People came together in their churches to mourn those who had fallen during this American tragedy. Most of those who died were young men who left behind grieving families, including some of the most heartbroken people one can imagine: their mothers. Thousands upon thousands of mothers grieved the loss of one or more of her children, experiencing a suffering the nature of which few can understand, and no one would wish to experience. One mother, Mrs. Anna Reeves Jarvis hoped that there would be a similar memorial day for mothers, and promoted the idea of holding annual Mother's Day services in her local community church. Her daughter, Anna, on the occasion of her death devoted herself to the project and by 1908 a bill was introduced to the U.S. Senate. Though the proposal failed, the event led to Mother's Day services in 45 states, Canada, and Mexico. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed into law a resolution establishing Mothers Day on the second Sunday in May as a day to recognize the contribution of mothers, living and dead, in their role in the family. Ann spent the rest of her days fighting the commercialization of Mother's Day, seeking to halt the flow of cards and flowers, and maintain the day as one of honor and thanks to the contribution that women have made in the family.2
As much as some people would like to minimize gender roles, the role of the mother in the home cannot be understated. The family is the basic unit of human civilization, and the health of any civilization is directly impacted by health of the family. There is no more important contribution to the health of a family as that made by loving parents, and it is clear that all people recognize the importance of the role that the mother holds in the family unit. The scriptures contain a significant amount of teaching concerning the family unit and God's plan for the maintenance of its health. There is probably no more concise example of the biblical teaching on the nature and character of a godly woman than that described by Solomon in Proverbs 31. A review of Solomon's words might be instructive as we are reminded of God's plan for obedient living.
What makes a woman worthy of honor and praise? We could probably name many different characteristics, attributes, or works of a woman who is worthy of high praise. We might list some great accomplishments, or great contributions to society. We might look for great physical beauty or strength. We might look at her influence in the shaping of world events. We might be looking in all the wrong places. The scripture gives us a clear and meaningful description of the praiseworthy woman.
Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised.
Where the world places great value on high social status and on physical attractiveness, God's word reminds us that these attributes in an individual are not those which God honors. Position and beauty are but a vapor that is here for a little while and then simply fades away, for beauty and position is not found in appearance, but in the eternal substance of faith. One might list many attitudes and actions of a Godly woman, and we will, but the foundation of these all is a deep and abiding faith in God. What does faith have to do with praiseworthy attitude and action? “But a woman that feareth the Lord,” that possesses true faith, has that grace that harmonizes the soul, that purifies and refines all the tempers and passions, and that ornament of beauty, a meek and quiet mind, which in the sight of God is of great price.3
Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.
When we consider the woman of Proverbs 31 we probably think of an unattainable image. A woman may think of her as an impossible goal. After all, the scripture does ask the question, can she be found? Does such a woman exist? With Solomon's many wives and concubines, and with literally all of them coming to him as "peace children" from foreign, pagan backgrounds, he is probably describing a hopeful vision. He may see some of his monogamous colleagues in a relationship with a virtuous wife and long for the same relationship himself. Virtue and integrity in the marriage union is worth more than any price can purchase. Virtue and integrity in the marriage union is not beyond our grasp.
We may be reminded that with God all things are possible when those things are in His will and approached with His strength. Solomon is simply searching for a woman of uncompromised virtue, a woman of integrity. For a woman without faith, the goal of Proverbs 31 is certainly impossible, However, individual characteristics of Proverbs 31 can certainly be found in a woman of faith, though some characteristics may be stronger than others. When called upon to consider the lives of women I have known, particularly in funeral messages, I have often come back to this passage of scripture and seen how many of these characteristics were evident in the lives of those women who we remembered. Each individual has a unique set of gifts, talents, and interests, and when one loves the LORD, one applies those resources to the purposes of God's kingdom. It is this love for the LORD and this desire to serve Him that God deems priceless. No price or wage can purchase true faith. No price or wage can purchase a true heart-felt desire to serve the LORD. In these verses we find some of the ways that this priceless gift of service is exercised.
We might note that, as with other lists of characteristics in scripture, Proverbs 31 is not a rule of law. It is not a list of specific tasks to strive for. One is not measured against this list to determine one's value or one's level of obedience. If this were the case, it would be necessary that this list include every possible godly motivation and action. This list is simply a statement that describes a few of the many godly attributes of a woman who is spiritually mature. A mature Christian woman will exhibit some of these characteristics to varying amounts, and may also exhibit many others. We are not in competition with the Proverbs 31 woman. She is simply an example to inspire us and to illustrate for us some of the characteristics of spiritual maturity.
The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. 12She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
It is probably instructive to note that the first attribute exhibited by the mature Christian woman concerns her relationship with her husband. God has ordained the family unit, and there is no relationship in that unit apart from God that is more important than the relationship between husband and wife. It is God's plan that the two would be joined as one, and if this truly takes place, their differences complement one another as together they form a single, cohesive force for God's kingdom and for their family. When two are so joined, there is an unshakable trust between husband and wife.
Note that the trust the he has in her is safe. Usually when we place trust in someone there is a portion of risk involved. We risk the individual taking advantage of our trust and hurting us in some way. We expose our vulnerabilities to those we trust with the hope that they will neither expose us to our own loss, or take advantage of them for their own gain. Loving someone seems to almost carry with it an element of risk, and many people withhold the love and trust of others for fear of that risk. However, the woman of integrity has shown to her husband a love that goes beyond what this world thinks of as love. It is a love that is unconditional. It is a love that is maintained by a commitment to the LORD and a commitment to her husband that she will not compromise. This is the same devotion that Paul demands of the husband in his letter to the Ephesians when he states, "Husband love your wives." This Proverb is not condoning a one-way love, but a love that is the basis for a godly marriage.
Why do so many marriages break up today? One can arguably state that broken marriages lack this form of mutual love that is maintained with an uncompromised commitment to the LORD and to one another. When a husband is in a relationship like this, there is absolutely no motivation to compromise the integrity of his marriage. He has no interest in seeking marital relationships elsewhere. This is an interesting observation coming from someone who did not experience this type of marriage himself. It might be helpful to understand that Solomon's many wives were not a product of his extramarital collection. These wives and concubines were given to him by foreign kings and tribe leaders as peace children to establish a stable political relationship.
Because of her love for her husband, the woman of virtue and integrity is dedicated to him alone, and would never think of doing him any harm, for to do so would be to harm herself. Both are injured if a single one is injured in such a marriage. Consequently his trust in her is completely safe. We may be reminded that this same trust is felt by the woman when her husband also shares her character of virtue and integrity. This is God's plan for marriage.
Many young people jump into marriage today before such real trust is developed. They may not bring this level of integrity and virtue into the marriage union, and the marriage becomes difficult when conflicts arise, and many of these marriages fail. Trust is a natural response to proven integrity. Consequently, the godly virtue and integrity of the relationship should be established before the marriage vows are taken.
She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. 14She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar. 15She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
Of course, the ancients lacked almost all of the technology that we use today to run an average household. Where we have a myriad of kitchen appliances and tools, the ancient woman had her own hands. Having established the trust of her husband, she is free to effectively manage the affairs of the household. The image we have in this passage is that of a large household with at least a few children. A tremendous amount of work went into the housing, feeding and clothing of the ancient family and the woman was responsible for much of that work. This is why the practice of fasting was so significant. Fasting allowed all of this work to be temporarily set aside so that the household could focus on prayer.
Why does the woman of virtue seek the materials to clothe and feed her household, and then spend many hours of each day preparing it for her husband and children? Her motivation to give of herself within the home comes from that same character and integrity that inspires the trust of her husband. She loves the LORD, and out of that love she is able to express a virtuous love for her family. She does not work within the home because she must: she works within the home because she desires to do so as her work benefits those in the home.
She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
Managing the home goes beyond the limits of its walls. In order to meet the needs of her family, the woman of virtue joins her husband in the labor of love that builds the home. In ancient culture, and as is still predominant today, the husband's role is to work outside the home and by so doing bring into that home the resources needed to meet the needs of the family. He may bring to the home the income needed to purchase the wool, flax, and food that the family needs. However, we can see that the woman of virtue complements his efforts as she generates gain from areas where He is not directly engaged. We could understand the word, "vineyard" to be similar in our culture to the word, "garden." We can see that the woman obtains the land and plants a garden, and by so doing is both complementing the work of her husband, and supplementing the needs of the home.
She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.
We have a couple of interesting ancient idioms interacting here. To "girdeth her loins" literally refers to the practice of tucking the rear hem of her (or his) skirt under the front of the belt, converting the skirt or robe into a pair of short pants. This enables the individual to run. The idea is to prepare one's self for quick and decisive action. A second idiom refers to the strong arm. We might literally think that she lifts weights to generate powerful arm strength. However, this idiom refers to the ability to exercise authority to get work accomplished. We still use a similar idiom when we refer to the "strong arm of the law," or we look at biblical anthropomorphisms that refer to the arm of God. Together these idioms note that the woman of virtue puts forth an effort to prepare for herself the resources needed to get the work of the household accomplished without exhausting herself.
Where does that resource of strength come from? Hers is an inner strength and confidence that comes from the knowledge of her LORD and her obedience to His call to the ministry of the household. Hers is not an exercise in lifting weights: it is an exercise of prayer that makes the weights less burdensome. The preparation of girding her loins is done through prayer and meditation on God's Word.
She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night. 19She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
The previous verses describe how her work supplements the direct needs of the home: the production of clothing and food. The Proverbs 31 woman, strengthened by her faith and confidence in the LORD is not exhausted by her efforts because of the balance she has in her life. This is a balance that is based upon her love for the LORD and her love for her family. Consequently, she also jumps on the opportunity to take part in a little bit of commerce to both supplement the household needs and to exercise her own skills and interests in a profitable manner.
This may be an important point to consider. When the woman works to the point of exhaustion, her own interests can be buried by her household tasks. Her life is out of balance and her strength is not coming from the right source. She can become disillusioned in her role and see herself as a slave of the household, or an unappreciated laborer to her husband and children. The issue is not the circumstance of her role, but rather how she perceives her role and to whom she dedicates her work. This is why verse 17 is so important. The Proverbs 31 woman needs the strength and direction that comes from her love of the LORD and from her prayer and meditation on God's word that allows the Holy Spirit to direct her choices and her perceptions. With the Holy Spirit's inspiration, she sees that her work is good, and is profitable to herself, to her family, and to the kingdom of God. Consequently, she tends to work into the night as she enjoys the tasks that employ her gifts and interests.
One small example might be demonstrated by my daughter, Jennifer who is the married mother of a toddler. She enjoys playing the piano, and enjoys teaching others to play so that they can also experience what she does when she plays. She took that a step further and has taken on a few piano students. In this she is contributing to the quality of life of her students as she is giving of herself and her knowledge. She is also raising a little bit of income that makes it easier for her family to meet their monthly bills. Teaching the piano is not directly related to clothing and feeding her family. To take away her piano would be a travesty. So, her interest in music is preserved and she uses that interest in a way that is profitable to herself, to others, and to her family.
She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
The woman of virtue does not limit her love for others to her husband and her children. Hers is a true, agape love that is expressed unconditionally towards all people. When one's love for others is truly an unconditional agape love, one is driven to respond to the needs of others in a Christ-like manner. Rather than respond to the needs of others in sympathy that inspires us to say, "I am so sorry for you," she responds in compassion that puts action to that sympathy. Note the words used here: she stretches her hand, she reaches forth. These are deliberate actions that initiate the meeting of the needs of another. Again, her motivation for her generosity is the same as that engenders the trust of her husband: the demonstrated integrity of her love for the LORD.
She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet. 22She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple. 23Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.
Yes, they do experience winter snows in Israel. As the Proverbs 31 woman is meeting the needs of her family, she demonstrates a very important attitude, one that brings a very positive value to the home, and one that brings value to any social enterprise. Because of her love for the LORD she works to prepare the very best for herself and for her family. Understanding the godly role that she has, she cannot settle for "good" when she can strive for the "best." If she settles for "second-rate," she will be teaching her children and others that they are also "second-rate." Instead, she shoots for the best, a level of lifestyle that honors God and brings pride to her husband and children. She understands that what she brings to her husband and family she is bringing to the LORD, so she does not settle for simply that which is "good enough." Because of this, the whole community recognizes that this family has a godly pride in themselves, bringing the family the respect of others.
Some have argued that the woman is working hard while her husband is lounging at the gates with the gossipy old men. Nothing could be further from the truth. The gates of the city were the primary places of commerce. This is a man who is deeply engaged in the commerce of his community. Furthermore, his is respected by the people in the community. His respect is indicated by his being included with the group of men who the community look up to for advice and judgment. The ancients placed a great deal of importance on the character of a man's home. The integrity of the man was no greater than the integrity of the home. We may be reminded of Paul's description of a mature Christian man that included that he "manages his family well," 1 Tim 3:4-5). The Proverbs 31 woman manages her home in a way that brings respect to the home and to her husband.
She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant. 25Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. 26She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness. 27She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. 28Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her. 29Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all. 30Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised. 31Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.
It is easy to praise the Proverbs 31 woman. We see many of her virtues in the way she relates to her husband, her family, and to her community. But most of all, we note that there is one and only one reason why she is the way she is. She is not doing what she does to obtain any favor or by any form of appearance. She is not trying to win the favor of others, for to do so promises only disappointment. Her character is formed simply because she is one who loves the LORD and recognizes her purpose in His kingdom.
This Proverbs 31 mother is not an example of an impossible goal, but rather exemplifies what every Christian woman can strive for. Her resource does not come from her physical beauty. Her resource does not come from her physical strength. It does not come from her physical wealth. If we take away her physical beauty, her physical strength, and her physical wealth, we may see her as being more equal with ourselves. These are attributes that the world culture considers important. It is the beautiful, strong, and wealthy that this world gives respect. However, those who love the LORD should never fall into this trap of false value that serves only to separate people from one another. True value is found in one's relationship with the LORD, and as the Proverb states, her value is beyond the value of all physical things.
Mother's Day is a time when we pause and honor our mothers. Not every mother may demonstrate all of the characteristics of the Proverbs 31 woman, but we will often be surprised when we really look at what our mothers have done. Some of us may have relationships with our mothers that have become strained or even broken as we have failed to appreciate what they have really done for us. Some women and mothers may look at the Proverbs 31 woman and recognize a need to put more emphasis on loving the LORD and less on other distractions. A lot can happen on this Mother's Day as we as children honor our mothers, and as mothers reconsider their godly roles, for the praise of the Proverbs 31 mother is available to all.
3 Barnes' Notes on the Old Testament.