“A wife of noble character – Can anybody find? She’s worth more than the finest jewels and precious gems combined.” (Proverbs 31:10)
This is the thirty-first and final post on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 31, preceded by a brief reflection.
Proverbs 31, the last chapter in the book of Proverbs, concludes with a poem about a noble wife in verses 10-31. This has traditionally been viewed as a paradigm for a godly woman, and various verses are often used in honoring a wife and/or mother. For example, it might be said of her, “She’s worth more than the finest jewels and precious gems combined.” (v 10b); or “She’s dressed with strength and majesty, and clothed with dignity.” (v 25a); or “Her children rise and call her blessed, with honor and acclaim.” (v 28a) Using these words to honor a godly and loving wife is certainly appropriate. At times I have given cards to Pat with selected ones of these verses.
But if this poem is principally a model for a godly woman, then it is an impossible standard to achieve. Taken literally, the verses describe a superhuman woman, who never existed in reality, nor could she ever. Consider her description. She is super high energy (v 17); buys land and plants a vineyard on it (v 16); travels widely to find the best food for her family (v 14); buys the finest wool, spins her own thread and makes all of her families’ clothing (v 13, 19, 21, 22); makes so many clothes that she sells the excess (v 24); and also has time to aid the poor (v 20). Not surprisingly, she never slows down (v 27); sleeps very little as she works late into the night (v 18), and gets up so early that it is still night (v 15). Her main concern in life is to make her husband look good (v 11, 12, 23). She speaks with wisdom and loving kindness (v 26); and through it all, amazingly, she has no worries (v 25)!
Even accounting for time and cultural differences, no one person could actually live like this. This suggests that while it may reasonable to read this in part as praise for a noble wife, there is something else in these verses. It starts, of course, with recognizing that verses 10-31 is a self-contained poem within one of the five poetical books of the Bible – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. The essence of poetry is to take our minds and imaginations beyond the literal words that are used and into the context and deeper meaning of what is being written. And such is the case when we do so with these verses.
One interpretation put forth is that these verses are not principally about a wife at all, but rather about the true nature of wisdom itself. That the poem is framed as a noble woman is simply a literary way to personify wisdom. And in doing so, this merely continues the personification of wisdom as a woman that is done previously in Proverbs 1:20-33; 8:1-9:11.
The translators of the NET Bible explain it this way. “The book of Proverbs comes to a close with this poem about the noble wife. A careful reading of the poem will show that it is extolling godly wisdom that is beneficial to the family and the society. Traditionally it has been interpreted as a paradigm for godly women. And while that is valid in part, there is much more here. The poem captures all the themes of wisdom that have been presented in the book and arranges them in this portrait of the ideal woman. Any careful reading of the passage would have to conclude that if it were merely a paradigm for women what it portrays may well be out of reach – she is a wealthy aristocrat who runs an estate with servants and conducts business affairs of real estate, vineyards, and merchandising, and also takes care of domestic matters and is involved with charity. Moreover, it says nothing about the woman’s personal relationship with her husband, her intellectual and emotional strengths, or her religious activities. In general, it appears that the “woman” of Proverbs 31 is a symbol of all that wisdom represents. The poem, then, plays an important part in the personification of wisdom so common in the ancient Near East. … The poem certainly presents a pattern for women to follow. But it also presents a pattern for men to follow as well, for this is the message of the book of Proverbs in summary.”
What then does Proverbs 31 tell us about the nature of biblical wisdom, and the pattern for all people of faith to follow? Two things jump out.
The first is that godly wisdom is primarily manifested in its care and concern for others. Every verse in the poem that describes the noble wife’s actions involves serving and helping someone else. This is shocking to those of us who have been shaped by the spirit of the age, which is self-care. We are bombarded with worldly wisdom that says take care of number one. From self-aggrandizing public figures to commercial advertising to religious hucksters who promote a health and wealth ‘gospel.’ This is as far from godly wisdom as the east is from the west. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve – and we are called to do the same. And while we should not disregard our own needs, this hardly needs to be emphasized in today’s narcissistic culture.
The second is that godly wisdom requires a lot of effort. One thing that strikes me from this poem is the physical and emotional energy inherent in godly wisdom. Essentially every verse speaks of effort – industry, thrift, working all hours, and always with the goal of serving others – be they family or simply those in need. It is really hard for me to get my head around the strength that’s needed to live this kind of life. I enjoy my rest and private times – sometimes too much. The challenge we Christians face is where to find the strength to persevere. I like the encouraging words spoken by Eric Liddell, the great Scottish Olympic champion and missionary to China, from the movie Chariots of Fire.
“You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape – especially if you’ve got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe your dinner’s burnt. Maybe you haven’t got a job. So who am I to say, “Believe, have faith,” in the face of life’s realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, ‘Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.’ If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.”
And so, we are reminded again of the guiding principle of the spiritual life, which is trusting the Lord to make our pathways straight (Proverbs 3:5-6). We lean not on our own understanding nor what we find in the world’s wisdom. But in trusting the word of the Lord we gain not only the cognitive knowledge of how to live a godly life, but the strength to do so as well. May it be that way with us all.
1 These are the sayings that have come,
from Lemuel the king –
Inspired by his mother’s words,
that he should learn and cling.
2 O listen now, O son of mine,
O precious son I bore;
O son – the answer to my prayers,
the one whom I adore.
3 Don’t give to women what you have –
your strength and energy;
Ignore those who can ruin kings,
and bring calamity.
4 O Lemuel, it’s not for kings,
to fill themselves with wine;
For rulers should not crave strong drink –
as it is not benign.
5 For drink can make their minds forget,
the law that’s been decreed;
And thus pervert the justice due,
to all of those in need.
6 But give strong drink to one whose life,
is soon to pass away;
And wine to those whose anguished lives,
and souls are in dismay.
7 O let them drink so they’ll forget,
their hopeless poverty;
And nevermore recall to mind,
their life of misery.
8 Speak up for those who have no voice –
the powerless and mute;
And everyone who has no hope –
the poor and destitute.
9 Speak up and judge impartially,
so justice is decreed;
Defend the rights of indigents –
the poor and those in need.
10 A wife of noble character,
can anybody find?
She’s worth more than the finest jewels,
and precious gems combined.
11 Her husband trusts her thoroughly,
with faith in all her deeds;
There’s nothing valuable he lacks,
or anything he needs.
12 She only brings out what is good,
to help her husband thrive;
And never does she do him harm,
as long as she’s alive.
13 She seeks the finest wool and flax,
that’s sold throughout the lands;
Then skillfully she handles them,
with glad and willing hands.
14 She seeks out food like merchant ships,
that travel far and wide;
Then brings it to her family,
at home where they abide.
15 She gets up in the still of night,
to gather bread and meat;
Providing for her family,
and servant maids to eat.
16 She looks to buy some country land,
and once the deal is sealed;
From income of her own she plants,
a vineyard in the field.
17 She girds herself with strength and might,
to work with energy;
Her arms are strong for every task,
she tackles eagerly.
18 She knows her merchandise is good,
while profiting from it;
While working late into the night,
she keeps her candle lit.
19 She reaches out a hand to hold,
the distaff for her wool;
Then whirls the spindle with her palms,
and threads it till it’s full.
20 She opens up her arms to aid,
the people who are poor;
Extending out her hands to them,
to help a little more.
21 She does not fear for those she loves,
when snowflakes fill the air;
For they are clothed and warmly dressed,
in scarlet outerwear.
22 She also makes her coverings,
from finest cloth she chose;
And she herself is well adorned,
in purple linen clothes.
23 Her husband is respected when,
he’s at the city gate;
It’s there he takes his place among,
the elders and the great.
24 She makes fine linen into clothes,
and garments she can sell;
She takes to merchants all these goods,
and custom belts as well.
25 She’s dressed with strength and majesty,
and clothed with dignity;
She laughs at what the days may bring –
the future she can’t see.
26 She opens up her mouth to speak,
with wisdom from her heart;
Her tongue is lovingly prepared,
with kindness to impart.
27 She watches how her house is run,
in all its varied ways;
She does not eat the bread of sloth,
or waste away her days.
28 Her children rise and call her blessed,
with honor and acclaim;
Her husband also praises her,
with glory to her name.
29 “Though other women may excel,
with noble things they’ve done;
Still, what you’ve shown is higher yet –
30 Now beauty is mere vanity,
and charm won’t long enthrall;
A woman, though, who fears the Lord,
is to be praised by all.
31 So honor her for everything,
her hands have made anew;
And at the city gates let all,
her works receive their due.