More Precious Than Jewels: The True Story of the Proverbs 31 Woman (A Three Part Series)Proverbs 31 is not just a laundry list of “shoulds” for the virtuous wife. Oh dear sister, it is so much more! This chapter displays the eternal wisdom of God, essential wisdom needed for every Christian believer. Abandon what you think you know about this wife of noble character. Tune into this 3 part series and discover The True Story of the Proverbs 31 Woman. You might be surprised.
(Click here to read part 1.)
She is the great Woman of Valor. She is the virtuous Wife of Noble Character. Her children rise up and call her blessed, and her husband praises her. Her outfits are fabulous! She’s rockin’ all the jewel-tones — ruby, purple, scarlet — colors I could never pull off in my own wardrobe. I’m more of a pastels kinda girl (my fair complexion). But even all her outer beauty is nothing compared to her strength and dignity, her unmatched excellence. We all know she is pin-perfect.
But who is she, really?
In this article we are going to dig deep into context and unearth the beautiful truth about the Proverbs 31 woman. Like an archaeologist who carefully uncovers, dusts off, and reassembles an ancient and intricate artifact, we are going to uncover, dust off, and reassemble the facts about this woman. So let’s forget what we think we know about her, and let’s put her back in her biblical context, historical time, and culture!
The Proverbs 31 Woman in Biblical Context
It is impossible to understand the Proverbs 31 woman in all her complexity without first understanding the whole book of Proverbs. I understand that may seem daunting, but it must be done. Much of contemporary Christian teaching has taken verses and passages out of context and misapplied them to life. This poor practice is detrimental to our sanctification. When we do this in our own study or under the teaching of another, we end up treating the Bible like a fortune cookie. It’s kinda like the close your eyes and open your Bible to a random page, and point to a random spot; now open your eyes to your finger on your “life-verse” for today. Then we take that one verse, isolate it from the rest of Scripture, and assign personal meaning to it apart from Truth. I admit, in the past, I have done this… And it is wrong! It teaches us to say, “To me this verse means…” This is not okay. It is how heresies are born. God has a specific meaning, a specific purpose, and a specific application for His Holy Word. God calls us to engage in the whole counsel of Scripture (see 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Acts 20:28) in order to keep us from error.
We see a less extreme version of this in women’s ministry. We stick to the passages that we identify as “women’s passages” — Mary and Martha, Proverbs 31, Titus 2, The Wife Chapters, The Marriage Chapters, The Mommy Chapters. As we go on and on with this, these chapters start to be taught in isolation from the rest of Scripture, and we lose our foundation and context. We run into error. We misapply Scripture to our life. It stunts our sanctification and leads us down a destructive path of either legalistic moral keeping, mystic heresy or, too often, both.
This is what I believe has happened with The Proverbs 31 Woman. We’ve taken her out of context and have mistakenly used her as a prescription for Christian womanhood (see previous article). So let’s fix it right now. I’m going to give you a tip-of-the-iceberg context in this little article, but a personal study will reveal the magnanimous glacier below the surface. I encourage you to read Proverbs on your own. And I’m not talking Bible-on-your-kitchen-counter or cursory study; I’m talking digging in here. Dig like an archaeologist! Gather a couple of books and commentaries to assist you in your study (such as here, here, and here). You can do it, and it will bless you greatly!
The author of Proverbs is King Solomon, son of David (yes, sling-shot and giant). Many scholars believe there were other contributors to the book of Proverbs, but overall authorship is attributed to him. In his day, culturally, wealth and wisdom were inextricably linked, and Solomon himself was the wisest and wealthiest king to ever have lived! His kingdom was glorious and breathtaking. His temple is one of the seven wonders of the world. Being the wisest King ever, the theme of this book is WISDOM, more specifically, “practical wisdom for living” (ESV Bible).
The book reads like somewhat disjointed pieces of advice from a father to a teenage son. The first chapter states, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7). It sets up a dichotomy between wisdom and foolishness and this is the through-line for the entire book. Throughout the book, this is where it gets important, wisdom is personified as a woman! This personification culminates. It build and builds and finally we get to chapter 31, where we see the full embodiment of wisdom in this wife of noble character. Chapter 31 is set apart from the rest of the book, even in authorship, and if we aren’t looking close enough we miss that it really is the grand finale fireworks to the entire book of Proverbs. It’s a wrap-up and a summary. But now, instead of the father-to-son talk, it’s the royal mother of King Lemuel telling her son what kind of woman a wise man should marry. She “sets before him the full length portrait of a virtuous woman”1.
In the next article we are going to discuss the importance of this biblical wisdom context and how we must rightly apply it to our lives. But for now, I want to shift gears and talk about this virtuous dream wife Lemuel’s mother is ruminating on with her son.
The Proverbs 31 Woman in Historical and Cultural Context
As I stated earlier, in this culture and time, the common axiom2 of wisdom leading to wealth was held as a virtue. And while there is still truth in it today, the modern man understands it as yes, an axiom, but not a biblical promise. Wisdom does not always lead to wealth and prosperity. We also understand that the lack of wealth and prosperity is not necessarily a punishment from God for sin – an understanding that was skewed by this culture.
So with that, it is appropriate that we see this royal mother instructing her kingly son to marry a woman like this. This excellent wife was an aristocratic Israelite. Her husband was a man of rank, an “Elder in the land”. He had man-servants. She had handmaidens. Which means she had help — key information for those of us curled up next to a heap of laundry on the couch! This is the information that really knocked my socks off and put this gal into perspective for me. I love these two quotes:
“It may well be that this is more the point of the composition than merely a portrayal of the ideal wife. The woman here presented is a wealthy aristocrat who runs a household estate with servants and conducts business affairs — real estate, vineyards, and merchandise — domestic affairs, and charity. It would be quite a task for any woman to emulate this pattern. Camp describes this woman as an idealized wife, in an ideal home, in an ideal society — she is not just some man’s dream woman but represents a universal type of woman”3.
“As a whole it cannot be read as a kind of blueprint of the ideal Israelite housewife, either for men to measure their wives against or for their wives to try to live up to”4.
I read this and the pressure of that heavy legalistic yoke just melts away. Most people are not wealthy royalty. The Proverbs 31 woman is an ideal woman in an utopian society, not a real flesh and blood woman, but rather, a representative of perfection. This information changed so much in my thinking as I realized I didn’t have to emulate her. I no longer had to read Proverbs 31 like an instruction manual.
To further state, the Proverbs 31 woman is not a prescription for godly living except in having the “solid foundation of the fear and wisdom of the Lord… This lady’s standard is not implied to be within the reach of all, for it presupposes unusual gifts and material resources; nor is it much concerned with the personal relationships of marriage. Rather, it shows the fullest flowering domesticity, which is revealed as no petty and restricted sphere, and its mistress as no cipher”5.
She shows us “the fullest flowering domesticity”. Thank you Derek Kidner, now that is lovely!
The Proverbs 31 Woman in Literary Context
Chapter 31 is vastly different in style from the rest of Proverbs. It is set up as an acrostic poem with the first letter of every line sequentially matching the Hebrew alphabet. “We may say, then, that the poem is an organized arrangement of the virtues of the wise wife – the ABCs of wisdom”6. A lesson in wisdom for the whole family, this poem was traditionally “recited by husbands and children at the Sabbath table on Friday night”7.
As stated in the above section, the Proverbs 31 Woman is an ideal woman. This means she’s representative of a type of woman, or even a culmination of the virtuous attributes of many women. Plainly, she is not a real person. This is significant when we place her in her literary context because, as the protagonist of an heroic8 poem, she is somewhat of an hyperbole, meaning a she’s a bit exaggerated. She is nothing like the real wives of Scripture, such as Eve, Sarah, Jezebel, Rebekah, and Rachel9. Like us, these real women still had sin to deal with — sin that had real consequences in a real fallen world.
What is the takeaway? The Proverbs 31 woman, in all her domestic perfection, teaches us to strive in all diligence and perseverance for godly wisdom and fear of the Lord – for that lovely full-flowering domesticity! We should look to her as a model. But ladies, we should not try to emulate her. This should bring great relief to us! We should feel the shackles loose and the yoke lift! What great peace. Christ says, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden… for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28, 30). Praise God, He implores us in all truth.
Now that we know how NOT to apply this text, in the next article, What Contemporary Christians Really Need to Learn from the Proverbs 31 Woman, we discuss how to rightly apply the teaching of the Proverbs 31 woman to our own lives.
Get ready for a surprise!
- Charles Bridges, An Exposition of the Book of Proverbs. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1865; reprinted 2012. P. 256 ↩
- An axiom is a self-evident truth. ↩
- Allen P. Ross, “Proverbs” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 5. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991. P. 1128 ↩
- Allen, 1128 ↩
- Derek Kidner, Proverbs. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008. P. 179 ↩
- Allen, 1129 ↩
- Allen, 1128 ↩
- Heroic poetry: narrative verse that is elevated in mood and uses a dignified, dramatic, and formal style to describe the deeds of aristocratic warriors and rulers. It is transmitted orally over generations. (britannica.com) ↩
- Bridges, 526 ↩