Not that long ago, I commented on how another passage of scripture is misunderstood and overemphasised. I would like to demonstrate the same with Proverbs 31:10-31.
The woman of Proverbs 31 is often presented as the prototypical, if not ideal, wife and mother. She is an example of what such a woman ought to be and what women, in particular, ought to strive to be. But as much as this passage gives us some very practical advice on what it means to be a godly woman, I think this approach is misguided if not misweighted. Which is to say, that it would and likely has, become a burden to women in general which is it was never intended to be. So I intend to discover how we should not use this passage but also to see what practical benefit this passage may hold out to us.
Consider, first, that the counsel is given to Lemuel by his mother (Proverbs 31:1). It is a woman, not a man (Solomon, Lemuel or others) who is speaking about this woman. That is instructive because conservative men (and pastors in particular) are often chastised in our time for daring to share their opinion about what a woman ought to be, or even what kind of woman the men of the congregation should want to marry. But we do see here that it is good that men and women should have a clear idea(l) of what kind of spouse they want to spend their life with, as well as what kind of spouse they should aspire to be.
More to the point of this post, these words are part of a prophecy (vs. 1). The word for prophecy is the same word translated in the prophetic books as “burden” (cf. Isaiah 13:1, Nahum 1:1, Malachi 1:1 etc.). Assuming that this does not just apply to the first part of the chapter but to its entirety, these are not just proverbs (counsel) but divine prescriptions. Though by the spirit of God Lemuel is relating them to us, they remain his words from his mother for his situation as God required.
In particular, they are words directed to royalty (vs. 1). As such, that is as a public person, the king must keep up his strength and as such cannot give that to a woman (vs. 3) or strong drink (vs. 4). He may have a wife, even as one assumes he may occasionally partake of wine, but his wife ought to be one that does not rob him of his wits or precious time. She must be a woman that can help him in his calling, as king. As such, certain things would be required of her for her husband that would not be required of the average woman.
Think, after all, of some of the descriptions of the passage before us: she “giveth meat to the household, and a portion to her maidens” (vs. 15 cf. vs. 21). This not only assumes a royal woman fit for the king but also a wealthy woman. As such there is no conceivable way that the average woman could meet these requirements in Lemuel’s day, let alone ours. After all, some women were meant to be, by God’s providence, this woman’s servants. Not many, if any, Christian women have servants at home that can do things for them (on their behalf) so they can pursue other projects. Many cannot or could not even help the poor and needy (vs. 20) because they themselves are or were poor. Furthermore, not every woman could or can buy a field (vs. 16) or sell merchandise (vs. 18). Not every Christian woman has had such material resources at their hands, and many never will.
Thus we have to let go of the feminist interpretation of this passage, namely that a woman should feel free to work outside of the home with no restraints on her time nor concern for the well-being of their husband and children before her own (contrary to 1 Timothy 5:14 & Titus 2:4-5). But it also means we have to let go of a conservative interpretation of this passage which might try to make every woman (unnaturally and contrary to God’s providence) do or become all that this passage holds out to us. Let not the teaching of scripture bear more weight than it was intended to. Additionally, let not the teaching of scripture become a burden for us that we cannot bear.
But if that is all true, inquiring minds want to know why this passage is included in scripture? If we cannot apply all of it directly to ourselves, what use is it to us? We are exhorted to find in scripture “doctrine, reproof, correction” and “instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Which is to say, there are general principles and practices that we can derive from this passage for our benefit, particularly those that are upheld by other places in scripture, even when we cannot say that every detail pertains to every person who reads the text.
First of all, she cultivates virtue (vs. 10 & 26,29 & 30). This, before anything, is first. Consider vs. 30: “Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the LORD, shall be praised.” Returning to the beginning of the book and this portion’s contribution to the whole, is this fear not the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7)? What benefit is a wife for a believing man except first that she serves the Lord? How does “the heart of her husband” “safely trust in her” (vs. 11) unless she trusts in God? This is easily glossed over but not by scripture’s consistent teaching.
In particular, she expresses her fear of God in her industriousness. Note the dominance of the active verbs in this text. A godly woman is busy with what God has given her to do. In this passage she buys, sells, serves, plants, helps, makes and delivers. Whatever she does, she does well: “She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness” (vs. 27). It it true, that each wife and mother has particular talents and interests that takes up their day. Some families choose to home-school which demands even more of a mother’s time. But whatever she does, as any other Christian, she does with all her might (Ecclesiastes 9:9).
Second, she is concerned with her household before her own advancement (vs. 12,15,21,27&28). Everything she does is for her husband, servants and children. Therefore she does not seek her own praise, nor promotes herself by her own mouth. Contrast this to her husband who “is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land” (vs. 23). She is praised in the gates (vs. 31) but her husband dwells there.
Look at the woman whose name graces the following book in the Hebrew canon: Ruth. Even after her husband dies, she clings to Naomi and serves her well-being (Ruth 1:17). Ruth is primarily selfless, understanding her place as that of servant to the interest of the family and family name (Ruth 3:9). While quietly doing her duty, she is noticed and praised by Boaz (Ruth 2:11-12) and blessed by the people (Ruth 4:11 cf. Proverbs 31:31).
But this is not to imply that a woman’s place is to just to be off in some quiet space with nothing to say. Rather, Proverbs 31 tells us not only what she ought to occupy herself with but also what she ought to speak: “Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.” It is the duty of the wife to give thanks for what she does. She doesn’t have to wait for others to say so: she must be thankful to God for her unique and essential calling. Of course, that is easier said than done (as would be for all). And wisdom literature (especially Ecclesiastes) is realistic about what life is like “under the sun.” Nevertheless, we ought to pray for our wives and mothers that they can be happy or blessed in this calling. And do encourage them yourselves (vs. 28&31).
Finally, she “openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.” Mothers (Proverbs 1:8, 6:20 & Titus 2:3-5) are teachers. They too have the Spirit of God. Children must learn, and be taught by their fathers, to listen to their mothers. Husbands must respect and love their wives in such a way that their children see and hear that their father respects and loves their mother. A wife may submissively teach her husband too, especially when he is going astray. Husbands would be fools if they think that their wives were given to them just so that their own opinion might be heard.
In summary, it is clear that we can learn much from this passage about the roles of wives (and husbands) in the marriage relationship. But we must be careful when we apply it, that we not go beyond what is written on the page (1 Corinthians 4:6).
1. As I have seen interpreted by both conservatives and liberals; feminists and traditionalists.
2. Keeping in mind that if Lemuel was a king of Israel (some believing that this was Solomon by another name) he would be required to be a participant in Israel’s feasts, which included the drinking of wine (Deuteronomy 14:23-26). Compare this to the priestly prohibition in Leviticus 10:9. The assumption is that while serving in the capacity of king, not merely as an ordinary man or believer, Lemuel should abstain from wine.
3. Or at least someone of nobility.
4. Which ought to give instruction to Christian husbands who should encourage their wives in Christian piety and learning, as well as to ensure their wives have time to pursue it.
5. Genesis 6:2; Deuteronomy 7:3,4; Psalm 106:35; 1 Corinthians 7:39, 9:5 [AV: “sister”]; 2 Corinthians 6:14; 1 Timothy 3:11.
6. She “seeketh,” (vs. 13) “worketh willingly with her hands” (ibid.), “she bringeth” (vs. 14), “she riseth” (vs. 15) and “giveth” (ibid.), “buyeth” (vs. 16) and “planteth” (ibid.), “girdeth her loins” (vs. 17), “strengtheneth” (ibid.) etc.
7. The implication being, again, that her work serves his calling. She frees him up to fulfil his role as king of the people. Compare this to the calling of the first man (Genesis 2:15) and his wife’s role as his help meet (“for him” vs. 18).