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Finding Honor: Proverb 31's Woman of Noble Character

Below - a meme challenge, an homage to Fiddler on the Roof, and the real meaning and purpose of "the Proverbs 31 woman". Also, do something appreciative for the women in your life this week. Trust me on that.


This article began as a supplement to a Sunday School lesson for August 16.

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Getting Started: Moms Are Amazing

We have come to one of the most famous/infamous chapters in the Bible: Proverbs 31 and the amazing woman it praises.


I've been dropping some heavy topics these past few weeks, so maybe we can just have some fun this week. For reasons I'll discuss below (okay, so maybe one heavy topic), it's a whole lot easier to find clean, quality "mom" humor on the internet than "wife" humor, so that's what I'm going to start with.

Moms are amazing. (Everyone has one, and we're still here, so that's proof #1.) Some Bible scholars think that Lemuel wrote this chapter about his own mom (who we know gave him the advice in verse 1-9). What moms juggle is nothing short of miraculous, and it always has been. Take a trip down memory lane. Think about all of the things your mom did. Based on what you know now, what do you appreciate more today than you did when you were a kid? Make a list.


(If you're willing to take a little more time, expand your thoughts to include some of the moms you know who are raising younger kids right now. How hard is it to be a mom today? To whom do you need to send an encouragement card: "you're doing a great job"? Put that on your to-do list for the week!) And now, some funnies:

When the internet is at its best, it gives us meaningful humor - things that are funny but still remind us of all the things that moms put up with. Of course, there's also the funny-humor side of the internet, and the internet comes through:

And yes, if you've looked through these and aren't really sure what to do with them, there's a meme for that, too:



Now - here's my heavy topic for the day. Any time you search the internet for anything, you're going to find things that are rude, crude, and unacceptable. Even about moms! But the one that made me sad was searching for funny "wife" memes. There's not a lot to go on. Just about everything out there is disappointingly inappropriate. I wonder why that is? It makes me concerned! Either every meme writer is a divorced chauvinist, or the popular opinion of marriage is quite poor. Or maybe the people who create internet memes don't find marriage humorous. Basically, what I could find (that I'm willing to put in a church blog) either makes fun of disagreements, or is a simple love note. Here are some examples:

So here's my challenge: create a marriage/spouse meme!


Put Your Funny Observations about Wives into a Meme

Creating a meme is easy. Creating a good meme is hard. The only way we can correct this failure in the internet is to create and upload some memes of our own that celebrate the things that make marriages fun and funny. Here's some I came up with (forgive me if you don't like them):

If you would, create a meme and email it to me (mward@fbcthomson.org). And we will go from there!


Where We Are in Proverbs

This is it! This is the end of the book of Proverbs. Chapter 30 is attributed to "Agur" and chapter 31 is attributed to "King Lemuel". We don't know of a King Lemuel in Israel, so either it's a pseudonym or it's advice from another kingdom. Some Hebrew scholars think it's Solomon writing about Bathsheba (changing names due to the scandal), but there's no real evidence for that. What we do know is that the Hebrew of verses 10-31 (the official "Wife of Noble Character" section) is advanced and impressive. So, even if it was written by some other king, someone in Israel took great pains to bring it into the Hebrew language.


Observations about this passage: it's both an acrostic and chiastic. This means that each line starts with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and it follows an A B C C' B' A' pattern. Very difficult to pull off well, and this poem is amazing.


Now, the reason why this passage is "infamous" is it presents a seemingly impossible standard for any woman to reach. This woman has it together to the extreme. And that has discouraged some women who don't think they measure up. (There are at least 4 studies at Lifeway.com about Proverbs 31.) But we have to realize that this passage is intended to be much more than a paradigm for being a godly woman:

The Proverbs 31 woman is intended to be a model of what the wisdom of Proverbs looks like in the home and family.

In other words, it's for everyone. And it's intended to be a goal, not the norm. We've spent this entire quarter talking about the ways Proverbs are right and the ways we fail to live by them. It's no different here. Some scholars have noted the similarities between this passage and heroic literature of the day. In other words, this woman is the ancient world's equivalent to Superman. But here's the most important observation: the exploits of this "ancient hero" are the home and family, not the battlefield.


What I appreciate most about this passage is how it turns the ancient stereotypes on their head. Women in that culture were considered second-class, given few rights, and treated poorly. And yet, here is a woman celebrated in the Bible as capable of doing all of the things men did and all of the things men were unwilling to do. A true hero.


In that sense, we can look at this woman as the culmination of the book of Proverbs. Yes, she is an impossible goal, but let's not miss the impact of what we will read here:

  • A heroic place to exercise wisdom is the home (the mundane)

  • "Domestic" affairs are what is truly important in real life

  • The model is not just for women, but for men

That last observation is key -- if this is the summary of Proverbs, then it has meaning for everyone -- men, women, married, single, with kids, without kids, etc. We all have something very important to learn from this passage!


Part 1: Commitment to Her Husband (Proverbs 31:10-12)

10 Who can find a wife of noble character? She is far more precious than jewels. 11 The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will not lack anything good. 12 She rewards him with good, not evil, all the days of her life.

Obviously, Lifeway is going to approach this passage on its face (as it should). That means it is going to focus on what the passage means to a married woman. I'll add a few things toward that end, and I will also make some broader points related to the book of Proverbs as a whole.


The rhetorical question "who can find" is not used here to say that a woman of noble character is "rare"; rather, if you know one, you should value her very highly, like a precious jewel. Think about it -- there are millions of diamonds in the world (and more than a quadrillion tons of them below the earth's surface!), but that doesn't make them any less valuable. If you prize a diamond, you should much much much more prize a woman of noble character!


Note that the word for "wife" is also used of women in general. We know it refers to a wife here because the next verse mentions her husband. So let's start here: why do you think the author chose a wife to be the culmination of the wisdom in Proverbs? My guess is that, in keeping with the male-centered culture of the day, the value of wives was grossly underestimated -- they were taken for granted. What better way for a king to remedy that than to paint her as a superhero? The word for "noble" actually means "strong" and was used to describe the best soldiers in battle (again - "heroic literature").


The use of "trust" here is very important. First, this is the only time the Bible says anything about trusting someone other than God. Now, some will remind us of a non-Jewish origin for the poem, but we should also remember that it was carefully translated and adapted. I think it's completely appropriate to use "trust" here. The Bible elevates the marriage relationship to the very highest humans can experience on earth. We should be able to trust our spouse more than we trust ourselves. (Is this potentially related to how foolish Proverbs paints the man who violates that relationship? I think so.) And yes, this makes the statistics on cheating we saw a few weeks back so very devastating.


Note on "gain" -- this word was usually used for spoils of war. Just another example of the author employing heroic motifs.

We all know the phrase, "Behind every successful man is a woman." That basically comes from this proverb. Less well-known but equally fun is "Behind every successful man is a surprised mother-in-law" and my favorite, "Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes." This is a question for the husbands: where would we be without our wives? The smart husband refers to her as his "better half" -- well, that's true, isn't it?


In his wedding ceremonies, David Lambert likes to say about the creation of Eve that God did not take her from Adam's head, to Lord over him, nor from his feet, to be trampled on by him, but from his side, to be his equal and his partner, close to his heart. If King Lemuel wasn't Jewish, that's all the more remarkable his insight into God's intended relationship between husband and wife!


Application for Everyone

Remember, we read this passage as the culmination of everything in Proverbs. Think back over what we've studied. How does it apply here?

  • Having a firm character

  • Being absolutely trustworthy

  • Doing good for others

  • Having a lifelong commitment to those traits.

Do you have to be a wife to emulate these things?


Part 2: Wise in Her Work (Proverbs 31:13-16)

13 She selects wool and flax and works with willing hands. 14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from far away. 15 She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and portions for her female servants. 16 She evaluates a field and buys it; she plants a vineyard with her earnings.

This is where ancient stereotypes get flipped. This woman is being praised for her superlative work in the "man's world".


"Wool" was used for cloth; "flax" was used for linen. Stalks of flax would be soaked and dried to separate the fibers from the stem; those fibers would be spun into thread. The word for "select" refers to a diligent and careful search. The word for "willing" refers to "pleasure". In other words, this woman searched for the best materials and worked them into something useful -- willingly, taking pleasure in the work. It brought her joy to do this.


The next verse is a simile. The woman did not hire a merchant ship; she went to whatever length necessary to make sure her household had the food they needed. (And maybe that meant importing food from afar!)


This woman was so devoted to her household that she was willing to take care of them even if it meant sleeping less. "While it is still night" just means before sunrise. Who do you know is willing to rise before the sun to get something done? Farmers will be happy to tell you how early they have to start milking the cows. Committed athletes who have regular jobs will be up before dawn to get their training in. We recently watched a story of a woman in Manila who left her house at 3:30 to get to work (traffic is awful there).


This woman did so to make sure her household -- which would include the servants -- had everything they needed to thrive. It makes me think of stories of Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Everest. It is said that he would wake up before everyone else, go and stake their path for the day, then get back to camp before they had stirred (maybe apocryphal?).


Not only did she take care of her household, she also took care of things outside. She was wise enough to know sound investments in property, and she was successful enough with those investments to capitalize on them. Perhaps she rented the land to tenant farmers. Perhaps she did some simple farming herself, slowly improving the land. Regardless, this woman was wise, diligent, and forward-thinking.


Application for Everyone

What else have we learned about work in our study of Proverbs?

  • Diligence

  • Commitment

  • Desire to better yourself

  • Willingness to work hard

  • Shrewd decisions

  • Not being complacent

Those things are modeled in this passage. We can all pursue them.


Part 3: Sure in Her Reputation (Proverbs 31:23-27)

23 Her husband is known at the city gates, where he sits among the elders of the land. 24 She makes and sells linen garments; she delivers belts to the merchants. 25 Strength and honor are her clothing, and she can laugh at the time to come. 26 Her mouth speaks wisdom, and loving instruction is on her tongue. 27 She watches over the activities of her household and is never idle.

This is our second callback to the book of Ruth. The earlier phrase "noble character" was used of Ruth in 3:11. And in Ruth, Boaz met the city leaders at the gate where they were sitting. Cases were judged at the city gates, where most people could observe them. There would even be "offices" and seats built for the leaders at the gates. In other words, her husband being known at the city gates wasn't like Cheers ("Norm!"); he had a place among the city leaders.


Question: why this aside about the husband? Does it take away from the wife? Not at all. If anything, it adds to her. As far as I can tell, putting this verse here means that the wife directly contributes to her husband's reputation in the city as well as his ability to do important leader things. (And it also elevates verse 28.)


This makes me think of one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies, Fiddler on the Roof, itself a movie about turning the old stereotypes on their heads. In the song, "Tradition", we learn that the wife ran the household in part to give the husband time to sit with the other men and study the Torah and make decisions (and gab). But the song puts it in such a way that makes the critical importance of her work clear.

(By the way, if you have time, I also encourage the watching of "If I Were a Rich Man" and "Sunrise, Sunset". And the most important stereotype-busting song of the film, "Lechaim". Goodness, just watch the film.)


The verses that were skipped in this lesson are more or less repeated here. We learn that this woman took the wool and flax and made the clothes and linens herself. She even makes enough to sell! (This may be where she got the money to buy the field. She is her own industry!) "Merchants" was actually the word "Canaanites", namely the Phoenicians who traded throughout the Mediterranean.


But the author pointed out something very important about this woman. Although she was well-clothed by her own hand, her most important "clothing" was her strength and honor. These are interior qualities -- you cannot fool someone into thinking you have them. Like Peter recommended in 1 Peter 3, she did not rely on her outward appearance to "make things happen" -- she gets things done by virtue of her virtues.


Read this passage again. Notice that the author never once mentions this woman's outward appearance. This is not to say that she is unattractive; this is only to say that it is irrelevant. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder", but this woman's qualities are so objectively known and established as to be inarguable. This is a common trope in television; one popular example was "Ugly Betty", about a young woman who works for a fashion magazine despite her lack of "classic beauty", winning friends through her "noble character".


This woman has things so well together that she is not intimidated by the future at all. She laughs confidently when thinking about the possibilities -- all opportunities, no threats. She is equipped to handle anything in her path. And she is willing to share her source of confidence, namely her wisdom. Her family, her servant, anyone she meets -- they can all learn from her. Her character, her skills, her acumen, all are lessons she wants to pass along to anyone they will help.


Is this hard work? Yes! It requires her constant attention and devotion, sunrise to sunset, every day. The Hebrew is literally "she does not eat the bread of idleness". (That's so much more memorable, isn't it?) The idea is that she always went above and beyond in expectations to take care of her household.


Now, let's take a closer look at this. Can we run at full tilt 16 hours a day (or more), every day? Of course not. There is much about this woman that is not described. But she is wise. According to the rest of Proverbs, a wise person knows her limits, knows how to get help, and appreciates the value of God-commanded rest. If we operated within God's prescription for work, I have to believe that we would always avoid the burn-out that many of us probably imagine when we think about living life the Proverbs 31 way. But then again, haven't we already marveled at what moms are capable of? Is that not what this verse is talking about?


Application for Everyone

Look at what these verses highlight:

  • Hard-working and skilled

  • Self-motivated and visionary

  • Does not rely on superficiality

  • Inner strength, influence, and worthiness of respect

  • Confident and shrewd

  • Wise and instructive

  • Not lazy or a sluggard

Sounds like Proverbs, doesn't it?


Part 4: Honored through Fearing God (Proverbs 31:28-31)

28 Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also praises her: 29 “Many women have done noble deeds, but you surpass them all!” 30 Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised. 31 Give her the reward of her labor, and let her works praise her at the city gates.

These verses neatly, and completely, put a bow on Proverbs. I don't think I'm going to add very much -- by this point, you can probably understand what's going on.


"Rising up" is an act of respect, like standing when an important person enters a room. The point is that her children even realize what a blessing it is that she is their mom. As we all know, that's not always something kids get. (But as the meme says, there are different ways we can "rise up and call our mom blessed" -- what are some ways you can think of?)


And her husband does the same. This is another reason why I think the earlier verse about the husband is important. He is a "great man" in the city, and yet even he singles her out for her excellent deeds. I've heard it said that he thinks of her as the perfect wife and mother. The best part about that, every husband can feel that same way. I have no doubt that my wife is the perfect wife, and I can't imagine my life with anyone else. But that in no way lowers my opinion of other women in our church family. I can sing their praises, too, of their noble deeds and how they are perfect for their husband. My desire is to be as good a husband to my wife in return.


Verse 30 is the key verse, not just for this passage but for all of Proverbs. Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. We should be more like God.


So, there you go! What do you think? Your leader guide recommends keeping a running list of what these qualities look like today, and I think you should do so. Just remember that this "model wise woman" has application for every one of us.


Finally, think about all of the godly people in your life (particularly the godly women). How much of their positive influence on you can be related to something we read in these verses? Can you take some time this week to let them know that? (To "rise up and call them blessed"?) What about the people who look up to you? Are you doing all you can to give them the right kind of model?


If you've gotten weary of doing good in this world of neverending bad news, let these verses be an encouragement to you. There's someone in your life who needs you to stay strong, to keep working, to keep being that model. And on this side of Jesus, we know that we don't do this alone -- we do it in the power of the Holy Spirit.

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