An Unattainable Ideal?
Some women immediately give themselves a guilt trip whenever they encounter of the Proverbs 31 woman. On Mother’s Day, I know that initially, women get mad, frustrated, or disappointed if I preach on this passage, because they’ve read it once before, they know they could never live up to the description, so they feel guilty when they just think about the Proverbs 31 woman. I know one woman who wanted to rip this page out of her Bible after she read Proverbs 31.
Some women, after seeing the church bulletin on Mother’s Day with the sermon listed, say to themselves, “Thanks for ruining my Mother’s Day. I can’t stand little Ms. Perfect Proverbs 31 woman. Now I have to leave church feeling guilty!” This is part of the misunderstanding about this passage.
The truth is, Proverbs 31 presents an ideal that could not possibly be attained by all women and is not meant to be attained by all women. It teaches some timeless principles, but as I’ll show you, this passage was not given by God to be an exact checklist for women.
Remember the genre of this passage. Genre is critical when interpreting the Bible. A letter is not prophecy, and a narrative is not law, and each genre has different rules of interpretation. Proverbs is wisdom literature, not law. And, many scholars believe this woman is, in a sense, a perfect ideal, embodying the gifts, talents, and virtues of many women, but not necessarily saying that one woman could be and do all of this or at least certainly not all at once. In other words, yes, there are principles here for women, but it is not a checklist.
Consider what Andreas Kostenberger writes in Marriage and the Family: “Rather than viewing these qualities as existing in a woman all at one time, depicting a day in the life of the ideal woman, one may view these attributes as having developed over a period of time and as being exhibited in a woman’s life during different occasions and seasons of life” (p. 26). Derek Kidner adds, “Except for her fear or reverence for the Lord, this lady’s standard is not implied to be within the reach of all, for it presupposes unusual gifts and material resources” (184).
Paul Koptak writes, “While the woman of noble character runs a household that increases in wealth, provides for its own, and reaches out in charity…The poem seeks to inspire a desire for wise living, not perfectionism” (NIVAC, 681, 680). Tremper Longman, whose Proverbs commentary is exceptional, writes this: “The description is an ideal and should not be used as a standard by which to measure and critique women.” Even the ESV Study Bible states:
This profile is an ideal: a particular example of full-scale virtue and wisdom toward which the faithful are willing to be molded. It is not expected that any one woman will look exactly like this in every respect.
We have to be realistic about this passage – it’s an ideal. It’s not something all women can attain to, unless you’re as wealthy as this woman, managing a massive estate, with multiple live in house-keepers and helpers, and a husband who is a prominent civic leader with an impressive salary. This woman has a lot of help, a lot of resources, and has a unique position in society that not all women are privileged to have.
From a Mother to Her Son
Proverbs 31:1 says: “The words of King Lemuel, the oracle which his mother taught him… “
This chapter is something that a mother passed on to her son, to encourage him in two ways. First, to think about seeking a godly wife. And second, to encourage him to praise, honor and thank his wife. This is really first written to men, and then as a model for woman secondarily (and then, only with certain qualifications).
This is a mother teaching a son what to look for in a wife, but not because any one woman can perfectly fit this description. She is teaching her son about what a godly wife and mother does so that he can praise and honor her, as you’ll see.
While women can see this perfect lady as an ideal, as a goal, if this picture discourages you then you have the wrong mindset. A wife won’t say to her husband, “I only saw 8 Christ-like things in you today, but you really need to work on 2 more. I won’t appreciate you until you’re perfect like Jesus.” In other words, we all strive for Christ-likeness, and we never reach it in this life. But that shouldn’t be a cause for shame and guilt, but for praise when we see evidences of God’s grace in other people’s lives. So, while there may be principles here for a woman to strive for, that is not the main purpose of the passage.
This poem was designed to inspire praise for women, not criticism, just as men who aspire to the perfect standard of Jesus, but fall short, deserve encouragement and honor. This is a wife and a mother’s way of saying to her son: “This is what your wife is doing. While you are busy working hard at your profession, this is what’s going on behind the scenes, so make sure you give her the utmost praise.”
Not a Check-List
This is not a list of requirements that women must keep. It’s not a to-do list. It’s a poem, a hymn of praise. This is a mother telling her son that a godly wife who works hard deserves this praise.
Can it be an ideal that women aspire to? Sure. But the point is, while this is an ideal, guess what? It wasn’t written to ladies. It was written to King Lemuel, from his mother, to teach her son to honor his wife. Verse 1 extends to the whole chapter – lessons of wisdom from a mother to her son. Context is king, and verse one cannot be ignored when preaching Proverbs 31. The sample exposition below brings this out exegetically, and it is quite amazing how the militaristic metaphors and heroic poetry genre, both intended for men, are almost always ignored in sermons I’ve heard.
This passage isn’t primarily for women. Instead it’s God’s lengthy reminder to men to appreciate their wives! And frankly, most of what’s in here comes naturally to Christian women – her motherly instinct, her homemaking skills, and her sanctified heart to serve God by serving her family. So, tell women on Mother’s Day, “You can listen in, but Proverbs 31 is really God’s Word to men to encourage us to honor you.” Men, this passage is teaching us to be Proverbs 31 Men (I’m working on a book entitled, The Proverbs 31 Man, so don’t try to steal the title).
Praise for the Woman
I believe the controlling verses for this section are verses 28-31. This is important! Everything is building up to these verses, so they help us to look back and see the intent or purpose of the whole passage.
Her children rise up and bless her; her husband also, and he praises her, saying:
“Many daughters have done nobly, but you excel them all.” Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised. Give her the product of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.
This virtuous woman is described so that her husband, children, and community, be it the church today or the city, give her the recognition and appreciation she deserves. In other words, God put this passage here because God wants to honor women. And He wants men to honor women and praise their character, gifting, strengths, and diligence.
Did you notice what was repeated three times in these short verses? Praise. Her husband praises her (v. 28), she is praised for her fear of or walk with the Lord (v. 30), and her works praise her in the community (v. 31).
Praise God…and Women?
“Praise,” the Hebrew word “hallel” is the same word that’s used in “Praise the Lord,” that is, hallelujah. God’s Word rarely says to praise anything except God, and yet here, God is exhorting men to praise godly women. We’re not to praise them as we praise God, that would be idolatry. But God is giving women the highest honor, blessing, and esteem that He gives to people. It’s amazing to me how some people say that the Bible demeans women when the truth is that it is the only religious book that truly dignifies and esteems women (not to mention, stating that men and women were both created equally in the image of God). In fact, it gives them the highest honor possible: praise, just below praising God. You can’t get any higher than that.
Focused on Wisdom
We also have to keep in mind that this passage in the book of Proverbs is focused on personifying wisdom; it’s not an exhaustive list about being a wife and a mother. Remember this: this passage, unlike other passages in the Bible, says very little about the woman’s relationship with her husband, or her prayer life or parenting, or her involvement in the community of faith, or her friendships, or a host of family-related issues or spiritual disciplines.
This poem is highly focused on one thing – praising a godly wife and mother (not necessarily for all that she is, does, or says), but for her demonstration of wisdom which the whole book of Proverbs has been leading up to. Wisdom has been defined as “godliness in working clothes” (Atkinson, 170) or the application of biblical principles, or skillful living. So, this description is the culmination, the very end of Proverbs for a reason – because this woman personifies wisdom. She embodies what Proverbs says about the wise person who serves the Lord.
So, as you read (or preach through) this passage, look at it through the lens of what we are to praise, admire, and honor in a godly women. This is not their to-do list, it’s their song of praise. Each line of it is meant to generate admiration and appreciation for our wives and mothers.
Source: Steven Ingino | The Cripplegate