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The last woman we are looking at in our series on women in the Bible, is the woman described in Proverbs 31. She is not a real person who has lived, but the description of an ideal woman of character. I have always hesitated to study the Proverbs 31 woman because it always brought to mind images of churchy women, with big hair, attending Christian women’s conferences, and trying so hard to be perfect. But that is not at all what the Proverbs 31 woman is about and I believe that many women have the same misconceptions that I did.
So, to understand it we just need to lay a little ground work before we dive in. There are just a few things we need to understand first.
- Culmination of Proverbs – First, we need to see that this passage occurs at the very end of the book of Proverbs for a reason. It is the culmination of everything that has been taught leading up to this. The picture of the “wife of noble character” is meant to give the reader an image of what it would look like to apply all the teachings in the book of Proverbs to one particular life and situation. So instead of giving us a picture of what a perfect wife looks like – it’s meant to give us a picture of a wife of noble character based on the teachings of Proverbs. This means, that we can do the same with whatever circumstance we are in ourselves, whether man or woman. So this Proverb isn’t just for married women with kids, or for a man looking for a wife – it is for all people to help them to understand what it means to live out the teachings in Proverbs.
- Not a Full Picture – Secondly, this also means that it is not a full picture of who we are called to be as Christians. It does not cover all the bases of how we are called to live as Believers. So for example, it doesn’t really talk about humility or prayer, although we know that both are part of living out the Christian life. Instead it focuses on the themes of Proverbs such as diligence and prudence. And all of these stem from wisdom, which is the over-arching theme of the entire book of Proverbs. So basically, we are being given a practical picture of what wisdom looks like in real life.
- An Acrostic – Lastly, this entire passage is an acrostic. An Acrostic is something that is ordered or structured based on the first letter of each line. In this case it is the Hebrew alphabet. So each line in this passage begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet and goes in order from what we would call “A to Z.” This means that there isn’t a logical/linear ordering of what is said, it is more poetic. This is why we have this handout. To help us study the Proverbs 31 woman I have divided the passage into 3 overarching categories. So put away your Bibles, and just use this sheet tonight….unless you think you can follow ok using your own Bible.
Let’s start by looking at the first verse, verse 10, and also the second to last verse, 30. (And as a side note, you all know I generally prefer the NIV over the ESV, but in the case of Proverbs I am sorely disappointed by the NIV’s translation and I think the ESV stays much more true to the Hebrew and doesn’t distort the meaning with poor word choices like the NIV does, so that’s why this handout is from the ESV). Ok, verses 10 and 30…
10 An excellent wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
These two verses basically establish for us the premise, or the purpose of this passage. Verse 10 begins the passage with a rhetorical question making a statement. An excellent wife, who can find? or in other words, an excellent wife is hard to find, she is rare. And then the next line backs-up this statement, An excellent wife is far more precious than jewels. Let’s dissect this for a minute…
Excellent – what does this description mean? Well, here the NIV does actually help us a little. It translates this word as “noble” which means “fine personal qualities and high moral standards or principals.” So basically, the word excellent is referring to her outstanding character…which the rest of this Proverb is going to describe/unfold for us.
Precious – secondly a wife with outstanding character is described as being more precious than jewels. This means that a woman such as this is to be valued and not wasted or treated carelessly. So our passage is going to describe a woman that is rare and more valuable than any other kind of woman.
Then jumping ahead to verse 30, we get more of an understanding of what it is that motivates this woman and makes her so great. It tells us that all she does flows from her fear of the LORD. Now remember that a synonym of the word used here as “fear,” is “reverence.” All she does stems from her reverence for God, her deep respect of her heavenly Father. And the book of Proverbs is based on this exact thing, that all wisdom and knowledge flows from a fear/reverence of God. Proverbs 1:7 is said to embody the theme of Proverbs and it says,
7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.
Remember what we just talked about, everything in Proverbs is about living wisely, and here it tells us that wisdom starts with a deep respect for the Lord.
Now, some women are intimidated by the description of the Proverbs 31 woman, and others have responded to it in unhealthy ways all because they miss this and don’t first begin with a fear or respect for God. In light of this, what are some bad motives some women might have in their desire to be a Proverbs 31 woman? Instead of fear of the Lord what reason might some women have for trying to live this out?
- Comparison – trying to live up to others
- Competition – trying to be better than others
- Perfectionism – desire to be the best or be perfect
- Super-mom – trying to live up to Mrs. Jones and do it all
- Image – trying to look good, be attractive to others, reputation
As the author here says in verse 30 it has nothing to do with a desire to be charming or beautiful. Not that those things are bad or that a woman with character can’t also possess those qualities. But the point is, they can’t be the driving force or the goal. Being a woman of character is not about looking good or getting people to like you, it is simply about pleasing the Lord and living your life for Him. And we need to be sure to keep this in mind as we look at the description of this woman and how she lives.
So I have basically “filed” each verse under one of two categories to help us as we study it. There are many sub-categories we could put them in as well, but since most of this lesson was composed in airports, planes, hotel rooms, and such I decided to stick with just two.
The first category I want us to look at is the one I have titled “Diligence,” or “Hard-Working.” We could probably even say “Dedication.” Let’s walk through these verses, and then we’ll put them together.
v.13 …[she] works with willing hands.
The first half of this verse says ”She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.” So it’s referring to basically an every day menial task she has to do. The NIV says she works with “eager” hands and the NAS says she works with “delight.”
So the picture we get here is of a woman working hard with a good attitude and with purpose. She doesn’t give in to a bad attitude about the tasks before her, she doesn’t get bitter, or lazy, or take shortcuts. Instead she does her work with pleasure and stays focused. Many of us might have experienced this in the first few weeks of a job, but we all understand the slippery slope into laziness and bad attitudes. But a woman of character does not give in to those things, but instead works eagerly and willingly.
v.14 She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar.
So here we are given an analogy of what she is “like.” Merchant ships went to far away places to bring back items to enhance the lives of the people there. Items they could not get for themselves. Here, it says that just like the merchant ships she “brings her food from afar.” Basically what this is simply saying is that she goes out of her way to feed her family well. The modern day comparison I thought is that rather than picking her kids up Happy Meals at the McDonald’s on the corner, she goes a little out of her way, to the Farmer’s Market to get her family healthy and good quality food. She does what she needs to do to feed her family well even though it might mean extra effort on her part.
v.15 She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens/servant girls.
In that day and age just about every home of decent means had servants who helped run the household. And the head of the house’s duty was to feed the servants as well as the family. In Luke 12:42 Jesus refers to this person as needing to be faithful and wise in regards to when they will feed the servants and the rest of the household.
And here it tells us she gets up while it is still dark to feed the servants and the household. Why do you think she would do this? What would be the benefit?
- If she can get that out of the way early then she has more time to get her duties done.
- The earlier she feeds the servants the quicker they will get to work as well
- So by getting up while it is still dark she increases everybody’s effectiveness and productivity.
This is not easy for most, but it is wise to do which is why Proverbs 20:13 says,
13 Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.
A woman of noble character does not let a love of sleep keep her from the work that is laid before her each day and she is willing to sacrifice in order to be productive and effective.
v.17 She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong.
The phrase “dresses herself with strength” here is actually “girds her loins” in the Hebrew and is a saying throughout the Old Testament. And it’s equivalent to maybe us saying “roll up your sleeves” or “toughen up.” So basically it is saying here that she rolls up her sleeves even for physical labor. She is wiling to get dirty to get the job done. And because of it she has strong arms. She gives her work all she’s got and she’s stronger because of it.
v.19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.
Ok, so a distaff is basically the spool the raw flax and wool come on, and the spindle is the spool it is stored on once it has been spun. Again, a very physical duty she does. Spinning her own materials rather than buying them at much higher prices already spun. This is another picture of her diligence and physical exertion
v.27 She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Verse 27 gives us an overarching statement that summarizes all of what we just read. Everything she is doing here is part of her job as head of her household. This means she sees all the work she does not as meaningless, but as meaningful, like a real job. And because of that she does not give in to laziness. Proverbs 19:15 tells us that laziness just breeds sleepiness and un-productivity leading to poverty – she rejects this and does not enjoy the indulgences of laziness but instead reaps the fruit of her labor.
What are some ways that we can be idle or lazy at work?
- Facebook, email, surfing web pages, etc…
- Socializing too much with co-workers
- Not staying focused on the tasks that are a priority but instead doing what we want to do
- Not wanting to go above and beyond and do things we haven’t been asked to do or things we really don’t enjoy
- Not giving it your best effort everytime
All people are tempted by these things, even the Proverbs 31 woman, but the difference is making a commitment to not give in to them and avoiding them at all cost.
This brings us to the second category, “Discernment” or “Stewardship” which primarily involves our judgment and decision making abilities. So again, let’s go through each verse and then we’ll put it all together…
v.13 She seeks wool and flax…
Now, this seems like a very simple and mindless thing to add in, but if anyone has ever had to pick out textiles before, then you know that it is not. Wool and flax were the primary materials for making clothing and homegoods and one of her biggest jobs would have been finding quality materials at good prices. The Hebrew word translated as “seek” here means “to seek, to inquire, to investigate.” So she’s not just popping into the Wal-mart of textiles, but she is really applying herself to find the best materials for the best price. She is using her judgment and her engaging her mind because she see the greater purpose in even the smallest tasks that she has to do.
v.16 She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
Here we read something that we might find surprising. As head of the household part of her job is investing money and expanding their assets. She had financial responsibility and independence. And here we see two aspects of her discernment….
- She is a good steward of their finances. She doesn’t just go out and buy a field on impulse, instead it says she “considers” it, which means she weighed her options, she was careful, thoughtful, and used wise judgment.
- She used the earnings of that investment for the good of the family. Instead of taking that money and buying that name brand purse she had always wanted, or getting the massage and pedicure she deserved for her hardwork – she turned around and invested it right back into the land by planting a vineyard on it to make it even more profitable for the family.
In this one verse we see how seriously she takes her role in her family by using great discernment in being a good steward over what they have.
v.18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night.
This verse is referring to the things she does that bring income to her family. And it says that she perceives or sees that it is profitable. The literal Hebrew word is taste, she can tasted the profit of her labor and it fuels her to keep working, even at times into the night. Now we need to be careful not to walk away from this Proverb thinking we don’t need sleep, because we do. But what it is saying is that at times we do need to make sacrifices to get our work done, at times we will need to work into the night.
v.20 She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.
Now this verse is one that could have been in a category all on it’s own, maybe called “charity” or “generosity.” But since I was trying to simplify it I chose to include it under discernment because of the nature of what it says she does. First, it says she opens her hand then it says she reaches out. Both of these pictures are of her actively moving towards the poor and needy. This means, on top of all she has to accomplish each day, she is also making time to go to the poor and needy and serve them.
This is very humbling for us to hear because most of us feel we are too busy to fit hands-on charity into our schedules. But here’s a woman with more to do in a day then I have to do in a week and yet she is actively making it happen. It is a result of her discernment and stewardship that she does it. It is a priority to her and so she make sure that it is a part of her weekly duties.
And why does she do this? For the same reason we read in verse 30 at the beginning, out of her deep respect for God. In Deuteronomy 15:11 God reminds His people that He commands them to reach out to the poor and be generous. And Proverb 22:9 says,
9 He who is generous will be blessed, For he gives some of his food to the poor.
v.24 She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers sashes to the merchant.
Here we read yet another way she makes money for her family, she makes linen garments/clothes and sells them. It also says she delivers sashes to the merchants. Now it is unclear as to whether she is selling or giving her sashes to them, and each translation uses a different word. But either way, we still get the picture of her involvement in commercial activity as part of her household duties. And we can all imagine that this takes wisdom, prudence, knowledge and so on.
v.26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
Lastly in this category, it touches on something that has not been talked about. What she speaks to others, what comes out of her mouth. And it goes right along with the theme of wisdom in Proverbs. We read in Proverbs 10:31 that,
“The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom,”
And that is exactly what it says about her here, that her mouth brings forth wisdom. Now there are actually several ways the second half of this verse is translated so there are two ways to look at it. One view says the correct literal translation would be that the “law of loving-kindness” is on her tongue, which would imply that she teaches God’s covenant love to others (NIV). Or it could be more like “loving instruction” which you see is how the ESV comes up with teaching with kindness. But either way, we get an idea of what she not only does, but also what she says.
Finally, I just want us to take a brief look at what the result is of a life lived in this way. What are the fruit of her life and the way she has chosen to live it? The last verse in this passage says,
31 Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.
The gates refer to the city gates, which in that time served as the center of economic and civic life. It’s where the leading men of the city gathered. So what is the fruit of her hands? How is it that she will be praised by others?
She is Valued –
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
23 Her husband is known in the gates
when he sits among the elders of the land.
28 Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
- One of the results of her noble character is that her husband trusts her, and we really saw that didn’t we especially in the financial independence and responsibility she had. He lacks no gain because he can only gain from having a wife like this.
- She seeks to do him good and not harm
- v.23 Seems a little out of place at first, but most likely what it is there for is to show that her charater and choices have contributed to her husband’s success and reputation. Who she is has earned him respect.
- Her children and her husband praise her, she is valuable to them and they see that she is rare and precious.
- v.29 is her husband basically saying, some one can do noble things, but you are noble.
She Benefits Too –
21 She is not afraid of snow for her household,
for all her household are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes bed coverings for herself;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
- One of the rewards of her diligence and discernment is that she doesn’t have to live in fear of what is to come, and she can even smile at the future. She has done all she can do, she knows her preparation will pay off.
- And not only that, because of her hard work she is able to provide nice things even for herself – she is well dressed. For some reason we think that you choose one or the other, but here she choose character and as a result she was able to cloth herself with beauty. In a sense, her clothes were and outward visual of who she was on the inside.
Remembering What it’s About
As we close I just want us to briefly go back to verse 30 and remind ourselves what this is about…
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
As we seek to be women of noble character, like the woman in Proverbs 31, we need to remember that at the foundation of it is worship. She lives the way she lives because of her faith in God and her reverence of Him. Just as we are called in Romans 12 to “offer [our] bodies as living sacrifices” the Proverbs 31 woman is also living her life as a sacrifice for God, worshiping Him through the way she lives.
Questions for Discussion & Application:
● Read verse 30 aloud. Why is charm deceitful/deceptive and beauty vain/fleeting? Why is being a woman of character who fears the Lord better?
● What are some areas of your life where you struggle to be discerning and be a good steward?