A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Pt 2 of The Proverbs 31 Wife: Fact or Fiction?

Before determining how this instruction should be applied to today’s woman, several assumptions need to be recognized.

Assumption 1: She is a mature woman 

The woman described in the text is a mature woman, not a new bride.  She shows the confidence of one who has gained experience over time, both in her spiritual development and in her skills as a homemaker.  Young men hoping to discover a readymade Proverbs 31 wife are setting themselves up for a disappointment if they expect to say “I do” to a bride with this much skill or wisdom.

Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. (Prov. 1:8)

He who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever needs correction gains understanding. (Prov. 15:32)

The prologue to Proverbs (chapters 1-9) repeatedly emphasizes the need to learn wisdom by listening to instruction, heeding correction and obeying God’s commands.  In the same way that homemaking skills become perfected with practice, so also understanding and wisdom increase over time when one walks with the Author of wisdom.  A new bride may not match the Proverbs 31 woman’s skill, but she will be counted wise if she makes a conscious choice to follow the Way of Wisdom.

Assumption 2: Her husband is a wise and mature man

Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land. (Prov. 31:23)

Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. (Prov. 31:11)

Second, this woman is married to a man who is qualified to sit in the gates as an elder of his people.  He has presumably been successful in his own endeavors and thereby has gained the respect of the community.  He recognizes that he has a superb wife and appropriately leaves the management of the home to her.  [See also 1 Tim. 5:14. Paul sees the management of the home as the proper role for a wife.  The Greek word used, oikodespotes, is a powerful verb of ruling. Although it only occurs once in the New Testament, it is used in other Greek literature to describe the responsibilities of those who have complete charge of the daily activities of the household. NASB’s translation of “keeping house” is far too weak, since “keeping house” to many women refers only to such chores as doing the dishes and sweeping the floor.]

. . . I [Wisdom] raise my voice to all mankind. (Prov. 8:4)

A wife’s practice of godly wisdom, however, is not dependent upon her husband’s being godly or successful.  Godliness and wisdom can and should be practiced in any environment.   Women who are not in an ideal martial situation should not become discouraged or try to excuse themselves from reaching for wisdom.  God has promised wisdom to every woman who has set her heart on obtaining it.

Assumption 3: Her household is economically well off

She sees that her trading is profitable. . . (Prov. 31:18)

When it snows, she has no fear for her house-hold; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. (Prov. 31:21)

Third, the Proverbs 31 wife is part of a well-to-do household.  Waltke mentions that the poem “assumes the husband has founded the home on a sound economic foundation (24:27) and within that context his wife can settle down and function to her maximum ideal.”  The text indicates that the woman’s prudent management of the family’s resources brought economic security to all of her household.

Many women conclude that it would be impossible to live up to this woman’s example without also having her servants.  In their dreams, the servants would do the household work and leave them free to carry on her other pursuits.

She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls. (Prov. 31:15)

However, this betrays both a misunderstanding of the role of servants and of the author’s point. In the North American context, servant brings to mind either (1) historical slave of the Southern plantation, or (2) a domestic worker whom only the rich can afford to pay.  Neither description comes close to depicting the Proverbs 31 household servant.

Even today where modern “electric servants” to which the West has become accustomed do not exist, household chores can be both physically demanding and time consuming.  Without readymade clothes, canned foods, and prepared spices, clothing and feeding a household require a huge amount of one’s day.  With no electricity or indoor plumbing, every chore done by the machines the West takes so much for granted becomes a major job.  The housewife needs help.

In Indonesia, it is common for a family to take in younger relatives to become servants.  The family assumes responsibility for their food and clothing, school fees and medicine, but is not obligated to give any wages.  Even a very poor Dayak, when she has an infant, would consider it unthinkable to be deprived of such a servant to cook the rice, fetch the water from the river and help tend the baby.  The rich are not the only ones who have servants.

She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.  She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.  (Prov. 31:26-27)

Servants help, but they also bring responsibility.  [Many missionary women would far prefer to have electric servants and do the household chores themselves than to have to supervise a number of household servants and be responsible for their training and behavior.] The Proverbs 31 woman shouldered this responsibility as normal routine in her household and did it well.  The wise woman can live with or without servants.  In either case, she organizes and carries out her work with wisdom, overseeing and advising everyone in her household.

Assumption 4: The Proverbs 31 woman is a healthy woman

She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.  (Prov. 31:17)

She is clothed with strength. . . (Prov. 31:25)

The fourth assumption from the text is that the Proverbs 31 woman is healthy, strong and fit for her job.  Can a woman excuse herself from being a Proverbs 31 wife, then, if she has not been blessed with a healthy body and a vigorous immune system?  If the amount of household tasks accomplished is the rule by which we measure a woman’s worthiness, then we have established a superficial standard for wisdom.  Certainly a healthy body is valuable, but wisdom is not dependent upon physical strength.  Being a Proverbs 31 woman does not demand the perfect body.  Instead, it needs a healthy spirit that is attuned to the Spirit of God.

In summary, then, although the author of Proverbs 31 delights in all this jewel of a woman does in the ruling of her household, her above-rubies value is not dependent upon her homemaking skills, her worth husband, her comparative wealth, or her physical health.  Her value is in using the wisdom God has given her, a wisdom that springs from her fear of the Lord.

This is no assumption.  The writer summarizes this remarkable wife with these words:  Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.  Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised (v.29-30).  Herein is the key to understanding the entire poem: the noble wife is a woman who fears the Lord.  Focusing only on this industrious woman’s work will cloud this crucial point.

Many woman, even non-Christians, out of innate common sense and providential goodness devote themselves to caring successfully for their husbands and children, making the needs of their household the primary focus of their lives.  What then, differentiates the wise wife of Proverbs 31 from her counterparts? It is her fear of the Lord, not her wise shopping or her control over her children. [Wise readers will interpret Proverbs 31 in the context of what Proverbs has already said about wisdom.  They will then compare this wife’s character with the rest of the Bible’s instruction on wisdom.  Many articles written about Proverbs 31 focus more on the woman’s submission to her husband rather than her submission to God.  Submission does not make one wise.  Rather, the wise woman lives in obedience to God and therefore submits to her husband for the Lord’s sake.]

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge. . . (Prov. 1:7)

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. (Ps. 111:10)

 * * *

In part 3 we will learn how the Proverbs 31 woman’s fear of the Lord makes her different from other accomplished homemakers.

Carmen J. Bryant @2004, reproduced with permission.  Carmen spent 19 years as a missionary among the Dayaks of Kalimantan Barat (West Borneo, Indonesia) and draws upon her experiences there for insights into the description of the Proverbs 31 wife.

[Go to Part 1]     [Go to Part 3]

8 Comments

  1. Lisa

    “A wife’s practice of godly wisdom, however, is not dependent upon her husband’s being godly or successful.  Godliness and wisdom can and should be practiced in any environment.” —— Problem being many of us took thoughts like this to mean we should try harder to be a good wife by “enduring” abusive ways; “suffering for Jesus sake”.

    As far as household management; look at any homeschooling products and you’ll find a plethora of books exposing how to be Suzy homemaker like it’s the end all and be all of godliness.

  2. Lisa

    And by the lack of responses to this post it makes me wonder if many are burnt out being “wacked over the head” with “The Proverbs 31 Wife”

    • Remedy

      Or trying desperately out of wanting to please the Lord to live a godly life, but living with a hardhearted husband who refuses to delight in or be pleased with the efforts of his devoted wife. She simply must be destroyed and he is the one to do it. No amount of effort will ever be good enough for the abuser mindset. What a heartbreak of devastation to a woman’s soul.

  3. I too have been musing about the lack of responses to this series so far.
    It was me who decided to re-publish this material by Carmen Bryant. So to the extent I made a poor judgement call by deciding to publish it here, I apologise. It seems that the series may not be as helpful to our readers as I had thought it might. And if any of it has triggered readers or caused them to be triggered by bringing back to their minds the way Proverbs 31 has been weilded against them, I’m sorry.

    Having said that, one point that I found helpful in this material is —

    Assumption 2: Her husband is a wise and mature man
    Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land. . . . Her husband has full confidence in her . . .

    As we’ve said so often on this blog, it takes two to make a marriage work, but it only takes one to destroy a marriage.

    When the husband is abusive and mean-spirited, he is certainly not ‘mature’ in any positive sense. He may be well advanced (mature) in evil, but he is immature in character: as Dr George Simon says, he has a disordered and defective character.

    And if a woman has a character-disordered husband, it very difficult and probably impossible for her to show all the behaviors and qualities that are ascribed the Proverbs 31 wife. Her behaviours won’t look quite the same on the surface as Proverbs 31 describes them. But you will see many of the qualities of the Proverbs 31 woman in her if, without judging her, you look with eyes that understand the dynamics of abuse. For example:

    She may be a mature woman (Assumption 1 above).

    But her household may not be economically well off (Assumption 3) if her husband, like many abusers, is a work-shirker, or a spend-thrift, or hides his true income while spending profligately on himself and depriving the family of basic necessities or preventing family members from having their fair share of the household income. Or he may run the household into ridiculous debt or foolish business ventures. Or he may fiercly compel his wife to account for every cent of housekeeping money she spends. He may be slack on home maintenance and health insurance payments so that the eventual maintenance and health bills are far higher than they would have been had maintenance and prevention been done in a timely manner.

    So there are myriads of ways in which the household of the abuser may be poorly off economically. The Proverbs 31 wife who is married to an abuser may not be able to say “My household is economically well off” but she will be able to say “I valiantly, cautiously, carefully behind the scenes, am frugal and resourceful in how I manage so that the kids can be fed and clothed, the bills are paid somehow or other (at least some of the time), and the kids don’t realise how much we are really struggling.

    Is not this Proverbs 31 wife showing amazingly godly qualities in the face of her husband’s destructive, selfish wastefulness?

    Likewise, the wife married to an abuser may not be a healthy woman (Assumption 4). If she’s stayed a long time in the abuse, it will most likely have affected her health negatively. I’ve heard so many cases of gastro-intestinal complaints and pain (viz — her abuser gives her a pain in the gut!), fibromyalgia, depression, PTSD, complex PTSD, gynecological problems, STDs given them by a promiscuous abuser, fatigue, adrenal exhaustion, not to mention the physical disabilities that abusers can cause when they assault their victims: miscarriage, broken ear-drums, cracked skulls, broken bones, bruises, internal bleeding and long term damage to internal organs, tendons permanently damaged, balance problems and ABI caused by too many blows to the head. . . (apologies if that triggered anyone.)

    However, while her body-mind-emotional health may have been affected, she may well have developed a strength of character that few others have developed. Please understand I am not recommending anyone stay in or endure suffering in order to develop character, but the Bible does say we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-4).

    The character of the Proverbs 31 woman who has suffered domestic abuse will show amazing pockets ( — realms — vistas — ) of perseverance, and of dignity in the face of oppression; and she will have developed multiple clever ways to walk on eggshells.

    How many other people have developed those amazing qualities in such degree?

    That’s enough from me. Maybe some of the rest of you can amplify this theme more.

    What does the Proverbs 31 woman look like when she is married to an abusive husband?

    • StandsWithAFist

      Barbara, I so appreciate your own hard-fought wisdom here. To that end, may I humbly suggest that we all have it wrong regarding Proverbs 31? That it isn’t about a “wife” at all, but rather “wife” is a metaphor for “wisdom” ? Perhaps the “husband” is a metaphor for the Lord?

      Throughout Proverbs, wisdom is often referred to as “she’, “her”, etc.
      Proverbs 31 concludes that , “A woman who fears the Lord shall be praised” while Proverbs 1:7 states, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.

      Perhaps Proverbs 1 & Proverbs 31 are “bookends” regarding wisdom? Perhaps the book ends as it began, as a treatise on wisdom?

      Proverbs 3:13-15 says, “How blessed is the man who finds wisdom….she is more precious than jewels”, which sounds just like Proverbs 31;10 “an excellent wife, who can find…for her worth is far above jewels”. It is wisdom that is far above jewels, not the “perfect wife”.

      I am no theologian, nor a Biblical scholar, but if “wife” is a metaphor, not to be taken literally, then hallelujah—all women can rejoice that Proverbs 31 is NOT about the “perfect wife” at all, but about God’s perfect wisdom!!

      Thoughts??

      • SWAF, that is an interesting idea. I don’t doubt that is possible to interpret the Proverbs 31 wife passage as a metaphor, and to see Proverbs 1 and Proverbs 31 as bookends, and that those interpretations can gives us added insight and enrich our appreciation.

        At the same time, while I too am not a theologian, I’m not sure one could make the case for the metaphorical interpretation being primary. Proverbs 31 is written by King Lemuel but it is an oracle his mother taught him. So it’s actually what a mother taught her son — the guidance she gave him for how to live a godly and worthwhile life, rather than frittering away his life in wine, lust, and the selfish pursuits of the narcissist while ignoring the rights of the poor and needy:

        The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:

        What are you doing, my son? What are you doing, son of my womb?
        What are you doing, son of my vows?
        Do not give your strength to women,
        your ways to those who destroy kings.
        It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
        it is not for kings to drink wine,
        or for rulers to take strong drink,
        lest they drink and forget what has been decreed
        and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
        Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,
        and wine to those in bitter distress;
        let them drink and forget their poverty
        and remember their misery no more.
        Open your mouth for the mute,
        for the rights of all who are destitute.
        Open your mouth, judge righteously,
        defend the rights of the poor and needy.
        (Proverbs 31:1-9 ESV)

      • Kim M.

        Some have said that the Pr 31 woman is a metaphor for the church (bride of Christ). I believe that has merit. A lot of people, especially the fundies, fail to recognize and/or acknowledge that a number of the traits and duties listed in Pr 31:10-31 are mutual, collective and congregational. Our dear brothers in Christ should also possess many of the traits listed in the description and perform many of the duties. However, that rarely ever gets addressed.

        Do Good
        She will do him good … (v.12). As believers, men and women are admonished to “do good” to our enemies (Lu 6:27, 35). Christian men and women are admonished to “do good” and to share with others (He 13:16).

        Do No Harm
        She brings him good, not harm … (v.12). Husbands are instructed to love their wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5:25). Romans 13:10 tells us that “love does no harm.” Therefore, if a husband loves his wife, he will not harm her.

        Work With Your Hands
        She … works with eager hands (v.13). Christian men and women are called to live a quiet lives, mind our business and “work with our hands” … (1 Th 4:11).

        Don’t Be Idle
        She … does not eat the bread of idleness (v.27). Paul proclaimed the value of hard work and sternly warned men and women not to be idle (2 Th 3:6-12). “And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone” ( 1 Th 5:14).

        Speak With Wisdom
        She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue (v.26). “The mouth of the righteous man utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just” (Ps 37:30).

        Care for the Poor
        She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy (v.20). Christian men and women are admonished to care for the poor and needy (Ma 25:34-40).

        Fear the Lord
        … a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (v. 30). “Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments!” (Ps 112:1)

        When we read Pr 31, it’s important to remember that many of the traits and duties listed in the passage are collective, mutual and congregational: doing good, doing no harm, working with our hands, not being idle, speaking wisdom, caring for the poor and fearing the Lord. Those traits and duties are not distinctively feminine, although that’s how a lot of fundies like to propagate it. I can’t speak for anyone else, but as a Christian woman, I find that knowledge incredibly liberating and encouraging!

        When I hear conservative, fundie men use Pr 31 as a measuring stick in order to gauge a woman’s worth, I wonder if those men are leading by example and doing their wives good and not harm, working with their hands, not being idle, speaking wisdom, caring for the poor and fearing God.

  4. Karen

    Frankly, I am plain tired and worn out “trying” to be a Proverbs 31 woman; and being compared to “this outstanding woman or that “amazing” woman” within the “church.” Coming out of a patriarchal type and shadow of a church, I am truly amazed at the way in which Jesus treated and regarded women in the Gospels, in spite of their sin and lower caste standing within the religious society of that time. And Jesus did not juxtapose the “Proverbs 31” woman theology when He confronted or interacted with such women, Praise Him.

    So rather than working hard “trying” to live that perfect Proverbs 31 wife life, I have chosen to humbly submit to Jesus and live for Him instead, which means that His yoke is easy and His burdens are light….and it also means that “He still loves me in spite of my sins and human imperfections.” Blessed Resurrection Day through our LORD Jesus Christ!

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