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)
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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.