THE NOBLE WIFE Proverbs 30–31
“Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate” (Prov. 31:31).The last of the three sections in these two chapters puts to rest the notion that women had no significant role in ancient Hebrew society—and challenges those who today view women as somehow inferior to men.
Three authors contribute to these two chapters. Agur, humble, but a sharp observer of nature and humankind (30:1–33). King Lemuel, pen name for a man who shares his mother’s thoughts on ruling (31:1–9). And the unnamed author of an acrostic poem in praise of a fine wife (vv. 10–31).
Understanding the Text
“I am the most ignorant of men” Prov. 30:1–4. Humility was a major trait of Agur. He had learned not to measure himself against other men, but against God. As a result he had no trace of false pride or arrogance. When we compare ourselves with the Lord, there’s no room left for pride. If we learn nothing else from the Book of Proverbs, this single lesson would be enough. “Two things I ask” Prov. 30:7–9. Humility had given Agur insight into himself. He realized how vulnerable mere human beings are. His second request, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread,” reflects this insight. Agur’s perspective was very different from that of the radio preacher who shouts, “God wants all His children to be rich!” What God in grace wants for most of us is to have enough—our daily bread. But not too much. Those with riches all too often feel no need of God. And those with nothing may steal for necessities. Agur, sensing his vulnerability, wanted to be put in neither position. You or I may wonder what we would do if we inherited a lot of money and were suddenly impossibly rich. Agur reminds us to thank God for what we have. Why should we want to risk the dangers wealth brings? “The way of a man with a maiden” Prov. 30:18–19. Agur made a variety of delightful observations, comparing human behavior with what he saw in nature. Here he expressed amazement at how eagles, serpents, and ships on the high seas found their way with no marked highway. Agur would never write an advice to the lovelorn column. He knew better! There are no highways for boy-girl relationships either. Yet somehow men and women find each other, marry, and produce the next generation. The way of a man with a maiden may be trackless, but despite the lack of beaten paths love too finds its way. “It cannot bear up” Prov. 30:21–23. Agur, a man who disliked pride, noted four types who tend to be unbearably arrogant. The servant who becomes king (who, in the ancient world, probably assassinated the old king). The fool (here, nabal, the proud and wicked rebel) who is “full of food” and openly scoffs at any need for God. The “unloved woman” (old maid) who at last finds a husband (surely not for her own qualities but most likely because of a large dowry). And the young servant girl who awakens the passion of her master, and replaces her mistress as his wife. In not one of these cases does the individual have reason for pride. In each case he or she has reason for shame! You and I may take satisfaction in a position we’ve achieved by hard work and excellence. But how wicked to be proud of a position won without merit. “It is . . . not for kings to drink wine” Prov. 31:1–9. These verses of advice by a king who wrote under the pen name of Lemuel reveal a very high view of royal responsibility. The king is servant to his people, called to protect the oppressed and judge fairly. Personal indulgence is “not for kings.” They must spend their strength and vigor serving their people, not on chasing women or getting drunk. These words of a mother remind us that we must view all authority in the context of servanthood. The man who is the “head of the house,” like the king of these passages, is not to use his authority to exploit or “master” his wife, but to serve her and their children. “A wife of noble character” Prov. 31:10–31. The Jewish rabbis suggested that these words were written by Solomon in honor of his mother, Bathsheba. This is unlikely. The woman here is an ordinary housewife. While it’s true that the family is well-to-do, much credit for their prosperity is given to her! The passage does not focus on the wife’s personal relationships, but rather on what might be called her business sense. She gets up early, assigns the day’s work to her servant girls (employees!), makes sure they have the resources needed to do their work, and supervises them during the day. While the primary focus of her activities was the family needs, this Old Testament wife is also an entrepreneur. She markets the garments her staff produces: she sells linen garments and “supplies the merchants with sashes.” The passage also makes it clear that the wife is free to make use of the profits from her enterprise. She “considers a field and buys it.” This is an investment. She’s decided to diversify, and add wine making to her businesses! The wife’s complete control of her earnings is illustrated by her generosity: “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.” In modern terms, she’s set up a charitable foundation to distribute some of her profits to those less fortunate. And what do the men in this society think of the activist wife? Why, “Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.” Rather than being a threat to his fragile male ego, the wife’s accomplishments are a source of pride and add to his prestige! What is so striking about the Proverbs 31 description is that it so powerfully contradicts the view of some Christians that a good wife must stay home, have babies, and keep busy with housework. Proverbs 31 shows us a woman of the Old Testament who is in fact a businesswoman, using her talents and abilities to the fullest, and performing the same kind of tasks that the men of that society performed. The “noble wife” of the Old Testament is not the silent, subservient woman so many Christians imagine, but rather an assertive, accomplished woman, whose success has clothed her “with strength and dignity” and who is relied on to speak “with wisdom,” for “faithful instruction is on her tongue.” In Old Testament times women used simple machines like the distaff and spindle to make threads from wool or flax, then wove the threads into cloth they used to make the family clothing (v. 19). But, as verses 10–31 show, the wife of Old Testament times was far more than a menial who performed only simple, limited tasks while her husband took care of the important family business.
Give Her the Reward She Has Earned(Prov. 31:10–31)
I suppose it’s all right to be upset with pastors now and then. At any rate, I thought it was all right for my wife to be upset with ours. Graham is a lovely, friendly, and thoughtful young man, and we appreciate him. But as he himself is quick to admit, he’s something of a chauvinist. Women belong at home. Or doing something female, like teaching grade school. The important decisions at home are to be made by the men. And all the decisions at church—frequently even all the talking about decisions—are for men only. So one evening when we were at Graham’s house for supper, my wife confronted him. Why aren’t women first-class citizens at our church? Why are they automatically excluded from so many positions and activities? Graham immediately jumped to the conclusion that Sue was lobbying for women preachers, and gave a somewhat stirring defense of the denomination’s position. And missed the point entirely. I suspect many in our churches miss the point entirely. The point is that women too are human beings. Women too have talents and abilities. Women too have spiritual gifts—gifts that go beyond teaching toddlers, changing diapers in the church nursery, and filling the Communion cups with grape juice. And of course, washing them afterward. Women, as members of the body of Christ, are essential to our spiritual growth and development. Yet in many churches women are given no significant role and permitted few significant ministries. And it’s a shame. Particularly when the view so many have of women is based on a faulty image of the “biblical” bride. The little woman who stays at home, looks after the kids, and lets the man deal with the important issues of life. Sometimes I wonder. Do you suppose it’s possible that Proverbs 31 was written for our instruction? And that the words, “Give her the reward she has earned,” is God’s exhortation to husbands and church leaders of today?
God-given gifts and talents are to be used—whatever the sex of the person who possesses them.