Mother’s Day Study in Proverbs 31:10-31 (Longread)

  • The following is a study in Proverbs 31:10-31 which I find to be very helpful as we celebrate Mother’s Day today. It may be best for you to read these verses before reading what follows.
  • What we have in these verses is actually a Hebrew acrostic poem. This is an acrostic poem written about the woman whose character and what her character should be can be summarized by verse 30, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” The key point is that the woman being described in verses 10-31 is the one who “fears the Lord.” It is fitting that the book of Proverbs begins with “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” and now the end of the book ends with a picture of how this fear of the Lord actually tangibly looks. And it is written in an acrostic poem in order that the young men who originally received this instruction would be able to memorize what is written in these verses.
  • John Piper preached this passage about 40 years ago and he introduced it by giving what would be a modern day example of this sort of acrostic poem in English for the word “mother”

M- is the MILLION things she gave me

O- is because she is getting OLD

T- is for the TEARS she shed to save me

H- is for her HEART of pure gold

E- is for her EYES with light shining

R- means RIGHT and she’ll always be

  • We understand what an acrostic is and we understand that in an acrostic poem what is being done is praise is being absolutely heaped upon the person the acrostic is written about. That’s what is going on in Proverbs 31:10-31. And so actually these 22 verses in the original Hebrew language would all correspond with one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. So verse 10-in Hebrew begins with an “Aleph,” verse 11 begins with the letter “beth,” verse 12 begins with “gimmel,” and so on and so forth. So we should understand the author is not building an argument here, and therefore, not all of these thoughts are perfectly cohesive in terms of argumentation, instead, the author is stringing pearls here as he praises one exemplary character trait after another.
  • As we come to this specific text I want to point out that this text is used over and over again around Mother’s Day-and often times it is used almost as a sort of gospel-detached syllabus which contains what women need to do in order to be thought of as a good Mom or wife. But, actually that is not what’s going on in these verses so it shouldn’t be taught that way. Proverbs introduced a woman described as the Woman Folly within the introduction chapters 1-9, and now it ends with Woman Wisdom who is the antithesis to Woman Folly. In Proverbs 31-what we primarily have actually is the personification of Wisdom herself. Wisdom of course is revealed throughout God’s Word, and then clearly seen in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and only when someone knows Jesus and has the Holy Spirit are they then actually able to make any  progress at all in any of the areas described in Proverbs 31:10-31… And that is even obvious when you consider the starting point for the woman described in these verses, and her starting point is that she (verse 30) “fears the Lord.”
  • Ray Ortlund says of Lady Wisdom, “She is the role model… the IDEAL woman.” Allen Ross:  “the woman of valor, a symbol of wisdom… The Lady Wisdom in this chapter is the strongest contrast to the adulterous woman in the earlier chapters.” The Ancient Hebrews referred to her as the “Alphabet Wife,” And the Mother of Wisdom. Tremper Longman says, ““Most pointedly, we read here of a woman who is the human reflex of Woman Wisdom herself.”
  • One commentator offers this helpfully, “That this poem concludes the book helps explain why, in the Hebrew canon, Proverbs is followed by Ruth (who is herself a picture of a ‘noble woman’ in Ruth 3:11).” The fact that the poem begins with verse 10, “An excellent wife who can find?” is actually pretty telling of this truth. Woman Wisdom is an ideal-and a wife of pure excellence doesn’t actually exist-there is no such thing as a perfect wife-Woman Wisdom is an ideal to be sought after-not a standard for wives to compare themselves to. That is then why Ruth follows this poem, because it gives a visual and historical component for how this wisdom looks played out in real life-not that Ruth was perfect, because she wasn’t, but because she was a person who understood what it meant to live in the Fear of the Lord, and she was a role model for women.
  • Now, going all the way back to the beginning of Proverbs we have always recognized that the Proverbs were originally written by a King for the young men going into service for the Kingdom—so it was almost like trade school for kingly responsibilities, and they were learning how to live out God’s law practically in their lives. The truths apply both to men and women, however, were primarily given to men as the original audience, and so it would be quite strange if that were true of all of Proverbs, but then in  the very last chapter all of a sudden the primary audience changes to women—that’s not actually what is going on…
  • So, we must first ask the question “What does Proverbs 31:10-31 mean for men?”
  • It means that we men-must praise wise women. We must especially praise our own wives and mothers, and we must also do so when we see our daughters having wise actions and attitudes, in order that we will teach our daughters what it means and what it looks like to be treated rightly by their future husbands. Just take a look at verse 30, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Tremper Longmann commenting on this verse says, ““Basically this verse (30) puts things in perspective. People and men in particular, are typically attracted to superficial attributes like charm and beauty. However, charm may hide a nasty personality, and beauty is meaningless (hebel). Common experience shows that the meaninglessness of physical beauty derives in large part from its relative brevity. The verse does not mean that a noble woman is abrasive and ugly; it simply contrasts these relatively worthless traits (charm, beauty) with what is truly important:  fear of Yahweh. This is true of all people, male and female, but here there is a reminder that a woman who deserves to be called noble is motivated by a proper relationship with her God.
  • Something ought to be said here… There has been for the past 150 years or so a rise in a sentiment that the Bible does not honor women appropriately and neither does the modern church. So, let me just address both of those claims individually.
  • The claim of the person who reads Scripture with a feminist lens and concludes the Bible does not rightfully honor women and indeed suppresses and oppresses them stands on a faulty basis, because it thrusts a very feminist idea of honor onto the Bible. So what this means is that they believe their standard of honor-which is complete individual autonomy and equality in all things, thus making our society “gender-fluid” they think that standard should be reflected and instructed in religious teachings, and since they are not then these old religions must be outdated and thus the feminist believes they need to update the biblical teaching. The problem with that is fairly obvious and that is that there is no reason in suggesting our context is actually better than the older contexts, and furthermore, it is illogical to then thrust modern ways of thinking onto ancient ways of thinking. C.S. Lewis called this chronological snobbery and he didn’t mean that in a nice way! What is actually true when we read the Bible is that we realize God-fearing men throughout Scripture actually uniquely honored and praised Godly women all throughout Scripture in a way that was unique to God’s people. Proverbs 31 is an ancient example of this. In an Ancient Near Eastern society where women were thought of in a very lowly manner, we get this beautiful poem that leads the husband in verse 29 to say, “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Does that sound like a husband who LORDS over his wife and demands submission from her? Absolutely not! Is it fair to suggest that indeed this wife does submit to her husband even though he does not arrogantly lord it over her-absolutely, because this woman was obeying God’s law.
  • In order for you to diagnose the attitude God’s people had towards women in ancient times you must not throw modern logic into their situation-that is a logical fallacy, but you must instead look at how women were treated at large and then ask the question “Did men within God’s people honor and respect women uniquely, especially as compared to the societies around them?” And the overwhelming answer to that question in both the Old and New Testaments is that rather than being pushed down-women were actually raised up in honor, and with respect, and were more well-thought of among those who understood God’s grace. Just consider Ruth, Esther, the women used as testimony when Jesus was resurrected, Lydia in the New Testament, and then you can fill in the gaps.
  • Now, the second part of the feminist sentiment needs to be addressed as well and that is the idea that men in the modern church have and are currently hindering respect and honor for women. My answer to that might sound simplistic but it’s the true answer and the answer is “it depends.” If we are living out true godly biblical wisdom-such as proverbs 31’s example for the wise men to recognize godly women and to honor them and praise them both in private and in public well then the feminist is absolutely wrong! We do NOT have to knock down the walls of gender altogether in order to be honoring women that is a faulty premise within our society today. The biblical view of this is not that we need to say men and women are the same and we just treat women exactly like men-no the biblical view is that we actually understand that in God’s creation men and women are made equal but different, and thus if we are living wisely in this regard it means that we are recognizing women have a role to play and when they live out that role in the fear of the Lord we actually honor them and praise them for doing so…
  • However, I unfortunately do believe there are some ways in which men in today’s church have missed the mark in regards to appropriately honoring women and for the sake of time let me just explain this and move on… Anytime that a man in the church-leadership or layperson-expresses a misogynistic, or objectifying, or disrespectful attitude about women the entire witness of the biblical notion of honoring women in a Proverbs 31 way is actually undermined.
  • Let me make one practical application and then move on… If you look at verse 23, it says “Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land.” So, her husband is one of the leaders along with other men who oversee God’s people-in this poem that is the setting for the husband-he is with the other men at the city gates discussing policy probably. And it is in this specific context that the husband praises his wife. Modern day contextualization for us men, think about the way you speak about women in your work context and ask the question-am I honoring my wife in my situation? Am I honoring my Mom? Am I honoring other women who may be Mom’s and wives? Or am I demeaning women? Am I speaking in a way that does not honor women? Do I speak about women in a way that if my wife heard it would dishonor her? A fool makes a sexist comment and laughs and says “I’m just kidding…”
  • Now we must ask, “What does Proverbs 31:10-31 mean for women?
  • Danny Akin wrote a helpful outline to answer this question and you can find it in his commentary on Proverbs. You’ll see how in verses 11-12 Lady Wisdom is trusted… In 13-24 she is seen as a hard worker inside and outside the home… In 25-27 she has Godly wisdom… In 28-29 she is honored by her family… And then in 30 and 31 she is honored by the Lord. Now, I’m going to run through these proverbs sort of like a list without camping out long in one place.
  • One commentator points out, “This is a description of a fairly ordinary home, based on what today we tend to call middle-class values.”
  • Whybray says:  “The picture-whether allegorical in intention or not-presented here is of a well-to-do family, neither aristocratic nor royal, which has achieved the prosperity and stability to which the peasant farmer of 10:1-22:16 aspired, and which is promised as a reward for decent, honest work in such Proverbs as 28:19, 20.” So these words are written for and can be applied to ordinary people, within ordinary households, and living out ordinary existences.
  • It is also fascinating when you consider that much of the concentration of Proverbs has been focused on men-it is written by a man to a young man primarily, and there is a lot of attention on farmers, shepherds, and rulers—all of which were jobs held by men in that society, yet the book ends focusing in on the virtues of a woman.
  • 31:11-12 “The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm all the days of her life.”: Akin says of these verses, “Her husband’s heart-who he really is on the inside-safely ‘trusts in her.’ He harbors no doubts or suspicions, questions or concerns. He has full confidence in her because of her competence and character. Proverbs specifies her adeptness at managing family finances and necessities. She knows what her husband and her family need, and she will see that they have it.”
  • Consider these other Proverbs on wives, Proverbs 12:4 “A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, but a wife who causes shame is like rottenness in his bones.” Proverbs 18:22 “A man who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” Proverbs 19:14, “A house and wealth are inherited from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the Lord.”
  • Waltke says “Her commitment to her husband’s well-being is true, not false; constant, not temperamental; reliable, not fickle; and discerning.”
  • In 13-24 we see that the woman is a hard worker. The husband is the coach but she’s the quarterback.
  • 31:20 says “She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy:  “This lady is tender in heart and conscience toward those less fortunate than she. A generous and gracious spirit characterizes her life.”
  • She isn’t so busy with her own home that she loses sight of outreach to others outside the home. She understands that as a family she and her husband are not only called to mission within the home-but outside as well!
  • You will notice in verse 22 “She makes bed coverings for herself; her clothing is fine linen and purple—and then again in verse 24 “She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers sashes to the merchant.” “The text would indicate this woman was a woman of means. Because of her character and commitments, God would entrust her with material blessings, knowing she will not hoard them but will share them. Working with her own hands, she uses the finest fabrics and highest quality materials available to her. She is strong and elegant, gracious and attractive. Her outward apparel only enhances the radiant beauty that shines forth from her heart and soul.”
  • 31:23 “Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land:”  This woman will build her husband up both inside and outside the home. She does not drag her husband down into mediocrity-she realizes his quest for excellence and she helps and indeed completes his ability to reach that goal. She makes her husband better than he would be without her.
  • 30-31 “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates:  As Ortlund has written, “The tribute to this incredible woman ends as it should:  with an eternal perspective and praise from the Lord. It seems best to me to see God as the speaker through the sage in verses 30-31.”
  • Quick comment on verse 30:  There is nothing wrong with beauty and good looks; it’s simply that they are not of highest importance. She values eternal importance over the temporal.
  • Comment on verse 31 from the commentator (not from me):  “What matters is that this lady knows the Lord, loves the Lord, and fears the Lord. Her passion in life is to please him, know him, obey him, and honor him. Such a woman will receive praise and the life she lives day in and day out will be fruitful and worthy of praise.”
  • Here is a helpful comment on proverbs 31 from Akin, “Proverbs begins with a dad telling his son to make Woman Wisdom his wife, and it ends with a husband praising a wise wife. Woman Wisdom points to Jesus, who is the embodiment of God’s Wisdom. The wise wife is therefore a type of woman Wisdom, and one can only be that kind of wife if she is in a relationship with the Wisdom of God who is Jesus Christ. The only way to be a positive mom and a Proverbs lady is to be a saved mom, a born again woman of God.”
  • Just a few brief observations…
  • Notice how the woman doesn’t just do her job but she does it joyfully-God cares about your attitude as much as He cares about your actions… This is why in Philippians immediately following Paul’s wonderful poem about Jesus’ humiliation in the Gospel the very next thing he commands is to “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” God isn’t only concerned with you doing the right things but he also wants you to do it with a Godly joy rather than to do it while grumbling.
  • Anyone who believes women should do no work outside the home and uses Proverbs 31 as the basis for that view-is actually ignoring Proverbs 31 itself. Look at verse 16, “She surveys a field, and she takes it over; from the fruits of her hands she plants a vineyard.” The description in that verse is of a woman involved in a real estate deal. She goes and finds the land, she finds the value of it, and then she uses her own resources to plant a vineyard on the land-this is a business venture.
  • Also, we should notice that the woman is strong! Some have wrongly used the bible as a way to demean women and to insist on their weakness-that amounts to nothing more than unbiblical male patriarchy! Verse 17 says her “loins” so her arms and her legs are ‘girded with strength-and her arms are powerful… She’s got muscle!
  • “What (who) does Proverbs 31:10-31 point both men and women to?” We talked about what this means for men and a lot about what it means for women-but what does Proverbs 31:10-31 point men AND women to?
  • Atkinson is a good commentator on the Proverbs and he suggests and I agree  with him that “There are strong hints here that we do need to see beyond this very ideal picture to something, or someone else.” ‘She is worth far more than rubies(31:10).’ But, we are first told this of wisdom in 3:15. She looks after the house and provides food (13-15). But, we first read that in 9:1-6 about Wisdom. She has integrity, and is smart, and she speaks with wisdom (31:26). But, we first read that about Wisdom in 4:5-6. “So most likely what we have in this beautiful poem is not only the idealized picture of the wife whose noble character fills out the blessed life to which ‘the fear of the Lord’ leads. What we also have is a demonstration of what the life of Wisdom herself would like were she to manage the home.”
  • Wisdom is not some floating concept as New Age religions suggest, but as Atkinson writes “The Wisdom of God is here expressed in the creativity, responsibility and artistry of managing a home, providing for the needs of others, and taking a stand on the side of the poor.”
  • What we have in these verses is an illustration of Wisdom embodied in a person, and lived out, and at work in the home.
  • Proverbs 31:10-31 teaches men how to honor women, it teaches women how to live out fear of the Lord in practical ways, but it also points men and women to Jesus who is the fulfillment of the picture of Wisdom throughout the book of Proverbs. If we just have Proverbs 31:10-31 we only have the first part of the story-Jesus became flesh and lived among us and perfectly lived out the wisdom of Proverbs in order that we would understand that we must first know Christ and have a relationship with Him if we as men are going to honor women appropriately and if women are going to live out their calling as Moms and wives… Detached from a relationship with Christ you will not have the Holy Spirit and therefore you will not be able to live a truly wise life—so we must understand Proverbs 31:10-31 as pointing us to Jesus.

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