The Virtuous Woman


Proverbs 31:10-31

We are nearing the end of our series of sermons in Proverbs. We still have a few more Sunday nights before the series is complete, but those many subjects are behind us now that we think of immediately when we review the contents of Proverbs in our minds. But one such subject, familiar to everyone – perhaps the best known part of the book – we have not considered; the famous final paragraph: the description of this exemplary, virtuous, gifted woman who fears the Lord and upon whose life the Lord has lavished his reward.
Text Comment
v.10     This final paragraph of Proverbs is another of the acrostic poems found in the Bible, by which is meant that each verse of the poem begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. You will notice that there are 22 verses in the poem, as there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. (If you ever want to see the letters of the Hebrew alphabet or at least read their names, most English translations of Psalm 119 provide the letters, from aleph to tau, at the head of each paragraph. That long psalm, the longest chapter in the Bible, is also an acrostic psalm. Each verse of each of the 22 paragraphs of the psalm, begins with the same letter of the alphabet, the verses of the first paragaph all begin with aleph, the verses of the second paragraph all begin with beth, and so on. In any case, one of the purposes of the acrostic poem is to convey the sense that a subject has been treated thoroughly, everything has been said, “from A to Z.” [Waltke, ii, 514]
            In any case, as Proverbs begins with wisdom, personified as a woman crying in the streets, so it ends with a real woman who embodies in her character and behavior the wisdom described and taught in the book, viz. that skillful living, that practical godliness.
            The rhetorical question – “Who can find such a woman?” – invites men to wish for such a wife and for women to aspire to be one. [Waltke, ii, 521]
v.12     The first one to know her true value is her husband. It is very interesting, by the way, that apart from this text and one statement in Judges 20:26 (which speaks of part of Israel’s army trusting the other part), the Bible condemns trusting in anyone but God. So her husband’s trust in her is a compliment indeed!
v.13     Her home is essentially what we would today describe as a cottage industry. Her animals and the product of her fields provide both food and the raw material for thread and cloth (whether wool from the sheep or linen from the flax), from which latter she manufactures garments. Her family consumes some of this production, the rest is sold, as we will read later in v. 24.
v.14     In Elephantine in Egypt at about this period a high quality woolen garment could cost up to two months wages and a cheaper linen one up to a half-month’s pay. So this woman could afford for her family to enjoy luxuries imported from distant lands. [Waltke, ii, 524]
v.15     In other words, she puts the welfare of her family before her own ease and comfort. The word the ESV translates “food” in v. 15 is literally “prey,” a word taken over from the realm of hunting. This is still another evidence of the fact that the woman is being portrayed on purpose with what are usually masculine traits.
v.19     She not only administers, she builds the family’s productive capacities. The vineyard was probably a hillside that had first to be cleared of stones and plowed before the vines could be planted. She has female servants, according to v. 15, and so certainly had male servants as well, so she isn’t doing all the manual work by herself, but she is seeing it done. In the ancient world there was not the difference between management and labor that we are accustomed to in the west. Even wealthy women would sometimes be found in the fields or cooking food and weaving wool.
v.20     The focus of her life may be her home and family, but she is interested in others around her and takes care of the poor. She is, in other words, the embodiment of Paul’s admonition to do something useful with your hands so that you may have to give to those in need.
v.22     The folk under her care are well-provided for. These are splendid clothes and expensive. Linen does not readily accept dye so these are garments of more expensive wool. [Waltke, ii, 530] The woman is not an ascetic. Her own bedroom is beautiful and her clothing is fine. The Bible is never embarrassed about the fine things of life, so long as they are purchased and enjoyed in keeping with the fear of the Lord.
v.23     Some have pointed out that in this poem it appears that the wife so completely runs the home and the family farm that there is nothing left for the husband to do. Again, in the same way as we have to be careful not to make too much of the fact that the book is primarily concerned with fathers and sons, not mothers and daughters, we shouldn’t press the just praise of this woman to the point of overturning everything else we know about men and women and the division of their labor in Hebrew society. Elsewhere in Proverbs the son is presented as one who must be at work in his father’s fields, sowing and harvesting, laboring in the vineyard, and caring for his flocks. The song we are reading assumes that her husband has “founded the home on a sound economic foundation” and that it within that context that this woman does her work so faithfully and well. [Waltke, ii, 520]
            In any case, the mention of the husband here is for the sake of heaping further praise on his wife. He gains status from all that she does and the quality with which she does it. Even the clothing she has provided for him to wear (v. 21b) adds to his prestige.
v.26     She is far more than merely an efficient manager and successful entrepreneur. She is a godly woman who teaches her family to love and obey the Lord. Her skills and her industry are shaped by her character which in turn is shaped by her faith.
v.27     Like any good mother, no matter how busy she is and no matter how many people are in her charge, she knows what is going on in her home!
v.28     As ought to be true in any godly home, the children are quick to declare their gratitude for such a mother and to commend her virtues. And so her husband.
v.29     The extravagant language of love and admiration! The term “women” in v. 29 is literally “daughters,” which may be nothing but poet’s interest in the sound of the word. But it may suggest that this is a woman who herself grew up in a godly home and who took the wisdom her parents taught her to heart early in her life. [Waltke, ii, 534]
v.30     A woman will inevitably age and physical beauty will inevitably fade, but godliness lasts forever!
v.31     The poem ends with the author now calling on everyone else to appreciate and praise this woman for who she is and what she does. Her family have praised her, but we all should as well. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his Reflections on the Psalms [p. 92, cited in Waltke, ii, 536]:
            “If we do not admire [what is praiseworthy], we shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers.”
What precisely is this text? Scholars refer to it as a “wisdom poem” [Longman, 539]. It is obviously that because it is cast in the form of poetry and is found in a collection of wisdom materials. We said it was an acrostic poem as to its specific form. But, interestingly, recent scholarship has noticed that the poem has the character or belongs to the genre of an ANE “heroic hymn.” It is the kind of hymn that typically would celebrate a soldier’s mighty deeds and his victory in battle. [Waltke, ii, 516-517; Longman, 539]. Prof. Waltke gives it the title “The Valiant Wife.” [ii, 514] Twice in the poem attention is drawn to her strength (vv. 17, 25), indeed, in v. 17 we read of her as if she were a soldier preparing for battle. She is fearless (vv.21, 25). These are the sort of things we expect to read of heroes in battle. The LXX, the Greek translation of the OT, made some 200 years before Christ, translates “excellent wife” in v. 1 with an adjective, derived from the noun “man,” that usually means “manly” or “courageous.” So we are reading about the “courageous wife!” The Vulgate has mulier fortis, “strong woman,” or “brave woman.” When you think about it, even “virtuous,” which we are accustomed to here to describe this woman – the virtuous wife – originally referred to manly virtues, vir being the Latin word for “man.” Indeed, one scholar remarks that a perusal of the OED indicates that at the time the KJV was translated, “virtuous woman” would have meant “heroic woman.” Or perhaps we might call her the “warrior wife.” [Leithart, Touchstone (Sept/Oct 2011) 9] Interestingly, Ruth comes after Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible, and Ruth is also referred to by the same phrase used here in v. 1 of this woman: call her a heroic woman, or a virtuous woman, or a valiant woman, whatever. [Longman, 540] But take note that she is being described in heroic terms usually reserved for men and for warriors.
More interesting still, the poem is remarkable for its place in the literature of the ANE, in which poetry that concerned women was typically preoccupied with their erotic charms. Indeed, in this poem, virtually a polemic against the view of women common in the literature of the ANE, this woman’s beauty is actually deemphasized in comparison to her fear of the Lord. One scholar, summarizing the poem, describes its overall purpose puts it this way:
“Heroism of the battlefield is transposed in this case…to a woman’s vita activa in home and community.” [Wolters in Waltke, ii, 517]
Some scholars have wondered too if the author were familiar with the picture of the proper woman in the classical literature of the Hellenistic period, that time in the ANE world in which Greek civilization was overspreading it and influencing it profoundly. This would have been the period that began several hundred years before Christ (putting this material, in the nature of the case, considerably later than some of the other material in Proverbs, such as the proverbs of Solomon). That is not a problem in itself, as Proverbs explicitly informs us that it is a collection of material gathered from different times in Israel’s history. In the literature of the Greco-Roman world, and so the Hellenistic world of the ANE, the ideal woman was a homebody who kept her opinions to herself and remained occupied with her domestic sphere. This is not the woman we have described here in Proverbs 31!
It is not a small point if, in fact, this poem presents the godly woman as heir to Israel’s heroic tradition and, like godly men of battle, is a means in God’s hand of saving his people. We will not understand and appreciate the wonder of Holy Scripture unless we grasp the fact that there is nothing like this in the literature of the ancient world; a poem that celebrates a woman in this way for these reasons. Here the inspired poet makes a woman’s ordinary life and work true heroism, when done in the fear of the Lord. Her accomplishments on behalf of her husband, her family, and her community are triumphs to celebrate in song and verse in the same way we celebrate the victories of warrior princes.
The woman is an ideal, to be sure. There are other women in this picture whose lives could not be described in the same way, certainly not outwardly. Her maidens, for example, did not live in all respects this woman’s life. There were many women in Israel who likewise feared the Lord but who were not as well-to-do as this woman, who hadn’t the means to buy land and make a vineyard of it, who never went to bed in a bedroom as beautifully appointed as this woman’s bedroom was, who never wore clothes as fine as hers were, and whose husbands did not sit in the gate as leaders of the people. Don’t make the mistake of taking away from such a text as this the idea that every Christian woman, if only she fears the Lord, should be so well-to-do, so successful, so entreprenurial. But the ideal is there to make a point.
We live in a time in which it has been necessary to assert and reassert the clear teaching of Holy Scripture that God has made men and women to be different and has assigned to men the leadership of home and church. We live in a revolutionary age and nothing is so much part and parcel of that revolution we have witnessed as the repudiation, at least in the Western world, of the biblical teaching regarding sexual roles, masculinity and femininity, and the specific callings of each gender. We have sowed the wind and our culture is reaping the whirlwind. We needn’t dwell on that tonight because our text is emphasizing a different part of biblical truth about women. But even here, radical as this picture of a godly woman was in the ancient near eastern world, utterly complimentary as it was of a woman’s life and calling as valiant, heroic, and worthy of public celebration, it remains the case that her husband sits in the gate and she is busy primarily in regard to her home. There is nothing here that overturns the biblical picture of man and woman that we are taught from Genesis to Revelation.
But in a age of polemics regarding the relationship of man and woman and the distinctive callings of each sex it is very important that we fully appreciate how remarkably, and for its time uniquely, positive the Bible is in regard to a woman’s life, its importance, its gravity, its consequence for church and world, and how ready it is to celebrate women equally with men as the servants of God. From the beginning, there is in the Bible an exalted view of a woman’s life that you could find nowhere else in the ANE. For thousands of years you find it nowhere else.
I’ve told you before that an excellent example of the Bible’s emphasis on the full equality of the woman in the life of mankind before the face of God is furnished in Gen. 21:17.  Hagar, having been driven from Sarah’s home, wandered in the desert until her water was gone.  The Lord found her there in despair and said to her, “Hagar, what is the matter?  Do not be afraid.” That exchange seems utterly uncontroversial to a modern reader, but it is important to point out that   “This is the only instance in all of the many thousands of ancient Near Eastern texts where a deity, or his messenger, calls a woman by name and thereby invests her with exalted dignity.  Hagar is the OT counterpart to the Samaritan woman.” whom the King of Kings met, cared for, spoke to, and engaged in conversation. [The Role of Women in Worship in the Old Testament, 7, lecture taken off the Web] Women mattered to God according to the Bible as fully as men did whatever their unique calling in life might be.
In a hundred ways, the impression of woman’s dignity is confirmed in the Bible.  It is not only here, in Proverbs 31, that we are given to see women as gifted, intelligent individuals with an important part to play in the story of mankind and the kingdom of God. It is not only this woman whose skill, whose wisdom, whose savoir faire, whose accomplishment, whose effective interaction with other people, including men, whose goodness is described and celebrated in theBible.  Abigail, the husband of Nabal, may well have saved David from a crime that would have nullified his claim to the throne.  Think of Deborah, of Naomi and Ruth, and of Esther.  And it is the same in the NT.  Think of Mary, the Lord’s mother, of Anna, of Priscilla, of Lydia, of Phoebe, and so on.
There is actually much more than that in the Bible that reminds us of the full and unqualified dignity of the female Christian life, no matter the specific limitations that may have been imposed at a few points. In the OT and NT alike women were called and gifted to be prophetesses, God’s spokesmen in the world.  Miriam, Moses’ sister, was the first of such prophetesses to be named, and following her we have Deborah, Isaiah’s wife, and Huldah, who, as you may remember, was the wife of the keeper of the royal wardrobe. It was Huldah who declared the will of God to King Josiah after the discovery of the book of Deuteronomy in the temple (2 Kgs. 22:14).  What is interesting in her case is that the priests went to consult with her to find out what they should do.  As one scholar sums up the situation:
            “That officials from the royal court went to a prophetess relatively unknown
            with so important a matter is strong indication that in this period of Israel’s
            history there is little if any prejudice against a woman’s offering of prophecy.
            If she had received the gift of prophecy, her words were to be given the same
            authority as those of men.”  [Clarence Vos cited by Waltke, 7]

And we find the same in the NT.  The prophecy of Joel that both sons and daughters would prophesy was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. Philip, you remember, had four daughters who were prophetesses (Acts 21:9). The gift of prophecy was exercised by men and women alike in the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 11:5).  The Lord did not hesitate to speak his authoritative word and will as well through the mouths of women as men. Here is the biblical dialectic in all its stark power: the Bible forbids women from being ministers of the Word, but records in many places women being prophets of God. 

Men and women were from the beginning equal in the life of prayer and in the freedom of their access to God.  Rachel’s womb was opened when she prayed to God for children (Gen. 30:22-24).  Hannah strikes us a much more a person of prayer than her kindly but ineffective husband, Elkanah.  She named her son, Samuel, which means “Heard of God,” and it was Hannah who had done the asking!  And it was the son born in answer to her prayer that turned around Israel’s spiritual situation.

Women sang and danced in Israelite worship.  Miriam and Deborah composed the oldest songs preserved for us in Holy Scripture. Women also partook equally with men in the sacrificial worship, the Passover and the other feasts as well as the sacrifices of the temple, though they were not required to go as were their husbands and brothers.  There were, indeed, certain sacrifices, just like those to be brought specifically by men that had to be brought by women themselves (Lev. 12:6).  The laws of ritual cleanliness applied equally to one gender as to the other. Interestingly, I imagine somewhat surprisingly to many modern evangelical readers of the Bible, the Nazirite vow if special consecration to God could be taken as well by a woman as by a man (Num. 6:2).

Women stood with men in the teaching and nurturing of their children.  There is a patriarchal cast to the Book of Proverbs to be sure but, as we have said, it is clear that what is said of fathers teaching their sons applies, necessary changes being made, to mothers teaching their children.  For example, in 31:26 we read that this valiant woman speaks with wisdom and kindness.”  In Prov. 1:8, at the outset, the father says to his son, “Do not forsake your mother’s teaching.”  That seems unexceptional to us but Dr. Waltke reminds us that “nowhere else in the wisdom literature of the ancient Near East, from the Euphrates to the Nile, is the mother mentioned as a teacher.” [8] Of course, for her to teach, she herself had to be taught, indicating that “son” in Proverbs really means “child.” I read recently in a book on heroes in human life that one thing that set the Hebrews apart from other ancient peoples is that they made so much of and profited so much from the contribution of their women. [Paul Johnson, Heroes]

All of this comes over simply and uncontroversially into the New Testament. You can easily remember how naturally and unaffectedly the NT records the important contribution that women made to the advancement of the gospel, first in the ministry of the Lord Jesus himself and then in the ministry of the Apostles.  We are told that women accompanied and provided financial support for the Lord’s itinerant ministry. Indeed, in a wonderful summary of what we are told of the Lord’s female friends and supporters in the four Gospels, Bishop J.C. Ryle wrote:

“It was not a woman who sold the Lord for thirty pieces of silver. They were not women who forsook the Lord in the garden and fled. It was not a woman who denied him three times in the high priest’s house. But they were women who wailed and lamented when Jesus was led forth to be crucified. They were women who stood to the last by the cross. And they were women who were first to visit the grave where the Lord lay.” [Luke, 245]

In fact it has long been pointed out that the place of women in the Gospel record as witnesses to the resurrection of the Lord is a powerful proof of the historicity of those accounts. No one in those days, with the view of women abroad in the culture as a whole, no one in those days whether Jew or Gentile, making up a story that they wanted others to take seriously would ever have made women so prominent as witnesses of the Lord’s resurrection. But that fact is a reminder to us of the great honor paid to certain women as well. It was a woman who was the very first human being to lay eyes on the Lord after he had risen from the dead!

And so it continued. Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia pleading with him to come over to help him, but, when he got to Philippi, it was a woman he found at prayer who was his first convert.  Paul identifies Phoebe as a “servant” of the church in Cenchrea. Phoebe, apparently,  was a woman just like this woman in Proverbs 31. The terms used of her in Rom. 16:1-2, suggest she may well have been a patron of Paul’s ministry, providing financial support in something like the same way the Countess of Huntingdon was a patron of the Great Awakening in the 18th century in England.  Paul speaks of Priscilla as his “fellow-worker,” Tryphena and Tryphosa as “women who work hard in the Lord.”  What is very interesting in Romans 16, for example, is that in that long list of greetings, many of which are accompanied with comments about a particular Christian’s usefulness, men and women are mixed together in the list without any distinction.

In a Christian worship service in apostolic times, women would pray as well as men, just as they might, in places where the gift had been given, prophesy. [1 Cor. 11] The New Testament shows no hesitation in ascribing important roles to women in the history of first century Christianity and its mission into the Gentile world.  It shows no consciousness of a need to keep women in their place, apart from the specific prohibition it makes regarding rule and teaching in the church and the headship of the male in the home.  Otherwise, men and women are, in every respect addressed in biblical teaching, on the same footing, sharing the same privileges and bound to the same obligations. Indeed, there is a counterpart to Proverbs 31:10-31 for the Christian man. It is Psalm 112 and it says virtually the same thing about the man who fears the Lord as is said here about the godly woman. That is typical of the Bible. What is more, our Savior made a point of saying that the relationship between men and women, as it has been established for the life of this world, would not continue in the world to come.

There have been, alas, Christian men who have seriously failed to grasp how completely the Bible teaches the dignity of the woman and her life and in what few ways her life and the life of a man are distinguished from one another in Holy Scripture. We know that. But we who are bound to take our view of things from Holy Scripture – men and women – must believe and must speak and act according to its doctrine of the valor, the heroism, and the nobility of the godly woman’s life, her vital place in human and Christian society, and the supreme importance of her work and accomplishments for the Kingdom of God.

The history of the Christian church is the history of a very great company of such God-fearing women, women of intelligence, character, commitment, faithfulness, devotion, and inflexible determination to serve the Lord in their callings. Of them this world has not been worthy. But let us who love the Lord and his ways and wish to serve him be among those who

“…give her the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.”

Or, as Sam Jones, the famous Methodist evangelist from Georgia, once put it:

            “Give me a good Presbyterian mother and any old thing will do for a daddy!”

The Bible gives us the dignity of a woman’s life, the celebration of her gifts and graces, and the full measure of her importance to humanity and the kingdom of God, but it gives us none of the terrible harm to women, to marriage, to men, to family, to children, and to society that has been visited upon us by modern feminism. Let’s stick with the Bible, shall we!