Each year we witness the coronation of another Miss America. For millions of little girls and young ladies Miss America is a model woman. As Bert Parks used to sing, “There she is, Miss America, There she is, your ideal . . .” For many, then, the ideal woman is young, single, sexy, and sophisticated. The ideal woman of Proverbs 31 is quite different. She is married and we are not told her age or whether she is pretty. The most important quality of the ideal woman is that she is godly.
The woman of Proverbs 31 is truly remarkable. She does everything well. In fact, it seems to me that she does everything too well, so much so that she comes dangerously close to being a woman workaholic. I fear that a man who seeks to find a wife who measures up to the standard of Proverbs 31 will likely never marry. And those women who compare themselves with the woman of Proverbs 31 may be overcome with guilt and feelings of inadequacy. Lest this should happen, let me make a few observations which should help us in this study.
First, this description of the woman in Proverbs 31 is one that is carefully composed. It was not written by a husband who had forgotten it was Mother’s Day and hastily penned a few words of praise after picking up a dozen roses on a street corner. This piece of Hebrew poetry is an acrostic, a poem in which the first letter of each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Another acrostic, which is more evident in the English text, is Psalm 119, where all the lines of each section begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph, beth, gimel, etc.). In either case, Proverbs 31 or Psalm 119, the passage is a literary masterpiece, very carefully constructed.
Second, the woman described is an ideal wife and is not necessarily intended as a goal for every woman. A model is to be imitated, but an ideal will never be reached. This means that the wife of Proverbs 31 is not necessarily a standard by which a man should measure his bride-to-be. Neither is this woman a pattern for every wife to strive to follow. She is a woman of godly character, and in this both men and women should seek to follow her example. But beyond this she is a woman of great ability. She is a wife, a mother, a businesswoman, an investor, a farmer, a manufacturer, and so on. I know of few women–or men for that matter–who can do all these things well, and I doubt that the author intended for us to try to succeed at all these various enterprises. We certainly should not feel guilty because we fail to do everything well which this woman did.
Third, this piece of poetry was not written primarily to women, but to men. This is not a poem written by a husband to his wife, but rather a poem about a godly woman written to men. While this passage does provide young men with guidance in the choice of a godly wife, its main purpose is to exhort married men to appreciate the worth of their wives and to give them the freedom to function in accordance with their gifts and talents and in keeping with their God-given role as a wife. This role, I believe, is much broader than most men are accustomed to accept.
What this means, then, is that this passage was written more to instruct men to become better husbands than it was to help women become better wives. Certainly we find an example for wives to follow here, but much more than this we find instruction for the man who would be a more godly husband. As we can now see, there is a lesson here for both husbands and wives. We will not only learn of the character of the godly wife, but also about the responsibility of the godly husband to enable his wife to reach her full potential as a wife. Hopefully none of us will be the same after we have carefully considered this exciting and challenging text.
Qualities of the Ideal Wife
When we considered the characteristics of a godly mate in a previous lesson, I chose not to dwell on the passage at hand. Since we have already given considerable thought to the character of the godly woman, let me simply review the qualities of the ideal wife which this passage teaches us:
1. THE IDEAL WIFE IS A GODLY WOMAN. This woman is praised, not for her charm or her beauty, but for her fear of God (v. 30).
2. THE IDEAL WIFE IS A WOMAN OF UNUSUAL CHARACTER. She is described in verse 10 as an “excellent” (NASB) wife. In the NIV she is said to be a “wife of noble character.” She is further described as being “clothed with strength and dignity” (v. 25, NIV).The implication of verse 10 is that a woman of her quality is rare. With women of this quality in such short supply, one must diligently search to find such a wife.
3. THE IDEAL WIFE IS A WOMAN WHO IS COMPLETELY TRUSTWORTHY. In verse 11 we are told that her husband has complete trust in his wife. Rather than being a detriment to her husband, she is his helper, bringing him nothing but good (v. 12).
4. THE IDEAL WIFE IS DILIGENT AND HARD-WORKING. This woman is no sluggard. Repeatedly she is described in terms of her diligence and strength. She works with her hands (v. 13).She rises early and retires late (vv. 15, 18). Unlike the sluggard (6:6-11), she prepares for the future (vv. 21, 25). In our society she would not sit around the house watching soap operas, for she has no idle time (v. 27).
5. THE IDEAL WIFE IS WISE. The virtuous woman speaks with wisdom (v. 26). Beyond this, she has a very practical wisdom, for she is able to make wise investments (vv. 16, 18).
6. THE IDEAL WIFE IS MARKED BY HER GENEROSITY. This woman has concern for the poor and the needy, giving of her income to minister to their needs (v. 20).
7. THE IDEAL WIFE IS GRACIOUS IN WHAT SHE SAYS. Notice in verse 26, that the teaching of this woman is called the “teaching of kindness.” I understand this to mean that she instructs in a gentle way, and that her teaching is encouraging and edifying.
These are some of the character qualities of the ideal wife. We have seen all of these before in Proverbs, for they should be the mark of everyone who is wise: man or woman; husband, wife, or single person; adult or child. The ideal wife is a woman of wisdom, a woman who fears God and who manifests godliness in her doings.
The Responsibilities of the Ideal Wife
Some women (and an even greater number of men) seem to think that the world of the wife is exceedingly small, restricted largely to dirty dishes and diapers. It is not too surprising that many wives have felt frustrated in their role as wife and mother. Is their ministry confined only to doing the housework? Is their world defined by the walls of their home? Proverbs 31 widens the horizon of what a godly wife and mother ought to be encouraged to do, if she is both able and willing. Let us consider some of the spheres of activity in which the ideal wife moves freely and confidently.
1. THE IDEAL WIFE IS A PURCHASING AGENT FOR THE FAMILY.
She looks for wool and flax, And works with her hands in delight. She is like merchant ships; She brings her food from afar (vv. 13-14).
We all know how much a family consumes. The ideal wife contributes to the family by purchasing the necessities of the family. She looks, I assume, for the highest quality at the lowest price. She does not buy her groceries on the spur of the moment at the Seven-Eleven store on the corner, but she searches out the finest of goods, going some distance, if necessary, to get both quality and economy.
2. THE IDEAL WIFE IS A MANAGER. She is a capable leader and administrator.
She rises also while it is still night, And gives food to her household, And portions (or, prescribed tasks, margin, NASB) to her maidens (v. 15).
She looks well to the ways of her household, And does not eat the bread of idleness (v. 27).
3. THE IDEAL WIFE IS A PROVIDER OF INCOME. There are numerous jokes about the wife who grabs for her husband’s wallet when payday comes around. The ideal wife may reach for her husband’s wallet, but it is to put something into it, not take something out. This woman contributes to the family finances.
She considers a field and buys it; From her earnings she plants a vineyard (v. 16).
She senses that her gain is good; Her lamp does not go out at night (v. 18).
I assume that it is at least partly out of the income of the woman of Proverbs 31 that her family’s needs are met. For example, she purchases material and provides her family with clothing that is both functional (warm, lasting) and tasteful, enhancing the appearance of the wearer.
She is not afraid of the snow for her household, For all her household are clothed with scarlet (v. 21).
There is some discussion about the word “scarlet” here.35 If this is indeed the term intended by the author, the emphasis would be on the expensiveness of the clothing. If it is a word which means something like “double,” the stress would be on the warmth of these clothes. I am inclined to think of the clothing she provides for her family as being both suitably elegant and functionally warm.
In addition to clothing her family, she also makes fine garments for herself. I believe this is not to indulge herself as much as it is to enhance the standing of her husband. Her attire should be appropriate for one whose family is prosperous and whose husband is influential in the community.
She makes coverings for herself; Her clothing is fine linen and purple (v. 22).
The NIV translates the first line of verse 22: “She makes coverings for her bed,” which is most likely,36 leaving the reference to her personal clothing to the second line of the verse.
4. THE IDEAL WIFE IS AN INVESTOR. Not only does this noble woman produce income to enhance the family finances, she also invests some of this money in order to gain additional income.
She considers a field and buys it; From her earnings she plants a vineyard (v. 16).
The traditional stereotype is that the “pretty little woman” has no brains for business. How could she possibly understand the stock market, or have a grasp of the pros and cons of buying gold or real estate? But this woman did make investments, and it is obvious that she did well at it.
5. THE IDEAL WIFE IS A PRODUCER, A MANUFACTURER OF GOODS.
She makes garments and sells them, And supplies belts to the tradesmen (v. 24).
While it may be that she herself makes all that she sells to the tradesmen, I am inclined to think that her business may have grown to the point where she utilized employees in this manufacturing venture. In this case, what may have begun as a small undertaking may have grown into a larger business, supervised by this incredible woman.
6. THE IDEAL WIFE IS A CHARITABLE PROVIDER. The income of the godly wife is used for a variety of purposes. Some is reinvested, much is spent in providing for family needs, but a generous portion is given to the poor.
She extends her hand to the poor; And stretches out her hands to the needy (v. 20).
7. THE IDEAL WIFE IS A TEACHER.
She open her mouth in wisdom, And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue (v. 26).
Much, perhaps most, of the teaching of the ideal wife would be directed to her children. An example of this kind of teaching is found in the first 9 verses of chapter 31. Here the godly mother of King Lemuel (v. 1) instructs her son concerning those things which would hinder a godly reign. But the teaching of the ideal wife may very well have extended beyond her household, especially to other women in the community who could gain from her wisdom.37
8. THE IDEAL WIFE PROMOTES HER HUSBAND’S STANDING AND LEADERSHIP IN THE COMMUNITY.
Her husband is known in the gates, When he sits among the elders of the land (v. 23).
The Man Behind the Woman:
The Ideal Husband
To my knowledge very few people read Proverbs 31 in the light of what it teaches husbands. May I remind you that this passage, like the entire Book of Proverbs, is not addressed to women, but to men. The writer frequently says, “my son,” not “my daughter.” I would like to attempt to be consistent with the book when we come to this passage, by focusing my attention where I believe the author intended it to be–on the man.
There is no way that a woman who lived in ancient times would ever have had this kind of freedom and responsibility without support and encouragement from her husband. The character of the godly woman is to be attributed to the woman and to the grace of God in her life. But the freedom she had to function in so many different aspects of life must be attributed to her husband. Let me draw your attention to the kind of man this “ideal husband” had to be in order for his ideal wife to be what she was described to be.
1. THE IDEAL HUSBAND TRULY APPRECIATES HIS WIFE.
An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels (v. 10).
These are not the words of a cynic or a skeptic. The writer is not saying, “A woman of character cannot be found,” but, “A woman of my wife’s character is seldom found.” Proverbs 31:10-31 begins and ends with praise for the rare qualities of the godly woman. We cannot expect to be the right kind of husband until we first come to appreciate the qualities of the wife God has given us.
2. THE IDEAL HUSBAND HAS COMPLETE CONFIDENCE IN HIS WIFE’S FAITHFULNESS AND CONFIDENCE.
The heart of her husband trusts in her, And he will have no lack of gain (v. 11).
A man may have complete confidence in the purity of his wife, and yet be doubtful about her ability to bring him gain. This verse is not referring to the husband’s confidence in the moral purity of his wife, but in her proficiency as a money-maker and business woman.38 Her husband could leave the matter of purchasing a piece of property in her hands without looking over her shoulder.
3. THE IDEAL HUSBAND EXPRESSES HIS FAITH IN HIS WIFE’S ABILITIES BY GIVING HER THE FREEDOM TO FUNCTION WITHOUT UNNECESSARY HINDRANCES. It is amazing to me how men can gripe about the myriad of governmental regulations which plague business and industry today, and then burden their wives with so many rules and guidelines that they find it almost impossible to do anything well. The faith of the ideal husband, as described in verse 11, is expressed in the freedom that is granted the wife to go about her business without constant supervision or needless restrictions. Faith is expressed in freedom. Incidentally, that is why the Christian life, the life of faith, is not one that is regulated by countless rules.
4. THE IDEAL HUSBAND NOT ONLY APPRECIATES THE VALUE OF HIS WIFE, BUT GIVES HER THE PRAISE SHE DESERVES.
Her children rise up and bless her; Her husband also, and he praises her, saying: “Many daughters have done nobly, But you excel them all.” Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her the product of her hands, And let her works praise her in the gates (vv. 28-31).
Verse 31 instructs the husband to give his wife the praise she deserves. Her works are to praise her in the gates. Now who, I would ask, is at the city gates? It is, of course, her husband (v. 23). The godly husband is at the gates of the city, in large part, because of the godly wife who is behind him. It is there, in the gates of the city, in public, that the godly husband should praise his wife.
I want to begin this conclusion with a word of warning. I always dread the fact that some are going to hear only what they want to hear and thereby justify their sinful actions. I see several ways in which this passage can be abused, which I would like to warn you about in advance. The first is that a frustrated wife may misuse this text to justify her autonomous attitudes and actions. The woman who misuses this text will focus only on the freedom of the wife. She will feel justified in doing whatever she pleases without consulting her husband or caring what he thinks. The ideal wife of Proverbs 31 aggressively engaged in her activities because her husband granted her the freedom to do so, not because she willfully took these matters into her own hands in spite of her husband. This text does not command the wife to take on these responsibilities, nor does it commend the woman who would do so contrary to her husband’s will. This text urges husbands to give their wives more freedom, but it does not teach the wives to take it if it is not given them.
If the first warning has to do with the overly aggressive wife, the second warning concerns the passive husband, who would love for his wife to take care of his obligations for him. This kind of husband burdens his wife with all the tasks he does not want, so that he may go through life with hardly a care. I must admit being troubled by the fact that the husband seems to be sitting in the city gate, taking life easy, while his wife is working her fingers to the bone to keep the family going. I think many men would love for their wives to assume the entire burden of providing for the needs of the family so that they can lead or minister without any concern. I do not believe this is biblical. While the wife did help her husband in many ways, she did not do his job for him. I cannot conceive of the husband living a life of ease, philosophizing at the city gate, while his wife agonized over business decisions and the like.39 She was a helper to her husband, but she did not do his work for him. Let us not use this passage, men, to excuse our own laziness by delegating our work to our wives while we live the easy life.
The third warning is to those who are not married. This passage concerns the ideal wife, not necessarily the ideal woman. While marriage was certainly the norm in the days Proverbs was written, let me remind you of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7. There he urged single women to remain single, so that the efforts which are spent meeting the needs of a husband and family might be devoted entirely to the Lord. In my opinion, the single woman is as free to serve the Lord as the woman in Proverbs 31 is to serve her husband and family. In Paul’s mind (1 Cor. 7:34-35) she is even more free. Let single Christians learn of their freedom to serve God from Proverbs 31, without feeling that they are somehow second-class citizens in God’s kingdom because they are not married.
This passage in Proverbs has a message for every saint. For parents, it warns us that we are not providing our children with a realistic goal when we give them dolls which are perfectly shaped and have beautiful faces. We are subtly stressing charm, not character. We are often teaching them that they are to be fulfilled by seeking their own interests and forsaking those that have to do with family commitments or personal sacrifice. Let us continually seek to establish the qualities of the godly woman as the goal toward which our girls should strive. And let us teach our sons that this is the kind of woman who makes married life such a blessing.
Husbands, let us be open to some radical changes in our thinking about what an ideal husband is like. I know of many women who are frustrated in their role as wife and mother, largely because of the failure of their husbands to fulfill their role in the marriage. In many cases women rightly recognize that their husbands restrict them from fully utilizing their gifts and abilities. Often this is due to the husband’s being threatened by his wife’s competence. He is frightened by the thought that his wife can do some things better than he can, so he carefully fences off these areas, even though his wife desires to serve him in this particular task and would do a better job. If Proverbs 31 teaches us anything, it is that the ideal wife has much more freedom than most of us as husbands have been willing to grant. We need to do a great deal of thinking about our role as managers, for a good manager always utilizes the abilities of others to the fullest possible degree.
This text has overturned my thinking, for I have been forced to recognize that the wife, in her activities, does nearly everything her husband does. Those tasks which I have always considered to be masculine are not necessarily so. The ideal wife earned income and had a great deal of control over how it was utilized. She ventured freely into the business world and found great success. She served as a manager in the home.
The main difference between husbands and wives, as I now perceive it, is not that men do some things, while women do the rest (usually what the men don’t want to do anyway), but that wives do what they do under the authority of their husbands. If the wife is a manager, she manages under the authority of her husband. She has great freedom and authority, but it is always freedom within the confines of the authority of her husband, her head.
Is this not true in the spiritual life? While Christ is our head, we have been given a great deal of freedom and responsibility. Just as God does not direct us in all the particulars, but gives us principles to guide us, so the husband should exercise his headship over his wife. Our wives should feel no more stifled under our leadership than we do under the headship of Christ.
The second reason for the frustration of married women is that they are often doing many things well, but they receive little or no recognition for it. Their contribution to the home is not appreciated, and they feel unfulfilled. Proverbs makes it clear what we are to do about this–we are to publicly give praise to our wives for the things they do well. Let us not grow slack in this vital area. While our wife should not seek praise for herself, let us give it to her with gratitude and sincerity.
Having emphasized the freedom which was given to the ideal wife in Proverbs 31, let me also remind you that there are still limits. In the first place, it was the husband who exercised public leadership in the gates of the city (v. 23), not the wife. The role of the wife greatly enhanced the leadership of her husband, but she did not lead in the capacity of her husband. Second, the leadership of the wife was not described as her having authority in the area of Israel’s worship. Women, in the Old Testament, were not priests, nor were they given leadership over men in public worship. While we must be quick to stress the freedoms given the godly woman, we must also be honest about those areas reserved for men only, not because women were incapable of leading, but because of divine principles governing the roles of men and women in spiritual leadership.
Even though certain restrictions are prescribed for women, this does not mean that women can make no contribution. For example, it was the husband who ruled in the city gate. But in Proverbs 31:1-9 it is the godly mother who, in the training of her son who will be a leader, shapes the impact he will have. The mother who rocks the cradle does, as someone has said, shape the world. I believe this is the sense of what Paul was teaching in 1 Timothy 2:15. While the woman may not exercise public leadership in the church, she can raise godly children who may become godly leaders of the future.
Someone will no doubt wonder about the implications of this passage for the working wife. We should learn from our text that it is not wrong for a wife to earn money to contribute to the family’s income, nor is it wrong for her to be engaged in business ventures. I believe an important principle underlying this passage is that the efforts of the wife, in every instance, should contribute to the well-being of the family. Any employment the wife might have which is detrimental to the spiritual and moral well-being of the family, in my estimation, would be wrong. This principle applies as much to the husband as it does to the wife.
To say that it is categorically wrong for a wife to work would fly in the face of this text. And to say that the work this wife performed was solely done at home would also be stretching the text.40 To work only to provide materially for our children, but at the expense of their spiritual growth, would be contrary to biblical principles. The children of this godly woman, as well as her husband, were blessed by her activities. We know that she was noted for her gracious teaching (v. 26). What this woman did, she did as an act of obedience to God and as a sacrificial service to her family. She found her fulfillment in serving God and her family, not in seeking her own interests.
Let us all seek to serve God and others, giving of ourselves in the process, whether as a wife, or a husband, or a single saint. And let us do it all to the glory of God and by His grace.
“Scarlet: if this is the right translation, the point will be that it denotes high cost. She can afford the best, and by implication, the fully adequate. But the word has a plural ending, which is abnormal for ‘scarlet’; so that both form and sense arouse suspicion. The consonants allow the reading double (AVmg), i.e., double thickness, which is supported by Vulg. and LXX (the latter joining it to the next verse).” Derek Kidner, The Proverbs (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964), p. 184.
36 The word “coverings” of Proverbs 31:22 is the same word found only in 7:16. There it is used of the bed of the adulterous woman. This tends to reinforce the translation of the NIV, over that of the NASB. It would seem to me that there is a very important lesson to be learned from verse 22. If the wise husband is urged to rejoice in the wife of his youth and be captivated by her love (Prov. 5:19), why should the wise wife not encourage her husband in this by making her bedroom as attractive as that of the harlot? Here, my friend, is an “extravagance” well worth the cost.
37 “Kindly instruction is lit. instruction of kindness (RV, law of kindness), instruction, to her children, servants, and friends, which springs from a kindly, friendly nature: though firm in her administration, as becomes a business woman, she is not domineering or harsh.” C. H. Toy, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Proverbs (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1959), p. 547.
40 Someone will surely wonder how the teaching of 1 Timothy 5:14 and Titus 2:5 relates to the question of the working wife. In 1 Timothy 5:14 Paul commands younger widows to marry, to have children, and to “manage their homes” (NIV). The rendering of the NASB, “keep house” is somewhat vague, leaving room for the idea that the wife should stay home and that housework is her primary duty. The KJV is in agreement with the NIV, rendering this expression, “guide the house.” The idea here is that the wife should devote herself to the task of managing the home. Housework is not the issue here, but home management. This is quite clearly the sense of the word oikodespoteo.
The second passage, Titus 2:5, is rendered “busy at home” (NIV), “keepers at home” (KJV), or “workers at home” (NASB). The difficulty with this passage is that some Greek texts differ as to the word which is used here. One possibility is oikourgos, a combination of oikos, house, and ergos, work. This term should likely be rendered “working at home.” The second option is the Greek word oikouros, meaning “staying at home.” In either case we must be careful to interpret this text in the light of the culture of that day, rather than our own. In those days, women did not work outside the home, unless their profession was prostitution. Notice that Paul warned the widows about being idle and going from house to house as a busybody (1 Tim. 5:13).Since women didn’t work outside the home in those days, the women were faced with the temptation of wasting time, going about the houses of other women, spreading gossip and doing little good. The command to “stay at home” or to “work at home” was given in this context. The solution to idle gossip was to stay at home and to devote oneself to the task of contributing to the family by managing the home well.
It seems to me that we must therefore be very careful about applying these two passages too quickly or too broadly to the subject of the working wife. While they may apply in principle, they cannot be taken out of context, as I once used them, and some continue to do.