Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Luke 24:44-53; Hebrews 13:17-25; Proverbs 31:10-31; Isaiah 66
The final section of Proverbs is a beautiful poem about the noble wife. This woman takes care of her husband, she feeds, clothes and teaches her children, works hard inside and outside the home, speaks with wisdom, and even has a good sense of humour. In other words, she is the perfect partner! Such a description may lead some wives overwhelmed and defeated. Is this the standard God (and my husband!) expects of me? Husbands might respond with disappointment or resentment, wishing their wives were more like this remarkable woman. She I expect her to be more like this?
Before taking this proverb as a call for what might appear to be unattainable standards in marriage, we need to determine as best we can what this passage was written to communicate. Part of how we can answer this question is lost in translation. While the poem reads like an unorganised list of things this wife does well, it is highly structured in Hebrew. This was done in part for artistic purposes, but also as a way for writers to communicate the meaning they intended. Such literary structures can help us identify the main message of the passage.
The poem is acrostic: each verse begins with a different Hebrew letter, all arranged in alphabetical order. Further structure is revealed in the way various words and ideas are repeated. For example, ‘woman’ occurs in verses 10 and 29; ‘husband’ in verses 11 and 28; moral qualities are described in verses 12 and 26-27; clothing in verses 13 and 24-25; merchants in verses 14 and 24. In both terminology and subject matter, two units of nine verses lead up to vv. 19-20 and back down again in reverse order. In this two-verse unit, three words are repeated, again in reverse order. This is the turning point of the poem, helping to point us to the two-verse conclusion (vv. 30-31), also distinguished by the change from description to command.
The main point towards which the poem has been moving is the same as that of the whole book: wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord (v. 30). But then it spreads out and influences all parts of our lives and relationships. We have seen the fruit of wisdom in the rest of the poem, the same fruit already described in more detail throughout the rest of the book. Such wisdom contrasts with the way of the world which reveres charm and beauty.
Whether the wife of Proverbs 31 is a personification of wisdom, or an example of a very wise woman, it is clear that women are given a place of high honour. Other extra-biblical texts, like the Book of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach 22:3; 42:14) or the Gospel of Thomas (v. 114), denigrate women. Tragically, Christians and the church have at times adopted such views of women which contradict Proverbs 31. The Bible and Christianity have been used to let men dominate women and put them into subservient roles. The role given husbands here is to praise and encourage their wives so that they are empowered to succeed in every area of life. The husband in Proverbs 31 does not push his standards on his wife. He views her as more precious than jewels (v. 10), trusts her (v. 11), praises her (v. 28) and honours her (v. 31). He notices how much she does, is grateful, and verbalises his praise. Their children praise her too, as they have seen their Dad praise their Mom (v. 28). Even those in the community know about her great work (v. 31).
This approach would bless any relationship. As we look at family members, colleagues at work, teammates, neighbours, do we focus on their short-comings? Do we let them know they don’t meet our standards? Or do we focus on what they do well and praise them for that? As Christians, we should be grateful that God accepts us on the basis of our position in Christ, not on the basis of our short-comings and sinfulness. Problems must still be addressed (as many proverbs point out), but the chance of such difficult discussions going well is increased when they occur within a trusting relationship characterised by encouragement and praise.
The other general theme in Proverbs 31 is that biblical wisdom has practical effects. Wisdom does not sit aloof, but actively engages in life, serving others. Modern life idolises charm and beauty (v. 30), and the selfish pursuit of money and pleasure. That path leads to a meaningless life and broken relationships. Proverbs presents the way of wisdom, leading to a rewarding life, satisfying relationships and authentic praise. It all begins with our relationship with God and whether we are willing to pursue his way of wisdom.