What is a Proverbs 31 Woman?

The Proverbs 31 Woman.  Have you ever heard of this?  Perhaps during the last Mother’s Day sermon you heard?

But what does it mean to be a “Proverbs 31 Woman”?  Proverbs 31:10-31 is full of tasks that are very fitting for a Medieval—definitely pre-Industrial Era—setting:  farming and making clothes by hand (even making the thread and fabric!) in a walled-in city (because there’s gates).  So why would a modern woman want to be associated with it?

This Bible passage opens and closes with words every woman wants to hear.  Who doesn’t want to hear they have quality character and that their value to others is worth far more than precious gemstones?! And doesn’t every wife and mother wish her husband and kids would truly show her the appreciate she deserves?!?

Yes, we all love verses 10 and 28-31.  These bookend verses inspire us to be this admired and appreciated woman.

But has the stuff in between those verses ever bothered you like it’s bothered me?  Do they leave you feeling condemned because you don’t sew or garden or get up at the crack of dawn to do all this Suzy Homemaker stuff?  Or perhaps, because of its non-relatable tasks, you figure this ideal woman is archaic and doesn’t apply anymore?

If so, you’re not alone.  Yes, this passage has made lots of women cringe.

Until about 10 years ago, I fell into the first group: condemned every time I read this chapter, or anyone preached from it or said anything about it.  Then, one day I took the time to contemplate each verse to figure out how those specific, detailed descriptions of this “perfect” woman could be reworded and paraphrased into something I could relate to.

What I came up with was 3 full pages of verse-by-verse “commentary” that I printed out and gave to friends and family for Mother’s Day 2009.  The problem was that it still focused on tasks and skills.

I revisited it this year, updating it with new information I’ve since learned and reformatting it. This version is more focused on character since that’s what the Proverbs writer was focused on.

“A wife of noble character who can find?  She is worth far more than rubies.”—Proverbs 31:10 NIV

The Basics

Right away we see that a Proverbs 31 Woman is trustworthy.  Her husband trusts her completely (v.11a).  He’s able to trust her because of several characteristics described in this passage, but particularly because of the next one.

Trustworthiness is the result of faithfulness.  This is about more than marital or sexual faithfulness; it’s about consistency.  Verse 12 speaks of the goodness she does, and verse 26 of the words she speaks.  And both of those actions are described as being consistent:  she does the good “all the days of her life” (v.12 NIV) and she speaks instruction or counsel that proves itself repeatedly (v.26).

This is not saying a woman should be monotonous and boring or stagnant and not growing. Even as a woman changes in many ways, she is also capable of still maintaining a consistency about her that engenders the trust of others.  Sure, keep your hubby interested with some adventure and mystery, but don’t give the man whiplash with sudden and drastically different behaviors and choices, etc.

Quite a few verses are about this Virtuous Woman’s industrious nature.  Regardless of the job—manual labor with raw materials (v.13), manufacturing products or marketing them (v.24)—she gets the job done.  She’s willing to do the work that’s needed (vv.13, 17), even if it means getting up early (v. 15) or staying up late (v.18).

The latter half of verse 27 basically says she doesn’t loaf around the house eating indulgent delicacies.  But this doesn’t mean she never rests.  I believe verse 17 tells us that a Proverbs 31 woman finds a balance.   While she may be vigorous about her work, she doesn’t overload herself, especially constantly. She knows her limitations and works within them.  “Her arms are strong [enough] for her tasks” (NIV), and she “strengthens her arms” (NKJV), increasing her capacity incrementally.  Be realistic; don’t take on more than you can handle.

Seeing More Than Meets the Eye

Whether she’s shopping for food (v.14), supplies (v.13) or property (v.16), she does so with a discerning eye for pragmatic quality, value, and profitability.  While she’s willing to go the distance to secure a good bargain (v.14), I’m sure she’s wise enough to figure out when the extra time, effort, or distance start negating the savings (see my “Is Bargain Shopping Worthwhile” series).  In other words, she thinks before she acts, and she thinks about long-term and broad-scope consequences instead of just the here and now.

Closely related to this trait of discernment, then, is the trait of being prudent.  Prudent means having the ability to make accurate-enough conclusions about the future and plan ahead appropriately.  She doesn’t fear the future because she’s prepared for it (v.21).  She speaks wisely by applying past lessons-learned to today’s and tomorrow’s challenges (v.26).  And since she has “dignity” (v.25 NIV) instead of shame and regret, she can have a positive outlook about her future.

This brings up another characteristic of the Proverbs 31 Woman.  She has good self-esteem.  The “dignity” (NIV) in verse 25 says she perceives herself as having value.  Verse 18 could also be speaking of her positive outlook and self-perception; her motivation and perspective (aka “lamp”) isn’t snuffed out just because a “night” of difficulties comes around.  And we all know that when we feel good about ourselves, we dress ourselves well and take care of our homes (v.22).  But when we’re down and discouraged, it shows in our clothes and housekeeping.

Her Relationships

A Proverbs 31 Woman isn’t self-centered, though.  She is both aware of others and considerate of their needs.  Her others-orientation is evident in her own home as well as in her community.

Charitable work designed to bless strangers is indeed noble (v.20).  But our loving, caring nature is only pure and true when we give just as selflessly at home, beginning with our spouse!

According to verse 11, a quality wife adds value to her husband’s life.  Her contribution is good for him, not harmful (v.12a).  By providing the contrasting term, the writer has emphasized the word “good.”  “Good” is a rich term that we don’t fully grasp today. It means to be beneficial and helpful, which doesn’t always mean pleasant and desirable.  It’s more mindful of the long-term and overall benefit than of the short-term and myopic.

If marriage were a business, then the wife would be a full and equal partner with her husband.  A Proverbs 31 wife recognizes that if she is to enjoy any profit from this business, she must make sure that her business partner is at his best.  She doesn’t steal from the business or undermine his efforts in the business.  Instead, she contributes the knowledge and skills she has, supports and challenges as needed, and works with him not against him!

She makes her husband look good because of her virtues.  Apparently, the “pecking order” among men is very critical to them (even if they don’t realize it), and a wife can either help or destroy his position.  The Virtuous Woman’s husband has a good reputation.  Even when he’s junior to the senior leadership, they know of him in a good way—and it’s at least partially due to the fact that she’s simply done her best at being a wife, mother, and homemaker, etc. (v.23).

Verses 15 and 27a speak very directly about household management, which brings her children into consideration.  She’s aware not only of and provides for their needs (v.15), she also “watches over the affairs of her household” (v. 27a NIV).  This goes beyond just the physical and tangible aspects; I believe it addresses anything that fits into the idea of “having a finger on the pulse” of the family.

Which brings us to verse 19.  When I first started writing on this passage 10 years ago, this verse stumped me.  After all, it’s talking about 2 tools older than the spinning wheel, which is already old to us today!  So, I had to do some research to figure out any kind of timeless principle.

At first, I thought this verse spoke of having more than one skill and of flexibility—able to fill a variety of roles in a team setting instead of being rigid and limited.  And because the distaff holds the raw fiber while the spindle holds the finished thread, I saw the virtue of finishing what one starts.  Those are some very good virtues to have!

But then I visited Colonial Williamsburg, VA!  There I observed and learned about the ancient art of thread-making.  It was illuminating!

The thread will be either thick or thin depending on the tension the maker applies with their hand onto the forming thread.  A spool of inconsistent thickness indicates a novice, while consistent thread thickness is the result of skill & experience.  Too lax in the tension produces thread unworthy of fine material and artistry.  Too much tension breaks the thread.  It requires sensitivity to produce consistent quality thread.

That same kind of sensitivity will help raise children into quality adults.  No two children are ever exactly alike, so they can’t be raised exactly the same.  We must be attuned to the nuances of our kids and work with that uniqueness if we desire to successfully raise them.

The Ultimate Character Trait

Now, this is a much more relatable description of an ideal woman!  Our tasks are always evolving, but we’ll always have character traits.

Seeing this passage re-worded into broader principles and character traits, instead of the details of specific tasks,[1] helps me to enjoy this passage more.  Instead of thinking I have to be a seamstress or gardener, I can see that my goal as a woman, wife and/or mom is to have quality character traits.

And yes, I realize that this version can be just as intimidating as the biblical Superwoman multi-tasker we first understood Proverbs 31 to be describing.  But don’t be afraid, because there’s one last characteristic that fills in the gap for any other trait you lack:  being a woman who “fears the LORD” (v.30).

To “fear the Lord” is to have a very healthy respect for God.  It’s humbly submitting our will to His, acknowledging that He knows what is best for us.

And when we let God have control of our lives and let Him influence our nature and responses, we will find ourselves increasingly demonstrating the noble characteristics of The Proverbs 31 Woman.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

[1] I’m not disrespecting the way Scripture was divinely written.  In fact, the whole purpose behind the literary style found in proverbs and parables is to make the listener/reader figure out for themselves the transcendent truths hidden inside the time- and space-locked details.  This purpose is stated in Proverbs 1:1-6.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. http://www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

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