May 072010
 

By Eric M. Pazdziora

I wrote this a few years ago around Mother’s Day, though with my wife in mind. It was also featured on Revelife.com to great reviews. In light of my recent article on Quivering Daughters, I thought it might be about time to pull it out again. Happy Mother’s Day, especially you single guys!

Once upon a time on Mother’s Day, the preacher at whatever church we were attending made this remark: “Proverbs 31 has been used, probably more than any other passage of Scripture, to beat women over the head.”

One can certainly see his point.  How many times have we seen women struggling to measure themselves against the “virtuous wife” so eloquently described in the final chapter of Proverbs?  Isn’t that exactly what every woman really wants, a list of ideal character qualities to live up to?  And what about that kicker of an opening: “Who can find a virtuous wife?”  Good luck (seems to be the implication); it’s going to be a tough search.

But as I studied through Proverbs 31—that’s one of those things you do in the pre-marital counseling stage of a relationship—I made a discovery so breathtakingly obvious that I’m not surprised so many people have missed it.

Let me put it this way: Using Proverbs 31 to “beat women over the head,” to require them to live up to an impossible ideal, is like using the epistle to the Romans to prove that you are saved by keeping the Law, not by grace.  It’s like using the book of James to prove that you don’t have to live out your faith.  It’s like using the gospel of John to prove that Jesus is not the eternal Son of God.  Not only does that interpretation completely miss the point of the text in question, it completely contradicts the point.

Look closely at the opening of this chapter of Proverbs:

The words of King Lemuel, the utterance which his mother taught him.

There’s some debate among commentators as to the precise identity of this King Lemuel.  The more significant point, however, is the second person here: “Which his mother taught him.”  This is advice given to the king by his mother.  What advice would you give a king if you were his mother?  Probably, to put it in a nutshell, “Make wise decisions.”  That’s how Lemuel recounts her words:

What, my son?
And what, son of my womb?
And what, son of my vows?
Do not give your strength to women,
Nor your ways to that which destroys kings.
It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
It is not for kings to drink wine,
Nor for princes intoxicating drink;
Lest they drink and forget the law,
And pervert the justice of all the afflicted.
Give strong drink to him who is perishing,
And wine to those who are bitter of heart.
Let him drink and forget his poverty,
And remember his misery no more.
Open your mouth for the speechless,
In the cause of all who are appointed to die.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
And plead the cause of the poor and needy.

So far, this is all excellent advice for anyone in a position of authority.  Don’t waste your time chasing after women; that would be a bad decision.  Don’t drink anything (ahem) that could impair your judgment, since you will need to make important decisions.  Stand up for social justice for the less fortunate; that would be a good decision.

Then we come to the Mother’s Day passage, about another very important decision.  (Interestingly, it forms an acrostic poem in Hebrew, each verse beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet.)  Again, watch the opening very carefully:

Who can find a virtuous wife?
For her worth is far above rubies.

We’re so familiar with these words that I think we’ve forgotten to ask a painfully obvious question.  Here it is: What kind of person is interested in finding a good wife?  Painfully obvious answer: A man.  A single man, to be exact.  This passage is motherly advice for young, unmarried men.  Women aren’t being addressed here; a woman is doing the addressing.  Picture a good Jewish mama: “So you want to know how to get a good woman?  Let me tell you how to get a good woman.”

In case you missed that (which, in fairness, a great many people do), notice that the very first bit of description tells us how the husband of this virtuous wife will act:

The heart of her husband safely trusts her;
So he will have no lack of gain.

This is a cause-and-effect statement.  The cause is simple enough: The husband trusts his wife with all his heart.  He lets her know that he believes in her.  He encourages her.  He affirms her.  He builds her up.  He makes her feel safe.  And he never, ever beats her over the head, even metaphorically.

The effect—“So”—is dramatic: “he will have no lack of gain.”  And then the poem launches into a rhapsodic litany of all the things the husband will gain from his simple act of trust:

She does him good and not evil
All the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax,
And willingly works with her hands.
She is like the merchant ships,
She brings her food from afar.
She also rises while it is yet night,
And provides food for her household,
And a portion for her maidservants.
She considers a field and buys it;
From her profits she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength,
And strengthens her arms.
She perceives that her merchandise is good,
And her lamp does not go out by night.
She stretches out her hands to the distaff,
And her hand holds the spindle.
She extends her hand to the poor, 
Yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid of snow for her household,
For all her household is clothed with scarlet.
She makes tapestry for herself;
Her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the gates,
When he sits among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them,
And supplies sashes for the merchants.
Strength and honor are her clothing;
She shall rejoice in time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
And on her tongue is the law of kindness.
She watches over the ways of her household,
And does not eat the bread of idleness.

Now seriously, what sensible man at this point isn’t nodding his head vigorously, his eyes opened really wide, and thinking, “Yeah!  That’s the kind of wife I’m looking for!” This woman has made it her ambition to be a benefit to her husband—“She does him good and not evil.”  She works to improve his finances, his household, even his clothing.  She’s business savvy.  She’s wise, diligent, kind, ready with a word of advice or encouragement. As a result, “her husband is known in the gates,” that is, he’s well respected in the community. As the saying goes, behind every great man there is a great woman.  As the saying should go, behind every great man there is a greater woman.

But what caused all this?  It was not that the woman read this chapter and struggled to live up to it.  It was simply that her husband affirmed his heartfelt trust in her.  Thus the poem concludes:

Her children rise up and call her blessed;
Her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many daughters have done well,
But you excel them all.”
Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing,
But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands,
And let her own works praise her in the gates.

What is the emphasis here?  Praise her—not in the sense of worship, but in the sense of affirmation.  Let her know how remarkable is everything she’s accomplished.  Let her know that you think highly of her, more highly than any other woman.  Let her know that she has a special blessing from the Lord.  Let her know how much it means to you that she serves the Lord.

This forms a sort of bookend around the poem.  All those great things that were listed earlier?  All that is the result, not the cause, of the very simple action of affirming your wife.  Deep down, all women want to feel secure in a man’s affection; they need to know for sure that they are loved; they need to know that they are valued and trusted.  This (I am told) is one of the fundamental needs of the human female.  If you, as her husband, supply this need for her, then the result will be this marvelous “virtuous wife.”  It is not that she will live up to this list—it is that she will live out this list.

That’s the advice of Lemuel’s mother: “How did your father find a woman who was willing to do all the things that I do to help him?  He encouraged me.  He let me know he trusted me.  And then I couldn’t help but do all the rest for him.”

This advice is echoed by Paul, well schooled in the rabbinic tradition, in his letter to the Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. (Ephesians 5:25-30)

Paul sets up Christ as the ultimate example here.  Christ regards His bride (the Church) as flawless and perfect, and it is His self-sacrificial love that makes her that way.  Christ nourishes and cherishes His bride as His own body, because she is His own body.

So where’s the advice for the ladies?  Back in Proverbs 31 is this gem:

Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing,
But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.

If you make it your goal in life to be externally attractive, then you will attract people who are attracted to externals.  If you make it your goal in life to serve the Lord, then you “will be praised.”  You will find the kind of encouragement and love that this chapter aims to inspire.  Oh, wait—you already have it.  There is already a man who loves you unconditionally and thinks you are pure and beautiful, and His name is Jesus.

The character qualities here are not things you need to aspire and work to have.  This is what Jesus is making you into.  This is what a good husband will see in you. Hold out for that man who loves you as Christ loves the church.  Who can find the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31?  Only the virtuous husband of Proverbs 31.

  • http://quiveringdaughters.blogspot.com Hillary

    Beautiful exposition, Eric.

  • http://asurvivorsthoughtsonlife.wordpress.com OneSurvivor

    Bravo! Again…I love the way you word things. I read this to my husband. He appreciated it, too! Love it!

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com Eric

      Thanks! I remember having a lot of fun writing this.

  • Pingback: Proverbs 31 Husband « A Wife’s Submission

  • Katie

    I just found your site a couple days ago and have been reading it a lot as I can find the time (or steal it haha). It’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I can start to understand grace, I named my first child that and yet I never really understood what should be so simple and central to my faith.

    This passage has caused a lot of pain in my life. Though I am not QF, I have been pressured by many friends and my husband and I have been influenced by it so much in the past. So one of the things that is often pushed on me is wifely submission and control and this sense of you have to live up to this. From the time I was engaged it was, you have to live up to this. That’s a hefty, overwhelming list to be told you have to live up to!! And there’s so little mention of the verses about submitting to each other or the husband actually loving his wife. It feeds into this monsterous theology that if you dont’ do a,b,c, you might as well not even be a Christian. And acting out of love isn’t really stressed, it’s all about fear.

    Then you look at the world and it’s all about beauty and being clever, and if you’re not those things then you, you PERSONALLY are not loveable. It’s terrible to be told on all sides that you are not worthy. It’s not God’s message to us at all. If we just learned to put each other first, maybe both be humble, it wouldn’t seem so impossible. Sorry for ranting on it just meant a lot.

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com Eric

      @Katie: That’s a very good reason for a rant. What an annoying, graceless, ungodly worldview that must have been! I’m glad you’re finding the truth. Thanks for letting me know!

      By the way, I wrote a bit about the truth behind authority and submission here.

  • http://www.coffeestainedclarity.com Bethany

    I’d never heard of this passage before as extolling “the virtuous husband,” but I love that perspective. You’re right — it’s not written to women at all, a fact that seems to escape most readings. Thanks for sharing!

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com Eric

      Very welcome! Glad it was helpful. Mainly, I just get very irked when I see a passage like this–“Here is what happens when a person responds to love”– turned into “Here are all the things you need to do if you want to be lovely.”

  • http://miraclesdontbreakthelawsofnature.blogspot.com/ beka

    wow, this is good.
    so encouraging.
    i do believe this is the first thing i’ve read by you; a friend posted it on facebook:)
    so thankful she did! i’ve never read proverbs 31 like this; people’s opinions and thoughts and the light they shed on it are much different and not as uplifting.
    thank you:)

    [and i do believe i'll be back to read more sometime!]

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com Eric

      Thanks, Beka, and welcome to my site! I hope you enjoy your reading.

  • http://www.alittlelunch.com Kimby

    Don’t know why I didn’t read this post until now (probably because I’m not looking for a single man!), but your comment above about “responding to love” (and this entire article) brought me to tears. Thank you for pointing out the husband’s responsibility in this “cause and effect” proverb. A little praise goes a long way.

  • http://www.alittlelunch.com Kimby

    P.S. Forgot to comment on your closing remarks re: “external beauty.” If a woman (particularly a Christian woman) resorts to soliciting praise for her “looks” (even when she knows the Truth that Jesus is the ideal man loving her unconditionally), perhaps it’s because her earthly husband isn’t praising her enough — or at all?

  • http://delesmuses.blogspot.com/ Jenny

    Excellent post! I guess most people don’t care about what advice a mother gives her son, but love talking about what women should be doing.

  • http://www.afullday.com/the-male-counterpart/ Joii C.

    Wow. I never saw or heard it put that way. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I wrote a post called “The Male Counterpart”. It is about Boaz. I’d love to hear what you think about it.

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com Eric

      Joii– I like it! As long as we’re careful to take Boaz as an example, not a mandate, there’s clearly a lot we can learn from him. Thanks for the comment.

  • Heather

    You’re right, I’ve never heard that angle on it before, but it sure makes sense – it’s right there in the text. How could we have all missed it for so long? Thank you!

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com Eric

      You’re welcome! I’m glad you liked it.

  • Pingback: The Myth of the Weaker Vessel - Eric Pazdziora

  • denelian

    this bit:
    “And let her own works praise her in the gates” – you didn’t comment on. but read it – it says that women shouldn’t just be praised by her husband and children, but that her works will be of value to the community, of EQUAL value to her husband’s work, and that the community will also praise her.

  • denelian

    that came out a bit wrong – i wasn’t criticizing, you were focusing on your main point – i just love that particular line, and have used it in the past. :)

    i’m poking around, and loving the blog. thank you for writing it!

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com Eric

      No, I got it, Denelian. Excellent observation; I should have noticed it myself! The repetition of “in the gates” ties both together and places them on equal footing. Thanks for your comments. I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying my work.

  • denelian

    it’s a great website – how could i not appreciate it? :)

    thanks for not taking offense at the first comment – i *do* try to phrase things better, generally – it was a high pain day.

    question: do you know of anyone else who has written about Proverbs 31 from the same [or a similar] stance?
    [i'm gathering ammo for a friend - she escaped an *extremely* abusive marriage last year, and her parents are being... i won't actually say it, but let's say "the opposite of supportive". as in her mom once told me "She should have stayed - if he beat her to death, she'd have earned a martyrs crown. and what am i going to say at church?" i really DO deserve a medal for not killing her. or at least slapping her. the "Be a Proverb 31 wife! you failed at being a Proverb 31 wife!" mantra is quite common right now, hence the search for ammo against those attacks.]

    actually, my friend and her horrible marriage are the *reason* i started researching QF/P churches and philosophies – and beyond helping that friend, it’s helped me with a few teens i mentor. really good to know these things. aside from a general love of learning, i mean :)

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com Eric

      Denelian, no worries– you should see the comments I get from people who actually don’t like me. (They don’t come to this site much for some reason…)

      Regarding Proverbs 31, two words: Eshet Chayil. I didn’t know about it when I wrote this article, though I think I may have to go back and do a revision to include it (it proves I really did have a glaring insight into the obvious!). In the Jewish tradition, Proverbs 31 has a very different function than it did for your friend. I’ll quote:

      A Woman of Valor, called Eshet Chayil in Hebrew, is a hymn which is customarily recited on Friday evenings, after returning from synagogue and singing “Shalom Aleichem” and before sitting down to the Shabbat evening meal. [...] It has become a Jewish custom for men to recite this hymn at the end of the week, and thus to think about and be thankful for all his wife has done for him and their family throughout the past week. (source)

      Proverbs 31 is actually a hymn sung every Sabbath by the husband to affirm his wife! Poking around on Google, just about every Jewish source I found confirms that. Here are a few articles that elaborate further: About.com, hillel.org, hebrew4christians, and Rachel Held Evans. (The last is a Christian author whose works you will probably want to check out along these lines as well; she has an upcoming book on “biblical womanhood” that looks very promising.) You can also find some videos on YouTube of it being sung in Hebrew.

      I hope that’s as inspiring to you as it was to me. You can also find some links to sites about QF/P throughout my articles on the subject. Best wishes in encouraging your friend.

  • denelian

    Eric;

    you are now officially my *hero*! thank you for all the links, and the reminder about Jewish practices – i get so focused on things, i forget others, and that tradition *IS* the perfect way to stymie the issue [and it's such a beautiful tradition - i was invited to dinner one night when it happened, the family of one of the teens i mentored, and though it wasn't part of the tradition, they included me in the song. it actually made me cry, that they felt i was part of their family just because i hung out with their son 1/week..] like lots of people, i tend to forget the practical application of that fact that Christianity came from Judaism, and if we’re wondering about a specific OT tradition, the people to ask [or observe] would be the people who have been doing it for over 4,000 years.

    also all the other links – especially the book. i’m addicted to books, so that’s awesome, and i’ve pre-ordered it :)

  • Kristie

    I recently was introwduced to the Quivering Daughters site by my sister, and I read some of your articles, which brought me to your own site. I recognized your name from my Moody days and was intrigued to read your thoughts and insights that you share on the QD blog. As somone who was raised in an ATI family, I find your writings like a breath of fresh air. The atmostphere I grew up in was one I compare to a cozy secure straight jacket…I read your articles that really just point to the Bible instead of just your own musings and advice, and it is freedom- the freedom that Christ gives us. I don’t know if I am explaining this right, but I just wanted to say thanks for getting the truth of the freedom of the Gospel out there.

    • http://www.ericpazdziora.com/ Eric

      Thank you so very much for your kind words, Kristie! (And now I’m trying to think whether I remember you from Moody as well; pretty sure I knew a few Kristies there! :) ) I’m so glad my writings could be helpful and encouraging to you. S.D.G.