The very last chapter of Proverbs – Proverbs 31:10-31 – contains a description of the life of a woman which looks almost superhuman. I hear that some women, particularly in American churches, have come to dread the ‘Proverbs 31 woman’ sermon: “ladies, this is what your life should look like…” How could anyone’s life look so perfect? It’s beyond intimidating!
However, I do not believe that the ‘Proverbs 31 woman’ is actually describing any individual. The question in verse 10 is right: “A wife of noble character who can find?” – well the answer surely is, ‘no-one!’ No-one has a wife like this, because this is not describing a real woman.
No. The Proverbs 31 woman is a description of a perfect ‘wise’ life to encourage us to adopt a life of wisdom. Why do I say that? Let’s look into it.
The woman is wisdom personified
The woman embodies the characteristics which have already been seen throughout Proverbs. Let’s look at a few examples.
A wife of good character
Proverbs 31:10 talks about “a wife of noble character”. Proverbs has already talked about wives before, for example:
A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown,
but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones.
He who finds a wife finds what is goodProverbs 12:4; 18:22
and receives favour from the Lord.
So finding a noble wife is a good thing. OK, that’s in Proverbs 31 – check. But the woman described here has many other good characteristics which are apply to men or women.
Someone who is diligent, not lazy
Proverbs 31 woman is a hard worker. According to v15 she “gets up while it is still night” to “provide food”. In v27 there’s a wonderfully pictorial expression: “she does not eat the bread of idleness”.
Throughout Proverbs, hard work and diligence are encouraged:
Lazy hands make for poverty,Proverbs 10:4
but diligent hands bring wealth.
Someone who is generous
According to v20, Proverbs 31 Woman “opens her arms to the poor” and “extends her hands to the needy”. She is generous with her wealth. This is also a quality which Proverbs commends (as we saw previously):
Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,Proverbs 14:31
but whoever is kind to the needy honours God.
Someone who has no fear of the future
Verse 25 says, “she can laugh at the days to come” – in other words, she has no fear of the future. This is one of the central points of wisdom – some of my favourite verses in the whole of Proverbs:
Trust in the Lord with all your heartProverbs 3:5-6
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
Proverbs encourages us to trust in God rather than our circumstances.
Someone who speaks wisdom
According to v26, Proverbs 31 woman “speaks with wisdom” and “faithful instruction is on her tongue”. She uses her words in a wise way – something which, again, Proverbs encourages us to do:
The words of the mouth are deep waters,Proverbs 18:4
but the fountain of wisdom is a rushing stream.
In Proverbs, being wise is not just a matter of knowing things – but speaking it as well.
Someone who fears the Lord
The most important thing about Proverbs 31 woman is that she “fears the Lord” (v30). We know from Proverbs 1:7 that this is the foundation stone of wisdom – the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Proverbs 31 is not describing any old woman; it is intended as the embodiment of a life of wisdom. It’s a beautiful poetic description of what the life of wisdom looked like – a life lived with the fear of the Lord at its heart, a life lived walking in God’s ways.
What does it mean for us?
So Proverbs 31 woman is some kind of personification of wisdom. Great. What does that mean for us?
Why is it wisdom described as a woman?
This is actually an important question for understanding this passage. It’s important to understand that this is not saying that men cannot be wise! For example, Psalm 112 is a wisdom Psalm, a similar passage which talks about a wise life – but here the Psalm talks about a man. (The new NIV translation obscures it by making the language gender-neutral, but a more literal translation such as the ESV translates “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord”, and so on.) So clearly, Proverbs 31 is not making a point about gender!
So how should we understand it? All the way through Proverbs, especially in the opening nine chapters, there are two main characters: woman wisdom and woman folly. See these two verses, for example:
Out in the open wisdom calls aloud,
she raises her voice in the public square
Folly is an unruly woman;Proverbs 1:20; 9:13
she is simple and knows nothing.
Proverbs often contrasts ‘woman wisdom’ and ‘woman folly’. But why characterise these as a woman?
For men (and Proverbs is written as if from a father to a son, so for a male audience – although the lessons are not only for both sexes!), the most intimate earthly relationship you can have is with a spouse. The message Proverbs is sending is, this is the kind of intimate relationship we need to have with wisdom.
The church as the bride
Marriage is used in the New Testament to describe the relationship between Christ and the church (see e.g. Ephesians 5:32). The church is described as the bride of Christ (e.g. Revelation 21:2). The point here is that the unity that the Christians / the church have with Christ is likened to a marriage relationship. Christ is described as the ‘wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:30). I appreciate that Proverbs 31 describes the woman as wisdom, whereas the New Testament describes the church as the bride. But I think the point is not the gender but the intimacy of the relationship.
Putting this together, what I believe Proverbs is teaching is that we begin to live that life of wisdom as we come into that intimate relationship with the Wisdom of God – Christ.
What the Proverbs 31 woman is describing is a life lived every day with Wisdom, that is, Christ:
- Christ forgives us our sins when we fail to do what is good;
- Christ transforms us by the power of the Holy Spirit from the inside out. He gives us the fear of the Lord and helps us to do what is right;
- Christ helps us to put wisdom into practice in our everyday lives.
Everything about Proverbs 31:10-31 is fulfilled in Christ.
‘The wise man built his house…’
Studying Proverbs has helped me to see Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish builders in a different perspective:
‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’Matthew 7:24-26
Matthew records these words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. The implication is clear – the life of wisdom is a life which is lived with Jesus as our rock. When we listen to him and put his words into practice, we are living a life of wisdom.
This is how the Proverbs 31 Woman connects with Jesus: Proverbs 31 is encouraging us to entrust ourselves to Jesus and to his words. We are being encouraged with a wonderful picture of what a wise life looks like. Jesus, of course, lived the ultimate life of wisdom – he never did anything foolish. But we, too, can live lives of wisdom, through Christ.
And the wonderful thing is that this is now available to anybody who trusts in the Lord Jesus – whether male or female, from any tribe or nation. Jesus, the Wisdom of God, can transform our lives to increasingly resemble that wisdom. That’s a lovely thought to finish with.