Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 19, 2021
Proverbs 31:10-31 Commentary
What are we to make of this conclusion to Proverbs? In the past some women saw it as a kind of blueprint for life and so were honored if they could be seen as fitting this profile of the “wife of noble character.” Not surprisingly, more recent times have witnessed other reactions. Some now more-or-less reject these words because they think this represents a biblically sanctioned role restriction for women as being domestic only.
Meanwhile others have hailed this as a kind of proto-feminist tract in that it shows women as active in not only household affairs but in wider concerns, too, involving commerce in the larger society.
And then . . . sometimes you see cemetery headstones that are lovingly engraved with the line, “Her children arise and call her blessed.” In a lighter vein you sometimes may hear a woman who works full-time outside the home joke with her friends about how she’s not exactly “a Proverbs 31 woman”.
But there are textual oddities here, too. What is this doing at the end of a book made up mostly of proverbs, maxims, and aphorisms? This book does not typically present you with long passages about just one thing: it tends to be more wide-ranging and eclectic (which is precisely why many of us resist ever preaching on Proverbs). Yet now it concludes with an extended passage on a single theme. What’s more, these verses are not proverb-like at all. Wisdom is mentioned in passing just once and folly is not mentioned at all. Also, unlike any other part of this book, these verses are a poem written in the form of an acrostic.
In short, Proverbs 31 is not like the rest of the book, is not a string of wise sayings, and in fact scarcely deals with this book’s central theme at all in any overt way. And this is the climax of Proverbs? How does this fit and how should we interpret it today?
To begin I want to suggest that these verses are neither a timeless blueprint which all women must follow to the letter as God’s sole will for their lives nor is it a piece of stealth feminism that demonstrates that even way back in Solomon’s day life wasn’t quite so patriarchal after all. Rather this is like an old photograph you find in a shoebox in an antique store somewhere: it gives you a window on an ancient time when men were in charge, ruling things from the city gates, and when women took care of all things domestic. It would probably be a stretch to say that this woman’s purchase of a field or her trading at the market puts her on a par with her husband (much less that it was some ancient equivalent of working outside the home). To suggest that it means this would have been shocking news to the wife and husband depicted in Proverbs 31 (and probably also to the author of this poem, to whom talk of equality and sexism would have been utterly foreign, and perhaps even distasteful).
Instead we need to take these verses for what they are: a glimpse into a different time, culture, society, and mind-set. We no more need to wonder what is the modern equivalent of a husband sitting at the city gates than we need to ponder whether a woman buying her kids new mittens at Target is the equivalent of knitting the family scarlet attire for the winter. It probably won’t work to try to line these verses up on a one-to-one basis with life today. That hardly renders these verses irrelevant, however. In fact, if we can come to understand how and why this apparently out-of-place poem actually rounds out Proverbs quite nicely, we may begin to see the real ways in which this connects with our lives right now.
There are two main ways by which these concluding verses help to unify the larger Book of Proverbs. One is the way this ties in with the first nine chapters and the personification you find there of Lady Wisdom (over against Lady Folly, who is consistently presented as a kind of seductive adulteress whom the wise son is told to avoid). The second way these verses clamp this book into a unity comes in verse 30 and the line about how a good woman “fears Yahweh.” That line is a clear echo of Proverbs 1:7 that claims “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom.”
Both that verse and the image of Lady Wisdom are echoes of earlier parts of Proverbs and so both summarize what this book is finally all about: the formation of character. Having a good, wise character is founded on the fear of the Lord. A proper reverence for God means that you know right up front that this creation has a certain orderliness to it. Life possesses unity and coherence, sensibility and structure if only we take the time to discern and figure out which patterns of living work and which ones flop. Life is not a booming, buzzing confusion and so we are not free to make up our own rules as we go along. Instead we believe down to the core of our being that there is a right way and a wrong way to do most everything, and our faith in God makes us want to find the right way.
Lady Wisdom calls us to do the sometimes hard work of sorting things out, discerning right from wrong. Lady Folly, on the other hand, is always enticing us to live for the moment, to take the easy way out, to put pleasure before principle and short-term gain ahead of long-term nurturing of a good reputation. Lady Wisdom tells us to measure our speech, to value people more than things. Lady Folly says that being your own unique personality, expressing your own opinions, and amassing life’s goodies are more important than fitting yourself into what God wants you to be.
That is what this book has been about all along. So now we come to the end and find this lyric portrait of one person who is Lady Wisdom incarnate. Never once is this woman said to do anything just for herself–her attention is ever and only on others, whether it is her own children or some poor people she happens to see on the street. Additionally, like the Book of Proverbs in general which ranges so far and wide across the face of life, so also the depiction of this woman zooms right along. These verses encompass everything from household finances to dinnertime, everything from sewing to real estate, everything from prudent speech to business transactions.
In the culture of that time the actions described in Proverbs 31 were the hallmarks of a wise woman, a good wife, a prudent mother. But although some of the specific tasks would have been different, this same kind of diligence, prudence, honest work, and focus on other people is what has been recommended throughout this book to men and women alike. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of this book (nearly all of it, in fact) was clearly addressed to young men. But this conclusion is a stellar reminder that wisdom is for everyone, male and female, husband and wife, alike. Indeed, even though at that time formal schools of wisdom were restricted to males only, Proverbs 31 stands as eloquent testimony to the fact that you didn’t necessarily need a formal education to develop wisdom–such divine wisdom can also arise from common sense and hard work in the ordinary situations of everyday life.
The underlying principles of Proverbs 31 apply to men as well as to women, but these verses demonstrate that then as well as now all tasks are honorable, all people (no matter what their station in life) are to be wise in carrying out their tasks. And if they do so, then it doesn’t matter whether the person is a CPA or a housewife, a stay-at-home dad or a working mother, a high octane lawyer who rules things from the modern city gates or a quiet widow who takes good care of her grandchildren–it doesn’t matter who a person is or what he or she does, if it is done in the fear of the Lord, it is honorable and to be commended. A person like that is worth “more than rubies” and will indeed bring praise not just to him- or herself but to other members of the family as well.
So whether in the past you have seen Proverbs 31 as describing domesticity as a peculiarly feminine matter or whether you’ve viewed it as an example that women can be just as active as men in contributing to society, either way what cannot be missed is the elevation of the mundane up into the realm of divine wisdom. All of life, Proverbs has been proclaiming all along, is to be lived in the fear of the Lord. A proper respect for the boundaries of God’s creation order is the beginning of wisdom, the end of wisdom, and the whole of wisdom.
Or as Jesus, the Wisdom of God incarnate, once put it, “Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will wear. But seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you as well.” We do not need to know much more than that the Lord Jesus abides with us every day and in every situation. The kingdom of God has something to do with everything. The wise live like they really believe that is true.
At one time or another it is something maybe most of us experienced, probably as young children. Perhaps you were at your great-grandmother’s house, rooting around under an old bed or in some musty closet when suddenly you ran across a shoebox. Curious, you slipped off the cardboard lid and peered inside. There you discovered, thrown together slapdash and in no particular order, a cache of old black-and-white photos that never made it into albums for some reason. Some are yellowed with age and faded a bit as the photographic chemicals had degraded over the decades. So you gingerly picked one up and were confronted with an image, frozen in time, from long ago.
A handful of people stare out at you–relatives of yours who died long ago and who you maybe never knew, or not very well at least. They are standing in front of an old house–probably a house that is no longer standing or, if it is, one which today would be almost unrecognizable due to remodeling and renovations. You know it’s an old house because it is covered with that gray, shingled siding that you almost never see anymore. One woman wears what looks to be a hairnet (which you also don’t much see anymore) and all of the women are wearing plaid or checked gingham house dresses. Behind them and off to one side is a Ford with enormous fenders and a design reminiscent of vintage automobiles from the 20s. On the other side, next to the house, is an old-style water hand-pump. It’s a glimpse into the past, into another time when people not only looked different but thought differently, lived differently.
Proverbs 31 is a little like that: it’s a glimpse into the distant past. This chapter is a window on another time, an ancient culture, a society structured very differently from our own. Sometimes we forget that. When you’re looking at an old photo of your great-grandparents, sometimes maybe you quietly assume that if by some magic trick of time travel you could get back to that day when the picture first was snapped, you would fit in pretty well. You imagine you would maybe enjoy talking with those folks, driving that old Ford, and spending a few days in that house during that time.
But if you could travel back in time, you might discover you wouldn’t fit very well after all because so much would be different that you’d feel lost. You’d hop in the old Ford and turn the key only to find that nothing happens. After all, what’s a starter button? In conversations with relatives from back then, you might be unsettled to hear the vaguely racist way they refer to various ethnic minorities (and maybe it would not be so vague!). You might be struck by how little they know of the wider world (having maybe never traveled more than 50 miles from home). If you described your life to them–including things like movies, shopping malls, restaurants, and travel abroad–your pious and well-meaning forebears might slap a “worldly” label on you.
Exploring Proverbs 31 is like that—it’s a trip back in time. When we forget that and try to make these verses some kind of a contemporary portrait, that is when we may get led astray.
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