What sort of woman is the wisdom literature talking about, what are her qualities, and do they exclusively apply to wives and mothers?
What Is the Meaning of a Proverbs 31 Woman?
Commentary from the ESV Study Bible regarding Proverbs 31 tells us that the ideal woman is virtuous, strong, and selfless. She does not wait to be served but rises early, even before sunrise, to delegate tasks and engage in business.
She possesses “a range of manual, commercial, administrative, and interpersonal skills.” This woman “opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy” (v.20). She is loving, dignified, and her virtues increase her husband’s reputation: “Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land” (v.23).
She is sharp but honest, engaged in business for the benefit of her household. Above all, she fears the Lord for “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
Characteristics of a Proverbs 31 Woman
What woman can live up to the example given in this Proverb? Every wife and mother looks back at certain events in her life and cringes with painful regret. “But what if I told you that the heart behind Proverbs 31:10-31 is one of celebration, not condemnation?” asks Lysa Terkeurst.
She argues that these words of wisdom, which were read aloud at the Sabbath, are not “meant to tell a woman she is supposed to be more. They are a celebration of who she is.” The Proverb does not describe “a woman with a spotless house” or “with perfectly behaved children wearing matching, designer outfits. Honestly, it’s not even the woman who’s married and has children.”
These words describe “a woman who honors God by seeking Him in everything she does and trusting Him wholeheartedly with her life. She has a heart of reverence that overflows into a life of spiritual maturity and wisdom.”
She is not born this way; she gets there by a process of refinement, which is a work of the Holy Spirit. A woman that yearns to please God strives to be like this ideal example, but with the understanding that every Christian is a work in progress, brought “to completion in the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
Just a Wife, or All Women?
One reason a woman might skip past Proverbs 31 is that not all women marry, and not all who marry become parents. Should an unmarried woman, or a wife with no children, still aspire to the qualities of a Proverbs 31 woman?
Marriage is an especially intimate relationship, yet aspects of an intimate relationship are not mentioned by the writer in this piece of wisdom literature. His greatest concern has to do with the woman’s character and how she interacts with people.
The writer is hopeful that the young men of his community will seek out this sort of wife, and that the young girls will aspire to her ideal. But even if they never marry, every female who sincerely loves the Lord is developing the characteristics of a Proverbs 31 woman.
At many times and in many locations around the world (even now), professing faith in Christ has been risky for women. They have had to truly love the Lord in order to endure the ridicule and isolation they sometimes face(d).
One historian wrote that, in his opinion, the church was attended by the “silly and mean and stupid,” and “disproportionately populated by women.” Certainly, the church attracted individuals who needed to be cared for — sheltering vulnerable people has always been a function of the church.
But it took great courage to be a Christian woman. For one thing, many of them attended Christian fellowship without their husbands; they “often converted to Christianity while their male relatives remained pagans, lest they lose their senatorial status.”
One might argue that any woman with a sincere Christian faith is well on her way to becoming the ideal example of Proverbs 31.
Women as Leaders
Another reason there were more females than males among the first fellowship was that the church “repudiated” the “practice of exposing unwanted female infants — abandoning them to certain death.”
Statistics alone ensure that women had to be leaders, perhaps responsible for “organizing and hosting” the Lord’s supper and other meetings, which provided “natural opportunities for women to serve and even lead.”
Men and women prayed and sang together, and women sometimes led the hymns. As seen in Acts 18:26 where Priscilla was involved in discipleship, educated female participants in Christian fellowship “read and interpreted Scripture.”
A woman boasting the aforementioned characteristics was one who lived out the values of service, humility, and charity taught by Christ. In fact, women were central to the charitable work and organization of the church from the very start.
The Christ and the Church as the Proverbs 31 Wife
Proverbs 31 describes an ideal woman, but also the ideal bride: The church. “God created marriage to be a metaphor of Christ’s relationship to the church,” wrote John Piper.
As such, the selfless, hard-working, considerate, pleasing woman of this Old Testament passage represents everyone who makes up the body of the Christian church. “The union of man and woman in marriage” contains “a truth about Christ and the church,” which is that “God ordained a permanent union between His Son and the church.”
Marriage between a man and a woman should reflect this: The man is the head, giving his life for the woman; the woman submits to the man who lays his life down for her. “Human marriage is the copy, not the original” (Piper).
Taken as a metaphor, Proverbs 31 is not simply describing wives and mothers, but also husbands and fathers; unmarried men and women; couples without children; and those who have survived their spouses.
Anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian is a bride of Christ through the Spirit, which unites the global church. Each person and each fellowship have responsibilities such as spreading the good reputation of the bridegroom (v.23) and caring for the poor (v.20).
Chad Ashby comments: “The church ought to be characterized by [...] single-hearted devotion to her Bridegroom,” which is embodied by the Proverbs 31 woman. “After all, John Gill reiterates, she is 'a woman actually married to Christ.’”
Final Words from the New Testament
“Let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves” (1 Peter 3:4-5).
God wants his bride to love him, to submit to him, and then he will give his bride discernment. He will increase her courage and soften her heart, so she is disposed to give generously; to act charitably.
He will ensure that when “she opens her mouth with wisdom, [...] the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (v.26). His bride is his treasure. We, the church, are his bride.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.