By Melissa McDonald
In the middle of the Bible there is a poem describing an excellent wife, the Proverbs 31 woman. It’s a bit curious. Her children are mentioned only in passing and half of the poem discusses her work spinning wool and flax into yarn and selling textiles for a large profit.
Some people read Proverbs 31:10-31 and see the modern career woman. Is she? And what does she mean for women today who stand redeemed, justified, and perfect in the righteousness of Christ? The answer is beautiful.
The Proverbs 31 Woman has Similarities with a Modern Career Woman
The Proverbs 31 woman had a profitable business: she sold textiles (v. 24). From these profits she was able to plant a vineyard (v. 16), which would have been costly requiring the land to be terraced, a wall built, a winepress hewn from stone, the soil turned over with a mattock, and a watchtower raised (1).
Meanwhile her husband sat as an elder at the city gate (v. 23). This position didn’t receive much financial compensation (2).
And to our modern ears the pieces quickly fall into place: She is the breadwinner! They have switched traditional roles!
But we need to slow down before we make these conclusions. Although she does share similarities with a modern career woman—and even with a woman who pursues a career while her husband stays at home with the kids—there are significant differences, too.
The Proverbs 31 Woman is Different from a Modern Career Woman
The Proverbs 31 woman’s work was not taking her away from her family. Spinning wool and flax into yarn was something that busied a woman’s hands when her other duties were taken care of. It occupied her hands, not her attention.
So, for example, women were probably spinning while they listened to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount when he exhorted them, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these” (Math. 6:28-29) (3).
While the excellent wife spun the wool and flax, her children could sit close by and she could talk with them. During her “work day” was the opportune time for her to give the faithful instruction she was known for (v. 26). Even a modern work from home situation rarely allows a woman to cultivate wisdom in her children while she is working. But the Proverbs 31 woman could.
Also, the Proverbs 31 woman’s husband was not staying at home with the children. He served the city as an elder at the gate, he was not at home with the children. In some ways an elder at the city gate would be similar to a volunteer mayor/pastor in a small town today; he would make laws, judge cases, and sentence the guilty (e.g. Duet. 21:1-9; 21:18-21; 22:13-21). He would also teach God’s law, rebuking the foolish and teaching the young men to walk in the ways of God.
They also did not have competing careers. Bruce Waltke explains, “By [the wife’s] economic contributions she frees her husband to play a prominent public role” (4). So her financial contribution actually freed him to advance in the role of leadership God had called him to, they didn’t have competing careers. She was functioning as his helper, freeing him to do the work God called him to do.
What Made The Proverbs 31 Woman So Excellent?
Not every excellent wife in the ancient near east looked exactly like the Proverbs 31 woman. The poem was never intended to communicate that planting grapes was the only way to be a good wife. And if the details were secondary even then, how much more do we need to see the principles that made her an excellent wife before trying to imitate her today.
The Proverbs 31 woman was wise. The whole book of Proverbs is about how fearing the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and this right relationship with God trickles down affecting every facet of our lives.
The Proverbs 31 woman feared the Lord (v. 30). This poem depicts this fear of God as it was impressed on the mundane activities of daily life. She was diligent, trustworthy, fearless, kind, and sacrificial. She lived wisely.
The Proverbs 31 woman was her husband’s helpmate. Through several poetic patterns, the poet places the husband at the climax of the poem. He is at the beginning and the end of the poem. Everything she does is oriented around him. All her other activities and her financial contributions are seen in relation to him. He is the center of all she does. She is spending herself for him, and they together for God.
What does the Proverbs 31 Woman Mean for Us Today?
We see in this poem that there is no ultimate clash between earning money and biblical womanhood. But if we stop there, we miss so much. Money isn’t the point of this poem.
Ultimately, it’s about a woman spending herself to help her husband. And if we thought her example was difficult to follow before, now she seems impossible. But we are not left without hope.
One greater than Solomon has come, he is Jesus (Matt. 12:42). He is wiser than all the wisdom found in the book of Proverbs. The author of Proverbs 31:10-31 looked out and asked, “An excellent wife, who can find?” King Lemuel’s mother knew what one looked like, but they were rare and she was powerless to fashion one for her son.
Jesus is greater. Jesus is preparing for himself a Bride, the Church, to be presented before him in splendor (Eph. 5:27). The Proverbs 31 woman leaves us looking and longing: Who can find her? Who could ever be her? Jesus is making her.
As we sweat and labor to become helpmates for our husband, it is God himself through Christ who works within us. What he has begun will be completed. And all who trust in Jesus will one day stand before him without spot or wrinkle or blemish. The unfaithful people of God will have become the most excellent wife.
(1) Ralph Gower, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago, Moody, 1997), 104-105.
(2) C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 6 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1892), 481.
(3) D. Irvin, “Spin,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grad Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 598.
(4) Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, vol. 2, Chapter 15-31 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 517.
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