"Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth Jehovah, she shall be praised. Proverbs 31:30” (ASV).
As a girl I recited that verse in unison with my fellow Calvinettes at the beginning of each of our meetings. (First the Verse, then the Aim: “Exercise thyself unto godliness. 1 Timothy 4:7b.” And then our Song: “O Calvinettes, March Forward.”) This was my introduction to a passage that has haunted women for centuries—the description of an ideal that causes not a little good-natured eye rolling today.
The book of Proverbs was, I recall, important in our Calvinette group study of Scripture. One requirement for each rank, from Tiller to Harvester, required assembling an acrostic of verses—one verse from Proverbs for each letter of the rank name—and then reciting the verses from memory. We worked industriously, of course, to find the shortest verses possible.
Little did we know that we were mimicking the writer of Proverbs. The authors of our Old Testament wisdom literature often used acrostics. Psalms 111 and 112 are both acrostics—the first letter of each verse follows the Hebrew alphabet. Using an acrostic made the psalm easier to memorize because if you knew your “aleph-bet,” you could figure out what word needed to come next. It created a framework for the psalm that announced, “Here is everything you need to know—from A to Z—about this subject.” For example, Psalm 111 presents everything the believer needs to know about Yahweh; Psalm 112, the full and complete life of a man who fears God; Proverbs 31:10-31, the A to Z perfections of a godly woman.
“A capable wife—who can find her?” the author of Proverbs 31 asks rhetorically, then lists 22 characteristics of the embodiment of every husband’s dream. But is that really what the author is describing—the perfect wife?
Or could the author of Proverbs be using the imagery of this ideal to invite all believers to glimpse what a life lived in the fear and knowledge of God, a life lived wisely, could look like within one’s community of family and village?
The Ideal Woman?
The book of Proverbs was originally a textbook for young noblemen studying how to become wise leaders. To begin, Proverbs says, set your feet on the path of knowing God and serving God with all your heart, soul, and mind. When life is guided by a sure knowledge of what God intends for each individual, then the community and, indeed, the nation, will prosper.
Wisdom is made concrete in Proverbs with the image of a woman—a woman who calls out to this group of students to travel with her on their journey to “the fear of the Lord and the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:5). In chapter nine, Woman Wisdom builds a house, directs a feast to be served, and invites all who would walk in the way of insight to come and eat her bread and drink her wine. So what, then, are these students of wisdom being asked to learn from the acrostic of this last chapter?
Let’s start with that first sentence. A longer look at the original Hebrew text might startle us: “A valiant woman—who can find?” This is warrior language, a victorious song about a Deborah-like heroine who has performed amazing acts of valor. (Redeemer College professor Al Wolters is well-known for establishing the understanding, now common among Old Testament scholars, that verse 10 should be translated “valiant woman,” not “good wife.”)
This woman has strong arms that accomplish great deeds: she searches, plants, reaches, gathers, and holds. The scope of her work includes all of creation, both land and sea, and extends into both day and night. Her hands collect but also distribute—carefully seeing to the needs of everyone who relies on her, including the poor of her village. She wears the royal robes of crimson and purple and wraps herself in the scarves of dignity and strength—the very sashes that are wrapped around King Yahweh.
This is a woman of wealth, industry, and trade; she is the center of an entire community’s enterprise. And because of her wise leadership, for she practices what she preaches, a village flourishes in the sun of Yahweh’s favor; it rests in the presence of God’s shalom. Indeed, the woman who can live so wisely is a role model to be praised with the highest possible words; a ticker-tape parade of hallelujahs will be shouted down on her as she walks through the streets of her village.
In a time when the poetry of the Israelites’ surrounding cultures praised women for their beauty, charm, and sex appeal, Proverbs offers us the refreshing gift of another portrait: a wise woman who is praised for her right living and true faith. To those young men who are learning how to be wise, the author says, “Look no further than to this valiant woman of God. Set aside your previous ideas about what makes a woman worthy and see how the wise life, a life of strength and dignity, can be found in surprising places—it can even be found in a woman!”
Rather than an impossible to-do list for women—or a text for a Mother’s Day sermon—Proverbs 31 is God’s Word to all who would seek true wisdom.
So how do we make sense of it today?
Wisdom, Our Mentor
Let’s think back to how Proverbs uses Woman Wisdom as the mentor for students who would learn how to rule wisely. What better conclusion for this class than to take them on a field trip, to bring them to a woman of flesh and bone, of soul and spirit, who doesn’t just preach about wisdom, but practices it.
“You’ve absorbed all I have to teach you,” Woman Wisdom says, “now go live it. Don’t just observe it; practice it. All I’ve been trying to teach you about living a wise life is right here before you in human flesh, an ordinary person whose faith is deep and whose life is intensely engaged in the well-being of others. Go and live your lives in the same wise way.”
A wise life, we learn, is practical and down to earth; it is not lived on a cloud of lofty platitudes. God’s ideal for all human beings, both male and female, is an ordinary life that reflects our Creator’s glory and wisdom. A wise life is marked by love for and obedience to the One who bestowed it. We can study wisdom as deeply as possible, but true wisdom is simply lived. Looking for and seizing the opportunities God places before us to plant deeds of righteousness and sow acts of compassion reflects the work of Yahweh. A wise life chooses to act in ways that serve God and others with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
“See,” God says, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life” (Deut. 30:19). Choose a life lived wisely. Choose a life of commitment, love, and obedience to God. Choose a life that will cause those who know you to praise your Creator with shouts of “Hallelujah!”
About the Author
Thea Leunk is a pastor at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.