SINGING HER PRAISE: THE QUALITIES OF A WISE LIFE

In the book of Ruth, we have the amazing story of one young woman’s devotion to the God of Israel and her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth leaves her homeland, forsaking family, and the gods of the Moabites to follow Naomi back to the land of Israel. The way she serves Naomi, her mother-in-law, and forsaking all to follow Yahweh is seen by the people in the village of Bethlehem. Upon approaching Boaz to fulfill the kinsman redeemer role, he makes this amazing declaration. “And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character (Ruth 3:11).” The highest praise anyone can give us is to extol the nature of our character. Who we are is of utmost importance. It is interesting that in the Hebrew bible, the order of the book of Proverbs follows the book of Ruth. Ruth is the kind of woman the father is talking about in the book of Proverbs, a woman of godly character. The main narrator of the book of Proverbs is the voice of a father instructing his son, challenging him to ‘fear God,’ and embrace a life of wisdom The Hebrew word for wisdom is in the feminine tense, hokma, and therefore throughout the book we have this understanding that wisdom is a woman, and the choice that is being given is the type of woman the son is going to embrace. On the other hand, we have the seduction of the strange woman who having enticed the foolish (the morally deficient), experience consequences that are dire in their lives. Whereas the invitation of the lady wisdom brings honor, riches, and life.

Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.

She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her.

Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.[i]

Proverbs 31:10-31 is a poem written in a unique style describing the qualities of godly women. Richard Clifford proposes that this is actually a hymn of praise to “an ideal wife (of a great house) and, on a metaphorical level a portrait of Woman Wisdom and what she accomplishes for those who come to her house as disciples and friends.”[ii] It is also written as an acrostic. Twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet form the first letter of each line. This was used by the Hebrew writers as an aid to remembrance in an oral society. From the descriptions in the closing chapter of the book, we learn of some of the important qualities of a godly woman, but also the nature of God’s wisdom. The value of wisdom or the godly wife is critical in the blessing that she brings to those who embrace her. 

A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.

Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.[iii]

Wisdom that God gives brings amazing gifts to those who cultivate it in their lives. The picture is of the disciples of God who have become intimate with God’s wisdom. It is framed in the blessings of a godly wife and mother. Wisdom as Proverbs teaches us originates from the ‘fear of the Lord.’ The benefits to Divine wisdom in our lives is incredible. Here it is stated as good rather than harm all the days of our lives. “She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life (Proverbs 31:12).”

            David Hubbard points out regarding this priceless wife or Lady wisdom.

It is the persistence and continuity of her beneficence that helps to set her apart. What she does? It is not a sporadic, temporary deed of kindness but a consistent way of life.[iv]

That is what wisdom brings to us – good and not harm all the days of our lives. As we look at the conclusion of the book of Proverbs, four general qualities emerge describing the nature of wisdom as the godly woman. The literary genre here is a heroic poem and what is characteristic of ancient heroic poems is that it is poetry in action.

It does not dwell on the inner feelings or the physical appearance of the hero, but simply describes the mighty feats of valour which he [she] accomplishes. In line with this, the Song of the Valiant Woman [a name he gives to this heroine in Proverbs 31] is a portrait in verbs. The only adjectives in the poem (there are just two) describe not the heroine but her merchandise (tob [good], v. 13) and her rivals (rabbot, [as a contrast] v. 29). In a word, she is pictured as wisdom in action.[v]

I have summarized the nature of Lady Wisdom or a godly woman into four general qualities.

THE FIRST QUALITY DESCRIBING LADY WISDOM OR A GODLY WOMAN IS HER DILIGENCE 

She is not lazy. She is works hard on behalf of others, in this case her family and those that are poor and needy. She is the opposite of the sluggard described in Proverbs 6:9-10; 20:13.

She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.

She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.

She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls.

She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.

She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.

She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.

In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.[vi]

Bruce Waltke points out:

The poem now praises the ‘valiant wife’ by itemizing her deeds and thereby defines hayil (valiant). This itemization extends her value to her entire household and to the community, including its poor and needy. Indirectly, by contributing to the household’s economy she empowers her husband to provide leadership for the entire land (v. 23).[vii]

“Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land (Proverbs 31:23).” It is what she is doing in her household that allows her husband to be able to give himself to a wider sphere of service to his community. While this is certainly a practical reality, we can also see that wisdom as a virtue in a person’s life allows them to rise to prominence in serving others. One of the admonitions of in biblical leadership is the necessity of diligence (cf. Romans 12:8).

We notice in verse 13, that she is seeking wool and flax. Two very different materials. Wool is suited for the winter months, whereas flax is a material best suited for the summer ones. This suggests that she is thinking of the future needs of her family. What we are seeing in this portrait is a picture of the ancient households where the lady of the house oversees her servants and manages her household.  Dr. Waltke, the Hebrew scholar updates the idea of servants as the resources in our lives, like dishwashers, washing machines and dryers, that assist us in doing our ordinary tasks in life. In essence then the godly woman oversees the affairs of her household, engaged in the financial aspects of business transactions. Generally speaking in the Hebrew economy a woman arose in her standing through the management of her household. Yet in this picture, we find a woman who schedules not only her affairs at home, but is engaged in the marketplace. She is a shrewd businesswoman who is able to generate finances and invest wisely, adding to the family wealth.

We also see the expressions that describe the diligence by which she works. She rises while it is still dark (vs 15). She is involved with financial investments (vs 16). Then in verse 17, we read that ‘she sets about her work vigorously.’

The metaphor of girding furnishes the next letter and describes the intensity of the labor. To ‘gird the loins,’ as the text reads in Hebrew, means to get ready to fight to work hard by wrapping the tunic tightly around the torso so it won’t interfere with bodily movement.[viii]

In verse 18, we see that the lamp does not go out at night. We would use that expression that she was burning the midnight oil. The fact that there was oil to burn suggests some measure of wealth. Someone might suggest, you trying to make us feel guilty. No, I recognize that this is an idealized individual. But the point that the writer paints is a woman who diligently labors contributing to the wellbeing of her household. I would argue that wisdom causes its recipients to be people of diligence.

In the management of others, in which what we are seeing here in the Proverbs 31 portrait of this valiant woman is that this labor is challenging and endless. There are always needs presented by the various family members. To care for a household is undervalued in our culture. The work of caring for others, nurturing their souls, feeding, and supporting people is not only time consuming; it is emotionally demanding labor which few spouses fully realize unless they are deeply involved in the process.  Even in a world with conflicting family values and roles, it is still amazing how much work a mother does. Even in recent articles regarding the two-family income, how much more work, women on the whole do compared with men.

THE SECOND QUALITY DESCRIBING LADY WISDOM OR A GODLY WOMAN IS HER DECENCY 

Her focus is on others that are less fortunate. She exhibits generosity to those who are needy extending beyond her own household. “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy (Proverbs 31:20).” The virtuous and valiant woman here is seen looking beyond her own boundaries to help others who are less fortunate. This is the nature of wisdom. Wise people open their hearts to the needs of others. We are called upon by God to serve our needy world as God’s ambassadors. Notice in our text, her hands are not only utilized in providing for her family, but she has a generous heart and is disposed to give to those who are beyond the boundaries of her own household. She has a heart that looks beyond the needs of her family to others in the larger community. There is a magnanimity of spirit that is demonstrated here.  

Carl Esrkine, a famous big-league pitcher during the 1950’s where he helped his team to win two world series shares about his growing up years during the great depression in the 1930’s. The following memories that he shared suggests the impact that his mother had on his attitude toward life. He said, I refuse to use the word “poor” because we weren’t. Oh, yes, we did rent our house, we walked everywhere we went, we ate one-dish meals, and we lived from one paycheck to the next-but our clothes were clean and there was a feeling of pride in making what we had be more than enough.

My mother had a large white bowl, and many of our one-dish meals were served from that large bowl. Often when we had finished our meal, Mom would fill the bowl with what was left in the pan on the stove (dumplings, stew, or soup), spread a cloth over the bowl, and say, ‘Carl, take this down to the Case family.’ This family lived four houses away. The father was doing his best to raise his six children without their mother who had died.  Welfare was helping them, but so was our little extra. This simple, caring attitude gave me a sense of appreciation for what we had and kept me from feeling sorry about what we didn’t have.[ix]

One of the strongest memories of this man, was that of his mother’s generosity to the needy. It helped shape his own attitude towards others. It is interesting that the same two words to attend to the needs of the poor and needy are used in Proverbs 31:9, which is the instructions of a mother to her son, the King, to ‘defend the rights of the poor and needy.’ Wisdom then is being demonstrated when we are showing generosity to the poor and needy. When we act generously toward those that have need, we are like our King, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is so powerfully demonstrated in the ‘Parable of the of the Sheep and the Goats’ where Jesus tells his disciples that when we have fed the hungry, taken in the stranger and clothed the needy we have done it unto him.

THE THIRD QUALITY DESCRIBING LADY WISDOM OR A GODLY WOMAN IS HER DEVOTION

A godly woman is deeply committed to her family and has an ability to enrich the lives of her household, both emotionally and materially. She is concerned about the future and makes provision for tomorrow’s challenges. “She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come (Proverbs 31:25).” This strength of character and dignity comes from her relationships with God. One translation relates that she rejoices in time to come. Harry Ironside insightfully points out:

Godliness and joyfulness are inseparable. …There is no real happiness apart from righteousness, and vice versa. Where the conscience is at rest, the heart sings for joy. When David sinned, he lost, not salvation, but the joy of it, which was never his again until all was out in the presence of God…[x]

How can we rejoice regardless of the times we are in? It has to do with our relationship with God creating within our lives the right kind of character. Here we see wisdom’s character as ‘strength and dignity,’ which produces a healthy mental outlook and brings joy to our soul. We can rejoice ‘at all times.’ God’s praise can continually be upon our lips. Wisdom plans for the future in order that even when the unexpected happens, future provisions are available. We see this demonstrated in this godly woman. “When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet (Proverbs 31:21).”

Robert Alden explains the significance of this text.

The word scarlet can be translated double- which means that she has made a provision of heavier garments in the light of the improbability of snowfall.] Jerusalem rarely has much snowfall. She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple. [Here we read that she has the financial resources to wear some expensive clothing. It is interesting to note that her use of fine things is not condemned but commended as rewards for her hard work.[xi]

Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land. She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.

This doesn’t mean she trust only in her wealth and investments to meet future problems, but instead demonstrates a self-confidence born of right living. She isn’t worried about tomorrow because, like the ant, she has ‘stored up food for the winter.’[xii]     

I would add that ultimately that this confidence comes from her strong confidence in the fear of the Lord.

            Jesus certainly crafts this for us in Matthew 6, when discussing the anxieties that life brings our way particularly in meeting our physical and emotional needs. Jesus challenges us to prioritize the spiritual aspect of our lives knowing that our Father in heaven will take care of all of our needs.

For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.[xiii]

This then is the ultimate quality that the wisdom writers are pointing us toward, which is trusting God in life.

THE FINAL QUALITY DESCRIBING LADY WISDOM OR A GODLY WOMAN IS HER DEDICATION

Here we see that her other qualities are fueled by her dedication to the Lord, which leads to her devotion, diligence and decency toward her family and others. Notice how the writer gives her the ultimate compliment. She is described as the wise woman. Wisdom only comes as one truly reveres God. Throughout the book of Proverbs we read that it is the fear of the Lord that generates wisdom (cf. Proverbs 9:10).

In an earlier proverb, the writer speaks of the wise woman who is building up her household.  The opposite is the foolish one who goes about tearing her household apart (cf. Proverbs 14:1).

In these final verses we see the different elements of wisdom.        

A. Wisdom is seen coming from her words and actions.

Her instruction gives guidance and understanding and is also reflected and modeled in her behavior. One of the most powerful forms of training is by modeling the behavior so others not only hear, but see how to go about living life well.

She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.[xiv]

Wise words build people up, rather than tear them down. Throughout Proverbs we discover the quarrelsome, critical, or nagging wife (cf. Proverbs 21:9, 19, 25:24), whom it states that people want to escape from.  

B. The result of wisdom is that she is praised by her family.  

Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.[xv]

Here we see the excellence of wisdom. How often in childhood or young Adulthood, we do not fully appreciate those who have nurtured and mentored us, especially when they have had to discipline us; not realizing how difficult it is to discipline properly in order to help instill virtue into the souls of those we are training up. Appreciation only comes regarding good parenting when we arrive to the same place as parents or leaders in our lives. Then we begin to comprehend how difficult and challenging this really is. God our Father disciplines each of us, even though we often do not value or appreciate that love. He does so in order to correct and instruct us in the right path (cf. Proverbs 3:11-12).

C. The true value of the wise woman.

The writer points out that one cannot measure a woman solely from the outward appearance, though inner beauty radiates from the faces of those that have it. Beauty that is only skin deep quickly becomes a great disappointment.  People who are superficial actually diminish their beauty. “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion (Proverbs 11:22).”

The key to nobility of character begins, as the writer states in the first chapter of the proverbs in describing the means of attaining wisdom. It comes from the fear of the LORD. We have been warned earlier of the wayward, woman with her seductive and deceptive words. Here it is again reinforced.

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.[xvi]

We should give recognition to those who fear God, which is always demonstrated by their amazing actions towards others. 

…this valiant wife has been canonized as a role model for all Israel for all time. Wise daughters aspire to be like her, wise men seek to marry her (v. 10), and all wise people aim to incarnate the wisdom she embodies, each in their own sphere of activity. One should avoid emphasizing one of these applications at the expense of another, forgetting that by nature proverbial material sets for exemplars, asking audiences to make the appropriate application to their own spheres.[xvii]

Here we have set before us the beauty of holiness, the picture of what biblical wisdom produces in a person’s life and the benefits they bring to others. This raises the question; what kind of a life are we living? How are we enriching the lives of others? It is only as we walk in God’s wisdom which is expressed in a ‘genuine fear of God,’ that we will live wisely. Wisdom is learning to ‘trust in the Lord and not lean to our own understanding.’ It is a way of obedience, of being directed by the Lord. It is in this way that we will bring blessings, not only to our own lives but ultimately to the lives of the people we come into contact with.

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[i] Proverbs 3:13-18, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[ii] Richard Clifford, Proverbs, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 274.

[iii] Proverbs 31:10-11.

[iv] David Hubbard, Proverbs, Communicators Commentary, (Dallas, TX: Word Books, Publishers, 1989), 480.

[v] Al Wolters, The Song of the Valiant Woman: Studies in the Interpretation of Proverbs 31:10-31, (Waynesboro, GA: Preternoster Press, 2001), 11.

[vi] Proverbs 31:13-19.

[vii] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 522.

[viii] David Hubbard, Proverbs, 482-483.

[ix] Carl Erskine, “Simple Blessings”, ed. Gloria Gaither, from What My Parents Did Right, 84.

[x][x] Harry A. Ironside, Proverbs and Song and Solomon, An Ironside Expository Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006), 289.

[xi] Robert Alden, Proverbs, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker Book House, 1983), 221.

[xii] Ibid, 222.

[xiii] Matthew 6:32-33.

[xiv] Proverbs 31:26-27.

[xv] Proverbs 31:28-29.

[xvi] Proverbs 31:30-31.

[xvii] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, 520.

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