Any woman who has been part of organized women’s ministry knows that sooner or later you’re going to encounter Proverbs 31. This passage is a mainstay for discussions about Christian womanhood; and in our consumer-driven culture, it graces everything from Bible covers to handbags to refrigerator magnets.
But recently, several women have been challenging a typical approach to this text. At the recent Q event, Women and Calling, progressive blogger and author Rachel Held Evans reiterated her long-standing concern that we tend to misuse this passage, making it more of a “Pintrest page come to life” than the poem it is. Sarah Bessey makes the same point in the recently released Jesus Feminist. She writes:
Some evangelicals have turned Proverbs 31 into a woman’s job description instead of what it actually is: the blessing and affirmation of valor for the lives of women… It is meant as a celebration for the everyday moments of valor for everyday women, not as an impossible exhausting standard.
These women have a legitimate concern. How many Mother’s Day sermons or Bible studies have turned Proverbs 31 into a checklist? How many times have teachers used it to reinforce their private applications of gender? How many times have you felt defeated from just listening to such sermons? So let me go on record as saying that I agree with Evans and Bessey. With one caveat.
Proverbs 31 is intended as a blessing and affirmation, not of all women, but of a certain kind of woman: a wise one.
Because while Proverbs 31 isn’t prescriptive, it is descriptive. It is designed to tell us the kind of woman who deserves honor and praise. In this sense, the poem is the culmination of an entire book whose main goal is to teach the difference between wisdom and foolishness. But as the beginning (Prov. 1:7) and end (Prov. 31:30) of Proverbs point out, you don’t become wise via a checklist; you become wise by fearing the Lord.
To be fair, it’s easy to confuse prescriptive and descriptive passages. Obviously it happens in Proverbs 31, but it happens just as often in less controversial texts. The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12) or the Fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) can quickly become metaphysical checklists if we divorce them from their Source and view them as goals to meet in our own strength.
Just be peaceful. Check.
Just be kind. Check.
Just be humble. Check.
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…
But while these passages are not intended as “To Do” lists, they are a kind of “field guide” given to describe what we will look like if our hearts are being changed by God. They describe the fruit and bark and leaves of the tree so you can know what kind of tree you’re looking at. In the case of Proverbs 31, the poem shows how wisdom embodies itself in feminine form; so that in a beauty only God Himself could conceive, a book written primarily to young men doesn’t climax with a description of a mature man but with a description of a mature woman.
Evans rightly pointed this out during the Q event. She noted that the original audience of Proverbs 31 was men, and joked, “Can you imagine a men’s conference where that was the central text?” (It was a pretty funny thought.) But even this isn’t the whole picture. The main audience of Proverbs 31 is men—true—but it’s given to men in order to teach them the kind of women they should celebrate. One of the assumed purposes is to distinguish wise women from foolish ones in order to help men “find” (Prov. 31:10) a good wife.
Talk about sexist.
Or maybe not. Maybe this actually affirms a woman’s imago dei. To understand what I mean, consider Proverbs as a whole. Throughout it, you’ll find this recurring theme: weak men can be ruined by strong men but strong men can be ruined by foolish…women. Yes, women.
And here’s why: women are men’s spiritual equals.
Think about it. If a woman were not equal to a man, then her spiritual life would be of little consequence to him. She simply wouldn’t be able to influence him for either good or bad. But if, as we are, equal image bearers, reigning as queens alongside earthly kings, then the kind of women we become is of supreme significance. We have intrinsic power that we can use for either great benefit or great destruction.
Because of this, Proverbs is intent on teaching young men to flee from foolish women in order to embrace and affirm wise women. This is why they are to avoid the adulteress (Prov. 7) but to delight in the wife of their youth (Prov. 5:18). They are to avoid women who are quarrelsome (Prov. 17:15) but to celebrate those who speak with kindness (Prov. 31:26). They are to avoid women who tear down their homes and to run to those who build them up (Prov. 14:1).
In other words, a wise woman can make a man; and a foolish one can break him.
This assumption of a woman’s power is implicit in the description of the Proverbs 31 woman who wields influence over both her home and society. Because of her wisdom, her husband sits in the gates. Because of her wisdom, her household doesn’t fear the coming winter. Because of her wisdom, her children rise up and call her blessed.
In this sense, Proverbs 31 is both a song of affirmation AND a standard of what maturity looks like. We must not shy away from the descriptive principles simply because they have been misused. Apart from them—apart from knowing that a wise women “stretches out her hand to the needy”—we wouldn’t be able to distinguish her from a foolish one and we’d end up assuming that ALL women deserve praise when in reality, not all of us do.
To quote The Incredibles: “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”
Not all women are sacrificial.
Not all women work hard.
Not all women are kind.
Not all women are generous
Not all women are joyful.
Some women are selfish.
Some women are lazy.
Some women are mean.
Some women are stingy.
Some women are bitter.
But a woman who is wise, a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. She is such a rare find, so exceptionally valuable that Proverbs 31 describes her as more precious than a jewel. A beautiful, expensive, glittering jewel. So that just like light reflects and radiates through a diamond, the light of God’s nature reflects and radiates through her, bursting forth in resplendent glory.
And for this kind of wise woman, wise men get up on their feet and cheer.
So, yes, please don’t reduce Proverbs 31 to a checklist or a Pintrest page come to life. But let’s also remember a harder truth. Wisdom doesn’t come naturally to any of us. Our only hope of being this kind of noble woman comes by looking into the face of the One who is Wisdom Himself and allowing Him to conform us to His own likeness. And when we do, He will make us the fully formed image bearers we are destined to be. He will make us women of kindness and grace and sacrifice and love and joy. He will make us like Himself.