By Marcia Hornok
How practical is Proverbs 31:10-31 for modern women?
She burns the candle at both ends by getting up early and staying up late. With income from her manufacturing business she buys real estate while making clothes for herself and her family. Besides meeting the needs of her husband and children, she helps the poor and never neglects her relationship with God.
Some see it as a beautiful but archaic poem, relevant for Solomon’s culture but outdated for ours. Others take a literal approach, encouraging women to live up to God’s paragon of virtue. Neither view suffices. The first approach is dismissive and the literal view exhausts us.
We solve the dilemma by seeing the progression in this acrostic poem. It presents a lifetime photo album of a woman who fears God, not snapshots of her daily activities. All this productivity comprises a journal of her life, not a checklist of her day. Thus by her senior years, assuming she is elderly along with her husband in verse 23, her virtue and accomplishments result in praise.
Martha Montgomery, a home Bible teacher in Dallas from 1952-1992, developed an outline for Proverbs 31: three verses of introduction, four verses of conclusion, and the middle verses divided into three stages of the woman’s life. Each stage comprises five verses and includes a notation about what she wears.
Introduction (v. 10-12)
The poem opens with a preview, not a predicament. Like rare and precious gems increasing in value, this woman’s character and abilities grow as she ages.
The introduction highlights her relation to her husband. He trusts her and has no reason to look elsewhere for his needs to be met. On a practical note, married women could develop the habit of asking—what good thing can I do for my husband today? For single women—what good thing can I do for a friend/family member today?
The Early Years (v. 13-17)
The early years show this woman as home-centered. Her hands provide winter clothing (wool) and summer clothing (flax) for her family. She goes to great lengths to feed them and puts her maidens to their tasks early in the day. Our maidens are appliances—we contemporary women can multitask our machines while reading to our children or even drying our nails!
Some commentaries impose a real estate business on verse 16, translating the fruit of her hands as “earnings.” However, verse 31 equates the fruit of her hands with “her own works.” She works—possibly in her own vineyard on the land she bought, where she might take her children with her.
This early stage concludes with what she wears—strength. She strengthens her arms as she turns raw materials and barren fields into something useful for her family. Like the Proverbs 31 woman, young women can devote their strength and skills to running their households effectively.
Although the passage portrays a married woman, likely with children, single women or women without children can follow the example also by developing an organized home and working hard with their useful skills. Likewise, mothers who need to have a career should take care to focus priority on their homes and families as well.
The Middle Years (v. 18-22)
Through self-evaluation the woman senses her involvements are good. She bartered and traded profitably. (She was a good shopper!) Her lamp burning at night speaks of availability, not lack of sleep. If her family needs her during the night, she responds.
Additionally, in Hebrew culture an oil lamp in a window meant needy travelers were welcome. Thus she has more time for hospitality and charity in the middle years, when she is help-centered. Her hands reach out to spin and weave for her family and herself, as well as to help the poor and needy. Without guilt, we may postpone time for volunteer work and self-focused interests until the stage when our children can do more for themselves and help with chores.
Verse 22 makes another reference to what she wears—fine linen and purple speak of dignity and honor. In the early years she developed physical strength, and in the middle years, she has strength of character, which brings her self-respect and honor from others.
The Later Years (v. 23-27)
In the empty-nest stage, her husband sits with elders at the city gates. We can assume she is elderly too and shares the credit for his good reputation.
The virtuous woman is now humanitarian-centered. By now she has a merchandising business. We conclude that her expertise from years of making garments now generates income. Again she wears strength (from the early years) and dignity (from the middle years). These qualities, ripened by life, fully characterize her now. That’s why she has a positive outlook on the future (see her laugh and smile!) and speaks with wisdom and kindness.
Notably, only one out of 22 verses mentions her tongue. Seven verses refer to her hands (or palms). People often remember what we do for them more than what we say. Perhaps it takes a lifetime of godliness to control our tongues.
She watches the ways of her household (even from a distance) and does not become idle. Aging women must resist the urge to withdraw from helping others. Elderly women in poor health may be unable to do more than pray, but what a valuable ministry that is.
Conclusion (v. 28-31)
Most mothers receive praise and/or gifts from their children on Mother’s Day, but the Proverbs 31 woman is also praised by her husband, her works, and by implication, the Lord. We must concentrate our efforts on these four areas—being a godly mother, wife, worker, and child of God.
Verse 30 gives the virtuous woman’s beauty secret—fearing God. Charm deceives people, and external beauty doesn’t last, but godliness never goes out of style. God’s women live up to his pattern of virtue by submission to him (rather than self-reliance) and by serving others.
What is Virtue?
The Proverbs 31 woman developed expertise at making garments, beginning in the early years. All five verses of the middle years refer to this skill as benefitting the needy, her family, and herself. In time, her specialty earned her income when merchants bought her goods. Does virtue or noble character mean women should make their own clothes or do things from scratch? No, it means cultivating skills that will benefit our families and people in need, because it has value to us and to them. The emphasis of Proverbs 31 is not on busyness but on usefulness.
Ruth is the only Bible woman called virtuous (Ruth 3:11, New King James). What was she good at? Caretaking. Ruth embraced Jehovah and devoted her life to her mother-in-law. This not only benefitted Naomi and the family line of their deceased husbands, but also the Bethlehem community. Eventually, through King David and the Messiah, Ruth’s devotion rippled to the entire world. All because she helped her mother-in-law.
Practical & Attainable
Is Proverbs 31 practical and attainable? Yes, but not by trying to have it all or by doing everything at once. As time increases the value of a rare jewel, so a woman becomes virtuous with age and experience, by fellowshipping with God and staying home-centered, help-centered, and humanitarian-centered. Over the years she pursues skills that can be personally fulfilling but also have value to those around her. A woman of virtue has God-pleasing answers to the questions: What are you good at? And how does it benefit others?
Instead of feeling guilt for not measuring up, every woman can be virtuous and noble by fearing the Lord, focusing on others, and developing useful skills. Her worthwhile endeavors will be commended by her family, her peers, and God. So read Proverbs 31 and relax.
Marcia Hornok is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City, Utah.
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“Overcoming Mommy Guilt” by Julie Coleman
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