Women, have you ever felt discouraged by this passage?
Men, have you ever really considered what it means for you?
Often restricted to being taught at women’s events, this passage actually has resonance for the whole of society, but it’s so easily misunderstood and misinterpreted. At worst, it has been used to limit a woman’s value to the context of wife and mother and to mount pressure on women who are often already over-burdened.
But we need to view it in the context of the whole of Proverbs 31, which begins: “The sayings of King Lemuel – an oracle that his mother taught him.” The original content of this chapter was not offered by a man teaching a woman, but by a woman teaching her son. Its original audience was a man – so perhaps we need to stop restricting this to teaching for women.
In the verses preceding the description of the noble wife, King Lemuel records his mother’s advice, urging him not to be distracted by the vices of sex and drink so that he might make a fair, kind king. She goes on to tell him to speak up for the poor and voiceless in society.
The choice of a noble wife is then laid out as a direct contrast to the choices to sleep around and get drunk. She is portrayed as someone who would work alongside a man to maintain that fair, generous, kind-hearted society King Lemuel’s mother taught him about. Her “nobleness” springs from her fear of God (v30).
So, what are the messages our culture sends to young men about the value of women and the kinds of partnerships they should seek? So often the focus is on beauty and sex appeal. Sadly, we sometimes even see men getting their own sense of value vicariously from the kinds of women they are able to sleep with.
But the partnership in this passage is very different: it shows a confident and capable woman and a man who sees her faith and character as more precious and beneficial to him than her looks are. They work together to make sure that their family are provided for, but they are also generous to those outside their home (v29).
Verse two says this wife “brings her husband good, not harm”. She adds to the respect he receives, not because she is hot, but because of the part she plays in their community (v23, 31).
From a woman’s point of view, we can view this woman in Proverbs 31 as someone who works hard and may well be tired, but is fulfilled and content. Verse 25 says: “She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.”
This is a woman who has a rooted self-respect and the peace of God about her. My prayer is that all women would have that self-worth, which I think starts with our relationship with God and grows as we make our unique contributions to the people and places He has called us to.
So what is this passage really telling us?
First and foremost, I see it as a call for men to respect and value faith and character in women, to look past the appearance and take time to see the heart and soul. Secondly, I think it tells women to know their own worth as they seek to follow God.
It certainly holds inspiration for us – we know already from other passages that God values hard work, fairness and compassion in any follower of His, male or female, and this passage offers a picture of what that may look like.
For couples, I think this passage calls us to mutual respect and team work, but frankly, it’s relevant for the whole of society, whether we are married or not. In these times when I would suggest there is a subtle misogyny running right through Western culture, we desperately need pictures like the one in this passage, of men and women working together for a fair, compassionate world.