The Excellent Woman, Proverbs 31:10-31

I’m glad for Mother’s Day because I think we tend not to thank and honor our mothers near as much as we should.

In a book called “Women without children” the author says that women who never have children on average enjoy the equivalent of an extra 3 months a year of leisure time.  Now that Ally and I have had kids for while I think that might be an understatement.

Have you ever tried to calculate how much we owe our mothers?  Try to put what they’ve provided and done for us into monetary value and add it up.

  • Start with housing for the first 18 -19 years of your life. Say that’s worth a minimal $200 dollars a month.  $200 a month rent is about as good as you could get.  That’s about $45,000.
  • Then figure in food and clothing costs. Say it took a minimal $200 a month to feed and clothe you.  That’s another $45,000.
  • Then let’s factor in all the labor, all the hours of cleaning she did because of you, fixing your hair, fixing your meals, doing your laundry, driving you places, reading to you, teaching you, shopping for you, helping you with homework and so forth. Let’s use that 3 months of leisure time estimate that mothers lose compared to non-mothers.  What’s 3 months of wages?  Let’s say conservatively $15,000.  Then multiple that by 18 for 18 years, that’s $270,000.
  • Then we have to figure in opportunity cost, how much income she could have earned if she wasn’t busy taking care of you and could have focused more on her career or just earning money. Let’s say she could have earned the same as the labor cost we just figured.  So that’s another $270,000.
  • Then when we add in fuel costs to drive us places, toys and other gifts, allowance if we got an allowance, all the furniture we’ve had in our rooms over the years, health expenses, education expenses, expenses for the sports and clubs we were involved in, and all of that over 18 years, you see we easily owe our mothers a million dollars.

Think of how much our mothers have taught us.  I found a list of  things that somebody learned from their mother, and interestingly, I learned these same things from my mother and I have a hunch that you learned many of these same things from your mother as well.

  1. My mother taught me about WEATHER.
    “This room of yours looks as if a tornado went through it”.
  2. My mother taught me TO APPRECIATE A JOB WELL DONE.
    “If you’re going to kill each other, do it outside. I just finished cleaning”.
  3. My mother taught me RELIGION.
    “You better pray that will come out of the carpet”.
  4. My mother taught me about TIME TRAVEL.
    “If you don’t straighten up, I’m going to knock you into the middle of next week!”
  5. My mother taught me LOGIC.
    “Because I said so, that’s why”.
  6. My mother taught me MORE LOGIC.
    ‘If you fall off of that swing and break your neck, you can’t go to the store with me”.
  7. My mother taught me IRONY.
    “Keep crying, and I’ll give you something to cry about”.
  8. My mother taught me about the science of OSMOSIS.
    “Shut your mouth and eat your supper”.
  9. My mother taught me about CONTORTIONISM.
    “Will you look at that dirt on the back of your neck!”
  10. My mother taught me about STAMINA.
    “You’ll sit there until all that spinach is gone”.
  11. My mother taught me the CIRCLE OF LIFE.
    “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out”.
  12. My mother taught me about ANTICIPATION.
    “Just wait until we get home”.
  13. My mother taught me MEDICAL SCIENCE.
    “If you don’t stop crossing your eyes, they’re going to get stuck like that”.
  14. My mother taught me HUMOR.                                                                                                        “When that lawn mower cuts off your toes, don’t come running to me”.
  15. And my mother taught me about JUSTICE.
    “One day you’ll have kids, and I hope they turn out just like you!”

Well, because of how much our mothers have taught us and done for us I wanted our lesson to be especially relevant and helpful for moms.  So I’d like us to turn to Proverbs 31.

About the Poem in Proverbs 31:10-31

Verse 1 introduces everything in this chapter saying, “The words of King Lemuel, the oracle which his mother taught him:“.  We don’t know who King Lemuel was or who his mother was.  Whoever they were, the ancient people of God recognized this teaching, which she gave her son, as teaching inspired by God (as teaching that’s conveying the wisdom of God).  That’s why it’s been included in the sacred Scriptures.  The portion of Proverbs 31 that we’re going to be looking at is verses 10-31.  It’s a poem that this mother taught her son Lemuel who was to be king.  It’s a brilliantly composed poem.  In the original Hebrew language it was written in, it’s an alphabetic acrostic, meaning the first letters of each stanza of the poem correspond to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  The first verse of the poem begins with alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  The second verse begins with bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and so forth.  So this is the ideal woman from A to Z.  That would have made this poem easier to commit to memory.  But the poem has other structure to it as well.  It has an introduction, a main body, and conclusion.  It’s a poem about the ideal woman that any man should try to find to be his wife and why.

It also serves as a fitting conclusion to the book of Proverbs.  Proverbs is all about imparting wisdom for living.  Instruction for living life skillfully, for living life well, in a way in which you have favor with God, with people, and in which you are most blessed, and you’re the greatest blessing to others.  This woman described here at the end of proverbs is a woman who lives out the wisdom of the book of Proverbs; the sort of wise attitudes and behaviors that the rest of the book encourages, like not being a sluggard, being diligent in your work, being trustworthy, and being generous to the poor.  Those things are exemplified by this woman.  She is the epitome of a wise woman and a fitting conclusion to the book.  A lady who embraces and lives out the wisdom of Proverbs is going to look like this lady at the end of the book.

This poem is not intended to be a discouragement to women.

Now when we run through this poem real quick, I can imagine some of you ladies thinking, “Thanks a lot, preacher!  I was having a good Mother’s Day until we looked at this.  Now I just feel like a failure”.  Many women kind of cringe at the mention of this woman in Proverbs 31 because she raises the bar above them, maybe too high to reach they feel.  This woman we’re going to read about is amazing.  She takes good care of her family while supplementing the family income with a couple businesses on the side, and not just her family, she even tends to the poor and needy.  She can sew and cook and do business with the best of them.  She’s industrious, skillful, dependable, energetic, hardworking, unselfish, strong, and when she speaks it’s wisdom that comes forth.  This is truly a tall order for any woman.  But there are some things we can notice in the poem that suggest it’s intended not to be discouraging to women, but to be more inspirational and motivating.

First of all, we should recognize that the poem itself says that this is a very unusual and exceptional woman.  Verse 10 says, “An excellent wife, who can find?”.  This is a rare jewel in the world.  She’s very uncommon.  And in verse 29 her husband praises her saying, “Many daughters have done nobly, But you excel them all”.  So this woman is not just noble.  She is the noblest of the noble.  You can do nobly in your life, ladies, and yet still fall short of this woman.  She is the ultimate model, the ideal.

Secondly, we should recognize that this is not a young woman entering marriage.  No young bride can possibly fulfill all that is pictured in this poem.  This is a woman who has been married for a while, and has a family, and has had experience in the work we read of her doing here, she has matured to this point over time.  This is like the finished product that living wisely over the years can produce.  Lemuel’s mother was not telling him to try to find a girl who was already all of this.  Some people reading it that way have jokingly suggested it sounds like Lemuel’s mother was saying “Here’s the woman you need to find.  But obviously you’re never going to find such a woman to marry.  So don’t bother.  Just stick with your mother”.  But I’m pretty sure that’s not what she was saying.  What Lemuel’s mother was telling him, I think, is to find a young lady who is in the making of all of this.  A woman who fears the Lord.  In verse 30, “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain [those aren’t the qualities that you’d be primarily looking for in a girl, Lemuel], But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised”.  That’s what you’re looking for, a girl who fears the Lord.  And the reason is because a girl who truly fears the Lord is in the making to become this kind of excellent wife and mother and blessing to everyone around her.  Do you remember the repeated statement in the book of Proverbs, the book of Job, and Psalms about the fear of the LORD?  The fear of the LORD is what?…  The beginning of wisdom (1:7; 9:10; 15:33; Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10).  So this mature woman we see pictured here, who is the epitome of a wise woman, got that way through fearing the Lord; learning and trusting His ways, doing things God’s way in her life.  This woman is a picture of who women can develop into over time through fearing the Lord.  I see this as similar to the character qualifications for elders in the church in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1, how elders have to be those who are blameless, above reproach, temperate, able to teach, good managers of their household, have a good reputation with those outside the church, etc.  It’s very unlikely that a new convert or young Christian is going to be like that.  But it presents a picture of what a Christian man who trusts God and follows His ways can grow into.

So this ideal woman is much more intended to be an inspiration to women, not a discouragement.  She is a portrait of the sort of woman you can become with the Lord’s help and through fearing the Lord and doing things His way in your life.

The picture of this exceptional woman who fears the Lord

Well, let’s take a second look at the poem and see what the fear of the LORD and walking in His ways has made this woman into, what it can do in your life.

v10 – InvaluableAn excellent wife, who can find?  For her worth is far above jewels”.  If a man could choose between having an annual income in the millions or having a woman like this, he would be a fool not to choose this woman.  No quantity of rubies and diamonds can equal her worth.

v11 – Dependable The heart of her husband trust in her, And he will have no lack of gain”.  She is of such a character that her husband has no reason to be suspicious of her or worry about what she may do when he’s not around.  And he believes every word she speaks to him.  He knows she’s not going to lie to him.  She is going to do what is best for the family and not for herself.  Her husband knows if the family’s finances are in her hands, she’s not going to bring them down into debt through careless and frivolous spending.  She’s totally trustworthy and dependable.

v12 – Help Meet Remember in the beginning God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a ‘help meet’ for him” (in the KJV).  This woman is living up to that aspect of the reason she was made.  Verse 12 says, “She does him good and not evil All the days of her life”.  Helping her husband, supporting him, encouraging him, taking care of him, blessing him, is a main priority in her life.

v13 – Cheerful worker She looks for wool and flax [those are the materials she needs to make clothing] And works with her hands in delight”.  She doesn’t begrudge working.  She doesn’t grumble about it.  She takes joy in being able to work and be useful, pleasing God in what she’s doing and being a blessing to her family and to others.  She’s happy to do it.

v14 – Quality meal provider Verse 14 says, “She is like merchant ships,” which I know a lot of women today probably wouldn’t take that as a compliment.  So I wouldn’t recommend fellas telling your wife that she’s like a ship.  But the image here isn’t about her size or shape.  It’s further explained in the next phrase, “She brings her food from afar”.  She brings good things from far and wide like a merchant ship to bless her family at the table.  She brings a variety of quality to the table.  She is not satisfied with just any old food for her family.  Fast food and microwave dinners are not going to be the staple at her house.  She’s quality and nutrition conscious and plans ahead and shops to provide good meals.

v15 – Early riser (or Not Lazy) She rises also while it is still night And gives food to her household And portions to her maidens”.  The point here is not that she is a “morning person” who likes to get up early, but it’s that she’s neither selfish nor lazy.  It is easy to stay in bed and let those that have to be somewhere else early get their own breakfast.  But she’s more concerned about blessing her family than she is about her own comfort and convenience.  So she’ll rise early to help out; she’s not lazy.

v16 – Entrepreneurial She considers a field and buys it; From her earnings she plants a vineyard”.  Her husband apparently trusts her with the money.  And with it she does this little side business to supplement the family income.  She buys and sells this field and makes a profit.  And then out of the profit, invests in a vineyard.  You notice this ideal woman is not just a housewife.  And she is no homebody.  Sometimes Christians get the impression that a wife and mother is to just be a homemaker, and leave the “breadwinning” to her husband.  But this woman is into some real estate investing, and we’ll see in verse 24 another little side business she has going to supplement the family income (a home-based textile business).

v17 – Buff (Strong) She girds herself with strength And makes her arms strong”.  And believe it or not, in ancient Israel they didn’t have gyms or fitness centers.  She is keeping physically strong through her various daily activities of running the home and her businesses.  In other words, she is no couch potato that leaves all the hard work for others to do.

v18 – Satisfied/Pleased She senses that her gain is good”.  I think the idea is that she has a sense of satisfaction at the fruit of her labors.  She feels good about what she’s been able to gain for her family and others.  And “Her lamp does not go out at night”.  I think that’s commonly misunderstood.  That doesn’t mean she works all night as well as all day. She’s not superhuman.  She has to sleep like all the rest of us.  It means she has a rather prosperous home.  They are able to have an oil lamp burning all night long instead of being in pitch dark.  There’s old Arabic saying, “He sleeps in darkness,” which was equivalent to saying “He is extremely poor”.  He can’t afford to have a little nightlight shining.  So the point I think here is that she and her household have all they need and at least a little more.  They can afford to keep a lamp going all night.  The proverbs teach that, generally speaking, if you fear the Lord and do things his way in your life, including being a hard worker, you’re not going to be destitute.

v19 – Not above menial labor She stretches out her hands to the distaff, And her hands grasp the spindle”.  Those were things for making the wool and flax into fabric to make clothing (not easy work).  This woman has servants we saw in verse 15; she maybe didn’t have to do this.  But she wants to be the greatest blessing she can be to her family and to others.  So she rolls up her sleeves, she doesn’t worry about breaking a nail, and just does what she can to contribute.

v20 – Compassionate or Charitable She extends her hand to the poor, And she stretches out her hands to the needy”.  All this hard work that she’s doing is not just so she and her family can be rich.  It’s so she can take care of people who have need.  I think of Ephesians 4:28, “He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need”.

v21 – Makes preparations for the future/Preparer She is not afraid of the snow for her household, For all her household are clothed with scarlet”.  She’s the kind of woman that thinks ahead and what’s likely going happen in the months to come and works to prepare her family to get through what’s ahead without trouble.  She doesn’t procrastinate to prepare for it.  So in the summer time she prepares their clothes for the winter.  She’s a preparer.

v22 – Elegant She makes coverings for herself; Her clothing is fine linen and purple”.  Those would be materials imported from Egypt and Tyre.  This is nice clothing.  It sounds like she doesn’t look like a lot of the people you see at Wal-Mart.  She doesn’t go about in her pajamas, or sweats and a tank top.  She’s an elegant looking lady.

v23 – Frees up her husband Her husband is known in the gates, When he sits among the elders of the land”.  Because of how she takes care of the household and supplements the family income, she frees up her husband to be involved in the leadership of society and seeking the welfare of others besides just his family.  He doesn’t have to work all the time to take care of himself and his family because his wife is such an exceptional woman and helper that it frees him up to take care of others.  He couldn’t be in such a position without her.

v24 – Industrial She makes linen garments and sells them, And supplies belts to the tradesmen”.  It’s the entrepreneurial theme here again.

v25 – Looking forward to the future Strength and dignity are her clothing, And she smiles at the future”.  The reason she smiles at the future is because she is clothed with strength and dignity.  Because she is strong and capable, she’s ready to handle whatever demands the future brings.  And because she’s clothed with dignity and she’s been such an honorable person, she can expect God’s blessing in her future.  Things are going to turn out well for her because she’s been doing things God’s way in life.

v26 – Helpful speech She opens her mouth in wisdom, [meaning she gives God’s perspective on things.  She knows God and His will and what He says about life.  And she believes it and she imparts it to others].  And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue”.  It’s not gossip or slander that comes from her mouth.  It’s kind, helpful, and wise words that she speaks.

v27 – Diligent She looks well to the ways of her household, And does not eat the bread of idleness”.  She doesn’t spend her days in front of soap operas.  She’s diligent to care for and be the greatest blessing she can be for her household and others.  She lives for others.

v28 – Honored Her children rise up [in that day and culture, to rise up, to stand up for someone, was to give them great honor] and bless her; Her husband also, and he praises her”.

v29 – Excellent Her husband says to her, “’Many daughters have done nobly, But you excel them all.‘”.

v30 – Fears the Lord This is the foundation of all that she is: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised”.

v31 – To be rewarded Give her the product of her hands, And let her works praise her in the gates”.  She is to be rewarded for her labor of love.

What is the fear of the Lord?

The fear if the Lord is the quality that has lead the woman described in this poem to becoming the way she is.

What does that mean, to fear the Lord?  Does that mean we should be afraid of God, like we may be afraid of the boogeyman or a strange person with a gun?  No.  When you look at what fearing the Lord is associated with and parallel with in the Scriptures, you find that’s not it at all.  I’ve got a list here of the things I’ve found in the Scriptures that can be paralleled with or mentioned right beside fearing the Lord.  In Proverbs 9:10 the fear of the LORD is parallel with knowing Him, with seeing who He really is.  In Deuteronomy 10:12 and Psalm 145:19-20 and many other passages, fearing the Lord is associated with loving Him.  So clearly, it’s not seeing him like the boogey man.  It goes together with loving Him.  In Psalm 130:4 the Psalmist says that because God is a forgiving God, He should be feared.  That’s interesting; He’s to be feared because He’s forgiving.  In Proverbs 22:4 it’s associated with humility, with recognizing that God knows better, that He’s the shepherd and I’m the sheep.  In Proverbs 3:7 it is contrasted with being wise in your own eyes.  It is often associated with departing from evil and keeping God’s commandments (Job 28:28; Psalm 103:17-18).  In Psalm 31:19 it’s parallel with taking refuge in God.  In Psalm 147:11, it’s associated with waiting for God’s lovingkindness.  When you put all that together, the fear of the Lord refers to having an accurate perspective of God that makes you afraid of veering from His guidance in your life.  It’s a perspective of God in which you see that He is our creator and sustainer and the giver of every good thing, who holds everything in His hands, and He knows a lot of stuff that we don’t know, and He is good and totally trustworthy,  He says what He means and He means what He says, His promises are true and His threats are real, and He truly loves us intensely and wants what’s best for us, His guidance is for our highest good.  And so, you are afraid to stray from His will.  You are afraid to go against His guidance because you understand who He is and you understand your need for Him and His guidance.  That’s the fear of the Lord.

So when you find that your way of thinking and your attitude and behavior is in tension with what God says, what’s your response?  Do you say, “My thinking, my attitude, my behavior needs to change”?  Or do you read the Bible sort of through a filter?  As in you accept everything that agrees with what you think already and dismiss or reinterpret everything that you don’t agree with?  If you fear the Lord you don’t feel free to dismiss anything He says in His word.  You let God teach you how to think and act.  You let Him guide your life because you see how great and good He is.  And that attitude is the first step in being wise.  Because true wisdom in life is all about listening to, trusting, and following the one who has made everything, who knows everything and who loves us, and who is much better suited to lead our lives than we are.  And that’s the first step in becoming this amazing, blessed woman.

– James Williams

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