Proverbs 31, the last chapter of the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, has two parts. The first is a recounting, by King Lemuel, of the wisdom imparted to him by his mother. There’s a subtext here, and it’s that men, even future kings, should always listen to Mom and heed her advice, because Mother almost always knows best. Apparently, Lemuel knew this, listened, learned, and held Mom’s words close enough in his heart to be able to repeat them later in life, even if he might not have followed them word-for-word along the way. Well done, Lemuel!
The advice that Lemuel’s mother gave him, in verses 1-9, was this: Don’t spend (in every sense of the word) yourself on a cavalcade of women or do things that will destroy you, a future king. Don’t drink to the point where you’ve numbed your brain to the norms of decent behavior, or until you’ve forgotten the law and cannot judge appropriately. Save the drink for those who are about to die, or are depressed, and let them drink to forget or to help them feel better. Speak up for the poor and needy, and those who cannot speak for themselves, and judge righteously. In very short order, she covers it all: chastity, temperance, mercy, and justice. You go, Lemuel’s Mom!
(We’re not sure who the “Lemuel” of Proverbs 31 actually was. He may be Solomon (which would make the wise mother Bathsheba), or one of several minor kings, or he may be fictitious. His only appearance in the Bible under this name is in Proverbs 31. Certainly, if the legends are true, and Lemuel is Solomon, most of his life, at least on the “chastity” front, wasn’t compliant with Mom’s advice. I like to think of verses 1-9 as an old man’s reflections on what might have/should have been.)
The second part of Proverbs 31 starts with verse 10, and a sudden change of subject to the “virtuous woman,” a phrase that is often also translated (perhaps more accurately?) to the “woman of valor.” So much has been written on this part of the chapter by those with alphabet soups of scholarship after their names that I am hesitant to contribute my own mite here. But then I think, “what the hell!” I’m a woman, right? So I’m claiming at least that half of the mantle of absolute moral authority, and here I go.
The change of subject is so abrupt that it’s not clear (at least to me) if the two sections of the chapter are unrelated, or if the voice is still that of Lemuel’s mother, but the first thing I notice, in what seems to be something of a prospectus for the ideal bride, is how very “active” and “verby” the Proverbs 31 woman is. No shrinking violet she. (These verses (10-31) of the chapter are, in the original Hebrew, an acrostic conceit, so not a continuous narrative, but rather, as I’ve seen it described a few times, a “string of pearls.”) I am irresistibly reminded of a curriculum vitae or resume, as I was taught to write one. “Tell us what you have done, and what you can do,” my mentors would say. “Use active verbs. Don’t write in the passive voice. You need to show that you can do the job. Be decisive. Don’t make yourself look weak or as though you’re held hostage by outside circumstance. Show people you’re a leader.”
Boy howdy, does the woman described here as the perfect helpmeet not sound weak or acted upon. She sounds like a leader, and a busy one at that:
13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
14 She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.
15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.
18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.
19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.
24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.
26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.
27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.
Nowhere here do I see any verses beginning “She blusheth,” “She simpereth,” “She waiteth,” “She beggeth,” or even “She subordinateth.” I like that. Very much. Not only does this woman take care of the management of, and the needs of, the household and the servants, she actively thinks about and looks for business opportunities (fields and vineyards, fine linens and girdles), and she sets up trading opportunities and partnerships with (presumably male) merchants. A paragon, indeed.
How does all this audacity, all this activity, all this independent strain, sit with her husband? I think that’s covered in verse 11:
11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
It all comes down to trust and respect. Hers for him, and his for her. He knows that she will care for things well, and that the business of the home and the estate will be safe in her hands, whether he. the head of the family, is there to manage it himself, or if he is away on other matters. Their finances will thrive under her care, and he will have no need to (de)spoil others to gain more worldly possessions.
A deal made from such trust, respect, and mutual competence, sounds like a pretty good one to me. A partnership of complementary equals, each with different, but important, skills, and neither whole without the other.
And not all that dissimilar to the deal I made in July of 1981. I’ve told the story here before of Mr. Right and his pre-nuptial demande d’amour. As posed by him, it went something like this:
We are two exceptionally strong-willed people. What are we going to do, when there’s an important matter to be decided, and we have two different opinions about how it shall be resolved, and we cannot come to an agreement about it? Obviously, we can’t go on like that, when a decision must be made. Here is the solution I propose. That we shall fully air the matter between us, each of us will listen closely to the other, and after we’ve done that, I (Mr. Right) will take all of our concerns into account, and I will decide. Can you agree to this?
I did agree. And since then, as pig-headed as we both are, there have been several times that we’ve had to exercise this nuclear option on important and sometimes life-changing matters. And over the course of four decades, I’ve managed to convince Mr. Right to my point of view so that the decision goes in my direction about as often as it’s gone in his. Sometimes, his “decision” has been to waive his own, and to announce that I must decide. Either way, we listen, we trust, and we move on, and I don’t think either of us feels superior or inferior, or dominant or submissive, or victorious or defeated by the outcome. I never have, anyway. It’s a partnership. We are here to work together, to support each other, and to do each other “good and not evil” all the days of our lives. So far, so good, I think.
While the Proverbs 31 bride was clearly a woman of means and of her times, the contemporary lessons I take away from the chapter are that a union is strongest when both parties to it are strong, that the strengths the parties bring to it are different, but equally important, that the woman must not hide her faith, or her good works, or her abilities, under a bushel, that the best unions are founded on trust and respect, and that, perhaps most important, one cannot praise the objects of one’s affection too much.
The final four verses of the chapter are as follows:
28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.
29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.
30 Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.
31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.
Why is the idea of “praise” so important that it’s held to the end of the chapter, and then repeated three times in the final four verses? Perhaps because, as C.S. Lewis says (in Reflections on the Psalms),
. . . we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.
It is along these lines that I find it easiest to understand the Christian doctrine that ‘Heaven’ is a state in which angels now, and men hereafter, are perpetually employed in praising God.
Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.
Perhaps the author of Proverbs 31 knows that, for those who fear the Lord, to praise those we love, and to be so praised by them, is to complete our delight, that it is how we most enjoy each other, and that it is about the closest we can come on earth to the rapture we will experience in Heaven. Perhaps that’s what it’s about.