Since it is the time of the year when we get to remember the Reformation and celebrate the Lord’s work through Martin Luther and others in rightly declaring and recovering the doctrine of justification by faith alone, it is probably good for me to begin with a story about Luther – which I am always pleased to do.
One of the things that took place when the evangelical doctrine was spreading throughout the land during the Reformation is that people wanted to change their lives and way of life. One of those groups was a number of nuns. Specifically there was one group of nuns in a village that neighbored Wittenberg who wanted to escape from the cloister and even be married. So, Luther got news of it and devised a means for them to escape. He called upon a friend who helped them break out in 1523, and smuggled them away to Wittenberg under a covered wagon as if they were empty barrels.
Once they arrived at Wittenberg, Luther took it upon himself to find them husbands, which wasn’t a terribly difficult thing, as one student reportedly shared with a friend, “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town, all more eager for marriage than for life.”1 So, Luther began marrying them off. However, after marrying off several, there was one left – Katherine Von Bora. Luther had thought he found someone for Katherine at one point, but the man ended up marrying someone else. At another point, he suggested a doctor, but Katherine refused to marry him. Finally, Luther realized that though he never thought he would be married, that he’d go ahead and marry Katherine himself.
And I think Luther got the best end of the deal. In his biography on Luther, Roland Bainton notes that Luther said, “Before I was married the bed was not made for a whole year and became foul with sweat. But I worked so hard and was so weary I tumbled in without noticing it.” Bainton then adds, “Katie cleaned house.”2 But he then notes a number of other things Katie did in addition to cleaning this filthy house as she spent time taking care of a man who was often ill and made sure their debts were paid. The latter was necessary because Luther was terrible at keeping up with this, noting, “I do not worry about debts because when Katie pays one, another comes.”3
Finally, Bainton notes, “Katie looked after an orchard beyond the village, which supplied them with apples, grapes, pears, nuts, and peaches. She had also a fish pond from which she netted trout, carp, pike, and perch. She looked after the banyard with hens, ducks, and cows, and did the slaughtering herself.”4 She even came up with herbal treatments for his sicknesses and brewed beer that she hoped would serve to rid him of his kidney stones.
It was, therefore, fitting for Luther to tell a friend after a year of marriage that he would not exchange his Katie and their poverty for untold riches. This, it seems, was Luther’s way of echoing Proverbs 31 :10 – “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.”
So, I would suggest on this weekend in which we remember the Reformation and the effects therefore, it is good and right for us to consider this morning what a godly wife, a noble woman, looks like. It seems, after all, that that is what Proverbs 31:10-31 is telling us. But let me add one more thing before turning to the text. And that is an exhortation not to tune out if you feel that this text doesn’t address you. I mean, of course, if you’re a wife, this text should be helpful. Or, if you’re a girl or woman who hopes to be a wife one day, this text should be helpful. Additionally, if you’re a man who hopes to be married someday, this text is helpful, guiding you as to what kind of woman you need to pursue. This, in fact, seems to be the main thrust of these verses since Proverbs 31 reflects the words that King Lemuel’s mother taught him. But what if you feel like you’re in a category where this doesn’t apply? What if you’re a man who feels like you’re called to and gifted with singleness? Or what if you’re a woman who never plans on being married? Or what if you’re in some other position and feel that this text doesn’t address you directly? What do you do then?
Let me suggest two things. One, pay attention to the characteristics that are supposed to characterize this godly wife or godly woman because a number of them should characterize any woman and a number apply equally to men. Second, let this instruct you in how to pray for others. If there were a text that addressed specifically how college students should live, don’t you think it would be important for those of us who aren’t college students to pay attention to it since we have covenanted to take up the task of praying for a number of members who are college students? Similarly, this text lets us know how it is that we can be praying for women and specifically wives in our congregation. So, as those who will pray for them, let us hear this text, noting how it is that we might be guided in our prayers.
Now, before we turn to the text, let me add one other prefatory note. I think that Proverbs 31:10-31 may be something like the statement of an ideal woman. By that I mean that it may be the author taking all the qualities that could exist in a virtuous woman and putting them all together in one poem. And I say that because these verses actually form an acrostic in the Hebrew alphabet so that each line starts with the next letter of the alphabet. And that seems to suggest that the author is not describing one specifically known woman as much as casting an idea of the ideal godly woman. Therefore, if women walk out of here thinking they have to look exactly like the Proverbs 31 woman, it may be like aspiring to be able to levitate out of your chair or grow wings or something – it’s an impossible task. In fact, Tremper Longman, whose commentary on Proverbs is excellent, writes that the answer to the question “A noble woman, who can find?” may be “No one, because she doesn’t exist.”5 Rather, this is a picture of various attributes found in women combined together in one, ideal woman.
With that said, however, we can still learn what these ideal qualities and characteristics are. And the first is that . . .
The godly woman cares for her home
Perhaps if you were to get down to the core of this woman’s characteristics and labors, she is intent on making sure her home is cared for. So, in verse 11, her husband trusts in her and will have no lack of gain, as she cares for him. In verse 12, she does her husband good, not harm. She works with wool and flax (v. 13), sows to make clothing (v. 19), and provides clothing for herself and all her household (v. vv. 21-22). She rises early in the morning while it is still dark to provide food for her household (v. 15), and she looks well to the ways of her household (v. 27) – which probably means that she is constantly aware of the needs in her home and addresses them.
Now, again, because this seems to be woven throughout these verses again and again, it seems like there is a lesson that the woman’s priority is to care for her home. And this fits the New Testament witness as well. We often speak of Titus 2 as a text for women discipling women, and indeed that’s what it is. But listen to what Paul says in Titus 2:3-5, “Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.”
So it seems that if Paul instructs these women to teach others to be working about the home, then it confirms that the godly wife’s priority is her home. She is to make sure that her home is cared for, kids have clothes, food, etc.
And let’s acknowledge that in our society such a task is belittled. One thoughtful brother had a great blog post earlier this year asking a Christian college to highlight someone who is “just” a mom because they seem to join in the belittling of this role in that they do not highlight it. But don’t be mistaken, this labor of caring for the home is not only honorable but godly and prized in God’s eyes.
Yet, to make the home a priority doesn’t mean she doesn’t leave the home. Rather, we see in these verses that . . .
The godly woman’s labors extend outside the home as well
There have been some who have suggested that since the Bible seems to emphasize the wife’s priority being the home then that means that she shouldn’t work outside the home, or that a woman working outside the home is somehow violating the natural order created by God. However, you can’t hold that view and honestly look at Proverbs 31.
We read that she considers a field and buys it (v. 16), and she then goes on to plant a vineyard (v. 16). So, she’s involved in real estate transactions, after considering whether or not this is a wise purchase. And if one were to ask, “Why isn’t her husband involved in this work?” The answer would seem to be found in verse 11. The husband trusts in her. He knows she is a competent women, and she is therefore confident to consider if this would be a wise purchase of land, does it, and then plants a vineyard. She is also strong, even her arms (v. 17). So, this is not a woman who is unfamiliar with labor. She sells merchandise and makes a profit (v. 18). Perhaps this is the clothing she makes because verse 24 says, “She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers sashes to the merchant.” So, she is buying and selling and making a profit.
This is a woman who does much outside her home as well as inside, and she’s bringing in what appears to be some good income for her home. What man wouldn’t want a wife who is able to provide for the home and conduct a profitable business outside of the home at the same time? What a woman this is!
Yet, let me note a few things. First, one thing that her labors do is they free her husband up to be involved in broader works as well. We read in verse 23, “Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land.”
This seems to suggest that her husband is making important decisions for the city. But the idea is that he is only able to do this because his wife is so amazing. This should lead us to recognize that there are a number of husbands who are known and respected for their labors who are only able to do these things because their wives labor so diligently to care for the home. We need to be aware of this and make sure wives are cared for then. In other words, if you appreciate a man’s labors and want to make sure they continue, you need to make sure his wife is cared for as well.
Second, husbands need to beware of putting too much on their wives. Now, I know I said that every man would want a wife who makes clothes for the kids, slaughters the cattle she raises, makes steak at night, and brings in a lot of income from her profitable business on the side. But let’s be realistic as well in noting that not every woman can do this. And, if a woman can’t, it’s not something bad on her. In an ideal world, I’m sure that Lili would love for me to be able to do my job and come home and be able to make home repairs in every part of the house. But the reality is that my talents are extremely limited. I’m willing to work at it, but sometimes I just cause more problems. So, is this an ideal that a man is able to write theology books, invest wisely in the stock market, repair the home, and bring in a good amount of income? Sure. What woman wouldn’t want her husband to do that? That’s what I mean by, “Who wouldn’t want a wife like that?” But, we need to be realistic. After all, if a husband asks his wife to take on so much that she is crushed and not able to do even the priority things well, then he is not nourishing and cherishing her as a gift from Christ. He’s abusing her.
So, we just have to gauge our wives, have conversations with them, don’t compare them to others, and walk together in gracious love. And they’ll need to do the same with us. And brothers, don’t hear that another man’s wife does something and assume yours should do the same thing as well. After all, again, we have different talents, and it may be that your wife’s circumstance is drastically different from that brother’s wife. So, again, the woman’s labors can indeed extend outside of the home, but we need to watch her and care for her to make sure we’re not asking her to do more than she (or anyone) can handle.
Next, we see that . . .
The godly woman ministers to those outside of the home
Now, again, these are ideal images, but it’s here in the text. One reason that she labors to bring in income is to care for her children, husband, and home. But this woman is also seeking to minister to others as well. We read, for example, in verse 20, “She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.”
Her profitable businesses are no doubt hard work on top of everything else she is doing. She’s working a vineyard and making a profit selling clothes. And one thing that motivates her is being able to care for her home. But another thing that motivates her is to care for those outside of her home. She is providing for others who are needy.
The idea seems to be that though the wife’s priority is her home, she is still focused on how she might minister Christ to those outside of her home. So, those of us with children, this is a good reminder that though our priority is our home, we cannot focus on our families to the exclusion of ministering Christ to others. The godly woman must have a heart that extends in ministry beyond her family.
We also see that . . .
The godly woman fears the Lord
We read in verse 30, “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” And the point here is not to say that being charming or beautiful are bad things. We’re physical people, so it’s good and right to be physically attracted to someone or to find them charming, witty, intelligent, etc. But the reality is that someone who has a charming personality but does not combine that with a desire to please the Lord is not someone you want to be married to. Similarly, the woman who is physically beautiful but does not love Christ is not going to be the kind of person you want to marry. This is what the author means by beauty is vain, or empty, or meaningless.
I experienced this a while back when I was doing business on behalf of the church on one of our products in the office. I went to the office, walked in to have my meeting, and ran into a woman who was beautiful. I told her I was here to meet with someone, she had me sit and wait for him, and then I was called back into the meeting. After meeting the man, signing, and contracts and getting everything done, he said to me, “Hey, can I talk to you about something non-business-related?” I said, “Sure.” And he went on to tell me that the woman I’d met out front was his wife and how they’d grown to the point of hating one another, and he was asking my counsel. And I couldn’t say to him, “Well, you just need to realize that your wife is beautiful.” That would have done nothing. He would have said, “But I can’t live with her.” So, we ended up talking about how they both needed Christ.
But it was a good reminder that beauty alone is vain. It’s empty. However, a woman who fears God is a woman only makes herself more and more beautiful by her behavior so that even her outward beauty is enhanced by her love for the Lord.
And that brings us to our last note.
The godly woman is to be praised
Listen to these last few verses of the chapter: “Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates” (vv. 28-31).
The godly woman is to be praised. There is a loud voice in our culture calling out to women left and right, telling them what they need to be like, what they need to look like, what they need to prize. Culture is telling them that they need to be obsessed with having a particular body image, and it’s yelling so loudly that women, godly Christian women, are easily deceived by this voice. In my years as a pastor, I’ve learned that just as there’s a book about dealing with lust called Every Man’s Battle, so there could be a book dealing with a particular body image called Every Woman’s Battle. On college campuses right now there are hundreds are thousands of girls starving themselves, forcing themselves to throw up, and exercising to the point that they are harming their bodies. And the reason they’re doing it is because they’re hearing and believing this cry from the culture telling them that they have to look a certain way.
And we’re fooling ourselves to think that the same temptations and struggles aren’t among us in the church, even in this congregation. Therefore, the church has a responsibility to provide a voice that counters what the culture is screaming at women. We must see a woman’s godiness and praise her for it. She needs to be built up and knowing that in pursuing godliness, she is pursuing the most important thing in all the world and that it is something that godly people will honor. Dads need to be telling their daughters these things, praising them for so many godly qualities that the culture does not prize and will look over. Husbands must be doing this same thing for their wives. But we must all be doing this for each other. The church should be made up of a group of people who are anxious and eager to tell another of the grace of God that is evident in the other person’s life. We should be a congregation anxious and eager to tell our sisters in Christ in this congregation when we see these marks in them and encourage them in it. After all, the more we become like Christ, the more we must honor and prize that which he does.
Therefore, as we come to the table this morning, let us remember Christ’s death and resurrection as our only hope for righteousness, and then let us strive for godliness on account of what he has already done for us. Amen.