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For all you women who are trying to please God but feel utterly despaired every time someone whips out Proverbs 31: take heart! God is not comparing you to this fictitious female, nor should you be interpreting this passage as His personal calling on your life. To put this passage in perspective, you need to put the whole book of Proverbs in perspective. A proverb is simply a saying. The Holy Spirit will make it clear to you when a particular proverb has any value for you in a given moment. But let’s be clear about the kind of effect the Holy Spirit’s Voice has on us. When He speaks to your heart, you don’t end up feeling beat down, discouraged, and hopelessly flawed. So as you’re reading through Proverbs 31, if it feels like someone is shoveling wet cement onto your back and you’re feeling more and more burdened with every word you read, then you’re not hearing from the Holy Spirit. You’re hearing from that nasty old deceiver Satan, or one of his many sordid friends.
Demons are the ones who want you to go through life feeling like a flop because you don’t live up to someone’s fantasy woman. And fantasy is what we’re dealing with in Proverbs 31, because the woman described there has magically escaped the burden of carnal flesh. Not only is this woman utterly selfless, she’s also in perfect health, she’s got bundles of energy, she’s super social, she’s physically strong, and she clearly has more than 24 hours in a day. And as this charming lady is busy making everything from scratch and running a charity house for the poor out of her home, she’s also super wealthy (since she and her children only wear the best of threads), plus she’s politically powerful. Her husband is one of the leaders in the land (v23), which puts her hobnobbing in higher society. And to top it all off, this lady who weaves her own fabric and sews everything she owns from scratch also gets by on only a few hours of sleep. We’re told she works late into the night and is up before the sun feeding the servant girls. She never wastes her time (v27), and she gives her husband everything he needs. So of course her family praises her and everyone thinks this lady is fabulous. And by the time she’s done making wardrobes from scratch, planting vineyards, cooking meals, and running a booth at the local marketplace, we wonder what those servant girls do besides get up before dawn to eat their pre-made breakfast.
So how do we put things in perspective here? Well, for one thing, let’s remember how credit is assigned to people in the Old Testament. For example, we’re told that King Solomon built God’s Temple, per the instructions of his father King David. But while Solomon gets all the glory for creating that massive structure, what did he really contribute besides a long prayer on dedication day? In real life King Solomon didn’t lift a single stone—he just told other people to go and build the Temple while he went off and parked in a nice shaded room with lots of goodies and soft sofas. When all the laborers were done sweating and slaving under the hot sun, their accomplishments were recorded as Solomon’s accomplishments. This is how it works when you’re the king or the head of a household. In Proverbs 31, the woman being described is running a rich household. That means she’d have a bunch of servants who she’d get to boss around all day. Would a woman in her position really be trimming wool off the sheep and weaving it into thread? No, because such tasks are beneath her. What we really have being described in Proverbs 31 is a good delegator—someone who is definitely busy, but she’s also telling everyone else what to do all day and then taking the glory for both their work and hers. Well, no wonder she gets so much done.
Look up rich people in the Bible and you’ll find they are credited for all sorts of things that they didn’t do. In a culture where women got the credit for the babies their slave girls birthed, we have to read records of accomplishments with caution.
So who wrote Proverbs 31, anyway? It’s a man named King Lemuel who is sharing things his mother drilled into his brain. In verse 1 we’re told: “These are the words of King Lemuel, the message his mother taught him.” Lemuel’s mom then starts off by telling her son to stay away from liquor because kings don’t rule well when they’re drunk. Then she tells him to look out for the needs of the poor. This is certainly sound advice. Interestingly in verse 3, Mom doesn’t sound very keen on women in general, for she tells her son:
“Don’t waste your strength on women, or your time on those who ruin kings.”
The way poetry works in the Bible, these two phrases are meant to be descriptions of the same people: Mom is defining women as “those who ruin kings.” Now we all know that rich men become targets for Delilah type vipers. Mom sounds pretty protective, and she has good reason to be. There’s a reason kings have harems—once a guy gets some rank, his hormones have a way of taking him over and pretty soon he cares more about sex than he does about his kingdom and God. This is what happened with King Solomon and his 1,000 recorded lovers (plus who knows how many unrecorded flings). Solomon has had a lot more airtime in the book of Proverbs. We only hear about Lemuel here at the end, when Mom pipes up to tell her son “no wine and no women.” Rather harsh. One wonders if Mom is ruling out all women or just the shady ones. It’s interesting that she doesn’t use any extra adjectives to pinpoint what percentage of her own gender she disapproves of. The way her words are written, it sounds like Mom’s pretty much anti-female. Perhaps she’s been burned in the past by seeing evil women corrupt those she cares about and she’s not going to let that happen to her Lemuel.
Now it’s not very realistic to think Lemuel isn’t going to get married, so after Mom tells him to stay away from women in general, she then supplies a long, detailed definition of an acceptable wife. Because Lemuel is crediting Mom for everything he’s saying in this passage, we have to assume that this perfect wife is something she’s come up with—and this would make sense because the passage has a very female tone to it. Women are the nurturing gender and we hear the nurturing instinct coming through in a comment about the woman being concerned for her family’s warmth in the winter months (v21), plus we hear an awful lot about clothes and cooking. The Proverbs 31 perspective is very much that of a homemaker and not at all that of a busy king. Clearly Lemuel’s mom is a fan of the textile industry for we hear all about fabric in this passage—weaving it, sewing it, and selling it. We hear about raw material: wool and flax. We hear about the quality of the finished product: fine linen. And we hear about colors: scarlet and purple. With such a strong focus on fabric, it’s quite possible that Lemuel’s inherited wealth came from the textile industry. So what we find in Proverbs 31 is not a description of God’s ideal woman, but of one king’s mother’s ideal vision for the kind of woman she wants her son to marry. What mother doesn’t hope for the stars when it comes to marrying off her pride and joy? And with Mom’s hostility towards women in general so openly expressed, it’s no wonder that she’s demanding the best of the best for her son. She wants Lemuel to find a woman who will satisfy his every need, make him a bunch of money, and be a total workaholic. With her daughter-in-law working hard day in and day out, she certainly wouldn’t be much competition for Lemuel’s attention. When we realize who is really supplying the words of this passage, it’s interesting to wonder about all the ulterior motives that went into painting a picture of an “ideal” woman—a woman who clearly doesn’t exist. Obviously Mom isn’t in any rush for grandchildren. And clearly she isn’t going to be an easy sell to anyone Lemuel tries to bring home for dinner.
“An excellent wife, who can find?” (v10)
Indeed, and as we read through Mom’s list of impossible requirements, we wonder if she ever wants Lemuel to get a wife. It’s really Mom’s character that’s coming through in this passage more than anything else. Whoever Lemuel’s mother was, she clearly felt that lollygagging about was a major sin. She sounds like a very driven woman—obsessed with productivity and very concerned with social reputation. What does God tell us about these themes elsewhere in the Bible? Well, when Martha complained that her sister Mary was slacking with the household chores, Jesus took the side of the slacker. Productivity is all fine and well, but God tell us not to store up our treasures here on earth, or to spend our lives focused on accumulating wealth.
As for all people thinking well of us—this is another dream that both Yahweh and Jesus shoot down. As Christians, we don’t want to be agitating others just to do it. But God’s truth is a divisive thing, and His influence is often greeted with great hostility. Jesus said He didn’t come to bring peace to the world, but to cause division and strife (Lk 12:51). The more we mature in the faith, the more division we will cause as well. Lukewarm Christians are generally tolerated by the world, but fully devoted ones are met with opposition in both the world and the Church. Who was it that really pushed for Jesus to be crucified? It was the religious leaders, not the lay people. It was the ancient Jewish equivalent of our modern pastors, theologians and elders. The more like Christ we are, the more we can expect the same hostile treatment He received. So while Lemuel’s mom dreams of a daughter-in-law who is both righteous in character and super popular, in real life, these two themes majorly clash. The world hates righteousness, and ancient Israel loved being like the world. In the Bible, Jerusalem was infamous for slaughtering God’s prophets and trying to exterminate righteousness from her midst. As Jesus quipped in Luke 13:33: “Surely it cannot be right for a prophet to be killed anywhere except in Jerusalem.” So if a king like Lemuel had a wife who exuded righteousness everywhere she went, would she stay Mrs. Popular with the people? Not likely.
Proverbs 31 ends with the way it begins: with a strong warning for Lemuel to not go through life being led by his hormones. In verse 3, Mom tells him to stay away from women who ruin kings. In verse 30, she hammers the point again that “charm can fool you and beauty can trick you.” Mom is no dummy—she knows that sexy bodies traipsing by have been the downfall of many good men, and she is adamant that her Lemuel not be another victim. This is no doubt the reason she tells him not to drink. Notice she doesn’t just tell him to drink with restraint—she tells him to stay away entirely: “Kings should not drink wine, Lemuel, and rulers should not desire beer” (v4).
Mom is throwing out some pretty extreme commands here, and that leads us to suspect that there is a very high level of emotional investment present. Our suspicions are confirmed in verse 2: “My son, I gave birth to you. You are the son I prayed for.” That last phrase makes us wonder if Lemuel’s mother had trouble conceiving. All throughout the Bible, we find barren women pleading with God for children. God’s cleanliness laws were such that Jewish couples had to abstain from sex while women were menstruating. By the time they came back together again for some long overdue passion, the woman would be in the fertile part of her monthly cycle. This was God’s strategic way of ensuring that His people would definitely “be fruitful and multiply.” In a culture without birth control, sex often resulted in pregnancy and this was considered a very good thing. We don’t hear about women praying for sons until they observe that the normal pattern of quick procreation isn’t happening for them. It’s also interesting to note that Lemuel’s mother—not his father—is the one getting space in the book of Proverbs. Certainly mothers are very influential figures, but in a male-dominated culture like Israel, women aren’t usually the ones getting their wise sayings recorded for posterity. The book of Proverbs starts off with the far more common pattern of Solomon imparting wisdom to his son. We expect fathers to pontificate in the Bible about the way to do life—not so much mothers. For Lemuel’s mom to not only get recorded but to get identified as well suggests she was a very influential woman.
So what’s your takeaway in all of this? Well, you’re not Lemuel, you’re not a king, and you’re not going to pass his mother’s extremely rigid standards. But Lemuel’s mother isn’t the Holy Spirit—she’s just a very driven, protective, invested woman who wants perfection for her son. Her speech paints a nice dream, but one that would only lead to great strife unless she learned to relax her standards a bit.
While Lemuel’s mother was clearly driven, God isn’t a fan of workaholism, nor is He a fan of you spending every waking minute focused on producing something. God wants you to be available to Him in life—something you’re not going to be if you are always working or anticipating your next business deal. God tells us to love Him with all that we are—our hearts, soul, mind and strength. Nowhere do we find Him telling us to work harder, produce more stuff, make more money, and strive to get on everyone’s friend list. When it comes to handpicking souls who would serve Him well and bring Him great glory on earth, we don’t find God shuffling through society’s cream. Instead, He goes for commoners and lowlifes. David and Amos were shepherds—a dirty and unapplauded occupation of their time. Peter was a fisherman—another smelly job. Matthew was a despised tax collector. It’s not that God doesn’t find anyone worthy in the more respected jobs, because He does. Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Isaiah were priests—proving the point that not all religious leaders are corrupt. God has good people everywhere, but they are often not the people society would applaud. Ezekiel was a priest, but he was also living in exile in a foreign land when God called him to be a prophet. Daniel was also one of the rabble who were taken as prisoners from Israel. As much as we’d love to think that you can score with God and the world at the same time, in reality, this just doesn’t work out. Sure David became a wealthy king—but only after spending years in God’s humbling refinement program. There’s nothing glorious about constantly running for your life and sleeping on the ground with a band of social rebels. As for Jesus, He got more pleasure out of being anointed by sinners than He did dining with the rich and famous. So if you find yourself falling short of Lemuel’s mother’s dream wife—which you will—so what? What’s a king’s mother’s fantasy of the perfect daughter-in-law have to do with you? God is the One you want to please in life and His list of admirable qualities are much different than that of Lemuel’s mother.
God doesn’t care about how good you are at working with your hands—He wants your heart to respect Him. He isn’t disappointed if you need twelve hours of sleep to function in life. He isn’t offended if you have no business sense or if you lose your cool as a mother and if you aren’t everything your husband could ever want. God didn’t design you to perfectly satisfy your husband anyway—your husband needs to look to God, not a human being, for that kind of completion. God designed you to be HIS first and foremost—to know Him, adore Him, and to receive His great love for you. God makes some of us focused and some of us dreamers. He makes some of us cheerful and some of us solemn. He makes some of us social and some of us shy, some of us fast and some of us slow. God loves variety. He isn’t nearly as narrow minded as Lemuel’s mother is. He really doesn’t care what Lemuel’s mother says in Proverbs 31—the woman’s dead and gone and she isn’t going to be your judge in eternity. In each day, you just listen to your own Guide in life—the Holy Spirit. He is gentle, encouraging, and He is far easier to please than a protective mother-in-law would be.
When God assesses your progress in life, He isn’t thinking about how long it’s been since you cleaned your house, or how well you cook or how thrifty you are at the grocery store. He doesn’t care how stylish your clothes are or how much money you make. God cares about how your soul is responding to Him. Do you sincerely love Him? Do you want to be a blessing to Him? Do you want Him to have His way in your life? If so, then you’re a huge success story in His eyes and He is quite pleased with you. Forget about comparing yourself with the Proverbs 31 woman. God has never compared you with her, because she doesn’t even exist. If she did, God would no doubt have to work with her about spending less time rushing around and more time just being with Him.
While she models some upright character qualities, the woman we find in Proverbs 31 is far too busy in the world to focus on the things that really matter. When you get to eternity, no one is going to care about how many businesses you ran or how nice everyone thought you were. All that’s going to matter is how you responded to God in the privacy of your own heart. That’s something that only you know about—and those who have the right attitude towards God don’t go around flaunting their righteousness in other people’s faces so that they can get patted on the back for it. Your soul bond with God is a personal, private thing whereas the Proverbs 31 woman is a grand show of external qualities that everyone can see and admire. Read the passage again and notice how much of it is focusing on how active the woman is. She is constantly in motion—squeezing in righteous deeds and dispensing wise advice between a never ending stream of highly productive tasks. Satan wants you focused on the restless Proverbs 31 woman so that you’ll spend your life trying to impress everyone with your crammed calendar and end up too burned out to work on the internal things that matter most to God. Choose to listen to God instead and stay focused on deepening your heart bond with Him. Developing a deeper walk with God requires stopping to hear His Voice in life and spending a lot of time mulling over insights He’s given you. No doubt being still and contemplating the things of God would be considered a waste of time by Lemuel’s driven mother. But when you are focused on God’s priorities in life and on loving Him with your soul, you’ll be infinitely more pleasing to Him than some fictional woman in Proverbs.