Who Needs to Hear Proverbs 31 the Most?

The ‘wife of noble character’ is rarely applied to whom it was meant to describe.
Who Needs to Hear Proverbs 31 the Most?
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Unsplash

In recent years, many faithful Christian women have internalized the words of Proverbs 31, but I can’t help wondering with 17th-century Bible commentary author Matthew Henry, “This passage is to be applied to individuals, but may it not also be applied to the church of God, which is described as a virtuous spouse?” The answer historically—though not in modern interpretation—has been emphatically yes. Paul connects the dots when he writes about marriage, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32). If this is the profound mystery of the universe, we must rediscover the most foundational reading of Proverbs 31: Mother Wisdom’s poetic instruction to the Messianic King about his Valiant Bride.

Church, when was last time you looked into the mirror of Scripture? Do you see the beauty the King sees in you—his excellent wife? And local churches, how would our ministries shift if we began to recapture a vision of God’s people as the strong woman of Proverbs 31? It is the delight of our King in his church that ensures the gates of hell shall not prevail against us. Bishop Caesarius of Arles (c. 470–542) insists: “That valiant woman is the Church. How can she fail to be valiant, since from the beginning of the world she is troubled by such great tribulations and still is not overcome?”

Behold her beauty

The final 22 verses of Proverbs form an acrostic poem that was handed down to King Lemuel by his mother. Each line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The woman it portrays is beautiful from A to Z; her excellence exhausts human language. German medieval philosopher and theologian Albertus Magnus (c. 1193–1280) recognized how each poetic line expounds the meaning of each letter. For example, the opening question “A wife of noble character who can find?” begins with the letter alef, which means “thousand.” He explains this is the biblical equivalent of ascribing to her three perfect tens. Her excellence is breathtaking.

Ancient readers traced this Woman’s inestimable value back to the One who pursued her to the ends of the earth. Caesarius explains, “‘Who shall find a worthy wife?’ This means, who else except Christ? Indeed, He did not find her valiant, but made her so by finding her.” Just as a famous painting’s worth is determined by what a collector is willing to pay, the church’s value is bestowed by her Beholder: “She is worth far more than rubies” (31:10). Baptist theologian John Gill marvels, “She is bought with a price, but not with corruptible things, as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ; the ransom price paid for her is himself.”

If you are like me, when you think of your local church you may instinctively picture an organization, a congregation, a building, or a set of programs. What if we began to see the church through the eyes of her Bridegroom? In churches where we value efficiency, professionalism, responsibility, and even biblical fidelity, is there a place for beauty? And what does beautiful ministry even look like?

If we follow the gaze of the King, his eyes delight in this: “She is clothed with strength and dignity” (31:25). Confident in her gifts and certain of her success, “She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. ... In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers” (31:17, 19). Saint Augustine illumines this image: “Hey ho! I’m not ashamed to teach you the holy art of spinning wool. Look, if anyone has a full purse, a full barn, a full storeroom, all that is on the distaff; get it wound onto the spindle.”

Christ takes pleasure in the church who spins earthly means into heavenly treasures. With hands adorned by spiritual bracelets, the church radiates a beauty beyond that of Rebekah (Gen. 24:16, 22). Her members move with elegant, steeled conviction glittering with the gifts won for her at the cross (Eph. 4:8).

Embrace her motherly care

This valiant woman is a wonder to behold, but we cannot miss the primary role she fulfills in all her tireless endeavors: mother. The poem describes her constant maternal care: “She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants. ... When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet” (31:15, 21).

In her house, no son goes hungry, no daughter catches cold. Surely the church cares for the physical needs of her children, but Augustine sees something deeper: “They are clothed, and extremely well. Do you want to know how well? All you who have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ (Gal. 3:27).” With motherly comfort, she covers the ashamed and guilty with the scarlet robe of Christ’s righteousness.

However, her care extends far beyond her own family. Blessed are the destitute who find their way to her doorstep: “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy” (31:20). What if our churches began to see themselves as the neighborhood mom—whose open arms are always ready to embrace a lost boy or to serve lunch to a homeless beggar? What if church members worked in such unity of purpose that their coordinated efforts to care for the poor were like skilled palms extended with gentleness to the needy? What your local church came to be known as the godly Mother to refugees, college students, and the abused in your community?

Those wandering in a dark world should find the porch-light always on, so to speak, at the church: “Her lamp does not go out at night” (31:18). The church warms the despondent with her motherly glow: the eternal lamp symbolizes hope. It is a tearful child’s mother who alone is able to lay his head on her shoulder, tussle his hair, and gently help him see past the present sorrow to a brighter future.

Motherly affection, like the beam of a lantern, casts rays of hope ahead for her sons and daughters. The church reminds us that despite this present darkness filled with injustice, sin, loss, and despair, one day our Bridegroom will come like a thief in the night. Augustine encourages: “So let her be described, then, let her be praised, let her be commended, to be loved by all of us as our mother.”

Share her single-hearted devotion

As King Lemuel’s mother details her tableau, she takes extra care with her brush around the eyes. The virtuous woman’s gaze is transfixed upon one man: “Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life” (31:11–12).

Albertus points out that this line begins with the Hebrew letter beth, which means “house”: “And thus the Strong Woman is said to be one in whom her husband is confident, both because of her chaste love that loves only him ... and again because she is, as it were, the dwelling place of her husband’s heart.” Captivated by his love, she ever lives to please her husband. Augustine explains, “It’s him she serves, him she is devoted to, him she loves, him she is always thinking how to please. She doesn’t deck herself out either for her own eyes or for the eyes of others.”

The church ought to be characterized by this single-hearted devotion to her Bridegroom. After all, John Gill reiterates, she is “a woman actually married to Christ ... a woman beautiful, especially in his eyes, with whom she is the fairest among women; a woman, the weaker vessel, unable to do anything without him, yet everything through him: a ‘virtuous’ one, inviolably chaste in her love and affection to Christ, her husband.”

In our devotion to his teachings, the church trusts the Word of her Husband. In our desire to obey his commands, we seek only to draw Christ’s affectionate approval. In our total reliance upon him for strength, we show that all our works are by his grace.

Thousands of others vie for our affections—politicians, cultural icons, and personalities. Will our churches exude a whole-hearted, singular devotion to Christ? The virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 finds such success in all her endeavors because her eyes are focused on her confident husband. May we find no greater joy than to hear, “[Our] husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land” (31:23).

Relish the king’s delight

The prophet Zephaniah promised a day would come when “The Lord your God ... will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zep. 3:17, ESV). We get a foretaste of that moment as Proverbs 31 crescendos in musical refrain: “Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all’” (31:29). How would our churches change if we no longer prized charming facilities and superficially attractive ministries but instead basked in the pleasure of our King whose delight is in “a woman who fears the Lord”?

One day in the New Heavens and Earth, the Groom will return for his Bride. As she descends in radiant white, he will demand of the entire universe: “Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate!” (31:31). In the meantime, brothers and sisters, let our hands be busy with the deeds of this virtuous lady.

Contemporary scholar Bruce Waltke writes, “This valiant wife has been canonized as a role model for all Israel for all time” (emphasis original). “Wise daughters aspire to be like her, wise men seek to marry her, and all wise people aim to incarnate the wisdom she embodies, each in his own sphere of activity.” The Proverbs 31 woman is who we are and who we must be. Church, let us take these words to heart!

Chad Ashby is the pastor of College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, South Carolina. He blogs at After Math.

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