The Strong Woman of Proverbs 31
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An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. — Proverbs 31:10
In Proverbs 31 we find the marvelous poem about the strong woman. And by this elaborate and tightly written poem, we will not only be swept up in the wise talents and virtues of women, but we will also learn more about our Savior.
The Proverbs 31 woman is given a title in verse 10—an excellent wife/woman. Now, the Hebrew word here for “excellent” (hayil) has quite the range of meaning; thus, in English versions it is rendered: valiant, capable, wealthy, worthy, virtuous, good, and brave. This word has the basic sense of being strong, powerful. And from this, it can take on connotations like wealthy, noble and brave. It is best to render this as the strong woman, the strong wife. The rest of the poem teases out all the ways in which, and nuances of how, this woman is strong.
Proverbs 31 describes the strong woman from A to Z.
The setting for the rest of the book of Proverbs has been a father teaching his son. It has instructed us about the wise man. The final section of the last chapter of Proverbs is its own distinct unit. It sets forth and praises the ideal type of woman, extolling the paragon feminine virtues and talents, both ethical and practical. This woman is the wise man’s counterpart—the wise woman. There are numerous similarities between this woman and Lady Wisdom back in Proverbs 8-9. Yet, where Lady Wisdom personified wisdom itself, as one of God’s attributes, this woman typifies wisdom.
The ideal of Proverbs 31:10-31 serves the purpose of highlighting the full grandeur of a woman’s wisdom.
The Proverbs 31 woman excels and exhibits all the talents of wisdom in her life and world. Moreover, as this poem paints a portrait of this type of woman, it is an ideal picture. It displays the best, the supreme and the faultless. As a whole, this woman seems a bit utopian and incredible, over the top.
Yet, the ideal serves the purpose to highlight the full grandeur of a woman’s wisdom. In fact, this poem is also an alphabetic acrostic, which means that each verse starts with successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In Hebrew, this is the “A to Z” of a woman’s wisdom. And yet, even though she is idealized and a bit incredible, this woman is also feasible.
All her talents are practical and attainable in real life. This is in part why she is a wife and mother. This woman isn’t a wife because this is the essence of femininity. No, Paul advocates for singleness as good and proper. A single woman can express this wisdom and be no less feminine.
Rather, she is married because it is the norm; it is realistic. Men were created to be husbands, just as women were fashioned to be wives. Marriage and family are the norm for this world. Singleness is good and fitting, but it is still the exception. Especially in the world of Proverbs, her married status makes her more feasible and practical.
What is the purpose of this poem on the strong woman, and how should we respond to it?
The status of the listener is critical to how we ought to respond. For example, if you are a young woman, the strong woman is a model for you to admire and seek to emulate. If you are a young man, you should be attracted to and seek out such a woman to marry.
If you are an older, married man, this poem should ignite gratitude and honor for your wife and her achievements. And if you are an older, married woman, this poem praises and thanks you for your talents and deeds. This poem then very much interacts with its different audiences to instill the appropriate response. Nevertheless, who is this strong woman?
The strong woman is uncommon, special, and precious.
The strong woman, who can find her? (Prov. 31:10). This is a question of rarity and value. It isn’t that she is impossible to find, but rather, she is uncommon, special, and precious. Thus, her worth is beyond that of rubies and jewels. This is not putting a price tag on the strong woman, as if she is a commodity only the rich can afford.
Rather, this means her value is beyond any monetary scale. To price her with money would be blasphemous. Such excellent strength in a woman is beyond what dollars and gold can buy. Thus, her husband values her beyond all else, and he trusts her. He has complete confidence in her fidelity and ability.
Proverbs 31 describes the strong woman with military imagery.
The strong woman is completely trustworthy—she will never cheat or let him down:
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain. (Prov. 31:11)
The word for gain is literally plunder, the spoils of war. This describes the strong woman with military imagery; she is always winning and bringing home the spoils of her victories. She fights and wins for her husband.
She repays him good and not evil all the days of her life (Prov. 31:12). She is a rock of goodness in her twenties and an anchor of blessing in her sixties. And in what ways does she do good and bring home spoils for her family?
The poem just keeps listing off her victories. She seeks wool and linen and works with willing hands (Prov. 31:13). Like the ships of a merchant, she brings in food from afar. This places the strong woman in the manufacturing plant and in the marketplace. Making clothes and textiles was the typical work of women back in ancient times. The strong woman happily creates and sews garments, and in the market she is a wheeler and dealer. If some exotic ingredient or item is needed, this lady has an amazing talent of finding it (Prov. 31:14). Whether it is at a yard sale or on eBay, she will find that random thing for the eighth-grade science fair, and it only costs a quarter!
The strong woman devotedly cares for her household throughout the day.
Next, we are shown a brief snippet of the strong woman’s day:
She rises while it is yet night
and provides food for her household
and portions for her maidens. (Prov. 31:15)
Before the sun has peeked its head over the horizon, this mother is up and moving. While it is still dark, she already has breakfast laid out for her whole household. In fact, the word for food in verse 15 is literally “prey,” what predators pounce on. The strong woman is depicted here as a lioness. Under the shadow of dawn, she hunts and drags home a gazelle for her pride.
The strong woman even has perfect portions for her maids and servants. Having servants is indicative of the woman’s well-to-do status, but it exhibits further talents. A servant’s portion requires the skill of management and stewardship. This woman is a master of organization and proportion. Additionally, care for servants is a moral virtue of kindness and fairness. In our day, we would say, “she takes good care of her employees.” She is not an exploitive boss, but a caring one.
The strong woman is skilled in business, and she is tenacious and goal oriented.
Next, now that breakfast is done, the strong woman heads to the escrow office. She contracts and buys a field; then, with her proceeds, she plants a vineyard (Prov. 31:16). She is skilled in financial, contractual, and business activities. She takes on farming, agriculture, and viticulture as though she is juggling five balls at once! From pruning a vine to balancing a budget, it is all in a normal morning’s routine for the strong woman.
Next, she hits the gym (Prov. 31:17). Literally, she girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong. Before Rosie the Riveter posed for World War II, the strong woman of Proverbs 31 had powerful arms. In fact, this girding up your loins is what soldiers do for battle or athletes do for the game. She is as ready as a marine for war, or as a runner for the Olympics. This imagery shows the strong woman’s mental awareness and tenacity to pursue her goals. This strength is not just physical, but it is also the mental and spiritual tenacity of virtue and competency.
Finally, this strong woman is able to taste that her merchandise is good (Prov. 31:18). This tasting of merchandise has two senses: First, she enjoys her accomplishments; she can savor her profits and take pleasure in her achievements.
Second, to taste can refer to discernment. When you are buying and selling things, you have to determine quality. This woman can feel and smell out the perfect watermelon. Her kids bring her containers of leftovers: “Does this smell okay?” Nothing rancid gets by her nose. And she is busy with her quality control late into the evening—"her lamp doesn’t go out at night” (v. 18). The strong woman is up before the sun and doesn’t finish up until the moon is full. She checks off every task on her to-do list.
The strong woman’s hands are skilled and generous.
When kids sit on their mom’s lap, they notice and play with her hands. A mother’s hands tell their own stories, and we are shown the hands of the strong woman. Her palms hold the spindle; her hands work the distaff (Prov. 31:19). These are the tools of spinning wool. Her hands are skilled with tools: knives, pliers, and hammers. Her palms are machines of productivity and creativity. Her hands are generous.
Charity flows from her arms. The needy and poor find kindness and liberality in the open palms of the strong woman (Prov. 31:20). As we have seen throughout Proverbs, charity to the needy is one of classic virtues of wisdom, and the strong woman has this wisdom talent in spades. Next, we shift from her hands to her clothes, from creativity to her products.
The strong woman dresses her family in clothes that are both warm and fashionable, functional and appealing.
The strong woman is not afraid of a little snow. Storms and bad weather don’t scare her, for she has robed her family in scarlet (Prov. 31:21). This mom sticks gloves in her daughter’s backpack; she makes her boys put on a coat before leaving the house. This is the skill of preparation and protection.
Moreover, scarlet is the color of fashion and expense—scarlet wool is fine, comely, and beautiful. The strong woman dresses her family in clothes that are both warm and fashionable, functional and appealing. She makes her family look good; she has style. She sews her own bedding and clothes from purple linen (Prov. 31:22).
Purple is the color of royalty and honor. This woman doesn’t just care and provide for her family, but she takes care of herself too. Her style is classy and regal. In fact, it says, “strength and dignity are her clothing” (Prov. 31:25). She is adorned with majesty and power. These garments represent her character and spiritual virtues. Her moral fiber and upright skills drape over her like a queenly robe.
Wisdom and knowledge have filled the mind and heart of the strong woman.
Next, we are shown the academic side of the strong woman. Her mouth opens with wisdom; her tongue speaks trustworthy teaching (Prov. 31:26). This lady is smart—wisdom and knowledge has filled her mind and heart. And she is able to teach it.
Her intellectual and rhetorical skills are top-notch. Sadly, there are misogynist parts of our culture and history that claim academics are only for men, but such chauvinism does not come from God’s word. For this strong woman is an intellectual, an educator. She even keeps her family accountable—she watches over “the ways of her household” (Prov. 31:27).
“Household” here refers to the whole family, including her husband; “ways” refer to behavior both moral and practical, and to watch over, or “look well,” is to keep in-line. The strong woman guards the morals and wisdom of her family members. If her son takes a wrong turn, she straightens him out. If her husband acts the fool, she will set him right. She is a guardian and protector of wisdom in the family.
The strong woman’s family praises her.
And as she stands as the warden of wisdom, she is never lazy. The bread of idleness has never touched her tongue. And how does the family respond to the strong woman’s wisdom protection? They couldn’t be happier. There is no resentment or jealousy in the husband, no grumbling or weariness in the kids. Instead, they brag.
Her children arise to call her blessed. The husband stands and praises his wife. We even get to hear the family, what the kids and dad say in verse 29:
“Many daughters have done nobly, but you excel them all.” (NASB)
This is personal and from the heart. First, they admit that many daughters grow to become noble (it is the same Hebrew word for strong as in verse 10). While strong women aren’t so rare, their mom, his wife, is the best of all. Theoretically, there may be good women out there, but this matters not, for their mom and wife is the best ever. Love, appreciation, and honor gush from the family for their strong woman.
After this shout out to Mom, we are given the final excellency of the strong woman:
“Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” (Prov. 31:30)
At this point, we realize something that has been missing in this poem. There hasn’t been a single reference to the woman’s appearance. Yes, her purple garments were mentioned, but these referred more to moral and wisdom talents. We were shown her hands but nothing about her physical beauty. Song of Songs waxes long about the gorgeous shape of his lover; but nothing here. Why? Because beauty and appearance are fleeting and misleading.
Beauty is unreliable when it comes to wisdom.
Beauty isn’t a bad thing; Scripture considers good looks to be a blessing. Yet, beauty is unreliable and fleeting when it comes to wisdom. The strong woman may be gorgeous or unattractive. Even if she is pretty in her twenties, beauty may not last into her seventies. Sadly, our culture overly prizes women for their appearance. If you match the shapes and features of the air-brushed models, then you are valuable.
Women, don’t fall for this trap. The strong woman did have style, but she is praiseworthy because she fears the Lord. The fountainhead for all the talents, skills, and virtues of this woman is the fear of the Lord—faith and respect in the Triune God of Scripture.
The primary attribute of the strong woman is that she loves, believes, and respects God.
And why is fear of the Lord so praiseworthy? Because it is the beginning of wisdom, and all her strengths are the talents of wisdom. The primary attribute of the strong woman is that she loves, believes, and respects God. Within her breast beats a godly and pious heart. Thus, the final verse of the poem calls us to praise this woman:
Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates. (Prov. 31:31)
Daughters, sons, and husbands are called to honor, praise, and thank the strong woman in their lives. Verbally and materially, we ought to reward the mothers and wives for all the ways they exhibit the strong virtues of wisdom. It has been said that being a woman is a thankless job, but this should not be. Praise, gifts, and honor for strong women should be regular features of their lives—in the home and in public spaces of life. What are we praising in the wise woman? We are praising the strong woman as being a full image-bearer of God.
Think about the virtues in which she excels: strength, diligence, generosity, self-confidence, honesty, uprightness, smartness, and planning. The areas of her activity include the home, the marketplace, agriculture, manufacturing, and the academy. She is creative, thoughtful, and productive. She teaches, provides for, and protects. She is as tenacious as a marine and as regal as a queen.
The strong woman isn’t just the ideal woman, but the ideal person, ideal wisdom.
All this wisdom, skill, and virtue are the same ones put before the son in the rest of Proverbs. The strong woman isn’t just the ideal woman, but the ideal person, ideal wisdom. True, the roles vary some between men and woman; but the abilities, talents, and character traits are the same, for both are created in the image of God.
We are praising the strong woman for her wisdom as an image-bearer of the Lord. Yet, there is one more thing that seems to be missing in this ode to the strong woman. Physical appearance was missing, but so is love. When we think of women—our mothers and wives—love, affection, and emotions are first in line.
The stereotype is that women are emotional and loving, affectionate and feeling. Yet, not a single emotion or mood describes this strong woman. This gives us liberty from the emotional generalization of women, as one can’t use Scripture to defend this view.
The strong woman shows her love by what she does.
While the emotional stereotype with which women are labeled may be more or less accurate, they are not beholden to such a stereotype. Being emotive has its strengths and weaknesses, but it doesn’t make a woman any more or less feminine. The ideal model in Proverbs 31 allows women liberty to be themselves concerning such feelings and emotions.
Secondly, the absence of love and emotive language here makes us recognize that the strong woman shows her love by what she does. Today, love is equated with passions and feelings, but in Scripture love is more about your actions. And this strong woman is all about loving action. She is a faithful wife; she hunts for food at 4:00 a.m. She covers her kids with warm clothes and teaches them the fear of the Lord and wisdom. She is kind to her employees, generous with the poor, and watchful over her family. Every wise skill here serves and expresses her love: love for her husband, her kids, and her neighbor. She loves in the family, in the business world, and in the classroom.
The strength of this wise woman is the might and majesty of love in action.
She takes care of herself, but her life is also one of wise love for others. Her strength and wisdom fulfill the second great commandment—to love your neighbor. And since she fears the Lord, her love of neighbor is her loving the Lord. The strength of this wise woman is the might and majesty of love in action.
It is this exceptional love of the strong woman that makes her intimidating. Indeed, who can love like this lady? Who has her skills? Just listening to her day makes you tired. Her wisdom makes you feel guilty; her productivity makes us all feel lazy.
If this was your neighbor, you would buy her a vacation: “Slow down. You are going to work yourself into exhaustion, a psychotic breakdown.” Society makes women feel bad enough about themselves with all the expectations it heaps on them, and this poem of the ideal woman only makes it worse. Talk about a burden of guilt—“I have to do all this as a woman.”
The Proverbs 31 woman directs us to the motherly love of Christ.
It is precisely our inadequacy before the perfect that turns us towards mercy, that roots us in the fear of the Lord. Neither men nor women can measure up to this strong woman. Of course, we want her as a mother or as a wife, but she is beyond us. We need her, but we cannot be her.
The perfect love and wisdom of the strong woman directs us to one who does resemble her, Jesus Christ. Jesus was born a man, and the resurrected Christ is the God-man at the right hand in heaven. Yet, Jesus came not only to fulfill the law for males, but for all humans—men and women. These ideal virtues were perfectly exhibited in Christ.
Christ clothes his people in the scarlet and purple of his royal righteousness.
Just like the strong woman, Jesus lived his whole life with the righteous tenacity to love others. Christ protects his people; he clothes them in the scarlet and purple of his royal righteousness. While we sleep, Jesus never slumbers as he constantly prays and protects us. We are the needy and poor to whom Christ’s hands are open with generosity.
Christ also does us good and never evil. And Christ did not hesitate to take to himself the tender and strong image of a woman: “…as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Matt. 23:37), so Jesus gathers us. Thus, before any of us begin to emulate the strong woman of Proverbs 31, we are first recipients of her love in Christ.
Christ’s mercy ever holds us, and he lives as the Wisdom of God to bring us to the resurrection.
This is the wise love Christ has lavished on you and it is the love that Christ never ceases. As we fail to measure up to this woman, Christ’s mercy ever holds us. Not only will we fail, but none of us are as multi-talented at this lady. You may be good at business, but creativity is not your thing. You may be good in the kitchen, but not in the classroom. Nevertheless, despite our skill set, Christ has all the skills to love you forever. He died for your sins, and he lives as the Wisdom of God to bring you to the resurrection.
Ladies, as you grow in the wisdom of this strong woman, you are becoming more like your Savior Jesus Christ, and you are held by his grace alone. Men, may you learn from wise women as they teach you. And all of us, may we do what the poem says and praise with gratitude. May we sing first and foremost about Christ and his love. May we praise our wives, our mothers, and strong women as wonderful image-bearers of God, redeemed in Christ.