When Christian women ask the question “What must I to do to measure up?” Christian bookstores stand ready with a wealth of chatty exegesis on the infamously perfect wife and mother. Type “Proverbs 31” in your browser and you will pull up titles like Becoming a Proverbs 31 Woman, The Path to Becoming a Proverbs 31 Wife, or Becoming the Woman God Wants Me to Be: A 90-Day Guide to Living the Proverbs 31 Life.
Scripture’s tableau of ideal womanhood is referenced in virtually every book written on the role of the wife in marriage. In addition to using the passage to draw conclusions regarding domestic responsibilities and motherhood, many such books use her to establish the centrality of the husband in a wife’s life.
For example, in one book that describes itself as “a scripturally-based blueprint for the woman who truly desires to be the wife God intended her to be,” the author draws from Proverbs 31 to expound on the concept in 1 Corinthians of the wife being the glory of her husband. The author lists ways a wife may “bring glory to her husband,” just like the Proverbs 31 wife does:
- Talk about him in a positive light to others.
- Do whatever you can to make him look good.
- Consider his work more important than your own.
- Consider whether the things you are involved in glorify your husband.
In another classic book on biblical womanhood, the author explains husband-centrism by saying that although a woman is her husband’s wife, he is her life.
Pink interpretations of the excellent wife discourse paint a picture of a woman who is oriented inward—her face toward her home and husband—while her husband is oriented outward. He faces the world and the public sphere. The problem with this reading is not the wife who serves her family, but the husband who, in facing outward, is necessarily facing away from both her and them.
A friend described to me the lonely message that she read in the subtext of these books and others like them: “You feel like you are never half as important to him as he should be to you.”
Our picture of the ideal matters. A poor reading of Proverbs 31 tells us God’s love will be perfected in marriage when wives lay aside their own significance for their husbands’. Husbands, then, are entitled to receive significance from their wives. Not only is that “ideal” an incomplete picture of marital unity, it also clashes with the broader command to the entire church—men and women together—to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
Ironically, the very text that is often used to paint that misaligned picture is where we find the correction to it.
Proverbs 31: A Text on Biblical . . . Masculinity?
We have made the assumption that since Proverbs 31 is largely about a woman, it must be primarily a teaching directed at women. But a closer inspection reveals the opposite.
Proverbs 31 falls into the category of gender-specific teaching. But what we often miss in interpreting Proverbs 31 is that this text is not directed toward women. It’s directed to a man.
Before coming to the section on the excellent wife, the chapter begins with this introduction:
The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him.
Verse two quotes the king’s mother speaking to him in second person, calling him “son” no fewer than three times in one verse. This proverb is more than a collection of abstract wisdom; it is intimate teaching passed directly from a mother to her son. With gender-specific admonitions such “do not give your strength to women,” (v. 3), and role-specific admonitions against drunkenness (vv. 4–7) and responsibility to the vulnerable (vv. 8–9), one might even call this a “What every boy needs to know about being a man” speech, or, in this case, what Lemuel needs to know about being a king.
If we accept the pink interpretation of Proverbs 31:10–31, Lemuel’s mother cuts off a very good speech to her son about his role as a man and a king, and inexplicably launches into a discourse on how to be a good wife and mother. Is that the most logical reading?
In verse 10, the language moves from being prescriptive (commands to follow) to being descriptive (presenting a picture to look at). Commands don’t show up again until verses 30–31, and when they do, they aren’t directed to wives.
We have a text that establishes itself as being composed with a male audience in mind, begins with gender-specific instruction to a man, and ends with instruction that more logically belong to the husband’s role than the wife’s.
What does Proverbs 31 say to husbands?
Now that we’ve established the audience as male, what is the instruction given to him?
King Lemuel’s mother is inviting her son to make this hypothetical woman the subject of his prolonged, detailed study. She draws his attention to her trustworthiness, her resourcefulness, her strength, her charity, her wisdom, her practical knowledge and skills. She particularly draws attention to how this woman’s character benefits her children, her household, society, and, repeatedly, her husband. She turns his eyes toward excellence, and, specifically, the excellence of a virtuous wife.
The instruction at the conclusion is not “See that your wife conducts herself this way” or “Find such a woman.”
The only direct instruction in the excellent wife discourse is this:
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates. (Proverbs 31:30–31)
Although there is an implicit example to be followed in the excellent wife, the explicit command is for the husband. His intimate observation of his wife’s character should leave him exclaiming, “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all!”
The word translated “praise” in verses 30–31 is halal, which means “to shine light on.” With the picture of illumination in mind, it makes sense that instructions to a male audience would spend twenty-one out of thirty-one verses talking about a woman.
For nineteen descriptive verses, the husband plays the behind-the-scenes role of observer to his wife’s excellence: her virtues, her wisdom, her aptitudes and skills. He does not take her good character for granted, or passively receive the good that she brings him. Instead he studies her conduct in detail—and the ways it benefits him, his children, and the outside world—for the sole purpose of public and private halal.
In the last two verses, Lemuel’s mother tells all readers, essentially, “Go and do likewise.”
Getting the Whole Picture
It’s not that our passage holds no instructional value for women—we always do well to observe what God calls excellent and to apply it to our lives. But seeing it as nothing more than a how-to guide for biblical womanhood has caused us to miss the richness of the picture that God is presenting.
Reading Proverbs 31 with blue lenses changes the message from “Achieve excellence as a wife and your husband will reward you with praise” to a lesson on love. We watch the excellent wife through the eyes of her husband’s active admiration and esteem. In shifting the emphasis, we find that halal is a non-negotiable component of a husband’s role in the ideal marriage.
A faithful reading corrects the joyless picture of so-called biblical marriage by turning the husband’s face back toward his wife. She is indeed his glory, and he therefore glorifies her, bringing both humility and glory full circle as each one lays down their own consequence in order to make much of the other.
This teaches us something about marriage, but it also teaches us something about the nature of God’s love, and how we ought to live that love out among each other, whether we are husbands and wives or merely brothers and sisters in Christ.
Love forgets self and exults in its object. In the body of Christ, we are not divided into those who have the spiritual gift of giving halal, and those who have the spiritual gift of receiving it. When grace-enabled humility that considers others more significant than self is every member’s role, halal will be every member’s grace-endowed reward.
Cover image by frank mckenna.