Being a goodwife: What is a Proverbs 31 Woman?

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Proverbs 31 is the go-to chapter when people want to consider what Scripture says about being a virtuous woman. I want to submit to you that this chapter is not explicitly for all women and does not prescribe what it takes for any woman to be virtuous.

Proverbs is a book of Solomon’s proverbs compiled together. Solomon spoke these proverbs to his son (1:8) for the purpose of knowing wisdom, understanding, justice, judgment, equity, prudence, and discretion (1:2-6) beginning with the fear, or knowledge, of the Lord (1:7).  Every single proverb proceeds from the belief that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7). Whatever we read in chapter 31, a proper understanding depends on the realization that the fear of God must precede any virtue. Solomon prefaces this book of practical advice with a doctrinal truth. One’s relationship with God comes first. Any virtuous action flows from that proper relationship and a healthy fear of God. So, Proverbs does not reveal to people how to be virtuous or righteous. Rather, it reveals the fruit that is wrought by sanctification in those who fear God first. The person does not come to a place which he or she honors God. We cannot clean our lives up first. In fact, we don’t even really know how to do this. Knowledge begins when we fear the Lord. A fear of God comes first, then we are brought to the knowledge, virtue, and righteousness of God. Solomon begins with Gospel and then gives practical advice to his son that depends wholly on having a proper relationship with God. To see what Jesus teaches about having this relationship, click here

All of the Proverbs are attributed to Solomon. This is clear from chapters 1 through 29. In chapters 30 and 31 we see two interesting attributions. Chapter 30 is attributed to “Agur the son of Jakeh” (30:1). The identity of Agur cannot currently be traced to any degree. The most prominent scholarship suggests that since Agur literally means “collector,” that this title represents the person who compiled the proverbs. He declared the teachings of Solomon recorded in Proverbs 30. This means that Solomon is the human author of Proverbs and that Proverbs had an editor. Chapter 31 is attributed to King Lemuel. Like Agur, there is no indication anywhere in Scripture or in the extra-biblical historical record as to who King Lamuel might be. Lamuel literally means “devoted to God,” and commentators tend to speculate that this might have been one name Bathsheba used to refer to her son, Solomon (cf. 2 Samuel 12:24; 1 Kings 1:13, 17, 30). Without any evidence to the contrary, this seems like the most plausible position to hold. King Lamuel was King Solomon. Chapter 31 begins by revealing Solomon’s relationship with his mother. They were close. So close, in fact, that Solomon is closing his book of proverbs to his son with wisdom that he learned from his mother, Bathsheba. Bathsheba is portrayed, here, as a godly woman who feared the Lord and who took seriously the responsibility to disciple her children beginning with the fear of the Lord.

In Proverbs 31:10-31, we see the verses commonly used to prescribe what it means for a woman to be virtuous or righteous. I want to read this with fresh eyes. Keep these things in mind as you read:

  • This is what Bathsheba taught Solomon, who is teaching his own son. It is not a chapter written to all women but to Solomon’s son.
  • It is descriptive and not prescriptive. These are not instructions, but a description of the typical virtuous wife’s lifestyle.
  • The fear of the Lord necessarily precedes the development of any virtue.

Question and purpose (v. 10-11)

An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, And he will have no lack of gain.

Solomon is writing to his son about what it means to be a good husband and have an excellent wife. The primary application, here, is not to tell all women how to become virtuous. This chapter primarily concerns the husband-wife relationship. Whatever is described in the verses to follow does not specifically apply to single, separated, divorced, widowed, or otherwise unmarried women. Bathsheba taught Solomon who is teaching his own son about what a godly woman becomes as a wife—not because she is trying to become virtuous or righteous but because she already fears the Lord and is clothed in His virtue and righteousness alone.

A wife who fears God is rare according to Bathsheba’s teaching in her own household. If a man has a wife who fears God, he should realize that she is worth more than money. She is worth more than her physical appearance. She is worth more than any physical or material thing. Bathsheba taught Solomon and Solomon his own son that the woman who fears God can be fully and safely trusted. A man can make himself vulnerable to her. This idea is juxtaposed against verse 3, which says, “Do not give your strength to women, Or your ways to that which destroys kings.” Bathsheba’s advice to her son was to not sleep around, date a bunch of women, or give all his attention to women. That would keep him from doing much else. Instead, she wanted her son, and Solomon wanted his son, to devote himself to one godly woman. Though Solomon did not take this advice, he recognized in retrospect that marriage to one godly woman would not keep a husband bound but would enable him to make even greater gains, not for himself only and not necessarily concerning financial gain but for his household concerning the place of that household in the plan of God.

When Solomon records his mother’s words, “And he will have no lack of gain,” he is introducing the next section of proverbs. Verses 12-27 explain why having one godly wife enables and frees a husband to make more gains.

The goodwife (12-27)

She does him good and not evil All the days of her life. She looks for wool and flax And works with her hands in delight. She is like merchant ships; She brings her food from afar. She rises also while it is still night And gives food to her household And portions to her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; From her earnings she plants a vineyard. She girds herself with strength And makes her arms strong. She senses that her gain is good; Her lamp does not go out at night. She stretches out her hands to the distaff, And her hands grasp the spindle. She extends her hand to the poor, And she stretches out her hands to the needy. She is not afraid of the snow for her household, For all her household are clothed with scarlet. She makes coverings for herself; Her clothing is fine linen and purple.

Bathsheba described, and Solomon describes, a wife who is actively taking care of the household. She is up early in the morning. She takes care of financial dealings. She exercises and stays fit. She is homeschooling her children. She turns her hobbies into income and makes sure the household has whatever it needs. She shows hospitality to those in need and ensures that her family is clothed properly. She does not go to bed early.

We keep in mind that this is written about godly women who are married. Though a godly single woman may have the characteristics described, she doesn’t grow into these things until she is married because these sorts of dealings and the womanly household role is designed by God to accomplish a purpose that is only accomplishable in the context of godly marriage. We will parse this out as we continue through the text. Furthermore, the lifestyle of the goodwife is, according to Bathsheba and Solomon, a natural outworking of a woman’s relationship with God. She probably doesn’t perfect these things overnight. It is worked out in God’s process of sanctification such that the longer she is married, the more perfect she becomes as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work and not her own striving. Her attention is not on her husband. He is not her satisfaction. She does not fully depend on him. God is her daily bread. She realizes that God has given her a place in His design for the household. She even has her own business ventures.

The goodwife is a working woman, not lazy or lethargic. God has designed the woman to be this way. Without occupying herself by these sorts of activities as a wife, the woman of the house will likely feel useless, anxious, or depressed. She was designed for this. I will describe why toward the end of this article.

Her husband is known in the gates, When he sits among the elders of the land.

The city gate is a place of public judgment and discourse. It was where ideas were exchanged and contributions were made to understanding, much like the conversations taking place in academia, on social media, and in the church today. Bathsheba recognized that the household was designed specifically to have a man of the house and a woman of the house. When the goodwife fills her role, the husband is empowered to fill his own God-given role in the household and in society. Instead of wasting himself away trying to make sure the household is taken care of, the gentleman goes to a healthy church and contributes on behalf of the household. Since this passage mainly describes the goodwife, we don’t gain much explicit insight into the specific lifestyle of the gentlehusband—only that having a goodwife empowers him to fill the explicit role God has designed him for. In this way, the relationship between a goodwife and a gentlehusband is complementary. Bathsheba realized that without the filling of proper roles in the home, neither men nor women could live well in the fear of the Lord. The role of the wife exalts the husband. We will see, in a moment, that the role of the husband also exalts the wife.

She makes linen garments and sells them, And supplies belts to the tradesmen. Strength and dignity are her clothing, And she smiles at the future. She opens her mouth in wisdom, And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, And does not eat the bread of idleness.

Solomon continues to quote his mother’s teaching. The goodwife learns a trade to take care of her family and earn for her household. She is proud of her work and plans positively for the future. She is prudent. She teaches wisdom and kindness. Solomon is not only quoting from his mother, Bathsheba, but is using her life as an example. She discipled and homeschooled him in these things. This is what a godly woman does (whether or not she sends her children to a school outside the home), not because she is trying to become virtuous or righteous but because she fears the Lord and is clothed in His virtue and righteousness. The goodwife is not lazy. She plans out her day, looking to (or considering) the ways of her household. She is not idle but stays active even though idleness is a great temptation for her (like bread).

Her reward (28-31)

Her children rise up and bless her; Her husband also, and he praises her, saying: “Many daughters have done nobly, But you excel them all.” 

Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her the product of her hands, And let her works praise her in the gates.

Just as the goodwife’s work exalts the husband, the children’s and gentlehusband’s praise exalts the goodwife to her face and in public. The woman who fears the Lord, and as a result of fearing the Lord is given a proper place in the household, shall be praised. In fact, Bathsheba instructed Solomon and Solomon instructed his son to give the goodwife the product of her hands, and let her works be praised in the gates. The gentlehusband recognizes that he cannot fulfill his role without the goodwife fulfilling hers. He exalts his wife above himself even as he participates in the public sphere and in the manly exchanging of ideas and in his participation as a godly gentleman in the genuine church.

Other notes and connection with God’s purpose

In Ephesians 5:22-33, Paul describes how the marriage relationship in the household of faith represents Christ’s relationship with His church. The role of the husband represents Christ and the role of the wife represents Christ’s church. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul describes how the roles of men and women as they participate in public worship, in the church gathering, represent the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. If we reduce Proverbs 31 to instructions on how a woman can strive to be virtuous or righteous, we have missed the point. This is a picture of God the Father and Christ along with Christ and His church. Everything that God has designed serves the purpose of revealing who God is and of His glory alone. When we read the New Testament, we also see that the structure of the church with the appropriate offices (elders and deacons) parallels the structure that God has designed for the household of faith. The household of faith and a healthy church represent the relationship between God the Father and Christ along with Christ and His church. Even in the way we structure our households, our local churches, the roles of men and women, the roles of elders and deacons, the things we do, the activities we are involved in, our family worship, and church liturgy, we present a picture of who God is. So, it is not only important to have good, truly biblical teaching and for a person to transmit understanding, but also for us to structure our households and local churches properly. We devote ourselves to do this at home and we seek out local churches that have a proper structure and liturgy. The way we do things either represents God well or not.

It is easy to read this and feel insignificant or like we fall short of God’s glory in the things that we do. That is simply because we do fall short of God’s glory. Remember, all of this begins with a proper fear of God in the lives of both the husband and the wife. He is the one who is sufficient. He is the one who brings His people to perfection. We are both saved and sanctified by grace alone through faith alone. You will never be able to meet this standard on your own. In fact, we persuade ourselves to work to achieve the standards that we perceive even though it is impossible. We must be clothed in Christ’s righteousness. As He builds His church, He is perfecting His people. He must do that work. We cannot. This is why a wife who fears the Lord is treasured above all else.

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