Epilogue, Part 2: Enjoyment of Wisdom
Proverbs 31:10–31 – Proverbs: Wisdom for Life
Palm Sunday – April 14, 2019 (am)
We come to a passage this morning (the closing words of this collection) that is one of the most familiar in Proverbs. As such it is one of those that is often lifted out of its place in this book, and even in the OT, to stand alone as a description of a strong, capable, competent woman. And it’s often used as a virtual recipe for attaining that status. But if we keep this passage in its place—if we taste of it within its context, it’s as flavorful and pleasing as a gourmet dessert at the close of a fine meal! It throws out color and light like a prism in the summer sun. And it offers a suitable closing word to this collection that fires everyone’s imagination and speaks to everyone’s need. So, let’s turn our attention to this familiar passage, read it, then see what it has to say to each of us today. Let’s hear its instruction under four headings.
The Lingering Tension of Competing Offers
First, we should note that today’s passage is not the only one that gets pulled out of Proverbs to stand alone. Almost every verse in cc.10-29 can be treated that way! And it’s not all that hard to understand why: those really do function like stand-alone statements, each giving voice to a singular facet on the massive diamond of God’s matchless wisdom. But there is also an undeniable continuity to the whole collection, a cohesive storyline that’s established in the extended introduction (cc.1-9). The king is giving instruction to the crown prince regarding the wisdom of God that stands in contrast to the foolishness of this world (1:1-7).
The lure of the world is given voice through Lady Folly, a loud and brash woman of means who promises every worldly pleasure to the young prince. But Lady Wisdom is also calling out to him, promising genuine deliverance from simple ways and a life of true insight and joy (c.9). As c.9 came to a conclusion, both women issued their final plea. And the reader is left hanging, not knowing how the son would respond, which he would choose! Then, in the collection of wise sayings that follows for the next twenty chapters, the power of these women, and the fruit of a life in covenant with them keeps circling back not only as a developing theme, but as a reminder of our uncertainty regarding the prince’s fate. Let’s survey some of those sayings.
The Contrasting Outcomes of Alternative Choices
Many have noted how hard Proverbs seems to be on women, particularly on wives who display a contentious spirit. But if we understand that Proverbs is an extended record of a father’s instruction to his son(s) regarding wisdom, that makes a bit more sense. It’s not that Proverbs is playing favorites. It’s just written from a point of view. It’s expressing a particular and targeted message. It’s issuing a specific word of instruction from father to son. It can surely be adapted to offer equally meaningful instruction to women. And we see a great example of that in today’s text. But we’ll also hear some strong words about Lady Folly.
Let me give you some examples. 19:13 … [A] wife’s quarreling is a continual dripping of rain. That’s a pleasing image, isn’t it? And he virtually repeats it in 27:15 A continual dripping on a rainy day and a quarrelsome wife are alike; 16 to restrain her is to restrain the wind or to grasp oil in one’s right hand. She grates the nerves on so many levels that it requires an image to capture it—the picture that paints a thousand words! And v.16 adds that there’s just no stopping it! But we have to understand that these words are not just providing ammunition for a husband in familiar conflicts that can arise between him and his otherwise beloved wife. This image is capturing life with Lady Folly. This is what happens in the home of the son who responded to the wrong invitation in c.9. And he himself is no better! He’s the male version of Lady Folly! And life goes like this for him in more areas than just with his wife. Life itself is a continual dripping of rain for him. Trying to restrain foolishness anywhere in his life is like trying to restrain the wind or to grasp oil in [his] right hand. He chose the way of folly, not just a wife of folly, and his life is now marked by it. Foolishness covers every square foot into every corner like wall-to-wall carpeting. And speaking of [corners]: 21:9 It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife (repeated in 25:24). Better to live out in the rain than trapped under the leaky roof of your foolish ways—an image made all the more vivid when it’s personified as life with Lady Folly.
But, oh, how the way of wisdom is also well-illustrated as marriage to a certain type of woman. An earlier statement establishes the contrast: 12:4 An excellent wife is the crown of her husband, but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones. Here we see not just the blessing of life with an excellent wife, but the contrast between a life marked by the pursuit of Lady Wisdom as compared to a life marked by the pursuit of Lady Folly, of self-centered self-gratification. When you’re listening for the call of Lady Wisdom, and choose to follow her voice, again and again, denying yourself, resisting the cries of your baser longings and pursuing rather the beauty of her virtuous ways, your life goes in a wholly new, wholly different direction. And it’s describable with wholly different images. Blessings from heaven is the only way to summarize it! 18:22 He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord. Life is as satisfying as marital intimacy with a youthful wife who has captured your affections and fired your imagination (cf. 5:18-19). And that’s how our passage starts today: 31:10 An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. 11 The heart of her husband trusts in her. There’s no way to put a price on [trust]. [Trust] is nowhere in the vicinity of life with Lady Folly! [Trust] is completely absent from the company of the foolish. But it is a hallmark of life with Lady Wisdom. When the son chooses her, 11 … he will have no lack of gain. 12 She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. So begins the richest image of the good life here in Proverbs!
The Blessed Enjoyment of Embracing Wisdom
Embracing wisdom toward the blessed enjoyment of the good life is precisely what Proverbs has been calling us to do, from the very beginning. 1:8 Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, 9 for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck. Lady Wisdom will decorate your life with honor. She will reward your teachable spirit. She’ll satisfy you fully like an excellent wife!
But let me be clear before we get too far into this passage. I’m not intending to suggest that this description of an excellent wife is just a metaphor, just a vivid description of Lady Wisdom personified, though it surely is that. I believe this woman can actually exists. I believe I’m married to her. And, not at all intending to diminish or dilute that entirely deserved complement, I know that many of you men in this room recognize that you’re also married to the woman described here.
And let me say one more word about this amazing text before we get back to addressing the lessons we learn from it: never let it be said in your hearing—or if it’s said, never let it go unchallenged—that the Bible presents a low view of women, their value, competence, dignity. Here in Pro.31 we read the same message as in the rest of the Bible, OT and NT alike. We encounter a view of woman, wife, mother, that reinforces with virtually every mention that she is as fully reflective of the image of God as the man with whom she shares that lofty status.
Back to the text now, even while we accept that this description is not too good to be true in real life, it is also not a word only to the married women among us, or even only to the married women and men. It is also a word to everyone who has heard the call of Wisdom in Proverbs, describing as vividly as it’s able the quality of life that results from saying, Yes, from choosing well, from walking the way of wisdom. No aspect of your life will be untouched by Lady Wisdom. No facet will remain unsweetened by her charms. All of life will flourish under nurture of her care, warmed by the caress of her embrace, lighted by the brightness of her smile. Such is the blessed enjoyment of embracing wisdom.
General Takeaways from Such a Particular Passage
We’re not going to walk through every image in this text seeking to find deeper meaning in it because for the most part it communicates very well what it means: this woman is multi-talented, productive, influential, witty and light-hearted even while serious and thoughtful. She is relational and warm, but intentional and focused. She’s not only competent in domestic disciplines (13, 15, 17, 19, 21-24, 27), she is also financially astute, involved in international commerce (14), real estate, farming (16, 18), and philanthropy (20).
But there are two qualities this woman exhibits that help us all relate not only to her, but even to the captivating life she embodies—two qualities that extend well beyond her status as an excellent wife and an all-around amazing person. They are qualities that give us the key insight into what makes her who she is. And as we gain that insight, we realize that all the [blessings] and praises this woman receives would simply be passed along by her to the One Who truly deserves them. She is so immersed in the life of wisdom that there is no chance in the world she doesn’t know where her strength and dignity (25) come from, her competence and charisma.
First quality, she herself has embraced wisdom: 30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. She’s not going to rely on her natural womanly [charms], effective as they might be to any man who follows the voice of Lady Folly. This woman’s ear is tuned the call of Lady Wisdom. And she has given herself entirely to that virtuous instruction. She has learned that 9:10 [t]he fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is insight. And her life displays what wisdom and insight look like. She knows where these things come from, and where to find them. She knows how beautiful they are when someone is living them out with her whole heart—that they surpass the momentary charm of [fleeting] physical beauty and grant her noble and lasting spiritual allure.
Second quality, further fruit of wisdom: 26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. This one is hidden, but it is really sweet. We hear the NT wisdom writer, James (3:2), observe that, 2 … if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. And we hear Jesus (Mat.12:34) say it is 34 … out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. So, we know that the [wise] and [kind] instruction this woman offers is no common thing, no merely natural ability. But what we don’t quickly see in English is that the kindness she speaks is hesed, that Hebrew word that expresses the loving kindness of God, His grace and mercy, His favor, His steadfast, covenant love. There is no way to speak hesed without knowing hesed personally. And the only way to know hesed personally is to be in personal relationship with the God Who shows and enables hesed—steadfast, covenant love.
All through our study of Proverbs we have emphasized that the only Son of the truest King of Israel has wholly and perfectly embraced the wisdom of His Father’s instruction (cf. 1:1ff.). On the heels of our study of Colossians, we recognize that the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, is the true and physical embodiment of God’s wisdom (Col.2:3). As an obedient Son, He, too, would’ve sought for a wise woman to be His bride, but there were none to be found, none who would (or could!) walk with Him in full enjoyment of the blessing of wisdom. So, it was His noble task, in fulfillment of the eternal plan agreed to by Him and His Father, for Him to select a bride from among those trapped in irremediable foolishness, then remediate her, rescue her, save her, cleanse and deliver her from her folly, and then unite her to Himself in an eternal marital union, welcoming her into His home forever! To put it another way, it was His job (Eph.5:25-27) to 25 … [give] himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, [and cleanse] her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present [her] to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. This is what happens to all who embrace the Wisdom of God by faith. They are incorporated into His bride, the church, and immediately begin to take on the characteristics of their Betrothed, of the Son of God, the Wisdom of God.
I believe the portrait of the excellent wife in Pro.31 is as captivating to us as it is, and stands at the ultimate place in this collection as it does, precisely because it expresses as clearly as anything could what it looks like, how blessed it is, what a profound—and indeed, eternal—difference it makes to be embraced by the kindness, the steadfast love, the hesed, of the God Who is worthy to be [feared], the God Whose image we reflect, the God for Whom we were made to live in eternal, covenant relationship!
One of the very practical things we’re reminded of here is the vast difference it makes right here in this world—even before we get to the next where we’ll finally be free of every form of folly, forever—what a vast difference it makes right here and now when we embrace and live in the wisdom that comes from the fear of the Lord, from embracing His Son in saving faith.
It doesn’t just turn us into withdrawn, somber, spiritual naval-gazers. It turns us into better, more likable, more resourceful and productive people. This woman displays it! This wisdom of God doesn’t just make her into a better woman and wife and mother, it makes her husband into a better man and husband and father—11 … he will have no lack of gain. And it does similar work in each of us to hear the instruction and follow the way of wisdom. It makes us better women and wives and mothers, better men and husbands and fathers, but also better sons and daughters and neighbors and friends and coworkers, better teachers and students and administrators, better doctors and attorneys and business people. The wisdom of God is what we need!
The wisdom of God among us begins the work of recreating His image within us (cf. Co.l.3:10). It is the next world breaking in to this one before this one is even finished! It starts the work of reversing the curse of our sin and rebellion against God and restoring the flourishing existence that was first achieved in the Garden of Eden and will be established again in the new heavens and new earth. Embracing and embodying the wisdom of God is what we were made for, and what we receive only in Christ.