What if Proverbs 31 Wasn’t Actually Written for You?

by | Mar 1, 2019 | Faith | 33 comments

Misunderstanding of Proverbs 31
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What if women aren’t the main audience for Proverbs 31?

I was recently sent a really interesting article by reader Jennifer Walls. She’s not a blogger, but she had a thought, and she wanted to share it more widely, so she wondered if I’d like to publish it.

I read it, and I thought it was very, very interesting. She’s really asking the question: What if the point of Proverbs 31 is not to give women a “to-do” list to make us feel inferior, but rather to teach men to respect their wives?

Give her a minute and she may change your mind. Here’s Jennifer:

‘A wife of noble character who can find?’ Proverbs 31:10.

If you, like me, are a woman in today’s Christian circles, chances are you have come across Proverbs 31:10-31 more than once. Personally, it was often the centerpiece of teen girls Bibles and women’s conference. It’s easy to find the verse decorating Mother’s Day cards and flowery Bible bookmarks. Twice I’ve completed a devotional book that walked me through how to live out each of the wife-of-noble-character’s many industrious traits.

And I get it, we are hungry for Bible passages about women. Female Bible characters are in short supply and here is a whole 22 verses saying ‘she’ and ‘her’ over and over again. So we jump at it, ready to use this for our women’s ministry or moms’ Bible study.

But what if Proverbs 31 wasn’t written for women, but rather for men?

What if, instead of a list of characteristics we need to strive for, it’s actually intended as the antidote for locker room talk? What if it’s not a checklist of who we need to be, but rather a how-to of ways to encourage one another? Let me explain.

Proverbs was a passing down of wisdom from kings and nobles to the next generation. Solomon was directing it at other noble men, though, as with all Scripture, all of us can glean wisdom from it. But even without a historical understanding of this, the passage is clear in who it is talking to. I can’t believe I missed it for so many years.

Take a minute to read Proverbs 31:10 to 31 right now and then let’s work through it together.

  • The poem begins with verse 10, stating that a great woman is almost impossible to find and therefore is very valuable.
  • Next verses 11-22 and 24-27 go about describing her many laudable characteristics.
  • Verses 23, 28, and 29 state that a noble wife will have a husband who is respected at the city gate and that her husband and children will shower her with praises.
  • Verse 30 is the quotable piece of wisdom that this whole passage hangs on; it’s not about beauty or charm, but rather about being godly.

Here’s the thing, up until this point we have not received any instructions or commands. Verses 10-30 are simply statements of facts, the sharing of wisdom.

But in verse 31 we are finally told an action to do:

‘Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.’

The city gate was where the men gathered to talk. It was not only the centre for high minded and important talk. If you’ll allow me, it was also the locker room of its day. This passage is instruction for the husbands. If you’ve got a great wife, you should do two things:

  1. give her rewards for all her hard work; and
  2. when you sit around yakking with the guys, praise your wife not for her beauty and charm, but for all the wonderful industrious things she has done and for her fear of the Lord.

What if we used this passage to teach our boys how to be respected men? What if we taught them Proverbs 31 so that they knew what to honour in the females around them?

What if young, Christian men were trained to change the locker room talk from a discussion of outer beauty to a praising of godly characteristics in the women they know? Because if the way men talk about women is praising their godly character, it will also be how they think about women and eventually treat women.

And when women are treated with respect and honoured when they strive for Godly character, becoming the Proverbs 31 woman becomes a little easier and a lot more appealing.

After all, isn’t this the gospel anyway? It’s not a list of characteristics you need to be or things you need to do. We are called to love God and love each other. Instead of focusing on making ourselves into the ideal woman or man, we should be focusing on loving one another. That includes praising each other for the Godly characteristics we see in them.

So instead of seeing this passage solely, or even mainly, as a checklist of how to strive to be a ‘wife of noble character’, let’s see it as reminding us to ‘bring each other praise.’ Let us use Proverbs 31 to teach both our sons and our daughters to ‘arise and call each other blessed.’

Because this passage is actually for us all.

Thank you to reader Jennifer Walls for this post! 

Jennifer Walls is a proud stay-at-home mom of an 18 month old and one on the way, and a loving wife to her teacher husband. Her job B.C. (before children) was working in music and youth ministry on Vancouver Island. She is passionate about her faith, her family, and the importance of good Dutch cheese.

What if Proverbs 31 Was Actually Written for Men?

What do you think? Does she have a point? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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33 Comments

  1. Rachel

    I think that makes good sense. It’s definitely more palatable than the usual interpretation also. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Hannah

    Thanks Jennifer,
    I like your thought. Originally the chapter 31 is written for a prince who is looking for a princess… so it is fitting that men study these verses as well!
    And if I remember right, in Jewish tradition a father will read this chapter on Friday night to celebrate the mother of the house before the Sabbath meal (correct me if I’m wrong).
    The locker room idea was great! I have two sons so I will remember this.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I love that Jewish tradition! I didn’t know that. We could learn so much about the way that Jews interpret the Old Testament. There’s probably so much we’re missing!

      Reply
      • Bonnie

        Thanks Sheila for providing us with Jennifer’s comments.
        Very wise.
        Years ago I read a marriage book written by a man , author and title I no longer recall, who said that the proverbs 31 woman was a composite woman and an impoosible task for all women to aspire to except our devotion to God, family and sensible money management. That our gifts are unique and to use them as God would have it. He humourously referred to the fact that if one woman was (impossibly) doing all those tasks, what was the man doing? Sitting on his butt drinking coffee, playing backgammon with other loafs, gossiping and doing nothing!(this latter statement is my paraphrase) on the author’s take.

        Reply
  3. Lana Weeks

    It’s always been obvious to me that it’s written to men and that it instructs them to value and praise their wives. However, if we as wives aren’t being and doing the the things listed as what a virtuous woman does, then what is there to be praised for? It works both ways. We can’t just do whatever we want and then get offended if we’re not held in as high esteem as the woman portrayed in the passage.

    Reply
    • sunny-dee

      I read once with project management that frequently people are way happier with the outcomes of your project than you are — because you had this perfect vision in your head, while they see only the (good) thing that was actually delivered.

      Maybe that’s here. We have this perfect vision of having to do this perfect thing every time. But other people, on the outside looking in, really do see someone staying up late to work and getting clothes and food together for a ton of people and working a job and taking care of home. You see the times you were exhausted and didn’t stay up late, but what about the times you did? Maybe women see that and feel bad because we weren’t these amazing superwomen all the time, but everyone else would be amazed at the things we did do.

      Reply
      • Jennifer Walls

        I totally agree. We always notice our own shortcomings before we notice our successes.

        Reply
      • Chelsea

        I 100% agree with you. We get so blinded by our perceived thoughts and expectations of ourselves.

        Reply
    • Jennifer Walls

      Lana, I’m so glad it always been obvious to you. For some reason, it always seemed like a checklist to me and based on the responses we’ve received, it sounds like I’m not the only one who felt that way. I was so relieved to discover that instead it a list of things we should compliment each other on (instead of just complimenting each other on our looks or our charm). I agree that we should always work towards improving, but maybe my goal should be to look like Christ and if it turns out I look a bit like the Proverbs 31 woman in the process, that’s a great bonus.

      Reply
    • Bridget

      Obvious to me as well. I never thought there was another way to read it, and was gobsmacked (and angry) the first time I heard a man say that he had to learn that Proverbs 31 wasn’t something to beat his wife over the head with.

      It seems so clear that it instructs men to praise their wives for their virtues… and that’s it. It so obviously is not about focusing on a wife’s failings, but rather her virtue, faith, and gifts.

      Reply
  4. Lindsey

    Proverbs 31 was an instruction of a mother to her son: “The sayings of King Lemuel–an inspired utterance his mother taught him” (Proverbs 31:1, NIV). It makes sense in that context that both explanations would be true: here is her description of a “good woman” for her son, and also her encouragement to VALUE good women. Thanks for the post.

    Reply
    • Kay

      YES! I’ve always been confused why this passage is often aimed at women in sermons when the chapter (really, the entire book) very clearly shows it is intended for a son as he seeks a wife of noble character. Which actually is best translated “woman of STRENGTH,” by the way. “Son, find a STRONG woman to marry.”

      What I love is that this passage says there is **no one right way** for a woman to be a woman of strength. It’s basically a long list to a son saying, “A strong woman might look like this. Or she might look like that. Or this. Or that.” Some strong women are business women. Some are stay at home moms. Some work on trade. Some work in real estate. But in everything, a strong woman seeks to honor God and honor her family. And her role wasn’t merely to support her husband’s dreams. A strong woman used her strengths and chases her own dreams to better serve her family. That’s the kind of woman to marry!

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Absolutely!

        Reply
  5. Kacey

    A great point about the audience being chiefly male. It keeps with the rest of the book, too, in being wise about how to live your life, including in marriage. I don’t agree with the “locker room” analogy, though–sure, you could consider the passage as an antidote to “locker room talk,” but the city gate was more what we would call a courthouse or city hall today.

    Reply
  6. Phil

    I read a contempary version of the Bible. The chapters are broken down with headings. My Bible heading for these verses say In Praise of a Good Wife I would say that many men are ignorant to how sensitive women are to the way many churches teach or how they preach aka bible verses directed at women. I did not know that passage was directed at women. When I read the passage before I read the article it made perefect sense to me that the passage is for men to praise their good woman. Vrs 28 and 29 even directly says it. I just recently did a Sunday school lesson at my church and it was in the book of Esther. I took the lesson and expanded on how many books in the Bible are written on or for women. Ofocurse what has been written is correct. There just isnt a ton of Bible passages about women comparitively. You know what I think? The reason there is not a lot of passages in the Bible written about women is not because women are insignificant. It is because we need to focus and pay attention to what is written about women so we get it right! Thanks for weitting and have a great weekend everyone.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s funny that you never knew women thought that passage was directed at them! 🙂 We women hear it all the time (it’s one of the most common Bible studies–how to be a Proverbs 31 woman). But I guess if you’re not in those circles you wouldn’t hear it. So interesting!

      Reply
  7. EM

    I love this interpretation! One of my favorite things about my husband is that he is proud of me and “brags” to his friends and colleagues about what a great wife he has. It makes me feel like a queen, and all the more willing to keep working hard to support him.

    Reply
  8. Cammie

    Hi! I love your blog, Sheila, and have been reading it for years!

    I have a question that’s sorta off topic…but not really. And I am TRULY simply seeking understanding! I promise!!! One of the statements that Jennifer writes says “And I get it, we are hungry for Bible passages about women. Female Bible characters are in short supply and here is a whole 22 verses saying ‘she’ and ‘her’ over and over again. So we jump at it, ready to use this for our women’s ministry or moms’ Bible study.”

    Are we (hungry for Bible passages about women)?? I came to know Christ as a child and have always had a strong faith and desire to serve Him. I just don’t understand the fairly recent…but not really…surge of “woman power.” You can’t watch a movie anymore without a woman being the hero. And I’m hearing in more and more Christian circles about how “empowered women empower women.” Where is this coming from?

    I have never, ever felt “less” in any way for being a woman. I grew up with 3 “manly” brothers…and a “manly” Dad. And now I am married to a “manly” man, who loves Jesus more than He loves me. I’ve never once felt “hungry” for a Bible passage about a woman. God’s Word is not ultimately about men OR women. None of us are the heroes. It’s the story of how Christ came to redeem us all…because ALL of us are utterly lost without Him. CHRIST is the hero! I’ve never once felt the need to be empowered…but as I read God’s Word, I pray and seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit, so that through His power I can die to myself so that others may live to the glory of God.

    As with anything, we can so easily get off-center. SO easily. And I think this is one way where we are. I can certainly understand that a culture that does not acknowledge or surrender to God could totally get caught up in an unhealthy emphasis in this way. But it should not be happening within the Church. When our identity is in Christ alone, it does not and should not matter whether we’re male or female, rich or poor, young or old…Christ is the hero. We are His servants. He gets the glory; we get to give to it to Him.

    If this isn’t the place for this particular discussion or comment, that is so totally fine! I really don’t mean to commandeer the discussion. But I just feel like I’m hearing echoes of this everywhere and would genuinely love to know what some others think about it!

    Reply
    • EM

      I totally hear what you’re saying and I think you are absolutely right that male or female shouldn’t matter when it comes to our place in God’s kingdom. But the reality is that SO much damage has been done by the patriarchal twisting of scripture and abuse towards women, that a lot of it needs to be said as a wake up call to the church. It sounds like you were raised with healthy, loving men and that is awesome! I was too and I am so thankful. But not everyone (or even the majority) had that experience, so I think there is a need to push back against our culture to get back to where God wants us to be, which is equality between the sexes, even though we are different. I’d love to hear what Sheila has to say on this one!

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Very well said, EM! I think that’s how I would have replied as well.

        Also, in reply to Cammie, I do think that all of Scripture applies to both genders, and that there is much to glean for both genders. But you just look at the emphasis that’s been put on the Proverbs 31 passage, just because it appears to be about women. Personally, I’d rather do Bible studies on how James teaches us to act, or on how we can live out Ephesians 4 in practical ways. I think women make mistakes when we only ever look at the “women” passages. That’s always bothered me (and likely why I’ve never done a Proverbs 31 study).

        Reply
      • Madelins

        I totally second what EM has to say! I definitely think that the vast majority of scripture is aimed at both genders and the more “woman centered” passages aren’t even my favorites necessarily. But when I was really young I couldn’t help but notice so many important bible stories are driven by men and women are more side characters..and in the church I grew up in, women were allowed to cook and take care of the children, but almost all teaching and leadership roles were given to men. I’m not even talking about pastors, I’m talking about the music director and such. I was also made to feel both in church and by my parents that my body was something dangerous and shameful once I hit puberty and started looking more like a woman. I never even heard a youth pastor say that boys need to learn to control lust; in mixed groups we were always told that women need to be careful they don’t become a stumbling block. All of this (and many many more examples) made me feel like I was less-than because of my gender. Maybe not consciously, but deep down. So I definitely am loving that so many churches are making more of a point to tell women that we can be just as capable and insightful and wise and faithful as men. It may sound immature, but I really needed it.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          I don’t think that sounds immature at all. That sounds like a girl who just needs to know she’s important to God–and God does want us women to know that, too! I totally hear you, and I’m glad that churches are changing and are encouraging women to listen to the Holy Spirit themselves now, too!

          Reply
    • CS in NY

      That’s funny, growing up, as a young man, I always figured the Bible had more to say to men because we were so much more apt to be unwise and to cause problems. Not that that was ever directly said in teaching, but that was the undercurrent I picked up. I never imagined women would be hoping the Bible would have more to say to them, though I guess that’s just a lack of understanding on my part.

      Reply
      • Jennifer Walls

        Thanks for sharing that. I never would have thought of men feeling that way but I understand how it could be picked up that way. It’s so helpful that we listen to what each other have been told (or even felt we were told).

        Reply
    • Theresa

      Cammie – I couldn’t agree more.

      Reply
    • Donyelle

      Cammie, I love your comment. I too struggle with the “women’s movement” type stuff. Mostly, I think we need to be careful not to swing too far off course with it. I feel we need to raise strong “manly” men and that our cultural truly needs those strong and Godly men. One thing I glean from this that really stood out to me is that we can use it to teach our men how to treat women. As a momma to one (almost to be two) little boys, I strive to help them become strong men who can stand as a Godly example in a world that is just a mess!

      Reply
  9. Ann Gubler

    I loved this! Thank you for giving Jennifer a platform to spread this wonderful message. I’ve shared this with my sisters and my daughters.

    Reply
  10. Emily

    So I have to ask, this passage clearly teaches that finding a “great woman is almost impossible to find” (to quote the author) why is so much time spent teaching about trying to correct the “harmful, twisted teaching of the patriarchy” (to quote a comment) and not spent teaching, rebuking and encouraging women to be great women? If I were to listen to this blog I would think the majority of christian wives and “great” but even this article says one is almost “impossible to find.” Why the disconnect?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think that’s a great question, Emily.

      Here’s the issue: too often we treat Christianity like a big to-do list–“this is what you have to do to be a woman of God.” And that’s how we’ve treated Proverbs 31, too.

      Christianity is not a to-do list, though. Christianity is a relationship. Christianity is about being able to hear the Spirit’s voice and then follow Jesus. If it were a to-do list, then we wouldn’t need faith. We could just follow a checklist and all would be hunky dorey. But we need to listen to the Holy Spirit in our lives.

      Which is why what I am trying to teach women, over and over again, is that our main job is to run after Jesus and then point other people to Him. We will all do that in different ways, because we are called to different things. Even in the early church, everyone had a different skill set and a different set of giftings and different life experiences. Priscilla was a teacher of doctrine; Dorcas was a servant of all. But both ran after Christ.

      This applies to men, too. Men should also be running after Christ, and should be trying to follow Him. The problem that we get into with so much teaching around marriage is that women AREN’T taught to run after Jesus; we’re taught to run after our husbands. And that’s when things tend to fall apart. So let’s all keep our eyes on Jesus, as the author of Hebrews tells us. Let’s spur one another on to love and good deeds. And, yes, let’s be holy as He is holy. But let’s also remember that we can only do this when we’re listening to God and following His Spirit. And to do that, sometimes we have to tear down some toxic teaching that far too many have been living under, and call everyone back to looking to Jesus and getting more in touch with Scripture and what the Spirit says.

      Reply
  11. Bonnie

    Well said Sheila.
    I struggle with some verses in the New Testament that seem to speak to patriarchy and male privilege. But it is more likely due to a lack of understading of language, interpretation and context. We know if something is interpreted wrongly it will be appplied incorrectly. This produces a lot of controversy that Ive come to believe may not be resolved this side of heaven!But I dont see this in Jesus…in how he related to and treated women. On the contrary….
    And by the way….. if men are supposed to be superiour and preferred to women,(and all of history suggests this) then why are 3 of the 4 sex chromosomes “X”‘s??!!

    Reply
  12. Brittany

    The first verse of Proverbs 31 states very clearly that the chapter was advice to king Lemuel from his mother that he passed on. There’s no “what if” question there, it is advice to a man on what virtues to look for in a wife. They are still excellent virtues for godly women to aspire to, but no, women are not the “target audience”. We don’t have to make assumptions about what the word says, we can do some research or read a commentary and know what it says.

    Reply
  13. Brittany

    In fact, upon reading this again, there is so much theologically and historically wrong here. The city gate was not “the locker room of its day”, it was a professional environment where debates and court were held. There is not instruction to praise the hypothetical woman, it was a statement of fact that the children and husband did praise her because she earned it. I agree that this chapter should be taught to young men (and it is) as a guide for what are the important traits to look for in a wife. It shouldn’t be viewed as a checklist of attributes to attract a mate, but as guide on how to be a godly woman and one who pleases the Lord, not men. We don’t work for the praise of others, but for the glory of God.

    Reply
  14. Rebecca

    There is one point nobody has mentioned!

    In that day all the women were stay at home moms (the ones with husbands!)

    Most women in our society work outside of the home. We cannot possibly work outside the home and aspire to achieve all the points listed in Proverbs 31!!

    What we are to achieve is a daily relationship with Jesus and copy his character and how he treated everyone. This we can do only through Jesus’ help.

    Reply

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