Is the Proverbs 31 woman even possible?

  • Ruth Baker
  • 2 January 2019

In England in the 1990s we had a saying: “She’s all that and a bag of chips”. As classy as it sounds, it’s meant to suggest that the woman in question is 100% and with a treat on top—she’s more than perfect.

Well, the epilogue to the book of Proverbs is the infamous portrait of a wife of noble character. When you read these verses, she seems like a superwoman. She works, runs a household, raises the children, helps the poor, makes handicrafts, is godly—basically an all-round fantastic woman. She is most definitely all that and a bag of chips. I get halfway through the epilogue and feel exhausted. By the time I get to the end I’m thoroughly depressed.

Before we go on, it’s important to note that Proverbs is wisdom literature. That means that the woman of noble character is the goal, not the expectation. Wisdom literature shows us what we can work towards, the archetype of what we should aspire to. So let’s not start off by looking at this woman like she’s the summit of Mount Everest.

Here’s a wonderful thing though. In some formats of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Ruth is positioned directly after the book of Proverbs (rather than after the book of Judges), so this description of the wife of noble character follows straight into the book of Ruth. This woman is not theoretical. She’s real. This is a very deliberate placement of two books back to back. One relates to the other.

There’s a linguistic link too. In Ruth 3:11, Boaz says to Ruth that “all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman”. The word translated ‘worthy’ is chayil, and is the same term used in Proverbs 31:10: “An excellent [chayil] wife who can find?” The word imparts a sense of serious ability and standing. We read things like this in the Bible sometimes, and think it speaking of a special gift that some people have and others don’t. But what Ruth shows us is there are traits that build into this worthy character that can be cultivated if we work at it, with God’s help.

What is especially interesting is that while the word chayil is used elsewhere in the Bible, it is only used in Proverbs 31 and Ruth to describe a woman. So it seems to me that the Proverbs 31 woman is meant to impress on us an ideal, and then Ruth presents us with the image in action. She suddenly has a human face. She isn’t a superwoman that none of us can possibly be like, she’s a woman we know. She’s a woman we can engage with and understand.

Ruth is a foreigner and an outsider, grieving the loss of her husband. She’s alone but for her mother-in-law. All these are situations we can understand. We don’t know how she was feeling, but I can imagine sadness, fear, love, yearning, uncertainty and worry. These are all things that resonate with us.

She responds to her situation by getting her head down and working hard. She goes to the harvest fields to pick up leftover grain, a standard way for the poor to get some food. Imagine that. It’s humbling. She does it with gentleness, patience and energy—even though her back must have ached and her stomach must have been growling and her limbs must have been in agony.

When Naomi sends Ruth to Boaz, Ruth is blessed by God through him. The key to her character was back in Ruth 1: Ruth had said to Naomi that the Israelite God would be her God, and it seems the Moabitess has great obedience and thus gains favour in God’s eyes.

When we look at Proverbs 31 through the lens of Ruth, it’s as if we are given a picture of her life after she married Boaz. The 21 verses in Proverbs can overwhelm us, but let’s break some of them down:

  • Verse 13: “She works with willing hands.” She works gladly.
  • Verse 15: “She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens.” She takes responsibility.
  • Verse 16: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” She is a good steward of her resources.
  • Verse 17: “She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong.” She works hard.
  • Verse 18: “She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night.” She is diligent.
  • Verse 19: “She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.” She is never idle.
  • Verse 20: “She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.” She is kind and generous to others.
  • Verse 25: “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.” She is physically strong with honour and joy.
  • Verse 26: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” She obeys God and teaches others.

When it’s broken down like this, I find it a bit easier to see that this is possible for me—and also that I need God’s help.

As a woman, one of the areas I struggle with is the working-hard-and-never-being-idle bit. I work hard, and I raise my kids. And once the day is done and the food is prepared, and the kids are asleep I want to be idle. But Proverbs encourages me to look at this situation with prayer and wisdom. These are the choices that define our character, and these are the choices that, with time, we’ll get better at.

Dignity is also an issue for me. I have a lot of nonsense going on up in my brain. This isn’t about trying to be someone we’re not, though: this is about having confidence that God is who he says he is and has done what he promised. She laughs at the days to come because she knows where she is going. So do we. We should take courage from that. There is honour and dignity in knowing our standing before God and living wrapped in that cloak of grace and salvation.

What are the areas that you need to develop? Pick one and pray about it (don’t try and fix everything at once, just make sure you keep moving through them in time).

Proverbs 9:10 tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This isn’t fear like we would be scared of a snake or a man with a gun. Fear of the Lord is an awe-filled reverence because we know who he is. Knowing who we are in relation to God is the beginning of wisdom. And we know God by reading his word, interrogating it, mulling over it, learning about it, talking about it. Read the book of Ruth and Proverbs 31:10-31 with some friends. Talk about it with them, pray over it.

That is the first step on the road to being the Proverbs 31 woman. The rest will follow if we are intentional, prayerful and reliant on God. We cannot be this woman all at once, tomorrow. And even if we could, we only keep it up for about a day at a time. But these pictures are given to us so we know what direction to point in. Ruth was a woman of noble character, pointing in the right direction. She was also utterly human just like you and me. That’s why, by God’s grace and through his blessing, we too can work towards serving him this way. This Proverbs 31 woman is completely consistent with the growth in Christ-likeness that God predestined for all of us (Romans 8:29), a favourable rather than condemning description of a wise woman growing through the joy and obedience of a relationship with God.