I grew up in conservative evangelicalism and I know many thoughtful and intelligent women who also have grown up in that culture. All of us, as we've grown, have turned a critical eye toward that culture in different ways. Many of the women I know grew up hearing about "being a Proverbs 31 woman" (I know some of my Liberty friends heard this a lot) and as a result tend to roll their eyes and chuckle today whenever they hear that talked about.
However- I came across this post today by a New Testament scholar named Steve Runge. Most of his work involves NT grammar, which is - even for me - usually difficult to find engaging and enjoyable, but he is a very wise and intelligent scholar. His friend asked him this question about Proverbs 31: Why does the woman receive praise instead of love, especially if that chapter is told from her husband's viewpoint? (I've heard it taught that way before.) The short answer is, it's not told from a husband's viewpoint; his longer answer is worth reading:
It’s a good question deserving reflection. Here is the text from the NIV:
10A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.
11Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.
12She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
13She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.
14She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.
15She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants.
16She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.
18She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.
19In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
21When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
26She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:
29“Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
30Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
First, I think that this section is not an insider’s view of the marriage, i.e. the husband writing about his amazing wife. Instead it is an external view, the view from the community of a woman possessing amazing qualities. The life she lives doesn’t impact her alone; those who work for her also reap the benefits. The fact that there is a “woman behind the man” translates into her husband being well-respected, ostensibly because of how her encouragement and challenge has shaped him into a better man than he’d have been otherwise. In other words, his esteemed status is attributed, at least in part, to her influence in his life. The goods she produces are well-known, her business transactions are prudent and above-board. All of this sounds like an outsider’s perspective on what she is doing, not her husband recounting her amazingness.
Second, because this is an outsider’s view rather than the inside view of a spouse, the response to her is the kind one would expect from someone not intimately involved with her. You also need to look at the elements compared in v. 30: charm and beauty vs. fear of the Lord.
What are the typical responses to amazing charm and/or beauty in a woman, especially from men? Attention? Compliments (“You look amazing!”)? Fawning over her? Chasing after her hand in marriage?
But the writer correctly points out that such things are poor measures of a person. Remember what the rednecks say, “Beauty is skin deep, but ugly is clear to the bone.” The surface traits of charm and beauty are the foil against which fearing the Lord will be compared. Because of this, we need to think about what these surface things normally elicit. I’d say they generally bring about praise and attention.
If these fleeting things are the basis of your identity and self-affirmation, then you face a bleak future. Why? Outward beauty doesn’t last forever. As it slips away, so will your self-esteem. That is, unless you choose the route of fearing the Lord. Note that this is the first mention of her relationship with the Lord in the whole section; it’s been implicit up to this point.
Affirmation (or the lack of it) from our community can play a huge role in shaping our self-identity and esteem. Too many girls are tempted to win this affirmation through vain things like looks and charm. This passage is an apologetic against taking the surface route, against avoiding the deeper issues. How many women hide problems with self-esteem with a plastic, glam-based exterior?
The writer is appealing for women to invest in the long-term payoff of inner beauty, arguing that the cheap shortcuts will only end in disappointment and heartache. They might appear to be effective, but only for the short term. They will not lead to that highly-prized and treasured status that we all want to have at the end of our life: being a person who is valued, loved, respected, who’s really made a difference in people’s lives.
This passage is about the community’s response to a woman who’s invested in her character, an investment the long haul. It is assumed her husband loves her. But how many wives long to hear it, long to be praised and thanked for what they do instead of being taken for granted? How would that kind of affirmation affect self-confidence and esteem? These are haunting questions, especially as my daughters are now teens and as my wife and I head through year 21 of marriage. How am I building into them? what am I affirming or teaching them to value?
Here’s another way of looking at the praise vs. love issue. The woman of noble character receives the same thing that the Lord Himself is to receive from the believing community: praise. It’s not that love isn’t a part of it. The praise is an intentional, explicit expression of what too often remains implicit.