Have you ever felt a little bludgeoned by the story of the Proverbs 31 woman? How is it, exactly, that she does so much? Is this poem in the Bible encouraging us to give up sleep to be more productive?
Perhaps the lens we’ve used to judge ourselves by this proverbial woman’s example is not the most helpful one. Let’s start by expanding the meaning of the words used to introduce her in verse 10: “Who can find a wife of noble character? She is far more precious than jewels.”
Many translations use the word “wife,” which makes sense in the proverb’s context: King Lemuel’s mother is presenting an idealized version of a woman for him to seek as a potential wife. But “woman” is also a faithful translation of the Hebrew word ishshah, used here. The Hebrew word chayil translated as “noble” has a much fuller meaning in Hebrew, too: it also means virtuous, capable, excellent and strong.
The Theology of Work commentary proposes, therefore, calling her “the valiant woman.” We can also think of her as Lady Wisdom, whom we first meet at the beginning of Proverbs (Prov. 1:20-33), reappearing here at the end of Proverbs “in street clothes,” with more details about what such wise living could look like in ordinary life.
Rather than someone to compare ourselves against, this fictional woman is then the embodiment of women’s work in so many spheres. Rather than seeing her as someone who “does it all,” she is a picture of the work women do in various seasons across their lives.
As we consider these descriptions of her work in the home, in the marketplace and in her community, may it inspire us to apply these same principles to our own work. Here are just a few of the characteristics exemplified in her work:
- She is trustworthy. Those who work with her (in v. 11, it’s her husband) know that she will return good work in response.
- She is diligent. She pays attention to her work and carries it out with her hands (v. 13), imaging a Creator God who is described as creating the heavens with his fingers. (Psalm 8:3)
- She is wise and proficient with her resources. She sources food from far and wide and does what is necessary to nourish her household. When she has additional capacity, she invests in resources for the future (v. 14-16).
- She is generous. Excellence in her work, which bears much fruit, enables her to supply additional needs in her community (v. 20).
- She is never idle. She does not have occasion to be a gossip or busybody—as 1 Tim. 5:11-13 and much of Proverbs warns against—because she is busy “watching over the activities of her household” (v. 27).
- She speaks wisely (v. 26) and is spoken of highly (v. 28).
What enables this woman to do all this? Why on earth should she exhaust herself on so many fronts? Is it merely to say she’s “done it all?” No (and, again, we would argue there isn’t a woman actually doing all of this in one 24-hour day). She carries out these activities and is characterized by them because she “fears the Lord” (v. 30).
The work of this woman inspires each of us not to wear ourselves out, but to see both our big and small work as valuable in the kingdom of God. Whether we are buying a field or making bed coverings, extending generosity to the poor or providing food for our own household, we can do the work of today with faithfulness. May we have eyes to see how our work ushers rich goodness into our lives and others’ and brings glory to God.