In Praise of Women

The final touches on Proverb 31’s portrait of the noble woman are an indicative and an imperative.
Here’s the indicative:
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (verse 30).
We live in a visual culture. Everyday, our eyes fall on countless advertisements that were designed to make us lust. I suppose you’ve never thought of advertising that way, but that’s its purpose, isn’t it? To stoke our desire to possess something or someone as the fulfillment of our desires.
If advertising were merely information, commercials would tell us the nutritional value and caloric content of restaurant food being advertised. They wouldn’t show us a happy group of friends munching on hot wings and drinking beer. If it wanted to communicate facts, it would tell us the price of the items rather than putting them on the perfect bodies of young male and female models. Advertising is not about facts, however; it’s about fantasy.
Unfortunately, few humans are as susceptible to fantasy as young males, the readers for whom the Book of Proverbs was written. Young men need to be taught that how someone looks isn’t as important as how a person acts, that charm isn’t as important as character, and that beauty isn’t as important as brains. Even more unfortunately, just about every advertisement in our culture teaches these impressionable young men the exact opposite.
Reading and then heeding the wisdom of Proverbs is thus a countercultural act. Other than the decision to follow Jesus Christ, the single most important decision a person will make is whom he marries. From its opening chapter to its ending one, Proverbs gives one piece of advice. Look for a wife who has a vital relationship with God, for out of that relationship flows wisdom, character, and the truly good life (Prov. 1:7, 9:10, 31:30). The same is true, of course, when a woman looks for a husband.
Here’s the imperative.
Give her the reward she has earned,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate (verse 31).
If the indicative statement that fear of the Lord is more important than charm or beauty, then the obvious imperative is to praise these qualities and seek a spouse who embodies them.
Where is this to be done? At the city gate. In the ancient world, the city gate was Main Street, Wall Street, Broadway, and Pennsylvania Avenue all rolled into one. It was the intersection of the neighborhood, business, entertainment, and politics. The city gate of modern culture praises women of charm and beauty. It should praise women of character, brains, hard work, and success instead.
Moms and dads, talk to your sons. Make sure they understand the importance of choosing a wife wisely. And talk to your daughters. Make sure they understand the importance of being a woman of character. Everything in our culture wants our young men and women to settle for cheap substitutes and false fantasies. God’s plan for us is much better.

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done

When my wife and I were first married, we both worked. I worked at the church, but my wife worked two jobs. Her primary job was at a Century City bankruptcy law firm. Her other job was at home. At the end of the workday, I would come home, kick off my shoes, turn on the TV, and veg out on the couch. She would come home from work after a 90-minute commute and cook and clean. Sociological studies indicate that our marriage was pretty typical for two-income homes.
A woman’s work, it turns out, is never done.
In its portrait of the noble wife, Proverbs 31 paints a hard-working, successful woman. She manages the family farm.
She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands (verse 13).
She engages in trade.
She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar (verse 14).
She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
She works long, hard hours.          
She gets up while it is still dark;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her servant girls (verse 15).
She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks (verse 17).
She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness (verse 27).
She has a keen eye for real estate and good investments.
She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She operates a personal textile factory.
In her hand she holds the distaff
and grasps the spindle with her fingers (verse 19).
When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
She makes coverings for her bed;
she is clothed in fine linen and purple (verses 21-22).
She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes (verse 24).
She volunteers at the local homeless shelter.
She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy (verse 20).
And she does it all with dignity, joy, and wisdom.
She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue (verses 25-26).
It may be the case that the Proverbs 31 woman is more ideal than real, at least that’s what the commentators write. Then again, the commentators are usually men. Personally, I think my wife is the real deal. I’ve never known anyone who did as much, both at work and at home, and did it with so much joy and such great effectiveness.
So, a word to you husbands – and future husbands: Appreciate your wife’s work. Whether she’s a professional woman or a homemaker or both, she does a lot. Chances are – if sociological studies are to be believed – she does more than you. So, say thank you! And then get off the couch and help! A noble wife deserves a helping husband.

Behind Every Good Man…

Bill and Hilary Clinton were riding in the presidential limousine when the driver stopped to fill up with gas. Looking out the window, Bill noticed that the man pumping the gas was one of Hilary’s old boyfriends. He said: “Hilary, if I hadn’t married you, you’d be married to that gas station attendant.” To which Hilary replied: “Bill, if I hadn’t married you, that man would be the president of the United States.”
I don’t normally crack political jokes on The Daily Word, but that one always makes me laugh. And it serves a useful point vis-à-vis today’s devotional thought, namely: Behind every good man is a better woman. I’ve only been married for three years and change, but I know that my wife has made me a better person and pastor. The Book of Proverbs teaches the same truth in its description of the characteristics of the ideal wife.
Consider Proverbs 31:11-12:
Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
Notice the words expressing totality in these verses. The husband of a noble wife has “full confidence,” “lacks nothing,” and derives benefit from her “all the days of her life.” When I lead couples in the exchange of rings at their wedding ceremonies, I make them repeat these words as they slip the rings on their fingers: “with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you.” The am-ness and have-ness of that ceremony are on display in these verses. The good wife gives herself and her all to her husband. (And the husband, if he’s any good, reciprocates with the same.)
Proverbs 31 assumes a traditional division of labor between husbands and wives. She runs the household (more on that tomorrow), and he engages in politics. What’s interesting to me is that verse 23 assigns credit for the husband’s political success to his wife’s hard work.
Her husband is respected at the city gate,
where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
I have noticed this as a pastor. Successful couples, however they divide the workload between them, work as a team. Each contributes to the well-being and advancement of the other.
But the noble wife doesn’t just get respect at “the city gate,” which was the political and economic center of ancient cities. She gets respect first and foremost at home. Listen to Proverbs 31:28-29:
Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.”
On Mother’s Day, millions of Americans call their moms, send them cards and flowers, and take them out for brunch as an expression of their love and respect. Sadly, this is often the only time of year when dads get in on the action and express their love for their wives. Guys, chances are that your wife has contributed mightily to your success. Do what the Bible says! Bless and praise her! Without her, you might’ve been that gas station attendant!

A Good Woman Is Hard to Find

My wife and I recently went to the library to pick out a few books to read. While browsing the shelves, I came across a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s novel, A Good Man Is Hard to Find. I thought about the title of that book when I read Proverbs 31:10:
A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic poem. Each of its twenty-two verses begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet: aleph, bet, gimel, dalet, he, etc. The proverb writer is outlining the characteristics of the ideal wife. And the first thing he says about her is that she is hard to find.
Before I go any further, let me remind you that the Book of Proverbs presents itself as a book of advice from parents to their sons (e.g., 1:8, 10, 15, etc.). It looks at marriage from the male point of view. Psalm 112 outlines the characteristics of the ideal man, and interestingly, it is also an acrostic poem. So, while Proverbs 31:10-31 may be written from a male point of view, the Bible elsewhere takes into account the female perspective.
While written from a male point of view, Proverbs 31:10-31 chooses not to focus on characteristics that most young men look for in a wife: beauty and – for lack of a better term – sex appeal. Of course, beauty and sex appeal are part of the total package, as the Song of Songs makes clear. But they’re not the most important part of the total package. What’s most important is nobility.
Tremper Longman has this to say about the Hebrew word for nobility, hayil:
The word…has military overtones but is not restricted to military use. The basic meaning of the term is “strength” and “power;” and it “can be applied to a variety of people, including a warrior (powerful), a functionary (able), and a landowner (wealthy).” While this indicates that “noble” language here may not be military, the fact that the poem will associate military language with this woman in the following verses suggests that the composer intends the reader to recognize warrior imagery here. In what follows, we see a woman who is engaged in the battle of life, dealing with people and winning an advantage for her family.[1]
Now, it is easy to see why nobility trumps beauty and sex appeal in the ideal wife. On the one hand, beauty fades. It is of little value in fighting life’s battles, rearing children, investing income wisely, or securing a good reputation in the community. On the other hand, nobility is of great value in accomplishing these things. So, instead of looking for a pretty young thing as a wife, a young man should look for an equal partner in life’s enterprise and a fellow soldier in its battles. And if he’s lucky, like I was, he’ll marry someone who’s both noble and beautiful.
A noble wife hard to find, but well worth the search.

[1] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 542.

The Real – But Limited – Value of Wealth

All things being equal, I would rather be wealthy than poor. Wealth has real value. The Book of Proverbs notes some of its advantages.
For one thing, wealth brings a measure of security to life.
The wealth of the rich is their fortified city,
but poverty is the ruin of the poor (10:15).
The wealth of the rich is their fortified city;
they imagine it an unscalable wall (18:11).
For another thing, wealth is a catalyst to friendship.
The poor are shunned even by their neighbors,
but the rich have many friends (14:20).
Wealth brings many friends,
but a poor man’s friend deserts him…
A poor man is shunned by all his relatives —
how much more do his friends avoid him!
Though he pursues them with pleading,
they are nowhere to be found (19:4, 7).
When I read these proverbs, I think of the homeless guy who parks himself on a bench outside the Starbucks I frequent. At night, when I tuck into bed with my wife after a long day at work, he’s outside somewhere exposed to the elements. And what’s worse, he’s totally alone. Wealth – even in small amounts – has real value.
By the same token, however, wealth’s value is limited. The rich only “imagine” that its walls are unscalable. Here are the realities.
First, wealth won’t save you from divine judgment.
Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath,
but righteousness delivers from death (11:4).
Money might be able to buy you out of some scrapes in this life, but it can’t do a thing for you in eternity. Godliness, not greenbacks, is the currency of heaven.
Second, you can’t take wealth with you.
When a wicked man dies, his hope perishes;
all he expected from his power comes to nothing (11:7).
The Pharaoh’s didn’t know this. That’s why they piled the golden trinkets high in their pyramid-tombs, only to have illiterate grave robbers relieve them of their treasure. Lasting hope must be found elsewhere than in possessions.
Indeed, even in this lifetime, wealth is uncertain.
Whoever trusts in his riches will fall,
but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf (11:28).
Do not wear yourself out to get rich;
have the wisdom to show restraint.
Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone,
for they will surely sprout wings
and fly off to the sky like an eagle (23:4-5).
Investments are risky. Inflation is costly. Even the government can go bankrupt. And those are only three ways that this life can eat away your hard-earned money.
Fourth, wealth brings with it a unique set of insecurities.
A man’s riches may ransom his life,
but a poor man hears no threat (13:8).
Wealth may be a fortified city, but if you weren’t wealthy in the first place, there wouldn’t be a need for the fort. There’s no profit in kidnapping the poor.
Finally, wealth can make you a jerk.
A poor man pleads for mercy,
but a rich man answers harshly (18:23).
My father always said that your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. In the case of wealth, the greatest strength is the security money affords. But that strength also walls you off from compassion toward those in need. And when you’re in need, it walls you off from people who would like to help.
So, all things being equal, wealth is better than poverty. But friendship is better than wealth, and wisdom better still. 

Healthy, Wealthy, and Most Especially Wise

In the 1735 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
Early to bed and early to rise
makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
I don’t know whether I like the first line of that proverb, but I love the second line. It’s a great description of the lives most of us want to live: healthy, wealthy, and wise. Who, after all, wants to be sickly, poor, and stupid?
I don’t know why Franklin put healthy, wealthy, and wise in that order. My guess is that putting wise last made for the best rhyme. Whatever Franklin’s reasons, the Book of Proverbs prioritizes wisdom over health and wealth. And by wisdom, Proverbs doesn’t mean book smarts. The world is full of over-educated fools. In Proverbs, wisdom is practical knowledge or know-how. More specifically, wisdom is knowing how to live a life of spirituality and virtue.
The Book of Proverbs demonstrates that priority of wisdom over health and especially wealth in several “better than” proverbs.
Let’s start with Proverbs 12:9:
Better to be a nobody and yet have a servant
than pretend to be somebody and have no food.
Here, wealth is prioritized over celebrity, and wisdom isn’t mentioned explicitly. But since it takes a wise person to recognize that financial independence is more valuable that social status, wisdom still plays an implicit role.
Several proverbs drive home the point that wisdom is more important than dishonestly gained wealth. For example:
Better a little with righteousness
than much gain with injustice (16:8).
Better to be lowly in spirit and among the oppressed
than to share plunder with the proud (16:19).
Better a poor man whose walk is blameless
than a rich man whose ways are perverse (28:6).
We might say that it is better to be right than to be rich, and the only way to be right is to be wise.
It is also better to be wealthy in friends than wealthy in funds, and this too requires wisdom.
Better a dry crust with peace and quiet
than a house full of feasting, with strife (17:1).
What a man desires is unfailing love;
better to be poor than a liar (19:22).
Better a little with the fear of the Lord
than great wealth with turmoil (15:6).
Better a meal of vegetables where there is love
than a fattened calf with hatred (15:17).
The Beatles had a great song, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” which goes to the heart of the issue. Money is good for a lot of things, but there’s no substitute for the wisdom that alone produces love and harmony in relationships.
Unfortunately, many rich people don’t know how foolish they are. They have been successful in business, so they think they know what they’re doing in every aspect of their lives. But Proverbs 28:11 gives this warning to the rich (and to all of us by extension):
A rich man may be wise in his own eyes,
but a poor man who has discernment sees through him.
You may be thinking that since you’re not rich, these proverbs must apply to others. But you are rich! Nearly half of the world lives on less than two dollars a day. If you have a job, a house, a car, clothes, and even a few dollars in the bank, you’re loaded by global standards. So, be wise and prioritize. It’s good to be healthy and wealthy, but it’s best to be wise.

Poverty and Generosity

To date, we have been studying the causes of poverty according to the Book of Proverbs. They include (1) the foolish behavior of the poor, which calls for reform; and (2) the oppressive behavior of the rich, which calls for repentance. Today, I would like to examine a final cause of poverty: (3) forces outside the power of the poor and the rich, which call for generosity.
The first and second causes of poverty are moral in nature. A person becomes poor because of his own foolish choices or because of the wicked choices of those who hold sway over him. But the third cause of poverty is non-moral in nature. Poverty in such cases is less a matter of choice than a result of circumstance.
Through no fault of their own or of others, some people are born in poor countries. Through no fault of their own or of others, some people are victims of natural disasters. Through no fault of their own or of others, some people fall prey to crippling illnesses that prohibit them from working.
In such cases, the Bible advocates one simple solution: generosity.
Generosity toward the poor – whether with your time or talent, but especially with your treasure – is an inherently spiritual activity. Generous people are righteous people, who are right with God and with their neighbor.
The righteous care about justice for the poor,
but the wicked have no such concern (29:7).
Generosity toward the poor connects you with God.
He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,
and he will reward him for what he has done (19:17).
Notice, in this proverb, that our relationship with the poor directly correlates to our relationship with God. That is true both positively, in the sense that God rewards our generosity to the poor, and negatively, in the sense that stinginess is a sin.
He who despises his neighbor sins,
but blessed is he who is kind to the needy (14:21).
Because generosity is an inherently spiritual activity, it results in spiritual and even financial blessing for the giver. Several proverbs drive home this truth:
One man gives freely, yet gains even more;
another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty (11:24).
A generous man will himself be blessed,
for he shares his food with the poor (22:9).
He who gives to the poor will lack nothing,
but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses (28:27).
I don’t think we should interpret these proverbs as absolute promises, as if God will give you $1,000 for every $100 you give to the poor. God doesn’t work that way. But, by the same token, I do think these proverbs hit on an important truth about the connection between generosity and personal wellbeing. Generous people are happy people. Their generosity establishes ties of friendship, support, and loyalty with those whom they help. And no one is poor who is wealthy in friends, or – more importantly – whose friend is God.
So, be a friend, and be generous to the poor.

The Oppressive Behavior of the Rich

On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis made landfall on Burma (officially, Myanmar). Its path of destruction was huge, with fatalities numbering well over 100,000. Unfortunately, Burma is ruled by a corrupt military junta that has so far outright blocked or otherwise interfered with the international delivery of relief assistance. Through its action and inaction, the Burmese government has exacerbated the suffering of its people.
If some people are poor because of their own foolish choices, it is also true that others are poor because of the wicked choices of the rich and powerful who hold sway over them.
The Book of Proverbs has this to say about oppressive rulers:
A ruler who oppresses the poor
is like a driving rain that leaves no crops (28:3).
Rain is necessary. But what good is rain if it doesn’t produce growth? Similarly, government is necessary. But what good is government if it doesn’t help the people?
Unfortunately, the poor are often at the mercy of governments specifically, or the rich and powerful generally.
A poor man’s field may produce abundant food,
but injustice sweeps it away (13:23).
In such cases, to blame the poor for his own poverty is blaming the victim. Blame instead the victimizer!
Proverbs makes it very clear that oppression of the poor is contrary to God’s will and deserving of punishment.
He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God (14:31).
He who mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker;
whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished (17:5).
Notice in both these proverbs that how we treat human beings, who are made in God’s image, reflects how we treat God himself. To show contempt for the poor is to show contempt for God. To be kind to the poor is to honor God. We cannot separate out ethics and spirituality, how we treat others and how we worship God. Ethics and spirituality are inseparably linked.
At some point, either now or in eternity, God himself takes up the cause of the oppressed poor.
Do not exploit the poor because they are poor
and do not crush the needy in court,
for the Lord will take up their case
and will plunder those who plunder them (22:22-23).
The divine punishment of the oppressors is condign; the plunderers are themselves plundered.
Other proverbs make clear that oppression is counterproductive.
He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth
and he who gives gifts to the rich — both come to poverty (22:16).
He who increases his wealth by exorbitant interest
amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor (28:8).
Neither of the proverbs explicitly states that God is the one who makes oppressive behavior counterproductive in this life, but that seems to be the import of what each of them.
We should never minimize, excuse, or justify the poverty of the oppressed. But Proverbs also makes clear that there divine resources to deal with poverty.
All the days of the oppressed are wretched,
but the cheerful heart has a continual feast (15:15).
God demands that oppressors repent or face judgment. But he provides joy to the hearts of those who put their faith in him, regardless of their material circumstances. And he requires that we be generous toward those in need. More on that last point tomorrow.

The Foolish Behavior of the Poor

A majority of the world lives in poverty. According to United Nations statistics, roughly 2.7 billion people live on less than two dollars a day. What is the cause of their poverty?
The Bible teaches three basic causes of poverty. (1) the foolish behavior of the poor, which calls for reform; (2) the oppressive behavior of the rich, which calls for repentance; and (3) forces outside the power of the poor and the rich, which call for generosity. Over the next three days, we look at each of these causes in turn, beginning today with the foolish behavior of the poor.
A variety of proverbs identify laziness as a foolish behavior that leads to poverty.
Lazy hands make a man poor,
but diligent hands bring wealth.
He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son,
but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son (10:4, 5).
No one gets wealthy by doing nothing. As the Romans said, “From nothing, nothing comes.” Of course, the lazy always have creative excuses.
The sluggard says, "There is a lion outside!"
or, "I will be murdered in the streets!" (22:13)
Another foolish behavior is dishonest work, such as get-rich schemes, fraud, bribery, and robbery.
Dishonest money dwindles away,
but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow (13:11).
Food gained by fraud tastes sweet to a man,
but he ends up with a mouth full of gravel (20:17).
A fortune made by a lying tongue
is a fleeting vapor and a deadly snare (21:6).
To show partiality is not good —
yet a man will do wrong for a piece of bread.
A stingy man is eager to get rich
and is unaware that poverty awaits him….
He who robs his father or mother
and says, "It’s not wrong" —
he is partner to him who destroys (28:21, 22, 24).
A third cause of poverty is unwise or immoral spending patterns, such as spending money on luxuries or vices.
It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury —
how much worse for a slave to rule over princes! (19:10)
He who loves pleasure will become poor;
whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich….
In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil,
but a foolish man devours all he has (21:17, 20).
A man who loves wisdom brings joy to his father,
but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth (29:3).
A fourth cause of poverty is unwise choices in lending and borrowing.
He who puts up security for another will surely suffer,
but whoever refuses to strike hands in pledge is safe (11:15).
A man lacking in judgment strikes hands in pledge
and puts up security for his neighbor (17:18).
The rich rule over the poor,
and the borrower is servant to the lender (22:7).
Of course, not everyone is poor because they have engaged in foolish behavior. But some people are. If they want to get out of the poverty trap, they must reform their manner of life.

The Causes of Wealth

Why are some people wealthy and others poor? The Book of Proverbs outlines the causes of both. Let us consider the causes of wealthy today and of poverty tomorrow.
An obvious cause of wealth is inheritance. Some people enter life with a head start.
Houses and wealth are inherited from parents,
but a prudent wife is from the Lord (19:14).
Inheritance in and of itself is neither moral nor immoral. What a person does with his inheritance is important. According to this proverb, a good wife is more important than a lot of money.
A second cause of wealth is work. Some people rise out of poverty by working hard and smart. As an example of hard work, consider Proverbs 14:23:
All hard work brings a profit,
but mere talk leads only to poverty.
As an example of smart work, consider Proverbs 27:23-27:
Be sure you know the condition of your flocks.
give careful attention to your herds;
for riches do not endure forever,
and a crown is not secure for all generations.
When the hay is removed and new growth appears
and the grass from the hills is gathered in,
the lambs will provide you with clothing,
and the goats with the price of a field.
You will have plenty of goats’ milk
to feed you and your family
and to nourish your servant girls.
Of course, some bad people work hard and smart and are successful. That’s why Proverbs differentiates between the eternal outcomes of good and bad behavior:
The wages of the righteous bring them life,
but the income of the wicked brings them punishment (10:15-16).
A third cause of wealth is what you might call financial intelligence. Some people know how to stretch a dollar a long way. They are frugal, more concerned with being cash rich than being considered rich by others.
One man pretends to be rich, yet has nothing;
another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth (13:7).
Good investments are another example of financial intelligence. Proverbs 27:13 is somewhat comical, in this regard, telling us to make sure to get collateral from people who ask us for risky loans.
Take the garment of one who puts up security for a stranger;
hold it in pledge if he does it for a wayward woman.
A fourth cause of wealth is wisdom and virtue. Good people, generally speaking, do well.
The righteous eat to their hearts’ content,
but the stomach of the wicked goes hungry (13:25).
The wealth of the wise is their crown,
but the folly of fools yields folly (14:24).
Humility and the fear of the Lord
bring wealth and honor and life (22:4).
A final cause of wealth is spiritual devotion, specifically financial generosity to the Lord’s work.
Honor the Lord with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops;
then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
and your vats will brim over with new wine (3:9-10).
A faithful man will be richly blessed,
but one eager to get rich will not go unpunished (28:20).
Of course, we all know people who inherit money, work hard, spend smart, live well, and tithe to the church who aren’t rich. Proverbs are not mathematical laws that guarantee wealth. Rather, they are laws of average telling us which behaviors are most likely to lead to prosperity.

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