Tag Archives: pharisee

Where In the World is the Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 1 Understanding the Background

goodwifeguide-331x268Over the past few years, I’ve read several articles arguing varying perspectives on the ideal wife portrayed in Proverbs 31. Most of these articles have argued the matter in terms of whether or not this woman is a standard model for wives and women everywhere to aspire to be the best housewife possible in serving her 1950s family or an allegory for wisdom so as to remove the unattainable ideal that just serves to discourage women into standardized gender roles. I’ll admit that these characterizations are hyperbole, but I am exaggerating the extreme sides of this debate for a reason: because this text has become a bit of a tug-o-war passage for folks in the battle over the role of women in the church. Each side pulling for a gender political stance and taking pride in their position, sometimes without bothering to ask whether or not they are glorifying Christ in their stance. My intent in this post is not to engage either of these positions, but rather to offer an analysis of the text with an eye on shedding a little light as to what believers are actually supposed to do with these passages.

Preliminary Issues: Genre, Audience, and Context
In advance of the discussion, there are a few important concepts that need to be understood as a lens through which we must look in interpreting the passage. The first is the genre of literature being discussed. Wisdom literature, and more specifically the proverb, is a specific genre that needs to be understood on its own terms. Reading Proverbs isn’t like reading the instruction manual for your toaster. It’s a highly defined style of writing, featuring multiple sub-genres. In this case, it’s important to recognize that the text is presenting an idealized truth. It is the same throughout the book. This idealized truth must be understood as such. It’s easy to recognize this when comparing the book to other wisdom texts. For example, read Proverbs straight through, then read Ecclesiastes or Job. All three are wisdom literature, but the three texts offer very different perspectives on the world. In Job, the righteous man loses everything and suffers despite being blameless. In fact, Job’s friends seem to reflect a position that might be supported by the book of Proverbs: If bad things are happening to you, you must have acted wickedly. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon declares some hard realities that seem to stand at odds with the more idealized book of Proverbs. There seems to be a contradiction between the books. However, this contradiction is pressing only if we rigidly look at the proverbs as absolute statements of truth or rules for the universe, instead of recognizing that ideals are being presented. To this end, it is important to recognize that this is an idealized version of women, a target to aspire to. It is not a list of hard and fast rules for wives. Rather, it is an ideal.

Further, the passage itself is Hebrew poem, written with a structure that gives hints as to what the main point is. For starters, each line of the text begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which points to the completeness of the truth being presented. Acrostics could also be used to aid in memorization. This is important because the book is intended to be instructional material for young men. Easy memorization would be a desirable feature. In addition, the poem itself has a Chiastic structure. This is when the first and last line parallel each other, the second and second to last line parallel each other, and so forth. The middle line of the poem, which has no parallel, is the major point being made. In this case verse 23 is the center of the poem:Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land. Essentially, the poem culminates in the instruction that a man with a good wife will be lauded publicly. A modern equivalent would be: “Behind every successful man stands a strong woman.” This may seem like a back-handed treatment of women, saying that their only purpose is to make their husbands successful, but this isn’t the case because wives aren’t the target audience of this text.

When interpreting scripture, understanding the target audience intended by the author is valuable for understanding the message being presented. In the case of the book of Proverbs, the target audience is young men. Throughout the book, young men are addressed in the instructions. In fact, chapter 31 is advice given to King Lemuel by his mother. In this context, the advice being given to sons in the chapter is essentially that picking a good wife will aid in you becoming the kind of man that folks esteem highly. This is hardly unique in the text. 25:24 warns: Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. What sort of wife should you seek? One that you don’t fight with constantly, or you’ll hit a point where you’d rather sleep on the roof than with her. Chapter 5 is loaded with advice for young men regarding loose sexual morals. Young men are instructed to avoid such behavior and keep their sexuality confined to the relationship with their wives. In this light, the passage fits the larger context of the book’s tendency to offer advice to young men about ideal truths. This is most evident in verse 30: Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Young men tend to gravitate to a pretty face when selecting a wife, while ignoring more important qualities, like character. The advice being offered is heavily oriented toward young men’s inclinations. Again, the audience is important because it reveals a truth that is often ignored by those who attempt to interpret the text in terms of gender roles: chapter 31 is never intended to be used as an instruction manual for wives. It is not a checklist for being the ideal wife. Rather, it is advice for sons to look for certain qualities in their wives if they want to be successful and well thought of. That having been said, there are truths that can be gleaned and applied for wives, but more on that later.

1f63a8228ad74caec641eaecef106871Understanding the historic context is also important for getting a solid grip on the meaning of the passage. The advice being offered isn’t being given in a culture where people typically married for love. Marriage was generally a very utilitarian institution. Wives were selected based on all sorts of considerations, most of them pragmatic. The poem is literally about choosing a wife according to high character standards. This choosing was more akin to shopping than our culture tends to immediately recognize.

In the next installment, we’ll look at the most important background issue: How to interpret what King Lemuel’s mom was saying. Is it symbolic of something else? Is it a guide for being a perfect housewife? Is it a call to return to the 50s? Or is it something better that all believers can take hold of with joy?
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Responding to Folks Who Mistreat You

Perhaps the hardest bit of advice I ever received from a mentor was that I needed to pray more. Normally, being told that you need to pray shouldn’t be an overly difficult suggestion, but this was related to a couple of guys I was working with at the time, who were creating significant difficulty for me. They were making my work harder and undermining me with my supervisor. During the several months I was working with these two individuals, I spent hours every evening fuming and dreaded going to work in the morning. After several months of misery, I approached my mentor and asked him what I could do to deal prayerwith the problem. His response made me angry. He asked me how praying for them was going, also reminding me that Jesus directs his followers to pray for their enemies. I didn’t argue, because I knew I was stuck. This began a process of prayer that changed my life. It was hard to pray for the men in question, largely because I didn’t want to do it. The idea of praying for these guys who had made me miserable for months scalded me. It offended me through and through. Praying for my enemies, and as dramatic as it sounds, they were my enemies, was difficult at first. As time progressed, it became increasingly easier and I learned several important lessons. 

First, I learned that praying for folks that I disliked had a profound effect on me. I increasingly learned to love the folks who mistreated me. My resentments slowly ebbed away. I began to rejoice when God brought blessing into their lives. Ultimately, prayer accomplished something amazing in me, it changed my heart. Through prayer, I became more like Jesus, a gain that makes all of the discomfort more than worthwhile.

The second major lesson I learned happened in the months and years that followed. One of the guys I was praying for received a huge blessing in his life that resulted in his moving to another job. I celebrated an answer to prayer in the form of God blessing him and also in his departure. The other guy I was praying for changed slowly over time and eventually became a very different person. The changes God made in his heart were evident and a reason for celebration. Prayer changes things. In this case, it changed the guys I was praying for. This is important because God is capable of accomplishing great things in our world.

Sermon LinkA final lesson I learned from praying for my enemies happened years later, when I began praying for another fellow I found myself in conflict with. During my first sit down to pray for him, I was suddenly convicted of the various actions I had taken in response to the unpleasantness I was encountering. A simple question came to mind: Is he seeing Jesus in my responses? I will admit that I knew I hadn’t been turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile. I didn’t want to. I wanted to exact my pound of flesh. I began to employ Christ’s other teachings for dealing with my enemy and my relationship with the individual changed. In fact, within a short period I had become friends with him. The product of prayer in this case was conviction of my own sins. That conviction resulted in new action that resulted in a change in the situation. Through prayer, God brought to light my own failure to imitate Christ in my reactions to mistreatment. 

At the most basic level, the direction to pray for our enemies is one that is prominent in the teachings of Christ. This is the single best reason for doing it. I can testify as to the various benefits that have resulted from my prayer experiences, but the reason we ought to do it is because Jesus commands it. If He is Lord in our lives, we must do it. Fortunately, it is a teaching that, though counterintuitive, has some clear benefits to believers. 

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What You See When You Look in the Mirror

A friend of mine, who will likely be a regular contributor, emailed me this essay. I was pretty impressed by it and it relates well to the current sermon series (and this week’s sermon in particular), so I decided to add it. He has asked to remain anonymous. I am planning on respecting that request.– Erik

Through Alcoholics Anonymous, God has taught me some difficult lessons that I desperately needed to learn. One of the most important happemirror.image_ned without me realizing it. I started out as a balled up fist of anger, bitterness, and pain. In the name of my addiction, I had hurt those around me and acted despicably. Over time, I got healthier. Then one day I was sitting in a meeting listening to another person talk. I don’t even remember what they were talking about, but I remember hearing them say words that I had said to myself on many occasions. I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was as if I was listening to myself talk about my own addiction. Over the years, I have listened to others in recovery talk about the destruction they brought to those around them, stealing, degrading themselves, and almost every other conceivable sin. I don’t feel sickened by their sins. I feel empathy and I see myself. I hear my own thoughts. I see my own loneliness. I hear the lies I tell myself. Sometimes that’s in the past and other times its today. It is difficult to look at sometimes, but seeing my own sickness in the mirror that is others who are struggling for freedom from the slavery of addiction reminds me of what I am capable of. Remembering where I came from helps keep me free. A friend of mine often tells me that the darker the darkness of the world, the brighter the light of the cross of Jesus. 

The 12th step is spending the rest of your life helping others get out of the living hell of addiction. One of the best reasons I’ve found for doing this, beyond helping other addicts and serving God, is that the more time I spend with addicts the more I am able to see the junk I don’t want to go back to. I need to remember my powerlessness and flee to His strength. This is not to say that I am judging them. Rather, all I ever see is myself, like in a mirror. Perhaps the biggest blessings that came from finding “the bottom”, and I don’t say this lightly because it wasn’t pleasant, is that it becomes difficult to judge others for their sins. It’s hard to be the pharisee bragging before God and pointing to the tax collector for contrast, when you were the guy the tax collector probably looked down on. Looking in the mirror reminds me that I can always go back if I stop leaning on God to keep me out of sin. Any believer that is blessed enough to come to grips with the depth of their own crumminess has a treasure beyond words. I see it in Paul when he talks about himself being the least of apostles, literally referring to himself as a spiritual abortion. This is a blessing that allows you to brag about God’s greatness because you know how wicked you are. Every time you encounter those who don’t know Christ and are still mired in their sin, you get a chance to see your own sin and reflect on the marvel that is grace. 

The other bit of good news that comes to bear after realizing that your fellow man acts as a mirror to help keep you clean, is that God provides an even better mirror to gaze into. In the book of James, we are told that believers are to look into The Word, like gazing into a mirror. Afterward, we are to change based on the reflection we see. For the sinner who recognizes the amazingness of grace, The Word provides an image of what we ought to look like. In the person of Christ, we see perfect sacrificial love, obedience unto death, holiness in the midst of terrible challenges, and our model for all attitudes and behaviors. We are directed by Paul to imitate Christ in our pursuit of holiness. The mirror that The Word provides shows us what we can be as the Spirit sanctifies us. The danger in this is seen when we gaze into the mirror without stark and painful awareness of our sin. We can be tempted to see ourselves in the good parts and our neighbor in the bad. It is easy to become the pharisee proclaiming the goodness of our work and judging the tax collector. Usually, we have such a large plank in our eye at this point that we cannot see any different. None is so blind as those who refuse to see. I have lived there. It is awful believing that your own goodness will carry you, needing to rage at anyone who defies this opinion. In Christ, I was freed. 

When we look at the lost and feel only contempt, failing to see our own fallen selves and refusing to see the amazing depth of the well that is God’s grace for sinners, we stand in the temple and boast that we are better than sinners. The scripture is our mirror. It is never our club to beat others with. 

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