A Picture of Wisdom (Proverbs 31:10-31)
For the past few months we've been going through the book of Proverbs together. Proverbs is about wisdom, and wisdom means living skillfully in the world that God has made. Wisdom isn't about IQ or education; it's about becoming good at life. If you want to live well, then Proverbs is a book that promises to help you. We've been looking at what Proverbs has to say about many different areas of our lives.
Today we're coming to a passage that's often preached on Mother's Day. You may have mixed feelings as you read this passage.
On one hand, it's hard not to be inspired as you read the description of the woman in this passage. I'll never forget hearing my grandfather read this passage in tribute to his wife, my grandmother. It was especially meaningful because he wasn't the type to exaggerate in his praise.
But on the other hand, it's hard not to be intimidated by this passage. Just take a look at the woman we read about. She's a tireless worker. She manages a household and business, helps the poor, and is prepared for disaster. She's thrifty but not cheap. She is charming, successful, energetic, competent, and godly. Her husband and even her children praise her. She's quite the person.
She's so accomplished that when you read Proverbs 31:10, "A wife of noble character who can find?" you almost want to answer, "No one, because she doesn't exist!" Who really is as good as she appears to be?
The answer is, actually, no one. One commentator writes, "This lady's standard is not implied to be within the reach of all, for it presupposes unusual gifts and material resources" (Derek Kidner). Another writes, "The description is ideal and should not be used as a standard by which to measure and critique women" (Tremper Longman III). So if anybody ever tries to clobber you with this passage, then don't let them.
In fact, I think it's here at the end of Proverbs for a couple of reasons. One is for the reasons we normally use it. Women are important, and this chapter is an inspiring example of what a godly woman can be like.
But I think there's another layer here, and it's this layer I want to look at today. Proverbs 31 isn't only for women, and it's not only for Mother's Day. At the end of the book of Proverbs, what we have here is a picture of what wisdom looks like in real life. It's like the author of this passage has taken everything that we've looked at in Proverbs 1 to 31:9 and said, "If you want to see what all of this looks like, let me give you a picture." So this isn't just for women; it's for all of us. This is a picture of wisdom in real life. It's a model for all of God's people for all of time. Bruce Waltke writes, "Wise daughters aspire to be like her, wise men seek to marry her, and all wise people aim to incarnate the wisdom that she embodies, each in his own sphere of activity."
You see, one of the problems you have as you read the book of Proverbs is picturing what this looks like when you put it all together. You've probably had the experience of somebody describing what something looks like. Someone was trying to explain to me what a bathroom cabinet looked like. Then they showed me a picture, and I could really see it.
That's what's happening in Proverbs 31. We've read the descriptions. We've tried to picture what this looks like. But in this passage we actually get a picture that we can hold up, and this picture tells us three things about the way wisdom's going to look in our lives. It's going to look rare; it's going to touch everything; and it's going to be about God.
1. Wisdom is going to look rare
The first thing we see as we look at the picture of wisdom in this passage is that wisdom is rare, and if you are wise you are going to be not only rare but valuable.
Verse 10 says: "A wife of noble character who can find?" The implied answer is, "Very few people." The reason why is because a person of noble character is hard to find. Because of this, such people are valuable. Verse 10 continues, "She is worth more than rubies." A person of wisdom is as rare and as valuable as wisdom itself.
After all, Proverbs said this earlier about wisdom:
She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
…wisdom is more precious than rubies,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
This is very important to realize. If you take seriously the teaching of Proverbs and apply it to your life, you will become a very rare kind of person. There won't be many people like you around. All throughout Proverbs, we've seen that there are three paths that people end up taking in life. One is the path of the simple. Simple sounds like an insult, but it's really about those who are still young. It's too soon to tell which way they will go. But then Proverbs describes the two paths that all of us eventually will take. One is the path of wisdom, and the other is the path of foolishness.
Proverbs tells us that we're going to have a lot of people inviting us to take the path of foolishness. It's the path that goes along with the crowd. It's the path that flirts and even gives into sexual temptation and anger. It's the path that doesn't listen to others, that goes with the flow. It's the path that rejects the fear of the Lord, and it's a path that ultimately leads to death. Proverbs tells us that this is the path's our default path, and without deliberate evasive action you're going to end up on this path.
The other path you can take is the path of wisdom. Ironically in Proverbs, wisdom is available for anyone who wants it. It's not just for the privileged or the well-positioned. If you want it, you can have it. Fools and simpletons are invited to feast at the table of wisdom. All throughout Proverbs, wisdom actually calls out and invites us to embrace her. But as we come to the end of Proverbs, we realize as we see this picture that wisdom is exceptionally rare.
The lesson is that if you want to be wise, then wisdom is freely offered to you. It can be yours. But you need to realize that the path to wisdom is not the path commonly taken. You will be going against the flow to become a wise person, and people will wonder why you're headed in a different direction than everyone else.
But the result is that you will also be seen as a valuable person. Verses 11 and 12, and then verses 28 and 29:
Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
"Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all."
Have you ever met someone, and the more you get to know them the less you like them? If you are wise, you will be the opposite. Here the person that knows her the best praises her the most. If you pursue wisdom, you'll be rare, and the people who know you best will stand up and praise you.
That's the first thing we notice as we look at this picture of wisdom. What we see in this picture is available to everyone, but few people embrace it. If you pursue wisdom, you're going to go against the flow, but you'll become a person whose noble character is rare and recognized as valuable by those who know you best.
There's something else we notice as we look at this picture of wisdom:
2. Wisdom touches everything
If you think of a really religious person, you may think of a pastor or a missionary or someone who is really good at religious things. But what you probably don't think of is someone who is accomplished in business, or renowned for their accomplishments in some area. You think of someone who's good at religious stuff, but not necessarily at the non-religious part of life. We tend to compartmentalize our lives, and those who are good at God aren't good at the other stuff, and those who are good at the other stuff aren't good with God.
But that's not what we see as we look at this picture of wisdom. We see a person who is accomplished in many different areas. She manages staff and invests money and property in verses 15 and 16. She's a shrewd seller and buyer, as we read in verses 13 and 14, and then 18 and 24. Verse 15 says she's a tireless worker. But she doesn't just horde everything for herself. Verse 20 says she helps the poor. She also provides for her family so that they are prepared for the ups and downs of life. She's an extremely competent business person, and is also appreciated by her family.
As we think about this, we realize that the wisdom we read about in Proverbs is not just about becoming more spiritual. It's not just about Sundays. It is definitely about God, but it also touches all of life. We look at this picture of wisdom and see it's about living skillfully in all of life in the world that God has made.
A person who becomes wise becomes the best kind of artist, engineer, teacher, and entrepreneur. They are the best students, doctors, neighbors, and citizens. Wisdom is about all of life. Abraham Kuyper put it best when he said, "No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'"
The wisdom we discover in the book of Proverbs is wisdom is based on God and being rightly related to him. But it's not a wisdom that will only make you a more spiritual person. It is a wisdom that will touch every part of your life. It's a wisdom that will touch everything – your family, your work, your studies. It's a wisdom that touches all of life.
So wisdom is rare and valuable, and it touches all of life. We notice one more thing about wisdom as we look at this picture:
3. Wisdom is ultimately about God
We just said that wisdom isn't only about God. Wisdom is about living skillfully in every area of life. It touches everything. But don't make the mistake of thinking that wisdom has nothing to do with God. It has everything to do with God. As we come to the end of this picture of wisdom we see the ultimate source of her wisdom. Verse 30 says:
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
The first part of this verse reminds us that many of the things that cause us to praise people are actually deceptive and fleeting. They're skin-deep and temporary. Charm can conceal a nasty personality. You can meet a beautiful person and really be attracted to them, only to realize later that their character leaves you deeply disappointed.
But wisdom is different. At the end of verse 30 we see that this person of wisdom has a quality that is not deceptive or fleeting. She has a quality rooted in what's of ultimate importance. She has what is unseen and eternal. She fears the Lord.
Most of this book seems to be at the horizontal level: what it takes to live skillfully in the world we have around us. But at the end of Proverbs we're taken right back to the beginning. We're reminded that living skillfully at the horizontal level begins with being rightly related vertically with God. Proverbs 1:7 told us, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge." The fear of the Lord, as we've said before, means being rightly related to God: knowing that he's God, and we're not, and living life in reverential fear of him. And living skillfully begins and ends with this.
This is even more important for those of us who know about Jesus. If you want to talk about a real life picture of wisdom, we have an even better one than the Proverbs 31 example, as outstanding as she is. We have one who is wiser than Solomon in all of his wisdom. He is the ultimate embodiment of wisdom. The apostle Paul wrote that in him "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:3).
You see, Solomon could tell us about wisdom. He could describe it in great detail, and tell us how to attain it. But ultimately he failed to live up to the wisdom he wrote about in his life. But then Jesus came. He not only taught wisdom, but he perfectly embodied it. Solomon called for obedience, but Jesus came to take upon himself our disobedience to atone for our sins. He gives us his Spirit to empower us to obey.
As we close the book of Proverbs, we're given this picture of what applied wisdom could look like.
- It's rare. Even though wisdom is available to everyone, you're going to be in the minority if you embrace wisdom. And it's rarity will cause those who know you best to praise you.
- It will touch all of your life. Wisdom will allow you to live skillfully in every area of your life: your family, your work, everything.
- It's ultimately about God. Wisdom begins with being in right relationship with him.
The question we face at the end of Proverbs is what our response will be. In a sense you face the verdict of which path you'll take. There's a path that's widely travelled that you'll take by default, but that will ultimately lead to death. But then there's this other path that is rare, that will change you so that the people who know you best appreciate you the most. It will touch every part of your life. And it will be based on what matters most and can never be taken away: being brought into right relationship with God through his Son. Which path will you take?
Thank you, Father, for what we've read in Proverbs. I pray that we won't just shelve the book now that we've finished this series. I pray that we will return to its lessons often and embrace the wisdom that's freely offered to us within its pages.
But thank you that ultimate wisdom came to us in the form of Jesus Christ. He freely offers us what we really need to live skillfully in the world you have created. My main prayer today is that every person here would embrace not only wisdom as a concept, but that they would embrace wisdom personified: Jesus Christ. And as we do so, would you change every part of our lives through the power of the Spirit. We pray in Christ's name. Amen.