Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sermon: Proverbs 31: 10-31 An Excellent Wife

The quest to find a partner is becoming big business. From speed dating nights to ‘Take Me Out’ events where guys have to try to impress a group of girls, there’s money to be made in the hunt for a husband or wife. The rise of the dating website is evidence of this - something like eHarmony. When we were in America last year we were surprised to find even had TV adverts and billboard posters. But what are you looking for in a partner? Or what do you bring to a relationship?

Over these Wednesday nights in Lent, we’ve been sampling some of the Proverbs. We looked at some of the major themes, all building on the basic building block of wisdom - the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge / wisdom. Tonight we come to the final chapter of Proverbs, to another passage which might be slightly better known. Whole ministries have been built on the basis of these verses, encouraging ladies to be a Proverbs 31 woman.

As the women get the last word in the book of Proverbs, let’s look at the Proverbs 31 woman, to see what she’s like, and how we can become more like her. The first thing to note (although it’s hard for us to see in the English) is that this is an acrostic. From verse 10, each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It would be like a poem where each line starts with A, B, C and so on. It’s an A-Z of an excellent woman. So let’s dive in with the very first verse, verse 10.

‘An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.’ The question asks us straight away, who can find an excellent wife? This isn’t because such an excellent wife is unattainable, but rather because Proverbs has already highlighted the fact that not all wives (and, I have to add, not all husbands) are excellent. I’ve read you the verse before that says ‘It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife’ (Prov 21:9). None of us have moved onto the roof, but perhaps some men (or women) do consider such a move.

To have an excellent wife, then, is beyond value. ‘She is far more precious than jewels.’ As we would say, she is worth her weight in gold. The following verses show why she is so precious, but what I noticed as I prepared for tonight, was how this excellent wife is described in terms of the themes we’ve looked at over the past few weeks. You might remember that, as we began the series, I wasn’t sure where we would turn for the last night. The choice of chapter 31 has become the proper summary for our series, because it is the summary of the whole book of Proverbs.

We looked at relationships - drinking from your own cistern, keeping pure and faithful. We see that here in our chapter. Look at verses 11-12. ‘The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.’ Here we find that faithfulness, that trust that is the centre of any relationship. It’s a marriage that builds up, that does good and not harm, leading to them flourishing together.

In our Lent series we also looked at the sluggard. You remember the picture of the lazy lump lying on his bed, turning like a door on its hinges; too lazy to even lift the spoon to his mouth? The Proverbs 31 woman isn’t like that. It seems that she never stops, always at something. There’s mention of wool and flax, working with willing hands in verse 13. Bringing food, cooking breakfast while it is still dark in verse 14-15. She’s involved in property deals, buying fields and planting vineyards. Buying and selling, working into the evening by lamp light when the sun goes down. Her family have scarlet clothing (which might be double thickness for the snow), and she makes her own bedclothes; linen garments and sashes...

Is anyone feeling tired listening to all that? By the time you say it all, it would be time for a tea break! She is certainly no sluggard. The picture is of someone who makes sure that her family is provided for, keeping busy, using the talents she has been given by God.

But she isn’t selfish, or greedy. Last week we looked at good news for the poor, the importance of caring for and helping those less fortunate than yourself. The Proverbs 31 woman has that covered too. Look at the way verses 19-20 sit together. ‘She puts her hand to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.’

The hands busy in work at distaff and spindle as she makes yarn are also held out to the poor and needy. She opens her hand, she reaches it out. She models God’s concern for the poor, the ministry of mercy.

Through Proverbs we also looked at the tongue, which has the power of life and death. Here, we hear what comes out of her mouth: ‘Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.’ She has no fear of the future, she is able to laugh at whatever may come. Her hope is secure. And when she speaks, there are words of wisdom and kindness. Her speech is gracious.

In every way, in each of our key themes, she passes the test. She really is an excellent wife, far more precious than jewels. That’s the opinion of her children and her husband too. Do you see it in verse 28? ‘Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’’

So how does hearing all that make you feel? Encouraged and proud, because your ears are burning, because we’ve been talking about you all night? Thankful and delighted because this is your wife that we’ve heard described? Perhaps. Another common reaction to hearing those verses is to feel deflated, aware of shortcomings, frustrated because you don’t think it would be possible to reach those unattainable heights. Convinced that this is just out of reach, like the airbrushed supermodel adverts; that you’d need to be Superwoman to do all this?

Remember where we started in Proverbs. The very first thing we learnt was that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And that’s where the book ends as well. We’ve come round in a circle. The first note is also the last one. Verse 30-31: ‘Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.’ What a motto for a dating website in particular, and life in general.

You could be oh so charming, but it’s just a front, all a deception, just a tool to get what you want. Watch the politicians over the next month or so to see that in practice. Beauty might turn heads, but it can become obsessed with itself and achieve nothing of importance. The thing that counts is the fear of the Lord. A woman (or indeed a man) who fears the Lord is to be praised. This is the thing that matters. Everything else flows from this.

You may not be working morning noon and night to provide and clean and cook and do all else; but the fear of the Lord will lead you to live, in your situation, with your particular opportunities and challenges, for his glory.

This sermon was preached in the Lent Midweek Series 'Wisdom for Life' in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 25th March 2015.

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