The Worthy Woman

A worthy woman who can find? For her price is far above rubies (Proverbs 31:10).

Lemuel’s mother’s question is a good one: who can find a woman like this?

The book of Proverbs ends with the description of the worthy, or virtuous, woman (Proverbs 31:10-31). Lemuel’s mother provides the following characteristics of such a woman: her husband’s heart trusts in her, she provides profit through her efforts, spinning wool and linen, shops in the marketplace, makes sure the house is properly organized, staffed, and provisioned, buys a field and plants a vineyard, strengthens herself for labor, makes clothing goods deep into the night, provides benevolence to the needy, has fully clothed her household, maintains great carpets and clothes, is married to a notable man of the city, makes linen clothes as well and sells them, maintains strength, dignity, wisdom, kindness, industrious, receives commendation from husband and family, and fears YHWH (Proverbs 31:10-31). That is quite the résumé! Her worth would be far above rubies (Proverbs 31:10).

We have presented here the ideal élite woman of ancient Israel, handling her responsibilities well, wonderful in every way. When we recognize her as an idealized portrait from which we can derive many good principles, all is well. But when we expect women to use this portrait as a yardstick by which they are to measure their value, worth, or effectiveness, we not only abuse the passage but also cause great grief, distress, and suffering for women. This is especially true today in America, where this idealized portrait is merged with an idealized portrait of the “good Christian wife” and thereby setting a level of expectations which very few, if any, women could reasonably satisfy.

Therefore, before we attempt to derive applications from the description of the “worthy woman,” we do well to consider such a portrait in context. Israel during the monarchical period was a very stratified society featuring a wealthy élite and a large number of poor people living at subsistence level. The “worthy woman” is very much a part of the wealthy élite: she can occupy herself primarily with spinning and clothes manufacturing, she has enough wealth to buy a field, she is clothed in fine linen and purple, and she has servants (Proverbs 31:13-16, 18-19, 21-22). She is in a position to provide benevolence to the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:20). Her husband has high social standing, known in the gates where he sits among the elders, indicating his privileged status (Proverbs 31:23). The “worthy woman” is enterprising because she has the opportunity to be enterprising. Far more women are doing all they can, with their husbands, to keep their family fed and a roof over their heads. Most Israelite families would not have enjoyed the privilege of having servants; poorer Israelite women would still need to make clothing, but would rarely be able to provide clothing for any beyond their family. Notable in its omission is any discussion of childcare; such is likely one of the tasks of some of the female servants (Proverbs 31:15). It goes without saying that female servants, of whom there would be many in Israel at this time, could never fit the portrait of the “worthy woman.” The same is true of most poor Israelite women. If Lemuel’s mother is setting the standard for how a good Israelite woman will function, then she has already set up well over 90% of Israelite women for utter failure.

Lemuel’s mother, therefore, is not setting up expectations for the average Israelite woman; she is talking about the way a woman of the élite class should compose herself. In that sense, in its historical context, there is great value in considering what she has to say. The picture painted of élite Israelite women in the Old Testament is less than ideal. Amos calls them “cows of Bashan,” and they are described as constantly demanding drink (and, we imagine, other dainties; Amos 4:1). Isaiah castigates such women for their lustfulness, softness, and excessive jewelry (Isaiah 3:16-24). While we ought to remember that the prophets have no interest in attempting to speak commendably about such women, and these condemnations may not be representative of the whole, they still demonstrate how many of the élite Israelite women behaved. They were not very industrious unto profitable or productive ends, but enjoyed the high life and desired to spend their time in satisfying their desires. Lemuel’s mother warns Lemuel, and all other men of means, away from such women. Instead, they ought to find wives who will not treat their husbands poorly, but instead will manage the household well. In the ancient world, women ran the household, which involved far more people than just the husband and children, but many slaves and perhaps relatives as well. The husbands would manage the land as well as maintaining social connections and prestige in the gates and in the royal court. A wife who not only maintained a good house but also provided more income through effective resource management and cloth production would have been most excellent for the élite men of Israelite society. They sure beat the “gold-digger” who is nothing but a drain on resources!

Yet even then it would be hard to find many women who would attain to the standard of the “worthy woman.” In the Hebrew ordering of the Old Testament, Ruth comes directly after Proverbs, and many have seen Ruth as an example of the “worthy woman.” She certainly is a virtuous woman, fearing YHWH, industrious, trying to make the best of her situation, marries a man known in the gates, bears a son, yet even then, we do not have any evidence that Ruth did absolutely everything the “worthy woman” was doing (Ruth 1:1-4:22). Esther was a woman of abiding faith in YHWH who sought the welfare of her people and acted wisely, prudently, and shrewdly, but was expected to maintain a high standard of external beauty and would not have manually labored at all (Esther 1:1-10:3). These are good women, godly women, yet even they do not reach the lofty standard of the “worthy woman” of Proverbs 31:10-31.

Therefore, the “worthy woman,” even in context, is an idealized portrait. We do well to derive from it the principles and types of behaviors which made the woman worthy: enterprising, a competent manager of her own and her family’s affairs, benevolent, and reverent toward God. These are great attributes to which all women should aspire. In contrast, an unworthy woman is one who is lazy, a drain on the family’s resources, one who mismanages her own and her family’s affairs so that her husband cannot trust her with any responsibility, selfish, uncharitable, and irreverent toward God. Sadly, such all too frequently define many women of wealth as manifest on celebrity television shows; therefore, even the contextual wisdom is good for men of means to take into consideration as they search for a wife. Nevertheless, the principles of the “worthy woman” remain important for all women regardless of wealth, and women can manifest those principles in their lives and be reckoned as “worthy” women.

Men who find worthy women as wives do well. Women are virtuous when they revere God, prove enterprising, faithfully execute their responsibilities, thus engendering trustworthiness, and are benevolent. We do well to encourage women to manifest these principles and commend them when they do so. Let us all honor and revere God, maintain our responsibilities, and glorify God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Folly of Alcohol

Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? Who hath contentions? Who hath complaining? Who hath wounds without cause? Who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; They that go to seek out mixed wine. Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, When it sparkleth in the cup, When it goeth down smoothly: At the last it biteth like a serpent, And stingeth like an adder. Thine eyes shall behold strange things, And thy heart shall utter perverse things. Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, Or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast.
“They have stricken me,” shalt thou say, “and I was not hurt; They have beaten me, and I felt it not: When shall I awake? I will seek it yet again” (Proverbs 23:29-35).

The Scriptures are filled with the wisdom of God. It is not as if His creation can “pull one over” on Him. He understands the actions of men and their consequences all too well. This understanding is fully on display as Solomon addresses the matter of men and their conduct with alcohol.

I have never understood the appeal of the night of drunkenness. One goes and drinks beverages that do not really taste good in order to receive a buzz that leads to regrettable actions and words, some of which may even be remembered, and then terrible feelings of nausea and pain the next day. And many then look forward to the next time that they can go and get drunk!

It does not make a lot of sense– but it is irrational behavior; we should not expect it to make sense. Many, no doubt, do so because of peer pressure. Others have become addicted. For too many, however, it is simply a way to have fun, to escape the cares of this world for a while, and/or to numb the pain of life.

Yet, as Solomon indicates, there are good reasons why drunkenness is sinful and a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). Woes, sorrow, contentions, complaints, wounds, and physical difficulties come to those who drink too much. Many a drunken brawl has led to injury. Vision is impaired. Foolish things are said, either entirely in jest or because the one drinking has let down his or her guard. Foolish games and adventures are attempted. Injury, shame, illness, and even death can result from the folly of alcohol!

It is disconcerting how accurately Solomon portrays the hopeless drinker in Proverbs 23:35. He suffered abuse and yet did not feel anything; he has experienced all the things which Solomon mentions; and yet his first impulse it to seek the drink again, as if somehow that will solve everything. Such is folly. Alcohol does not make one better and it does not make life any easier– it is truly and literally an escape, and it is always far better to resolve whatever challenges life may pose than it is to attempt to wash it all away in some alcohol. Alcohol can only make problems worse, not better!

Drinking affects a lot more than just the person drinking. His or her entire family could be terribly impacted. Not a few girls get drunk and are pregnant before they are sober. Many parents, spouses, and even (God forbid!) children must find ways to get a drunken relative out of jail. Those who start down the path of alcohol often find that they lose everything that is really important, and all just to get that next drink! And this says nothing about other families and people impacted by alcohol– all of the families grieving for lost loved ones who died because a drunkard got behind the wheel of a car and got into an accident.

Solomon well compares drinking to “serpents” and “adders.” Yes, wine may go down smoothly, but it comes with a “bite”! We can profitably extend the image a little further. What happens to those who hold snakes and work with snakes? There likely are many who are more proficient at it than others and who are better able to handle them, but everyone at some point who handles them will almost certainly get bitten. So it is with alcohol– even if we think we could “handle it responsibly,” at some point we will almost certainly cross the line and get “bitten” and be drunk and sin.

The folly of alcohol, therefore, is like the folly of handling poisonous snakes. It is simply most profitable to avoid both! Let us avoid getting burned and bitten and abstain from alcohol!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Encouraging Words

Heaviness in the heart of a man maketh it stoop; but a good word maketh it glad (Proverbs 12:25).

Contrary to the feelings of many, no man is an island. No man (or woman) is entirely impervious to their environment or their circumstances.

We all go through times in life when our hearts are heavy. The reasons for heavy hearts are legion. Loved ones may hurt us or betray us, or we invest a lot of our emotional time and energy in their distress. They may pass away. We may be hurt by the words or actions of people around us. We may lose a job, develop a debilitating illness, or be in the midst of a very stressful period in life. Many times we allow the influences of the outside world and its continual panic to get us down.

Whatever the reason the distress is quite real. It is not as easy to live with a heavy heart as otherwise (cf. Proverbs 18:14). There is less motivation to engage in the simple functions of life, let alone anything else. It is hard to concentrate. It is hard to be civil and put on a false face in front of others. And it is especially difficult to “keep the faith” and believe that better times are ahead.

There is a natural tendency, in such circumstances, to retreat. It seems easier to not feel at all than to feel distress.

But the “unfelt life” is not really life at all. We all enjoy the highs/peaks of life. If there are highs/peaks, there must, at some point, be lows/valleys. We all experience them; we all have to live through them.

Yet there is something that makes it all just a little more tolerable, and that is a “good word.” Can we all not think of times when we were in distress (or perhaps just stress) and someone took out the time to encourage us and to build us up? Have we all not had experiences where we were laid low but the strengthening words of another lifted us up?

Words of affirmation and encouragement always have value. Little wonder, then, that God commands believers through the Apostles and others to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:25, Jude 1:20). Words of encourage sustain and uplift in times of distress and trouble. They reinforce us in the good times. There is no circumstance in which truly encouraging words cannot provide some benefit!

But for there to be good words there must be people who understand their value and are willing to freely provide them. Encouraging people are always in the minority; there is a superabundance of critics, cynics, and pessimists. Nevertheless, we all know the superior value of having a “Barnabas” in our life than the pessimists and cynics (cf. Acts 4:36-37). If we understand the value of having a “Barnabas” in our lives, how much more should we then strive to be the “Barnabas” for our fellow man!

There are few things that we can do that have a more lasting impression on others than to be there for them in times of distress with good words of encouragement, affirmation, and strength. Let us be a “Barnabas” and speak good words to all!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Reproof

Whoso loveth correction loveth knowledge; but he that hateth reproof is brutish (Proverbs 12:1).

A wise son heareth his father’s instruction; but a scoffer heareth not rebuke (Proverbs 13:1).

A fool despiseth his father’s correction; but he that regardeth reproof getteth prudence (Proverbs 15:5).

One of the things that unites all mankind is our distaste at being wrong and our extreme discomfort when our words or behavior are challenged or rebuked. We do not like such circumstances. We do not look forward to them. We do not feel good after they happen, generally.

Much of this is due to our internal pride and self-image. If we are proven to be wrong, or if our conduct is unseemly, then we feel lowered in the eyes of others. If nothing else, we feel internally humiliated. Humiliation is hard enough when we try to be humble ourselves (cf. 1 Peter 5:6)– it is that much more difficult when it is being imposed on us. Our pride is wounded, and our fight or flight impulse is often aroused. For some reason the idea that we are debased in the eyes of others because of our words or our conduct do not seem to bother us as much as the feelings that come when we are called out regarding them. Yet the sting remains.

The type of person we are, however, is proven not by whether or not we will be rebuked or chastened, but in how we respond to such rebuke and chastisement. None of us are perfect; there are all times when we find ourselves in the wrong (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). All of us deserve rebuke and reproof at times.

The easy thing to do is to get defensive and refuse to listen to the criticism. Some may get violent; others might unleash a torrent of criticism themselves. We can all easily try to find reasons why we should not listen to the rebuke so that we may find a way to preserve our pride. We may attempt to make the one rebuking look like a hypocrite, or we might wrap our words in sanctimony and denounce them for “judging” us or for imposing their standards upon us. We might construct elaborate arguments to justify a losing cause, no matter how weak or easily dismissed those arguments might be. What is important in the end is to remain justified and right.

It is also easy to just ignore the criticism and pretend it does not mean anything. Some people create very elaborate worldviews that seek to invalidate various forms of criticism. After all, if you can figure out a way to render the basis for the rebuke irrelevant, then the rebuke itself will be irrelevant, right?

Yet, as Solomon (among others) has made clear, this response is not the response of wisdom. It is the way of folly– the way of the fool, the scoffer, and the brute. In fact, such a person is double the fool– he has been carried away in some wrong thinking or action, and when others make effort to correct him, he rejects that correction and continues in the error. In such circumstances it is easy for people to begin writing off the fool– why bother rebuking someone who will not hear and will not change? It is tragic to think about how many people have fallen into such misery and distress, presently and for the future, because they rejected reproof and would rather be wrong and proud than to live according to wisdom and to live.

The wise person who loves knowledge and is prudent will accept criticism. No one ever promises that accepting criticism will be easy– it is not. Yet we must appreciate it when people care enough, for whatever reason, to show us the proper way.

Some may fear that they will look weak or pathetic if they accept criticism. While that may be the response of some, such a response is itself a form of folly. Instead, most people have a higher respect for those who are willing to be chastened and who will accept reproof and rebuke. It is the way of humility and the way of wisdom, and it deserves to be honored. Better to swallow pride, accept that we are wrong, and perhaps look like a fool for a moment than to stubbornly insist on our own way and be the fool perpetually!

As in all things, chastisement requires discretion. Not all reproof and rebuke will necessarily be legitimate, but it is better to be open to possibilities of error than to delude oneself into thinking that he or she is always right. Those who would rebuke others must also make sure that their motivations are pure and that they are conducting themselves in the best way so as to obtain the desired repentance, always watching for themselves (cf. Matthew 7:1-5, 18:15-18, Galatians 6:1).

Being wrong is never fun, and correcting error should not be relished. Yet it is necessary for our physical and spiritual health to be rebuked and reproved when we are wrong. Let us be wise and accept reproof and live!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wisdom in Avoiding Immorality

My son, keep my words, and lay up my commandments with thee. Keep my commandments and live; and my law as the apple of thine eye. Bind them upon thy fingers; write them upon the tablet of thy heart. Say unto wisdom, “Thou art my sister”; and call understanding thy kinswoman: that they may keep thee from the strange woman, from the foreigner that flattereth with her words (Proverbs 7:1-5).

We understand that Scripture provides great direct instruction and commandment, and for that we should be thankful. We can also learn much from Scripture not just from the words themselves but how the authors have expressed themselves.

A great example of this is the connection in Proverbs between heeding the instructions, commandments, and laws of the parents and avoiding sexual immorality. We see this connection in Proverbs 2:1-19, 5:1-23, 6:20-35, and 7:1-27; Proverbs 9:13-18 provides a complementary image, the way of Woman Folly. This connection and emphasis happens far too often to be merely coincidental. What is God communicating to us through these proverbs?

Perhaps the challenge is in the sin itself– sexual immorality. There are constant warnings in Scripture against participating in it, and it seems to be at the head of every list of sins (cf. Matthew 5:28, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 5:3-6, etc.). It is a source of constant danger– it is easy for desire to be directed wrongly, and Satan and the world always provide plenty of temptations to do so.

Consider what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:18:

Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.

This is the same apostle who tells us otherwise to “stand firm” against the fiery darts of the Evil One (Ephesians 6:10-18), but here he tells us to run away. It seems so cowardly to run away, does it not? Why would he provide such instruction?

Perhaps he had in mind the story of Joseph in Genesis 39:7-20. Potiphar’s wife tempted him to commit sexual immorality, and Joseph resisted day after day. But then the day came when she grabbed him by his clothing, and he would either fall into sin or run. He did the righteous thing and ran away, and received the consequence of being cast into prison on the basis of false allegations.

It does believers no good to attempt to minimize the danger and challenge posed by temptations to sexual immorality. It is a sin that people easily justify and rationalize. “Good” people who would never think of sinning against their neighbor may have no problems with many forms of sexual immorality because it “does not hurt anyone.” How many have been guilty of sinning against themselves! How many have fallen for various temptations to sexual immorality, and have reaped nothing but misery and pain! How many wish that they would have known better!

Thus we can see why God wants to emphasize the value of wisdom– the fear of God, the knowledge of His commandment, following His instruction. It is only through clinging to God’s truth and wisdom that we will be able to overcome temptations to sexual immorality. It is only when we have decided to love wisdom and not the “foreign woman” that we will be willing to run away from temptation and not be seduced into it. It is only when we fully understand the consequences of sexual immorality that we understand that it is never worth it and thus should be avoided at any cost.

It is no wonder, then, why the father wants to instruct his son to temper passion and cling to wisdom, and it should be the same instruction we give to our children. We must make it clear that the path of sexual immorality leads only to pain, misery, and perdition. Temptation will be strong, but we must resist and, when necessary, run away.

If we cling to wisdom we will avoid every kind of immorality– sexual immorality and “general” immorality, holding firm to the teachings of the One True God while resisting all the temptations of the world (cf. 1 John 2:15-17). Let us learn from the exhortations of God: let us love wisdom and repudiate all immorality!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Foundation of Knowledge

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; but the foolish despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).

The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens (Proverbs 3:19).

There was a time in the past when, on the whole, a defense for the idea that a Higher Power/a greater Intelligence/a supernatural Creative Being was behind the creation of the heavens and earth and their constitution was not necessary. There would not be much disagreement about the premise even though the particular nature of such a Being was disputed.

But such a defense is necessary today. It has become quite popular and stylish in many circles to entirely reject the notion of a Higher Power. Development of new scientific models and theories have been greatly over-extended and pressed into the cause of denying the supernatural. More than ever before, some humans think that they can explain away the way things are in an entirely “natural” way.

But can they really? Sure, they can create a model where, in theory, the spark of life began and developed through mutation and natural selection. In such a view human beings chance upon things called consciousness and reason. They start pondering questions of existence and the nature of things. In such a view, sadly for humanity, there is really nothing to ponder. There is no real “reason” for reason, no greater consciousness. Their mental development is an interesting evolutionary accident that has no meaning whatsoever, because meaning really does not exist.

Does that make any sense? Not really. Furthermore, it leaves very important and fundamental questions unanswered. Too many who protest the realm of the supernatural still use the grounding and foundations that come with belief in a Higher, Intelligent Power.

Think about it for a moment. If there is no God who created all things by wisdom, how can there be anything abstract? Some philosophers today are trying to come up with a system of ethics without a religious/supernatural foundation, but they will inevitably fail in so doing, because if there is no greater structure in existence– no meaning or Source of meaning– who is to say what is right or wrong? What are “right” and “wrong” anyway if there is no sense of justice in the cosmos, for there is no conscious Power out there? How can we expect anything to be invested with any meaning if there is no greater Consciousness to uphold the idea of meaning, or idea at all? Why should we invest science and reason with trust and confidence if, in reality, there is no greater Power or form of organization out there? If there is no Source of reason, how can anything really be “reasonable”?

Our society’s spiral into relativism suddenly becomes quite explainable. If there is no God there is no Power out there to define anything. In such a circumstance, anything goes. This is true anarchy and true chaos, for there is no Power to order anything. “Right” and “wrong” are whatever you want to define as “right” and “wrong.” What is “reasonable” is what people decide to agree upon is “reasonable.” Might– however expressed– makes right. Despair, depression, and frustration are not far behind. We were not made to live in a meaningless world where anything goes.

This is all folly. We can know for certain that there is a greater Power than ourselves, the God who is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe (Genesis 1:1-2:3, Hebrews 1:3). There is “right” and “wrong” because He has established His holy standard of justice in the cosmos (Isaiah 30:18, 42:4). He is the God who made man in His image (Genesis 1:26-27)– spirit (John 4:24) and consciousness, therefore, come from Him. He has created the universe in such a way so as to be understood by His creation (Romans 1:19-20); this is not a mark of the lack of a God, but in fact the hallmark of God, for if there were no God, why would we expect anything in the universe to be comprehensible at all?

These were things confessed by those of old who sought greater knowledge of the way the physical universe works. It has been forgotten by too many today, not because it has been falsified, but because of the rebelliousness of the heart and the arrogance of the mind of man. Those who are truly wise understand that the reverence of God– confession of the Higher Power and submission to Him– is the beginning of knowledge, and that everything makes sense because God made it so as to make sense.

Let us not be deceived by man’s foolishness. There is a Creator God who has revealed Himself through Jesus His Son and we do well to learn of Him and seek His will (John 1:18, Galatians 2:20). Let us be firm in our confidence in the existence of God and conduct ourselves appropriately!

Ethan R. Longhenry