The story of Proverbs 31 boils down to a central concept that extends to all humanity: interdependence. Often forgotten, the first nine verses reveal the advice of a mother to her royal son (King Lemuel – likely Solomon) where she implores the boy to stay maritally faithful (v.3) and sober (v.4). Furthermore, our mysterious mother figure paints an honorable outline of qualities for her son to emulate in his journey to kingship and future reign.
Oddly juxtaposed within the same chapter, the famous “ideal woman” passage lies next to King Lemuel’s notes from his mother. What can one make of such inclusion and subsequent comparison? Firstly, I believe commentaries miss the fullness of the passage by solely focusing on the ideal woman. The inclusion of King Lemuel forces the reader to imagine a young king hearing from his mother, focusing on the powerful young boy, the listener, more so than the mother, the giver of advice.
The Proverbs say a great deal about relationships between women and men, always emphasizing wisdom that leads to caution. Here, in the conclusion of the book on wisdom, the author brings his mother’s advice to the forefront as if to say “Here’s where it all started.” Whether the author proves to be Solomon and this mother figure Bathsheba we cannot discern; but this advice served a vital importance to the author and audience.
With the honor prescribed to a king detailed in the first verses, the author then moves to describe the source of the advice: the woman. Serving as a mother in the first verses and wife in the latter verses, this woman’s versatility underlies the entire premise of the ideal woman. A royal figure (if Solomon, then one of the most influential rulers of history) relies upon this symbolic woman for his foundation of morality, so her influence stands at equal – if not greater – height than the ruler.
This display of influence would have contradicted much of what Middle Eastern men and women though of a woman’s role in society; however, this influence does not vault the woman into the “head of the household” role, rather it insists that she go about her wifely duties. Here another beautiful Biblical paradox enthralls the reader: the man is the head of the household but must serve the woman who through serving him exerts equal or greater influence through advice and child-rearing. A mind can hardly wrap around such words much less a mouth speak them.
The dependency of man and woman upon one another creates a constant tension within the relationship; however, this tension inspires mechanisms of change within each partner that betters the relationship. Through mutual service and dependency, man and woman thrive in a moral, honorable relationship to one another.
The “Ideal Woman” passage, then, does not serve as a checklist for young girls fixing to woo a young gentleman, it provides a picture of Christ invading the life of lovers. Christ lived the faithful life described in this passage knowing that no young man could fulfill Lemuel’s advice and no young woman could fulfill the ideal woman’s qualities. Therefore the man and woman, while dependent on one another, are simultaneously dependent (both individually and corporately) on Christ for the thriving of their relationship. Only through the invasion of Christ’s qualities over our qualities (described constantly as “foolish” and “wicked’ through Proverbs 1-30) can we experience the level of sacrificial love demonstrated in Proverbs 31.
Will Thompson works in consulting in the Washington, DC area and is a member of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program.