Home Faith Higher Ground – Mother’s Day and Proverbs 31: What’s the Real Message?...

Higher Ground – Mother’s Day and Proverbs 31: What’s the Real Message? by Dr. Leroy Goertzen

1398
0

I’ve preached many a sermon on Mother’s Day—usually with expectation and delight since most mothers in the congregation would insist on attending church that Sunday. It’s unsurprising that Mother’s Day is the highest-attended service of the year except for Easter and Christmas. It was sheer joy to see entire families sit with their moms. Some family members hadn’t darkened the doorway of a church since—well, since last Mother’s Day!  

But oh my, what does one preach on Mother’s Day?  I recall being told tongue-in-cheek on a few occasions that another sermon from Proverbs 31 wouldn’t be necessary—perish the thought! To be fair, I’ve heard a few sermons from Proverbs 31 that didn’t seem necessary. 😊 

Proverbs 31 is a thorny but delicate passage that can send all the wrong vibes when it is more about what wives are supposed to do than what wives contribute in our world. This passage becomes squeamishly uncomfortable when preached without cultural sensibilities. We live in 21st-century America, not the Early Iron Age of 10th-century B.C. Judah. However, believing that God’s Word is eternally true and authoritative for all people, I want to reconsider this elegant but complex passage and offer a fundamental yet profound insight that is often overlooked in favor of exegeting the duties that are presumed to characterize virtuous women. Allow me to lay the groundwork.

Proverbs 31 is the final chapter of the book of Proverbs. The passage, often labeled “The Wife of Noble Character,” is the book’s final section (31:10-31). Considering the literary nature of this book, this section seems out of place. Why does a book primarily of individual proverbs end with a story about a virtuous woman? Good question, right?!

First, the book’s final section is not just any proverb; it’s a poem. As such, it develops a single topic over the final 22 verses of the book—a rare feature in the Book of Proverbs. Most proverbs are stand-alone couplets consisting of pithy sayings. This poem is a departure from the norm, a unique gem in the Book of Proverbs. Writers, however, often use lengthy poems to conclude sections or books to summarize the whole composition’s overarching message. Hmm?

Second, this poem of 22 verses is an acrostic, where each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. What’s up with that? This is a rhetorical device used occasionally by Biblical writers to discuss a single topic creatively, comprehensively, and memorably. Everything you might want to know about the wife of noble character, from Aleph to Taw (like the Greek—Alpha to Omega), is presented here, making the total message greater than the sum of its details. 

Third, all the terms and expressions used to describe the wife’s value (10-12), her activities (13-27), and her praise (28-31) are not new; they have been used repeatedly throughout Proverbs to describe Lady Wisdom. Lady Wisdom? Okay…Who is she? The short answer: Wisdom Personified. This acrostic poem is a composite of virtually everything the writer has said thus far about wisdom—all summed up in this description of the wife of noble character. This is what wisdom looks like in contrast to Lady Folly, who is also described recurrently throughout the book.

Finally, Proverbs (and this poem) ends with these verses: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised….” (31:30-31). Oh! But we’ve read this before! Proverbs begins with the same thought to form an inclusion (another literary device); “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7). But wait! That, too, sounds familiar! The Prologue of Proverbs (chs. 1-9) ends with, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (9:10). Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the writer/compiler of Proverbs envelopes the main idea he seeks to convey: the way of wisdom begins and ends with the fear of the LORD. Lady Wisdom is who she is because she has humbly accepted the Lord’s ways as right and good. The wife of noble character, then, is the woman who first and foremost fears the LORD—evidenced by a life of wisdom displayed practically in every conceivable role. 

Okay, then, what does all this technical literary detail have to do with Mother’s Day and an over-preached passage of Scripture associated with it? Both less and more than one might think! Far from being a literal, demanding checklist to assess (or inspire the characteristics of) virtuous women, this acrostic poem exhorts ALL people, female and male, to aspire to and apply the principles of wisdom taught throughout Proverbs. Moreover, this wisdom is the outflow of a deep, abiding reverence for God. 

Do we want to be wise? Virtuous? Noble? Let’s humble ourselves in awe of God’s majesty and power, recognizing that He is God and we are not.  Do we want to be mothers whose children call us blessed? Whose spouses praise us? Whose deeds inspire a community-wide reputation of blessing? Then let’s humbly acknowledge our absolute dependence on His grace and mercy, looking to Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption (1 Cor 1:30).