The Old Testament Reading from Proverbs 31 speaks of the virtues of an excellent wife. As we read it and try to apply it to wives, we will likely find ourselves or others wanting. This reads as a very difficult list of tasks. A man thinking of his wife may think, “Well, she makes linen garments, but she does not supply sashes for the merchants. I guess my wife falls short.” Or a wife may think, “Gee, I do a lot of the things in this list, but not others. I guess I fall short.”
To such thoughts I say, Do not get tangled in the details. A fine wife will do some things not listed here, but omit some that are. It does not say that a woman must do all of them or she is a bad wife. If nothing else, the historical circumstances have changed. For instance, I doubt that any of us use oil lamps at night. A wife’s husband does not sit in the city gates, since there are no literal gates of modern cities. And so forth.
Yet a good wife will engage in some of these actions, or others similar to them. A wife is not idle, but works hard in many ways for her family. Her greatest beauty is not her appearance, but in her fine character and spirit of service. Her own works praise her.
So wives, do not be too hard on yourselves. Notice when you do fine things. Do not notice it in a spirit of pride, but in humble thankfulness to the Holy Spirit who produces good fruit from you.
Husbands and children, notice the praiseworthy actions of your wife and mother. God shows many examples of His love through the vocation of wife. If she does things that are praiseworthy, then praise them. She needs to hear, and God also wants you to have thankful and cheerful hearts.
Future wives, it is good to look at these attributes of a good wife, and ponder how you may someday fulfill this vocation with selfless love.
Because that is the point of a wife’s hard work – not that she is displaying how great she is. No, she shows her loving heart by the arduous work she performs for her family.
But if we nitpick and find fault with one another’s vocations, how dismal that could be! Especially wives should not be characterized by their shortcomings, either in their own minds or the minds of others. By all means, work on the areas where you fall short, whoever you are. But do not think what a failure you or someone else is because you see only what is wrong in their vocation. We all have faults, and may we learn to see past them to the noble works that God produces in our lives. A spirit of love should do no less.
This is not to say that we should ignore sin. Where that occurs, may we be quick to repent and quick to forgive one another. But in matters of service, let us not be harsh taskmasters, finding fault with everything. There is no joy in that kind of life for anybody involved. Let us strive for a better way.
There is also a deeper and more majestic meaning seen in Proverbs 31. In some passages of Scripture, the Church is compared to a wife, particularly Ephesians five, and the book of Revelation. It makes sense that the greatest fulfillment of wifely virtue is the Bride of Christ. The vocation of marriage points to the even greater mystery of Christ and the Church. So in passages like Proverbs 31 we can find this mystery described in a subtle way, as it also is in Psalm 45, the Song of Solomon.
Even if someone does not agree that Proverbs 31 is directly about the Church, it must be at least indirectly about the Church, since she is the Bride of Christ.
Once we see this, the text of Proverbs 31 can provide many parallels between the excellent wife and the Church. In each virtue she displays, the Church shows that she is the perfect helper fit for Him, as Eve was created to be for Adam. The Second Adam, Christ, not only receives His perfect wife, but He creates her and cleanses her to present her as a spotless bride before His Father.
This interpretation of Proverbs 31 is not simply a personal opinion on the text, but is found in various teachings of the Church fathers from the early Church onward. I will quote just a few examples.
Saint Augustine commented on verse 26, which says, 'Law and kindness are on her tongue.' Augustine says, 'Therefore it is written of wisdom that she bears law and kindness on her tongue for this reason—law, in order that she may render the proud guilty; kindness, in order that she may justify the humbled.' Here Augustine describes the speaking of the Church, identifying law and kindness with the preaching of Law and Gospel. Now, our ESV calls this "teaching of kindness", which could also describe the Church’s teaching of the Word. Regardless, the point is the identification of the excellent wife as the Church.
Saint Ambrose wrote these words regarding Proverbs 31: “The beauty of a good thing pleases the more, if it be shown under various aspects. For those are good things, whereof the texture of the priestly robe was the token, that is to say, either the Law, or the Church, which latter hath made two garments for her spouse, as it is written—the one of action, the other of spirit, weaving together the threads of faith and works." Here Ambrose identifies the Church as a wife who weaves together two kinds of thread to make clothing.
We can see the ministry of the Church in the excellent wife who spends a lot of time spinning and sewing and feeding. Since it says that strength and honor are her clothing, therefore the Holy Spirit shows us that there is a figurative meaning here. So we can recognize the Church, who sews the most wonderful baptismal garment of righteousness for her children. As Proverbs says: "She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet." No better clothing can be found than the robes received in Baptism, which are washed clean in the scarlet blood of the Lamb. With this robe, a child of the Church can get through any weather that this sinful world can inflict by its persecutions.
The Church also feeds her children the Feast of Salvation by giving them the Bread of Life, by teaching Christ who is spiritually eaten in faith. But also she feeds them the Sacrament of her Bridegroom’s Body and Blood, the meal He has given her to distribute by dying and rising.
The Bride of Christ not only provides for those in her care, she is also diligent in whatever work of love is before her. She serves as a merchant and steward for her Husband in her efforts to wifely use the gifts He has given her. She "opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy," since the Church is always concerned with charity work.
What husband would not trust in such a wife? As it also says, "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." After all, the Bridegroom of the Church has made His bride secure against the gates of Hell, which cannot prevail against her. She gives Him gain by making disciples of all nations, or as a parable puts it, she invests the riches He owns in order to make much more besides. So the Church uses the riches of the Word of Christ to bring faith to unbelievers. And it also says, "Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come." In other words, the Church has nothing to fear in the coming tribulations. For her Lord has made her secure.
He gave everything for this excellent wife, as the rich man in the parable gave all he had to purchase the pearl of great price. This is very much like what Proverbs says: “Who can find such a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies."
As we look at Proverbs 31, there are certainly virtues in the excellent wife that can be praised in a fine earthly wife. However, the text strongly hints that there is only one example of such a woman to be found. The Proverb begins with this statement: "Who can find such a woman? She is far more precious than jewels." It ends with this: "Many daughters have done virtuously, but you have surpassed them all." In other words, although many wives perform some of these things well, there is only one who is the very best, namely, the holy Church.
If we make this only about earthly wives, then how could a woman find time for all these tasks? A godly wife and mother barely has enough time to care for her husband, children, and home, let alone engaging in real estate purchases, planting vineyards, finding wool and flax, not to mention making and selling linen garments, and delivering sashes to merchants. A wife who attempts to imitate all these things would take a toll upon her primary vocations of wife and mother.
So do not fail to praise the virtuous wives and mothers in your life. Yet do not fail to see the greater mystery of Christ and His Bride, who surpasses all earthly wives. Women should not be slavishly measured against the accomplishments of the Proverbs 31 woman. Instead, we all should find our glory and comfort and shelter within her, the Mother who begets all believers through the Word of Christ on her lips.
In the Name of this wonderful Bridegroom. Amen.
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