By Marcia Hornok
What to Look For
Here’s what to look for in a wife, but you probably won’t find her. Most of us think that is what Prov 31:10 means when it says, “Who can find a virtuous woman, for her price is far above ubies?” (KJV). Then follows a list of nearly impossible virtues regarding character, industry, and achievements, with little mention of her temperament, energy potential, or opportunities. No wonder his Biblical poem is considered metaphorical or cultural or a worthy goal, but rather elusive, like sinlessness.
Does Prov 31:10 mean this ideal woman is rare and difficult to find?
In answer, consider first of all to whom the poem is addressed. Not to women, but to unmarried men, telling them what to seek in a wife. This focuses on guys as well as gals.
Second, note that the Hebrew word for find can mean more than to discover. In Proverbs it usually has a cause-effect context: if you do this, you will find that. Yes, it can mean to obtain, but also to attain (by seeking). We may even say to deserve. For example, people find favor and honor when they do what is necessary to attain them (Prov 3:3-4; 16:20; 21:21). Conversely, a man who commits adultery will find or deserve wounds and disgrace (Prov 6:33).
Third, before concluding that v 10 poses a dilemma, look at v 29, in which the husband says, “Many daughters have done virtuously.” Why does that statement seem counter to v 10? I surmise it’s because many Christian men have wives who fear the Lord (v 30), which means they are not all that rare, even though they are valuable—“far above rubies.”
Why then was Ruth the only woman in the Bible who was called virtuous (Ruth 3:11)? I can’t be sure, but perhaps most of the Bible women “did virtuously,” and so it went without saying. Ruth may have been singled out to show that women of every ethnicity and background are included.
To sum up, we can view v 10 as a preview, not a predicament. A man who desires a virtuous wife, one who fears God, should also deserve such a valuable woman. Then she will be attracted to his qualities, as he is to hers.
What is Virtue?
The Hebrew word for virtue has a broad meaning that includes valor, courage, expertise, wealth, excellence, and strength—especially military strength. It seems to be a combination of physical and moral qualities and is used almost exclusively of men. Only five verses associate the word with women—Prov 12:4; 31:10 and 29; Ruth 3:11 and 4:11.
What virtues or strengths characterize the Proverbs 31 woman? Seven lines refer to her sewing skills. Seeking wool and flax, she works with her hands in delight (v 13); she uses a distaff and spindle (v 19); she provides for the needy, possibly with clothing she has made (v 20); she clothes her family with scarlet or double cloth (v 21) and herself with linen and purple (v 22). She makes her own tapestries (v 22), as well as linen garments and sashes for the tradesmen (v 24).
Her ability to create goods from raw materials benefitted herself, her family, and people in need. As those skills developed over time, in her later years merchants wanted to buy her products. All this points to virtue as useful abilities or skills.1 What about Ruth? Was her virtue picking barley?
Boaz told Ruth that all the people of the town considered her a virtuous woman (Ruth 3:11). He said this because he knew she had given up her previous life to care for her mother-in-law and to place herself under God’s wings (Ruth 2:11-12). Ruth’s virtue was taking care of Naomi while depending on God. Her endeavors as a caregiver benefitted her household of two, as well as the Bethlehem community (4:11-14). Eventually her line produced King David, and Messiah came through him, thus affecting the entire world. All because Ruth helped her mother-in-law, which was God’s main purpose for her.
Consider other God-fearing Bible wives, such as Sarah, Leah, Rachel, Manoah’s wife, Hannah, and Bathsheba. Their expertise simply involved the praiseworthy values of being a faithful wife and raising a son who served God.
What is Your Virtue?
This should encourage every Christian woman who lives to please God. Whether or not you are married, you have skills that can benefit your household—the people you live with, if any—and people who have needs you can meet. So answer these two questions: 1) What are you good at? 2) How does that endeavor help others? That’s it! Virtue involves a pursuit(s) which you enjoy, but not merely for self-fulfillment. Sometimes we women fixate on a fun hobby, but if we cannot use it in serving others, it is not virtuous. Virtue is not only what we do, but why we do it—for God’s pleasure.
Your virtues may change as you age and will definitely evolve as you develop them during your lifetime. Virtue does not mean perfection. Nor is it one-size-fits-all. Don’t think that Proverbs 31 exhorts women to make things from scratch or be busy every day or burn the candle2 at both ends, so to speak. The emphasis is not on busyness but fruitfulness. The poem even refers to “the fruit of her hands”3 seven times, the number of completion.
The virtuous woman’s capstone quality was not homemaking expertise—it was godly fear (v 30). When we live with God in mind while using our skills to serve others, we are virtuous. Loving God and loving people will fulfill the Proverbs 31 standards. Who then can find a virtuous woman? Just look in the mirror.
Marcia and her husband Ken, a retired pastor, live in Salt Lake City, where they raised six children and now enjoy 12 grandchildren. For a free digital copy of an illustrated book of 40 Brief Evangelistic Analogies, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. For further explanation, see this author’s article, “A No-Guilt Look at Proverbs 31,” GIF May/June 2018.
2. Getting this idea from v 18 is a misapplication. The context of that verse involves “merchandise” (shopping!). Her lamp not going out means she has enough oil. By shopping wisely, she keeps necessities supplied.
3. Unfortunately, some English translations negate this phrase in v 16 and substitute “earnings” or “profits,” which are not in the Hebrew text.