Saturday, August 10, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (71)

As mentioned in the previous two posts in this series, the description of an excellent wife in Proverbs 31 is frequently dismissed by its modern critics as anachronistic. They point to words like “distaff” and “maidens” and mockingly inquire whether all Christian women ought to have a loom in the house and servants to call on.

It is true that the excellent wife’s described routine is that of a fairly well-to-do Hebrew woman some three thousand years ago. That said, it should be evident that our habits and routines declare to the world what sort of person we are. A wife who habitually falls asleep on the couch at 2 a.m. after a few cocktails and a movie, then struggles out of bed bleary-eyed around noon to lounge by the pool gossiping with her girlfriends is not simply operating on a slightly different schedule than the home-schooling mother of three down the street. Her habits are making a statement about her values and character.

Good character remains good character whether we see it displayed in the daily activities of 1000 BC or in those of AD 2019.

The Oracle of King Lemuel (Proverbs 31:11-15)

This being the case, let’s see what we can learn from King Lemuel’s mother about the character qualities of an excellent wife.

An Excellent Wife is Trustworthy
“The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.”
It is possible to entrust resources to a person who is undependable and self-serving. In business it is often necessary, though you grit your teeth when you have to do it. The Lord Jesus told a parable about just that sort of servant.

This is different. It’s confidence that comes from the level of the heart. For the husband of an excellent wife, putting resources into her hands is not a one-off test of dependability, honesty and efficiency. It’s not something the husband does because he has to do it or because he fears being thought controlling and unfair. Rather, like Potiphar with Joseph, the husband is able to leave all that he has in his wife’s charge, and because of her have no concern about anything except perhaps a mild curiosity about what might be simmering on the stovetop when he gets home from work. His mind is free to attend to the daily obligations he has before him without the slightest concern about what his wife might be getting up to and how it might negatively impact him.

There was a time not so long ago when it was almost always men who handled household finances, and the woman of the house might not do much more than write the occasional cheque when hubby was not present. (You remember cheques, right?) I’m not sure that is the most biblical approach. In Proverbs, an excellent wife is a trustworthy house-manager. The extent to which that involves discretionary spending will shortly become clear.

But of course there is more to trusting one’s wife than having a reasonable expectation that she will not flush hard-earned money down the drain. The second line tells us the husband of an excellent wife will have “no lack of gain”. Other translators go with “he will lack nothing good.” This somewhat weakens the effect of the Hebrew shalal (“gain”, ESV), which everywhere else in the Old Testament is translated “booty”, “spoil”, or “plunder”. The implication is not just that the excellent wife is not a drain on the family resources, but that she is an active contributor, not by leaving the home to earn an income from employment, but by virtue of the way she handles what is put into her care. She is skilled at turning a little into a lot.

That’s the sort of wife in whom a man can have full confidence.

An Excellent Wife is Focused on Helping
She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.”
An excellent wife is a help to her husband. This was God’s intention from the very beginning. It was for this reason that he provided Eve to Adam. I’ve written a fairly sizable post on the subject of the phrase “helper fit for him” in Genesis 2, replete with enough disclaimers to choke a camel, so I won’t restate them all here. Suffice it to say that being called a helper is the furthest thing from an insult.

In any case, “man was not created for woman, but woman for man,” as the apostle Paul puts it. Thus, while a single woman may achieve excellence by devoting herself to the service of God, a wife achieves excellence by helping her husband become excellent at what he does. This being the case, Christian wives who reject life as an “unpaid domestic” in order to spend their time attempting to “find themselves” or “self-actualize” are bound to come away unsatisfied with the results, as in doing so they are setting themselves in opposition to their own design and purpose in the world. Their greatest happiness is to be found not in setting their own agenda, but in aiding and abetting their husbands in pursuing the goals to which God is directing them. As such, an excellent wife is an active participant in her husband’s successes and a full partner in his endeavors.

Sadly, wives who consider it demeaning to function in the world as helpers to their husbands are uniquely positioned to sabotage them. A man who is forced to spend his life putting out the fires started by his wife or obliged to plead, cajole, supplicate or manipulate her into behaving decently is not going to accomplish much. He will be perpetually distracted from everything else.

An Excellent Wife is Enthusiastic
“She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.”
Wool garments can be purchased more cheaply and easily today than they can be made at home, and I can’t remember the last time I used flax for anything other than flossing my teeth. The takeaway here is not so much the activity in which the excellent wife engages, but the fact that she approaches her work with enthusiasm.

The word “willing” here is chephets, meaning “with delight” or “with pleasure”. She enters her labors not begrudgingly, but with a sense that she is doing something worthwhile. Paul gives a further reason in Colossians when he says “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” This truth may not have been spelled out explicitly for the excellent wives in Lemuel’s kingdom, but it is evident some women of his day entered into their labors with the same passion that Christians are encouraged to fan into flame.

Nowhere is enthusiasm more important than in the area of hospitality. There is nothing more delightful for a guest in someone’s home than to be given the impression that their host or hostess truly takes pleasure in serving them. If you don’t, I say fake it ’til you make it. Showing hospitality is a critical feature of the Christian lifestyle, and believers today really ought to work at getting better at it. One thing a prospective hostess needs to be aware of from the get-go is that few guests are comfortable in your home if they think they are in any way an imposition. An excellent wife will never leave that impression on a visitor.

An Excellent Wife is Family-Focused
“She is like the ships of the merchant;
she brings her food from afar.”
The excellent wife in Proverbs is not exactly barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, as the old stereotype goes. She seems to get out and about as required. All the same, the center of her life is the family home. Whatever wheeling, dealing and traveling she engages in is not in service of a corporation or an abstract cause, but rather in aid of enhancing the situation of her family and meeting its needs. She “brings her food” from afar. When she goes out, it is with her responsibilities at home in view.

An Excellent Wife is Hard-Working
“She rises while it is yet night and provides food
for her household
and portions for her maidens.”
I suspect “maidens” here refers to domestic servants. While the Hebrew word may indicate either a daughter or a female servant, the “maidens” in this verse appear to be distinguished from the “household”. That makes for an interesting picture: the woman of the house up earlier than anyone else — including her own servants! — ensuring that everything is in order for the day. Though she has people around who could probably do the job, she takes ultimate responsibility for all meal arrangements. This is not some mint julep-sipping lady of leisure. She is an administrator par excellence, and she ensures she maintains control of her home by beating everyone else out of bed.

Original image courtesy [CC BY 2.0 de]

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