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The Perfect Woman
This chapter contains the words of King Lemuel, and a full portrait of a good wife. The word "Lemuel" may be regarded as meaning "dedicated to God." The words of the mother are here quoted. We have seen that mothers were regarded with great veneration in the East. The mothers of kings were treated with great distinction, and were known as "queen-mothers." We have seen that they were not always good women; on the contrary, some of them seem to have been inspired by the very spirit of evil. The mothers of Jewish kings are constantly mentioned in the Bible. It has been noticed as characteristic of Oriental courtesy that the mother of the Khedive ranks before his principal wife. It would seem then as if mothers were the orators of their families, teaching, exhorting, and stimulating them with many words of kindness and wisdom. The mother was indeed the schoolmistress of her family, the governess in the best sense, not looking merely after their bodily health and social comforts, but after the training and culture of their noblest nature. The style of Lemuel's mother is peculiar. She begins her exhortation by a thrice-repeated question: "What, my son? and what, the son of my womb? and what, the son of my vows? " meaning, What shall I say? what words shall I choose? how shall I best acquit myself of a very serious responsibility towards my child?
Lemuel was the son of his mother's vows. He may have been given, like Samuel, in answer to her prayers. She took a highly religious view of his personality, character, and destiny, and in this noble spirit she addressed to him certain noble moral exhortations. She would, for example, have him abstain from wine and strong drink, lest he should forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted. Observe how the control of a personal habit is based upon a grand moral reason. The principal concern of the mother was that the law should be remembered, and that judgment should be kept from perversion. Coming to her son in this relation, she came with infinite advantage, because it was to be assumed that as a king he was anxious to maintain the law and sustain the dignity and pureness of judgment. Lemuel's mother was wise in recognising that strong drink might be given to the man who was ready to perish, and wine might be administered to those that were of heavy hearts. It has been supposed that out of a merciful remembrance of this passage the pious ladies of Jerusalem were accustomed to provide a medicated drink for criminals condemned to be crucified. It is supposed further that this kind of preparation was offered to our Lord. It was not given to increase his pain, but to mitigate it. Probably the drink had some deadening effect upon the pain of the sufferer. Jesus Christ declined to have his agony assuaged by any such human invention. He would bear the anguish in every pang, and with a cloudless mind would pass through all the tragedy of his sacrifice. Lemuel's mother was thus anxious that her son's body and mind should be kept healthy and clear. Every evil thought takes so much force out of the brain; every passionate desire seems to diminish the immortality of man, that is to say, it takes out of him some degree of his vital power, lessens his manliness, nobility, and moral majesty. Surely a man may think an evil thought and be none the worse? Far from it: no evil thought can pass through the mind without leaving the mind poorer and weaker for its passage. The mind is, so to say, constituted with awful delicacy: it is sensitive beyond all we know of sensitiveness in material things; a shadow passing over it brings with it a deadly chill; one wandering thought wrecks the integrity and spoils the beauty of the mind. Thus many men deplete themselves inwardly whilst apparently living respectable lives. The depletion is not to be found in overt act, in outward and visible criminality: in such cases the iniquity is rolled under the tongue as a sweet morsel; the heart keeps silence in its festival of darkness; the soul and the devil commune in whispers, but not the less deadly is the effect of that whispered communion. Coming from it, man is enfeebled in prayer, bewildered in mind, beclouded in hope; a general sense of loss settles upon all the faculties of manhood, and night displaces day. Is there not room then for the exhortation of the moralist or the pious minister of God? Is he a fanatic who warns the young man to watch the rising of passion, to take care of the wandering of desire, to abstain from wines and strong drink? Such exhortation is not fanaticism: it is based on the highest psychology and physiology; for the good man sees that every thought that is not lifted upwards must drag the mind in a wrong direction, and every passion that strays away in illicit directions carries the mind with it into captivity.
The king's mother now advances in her pleas and arguments. Sweetly she says,
"Open thy mouth for the dumb in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction. Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy" ( Pro 31:8-9 ).
Observe, Lemuel is a king, and yet his mother invests him with the functions of an advocate. He is to be more than dignified; he is to be human, sympathetic, fraternal. He is no king who as an ivory deity sits upon a gilded throne at an immeasurable distance from the daily experience of his subjects: he is the true king who mingles with the people, who is the subject of his own nation, and who lives not for himself but for the public weal. The "dumb" are those who on account of timidity or ignorance cannot state their own case to advantage, cannot argue it with cogency and eloquence, and who for want of the power to put their case aright may be misjudged and even doomed. The Bible is in thorough consonancy with itself in all these exhortations. This is no solitary instance in which the dumb are entrusted to the eloquent, and in which the poor are placed under the fraternal patronage of the wealthy, "Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour" ( Lev 19:15 ). Thus in the very earliest pages of the Bible we find a tender regard for the poor.
The seventy-second Psalm is full of music regarding One who is to come and reign over the earth. We are anxious to know the attributes of the King who is to have dominion from sea to sea; the very greatness of Ms dominion interests us in his moral character; if such dominion be not associated with the highest moral graces it will of necessity be an infinite disaster. What, then, is said of him who is to handle the universal sceptre? These are some of his characteristics: "He shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper. He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy. He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence: and precious shall their blood be in his sight." Ought not the poor to reverence a book filled with such exhortations and predictions? Is the Bible wholly given over to metaphysical disquisition, to the discussion of words, and to the illumination of mystical points? No better answer can be given than is found in Psalms 82:3-4 : "Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked."
Thus the moral qualifications of men are put above all merely intellectual and ceremonial dignities. The greater the intellect the more mischievous the ministry, if it be not balanced by a noble and sympathetic heart. If we cannot all be great we can all be good, and the time will come when goodness will be discovered to be the true and abiding greatness.
Next follows a full-length portrait of a virtuous woman or wife. It has been noticed that this is written in the form of an acrostic, the twenty-two verses composing it each commencing with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This may have been done, as in the case of several of the Psalms which are of a didactic character (for example, xxv., xxxiv., xxxvii., cxix.), to render it more easy for committal to memory. Such is the opinion of a writer in Bishop Ellicott's Commentary, and the same authority points out that the ninth Psalm is cast in the same form. The tenth verse opens with an ominous question, "Who can find a virtuous woman?" Some have supposed this woman to be a symbolical or mystical character, representing in human outline the Law, the Church, or the Holy Spirit. There is no need to refer to such figurative representation. Womanhood, as we understand it, may be represented in all the features which are here so graphically depicted. "Who can find a virtuous woman?" is an interrogation not to be understood as denying the existence of such; the question is used for the purpose of magnifying the price of the ideal and perfect womanhood, "Her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil." Whatever he earns by industry she will multiply by economy. His capital shall bring a rich interest by reason of the carefulness of his wife. She is a working woman; she does not live in luxury and indolence: contrariwise, "she seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands," that is, with the pleasure or willingness of her hands, as if her hands caught the inspiration of her heart, and her labour ceased to be a toil, and became a pleasure and a most profitable delight. "She is like the merchants' ships; she bringeth her food from afar:" she is always looking out for chances, for advantages of a legitimate kind; if necessary she will not consider distance any disadvantage in order that she may live economically, or turn to the best use such property as may be entrusted to her.
"She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens" ( Pro 31:15 ).
"She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard" ( Pro 31:16 ).
"She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy" ( Pro 31:20 ).
"Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land" ( Pro 31:23 ).
So closes the Book of Proverbs. In the first chapter we found father and mother advising a listening son; now we find a woman drawn in full-length with the skill of heaven and the feeling of love. Such a woman is the mother of the world. Evermore will the world need such a mother, to nurse it in sickness and comfort it in all the darkness of sorrow. The Bible recognises the beauty, the dignity, and the worth of women beyond all other books. Would you see a true woman: she is here drawn at full length. What feature is wanting? What hue is lacking? By this standard may women measure themselves; in this mirror may women see themselves; this is the ideal woman, therefore the real woman, not as seen in any one individual, but as totalised in the womanhood of the world.
"A woman's affection is often the cause of a woman's wit. "It was a beautiful turn given by a great lady who, being asked where her husband was, when he lay concealed for being deeply concerned in a conspiracy, resolutely answered, 'She had hid him.' This confession drew her before the king, who told her nothing but her discovering where her lord was concealed could save her from the torture. 'And will that do?' said the lady. 'Yes,' said the king, 'I give you my word for it' 'Then,' said she, 'I have hid him in my heart, where you'll find him.'"
Few writers have had greater power of expression than Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even he rose to an unusual eloquence when he discoursed upon the moral glories of womanhood. Speaking of women he says, "They are more delicate than men delicate as iodine to light and thus more impressionable. They are the best index of the coming hour." Quoting Coleridge, he says, "Take their first advice, not their second." Coleridge once applied to a lady for her judgment; when she gave him her opinion, she added," I think so, because-------" "Pardon me, madam," he said, "leave me to find out the reasons for myself." Continuing, Emerson says, "In this sense, as more delicate mercuries of the imponderable and immaterial influences, what they say and think is the shadow of coming events.... Men remark figure; women always catch the expression. They inspire by a look, and pass with us not so much by what they say or do, as by their presence. They learn so fast, and convey the result so fast, as to outrun the logic of their slow brother and make his acquisitions poor. 'Tis their mood and tone that is important. Does their mind misgive them, or are they firm and cheerful? 'Tis a true report that things are going ill or well. And any remarkable opinion or movement shared by woman will be the first sign of revolution."
Emerson attributes high influence to the silent ministry of women. Without saying much they may do much, and even when they say much their action may far transcend the eloquence of their mere words. The philosopher says, "Women are, by their conversation and their social influence, the civilisers of mankind.... They finish society, manners, language; form and ceremony are their realm. They embellish trifles.... Their genius delights in ceremonies, in forms, in decorating life with manners, with proprieties, order, and grace. They are, in their nature, mere relative; the circumstance must always be fit; out of place they lose half their weight out of place they are disfranchised. Position, Wren said, is essential to the perfecting of beauty, a fine building is lost in a dark lane; a statue should stand in the air. Much more true is it of woman."
But what will avail all eloquent description? The portrait of a true woman is drawn, not to be admired, but to be reproduced in living character. It will be a grievous mistake to suppose that nothing that is less than heroic is to be attempted either by men or women. We deceive ourselves when we think that if some great occasion would arise we should be equal to the sublime opportunity, but it is not worth our while to attend to daily tasks and little services and small occasions. Here the rule holds good as elsewhere, "He that is faithful in little is faithful also in much." Every man or woman can find a sphere of usefulness if disposed to find it What a school may the house become; what a church of the living God is the family; within the four walls of a home what battles may be fought, what victories may be won! Each should consider what he can do to contribute towards the general weal. A gracious word, a tender look, an assurance of sympathy, how far these go, and what miracles they work! How they abide in the memory; how they enable the soul to sing in the nighttime; how full they are of divine encouragement We are to look, in many things, towards the ideal, and not to content ourselves with a cold estimate of the actual. Nor are we to mock the actual by its shortcoming in view of the ideal. It is enough for us that we strive towards the right mark, that we press in the prescribed direction, that we feel after God with all the determination of inspired energy. A man who so acts will feel more than any of his critics can feel how far he fails in attaining the object he has in view; but there is reward in the strenuous endeavour. Heaven itself begins in this purposed industry, this industry that has about it the sacredness of a consecration and a sacrifice. The Bible is full of ideal characters, and it is not afraid to show actual character in some of its completest humiliations. The two pictures are bound in the sacred volume. We have moral loftiness that is apparently unapproachable; we have degradation that shocks the very first sensations of morality; we have exhortations that encourage the weakest of us to attempt: the greatest things that have ever taxed human energies. In the ideal we are to see what we may become: in the actual we see what we have to avoid. In all these struggles after the higher life our only safety is in companionship with Jesus Christ. He will sympathise with us in our failures; he will know when we set out with a high purpose, and when we have been faithful in a wise resolution, and according to our inward thought will he abundantly reward us at the last. He never complains of any man who does his best. Of one poor woman he said, "She hath done what she could." That is the spirit in which he will judge us. At last he will surprise us by finding beauty where we have seen none, and by rewarding excellences where we ourselves have been bowed down in a spirit of dejection. Let us not judge ourselves, and let us not judge other men. One is our judge, and his criticism will be full of grace and truth. Blessed is that heart which can say, Lord, have me always in thy keeping: mould me, inspire me, and complete thy purpose in me, giving me contentment and enriching me with hope.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Proverbs 31". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26