I was privileged to preach at my church, St Lawrence’s Pudsey – also known as Pudsey Parish this Sunday. For those not able to come here is the text of my sermon.
Read the bible passage from Proverbs 31: 10-31 below this post or here
If you were here a couple of weeks ago Paul introduced the wisdom literature of the bible as the bible’s equivalent of the ‘man drawer’. Well, our reading from Proverbs today is like a love letter lurking at the back of that drawer!
This passage comes right at the very end of the book of Proverbs. It’s a poem or song written by a husband about his wonderful wife. It’s not just any old poem either, it’s an acrostic poem. A Hebrew acrostic poem is a particular poetical form, some of the Psalms use this structure, where each line of the poem begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This is why I think it is like a love letter – the writer has taken the alphabet and gone to the lengths of thinking of a verse about his wife for each letter of the alphabet! Now that’s what I call romantic!
It’s always important when reading the bible to understand the type of literature you are reading. The bible is full of different kinds of writing – it has law, history, biography, letters and what we are looking at today is a song. So as we unpack this a little more, keep in the back of your mind that we are reading a love song.
I think there are two ways to look at this passage, especially if you’re a woman. Firstly you can look at it and compare yourself to the woman being described. When I first read this passage it just made me feel a bit inadequate! I spoke to my mum this week about this sermon – I had this bible reading at my wedding and she read it. She confessed to me this week that at the end of the reading she was tempted to say “good luck with that!” I would call comparing yourself to the woman in the passage as the equivalent of seeing it like a L’oreal advert.
Here’s Cheryl Cole, all perfect and saying ‘because you’re worth it’. If I compare myself to her I just come away feeling miserable, ‘my skin will never look like that, I’ll never be that skinny, my hair will never be that shiny’.
The other way to look at this passage is to be inspired by the example of the woman. I think we were all able to do this during the Olympics. I didn’t watch Jessica Ennis thinking ‘I’ll never be able to run like that!’ I watched her and was inspired by her commitment to her goal and her dedication.
So I want us to look in a bit more detail at this song to see what inspiration we can draw from it for our own lives. Not looking at it as a ‘to-do’ list – it makes me exhausted just reading it! Rather we can look at it as an example to aspire to. Some scholars actually interpret this passage as being allegorical or what they call paradigmatic – that is, that they see it as an example of true wisdom personified as a woman (which is what we see in the opening chapters of Proverbs that we looked at last week). So it can be read as a personification of some ideals we can all aspire to – whether we’re men or women.
The first thing I want us to note is the first line: “A wife of noble character, who can find?”
The first two words that are translated as ‘a wife of noble character’ are, in Hebrew, ‘eshet chayil’. Eshet is the Hebrew word meaning “woman”.
Chayil is a much more richly varied word which can mean “to be firm or to endure” (Job 20:21), physical strength (Ps 18:40), moral strength (Ps 18:32), army (Ex 14:4), or wealth (2 Ki 15:20). It seems that originally the sense of chayil was to stand firm, as a soldier in battle. So we can suppose that an eshet-chayil is a person of strength (physical or moral) who stands firm. Many translate this phrase into English as ‘woman of valour’. This gives a different feel to the poem, I think, so it begins: ‘A woman of valour, who can find?’
The woman in the Proverbs passage is clearly quite a wealthy woman with a big family. She’s probably middle class and has quite a lot of resources available to her. If she were in Downton Abbey she’d be one of the ‘upstairs’ women, she has servant girls and buys a vineyard! (I’d love my own vineyard!)
However, there is just one other woman in the Old Testament who is called an eshet chayil. Can anyone guess?
It’s Ruth. Boaz calls her an eshet chayil in chapter 3:11: All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character. So it doesn’t just apply to married women either, Ruth is called a woman of valour because of her reputation for caring for Naomi and for working hard in the fields. Here Boaz uses the term to praise an outcast refugee girl from a different religion.
So the woman in Proverbs is kind of the equivalent of Samantha Cameron in our society – well respected, wealthy, a business woman, wife and mother.
Ruth is the equivalent in our society of my friend (who also happens to be called Ruth) who was an asylum seeker from Zimbabwe. She had no money or resources to speak of and was a stranger in a foreign land when she first arrived here.
These two women in the Old Testament in Proverbs and in Ruth are both called ‘women of valour’ – eshet chayil – so being one is not a matter of whether you are rich or poor, married or not: it is a matter of personal character.
There are three main qualities in the woman of valour in this song that I’d like us to think about:
Firstly, she uses her gifts and the resources available to her
She busies herself, she ‘doesn’t eat the bread of idleness’. She finds ways to be productive, using the skills and resources available to her. This is the bit I think reads a bit like superwoman and the bit that makes me think ‘gosh, I could never be like that’! But what can we take from this? She’s eager and enthusiastic in her work (she works with eager hands verse 13), she plans ahead, she uses her resources wisely – investing money well. How well do you think you’re using the gifts and material things God has given you?
Secondly, she puts the needs of others before herself
She makes sure she provides for those in her care and she gives to the poor. How can we provide for one another? It might not only be in physically feeding our families but also ringing a lonely friend for a catch up or writing a letter. Which charities can we support? I know lots of us support our link charities through our cell groups here at Pudsey.
Thirdly, she has a deep love for God that others see
Where can we see this? Well, firstly, in verse 25 it states ‘she can laugh at the days to come’. We can only look forward to the future when we put our hope in God. If we put our hope in ourselves or other people or in politicians then it is very difficult to ‘laugh at the future’. She embodies the verse from Nehemiah 8:10 that says ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength’. Her strength comes from her trust in God. Perhaps she’s also discovered what Paul discovered – the key to being content in all circumstances as he says in Phillippians 4:12.
Another place we can see her love for God is through the praises of her children and husband – in verse 28 – her children call her blessed. She’s not ‘lucky’, she has been blessed by God and those around her can see it.
Finally we see it in verse 30 ‘a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised’. The way she lives her life means that people praise God. Now that is something that inspires me! Jesus says ‘love one another, by this everyone will know that you are my disciples’. We should live in such a way that it points people to God. We know that in the book of Proverbs it is stated that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This woman’s deep trust in God makes her wise – which is how she has ‘faithful instruction on her tongue’(verse 26). How can our faith be inspirational to others? How can our trust in God point people to Him?
I think that is often the most powerful witness, when we are faced with hardship and suffering and we still trust in God and we still pray – that shows others what grace we have from Jesus, how living with Him in our lives we can face anything. Remember I mentioned earlier that the Hebrew word chayil is used to describe an army standing firm in the Old Testament? Paul uses the same analogy in Ephesians 6 when he says: Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. This is the quality of a person or woman of valour – that we can remain standing, trusting in God, like the song we sometimes sing: ‘on Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand’.
The final thing I want us to look at in this passage is the role of the husband – the person singing this song.
I emailed a Jewish colleague asking her if the phrase Eshet Chayil meant anything to her, here is her reply:
Yes of course it’s a sabbath song and it is in praise of the Jewish woman and how she is the homemaker, the role model, nurtures the children and extols the virtues of the woman in every way! It’s used as praise when a woman is seen to be a leader, kind good hearted, need I go on…….
So the passage we read today is actually a song still sung in Jewish homes on the Sabbath! So what application can we draw from that? Well I could tell all you men to go home today and sing a song of praise to your wife before she dishes up the Sunday Roast– but I’m not sure we’d want to impose that on our wonderful women! What I think is useful to note, however, is that the husband has noticed these qualities in his wife and has taken the time to recognise them, to praise them. My friend Sue also told me that the phrase eshet chayil is used by Jewish women as a term of encouragement – a kind of Jewish version of ‘you go girl’. It’s said to a woman when she’s shown leadership or achieved something.
I mentioned Jessica Ennis earlier. This song of praise we’ve been looking at today is the equivalent of the medal ceremony for Jessica Ennis. It’s a song in praise of achievements, in praise of what the woman has already done (v31) – not what she’s going to do. We saw over the Olympics just how much a difference it makes to celebrate achievements. One of the things I loved was the gold post boxes that were painted in the towns of gold medal winners – who’s been to see the one in Horsforth or in town near the Art Gallery?
How nice it’s been to celebrate our achievements. A business leader I work with says that ‘feedback is the breakfast of champions’ – and I totally agree with him.
So I think the final thing to take from today’s reading is this – when we see any of the qualities we’ve been looking at in our friends and the people around us, we should praise them.
Have you seen anyone using the resources available to them in a really good way? Who’s been using their talents well – already I can think of lots of people here, Glenn helping out with building the catwalk for the Wedding Fayre, Doug and his amazing skills with our sound desk – which must be one of the best in the country – I think when I’m on placements at other churches I’m going to really miss the fact that our microphones work this well! Who has been supporting the poor and needy? It was brilliant to see all the jumpers that were knitted by women in this church to be sent to Africa recently. Victoria and Jackie and others recently held a successful coffee morning for Marie Curie care. What a great inspiration to us all! Finally, when have you seen people showing a real faith and trust in God? When was the last time you praised someone for their faith in God, encouraged them to keep going?
As Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:11:
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
That is what the man who wrote this song to his wife was doing, praising the virtues of his wonderful wife. It’s what Jews even today do, by calling one another an eshet chayil – a woman of valour when they see strong faith, good leadership, wise instruction. We are very lucky that our community here is full of men and women of valour – let’s remind each other of that, let’s encourage each other to stand firm in the faith so that we, like the woman in this song, can laugh at the days to come because we trust in a God who loves and cares for us.
A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar.
She gets up while it is still dark;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her servant girls.
She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.
She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
In her hand she holds the distaff
and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.
When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
She makes coverings for her bed;
she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
Her husband is respected at the city gate,
where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes.
She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her the reward she has earned,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate. (Proverbs 31:10-31 NIVUK)
I couldn’t have written this without the help of the fantastic Rachel Held Evans and all her blog posts and research on this topic. Thanks Rachel for your encouragement and for sending me all those links! Eshet Chayil!
Check these out:
Thanks to Sue for the insight into the Jewish approach to this song and for teaching me to pronounce Eshet Chayil!