The Reciprocity of Role Relations
One of the most glorious aspects of biblical truth is that God has purposed to reveal His manifold wisdom in giving us glimpses into the way in which He has ordered things and why He has ordered them in the specific way that He has. This is seen in everything from the creation of the stars “for signs” (see Gen. 1:14 and Matt. 2:2; 9) to the “trees” for a cross (see Gen. 1:11 and 1 Peter 2:24). In a day when the role relations that He has ordered within the sphere of marriage has been under attack, it is important for us to note the reciprocal wisdom that He has built into the husband wife relationship. While this is certainly seen in such passages as Ephesians 5:22-33, it is perhaps nowhere as carefully noted as in Proverbs 31:10-31. Surely the latter passage must be read in light of the former in redemptive-history, however, the intention of the latter is somewhat distinct from the former.
Because Proverbs 31:10-31 generally garners more attention around that time of year when we celebrate our mothers and wives in a special way, it has commonly been referred to as the description of “The Proverbs 31 Woman” or “the Virtuous Wife.” While certainly the major focal point in the chapter, the wife and mother is not the only one about whom we are being told something in the text. In fact, it is precisely her role as wife and mother—and the relationship that she sustains to her husband and children—that structures the passage. There are things that we learn about the husband and children in addition to what we learn about the wife and mother. I would suggest that the text tells us more about the husband than is often noted, and helps us understand more about the roles of the husband and wife. In order to get the theological nuances, it will help us to briefly consider the structure of the chapter, the details about the wife and the details about the husband. In this way, we will see that Proverbs 31:10-31 should really bear the title, “The Reciprocal Wisdom of the Proverbs 31 Husband and Wife.”
The chapter contains the inscripturated words of King Lemuel’s mother (v. 1). Whether Lemuel (lit. “Belonging to God”) is an esoteric nickname for Solomon, or whether he was a Hebrew proselyte from Babylon (or some other Ancient Near Eastern country), we have a Proverbs 31 women conveying the wisdom found in Proverbs 31 to her son who has subsequently listened to his mother and become what he has by heading her counsel. Though the King sits in the highest position in leadership in the Ancient Near East—it may also be said that, in a certain sense, he is counted among the elders who “sits at the gates” of the city. In this way, we can see the wisdom of his mother’s counsel (Prov. 31:23). He is the leader par excellence among the leaders in the land. The words that his mother taught him, no doubt, played a significant role in getting him to that place.
The general flow of the mother’s counsel to her son respects sin that will keep him from succeeding in what he does (i.e. adultery, drunkenness and injustice – see vv. 2-9). Her first injunction may be said to be the most important: “Do not give your strength to women, nor your ways to those who destroy kings.” Sadly, both the lives of David and Solomon reflect the importance of this warning. In fact, there is a remarkable parallel between the warning of Lemuel’s mother and that about the adulterous woman in Proverbs 7: “She has cast down many wounded, and all who were slain by her were strong men” (Prov. 7:26). It is this opening counsel that structures the teaching of Lemuel’s mother in Prov. 31:10-31. The safeguarding of a life, leadership and ministry is, in large part, dependent on a wise and godly man finding a wise and godly wife for himself. He will only do so as he seeks out the virtues outlined in Proverbs 31. Lemuel’s mother is an example of such a virtuous woman. The instruction that she relayed to her son is an example of what she teaches him in v. 26. He needs that wisdom in order to grow up to “sit at the gates.”
The Proverbs 31 woman isn’t a mute, weak, socially detached homemaker. She is a wise, strong, industrious, and socially engaged homemaker. She has an affection, devotion, commitment and wisdom that her husband and children need. She has entrepreneurial skills that she employs for the well-being of her home (vv. 13-18). She is merciful to those in need (v. 20). What she does, she does for good of all in her home; but, what she does, she preeminently does in order to help her husband. She fills the role that God has appointed for her as a wife and mother. The description of the Proverbs 31 woman opens with the words, “The heart of her husband safely trusts her; so he will have no lack of gain. She does him good and not evil all the days of her life” (vv. 11-12). Herein we begin to see the manifold wisdom of God. The husband benefits when the wife settles into her God-given role.
The passage tells us about the husband and his role in order to help us understand how it is that when the wife fulfills her God-given role it affects her husband being able to fulfill his. It is said of him: “Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land” (v. 23). The husband of the virtuous wife thrives in societal leadership. It may have been political or spiritual leadership that Lemuel’s mother had in mind; but, in whatever form it may take—this much we can be assured of—the Proverbs 31 wife helps to produce a Proverbs 31 husband. By his wife’s diligent labors, he is freed up to lead in the public square. It is in this way that Lemuel’s mother could open with those words, “he will have no lack of gain.” She fulfills her God-given role so that he can fulfill his God-given role.
If this were all that was said, it would seem to be sufficient to prove the wisdom of God in the specific husband and wife role relations that He has ordained. But, there’s more. At the end of the chapter, Lemuel’s mother sums up the benefit of both the Proverbs 31wife and the Proverbs 31 husband fulfilling their respective roles when she says:
“Her children rise up and call her blessed; Her husband also, and he praises her: ’Many daughters have done well, But you excel them all.’ Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates.”
Here we have the climax. The Proverbs 31 wife labors to bless her home and husband. The fruit of her hands is seen in the fact that her husband gets to sit among the elders “in the city gates.” But, it is not just that he sits in the gates. The Proverbs 31 husband praises his Proverbs 31 wife at the city gates. We are told that “he praises her” (v. 28). We are told how he praises her: “Many daughters have done well, but you excel them all” (v. 29). We are told where he praises her: “in the gates” (v. 31). He goes out to the other leaders and essentially says, “My wife is amazing. She does this and this and this and this for our home. I have the best wife a man could ever want.” He then comes home and she realizes the fruit of her labors at the gates. She then turns around and tells the other women, “My husband is an amazing leader. He has so much wisdom. God has opened the door for him to excel in leadership in the community and the church.” Can you imagine what peace and joy such a couple have in the home? Do you see the reciprocal wisdom of God in ordering the relations of the husband and wife in this way?
While the reciprocal wisdom of God is seen in the relationship that husbands and wives sustain one to another in this world, there is a higher relationship that the Husband of Husbands (i.e. the King of Kings who by rules over all) sustains with regard to his Bride. It is only in union with the heavenly Husband that the reciprocal wisdom of Proverbs 31is seen in its full-orbed, God-ordained intention. Additionally, it is only as we understand it in light of Christ that we will see this wisdom worked out in our earthly marriages. In his thought-provoking lecture, “Finding Christ’s Virtuous Wife,” Peter Lillback suggests that we should ask the following question, “How did Jesus read Proverbs 31?”
"How might Jesus have read Proverbs 31 as a bachelor? He was looking for a virtuous wife. Dr. Edmund Clowney once asked the question, “How did Jesus read the Psalms?” Jesus sang the Psalms but he sang them differently than you and I do because they were about Himself—about His own ministry…and there is this wonderful line of Dr. Clowney that says something like this, “Jesus sang the ‘I’ Psalms alone so that He might sing the ‘we’ Psalms with us.” You have to think about what that means. Jesus read the Psalms and sang them differently than we do but so that He might be in solidarity and in redemption with us. How might Jesus have looked at this text? Well, He would have known that God made them male and female—and God said, “It was very good,” and that “it was not good for man to be alone.” Jesus knew that he needed a family and a home and that God had appointed a bride for Him. But who could be the bride of Christ? Who could be the virtuous woman that Jesus would embrace? Who would be the woman who would be “bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh?” Who would be that woman with whom He would become one flesh? Who would be that woman with whom He would be naked and unashamed? How would Jesus have read this text?
Well, he knew if he was to find a woman who was filled with wisdom she would have to come from within Himself, because He was the fullness of all wisdom. He knew that if there was to be a wise woman that could not be found on the face of the earth, that she would literally have to be a second Eve—“bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh”—that Christ would have a bride that would have to be made without spot and without wrinkle, and would be the valiant woman of wisdom that He would create by his own grace. And, of course we know, when Paul says in Ephesians 5, “I show you a great mystery. I’m not talking about men and women when it says a man shall love his wife and lay down his life for her. I’m talking about Christ and the church.”
Our union with Christ is eternal. We were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. If we have wisdom we realize that wisdom is in Christ. We realize that our redemption is in Christ. We realize that we as members of the body of Christ belong to Him from eternity past, and that, in the arranged marriage in redemption in history God has brought about the engagement of Christ and His church. And we await the great wedding supper of the Lamb when the church triumphant, having been filled with the wisdom of Christ in this world, will finally be reunited with Him.
When the church functions according the role that God has established for her by virtue of her union with Christ, He rules at the gates of Heaven and Earth, and rises up and praises her. He will say to her on that last great day—as the husband in Proverbs 31praises his wife in the gates—“Well done!” May our marriages model now in history the reciprocal wisdom of God in the relationship between Christ and the church in redemptive-history.