For most of my adult life, if I had woken up one morning to read that the Proverbs 31 woman had met an untimely death on her spindle, I would have barely grieved. Because for a long time, the Proverbs 31 woman has been my mental nemesis.
She is the pre-Renaissance Renaissance woman. Scripture tells us that she cooks splendid exotic meals (Prov. 31:14). She sews ornate clothing for her family—from thread and fabric that she herself has spun (Prov. 31:19, Prov. 31:21-22). She also runs a substantial textile business (Prov. 31:24), and from the profits, she buys her own land, which she gardens (Prov. 31:16). She helps the poor (Prov. 31:20). She is constantly productive (Prov. 31:27). And even though she barely sleeps, from her mouth pours nothing but wisdom and kindness (Prov. 31:26). Both her husband and her children lavish praise on her (Prov. 31:28-29).
While she has brought her family tremendous blessing, the Proverbs 31 woman has brought a significant amount of consternation to my soul.
When I was single—and I was single into my mid-30s—I would stack myself up against her as if she were a measuring stick. And I found myself lacking. I wasn’t married, so there was no husband’s heart to trust in me. I didn’t have children, so I had no one to clothe in handmade scarlet garments, and there was no one to rise up and call me blessed. So nearly every Mother’s Day, when our pastor would base his sermon on Proverbs 31, I left church feeling I’d been in a fight for my femininity and lost. I longed to be a wife and a mother so deeply—specifically a Proverbs 31 wife and mother—that I stopped going to church on Mother’s Day.
Now that I’m married, I find I still evaluate myself against her—except now she has become my wifely competition. I sew. I garden. I cook food from afar. (Tacos count, right?) Even though having a husband and child puts me in many of the same categories as the Proverbs 31 woman, her achievements still echo in my heart, implying that perhaps I’m still not good enough. After all, her record has stood for thousands of years. Although she was never even a real person, she has the power to haunt me.
I sometimes wonder if the book of Proverbs is missing a chapter. It seems rather unfair that the final word in this collection of wisdom is a checklist of nearly impossible standards for women to live up to. I like to imagine there was once a Proverbs 32, where a similar list for men once resided. Then a wise scribe “lost” that bit of the scroll, and men everywhere rejoiced. But since women could not be scribes in the ancient world, Proverbs 31 remains.
I read Proverbs 31 with a bit of guilt by association, feeling that my gender has imposed a yoke of domestic slavery onto women everywhere, loosening the chains just enough to also apply the manacles of career success. If only the author had presented several “excellent” women to choose from—one, a craft-loving homemaker; the next, a savvy businesswoman; and another, a hardworking philanthropist. If he had done this, women today might not feel the pressure to “have it all.” But at least this woman is hypothetical. There isn’t a woman in the Bible who actually lived like this.
Except there is. Sort of.
The Hebrew phrase that’s translated “excellent wife” (NASB), “wife of noble character” (NIV), or “virtuous woman” (KJV) in Proverbs 31:10 occurs just one other time in Scripture outside of the book of Proverbs. It’s used to describe an unlikely heroine. This woman is neither a wife nor a mother when she earns her “excellent” status. She has no money and scrapes by on the leftovers of the rich. She’s not even an Israelite. But one spring night, curled up on the threshing floor at the feet of her benefactor, Ruth hears these words: “And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character” (Ruth 3:11 NIV; emphasis added).
While the Proverbs 31 woman has a “husband [who] trusts in her,” (Prov. 31:11), Ruth has buried her husband in Moab (Ruth 1:4-5). In Proverbs 31, the woman “looks for wool and flax and works with her hands in delight” (Prov. 31:13), but Ruth has no time for such pursuits. She must rise in the morning to harvest leftover grain, and she does not rest until evening (Ruth 2:7, Ruth 2:17). The Proverbs 31 woman brings “food from afar” (Prov. 31:14-15)—exotic dishes to delight her family’s taste buds, as well as those of her servants. Ruth, on the other hand, brings home a simple meal of barley to her mother-in-law Naomi (Ruth 2:18). The woman of Proverbs 31 “considers a field and buys it” (Prov. 31:16). Ruth also considers a field—but only to glean behind the owner’s hired servants as a woman of poverty (Ruth 2:3; cf. Lev. 19:9-10). The Proverbs 31 woman “extends her hand to the poor” (Prov. 31:20), while Ruth waits patiently at Boaz’s feet, hoping he will extend his hand and cover her with his garment (Ruth 3:7-9), an act that would symbolize his commitment to redeem her and Naomi from their place of destitution.
Ruth appears to bear none of the marks of the “virtuous woman” enshrined forever in Proverbs, yet she still makes the grade, at least in the eyes of the Lord (and those of Boaz.) It appears, then, that there is hope for every mother, sister, daughter, and wife who has ever sat through a Mother’s Day sermon and felt the weight of “not good enough” pressing in on her shoulders—including the beautiful shoulders of my bride. Perhaps there is something beneath the (probably) flawless skin of the Proverbs 31 woman—a virtue that has nothing to do with planting vineyards and being clothed in fine linen—something that can set a woman apart, even if she does not have a husband to praise her or children to rise up and bless her.
I believe there is a point when the story of Ruth and the description of the Proverbs 31 woman intersect. Ruth, despite outward appearances and heartbreaking circumstances, in a single moment clothes herself in the fine linen of Proverbs 31: “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you,” she tells her mother-in-law, “for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16-17). In this promise to Naomi, Ruth reveals herself to be loyal, brave, and above all, a woman who fears the Lord.
In the same way, the portrayal of the Proverbs 31 woman closes with a look behind the scenes of the perfect family portrait to show that the virtue of the “virtuous woman” emanates from her soul. It depends on neither her accomplishments nor her ability to be a superwoman: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised” (Prov. 31:30). In this, she is Ruth, and Ruth is she. There is honor for every woman who walks humbly with God—for amazing wives like Laurin who give their life to be all that God created them to be—and presumably, for every man who does the same, thankful that there’s no Proverbs 32.
There is honor for every woman who walks humbly with God—and presumably, for every man who does the same.
The Proverbs 31 woman is no one’s wifely competition. She’s not the biblical equivalent of a modern-day Pinterest queen whom women are charged by God to emulate. She’s a friend pointing us to the truth.
God makes it clear, through her and Ruth, that what He values most isn’t a woman’s myriad abilities but a heart that is fully His.
In Proverbs 31, God is gently steering women to a great truth. As we go about our days, we can’t neglect the gospel. The good news may be foundational, but it’s also crucial. It’s the difference between living our life striving and living our life in freedom.
The truth of the gospel is this: On the cross, Jesus gave us His perfect righteousness. And we who have been “baptized into Christ have clothed [ourselves] with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Before God, we stand blameless, pure, and perfect—just like Jesus. We didn’t earn God’s acceptance, so we don’t have to work to keep it. We don’t have to prove our worth. This means anytime we’re focused on a checklist rather than Jesus—even if the checklist is from God’s Word—we’re not living in the truth. As I did, we can make the Proverbs 31 woman an idol. We can set her up as an ideal that we struggle and dance around and try to attain in our life so maybe, just maybe, it will earn us the love and approval we’re longing for. But God has already given us exactly what we need—we just need to learn to rest in it.
We can struggle to earn the love and approval we’re longing for. But God has already given us what we need—we just need to learn to rest in it.
As Romans 11:6 tells us, “If [righteousness] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” So we don’t have to turn to husbands, coworkers, or children in search of worth or righteousness. We already have it. We don’t need cooking righteousness or business-success righteousness or well-behaved-children righteousness. We don’t need Instagram-worthy dinner-tablescape righteousness. That’s silly. The beauty of our dinners doesn’t—and can’t—dictate the value of our souls.
This also means we’re free to succeed or fail in all things. With our heavenly Father’s love and acceptance secure, regardless of what we accomplish, we have nothing to lose.
Single? Loved. Married? Loved. Tidy house? Loved. Disaster house? Loved. Tasty dinner? Loved. Too-burnt-to-salvage dinner? Loved. Knocked the workday out of the ballpark? Loved. Want to stay home in stretchy pants forever because of a tremendous office fail? Loved. Loved. Loved. It’s the banner that extends over all our lives, and we are free to live under it—to shake off the striving, and to rest. Proverbs 31 describes an amazing woman, yes, but the picture isn’t of a woman working hard to find acceptance. Instead, these verses show a woman who knows the love of her Father and lives in true freedom.
Photography by Ben Rollins