This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on July 8, 2012. To listen to the audio, just click on this link – Prov 31.
These proverbs are among the most famous in the entire book of Proverbs. They are the “oracle” [the authoritatively spoken burden/ responsibility] taught to King Lemuel (probably an Arabian King) by his mother.
We need to take a moment here, to recognize a couple of things about this passage of Scripture. First, we should recognize that the inspired word of God includes these Arabian proverbs, probably famous in their time. That God used these proverbs, and uses them, in his “breathed out” word. And seeing this, we need to be aware that the Spirit of God is at work throughout the world in places and in ways we are not aware of.
Secondly, this oracle – this authoritative saying – plus passages like 2 John, should be taken into account when we talk about whether women should have authority in spiritual matters in the church.
Now we want to look at this oracle, which includes the entire chapter, about the responsibility of men and women to live wisely before God.
TO MEN: BE WISE AND TURN FROM FRIVOLITY.
Learn to Spend Your Strength Wisely: We live in a culture where many men spend their time and strength on frivolous and foolish pursuits. What does it mean to “spend your strength/ wealth” on things? Practically speaking, our strength is our ability to focus and to consider thoughtfully, and to do with energy. You may find that if you work at a high-energy job, where you have to think carefully and focus your attention continually, during the morning – that when the afternoon comes – or the evening – you have nothing left. This is because you have spent your strength.
Young men tend to spend their strength on what they find exciting – women! hanging out with friends and having fun! Apparently, things have not changed much in 3,000 years – this is exactly what Lemuel’s mother warns him against (vs.3-7).
However, Lemuel was going to be a king when his mother taught him these things. Kings can’t spend their time getting drunk, “lest they drink and forget what has been decreed, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.”
And these proverbs also are a message to men in general. They suggest that, as men, we have great responsibility in life. Discovering and, or choosing our responsibilities and living as men is, in a sense, a kingly calling. Many men have turned this upside down, and spend their strength on what is amusing, and making their responsibilities secondary. Wisdom, for men, means spending our strength on what is worthwhile – our calling and responsibility in life – and allowing what is amusing (entertainment, hanging out, to be secondary.
Learn to Speak, Judge and Defend: Vs.8-9 turn to the question of defending, “those who cannot speak for themselves”. The responsibility of kings is to judge their kingdom fairly, to judge with equality those who have power and those who do not have power. Throughout the OT, God’s judgment on whether a king was wise and good or evil depended not on their wealth or military exploits, but on whether they showed justice to the poor.
In the same way, the Proverbs have been filled with calls to care for the poor, to show justice and to defend the weak. Compassion is wise, eye opening, character developing – whereas lack of concern for those around us who are weak and needy is blinding, heart-hardening and arrogant. As men we are responsible to be compassionate and wise.
TO WOMEN: BE WISE, TURN FROM PERFECTIONISM AND PURSUE REVERENCE.
The next 21 verses (10-31) are an acrostic poem in which each verse begins with a different letter of the alphabet. The poem describes the wise and responsible woman Lemuel’s mother wants for him.
Recognize the Trap of The Ideal Woman: Really, what is said about the ideal woman here is said to Lemuel and for him. Vs.10-31 are not intended to be a list of commands for women, but rather to show Lemuel what to look for in a wife. He is to look for noble character – more than beauty and charm. He is to look for a woman who is going to help and bless his household and to help him be a respected man in the community. He is told that if he finds such a woman, he and his children will be happy.
However, it is also true that women tend to look at this passage as a daunting command to work to become this picture of the ideal woman. And, of course, from that point of view, the proof in this passage that the woman has achieved the ideal is in the praises of her husband and children.
This becomes an impossible burden for women. Even if their husbands are willing to be loving enough to praise them – the demand never goes away and is never satisfied. And the expectation and hope that children will think to praise a parent is likely to be disappointed.
So how can we move away from this impossible ideal – not intended by the passage – to something that is helpful? We need to look at what is at the core of this picture of the woman.
Choose Reverence for God Above Perfectionism: vs.28-31 are summary statements. Vs.30 summarizes the central attribute and concern of the noble woman – the source of her nobility. She is a woman who reverences/ fears the Lord.
The acrostic poem of Proverbs 31 is not meant to be a checklist. This woman’s life is not about trying to do enough so that she doesn’t feel guilty. This poem is about a woman who is trying to live a reverent life – to please God – and the result of that reverence. The poem is meant to be a beautiful and inspiring picture – not a fearful and impossible demand. Reverence – Love for God – is more important than how much you are doing, or what specific things you do, or have done, or have accomplished! The point is that this woman is trying to please God – to fear the Lord.
This, in fact, is wisdom for women: the pursuit of love and reverence for God – rather than an impossible, perfectionistic standard. The pursuit of reverence is freeing, and leads to a love of what is good – rather than to fear and enslavement to impossible duty.
LEARN WISE RESPONSIBILITY THROUGH THE GOSPEL.
Men: God Spends His Strength to Rescue You in Your Foolishness and Weakness: Frivolous men need a love of what is meaningful that only God can produce in them. Young men, and sometimes older men, frivol away their lives for several reasons
~ They haven’t found anything to capture their imagination – a vision of something meaningful to do with their lives that they can be excited about.
~ They are afraid that they don’t have what it takes to do anything worthwhile.
~ They live in a culture that doesn’t seem to demand much of them.
What does the Gospel say about this? That God is willing to spend his strength on frivolous young men. This means that those who lack vision, and those who are fearful, should ask God for a vision of life that will take hold of them.
God will probably not just pop an idea into your head – but God will lead you, as you trust him and ask him and take wise opportunities that are offered – into a life that is meaningful. It means that God is for you – not against you – and not ignoring you as unimportant.
Women: God Has Clothed You with His Favor to Free You from Perfectionism: Isaiah 61:10 says that God has wrapped us with a robe of righteousness. The work of Jesus on your behalf means that you are free to pursue reverence and love for God – however imperfectly – because you are covered – wrapped up – in the favor of God’s love.
When you accept the fact that through Jesus Christ you are favored by God – your motives/ heart will change, and you will be free. And when you are free from the fear and despair that you feel because you can never be and do all that God wants you to be and do – then you will be able to love God and you will be free to live a life that is becoming wise and noble.