A virtuous woman is a courageous woman
by Patte Smith on Friday, February 17, 2012 at 11:00pm ·
The Excellent Woman of Proverbs 31
WHO CAN FIND A VIRTUOUS WOMAN?
FOR HER PRICE IS FAR ABOVE RUBIES.
The whole of this beautiful description of female excellence consists of twenty‐two verses, distinct from the remaining part of the chapter, and forming, in themselves, a poem, of which each verse commences with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is the conclusion of that book which has been called the storehouse of practical wisdom; and, like the chapters of proverbs which precede it, it is admirable for its just delineations of human character, its wise practical directions, and its appropriate commendations and reproof. To the female sex, in all ages, it presents many striking and valuable lessons. To the Hebrews, indeed, accustomed to a highly figurative mode of discourse, and a perpetual reference to proverbs and wise sayings, the various portions of this book seem singularly appropriate; and perhaps many of those holy women of old, of whom we read in the New Testament, learned by the study of this poem the duties enjoined by the God of their fathers, on those who professed to be his servants. Some of the lessons which it teaches belong especially to older time; to days when patient unremitting labour, and submission, and modesty, were the virtues most highly commendable in women: but all Scripture has been written for our learning, and its instructions belong to all times; and the Christian woman who has received a larger Bible, and a clearer discovery of Divine light, has, while striving to imitate the virtues and graces here enjoined by God’s Holy Spirit, the influence of even a stronger motive than any which Jewish females could feel, since Christ has said to His followers, “If ye love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15).
This poem has occupied much of the attention of the learned. The simple reader of Scripture would infer from it one of two things. Either that it was the description of some woman whose character was present to the mind of the writer; or that it was a picture of such a woman as the inspired writer would propose as a general example. It is by many supposed to have been written by Bathsheba, and intended as a direction to Solomon, under the name of Lemuel, in his choice of a wife.
It would seem, on reading the comments on Scripture, both of old and modern authors, as if learning sometimes served chiefly to perplex and confound simple things. Dr. Doddridge has observed, that the meaning of Scripture, as it presents itself to the unlearned but intelligent reader, is generally the sense in which it is intended; and, though some limitation must be made to this remark, especially in cases in which a knowledge of oriental character and customs aids in so important a manner the illustration of Scripture truth, yet it is, in the main, a just conclusion. Some of the fathers of the church, not content to see in this description a beautiful exhibition of female character, searched for a hidden meaning in its simple declarations. One believed that the virtuous woman shadowed forth the sensitive soul, subject to the understanding and the reason. Another considered that God’s holy word, the Scripture of truth, was thus signified. Some thought, with more apparent reason, that it was emblematic of wisdom; and many, with Ambrose and Bede, have regarded the virtuous woman as a type of the church of Christ. Leaving, however, these mystical and spiritual interpretations of the passage, we shall consider it as an example of moral and religious excellence, presented by God to every woman whose standard of life and character is found in His written Word.
The word translated “virtuous,” in the first verse of this poem, has a reference also to strength of character, and implies mental and moral energy, or courage. So, too, in the command of the apostle Paul, “Add to your faith virtue,” the more strict reading of the word would be, “courage.” “The word,” says bishop Patrick, “signifies both strength, or rather courage, and riches, and virtue. Thus in the description of fitting persons for the magistracy (Exd 28:21), Jethro, in general, says, they should be anschee chajil, which we translate, able men; and then follows more particularly wherein their ability should consist. Such as fear God, men of truth, men hating covetousness. I take therefore the word to include, a great fear of God, which is so powerful as to endue one with courage to do well, when piety is contemned, nay, laughed at and abused.”
There is throughout this portrait a firmness and consistency of character, which renders it truly worthy of admiration, and which, owing to the sensibility with which women generally are endued, is a virtue demanding great moral and religious principle. Women, influenced as they necessarily are by their feelings and affections, and rendered, by their dependence on the stronger sex, more liable to adopt the sentiments of others, and to have the character moulded by those to whom they are attached, are peculiarly liable to a want of firmness in conduct. Yet the highest commendation of God is given to this strength of character. We find it recommended in the sacred writings, and especially enjoined on every Christian. “Wherefore add to your faith virtue” (2Pe 1:5); “be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,” (1Cr 15:58), says St. Paul. Our Christian profession requires indeed to be held with firmness, in days when those who are called Christian women are often found conforming so much to the spirit and manners of the world. “Hold fast,” says the apostle, “the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end” (Hbr 3:6); and we are to “hold fast our profession,” seeing that we have “a great High Priest, that is passed into the heavens” (Hbr 4:14), and therefore by Him we may approach boldly unto the throne of grace, to ask for that firmness and consistency which we so much need. And great encouragement, too, is given to firmness; for when we are desired to “hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering,” we are directed to the cheering consideration of the unchanging promises of Christ, “For He is faithful that promised” (Hbr 10:23).
There was among the Hebrews a strong and deep earnestness of character, contrasting remarkably with the listlessness and supineness of many oriental people; and the Scripture exhibits numerous instances of moral strength, among the Jewish women. There was Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, who in those days when Israel’s God had led them through the dry land, and overwhelmed their enemies in the deep waters, left the privacy of domestic life, and joined with all the Hebrew women in publicly praising their Great Deliverer; and in a noble fervour of inspired feeling, sang that song, which no poet of later ages has ever equalled in sublimity:
There was Deborah, who sat beneath the palm‐tree judging Israel (Jdg 4:4-9), and even went up fearlessly to the battles of the Lord. There was the noble‐minded daughter of the rash Jephthah, whose moral courage failed not in the hour of danger, but who, even in the prospect of personal sacrifices, could rejoice that her father had conquered the enemies of her people; and with firm integrity could urge him to keep a promise very injurious to herself. “My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon” (Judge 11:36).
“Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously;
The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:21)
In the less troublous times of Israel, no doubt, Jewish women could be found who, like the female of the text, were quietly performing the duties of life, with strength and steadiness of character. But the records of domestic life are written chiefly in the hearts of the home circle: its events, important as they are, not only to that circle, but also, in their eventual influence, on the whole character of a nation, are yet too uniform and simple for the page of either inspired or profane history; and the detail given of the Excellent Woman in this book, is the fullest picture which is to be found in the sacred writings, of the excellency and employments of a holy woman in her home. Happy is that woman who well performs the duties of home, to whom home is the sphere which concentrates her ambition, and has the largest share of her love; and who governs her household actively and diligently, and in the fear of the Lord!
But although no other part of Scripture gives so connected a detail of a pious woman’s works and duties, yet all the various directions to the female sex, with which the writings of the apostles abound, accord with its principles. “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord” (Col 3:18); even so must the wives “be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.”
Again—She is to be well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work. “In behaviour,” good wives were to be “as becometh holiness: not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things;—to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children. To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home” (Tts 2:3-5).
It was from such holy mothers that the saints of the New Testament were descended. Of such a mother, and such a grandmother, young Timothy learned the Holy Scriptures. In homes like this were reared Martha and Mary; those sisters of Bethany, that family whom Jesus loved, and one of whom he gently reproved, because her energy of character led her to a restless anxiety of serving at a moment when she should have sat and listened to the words of her Lord. In households like these dwelt the mother of our Saviour, and Elizabeth the blessed of the Lord—names ever dear to us all. From such sprung Priscilla, who received the young Apollos into her home, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly; and who, with her husband, is said, by the apostle, to have been ready, for his life, to have laid down their own necks. Of such were Phebe, the servant of the church at Cenchrea; and Mary, who bestowed much labour on the ministers of Christ; and many others, who, when faithful stedfastness and pious strength of resolution led to death, yet shrunk not even from suffering, but joined the noble army of martyrs, and are among those who “came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Even in that deeply solemn hour, when the blessed Saviour yielded His life on the Cross, to atone for sinful man; at an hour when the fear of death had power to triumph over the faith of many; when His disciples forsook Him and fled, yet holy women shrunk not from following Him to the Cross.
To a woman, the pious virgin Mary, the mother of the Saviour, His dying eyes were directed, and His dying bequest made, that the beloved disciple would take her to his own home. Oh that woman’s stedfastness of character may shrink not, either in the day of persecution, or in the daily acts of household duty, since strength and wisdom are given now by Him who gave it to holy women of old; that now, as then, they may follow the Lord fully! The example here given should lead every female to seek from the Holy Spirit, the grace to abound in holy courage and devotedness to the Lord.
When foes the hand of menace shook,
And friends betrayed, denied, forsook,
Then woman, meekly constant still,
Followed to Calvary’s fatal hill:
Yes, followed where the boldest failed,
Unmoved by threat or sneer:
For faithful woman’s love prevailed
O’er helpless woman’s fear.
~ Anne Pratt