Until I was about thirty, I thought the Bible only gave instructions to married people. Sermons I heard on singleness had a time constraint; they were all about what to do “while you’re still single.” I Corinthians 7 might be mentioned, but until recently, I hadn’t heard a sermon that delved into what it meant. I still have yet to hear a sermon on singleness preached by someone who is (gasp!) single. If I had not sought to learn for myself what Scripture had to say to me as a single woman, I might feel alienated from the Bible. If I had not prayed about it and sought help from God, being single might have alienated me from Him, too.
I never meant to remain single. This wasn’t the life that I planned. I didn’t choose it, except to the point that I accepted God’s will and didn’t just marry whoever would have me. So, I found myself with a problem: how can a woman who is single live a godly life? If you ask most Christians to name a Scripture which instructs on how to be a godly woman, I think the majority would point to Proverbs 31:10-31. The ESV Bible gives these verses the heading, “The Woman Who Fears the LORD.” And so this Proverb is interpreted that a godly woman makes her husband proud by the way she cares for her children and manages her home! But is that what Proverbs 31 is really all about? I say, “No, but Yes.”
If we begin by looking at verse 10, it states, “An excellent wife who can find?” After thirty chapters peppered with warnings about adulterous women and quarrelsome wives, it isn’t a coincidence that the book of Proverbs ends by pointing in the direction of an excellent wife. But, I don’t think that the author intended for Chapter 31 to be cut apart the way our modern Bibles do. The first verse explains, “The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him.” This is a proverb that a mother taught her son, not her daughter. In verse 3 she warns, “Do not give your strength to women.” It is women plural; it is another warning about the kind of women who don’t have a man’s best interest at heart – women “who destroy kings.”
“An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.”
The mother wants to direct her son in how he should choose a wife that he can trust and who “does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.” (v. 12) I am not involved in youth ministry, so I don’t know whether or not this proverb is being taught to our young men. But shouldn’t it be? Why are we using this primarily as a measure of women when it was clearly written to instruct young men. Verse 30 summarizes, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” This underscores the importance of character over beauty. It is important for young people to be taught that marriage is about choosing a partner for life, not a partner for sex. But how many Christian young people are actually receiving these instructions of wisdom from Proverbs?
Clearly this proverb can instruct women in how to live, also. But to say, that a woman must be a wife in order to be excellent, would be incorrect. The purpose of the proverb is to point a man toward the kind of wife he should be looking for, so it follows that he would be selecting from among single women. He is being pointed toward a woman who is able to demonstrate in her single life that she is hardworking, strong, generous, and wise. She plans ahead, cares for her family, is diligent and productive. She doesn’t waste her time on vain things. As a single woman, I seek to live this way. I am not a wife, but I am a daughter, a sister, and an aunt. I believe that my character can be judged by how I care for myself and the family I do have.
As I learned for myself that I could be excellent and work toward godly character in spite of my singleness, the lesson of what kind of husband I should seek was not lost on me. I have determined that I won’t ever settle for less than a man of excellent character. He is not turned aside by beauty; he works diligently, manages his affairs well, is generous to those in need, and well-respected by those who know him. It is true for both men and women: the fear of the LORD is the trait most to be sought in a partner. It is better to be single than to settle for less. This week I encountered some verses in Isaiah which reminded me that having a family is not what is most important to my God:
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
Obviously, a eunuch would be male, but I believe the blessing is the same for the single woman who joins herself to the LORD. I will not seek marriage in an effort to be perceived as a godly woman; rather, I will “choose the things that please [God] and hold fast [His] covenant.”
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