In nineteen hundred sixty six
I happened on a girl,
And spent two years a-pondering
The value of that pearl.
She has a face and has a heart
All full of love and filling,
And so I sold my singleness
All fifty years, God willing.
And I have never once looked back
For fear of what I missed.
If ever God was good to me
It was the wedding kiss.
Four years and happy were the first
Without a child to bless,
And so we cultivated joy
And fields of faithfulness.
Then, like a mighty "Let there be!"
From Genesis page one,
Another soul was born on earth,
And we beheld a son.
But I had eyes for something more,
To watch God make another:
Out of a girl, my college pearl,
I watched him make a mother.
A kind of revelation this,
Just as the ancients say:
How much of Christ there is to see
In her maternal way!
Eight years and two more happy sons
All priceless to the minute,
Are like an unrolled, open scroll
With God's own message in it:
"Charm is deceitful, beauty vain,
Though all the world has gazed,
But when a woman fears the Lord
She will be truly praised."
An Acrostic of Praise
The text for my message this morning is taken from Proverbs 31:30, "Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." First, let's notice its unusual context. You all know what an acrostic is, don't you?
- is for the million things she gave me,
- means only that she's growing old,
- is for the tears 'twere shed to save me,
- is for her heart as pure as gold,
- is for her eyes with love-light shining,
- means right and right she'll always be.
That's an acrostic. Why do people write acrostics? Because there is something in us that loves to praise what we enjoy. We like to pile up the praiseworthy attributes of people we love. Well, that is what was happening in Proverbs 31. Verses 10–31 are an acrostic. Every verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Aleph is for woman full of virtue, Beth refers to trust her husband shares, Gimmel is for work she does to help you, Daleth stands for how she seeks her wares.
And so on through all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This is helpful to know because it tips us off that the author is not building an argument like Paul does in Romans. Instead he is stringing pearls. He has set himself the task, as he says in verse 30, to praise the woman who fears the Lord. To do this he tries to think of 22 praiseworthy things to say about her.
Therefore, I think a sermon based on this passage of Scripture should aim to accomplish three things. It should aim to inspire women to fear the Lord and be like this woman in the way she fulfilled her role (and that is possible for all women, married or unmarried). Second, it should inspire others, especially husbands and children to praise women who fear the Lord. Third, it should contain praise for the godly woman. That's why I began with my ode to Noël, the woman I know best and a woman who fears the Lord. Now to help accomplish those other two goals I want to try to answer three questions about the text: 1) what does it mean to "fear the Lord"? 2) Why is it so important that we praise a woman who fears the Lord? 3) How can you tell if a woman fears the Lord? What does it look like in action?
What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord?
"Charm is deceitful, beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." What does it mean in daily experience to "fear the Lord"? Let's go back to the beginning of Israel's national life. In Exodus 20 after the giving of the ten commandments, it says in verse 18:
Now when all the people perceived the thunderings and the lightnings and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled; and they stood afar off, and said to Moses, "You speak to us and we will hear, but let not God speak to us, lest we die." And Moses said to the people, "Do not fear, for God has come to prove you, and that the fear of him may be before your eyes that you may not sin."
O how we need to meditate on such perplexing texts. "Do not fear. You are being tested." You pass the test only if you don't fear. Yet God desires that the fear of him be always before your eyes. You pass the test by fearing the Lord. The text provides the distinctions necessary to make sense out of this. The fear that Moses was telling them to get rid of was the fear of coming close to God and hearing his voice. The fear that Moses wanted them to keep before their eyes was that God is fearfully powerful and opposed to sin. The fear of kindling God's powerful wrath against sin ought not to drive us away from God but to God for mercy.
Noël and the boys and I went out to Dick and Irene Tiegen's place last week. They have a big dog as tall as Benjamin which greeted us with barks and growls from where he was chained. But after we were there and in the house with the dog, he was friendly. Then we went outside again and Irene gave the warning: Don't run from him. But as Karsten was heading out to the car, the dog came trotting up behind, and instead of slowing down and petting the dog, Karsten started to run, and immediately the dog barked and growled. What a lesson in the fear of God. Irene was Moses and she says to us Israelites, the Piper family, "Do not fear to draw near, but keep the fear of the dog (the fear of the Lord) before your eyes, lest you try to run away (lest you start to fall into sin)." God is a joy to be near and a terror to those who flee. The comparison breaks down, however: Irene put the dog in the basement, but nobody puts God in the basement.
If you are running from God because you are afraid of him, then you are not yet as afraid as you ought to be. In fact, your very flight is a mockery of God, presuming to think that you could outrun this German shepherd. If you really fear him and love your own life, stop running, turn around, and hug his neck for dear life, and he will lick your face. The fear of the Lord is fear of fleeing out of his fellowship into the way of sin. Therefore the fear of the Lord is full of peace and security and hope. It keeps us near to the merciful heart of God, our fortress, our refuge, our sanctuary, our shield, our sun. Isaiah 8:13 says, "The Lord of Hosts, . . . let him be your fear, and let him be your dread, and he will become a sanctuary." A proper fear of the Lord keeps us under the shadow of his wings where we need not be afraid.
Therefore the fear of the Lord is accompanied by tremendous blessing. Listen to the psalms. Psalm 25:14, "The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him; he makes known to them his covenant." Psalm 31:19, "How abundant is thy goodness which thou hast laid up for those who fear thee, and wrought for those who take refuge in thee." (Notice that fearing God and taking refuge in him are parallel. Those who keep the fear of God before their eyes will not run from him but take refuge in him.) Psalm 34:7, "The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him and delivers them." Psalm 103:11, "As the heavens are high above the earth so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him." Verse 13, "As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him." (Hug his neck and he will lick your face.) Psalm 145:19, "He fulfills the desire of all who fear him."
The promises God makes to those who fear him are so staggering that the summons to fear God and the summons to hope in God are inseparable. And so the psalmist puts them together, for example, in Psalm 33:18, "The eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his mercy." Psalm 147:11, "The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his mercy." A woman who fears the Lord will not run away from God to satisfy her longings and relieve her anxieties. She will wait for the Lord. She will hope in God. She will stay close to the heart of God and trust in his promises. The prospect of departing into the way of sin will be too fearful to pursue; and the benefits of abiding in the shadow of the Almighty too glorious to forsake.
Why Should We Praise Such a Woman?
"Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." Why? That is our second question: Why is this praise so important? I suggest three reasons for praising a woman who fears the Lord: 1) it feels good to do it; 2) it honors God; 3) it strengthens her hand in the Lord. First, it feels good. David says in Psalm 37:4, "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart." By implication this must mean, "Delight yourself in everything that delights the Lord," and, therefore, delight yourself in the woman who fears the Lord. Now what is praise? C. S. Lewis points out beautifully in his little book on the Psalms that praise is not merely the expression of joy, but the consummation of joy. A joy isn't fully enjoyed until it comes to expression in praise. The joy I have in my wife mounts to its highest when I express it as well as I can in a poem and then praise her in the great congregation. Therefore, a strong and good incentive for praising a woman who fears the Lord is that it feels so good. It expresses and completes the joy that such a woman brings.
It might be helpful in passing just to mention the ugly alternative to praise so as to increase our desire to avoid it. Lewis said, "Praise is inner health made audible." I have seen that verified over and over. It is the cranks, the misfits, the scrooges of the world who seldom praise. They have an inner sickness of soul that yields criticism, complaining, murmuring, grumbling, sarcasm, suspicion, and a general joylessness. I just want to take such people (and sometimes myself) and shake them and say, "Hey, wake up! Sure there is rottenness in the world. But Jesus Christ died and rose again precisely that the commands, 'Rejoice always,' and 'For everything give thanks,' would not be naïve, but profoundly realistic. Now open your eyes; there are natural and moral beauties to praise in this world because God made it and is at work in it. Break the habit of grumbling. Get yourself hooked on praise. It feels ten times better."
Not only does praising the woman who fears the Lord feel good; it also honors God, which is most important of all. We must not think here that in praising the woman we are giving to her what belongs to God. There is a sense in which all praise, just like all boasting (1 Corinthians 1:31), should be in the Lord. But since the Lord has made the world and is at work in us fallen creatures, it is possible to praise him indirectly by praising something he made or praising something that exalts him. If you praise the table manners of my sons, Noël and I feel honored. So God is honored through praises which come to his people for graces which he has imparted and which by their very nature exalt him. Therefore, when we praise a woman who fears the Lord, we praise God.
A third reason to praise these women who fear the Lord is to strengthen their hand in the Lord. Suppose when the dog started to growl at Karsten, he stopped running, stepped toward the dog, and put his arm around his neck, and then went slowly on toward the car. And suppose I called out, "Way to go, Karsten. Beautiful. That's just the way to do it. I love it!" What would be the effect on Karsten? It would strengthen his hand and heart to keep on going and not give up. So it is with those who fear the Lord and hope in him. There are always temptations to allure us away from the fear of God: temptations to fear financial insecurity more than we fear God (cf. Proverbs 23:17), to fear rejection by our peers more than we fear God, to fear the loss of time spent in good deeds more than we fear God. We are tempted again and again to let go of our Great German Shepherd and run after some silly poodle. Again and again we must have our hand strengthened in God. We need to hear a saintly person say, "Well done. I love the way you fear the Lord."
And now listen husbands and children — a word especially for you, verse 28: "Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her." Children, young people, think seriously a minute. Suppose your mom was killed in a car wreck tomorrow and you had to go to her funeral on Thursday. What would you wish on Thursday you had told her today? Tell her. "Her children rise up and call her blessed." Tell her, and you will strengthen her hand in God. And what about you husbands? You know what I would say if I lost my wife this week? "Why did I get upset at her over such stupid little things? Why did I make an issue of such non-essentials? Why did I let criticism and nit-picking dry up my expressions of gratitude and praise?" O how we need to live in the light of our dying. Like Glenn Ogren said to me Wednesday, "Death puts everything in perspective." " . . . her husband also, and he praises her." Praise her, praise her, praise her while you have her. And you will strengthen her heart in God, honor the Lord, and add great joy to your own life.
What Does a Woman Who Fears the Lord Look Like?
And now, finally, we ask, How can you identify a woman who fears the Lord? What does she look like in action? I think that is what the acrostic of verses 10–31 intends to give us. What is a woman like who fears the Lord? What sorts of things can we praise her for? I'll just mention four things that the wise man has chosen to celebrate about the woman who fears the Lord (and which I want to celebrate in my wife!). First of all, a woman who fears the Lord is not anxious about the future. Look at verse 25. I love this line, and I praise all you women who are like this: "Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come." Satan dangles in front of her the specter of tomorrow's troubles, but she glances up at the almighty God at her right hand (her magnificent German Shepherd!) and laughs at Satan's folly. She fulfills in her own life Proverbs 14:26, "In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge."
Her fear of the Lord makes her fearless of man. But it doesn't make her naïve. She knows that the Lord has appointed some means for our safety. For example, verse 21, "She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet." Winter is a fearful thing in Minnesota, and God has appointed that we do more than pray that our feet not freeze. Clothing must be made or bought. When a woman fears the Lord, she will not be anxious about tomorrow, she will do what God has appointed for her to do and trust him in everything to show her mercy.
Second, the woman who fears the Lord has practical wisdom. Verse 26, "She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue." We've been taught from grade school on that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10), so it's no surprise that the woman who fears the Lord "opens her mouth with wisdom." And isn't there a very close connection between a practical, gracious wisdom and freedom from anxiety about the future. The wisest people I know are the people who hope in the Lord and have quieted their soul like a child at its mother's breast. But the people who are most anxious, most tense and fretful about tomorrow, are those whose counsel I bank on the least. Women, there is a wisdom that your family and friends and associates need which will only come from a heart that can laugh at the future because it fears the Lord.
Third, the woman who fears the Lord is strong. Verse 25, "Strength and dignity are her clothing." Verse 17, "She girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong." She will be morally strong. Proverbs 23:17 says, "Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day." The woman who continues in the fear of the Lord will have power to resist all the allurements to envy, to desire what she shouldn't have. The fear of the Lord will also increase her intellectual strength. The fear of the Lord is the impulse to wisdom, and rouses the mind to search for knowledge as for hidden treasure. And the fear of the Lord will even increase her physical strength. One of the reasons we let our bodies languish and get weak and out of tone is because we are bored and feel no excitement or hope about the future. But the woman who fears the Lord is confident and hopeful and eager to enter the future with God at her side. This kind of hope always gives us pep and vigor and increases the strength of the weakest among us.
Fourth, a woman who fears the Lord will live not for herself alone but for others, especially her husband, if she is married. Verses 11, 12, "The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good and not harm all the days of her life." A woman who fears the Lord will not squander the family's livelihood on frivolous purchases, but will have the complete trust of her husband because she is for him and not against him. Wherever possible she supplements his earnings rather than wastes it. But, wives, far more important than this financial support is the moral support of your husband. Verse 23 seems out of place in a song of praise to women. It says, "Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land."
How is that a word of praise to the wife who fears the Lord? Proverbs 12:4 gives the answer: "A good wife is the crown of her husband, but she who brings shame is the rottenness of his bones." A wife who fears the Lord increases the esteem of her husband at the gates of the city. In twelve and a half years of marriage my wife has never done or said anything in public that would have caused me to be ashamed. She has my absolute trust as a representative of what our family stands for. There is no place I might go where I would be ashamed to take Noël. She is a crown to my head and a signet ring on my right hand. She is for me 100% because she is a woman who fears the Lord. And I pray that every wife here will, under God, give that kind of support to your husband.
Now one last mark of the woman who fears the Lord: whether married or not, she lives for the good of the needy. Verse 20: "She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy." God has drawn near and secured her future in his care. Now she draws near to those who need most help. This woman in Proverbs 31 is well-to-do and esteemed, but she does not allow her station to hinder her association with the lowly.
"Charm is deceitful, beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." She keeps before her eyes the fearfulness of running away from God into sin and so stays close to God and his mercy. She should be praised by us all because that will strengthen her hand in God, honor the Lord, and make our own lives happier. And she can be recognized because she is confident and not anxious about the future, gracious wisdom is on her lips, she girds herself with strength, she brings her husband honor by her support, and she reaches out her hands to the needy. "A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised!"