The Proverbs 31 Man

By a delightful stroke of God’s providence, the English language bears witness to a husband’s job description in the very word husband. For a husband is a man who practices husbandry, or cultivation. Like a master gardener, his job is to so nurture and tend to his wife that she brings forth flowers.

We should beware of stretching the image too far, of course. No woman is merely a passive patch of soil, helpless until a husband comes to cultivate her. Remember Anna and Abigail, women who flourished either without a husband (Luke 2:36–38) or with a foolish one (1 Samuel 25:3). Such women (and our churches know many of them today) bloom like wildflowers in the desert, planted and tended by a greater Groom.

Nevertheless, Scripture bids earthly husbands to imitate this heavenly Husband — to nurture their wives into greater degrees of resplendence by practicing Christlike marital husbandry (Ephesians 5:25–30). Therefore, whenever we find a wife in full bloom, we would be wise to see if we can learn from her man.

Proverbs 31 shows us such a woman, as well as such a man.

Marital Husbandry

Many men dream of having a Proverbs 31 wife. She belongs to “the wisest of women,” who build up their homes with industry and skill (Proverbs 14:1). She gives her man a good name so that he “is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land” (Proverbs 31:23). She is “a good thing” without qualification or reserve (Proverbs 18:22), for “she does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life” (Proverbs 31:12). He may be noble without her, but with her he is kingly (Proverbs 12:4).

Many fail to recognize, however, that behind the Proverbs 31 woman is a Proverbs 31 man. And if we read this poem in the context of the whole book, we know this man is no dolt. He fears the Lord and does not lean on his own understanding (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10). He has absorbed his father’s and mother’s teaching, and made them glad (Proverbs 10:1; 15:20). He has rejected the paths of the fool, the scoffer, and the sluggard to walk in the way of wisdom (Proverbs 3:17; 9:4–6).

In other words, he is not only a husband, but a husbandman, a cultivator of his wife’s character. What, then, can we learn from such a man? Though he walks in the background of the Proverbs 31 poem, he still teaches lessons in the art of husbandry, whether for mature husbands like himself, or for men who have just begun.

He trusts in her.

The poem’s first description of the husband’s attitude toward his wife may sound unremarkable: “The heart of her husband trusts in her” (Proverbs 31:11). To say “he trusts her” may not surprise us, but it should. In Scripture, the heart’s trust belongs to God alone, as for example in Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” But here, his heart trusts in her. Why?

Because early on he learned the lesson that “charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). Bruce Waltke writes,

This present exception elevates the valiant wife, who herself fears the Lord, to the highest level of spiritual and physical competence. The claim implies that this husband and wife enjoy a robust spiritual relationship. (The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15–31, 521)

Many men in the ancient world treated their wives as little more than pieces of childbearing property, the prettier the better (Derek Kidner, Proverbs, 46). Not this man. Marriage, for him, was about more than pleasure and posterity. It was about camaraderie, fellowship, trust, grown from the soil of reverence for God (Proverbs 31:30). And so, in courtship, betrothal, and beyond, he rooted their union in godly fear.

“The Proverbs 31 man is strong enough not to fear his wife’s strength.”

We can taste the fruit of such trust in nearly every verse of the poem. In particular, notice that his trust in her frees him from the need to micromanage. He has drawn her into a household vision shaped by the fear of God, and she is with him, heart and soul. From that place of implicit trust, she blooms with womanly action — gathering, buying, selling, providing, teaching, giving, making — and he enjoys “the fruit of her hands” (Proverbs 31:31).

Before and above every marital priority, then, a Proverbs 31 man cultivates with his wife a fellowship of holy fear. Family devotions trump television. Sunday worship beats Sunday football. His own comforts take a back seat to her Christlikeness. And because she fears God, he is not afraid to trust her.

He values her strength.

The Proverbs 31 woman presents us with a paradox. She is, on the one hand, far too domestic and typically feminine to please many moderns. Yet she is, on the other hand, far too tough and subversively feminine to please many mere traditionalists. Her fingers are not too smooth to handle a shovel, nor too calloused to hold thread (Proverbs 31:16, 19). Without ceasing to be distinctly feminine, “she dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong” (Proverbs 31:17).

And the poem suggests that her husband loves it. When he comes home to find his wife with dirt under her fingernails (Proverbs 31:19), or when he listens to her laugh at the time to come (Proverbs 31:25), or when he watches her bustle about the home with an energy to rival his own (Proverbs 31:15, 22, 27), he is not intimidated. He is strong enough not to fear her strength.

On the contrary, their camaraderie suggests that her strength is his desire, his pleasure, his aim. Her passion and fortitude are part of what make her “excellent” in his eyes (Proverbs 31:10, 29). God calls us men, likewise, to grow so high in maturity in Christ, and so deep in security in Christ, that we do not balk at our wives’ womanly strength, but instead seek to cultivate it.

A husband who does the opposite, who diminishes his wife’s strength either directly (by discouraging her from certain activities available to godly women) or indirectly (by refusing to grow strong himself), does not want a helpmate, but just a handmaid.

He gives himself to God’s calling.

Proverbs 31 bears the marks of careful literary craftsmanship, from its acrostic Hebrew structure to the themes that weave throughout. In verses 20–27, the poem also includes a chiasm, a literary device that highlights the center of a passage. When we trace the path to the center of this chiasm, we land at verse 23: “Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land.”

As Derek Kidner writes, though “her influence spreads far beyond the home . . . her achievements are (as she would wish) valued most of all for their contribution to her husband’s fortune and good standing” (Proverbs, 46). In other words, she summons her remarkable strength primarily to support her husband’s calling.

As the helper of her husband, this wife finds her mission under the wings of his (Genesis 2:18). Their callings are less like two sets of train tracks and more like the trunk and branches of a tree: she makes the home strong and stable so that he can branch out and offer the family’s fruit to the world. Of course, the wife’s calling often brings her out into the world, and the husband’s always brings him back to the household (Proverbs 31:14, 16, 20, 24). But in general, she takes dominion at home so that he can do the same abroad (Proverbs 31:11, 15, 21, 27).

What does this mean for our Proverbs 31 man? It means, counterintuitively, that he serves his wife’s calling best when he gives himself to a big calling of his own. If a man has only a small vision — not only in his work but in his family, church, and community — then he needs only small assistance from his wife. But if his vision is grand and godly, then, as Herman Bavinck writes, she can “assist in the fullest and broadest sense, physically and spiritually, with her wisdom and love, with her head and her heart” (The Christian Family, 6).

And make no mistake: he requires such assistance. The poem implies that this man can hold up his head in the gates not merely because of who he is in himself, but because of what kind of woman he has: not rottenness in his bones, but a crown on his head (Proverbs 12:4).

He praises her.

The poem’s only speech comes at the end, from the lips of an admiring husband:

Her children rise up and call her blessed;
     her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many women have done excellently,
     but you surpass them all.” (Proverbs 31:28–29)

Is he speaking in hyperbole? Probably. But just as the lover can call his beloved “most beautiful among women” (Song of Solomon 1:8), so this man can say, “You surpass them all.” In his eyes, she does.

“In the logic of the gospel, love begets loveliness; praise begets praiseworthiness.”

Such praise is not only a response to a wife’s blooming loveliness, but also a means of cultivating more. In the logic of the gospel — on which all true husbandry rests — love begets loveliness; praise begets praiseworthiness. First comes the love of Jesus; then comes the loveliness of the bride (Ephesians 5:25–27). A husband who withholds his praise, yet expects praiseworthiness, is like a gardener who withholds water until the plants grow.

Does your wife display any trustworthiness (Proverbs 31:11), any diligence in her calling (Proverbs 31:15), any nurturing care toward your children (Proverbs 31:21), any wisdom toward your neighbors (Proverbs 31:26), any generosity toward the poor (Proverbs 31:20)? Then you have reason, without insecurity, to give warm, thoughtful, specific praise.

Praise her in public and in private, with her and without her. Praise her to the kids, to the neighbors, and to your friends. Praise her for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do you part. And expect that as you do so, she will grow more and more praiseworthy.

A Christian husband does not turn his back to God when he praises his wife. Just as his trust in his wife is ultimately trust in the God whom she fears (Proverbs 31:11), so his praise of his wife is ultimately praise to the God who gave her (Proverbs 19:14). When the Proverbs 31 man praises his wife for the work of her hands, he is praising God for the work of his hands: her.