Monday, February 01, 2010

The Proverbs 31 Wife? A Spotless Bride

Proverbs ends with an acrostic poem. It's a careful piece of poetic writing like Lamentations and Psalm 119, structured and thoughtful. This is deliberate. This is memorable. This is a song at the end of the story. Yet, who can solve this ultimate riddle? Why is it at the end of the book of Proverbs? It's easy to say it's a model for a wife and maybe it has something to say about marriage - but it's worth zooming out and digging deeper before jumping to application.
Note: in this post I'm doing the zooming out, not the digging deeper into Proverbs 31:10-31 - I'll do that another day.

Peter Leithart summarises the plot of Proverbs, a truly Biblical-gospel book:
The Proverbs begin, then with the son confronted by a choice of two women who are bound up with two divergent destinies. It should be recalled, too, that the Proverbs are written by a King to a Prince. The book largely consists of the Proverbs of Solomon and King Lemuel (chapter 31), and the king consistently addresses his "son." The dramatic premise of the book of Proverbs is this: A Prince must determine whether Lady Wisdom or Dame Folly will be his princess. The dramatic question, then, is: Whom will he choose? (In teaching this to children, I have suggested that the book of Proverbs is structurally similar to Disney’s version of Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Little Mermaid," in which a prince must choose between the mermaid, who cannot speak so long as she is a normal girl, and the sea witch, who has disguised herself as a desirable young woman.)

The answer to our dramatic question is given in the final chapter of the book, the well-known Proverbs 31. It is no accident that the Proverbs ends with a celebration of the excellent wife. In the drama of Proverbs, the excellent wife is Lady Wisdom from the earlier chapters. Her husband, the Prince, now sits in the gates of the city. The prince has successfully resisted the seductions of the adulteress, Folly. He has chosen well. Together, the Prince and his bride form the royal household.
Think of the story - the Little Mermaid. Which woman will the man marry? It's the story of Proverbs, and it's the story of the whole Bible.
This structure and these characters are generally analogous to the major structures and characters of the Bible. The first prince, Adam, chose to follow the word of his adulterous wife (2 Cor 11:1-3), and ended up, as the Proverbs say, in Sheol. The Last Adam listened intently to the Word of His Father, and died to win a spotless Bride. Now He praises His bride in the gates; she is an excellent wife.
Proverbs like The Bible as a whole, ends with a spotless wife. The true son dies to win a spotless bride. Commentator Charles Bridges observes that in Proverbs 31 we find one to whom "no treasure can be compared to the woman in these verses". The language might suggest Christ himself, though the image and language suggest she is indeed a bride, the treasure He gives up everything to obtain - namely the church.

And so, by all means, learn about marriage from this passage, but first learn about the marriage of the Lamb. Learn of the one who doesn't follow the words of the adulterous Eve into sin, but follows his Father's words. See the one who doesn't stand over against us but rather comes into the world to woo and win his people for whom he dies. See the one who is The Bridegroom and know that he comes for sinners, the King who comes to marry the prostitute (the kind of people Jesus used to eat with) and make her the Queen.

To my bride I say, you are beautiful, you are fruitful, you are productive but more importantly you fear the LORD - you believe the gospel - and so by the grace of God you reflect the glory of Jesus' bride to whom we belong. But don't be weighed down by trying to be a Proverbs 31 woman - but let us together become her as Jesus washes us clean by his gospel word, as he makes us spotless and free from blemish by his blemishless sacrifice of himself. Feel the grace of Proverbs 31, the certainty that he we will reach the wedding supper of the Lamb and celebrate there with Him. Til then he calls to us:

10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone….
14 let me see your face, let me hear your voice,
for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.”
SONG 2:10-11,14b, ESV

Your comments much hoped for - I'm preaching on this passage in March and as you can see I have a lot more preparation ahead of me... The big picture seems to go against how many people read this chapter as a model for wives - such as this series at girltalk. I'm not saying there's no value there, but I wonder if we need something else first. Bit like my "controversial" views on The Song of Songs... because if we get the big gospel picture first then Biblical manhood and womanhood are first and foremost about cruciformity.