I confess that the only times I have heard this passage read has been a part of the eulogy in honor of a woman who lived in ways that we wish to celebrate. Still as much as we love to hear Who can find a virtuous woman, I believe it behooves us to consider the context of this passage.
Inherent in the question is the implication that just as we have heard that Marines are looking for a few good men, there seems to have been a time when the roles may have been reversed. When it was said in the community that a good woman, a virtuous woman, an honorable woman, was indeed hard to find.
Now before we take offense, we may want to ask, "Who was it that asked the question in the first place?"
For you see, in Proverbs 31, King Lemuel of Massa received these words as strong advice that his mother gave to him.
That is correct. Our beloved Proverbs 31 is born out of a conversation one mother had with her son. And if you read this chapter in its entirety, what you hear is a mother advising her son of the dangers of being involved with women. Before Steve Harvey told women how to Act Like A Lady But Think Like a Man, it appears Queen Mother was teaching her son how to Act like a King and Think like a Queen!
And in so doing, we would have to acknowledge that the Queen Mother had a problem with some women! As we lean in to listen, what we discover is a mother who had a strong opinion about the women in her son's life. The Queen Mother felt some kind of way about the women who her son stepped to and considered as the partner in his life.
The Queen Mother said, "Who can find a virtuous woman?" They are, according to her, hard to find. This may sound like the Queen Mother was throwing shade on the women of her day. Is it possible that hateration among women is a longstanding tradition that dates back even to biblical times? Before the Housewives of Atlanta, do we find in Proverbs 31 evidence of women speaking badly about other women?
I could do a lot with this! Of all the pit falls that were in front of her son the King. Of all the temptations that awaited him in leadership. Of all the wise counsel that she could have imprinted upon the soul of her son, the message that King Lemuel held fast to was not how to handle his money, not how to rule with justice or mercy and compassion. It was not the importance of time management, but of how to avoid getting caught up with a woman!!!!
His father didn't teach him this. His grandfather didn't teach him this. For better or worse this lesson came to King Lemuel from his mother! And for those of us who live in a world where we argue that a woman can't raise or teach boys how to be men, it is awfully interesting to me that in Holy Scriptures, in the Bible, it appears that women did a lot of raising of some boys to men. Lemuel's mother raised him. Timothy's mother and grandmother, Lois and Eunice, raised him. Sarah raised Isaac, and no doubt Mary raised Jesus. Not in the absence of men, but certainly not in silence behind men either. It was his mother's advice that King Lemuel did not fail to take note of, hold fast to, and apply to his life.
And so with that in mind, we cannot come to Proverbs 31 with the traditional warm, fuzzy feelings of womanhood that we typically associate with this passage. No, in fact, we are confronted, as women, with a conflict, right from the start. For you see, I contend that some of the negative images of womanhood, some of the most hurtful images and messages about women, do not come from men but from women.
Sometimes the men who take the strongest stand against women have been raised by women who took the strongest stand against women. Sometimes the men in the corporate suites, at boardroom tables, walking legislative halls, or sitting in well-heeled pulpits are the most vocal against the role of women because they have been raised by mothers and grandmothers, powerful, influential women who have been the most vocal against the role of women!
But before we wag our collective fingers and lay yet another societal problem at the feet of another unnamed woman, let us acknowledge the number of highly gifted, talented men who indeed fall victim to their own lusts at the summons of a woman.
And while it is true that we as women need to be mindful of how we speak about one another; how we use our power and influence to shape how others view us, it is also true that a word to the wise is sufficient.
Whether we like it or now, it is unfortunately true that all too often we see men, who are blessed and highly favored, lose all because of their indiscretions associated with the women in their lives.
Perhaps King Lemuel was doing what former Senator John Edwards should have done. Maybe King Lemuel was doing what former President William Jefferson Clinton should have done. Maybe you and I can think of any number of men, gifted men, talented men, men with futures that are bright; like King David, who are greatly loved by the people and who appear to have a commitment to serve the greater good, only to find themselves in divorce court facing the humiliation of public opinion because they did not listen to the Queen Mothers in their lives and find their marriages, careers, integrity, and reputations torn apart. Maybe they should have listened their Mama!
After all, books are written, careers are built, people lay awake at night, tears are shed, hearts are broken all when a man finds it impossible to say no; to remember Paul's words saying that the common temptations of life that we all face, God always gives us a means to avoid them!
Maybe when you think of it like this, the Queen Mother was not hating; she might have been on target. Maybe the Queen Mother talked to her son and gave him these words and burned them on the altars of his heart because she did not want her son to become a part of the 60% of men who indeed have an enlarged definition of fidelity; and she wanted him to avoid the 40% of women who seek to enlarge their own territory at the expense of someone else's.
Maybe King Lemuel's mother knew that relationships can be deal breakers and; she wanted her son to be wise as a serpent, as much as she wanted him to be harmless as a dove.
Maybe the First Mother of the king knew her son.
And so when we look at Proverbs 31, we see a concerned mother with reservations about her son's understanding of womanhood and its relationship to manhood, offering to him teachable moments. And what does the Queen Mother offer as wise counsel to her son?
She says, "No, no, my son! No, son of my womb! No, son of my vows!"
3 Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings.
What the What? What could she possibly mean?
She advised her son to be mindful that for all of his success there would be people who live to bring down kings. There are those who see your success and work to destroy it. There are those who feed your worse habits, who are willing to help you indulge your worse inclinations. She cautioned her son with royalty in his veins to remember that there are those who will encourage him to pop bottles and stack kegs.
5 lest he drink _ __ and forget what has been decreed, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights._
It is a message for all to remember that as God open doors for you, the Apostle Paul said, all things may be lawful to you; but all things are not beneficial for you.
There would be some indulgences that King Lemuel simply had to resist because his responsibility to the people depended upon him knowing that God had given him a spirit of power, love and a sound mind, on purpose for a purpose!
His responsibility was to
8Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.
His responsibility was to
9Speak up and judge fairly; and defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Queen Mother wanted King Lemuel, her son, to be the one helping the needy, not the one standing in need. She wanted him to be the voice of justice, not the one who needed to be justified. She wanted her son to defend rather than be the one in need of defense.
She knew if he gave his energy in the wrong direction, to the wrong focus, to things that destroy rather than build up, that he would not only destroy his life as a leader, he would compromise the heart and trust and lives of those who looked to him as well.
And so she cautioned him about what to avoid, and she raised a question. But thanks be to God, she answered it as well.
And what I like about his mother's advice is that in it he learns that relationships are more than body parts and feelings. The partner with whom he would share his life could help him to turn his good success into a greater blessing.
But finding the right life partner was not automatic just because he was the king. No, even the king would have to work for it. He could not take it for granted. This woman would be precious, rare, like fine jewels, not to be treated casually.
She would be virtuous. But what does it mean?
Not June Cleaver virtuous. Not mother board white handkerchief virtuous. It's not chaste, untouched, submissive virtuous. And certainly not women keep silent in church virtuous! No, in fact, the Hebrew word for virtue used here means strength, might, efficiency, and wealth. It describes one who has ability, force, even the power of an army.
This woman, this virtuous woman. The kind of woman the Queen Mother wanted her son to find was a woman all women can be proud of and emulate. She is a woman who comes in the spirit of Harriett Tubman and Jarena Lee. She is a woman with the strength of Sabrina Fulton. She is a woman with the might of Loretta Lynch and the wealth of Christy Walton and the ability of Hillary Rodman Clinton. She is efficient and powerful. She is a woman who makes men into Kings. That's what the Queen Mother was offering as the image of a virtuous woman for her son.
A mate, a partner, a woman who brought something of her own to the table. Not a woman who would need him to be her everything, but who would complement him in everything they could build together.
The Queen Mother was looking for Michelle for her Barak Obama. This is the kind of woman who makes a man stand tall with confidence when she walks in the room. This is the kind of woman who upgrades her husband, like Beyoncé, because she brings good and not harm. She makes the most of the resources at her disposal. She is Diane von Furstenberg and Tracy Reese in that she takes the threads of life and weaves them into garments of success. She is unafraid to travel to get what her family needs and has the gifts and acumen to handle the transactions and the deals. She is a Mellody Hobson and Suzie Orman. She is Lynda Hall of Santa Cruz, who set a goal last year to give 500 backpacks to needy students. She is Kitty Lawson of Memphis, TN, who for 20 years has worked with families to take them from victims of homicide and violence and lead them to lives of victory. She is our like our First Lady, regal; and her husband is known in the city gates, able to sit with the elders because she is by his side.
Like Marian Wright Edelman, she is strength and dignity. Like Maya Angelou, she opens her mouth with wisdom. Like Oprah, her teachings offer kindness at the tip of her tongue. Like the young mother who works two jobs--her children have all that they need--this virtuous woman looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Oh, the Queen Mother says to her son, this woman whose children call her happy--they do so because through life, even though for her it has not been a crystal staircase--still they know the sound of her laughter and the warmth of her smile. She is a woman who knows the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. But what I like most, what I believe is the most valuable part of this passage is that The Queen Mother understood the value and power of womanhood. She knew all too well that there are many women, who like herself, have done great and excellent things, but who perhaps have not been recognized for the work that they have done, so she ends this by saying to her son:
31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.
I believe that The Queen Mother was preparing her son in how to honor women, how to recognize women. She was telling him what it truly means to give them the share and the recognition they are due. To give her the share means to recognize equal work for equal pay. It means allowing women and girls to lean into their own success. It means supporting women not as secondary citizens, but as co-laborers and as children--daughters--of the most high God. It means allowing them to be fully who God has called and created them to be and seeing that as a gift and not a hindrance. I believe that is the message of Proverbs 31, and it is indeed a gift to help all of us to share, to walk together, as kings and queens in the kingdom of God.