The Impossibility of Proverbs 31

Scripture Focus: Proverbs 31:29
29 “Many women do noble things,
     but you surpass them all.”

Reflection: The Impossibility of Proverbs 31
By Erin Newton

Growing up with Proverbs 31 as the “checklist” of being a woman felt impossible. The excellence required stood in direct opposition to the predetermined lifestyle for women set by our brothers in the faith.

  • Be productive (vv. 13-16). This woman is entrepreneurial and hardworking. Her job takes her out of the home, and she invests with financial freedom. I was told to dream only of home and let my husband decide our (or his) finances.
  • Be strong (v. 17). This woman was physically strong. Knowing her work required heavy lifting or strenuous tasks, she probably didn’t worry when her biceps bulged. I was told my body was a blessing and a curse. I should keep a “feminine” frame (be thin) to remain the weaker vessel.
  • Be talented (vv. 18-19, 22, 24). She works in agriculture and husbandry. She makes clothing and textiles—a “Jane” of all trades. I was told I could have hobbies, as long as they stood in the shadows of my role in the family. I felt like Elizabeth Bennet responding to the supposed qualifications of a woman: “I never saw such a woman. She would certainly be a fearsome thing to behold.”
  • Be a wise teacher (v. 26). She is revered for her instruction—a feature that usually only comes from extensive learning. I was told my speaking had limits and boundaries. I was accepted if it was within the walls of a classroom not a church, on a Saturday not Sunday, behind a lectern not a pulpit, called a devotional not a sermon, and under the title of teacher not pastor.
  • Be extraordinary (vv. 10, 28-29). She is so rare she can hardly be found. She is not like everyone else. She excels in every possible way. She is a rare gem and worthy of honor and praise. I was once called special and one of a kind—by another married man who was supposed to be my religious leader.

I do not mind having her as an example for my life, but the Church sometimes prevents that which it demands. She sets a high bar filled with opportunity, independence, and strength. She is probably Woman Wisdom, making this the bookend of female encounters in Proverbs. If she is the ideal for all women, she is also the ideal for all men—not as a requirement for one’s spouse but as a required way of life.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Sing praise to the Lord who dwells in Zion; proclaim to the peoples the things he has done. — Psalm 9.11

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Proverbs 31 (Listen 2:50)
Psalm 48 (Listen 1:28)

Read more about Lady Wisdom
After the cloying voice of the temptress, and vivid descriptions of her hapless victims, a new voice speaks out in Proverbs—Lady Wisdom.

Read The Bible With Us
A Bible reading plan is a journey you can start anytime. Walk through the Bible with us at a sustainable, two-year pace.

Inspired Utterance

Scripture Focus: Proverbs 30.1-5
1 The sayings of Agur son of Jakeh—an inspired utterance. 
This man’s utterance to Ithiel: 
“I am weary, God, 
but I can prevail. 
2 Surely I am only a brute, not a man; 
I do not have human understanding. 
3 I have not learned wisdom, 
nor have I attained to the knowledge of the Holy One. 
4 Who has gone up to heaven and come down? 
Whose hands have gathered up the wind? 
Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak? 
Who has established all the ends of the earth? 
What is his name, and what is the name of his son? 
Surely you know! 
5 “Every word of God is flawless; 
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.

Reflection: Inspired Utterance
By John Tillman

We do not know who Agur, Jakeh, or Ithiel are. They are mentioned nowhere else in scripture. 

Agur expresses that without God’s wisdom, humans are little better than brute animals. This could be a general description of our culture. 

Our culture claims to set us free, allowing our individual hearts, feelings, experiences, and opinions to self-determine truth, right, and wrong, however, this doesn’t set anyone free. “Personal truth” makes every person a dictator who must either enslave the world to their “truth” or be enslaved by the conflicting “truths” of others.

“Follow your hearts” sounds supportive until someone follows their heart to commit adultery, rape, or create pornography. “Do what feels good” sounds fun until someone “feels good” making racist artwork, overdosing on drugs, or defrauding the poor. “Speak your truth” sounds freeing until one person’s truth causes deaths (or war) over a lie.

Agur, whoever he is, must have read Job. His writing reflects Job’s concepts. Agur knows we need a dose of humility. He issues a challenge to himself and to the reader — a challenge for those who think themselves wise. “Have you gone to heaven? Have you gathered the wind, held the waters, set the boundaries of the earth? If you didn’t, surely you know who did!”

If Agur read Job, Jesus seems to have read them both. Jesus echoed Agur when he said, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.” (John 3.11-13) Jesus also expected that those who “study the scriptures diligently” should find, not just wisdom, but testimony about himself. (John 5.39-40) All scripture testifies about Jesus and the wisdom we find there is from him. (Luke 24.27)

We may not know who Agur is, but we know the name of the Holy One he reveres and references — the source of true wisdom. The setter of the boundaries of the earth, the holder of the waters, the gatherer of the wind, and the one who comes down from heaven, is Jesus. He is the flawless Word of God and is a shield to all who take refuge in him.

In his refuge we find wisdom, peace, mercy, and understanding that can change us from brutish beings enslaved to our urges into true humans — images of God upon the earth.

Lord, give to us inspired utterances that reveal you to others as the source of wisdom.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Righteousness and justice are the foundations of your throne; love and truth go before your face. — Psalm 89.14

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Proverbs 30 (Listen 3:51)
Psalm 46-47 (Listen 2:15)

Read more about Blessings of the Dispossessed
“Cause I can see a people dispossessed 
Broken and brave in the face of so much fear 
Driven from their homes by the greed of a nation 
Whose treaties were as good as litter 
Along the trail of their tears”

Read more about Honoring The Truth
Seeking the truth is not only a spiritual quest. It is sometimes a civic one. Or a legal one.

Answering Fools

Scripture Focus: Proverbs 26.4-5, 9, 12
4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.

9 Like a thornbush in a drunkard’s hand
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

12 Do you see a person wise in their own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for them.

Reflection: Answering Fools
By John Tillman

Answer a fool. Don’t answer a fool. This famous mirrored pair of proverbs is almost a metaphor for the entire collection. Alone, either one of them makes sense. Together they seem absurd. Surely they can’t both be right? Surely neither of them can be wrong?

Firstly, we shouldn’t become fools.

Being wise isn’t as easy as just quoting a proverb or even putting it into practice. Even wise words can cause harm when foolish people quote them. Proverbs’ vivid picture of this is a drunken man, wildly swinging a thornbush. The man, anyone around him, and anyone trying to help are likely to be harmed.

We need wisdom to know how to use wisdom. When we quote aphorisms without regard to the situation, we are like that drunken thornbush-waving fool. “Pray more.” “Have a little faith.” “Is there sin in your life?” All three of these statements are scripturally valid and, at the right time, could be wise things to say. They will also wound someone who is suffering if we wave them around wildly. To a mother whose child is sick, any of the above statements are likely to feel like an attack.

Secondly, we should pursue wisdom humbly. 

Proverbs is a book of hope for fools. It calls to us to become wise and warns of something worse than being a fool — being wise in our own eyes. We all start foolish and simple. Lady Wisdom invites us to wisdom. Lady Folly whispers a lie that we’ve already arrived. Can we prevent others from falling into this trap? Can we prevent ourselves from doing so?

Do we answer fools or not? Do we try to remove the thornbush from the drunkard’s hand? 

Frustratingly, I think the answer is, “sometimes.” Sometimes, perhaps we can help fools stumble toward true wisdom. Sometimes the best thing we can do is help others avoid the thornbush-waving fools. In either case, we should take care and be humble. We can’t save everyone from their own foolishness, especially when we are still at risk of it ourselves.

Whatever we can do to prevent ourselves and those around us from becoming wise in our own eyes is probably worth the risk. We may be scratched by the thorns, but so was our savior. And he endured them to save fools like us.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Send forth your strength, O God; establish, O God, what you have wrought for us. — Psalm 68.28

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Proverbs 26 (Listen 2:37)
Mark 16 (Listen 5:34)

Read more about Destiny of Grass vs Cedars
There are purposes for the flourishing of the wicked and one of them is that one day the world will see them fall.

Read more about RSVP to Wisdom or Folly
Two hostesses beckon. Which banquet will you enter? Who gets your RSVP?

Wearing Out Your Welcome

Scripture Focus: Proverbs 25:17
17 Seldom set foot in your neighbor’s house—
     too much of you, and they will hate you.

Reflection: Wearing Out Your Welcome
By Erin Newton

Let’s admit it, some proverbs are comical. Here in our holy book of divine wisdom, we have advice about not greeting our neighbors too loudly (Prov 27:14) and advice about not outstaying our welcome.

Proverbs reveal tiny windows into life. We are confined from seeing the totality of one’s experience. The only landscape in view is the small opening encapsulated by a few words.
Here we have a neighbor who might be tempted to stay too long or come too often to their neighbor’s house. Behind the scenes we also have a neighbor fulfilling the duties of hospitality, but a grudge might be forming.

From a birds-eye view, the proverb speaks of the value of moderation and restraint—and I think both neighbors could use this advice.

To the neighbors with open doors: Throughout the Bible we are called to love one another in ways such as hospitality. This means creating a welcoming space for others and providing shelter, food, and companionship. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, hospitality should be extended to those deemed “outsiders.”

We should never grow weary of doing good, but the reality of our human nature is that we often do. Jesus himself stole away to quiet areas to find respite from constant crowds. He had no home to open but he gave of himself—his time, energy, and attention. This proverb does not tell us to shut our doors, but we should remember our own limitations lest we turn to hate our neighbor.

To the neighbors who come over: We were made for community. Friends, family, and neighbors are God’s gift to those of us in need of shelter, food, and companionship. What a blessing it is to know your neighbor has an open door for you! Even in times of need, receiving someone’s hospitality can be the hardest thing to do.

Some of us worry that we are a burden to others and wear out our welcome. We might vow to never impose on our neighbors. This scorched-earth mentality might feel natural, but it is not the wisdom of this text.

This proverb not only helps us to respect our neighbors but to learn the complex balance of wise living. It encourages the visiting neighbor to harness the reciprocal opportunity to open his or her doors. Together, with balanced moderation on both sides, the community of faith can serve one another.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
I will confess you among the peoples, O Lord; I will sing praises to you among the nations. — Psalm 108.3

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Proverbs 25 (Listen 2:56)
Mark 15 (Listen 5:16)

Read more about Embrace Your Mission
Embracing and encouraging others is an example of serving others well. This spirit of hospitality shouldn’t be taken lightly.

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A Prayer for Times of Trouble

Scripture Focus: Proverbs 24:10-12
10 If you falter in a time of trouble,
     how small is your strength!
 11 Rescue those being led away to death;
     hold back those staggering toward slaughter.
 12 If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,”
     does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
 Does not he who guards your life know it?
     Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done?

Mark 14:38
38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Reflection: A Prayer for Times of Trouble
By Erin Newton

In the twilight hours before the cross, Jesus slipped into the garden to commune with the Father. His words spilled out into the world, “Abba, let this cup pass.” It was an hour of great need. The time of trouble was upon him. The great Creator of the world was hours away from death, minutes away from betrayal. Would he falter? Would he back away now?

He leaned down toward his friends and told them to watch and pray. He continues to call us to watch and pray:

Dear Lord, within the garden, give us the strength to endure the night.

         The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Your word declares wisdom as the source of our strength. Wisdom builds houses and guides us to victory. But we falter in times of trouble. Our faith is indeed small. Give to us strength through wisdom—not the power of our hands but the understanding of our hearts.

         The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Open our eyes to those who are perishing around us. Blind us from our own ambitions and comforts. Crucify the desires that serve only ourselves. Let us not slumber as you plead for the souls of this world.

         The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

For we can never truly say we did not know. You pointed to the harvest and told us it was ready. You told us to look after even the least of these. You gave the care of your mother to your beloved friend. We are all now your beloved friends.

         The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Lord, there is no corner of our hearts to which you are blind. All our motives, all our ambitions, all our desires are laid bare before your watchful eye. You who hold our lives now send us out into the dying world.

Your spirit was willing, and you were never weak. You rescued us as we staggered toward death. You knew the price that had to be paid. Grant us the strength of a crucified life that only comes through wisdom.

After Jesus prayed, the kiss of betrayal was laid upon his cheek. He was led from trial to torture to death with full acceptance that the cup would not pass. This is our example of wisdom. This is our example of not faltering in times of trouble.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Early in the morning I cry to you, for in your word is my trust. — Psalm 119.147

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Proverbs 24 (Listen 3:47)
Mark 14 (Listen 8:37)

Read more about Baring Your Soul
Jesus modeled this in his darkest moments in Gethsemane. “Take this cup away” is balanced with a trust in God’s will.

Read The Bible With Us
It’s never too late to join our Bible reading plan. Immerse in the Bible with us at a sustainable, two-year pace.