“More Precious Than Jewels” – Proverbs on Marriage
Today is our second-last stop in the book of Proverbs. We’ve seen many times how much of Proverbs comes from the perspective of a father to his son, equipping him to be wise in all of life. And today we’re considering a group of passages that seek to give wisdom on marriage. This is what the son needed to know in order to make wise decisions regarding marriage.
I know we have many different ages and life stages and relationship statuses represented here today. Those of you who are in the “wanting to get married” category are probably closest to the original target audience for many of these Proverbs.
But the truth is, as we’ll see today, that there’s a lot here for all of us, whether we’re married or not, whether we hope to be or not. The teaching we’ll consider today can shape the way we think, feel and live in relation not just to marriage but to life itself. So let’s follow along as we make our first stop in the book of Proverbs, where we see the goodness of marriage.
A. THE GOODNESS OF MARRIAGE
Marriage was invented by God, and it is therefore good. It is a part of the created order. It was an important part of the covenant God made with Abraham and later with Israel, because at that point in history, God’s people were mainly an ethnic group and the main way that God was growing His people was by them marrying and having babies. So marriage was a necessary way to participate in the growth of the covenant people ad perhaps even play a part in the arrival of the Messiah.
And Proverbs reflects the goodness of marriage in a number of ways. One of the most interesting, our first stop, is a reflection in chapter 30 on the wonder of intimacy.
1. The Wonder of Intimacy.
Look at 30:18-19: “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin.”
I recently got to watch a local eagle flying around in the sky, and it’s a wonderful thing to see—how it moves, how it gets from point A to point B, how it lands on a tree and takes off and wheels through the currents.
It’s hard to describe exactly what’s happening, and how this eagle is moving, but he is, and you can see it, and it’s wonderful.
Isn’t it also something to watch a snake move across a rock? I mean, how does it move without arms or legs? How does it decide to go in a direction and just make that happen? But it does.
Isn’t it also something else to watch a ship out on the high seas? At first it seems impossible that this bit of wood and sail would be able to successfully navigate this massive body of water, with its wind and waves and unknowable depths, but it does, and even though it gets blown around and carried up and down on the waves, it somehow makes it to where it’s supposed to be going.
And you know what else is wonderful? The way of a man with a virgin. The way that a man pursues and wins the love of a woman such that she pledges her life to him, and then welcomes him to come and know her in the most intimate way possible. I’m trying to be delicate here, but that place of deepest intimacy between a new husband and his wife is what the Hebrew wording here is pointing us to in a very sensitive way.
And this is not embarrassing. This is not dirty. The point of this passage is that it’s wonderful. And we see this elsewhere in Proverbs—think of chapter 5, for example, which celebrates marital intimacy in some fairly graphic ways, or the Song of Solomon, or even verses like Psalm 19:5, which celebrates the sun “which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber” (Psalm 19:5).
And we shouldn’t snicker about this. The Bible is not embarrassed about celebrating the goodness of marital intimacy.
Too often Christians have been way too embarrassed about this stuff, and so we let the world have the first and the last word about the goodness of intimacy. And we leave our kids vulnerable to believe the lie that true pleasure is found in disobeying God. And that’s just not true.
God invented marital intimacy, and actually several modern studies have told us what the Bible has told us all along--that it’s those who obey God’s who experience the real joy that He intended.
So, our first stop today is a celebration of marriage at its most intimate. And according to Proverbs, it’s a good and a wonderful thing.
2. A Godly Wife is a Gift From God
Connected to this, the next truth we’ll see in Proverbs is that a godly wife is a gift from God. This is something the father wanted his son to understand. “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22). A wife is a gift, particularly in that covenant. But not just any wife. As he says in 19:14, “House and wealth are inherited from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the Lord.”
That’s what the son should want, after hearing everything his father has had to say. He doesn’t want just any wife. He wants a prudent wife. And his father says, “I can’t give that to you. I can give you a house and some money when I die, but I can’t give you a good wife. That will come from the Lord.”
And the father wants his son to seek this kind of wife. That’s why he tells him in 12:4, “An excellent wife is the crown of her husband.” An excellent wife brings glory to her husband in the way that a crown brings glory to the head of a king. She adorns him and empowers him and brings him honour and status.
Now, as we are going to see in just a couple of moments, an excellent wife is not a mere trophy to be put on display. This has nothing to do with her appearance and has everything to do with her character and her work ethic and strength and her wisdom.
And an excellent wife, who excels in these ways, will be like a crown on her husband’s head. And it’s not hard to hear Solomon’s desire that his son would find such a woman.
Because, as the verse goes on to say, there are incredible dangers in marrying a woman who is not wise and prudent. Look at how 12:4 finishes up: “…but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones” (Proverbs 12:4).
When a man is married to a woman who brings him shame, by being unfaithful or ungodly or foolish, it’s like he has bone cancer. That’s the force of what this is saying. An ungodly wife can tear a man apart from the inside out.
B. HOW TO MARRY WELL
So, how is the son to marry well? That’s where we turn next. What kind of woman should he avoid? And what kind of woman should he seek?
1. What To Avoid
Let’s start with that first point. What kind of woman should he avoid? And the first answer to that question is, a woman who is beautiful but foolish. “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion” (Proverbs 11:22).
What good is a gold ring in a pig’s snout? It’s no good at all. It’s meaningless. It’s just going to get coated with whatever the pig is eating. It’s out of place.
Similarly, physical beauty is out of place on a woman with no character or morals or good judgement. As we’ll see in chapter 31, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain” (31:30).
Outer beauty is supposed to be a reflection of inner beauty. But it can be deceptive. Many a pretty face conceals an ugly heart. And that’s why the Bible repeatedly tells us to prioritize inner beauty (1 Peter 3:3–4). And that’s why the father here warns his son against a woman who is merely outwardly beautiful and nothing else.
As well, Proverbs warns the son against a woman who is argumentative. 21:9 says, “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife” (Proverbs 21:9.) And that idea is so important that it’s repeated, word-for-word, in, 25:24.
Middle-eastern rooftops were flat and exposed to the elements. Some of them may have had guest rooms, which were cramped and uncomfortable for long-term stays. And these verses say that it would be better to be up there, exposed and uncomfortable, then to live with a wife who is quarrelsome, or argumentative, or contentious as the NASB says, or nagging as the CSB says.
21:19 makes this point even more dramatically: “It is better to live in a desert land than with a quarrelsome and fretful woman.”
Deserts are terrible places to live, especially in the Middle East. There’s no shelter, no food, no water. And Proverbs says, better to choose that than to live with a wife who is constantly argumentative and “fretful,” which in this context speaks of irritation and anger.
Two more proverbs single out the particular struggle that this kind of wife will be for her husband. “A foolish son is ruin to his father, and a wife’s quarreling is a continual dripping of rain” (Proverbs 19:13). “A continual dripping on a rainy day and a quarrelsome wife are alike; to restrain her is to restrain the wind or to grasp oil in one’s right hand.” (Proverbs 27:15–16, c.f 19:13).
Now we need to talk about these last few verses a little bit more, and we can do so broadly or narrowly.
Broadly, I hope you see that these verses are saying that being married is not always better than not being married. Wouldn’t you rather be a single guy living in a nice house, than a guy who is technically married but has to live by himself out in the desert?
This is important, because many young people have this idea that it’s worth it to get married at whatever cost. And throughout the years I’ve lost count of how many young people I’ve seen throw away their life, their ambitions, their convictions and values, and even their faith, just to get married to the first person with a pulse who showed them interest.
And so many of these people end up sad and lonely, bearing heavy burdens which they will carry for the rest of their life.
Now God can meet them there. I want to be so careful this morning that I don’t dump despair onto couples who may be going through a struggle in their marriages. But I also want to wave a warning flag to unmarried people who feel the temptation to get married at all costs. You need to hear from Proverbs this morning that those costs might be a lot higher than you bargained for.
I just read a quote this week that basically said, if you think you’re lonely now, you have no idea how lonely it can be to be married to someone who doesn’t share your faith. Marriage is not always worth it.
In a more narrow way, we can also see that these past few proverbs criticize and warn about a particular kind of woman—an argumentative woman.
And why do you think Proverbs warns against that particular issue so repeatedly?
Well, let’s be rebels here and dive into some territory which is not very culturally appropriate, but which I believe is true. God has called and designed husbands to carry the load of sacrificial leadership in their marriages. And God has clearly and repeatedly called wives to submit to that leadership. And, as anyone who has been married knows, that arrangement is not always easy. Submitting is often a struggle.
This is a struggle which was foreseen in Genesis 3:16, where God told Eve: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”
So, what happens when a woman’s desire is contrary to her husband, but he is still in leadership?
One answer is that, instead of cheerfully submitting, she can argue and complain and backbite and nag. Most of us know exactly what I’m talking about. We’ve seen it, if we haven’t experienced it. It’s a sin pattern as old as human history. And that’s what these Proverbs are pointing to.
Isn’t it true that Christian marriages can experience this sin pattern? Isn’t it true that, even for many Christians, it is socially acceptable for a wife to complain or talk down about her husband to others, even though it’s not socially acceptable for a husband to talk the same way about her?
Haven’t we normalized some of these dynamics with jokes like, “My husband is the head, but I’m the neck that turns the head”? In other words, we pretend to follow God’s instructions, but really we don’t. The wife leads through manipulation.
Or, “Happy wife, happy life”? Which is often taken to mean: it’s okay for a wife to make her husband miserable if he doesn’t do what she wants him to.
Or what about “if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”? Which suggests that it’s just normal for a woman to inflict her negative emotions on the rest of her household. And it’s normal for a family to feel like they need to just do whatever they can to keep mom happy.
And this is not how the people of God should think. If mama ain’t happy, maybe she needs to go before the Lord and seek the grace to show the fruit of the Spirit to her family. Because I’m pretty sure that the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead doesn’t take a break every time we have a mood swing.
In our men’s Bible study last year, we talked about the fact that many Christian men say they believe in Biblical gender roles. But if you ask him when was the last time he actually lead his wife and she actually submitted to him, you get a long, awkward silence.
Today, we’re looking at the other side of the coin. How common is it for a wife to say she wants her husband to lead, but when he leads in a way she doesn’t like, she criticizes or complains or corrects or just gets sullen and withdrawn, and basically makes him regret ever trying to take leadership in the first place?
If we were honest, I think we’d recognize that this is a temptation known by many wives. And we should take it seriously, because the book of Proverbs warns a young man against marrying a woman who does not fight this temptation. It warns him, in the strongest language possible, against marrying a woman who has given in to this sin and who has become characterized by contentiousness.
And lest anyone accuse us of picking on women this morning, let’s be reminded that the whole book of Proverbs has had no problem pointing out sins common to men. And that’s why on your handout I have Proverbs 27:8, which talks about the man who is worse than a bird-brain as he wanders far from his home. And then next to that verse, I put “see also Proverbs 1:1-31:31.” Which is the whole book.
Unmarried ladies, the whole book of Proverbs is full of warnings and descriptions of the kind of guy that you don’t want to marry. A man who is violent. A man who is lazy. A man who thinks he knows everything. A man who can’t take a rebuke. A man who doesn’t listen to others. A man who is rash. A man who can’t control his temper or his words or his appetites. And on and on.
The book of Proverbs gives lots of material to both unmarried men and women on the kind of person that they definitely do not want to spend the rest of their life with.
2. What To Seek?
But what about the positive side of the equation? We know what he should avoid, but what should a young man seek as he looks for an excellent wife? And the clearest answer comes in one of the best known and least understood passages in Proverbs, chapter 31 verses 10-31.
Let’s make a few comments about this passage. First, though we can’t tell in English, in Hebrew this is an acrostic poem, which means that each line from verses 10-31 begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Basically, it’s saying, “here’s everything, from A to Z, that you need to know about an excellent wife.”
Second, we should notice that these words actually came through a woman. Look at chapter 31 verse 1. “The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him.” An oracle is a divinely-inspired utterance. But it was taught to the king by his mother. So this wasn’t an isolated man’s wish list. This was an inspired word from a concerned mom who wanted her son to find an excellent wife.
Now let’s talk about the kinds of activities we see this excellent wife doing in these verses. Verse 13— “She seeks will and flax.” Verse 16: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” Verse 19: “She puts her hands… to the spindle.” Verse 22: “She makes bed coverings for herself; her clothing is fine linen and purple.”
Here’s what we need to understand. The activities described in these verses were simply the kinds of activities that happened within busy, prosperous households in ancient Israel.
Back before we had big machines and big factories everywhere, the home was the centre of industry and production. That’s the way it was for most of human history. People made things and grew things and bought and sold and traded their wares in the market.
And so a busy, prosperous, God-blessed home in ancient Israel would be a home where all these things would have been happening. Wool and flax were used to make clothing for the household and for selling in the market. Servants worked in the fields. Vineyards were bought and sold and planted. Food was prepared. Children were raised and educated. The poor were fed.
These things didn’t happen all on the same day, but this is what was involved in running a household. And these verses tell us that this excellent woman is involved in all of them. Verse 27 really sums it all up: “She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness” (Proverbs 31:27).
That’s the point. She’s not lazy. All of these things need to happen, and instead of being idle and leaving them to others, this excellent wife is hard-working and busy in taking care of her household.
Now there is more to being an excellent wife than just hard work. Verse 20 describes her generosity to the poor. 25 describes her character of strength and dignity. Verse 26 says that wisdom and kindness flow from her mouth. She is displaying so many of the virtues we’ve seen in Proverbs. But the main picture here is of her diligent work ethic as she manages the household.
In other words, what we see here is a woman serving in her role as her husband’s helper. Remember Genesis 2, where God created Eve to be a helper suitable to Adam? What we see here in Proverbs 31 is an Israelite woman fulfilling that role by actively managing the household, of which her husband was the head.
That’s why the beginning of the poem says, verse 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” (Proverbs 31:11–12).
And the rest of the poem goes on to describe the different ways in which she does him good as she manages their household.
And because of her diligence in all of this, he is able to participate in community and political life. Verse 23: “Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land.” He’s able to go and sit in the gates, which was like the courtroom in ancient Israel, and play his part in community leadership, because he is married to an excellent woman who sees to the affairs of their household while he’s doing that.
And then this poem is bookended, once again, with her husband’s words as he praises her and says that “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all” (31:29).
We can’t miss this: the primary relationship for this Proverbs 31 woman is her relationship with her husband. Of course she’s a good mom, because in verse 28 her children rise up and call her blessed. Of course she’s taking care of them along with her servants and employees and everybody else in the household.
But this woman is not primarily defined by her relationship with her children. And I bring this up, because this is a really popular idea, even in Christian circles this day. Women find their very identity in being a mother, and her relationship with her children is seen to be the central and defining relationship in the family. And dad is just an accessory who should pay the bills and try not to get in the way.
And this is not the Biblical pattern. We saw back in June how dads have primary responsibility for their children. And we see here in Proverbs 31 how this woman’s primary relationship is not with her children but with her husband. And what she does, even as she raises her children, she does as her husband’s helper.
And this kind of hard-working woman who embodies the wisdom of Proverbs is the kind of woman a young man should be seeking. He should not be deceived by mere beauty, as verse 10 says. He should seek a woman who uses her hands for far more than just taking selfies and scrolling instagram. He should look for a woman who fears God and uses her hands to work and serve and love others.
This was one of the major things that drew me to my wife. She had a reputation for good works, long before she even knew that I existed. I realized early on that her outer beauty was a reflection of a heart that feared God and worked hard to love others. And in the 11 years we’ve been married, she has done me much good and not harm, and my heart trusts her fully, and she deserves much more praise that I can give her this morning.
C. MARRIAGE IN THE NEW COVENANT
But before I embarrass my wife further, let’s reflect what we’ve seen this morning? We’ve seen that marriage is good and wonderful, and that a godly wife is a gift from God. And we’ve seen advice on how to marry well. Men seeking marriage should avoid a woman who is argumentative, or who is merely beautiful but has no discretion. And women seeking marriage should avoid everything Proverbs has told us about foolish men.
And in terms of what to seek, Proverbs 31 unpacks a hard-working woman who embodies so many of the wisdom truths found throughout Proverbs, and who is a faithful helper to her husband as she manages their productive household.
Now, very briefly, we’re going to end by considering the fact that we are in a different spot in God’s plan of redemption than Solomon and his son were. God’s people are no longer primarily an ethnic people group, and God is no longer primarily growing His people through physical birth. Rather, God is growing His people through the New Birth, as people from every tribe and nation receive the promises of Abraham by faith in Jesus.
So in this new epoch, this new era, what of marriage? And here’s three brief truths we must consider.
1. Marriage is a Shadow of the Reality, which is Christ
First, in the New Covenant, we now see that marriage is a shadow of the reality, which is Christ. Marriage was never an end unto itself. Marriage was always designed by God to point beyond itself to the bigger reality, which we see in Ephesians 5: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31–32).
Marriage was always about Jesus, who came down from heaven to die in the place of His bride in order to make her beautiful. And that bride is the church. If you know Jesus, you are a part of the reality of which marriage was just a shadow.
And in the New Creation, the shadow will finally pass away, and there will be no more human marriage, but only the reality of the church and its saviour, as Jesus explained in Matthew 22:30.
2. Marriage Is Not for Everybody
But until then, marriage has not been fully removed. In this time of already-but-not-yet, marriage is still a part of the picture for some people. But not everybody. 1 Corinthians 7 explains how marriage is God’s gift to some people, as it enables them to live out their part in the Great Commission. And being unmarried is God’s gift to other people, as it enables them to live out their part in the Great Commission.
And that’s why the single Apostle Paul said, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Corinthians 7:7). And as I’ve explained before, carefully reading this chapter shows that the gift is not the ability to be single but the status of being single. And I’ve written more about that on our church website if you want to explore that.
Let’s be clear here: the New Testament elevates singleness to the status of a divine vocation, given by God to some of His children for their good and His glory.
3. Marriage Is to Be Honoured
But by elevating singleness, the New Testament does not downplay marriage. Hebrews 13:4 says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all.” Marriage is not everything, but it’s not nothing, either.
And so it is appropriate for unmarried Christians to desire marriage and seek marriage and to apply the lessons from Proverbs today.
It is also wise for them to heed the wisdom of 1 Corinthians 7 and recognize that their relationship status is ultimately in God’s hands.
And it is wise for all of us to remember that, as good and wonderful as marriage is, it is passing away. It is not everything. It is not the pinnacle of life.
And here’s the note that I want to end us on this morning. Our church is full of Proverbs 31 women—women who display the wisdom of Proverbs in their speech and their actions, who refuse to be idle, and who use their lives to serve and love others in the fear of God.
Some of those women are married. Some of them are not married. And yet all too often, even for Christians, a woman who is lazy but married is viewed as having “made it,” whereas a woman who is wise and diligent but single is treated as if she’s a second-rate citizen.
And that’s not right. The Proverbs 31 woman is more precious than jewels, not because she’s married, but because of the kind of woman that she is.
And so, there’s some questions for us. Will we be a community that recognizes that godly women who fear the Lord and work hard to serve and love others are more previous than jewels, and worthy of honour, regardless of their relationship status?
Proverbs 11:16 says that “a gracious woman gets honor.” Will that be true for us here?
Will we be a community where older women chose to invest in younger women to train them to become Proverbs 31-type women, whether it involves a husband and children or not?
Will we be a community that understands that you don’t need a husband before you can be hospitable? And that you don’t need to get pregnant before you can pour your life out in the service of others?
We’re going to sing a song of surrender to the Lord here, inviting Him to take us and use us in many of the ways we see in Proverbs 31. And let’s make sure that as we see people, especially women, who are doing this, that we give them the God-centered honour that they are due.