It is a curious thing that our “virtues” seem to get us into more trouble than our “sins”.1 Take Saul for example, a Pharisee of Pharisees, he had dedicated his life to the Torah. And where did it take him? Right into the cruel, angry attitude of persecuting Messiah’s followers.
And what about Rebecca? She wanted to make sure God’s will was accomplished in her family. But instead of God’s will, she instigated a soap-opera of double-crossing, fratricide-threatening, family chaos that lasted for years.
And Sarah — she only wanted to give her husband what he really wanted. After all, it was what God had promised wasn’t it? The results of Sarah’s “virtuous” idea are still with us.
Maybe you don’t want to call those actions “virtues”? But hindsight has the benefit of knowing the outcome; so not seeing the results yet, they no doubt each believed they were doing something worth doing!
Certainly there are Saul’s among us today. Anti- Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-Shabbat, anti-Christmas. Sometimes it’s blatant, angry, and scornful … sometimes it is subtler … but it usually comes as “Christian dogma”.
How about the Rebecca’s and Sarah’s among us? How about you and me? Do we ever find our best intensions going awry? Noble goals crumbling into chaos?
Before we go further, lets define our terms: what is “virtue”? My dictionary defines virtue as:
(1. a.) Moral excellence and righteousness; goodness. (b.) An example or kind of moral excellence: the virtue of patience. (2.) Chastity, especially in a girl or woman.
Yeah…that’s a Shining Star kind of woman, right? We think immediately of Proverbs 31.
However, I ask you, is the Proverbs 31 woman an example of moral excellence, righteousness, and goodness? Is she practicing chastity? How about those New Testament virtues? Does Proverbs 31 mention patience or the fruits of the spirit?
Well, not exactly. The emphasis in Proverbs 31:10-28 is managing the family affairs with thrift and skill, of getting up early and working with her hands to provide the needs of her household.
In verses 29-31 her husband points out that many daughters have been thrifty and industrious … but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised.
As Jesus said, these — the weightier matters (law, judgment, mercy and faith) — ought ye to have done and not left the other (thrift and industry?) undone. (Matthew 23:23).
“But wait,” you say “it says; ‘who can find a virtuous woman?’” (Verse 10)
Okay, maybe the Hebrew can shed a little more light on her. What does the word virtuous mean in the Hebrew? Well, Strong’s Concordance lists it as:
H2428 “chayil: from 2342; probably a force, whether of men, means or other resources; an army, wealth, virtue, valor, strength”
In my Englishman’s Concordance, I counted it translated as valour 38 times, valiant 15 times, wealth 10 times, plus various other: strong, army, company, wall, able, host, forces, substance, riches, power, and more.
Wow, that doesn’t sound like words I’d use for the virtue of patience and chastity. It sounds more like Ecclesiastes 9:10: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.”
Okay, what if we substituted some of the other meanings? Who can find a valiant woman? Who can find a strong woman? Who can find a wealthy woman? Hmmm. Now what if we substitute man for woman. Who can find a valiant man? Who can find a strong man (for his price is above rubies)? No?
Well, try substituting virtuous in some other verses, for example: “And Joab gave up the sum of the number of the people unto the king: and there were in Israel eight hundred thousand (virtuous) men that drew the sword; and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand men”. (2Samuel 24:9)
If that word means moral excellence or chastity, it would certainly put a different flavor into the Old Testament! (I’m developing a lot of sympathy for translators!)
Don’t panic, the word chayil is a complement, not an insult. But perhaps it is not wise to impose a Webster’s 21st century definition on it. Incidentally, in New Testament exhortations to virtue, the word comes to us from the Greek word that means “manliness/valor.” Ask the men in your life how they would define “manliness.”
So what do we make of this? Perhaps we ought not to assume that spinning flax is the same as walking in the Spirit. Perhaps we have confused Proverbs 31 with Galatians 5:22-23. Our responsibilities and duties may not give us a halo. If it is a halo we want, maybe we’re missing the point.
So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. Luke 17:10
If we are pursuing a halo (instead of Messiah), we begin to put a valuation on spinning flax. “If I get X number of lumen for each job I cross off my list each day; by the end of the week I’ll be a Shining Star!”
Sorry, Jesus said, Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek)… (Matt 6:31-32)
Whoa! Do Gentile gals qualify as Proverbs 31 women? Hmmm. Up to verse 28 — maybe? Many daughters have done virtuously/valiantly, but our excellence, our shining does not come from spinning flax and other household chores.
Let us take Proverbs 31 to heart. What makes the difference between Gentile and Believer is the fear of the Lord. I am so hungry for the fear of the Lord. I want to talk to sisters who revel in the fear of the Lord. They shine!
Did you know that the word fear is often feminine in the phrase the fear of the LORD?
[For example in Isa 11 vv 1-6, the word ‘fear’ there is H 3374 yir’ah (yir-aw’); feminine of 3373; i.e. “an awesome, feminine reverence or ‘fear’” (also used as an infinitive); morally, reverence].
• The fear of the Lord is clean. Ps 19:9 • The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. Ps 111:10
• Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the LORD. Ps 34:11
• The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge. Prov. 1:7
• If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; Then shalt thou understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God. Prov 2:4- 5
• The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life. Prov. 14:27 • By the fear of the LORD men depart from evil. Prov.
• By humility and the fear of the Lord, are riches, honor and life. Prov. 22:4
And speaking of our Messiah, Isaiah says: And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. (Isa 11:2)
These all use yir’ah. If one takes the time to chase out the Hebrew yir’ah, we discover that it suggests a breathless eager responsiveness. It is about life, joy, and relationship with the LORD of life and joy. It contrasts with our chayil much as our head-over-heels, moony-eyed romance contrasts with our can-do American work ethic.
God is calling us to a foundational virtue. Who we are (in Him) comes before what we are assigned to accomplish in our lifetime. Responsiveness to Him is our privilege, our glory, our virtue, and therefore our victory.
On the other hand, scripture also speaks about our can- do-get-the-flax-spun busyness. When our chayil comes from our natural man, scripture warns: But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor 2:14)
God told a transformed (weakened) Saul, (Paul) My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. 2 Cor. 12:9. Spiritual chayil lies in (our) weakness — not in (our) strength.
Job understood this. He said, If I rejoiced because my chayil was great, and because mine hand had gotten much; — Then let mine arm fall from my shoulder blade, and mine arm be broken from the bone. (Job 31:25, 22)
Paul understood this. He said, Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Cor 12:9)
If we glory in our chayil we have turned our focus away from what the Messiah is doing to what I am doing. This is a form of idolatry (admiring/worshipping at the shrine of human achievements). So we’re back where we started; it is far easier for a believer to fall into an attitude of (inner) self-satisfaction that to fall into (outward, immoral) sins. I repeat, it is more often our pride than our behavioral faults of omission or commission that get us into (spiritual) trouble.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Cor. 12:10
1 We agonize over our recognized failings. And we repent and seek forgiveness for each failure. We, as believers, are not blindsided by our besetting sins, but by our misdirected virtues and creeping spiritual pride.