Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dressing for the Home -- Lessons from the woman described in Proverbs 31

In Proverbs 31:10-31, we have a depiction of a woman with a full, many-faceted life. The only thing that is said about her appearance is that she dressed in purple and fine linen (the word that is rendered "silk" in the King James Version refers to fine linen of the type that was woven in Egypt in that day.)

Since this passage concerns a mother's instructions to her son, she emphasizes that he should choose a wife wisely. She cautions him not to choose solely based on physical attraction, which will fade over time. Instead, he should choose a woman who will be a worthy life partner.

This poem has traditionally been recited in Jewish homes through the centuries. It has taught young men to value women of worth and dignity and not appreciate a woman solely for her looks. Likewise, countless young girls who have memorized this poem -- which is written in the form of an acrostic in the Hebrew language -- have been given a vision of a life in which their character, wisdom, and talents are far more important to the Lord than their physical appearance. Since the Bible is God's everlasting word, we still learn these lessons from Proverbs 31 today.

While the worthy woman's appearance gets only one brief description in this panorama of her life, it is an important piece of her character. Such a faithful, industrious, and discipline woman would not let her own person become unkempt. From the phrase that she is dressed in fine linen and purple, we can deduce that she dresses and presents herself in a way that brings honor to her husband and family. Her dress reflects her creativity, skill, and attention to detail.

We are also told that she makes coverings for herself, but his more likely refers to bed coverings than to clothing. Since everything else in this portrait of a worthy woman emphasizes her handiwork, we can assume that she made her clothing, as well. It probably would have taken her quite some time to fashion each of her own garments, as she would have sewn by hand. Perhaps, she even spun the raw materials for her dress into cloth before even beginning to sew. In light of the time and labor involved, she would have had only a few garments. We can assume that those garments would have been finely made and well cared for.

The purple in that day came from a rare and expensive dye that came from shellfish found in the Mediterranean or from Tyre. Since it was not a product of Israel, she would have traded for or purchased the dye.

To be dressed in purple and fine linen denotes purity and righteousness, as well as nobility of character. Fine linen and purple were worn by priests in the temple. Purple was also a color of royalty. This woman's outer clothing reflects her inner clothing, with is that of strength and dignity, faith and faithfulness, virtue and ability.

Likewise, her clothing speaks to others of her skill. We are told that she made sashes to sell and that she conducted other business transactions.

Elizabeth George says, "...She is a walking advertisement for her skillful handiwork. A seamstress certainly should not dress shabbily."

Similarly, she added to her husband's reputation as an elder in the city gates. The way she dressed and the way she carried herself reflected well on him. Her skillful management of their estate and her ability to govern herself as well freed him to fulfill his duties as a community leader.

In his commentary on Proverbs, George Lawson says, "If the virtuous woman has coverings of tapestry for her house, she makes them herself; if she is clothed with silk (or fine linen, as it may be rendered) and purple, she earns it by her labors and good management. She does not starve her charity by her finery, nor spend upon her dress that which might support a poor family, and she does not reckon herself superior to the duties of a wife, nor exempted by wearing silk and purple from using her spindle and distaff."

Thus, she does not clothe herself at the expense of her family. Nor, does she neglect her charity toward those in need. She is not vain. She does not spend hours and hours thinking about her outer person. Instead, she attires herself neatly and beautifully, and, then, she gets on with the other things in her life.

Psalm 62:10 tells us, "..though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them."

Psalm 49 hints that we cannot save ourselves by our riches, but that we must hope in the salvation that comes from God alone. "Why should I fear when evil days come,
when wicked deceivers surround me— those who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches? No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them— the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough— "

Verse 31 tells us that this worthy wife does trust in the Lord. She puts her hope in Him and not in her riches, nor even her own hard work. Her industriousness is held up as an example for us to follow. We see from many scriptures in both the Old and New Testaments that God expects faithfulness to the work He has given us and that we will have to answer to Him for our stewardship of His blessings. Yet, our ultimate hope is not in ourselves or in anything we do, but in Christ.

Ephesians 2:8-10 puts it this way, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

The Proverbs 31 woman is a woman of the Old Covenant, in which outer things are used as foreshadowings of the spiritual things to come in Christ. The outer clothing she did have -- which was achieved through her smart management and industriousness -- was costly for her day. Yet, it was in keeping with her station in life and reflective of her inner nature.

In the New Testament, we are cautioned not to be anxious about what we wear (Matthew 5) nor to dress in a way that calls attention to the costliness of our outer attire. (I Timothy 2:9). We are to clothe ourselves with Christ, as God clothes us with Christ when we are baptized. (Galatians 3:27). We are to be adorned with a calm and gentle spirit, just as the women of the Old Testament, such as Sarah, made themselves beautiful by their hope in God. (I Peter 3). We are also to be clothed with good deeds, as befits women who believe in the Lord. We are also to be clothed with humility.

We can be thankful that the Lord has given us such rich spiritual adornment. Isaiah 61:10 tells us that He arrays us in the garments of salvation and the robes of righteousness. Elsewhere in Isaiah, it tells us that He gives us a garment of praise. What joy and delight that should give us!

Note that it is the worthy woman's husband and children who arise and call her blessed, not herself. The worthy woman did not brag about either her inner or her outer adornment. She humbly trusted the Lord, lived as a faithful servant of the Lord, and trusted Him to lift her up in due time. Likewise, when we put on the spiritual clothing that the Lord provides for us, we cannot boast in that. We have nothing that did not come to us except by the grace of the Lord. That He does care for us so richly should fill our hearts with humility and gratitude.

Like the worthy woman in Proverbs 31, we focus most of our attention on loving God and others. We trust the Lord to clothe us, so we are not anxious or insecure about what we wear. We seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness first in our lives and we regard our own outward adorning as a lesser priority. If we find ourselves in situations in which outer clothing is hard to come by, we trust that God will take care of us.

This does not mean that we are to dress in rags or to let ourselves become sloppy in our outward appearance. In the normal scheme of things, a woman who is happy and healthy will attend to her grooming and appearance. Letting ourselves go is often a sign of depression. It can send a message to others that we are unhappy and uninterested in life. Dressing inappropriately or sloppily can communicate to others that we do not care about them. If we habitually neglect how we look, we may need to ask ourselves "why" so that we can correct any bad habits or problems of the heart that have crept into our lives.

As we've said, the ideal woman in Proverbs 31 makes all of her own clothes. So, what do you do if you are not a skilled seamstress as she is? You do not have to have the exact same lifestyle that the worthy woman did in order to imitate her heart. In today's world, it is possible to manage a household well without learning how to sew. Sewing does come in handy, if for no other reason than to repair torn clothing and to alter things that need fitting. Many women also find that sewing gives them great satisfaction. Some find that sewing clothing and household decorations also saves money. There's no doubt that having at least a basic knowledge of sewing can help a woman greatly, and I think it's wise to learn ourselves and to introduce our daughters to sewing techniques. However, if you are not a seamstress, you can still learn how to shop wisely and how to care for bought clothing so that it lasts well. You can still prepare yourself and your household to have the clothing you need for all types of weather and for all activities. It's the heart of the worthy woman that we aim for, not her daily schedule.

What lessons can we learn form the worthy woman about how we are to dress? Here are are a few lessons that I want to learn:

1) Dress and groom yourself in a manner that speaks well of Christ, of your husband, and of your family. Dress in a way that communicates that you enjoy what you do and that makes your calling attractive to others. This does require some attention to detail.
2) Don't spend so much time and money on your outward appearance that you lose focus on things that are more important. Seek God's kingdom and His righteousness first. Cultivate contentment.
3) Don't fear aging. Instead, invest in the things that will last for eternity.
4) Be secure in Christ. Don't succumb to the world's values. Basing your sense of worth on your appearance will make you insecure.
5) Choose the best quality clothing that you can afford. Learn to shop wisely. Take advantage of sales. Choose clothing that will wear well and not fall apart easily. Yet, remember that quality clothing doesn't have to be expensive. Also, hone your grooming routines so that you can perform them quickly on a day-to-day basis. Dress attractively, but not in a way that calls more attention to what you wear than to your inner beauty. Don't compete with other women to have the finest or prettiest clothing. Dress in a way that is respect-worthy, but so that others are not intimidated by what you wear. Be creative in your dress, but don't be consumed by it.

If you are single, can you still apply these lessons about grooming and appearance? Absolutely. We are all the bride of Christ. Too often, single women dismiss these attributes of the worthy woman as being only for those who are married. Yet, this misses a great point: All
Christians are part of the bride of Christ and, as such, can apply the principles of a worthy wife to their walk with Christ. Also, some of us have learned the hard way that it is easier to prepare to be an excellent wife before you are married than it is to learn it all "on the job". The discipline of acquiring a worthy character and a neat, attractive, modest appearance will serve you well throughout all of your life, whether you marry or not.

Happy Home Keeping!

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