As the sun begins to set on Friday evening devout Jews around the world will gather in their homes and synagogues for evening prayer. After their time of prayer the family will gather around the table in their home and sing, “Shalom Aleichem,” which, in Hebrew means, “peace be upon you.” After the family sings together the father will either recite or sing to his wife the “Eshet Chayil.” You may think you have never heard of the eshet chayil, but the truth is you’ve heard it more times on Mother’s Day than any other Scripture in God’s Word. I won’t sing it for you, but I would like to read the eshet chayil to you this morning. You can read along if you will turn to Proverbs 31:10-31.
10 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. 11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. 12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. 13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands. 14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar. 15 She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants. 16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. 17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. 18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. 19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. 20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. 21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. 22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes. 25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. 26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. 27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. 28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: 29 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.” 30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. 31 Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate. (Proverbs 31:10-31 NIV)
Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman is the senior rabbi of the Westchester Jewish Center in Mamaroneck, N.Y., where he has served for 25 years. I was reading something he wrote about the importance of the eshet chayil for his family this past week. Rabbi wrote that he has recited the eshet chayil to his wife every Friday night for 32 years beginning on the first Sabbath of their marriage. At first he didn’t know it by heart and simply read it to his wife. Over time he didn’t need to look at the text any longer. Then he and his wife had children. I love what he shared about what took place around the table as his children grew older. Listen to this.
Though I do not remember how it started, it became my custom to point at my wife when, at the end of Eishet Chayil I would say “many women have done gloriously, but YOU surpass them all.” As they grew, I was pleased to see that my children also pointed at their mother when I said the “you” in the verse. I am even more pleased today, for I have a son-inlaw who now points to my daughter and a son who points to his wife. (Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman. Reflections on Eshet Chayil.)
I’ve pictured this scene in my mind this past week. Can you imagine how his wife must have felt, week after week, as her husband took time to honor and praise her? Can you imagine the blessing it must be to know that his sons and son-in-law are carrying on the tradition of honoring and praising their wives as well? Amazing!
The truth is that many women do not think of blessing, honor, or praise when they hear Proverbs 31:10-31. They read all of the accomplishments in Proverbs 31 and feel like they can never add up to the standard set by Super Woman. The bar has just been set too high! Some of the translations of the word, “?????” (chayil) lend themselves to this type of despair. The English Standard Version and New American Standard Version translate the word, “excellent.” The New International Version translates the same word with the phrase, “noble character.” This Hebrew word literally means, “strength or might.” It can even be translated as “army.” We’ll get back to that in a minute, but for right now let’s finish our thought about why so many women feel threatened by what they read in Proverbs 31:10-31. The threat comes from turning this Scripture into a 16 item “to do list,” instead of seeing it as a celebration of womanhood. I’ve got news for you. If you take out a pen and paper and write down all of the things accomplished by the woman described then you are setting yourself up for failure. She gets up while it is still dark and the lights in her house never go out at night. She selects wool and flax and she works with eager hands. She goes far and wide to acquire food for her family and her servants. She’s a farmer, weaver, real estate tycoon, philanthropist, social worker, and the list goes on. If she were alive today she would have a show on HGTV, The Food Network, and The Bloomberg Business Channel. Ladies, if you are going to try to keep up with her “to do list” each day you are going to be worn slick!
What most women do not know is that Proverbs 31:10-31 is a twenty-two line acrostic poem with each line beginning with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in succession. So, the first line begins with the letter “Aleph,” the second with the letter “Bet,” and so on until you get to the end of the Hebrew alphabet with “Tav.” The Jews have interpreted the Eshet Chayil in various ways throughout the years. Some see it as the words Abraham spoke at Sarah’s eulogy in Genesis 23:2. Others see it as describing a group of great Jewish women, 23 in total with each woman’s strength being described by each verse except for one which describes two women. Some see it as a description of the ideal woman. Still others see it as an allegorical description of the Torah. Now let’s turn our attention back to that powerful phrase, eshet chayil. The word, “???????” (ishet) means, “woman” or “wife.” The word we’ve already looked at, “?????” (chayil) is found 290 times in the Hebrew Bible. In the majority of these appearances it is used to describe “warriors,” “fighting men,” or “soldiers.” Let me give you just a few examples. In 1 Samuel 14:52 we learn about King Saul and the kind of men he gathered to himself while there was conflict between Israel and the Philistines.
52 All the days of Saul there was bitter war with the Philistines, and whenever Saul saw a mighty or brave man, he took him into his service. (1Samuel 14:52 NIV)
Saul knew that he needed mighty men, brave men to stand up to the challenge of the Philistines. There’s a great story about three of David’s mighty men who heard David say that he would give anything for a drink from the well at Bethlehem which was behind enemy lines. Three men risked their lives to get David a drink. They broke through the Philistine line and drew water from a well in Bethlehem just so they could serve their leader. One of those men was Benaiah. Listen to what is written about him in 2 Samuel 23:20.
20 Benaiah son of Jehoiada, a valiant fighter from Kabzeel, performed great exploits. He struck down Moab’s two mightiest warriors. He also went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion. (2 Samuel 23:20 NIV)
Wow! The same word that is used to describe him as a “valiant fighter” is the same word that is used to describe the woman of Proverbs 31. She’s a warrior-woman! Sarah Esther Crispe, a Jewish writer and speaker, says that “soldier” is not really a word we think of when we think of women and yet it is a great description of God’s women. She writes,
The word in Hebrew for “valor” is “chayal,” which also means “soldier.” When one thinks of a Jewish woman, a soldier is not necessarily the term that comes to mind. And yet a soldier is most definitely valorous and most aptly describes her role. A soldier is one who dedicates her life to fight and defend what is most precious and beloved. A soldier likewise must always be thinking not only of her own safety but of her comrades as well. The underlying principle of armies around the world, and most definitely of our Jewish army in Israel, is no soldier left behind. Every single person is indispensable and must be protected and cared for. We are soldiers, valorous soldiers, fighting for our families, fighting for our beliefs, fighting for our values. We know challenge and we have faced it head on and we have overcome it. The woman of valor is not someone else. Each and every one of us has that potential within us. We just need to look. We just need to find her. (Sarah Esther Crispe. Finding Ourselves.)
I think Sarah is on to something powerful that women, old and young alike, married and single alike, need to take to heart and be reminded of on a daily basis. God has called you to be brave, to be a fighter. He is your strength. God has called you to fight the good fight, to stand up and be counted, to make a difference in your home, for your family, and in your community. This is not a message exclusively for married women or only for mothers; it’s a message for all women. Some may question that because Proverbs 31:10 says, “A wife of noble character who can find?” For those women who are married and for those who are married with children—you are called to be a warrior woman in your home, a good soldier who is brave, strong, focused, and determined. You are called to fight the good fight alongside of your husband and for your children. You are called to stand up for what you believe in a culture that stands in stark opposition to who you are as a woman of God. If you work outside of your home, then you are to be a good soldier in the workplace as well. Remember, a good soldier doesn’t just look out for his or her best interest; they work to care for, empower, and protect those around them. At the same time you are called to be strong and brave for those in your community who need your help. It’s not enough to simply care for and be strong for your family. The Lord wants to use you to make an impact on girls and women who need your help.
This is not just a message for those women who are married; it’s a message for all women. Ladies, let me assure you being married will not “complete you.” Surrendering your heart to the Lord will complete you and enable you to be the warrior-woman that God has called you to be. Be brave, be strong. Some of you are thinking to yourself right now, “I wish I was brave. I would love nothing more than to be strong and determined, but I’m just not.” Neither were so many of the people that we read about in God’s Word and yet the Lord was their strength, He strengthened them in their weakness; He helped them when they were helpless, and He will do the same for you if you will simply walk with Him. I love the encouragement the Lord gave His people in Isaiah 41:10 when He said,
10 So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10 NIV)
“I am with you…I am your God…I will strengthen you…I will uphold you.” The key to your bravery and strength is not your internal fortitude, your education or expertise, or your credentials. The key is you giving up your assessment of yourself so that you might begin trusting in His ability to do in your life what He desires to do.
Do you know there is only one woman that is named in Scripture who is called an eshet chayil? Who would it be? Deborah? She was strong wasn’t she? I guess so, she was the only female Judge in the history of Scripture. Or maybe it was Jael, the strong woman of Judges 4, who drove a tent peg through the temple of Sisera, the commander of the army of the Canaanites. Now there’s a warrior-woman if there ever was one! No, it was neither of these. The only woman called an eshet chayil, wasn’t a Judge, she never defeated the Canaanite army either. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t even married. She was a widow, a childless widow who was a Moabite, not even one of God’s Chosen People. Her name was Ruth.
Let me give you a little background on Ruth. As I said, she lived in the land of Moab among a people that were despised by the people of God. A horrible famine had hit the land of Judah so a man named Elimelek left his home in Bethlehem with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, and went to Moab where they heard there was food. While they were in Moab Elimelek died. Naomi was left in a strange land with her two sons who eventually married Moabite women. After they had lived in Moab for about ten years, both of Naomi’s sons died and she was left with her two daughter-in-laws, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi heard that the Lord had blessed her homeland and the famine was over so she decided to make the 50 mile trip back to Bethlehem. In Ruth 1:8-10 we read,
8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.” (Ruth 1:8-10 NIV)
Ruth and Orpah both said they would go back with Naomi, but in the end it was only Ruth who made the trip. Two widows traveling together. The journey was about 50 miles along the Jordan River, around the Dead Sea, through the rough Judean wilderness, and through the Jericho Pass back to Bethlehem. Ruth chose to stay with her mother-in-law rather than return to her own people. Like a brave soldier Ruth risked everything to care for and provide for her aging mother-in-law as they traveled together back to Naomi’s homeland. Is that the picture of the Proverbs 31 woman you have had in your head? Probably not. Ruth was about as far from a modern-day understanding of the Proverbs 31 woman as you can find.
The Proverbs 31 woman had a husband who was respected at the city gate. Ruth’s husband was buried in the city cemetery. The Proverbs 31 woman had a husband and children who filled their home with praises aimed at the woman of the house. That’s what it says in Proverbs 31:28. Read along with me.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: (Proverbs 31:28 NIV)
Ruth’s home and heart were empty. There was no husband to rise up and sing the eshet chayil over her on the evening before the Sabbath. There were no children at the table to rise up and call her blessed.
The Proverbs 31 woman had the means to buy fields and dress in fine linen and purple. Ruth on the other hand was dirt poor. She gleaned the leftovers from the fields that were being harvested just so she and her mother-in-law could eat.
Ruth went out to glean some leftover grain from the fields one day when the owner of the field noticed her. He asked around and learned about her courage in taking care of her widowed mother-in-law. The man’s name was Boaz. He was a relative of Naomi’s husband. He told Ruth to stay in his fields where she would be safe. In Ruth 3:10-11, Boaz spoke to Ruth and said,
10 “The LORD bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. 11 And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character. (Ruth 3:10-11 NIV)
“You are an eshet chayil!” Now, you need to know that Boaz would eventually buy the piece of land that belonged to Elimelek. Along with the land he took Ruth to be his wife so that Elimelek’s family name might continue. Ruth being pronounced an eshet chayil, a warrior woman, a woman of valor, happened before she became Boaz’s wife and before she gave birth to a son for Naomi whom they named, Obed, the grandfather of the man who would become king, David. She wasn’t an eshet chayil because she married Boaz or because she had children, she was an eshet chayil because of who she was.
Ladies you are women of valor, you are warrior-women empowered by our King to be strong and brave in every situation of life you might find yourself in during the years to come. The problem that many women have today is a lack of eshet chayil to encourage them, coach them, and lead the way for them. As a result there are far too many women who are living life for nothing more than the pursuit of happiness, neglecting the opportunities the Lord brings their way because it might take away from something they want to do. Ladies give your life to those things that will long outlive you. Invest your lives in people and not play. Give up your pursuit of happiness so that you might pursue holiness. Make sacrifices to build His Kingdom and not your own. Take the time to instill God’s truth into the lives of those around you. You can’t teach what you don’t know so get busy and begin learning God’s Word today.
I’ve known some incredible women during my life. When I think of the eshet chayil I’ve known I don’t think of immaculate houses; I think of incredible hearts. I don’t think about charm or charisma, but I do think about women of strong character.
- Where do I even begin in describing my own mother, Glynna Hays, and Connie my wife? I could fill a month of your time with stories, but suffice it to say—you are eshet chayils if I’ve ever known one!
- Many years ago I had the blessing of spending a few years with a woman at this church named Margaret Basey before she died. Margaret could comfort the hurting, point her little finger at me to urge me on, and teach God’s Word as good as any preacher. Eshet chayil!
- Daphne Myers had the sweetest, quietest spirit, but she was bulldog tough and had a heart for those struggling to make ends meet. Eshet chayil!
- I’ve watched an aging Arlene Meier saddle up next to her son, who was a successful surgeon before a freak four wheeler accident left him paralyzed. Arlene has served him in every possible way even though her own health is declining. Eshet chayil! I know women today who amaze me.
- K.C. Clifford during her difficult pregnancy was willing to lay in a hospital bed for more than three weeks before the delivery of her son, Hollis. Eshet chayil!
- I know divorced women who were devastated and yet got back on their feet by the grace of God and are living for the glory of God. Eshet chayil!
- Cindy Pipkin and Tami Bramel give untold hours every week to helping kids in their LifeChange Ballroom Dance. Eshet chayil!
- I know Lisa Curtis’ story. I know how she and Mike lost a baby son. Their grief has been turned into a ministry to those who have lost loved ones. Lisa would crawl through fire and swim across the sea to help a grieving man or woman. Eshet chayil!
- I know a great grandmother, Merlyn Stelly, who is raising two great grandchildren, caring for a daughter in a nursing home, and tending to the needs of an ailing son with every ounce of love she has left in her. Eshet Chayil!
- During the past several months I met with a group of people at Lake Hefner to run. Karen Bradford would join us even as she went through chemo and radiation. Eshet chayil!
- I know a businesswoman in our church that fills out a prayer card every single week asking us to pray that she would have wisdom in how to lead her employees. Eshet chayil!
- I know young mothers who get up in the middle of the night to tend to their children’s needs and then work all day to help pay the bills for their family. Eshet chayil!
- I know single women who have rejected the enticements of the world so that they might serve the Lord and His people. Eshet chayil!
I look over this congregation this morning and I see eshet chayil, women of valor, who don’t even recognize who you are in Christ. Rise up ladies and recognize whose you are and what you are in Christ—you are an eshet chayil! Begin to walk in His strength when you are weak. Begin to walk in the courage He provides for you when you face difficult circumstances. Begin to walk in the focus of knowing who you are and why He has given you the gift of this day. And rise up men and celebrate these warrior-women among us. Rise up men and praise the women in your life for who they are and for who the Lord has created them to be. Rise up men and begin to share with these women, young and old alike, married and single alike, what you see in them as God’s women of valor who are making a difference in your life.
May 10, 2015