John Angell James, (1785—1859)
THE BEAUTIFUL PICTURE OF THE EXCELLENT WIFE IN THE BOOK OF PROVERBS
"Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies." Proverbs 31:10
If anyone desires a book which shall combine grandeur of subject—with beauty of expression; the most sublime theology—with the soundest morality; the widest variety of topic—with an obvious unity of design; the most ancient history with—poetry; the profoundest philosophy—with the plainest maxims of human conduct; touching narratives—with picturesque descriptions of character—in short, a book which shall as truly gratify the taste by the elegance of its composition, as it shall sanctify the heart by the purity of its doctrines; and thus, while it opens the glories of heaven and prepares the soul for possessing and enjoying them, shall furnish a source of never failing pleasure upon earth; I say if such a book be sought, it can be found in the Bible, and only in the Bible, and that precious volume more than answers the description.
And where in all the range of inspired or uninspired literature can be found a delineation of female excellence—I will not say equal to, but worthy to be compared with—that which forms the subject of the present chapter? We have in it a picture of which it is difficult to say which is the most striking—the correctness of the drawing—or the richness of the coloring. Both display a master's hand, and though delineated three thousand years ago, it is still true to nature; and when we have removed some of the effects of time, retouched some lines that have been clouded and obscured by the lapse of years, and given a few explanations, it is impossible to look at it without admiration and delight. It adds to the interest to know that it is the production of a female artist. It is the description of a good wife, drawn by the hand of a mother, to guide her son in the selection of a companion for life. They are "the words of king Lemuel, the prophecy that his mother taught him." Who this king was is a matter of uncertainty. He was not, as some have supposed, Solomon. The original Hebrew has many Chaldaisms, which are found in no other part of the book of Proverbs, and afford a cogent argument that it was written by another hand, and perhaps after the captivity. The whole passage is composed with art, being a kind of poem containing twenty-two verses respectively beginning, like some of the Psalms, with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in their order of succession. Whoever Lemuel might have been, he had the privilege of a most eminent mother.
"The admonitory verses with which the chapter commences, composed by this distinguished woman for her son when in the flower of youth and high expectation, are an inimitable production, as well in respect to their actual materials, as the delicacy with which they are selected. Instead of attempting to lay down rules concerning matters of state and political government, the illustrious writer confines herself, with the finest and most becoming art, to a recommendation of the gentler virtues of temperance, benevolence, and mercy; and to a minute and unparalleled delineation of the female character which might bid fairest to promote the happiness of her son in wedded life."
What a pattern of maternal excellence was this mother of the king! We may well imagine that in this inimitable portrait, she drew her own likeness. What sons we would see, if all were blessed with such mothers as she was!
1.In taking up this delineation, I shall first consider the INQUIRY which introduces it. "Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies." This interrogation implies the rarity and the worth of the object sought. The question might have been more forcible in those times than in ours, for such a blessing was no doubt more scarce than it is now. True it is, the picture is so admirable, that even now a perfect resemblance is not to be found everywhere. Yet, if such extraordinary excellence is not often met with, happily that which is far above mediocrity is by no means rare. And why should there not be in every female bosom an intense desire to rise to a perfect conformity to this beautiful pattern? How much more to be valued by her happy possessor is this—than all the jewels with which so many women are fond of being decked—or than the largest and the purest diamond in the mines of the east!
I proceed now to consider this exquisite delineation of "the virtuous woman." But really I feel as if to touch it were to spoil it, and as though comments were almost like—painting the tulip—perfuming the rose—or attempting to add brilliancy to the sun. Instead of following the order of the verses, and adopting the regular expository method—I shall arrange the verses and place them under separate topical heads and titles.
2.The authoress reserves piety for the climax or culminating point of her description, and winds up the whole thus, "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting—but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." Proverbs 31:30.
I shall make this our starting point. It is set forth in the verse just quoted, and there the essence of true religion is comprised in that phrase, "The fear of the Lord"—which means the cultivation and exercise of all right and holy dispositions towards God. Yes, this is religion, to have the heart right towards God. And we hold that this is not merely the gilded ornament that towers upwards to heaven, and crowns and beautifies the building at the apex, though it is this; but it is more than this, for it is the base of the whole structure, and supports the noble pyramid of varied excellences. It is this which makes them strong and stable, and ensures at once their proportions and their perpetuity.
True piety, instead of setting aside a single female excellence—clothes all female virtues with a Divine sanction—harmonizes the demands of God with the claims of man—converts the ordinary duties of domestic life into a means of preparation for that glorious world where the social ties no longer exist—and softens the cares, anxieties, and sorrows, with which woman's lot in this world is but too often sadly oppressed. Whatever else a woman may be—without true piety, she is lamentably deficient. "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting." The face of a beautiful woman ought to be an index of the mind; and when all is beautiful on the outside—all should be glorious within. Never does outer beauty and elegance appear more revolting—than when seen united with an ill-furnished mind and an ill-favored heart. And yet how often do elegance of manners, and loveliness of person, conceal dispositions which are in total opposition to them, and bitterly disappoint the man who has been captivated by them—and who in his choice of a wife, has been led by no other considerations than mere external beauty and personal charms!
"Let beauty have its due praise, and suppose what you will of it; suppose all that the poets say of it be true—still the text tells you it is vain, it is in its nature transient, fleeting, perishing—it is the flower of the spring which must fade in autumn; and when the blossom falls, if no fruit is produced, of what value, I ask, is the tree? The grave is already opening for the most elegant person that moves, and the worms are waiting to feed on the most beautiful face!"
But true religion has an excellence and a beauty which time cannot corrode, nor old-age wrinkle, nor disease spoil, nor death destroy; but which after living and thriving amid the decay of all other things in this world, will flourish in the next in the vigor of immortal youth.
3.We next note her marital excellence. "Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. Proverbs 31:11-12.
Confidence between man and wife is the basis of domestic happiness. There cannot possibly be happiness where this is lacking. Suspicion and jealousy must drive felicity out of doors. In regard to the "virtuous woman," her husband trusts her chastity. Her faithfulness is as inviolable as the covenant of the Most High, and her purity unsullied as the light of heaven. What a torment is jealousy in the bosom of husband or wife! wormwood and gall are sweet compared to it.
He trusts her fidelity in the management of his temporal affairs, and knows that all his domestic interests are safe in her hands. With such a manager at home, he can go without anxiety to his daily business, travel to distant places, or remain, when necessary, away from home for ever so long a time. He shall have "lacks nothing of value"—he shall have no need of worrying about an extravagant wife—and her wasting their property. "He need not," says Matthew Henry, "be griping and scraping abroad, as those must be, whose wives are extravagant and wasteful at home." She manages his affairs so that he has plenty. He thinks himself so happy in her that he envies not those who have most of the wealth of this world—he needs it not, he has enough in having such a wife. Happy the couple that have such satisfaction as this in each other! It is too well known to be denied, that if many husbands make their wives wretched by their unkindness—many wives make their husbands poor by extravagance! Many a man has been tempted to cheat his creditors through the bad management and extravagance of his wife.
The "virtuous Woman" will study to do her husband good, and to avoid doing him harm, all the days of her life. She will be inventive, ingenious, and laborious to promote his comfort, his health, and his interest; will smooth by her sweet words his brow, when wrinkled with care; hush the sigh that misfortune extorts from his bosom; will answer with gentleness the sharp words that in moments of irritation drop from his lips, and will do all this, not by fits and starts when in congenial moods, but continually.
But this is not all; for on looking onward in the chapter we find another reference to her conduct and influence as a wife. "Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land." By the gates are meant the place of magisterial assembly and business, which in ancient times was in rooms over the gates of the city. In these public convocations a good wife will make her husband known, and add to his public reputation in various ways. Her prudent conduct in her domestic arrangements will enable him to leave home with confidence to attend to public business. She does not engross his company so as to prevent his becoming a public benefactor and blessing. By the happiness which she imparts to him at their own fireside she sends him abroad, not with a downcast look, as if he had left a heavy trouble at home, or carried it everywhere with him; but with a cheerful countenance, as though he had just come from the scene and seat of his chief earthly bliss. By her proper care of his personal appearance, in the elegance and neatness of his apparel, (which in ancient times was the work of her hands)—and especially by the force of her holy example sustaining and encouraging his excellence, she raises the honor and increases the respect of her husband. He is better known and more esteemed as the husband of such a wife. Can a woman rise to higher honor than to be so excellent and estimable as to augment the public respectability of her husband?
Still, let husbands take care that they do not shine only in borrowed splendor, and stand indebted for all their esteem to their wives. Let them so act, and be such men, that the honor they receive on account of their wives shall be only an addition to the greater honor that belongs to themselves. It is to the comfort and glory of a man to be better known and more respected on account of his wife; but it is to his discredit to be known and respected only by and for his wife. It is a poor base affair, for a man to go through society with no higher qualification than his wife's excellence. Such a woman must feel herself, though in one sense exalted, in another degraded, by being the wife of a man who has no public honor, but such as he derives from her. It must bring misery when the husband finds himself always totally eclipsed by his wife—except indeed he be too dull to feel it. Alas for the wife of such a man! Let this induce care and caution in the formation of the marriage union. Unequal matches are not often happy ones.
4.Observe now her industry as a woman. "She seeks wool and flax, and works willingly with her hands. She lays her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff." This is an allusion to the customs of the times, and is a description of her personal habits of manual labor and energetic employment. All textures of wool and flax, cotton and silk, were, before the invention of machinery, woven out of thread and yarn, spun by hand with a distaff and spindle. Nor was this occupation confined exclusively to the laboring classes—for queens, princesses, and peeresses disdained not to be thus employed, amid the more courtly occupations of their rank. It is well worthy of attention, that out of the twenty-two verses of this elegant poem, eleven are taken up in setting forth the virtue and practice of the matron's industry, in its various relations and duties. And her industry is represented as eminently practical and utilitarian.
Indolence is sometimes thought and said to be one of the failings to which women are exposed; especially when single, and more frequently in wealthy circles. It is censurable even there; how much more in the state of matrimony! And those who give themselves up to indolence as young ladies are in imminent peril of carrying the habit forward into the state of the wife, the mother, and the home manager. An indolent woman at the head of the domestic circle must throw all into confusion. The manager of an establishment, especially if she be also a wife and a mother, can never plead lack of work, as an excuse for personal laziness. What a sad example does such a woman set to her children! No vice is more contagious than this—nor is any example more likely to be imitated by those around.
5.We next notice her thriftiness as a wife and female head of a family. "She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hand she plants a vineyard." "She makes fine linen, and sells it; and delivers sashes unto the merchant." "She perceives that her merchandise is good—her candle goes not out by night."* From these verses it is apparent that in early times women were extensively employed even in buying and selling such matters as suited their sex; and without withdrawing their attention from other duties, aided their husbands to increase the wealth and comforts of their families. This manufacturing in the house, this traffic with the merchants, this buying a piece of ground and planting a vineyard, sound hardly feminine in our ears; but they give us an insight into those times, and show how little the tyranny of man over woman, which afterwards, as time rolled on, prevailed in eastern countries, had yet been practiced.
It may be doubted whether in the state of society to which this description belongs there were any household items, but such as were thus produced in families, and the demand having no other source of supply stimulated domestic production to an extent of which we can hardly have any adequate conception. Many families would produce much more than they could consume, and as there was always a demand and a profitable remuneration for such products, a thrifty housewife would be industrious herself, and keep all her servants at work, especially at those articles, such as the fine linen and sashes, which were most in demand. The traveling merchants called at the homes of the people, bought up their articles, and then re-sold them.
Woman is here seen as man's companion, counselor and helper, even to the making provision for the support of the family. Modern customs render this to a considerable extent unnecessary. Woman's place ordinarily is the home and the nursery rather than the shop. Buying and selling are the business of the husband, and taking care of the family that of the wife; and the less, as a general rule, the wife has to do with the shop, the better. It is an indelible reproach to any man to live in idleness upon the labors of his wife, and leave her to take care of their children also. A month's labor at the wearisome mill, or a month's penance upon bread and water, would be a suitable regimen for such drones.
Yet 'necessity' dispenses with ordinary laws; and where there are no children to be provided for, or where their comfort and education can be attended to also, it is by no means an unseemly spectacle to witness a clever and devoted woman occasionally at the side of her husband in the scenes of his trade. This applies, of course only to 'necessity'. No wife will feel herself degraded by such occupations. The grateful and affectionate smile of her husband, and the consciousness that she is lightening his cares and aiding him to support his family, will be an ample reward for her labor.
It is, however, a great unhappiness for the laboring classes of this and other manufacturing towns, that married women, who are not only wives but mothers—are so extensively employed in our factories. In some cases it may be necessary, and even beneficial; but as a general practice it is fraught with much discomfort to the family. And in order to render it unnecessary, let the husband be more industrious, more sober, more temperate in all things—and forego the earnings of his wife at the factory, that she may be looking after her children, and providing him with a clean, comfortable, and well-ordered home. This would take away from him one temptation to frequent the ale-house.
6.We notice next her judgment and skill in her domestic arrangements. "She rises also while it is yet night, and gives food to her household, and a portion to her maidens." "She looks well to the ways of her household, and eats not the bread of idleness." "Her candle goes not out by night." "She is like the merchant's ship, she brings her food from afar." "She is not afraid of the snow for her household; for all her household are clothed with scarlet;" or, as it should be rendered, "in double garments."
How many points there are here worthy of notice and imitation. She knows the value of time and redeems it—and makes the day as long as she can by early rising. Nothing wastes time more than unnecessary slumber. Sleep is 'a temporary death', and no more of it should be taken than prepares for a healthy resurrection in the morning. Even the rising of our Lord from the grave took place very early in the morning, as if among the minor lessons he would teach us by the very circumstances of that wondrous and glorious event, one is that our own morning figure of the resurrection in rising from our bed should take place early. A slothful woman, who wastes the precious prime hours of in bed—is a sad example to her family. How can she teach the valuable habit of early rising to her children; or how can she "look well to the ways of her household, and give food to her maidens," by setting in order her household affairs—if she does not leave her downy pillow until the day is far spent.
And then it is said of the good wife, "Her candle does not go out by night." When the days are short and the nights long, she takes no advantage of this for the indulgence of sloth. Though early up to lengthen the day at that end, she is not in haste to retire to rest, and so shorten it at the other end. Each hour has its work, and the work of the hour is done in the hour. The ways of her household are the constant matter of oversight and inspection, and such is the fruit of her good management, that when winter comes, her children need not fear frost or snow, for they are protected from the cold with both inside and outside garments. How beautiful a scene is it on a bleak cheerless day, when the north wind is piercing, and the sleet is driving before it—to see a large family, through the activity of an industrious and kind mother and manager, all warmly clad.
In a complete sense "looking well to the ways of her household," must include not only good housewifery, but a proper attention to their moral habits, their religious instruction, their attendance on the means of grace, giving them time for secret prayer, and reading God's Word, the daily ordinance of family worship, anxious watchfulness over their manners, habits, and connections. Who can have the claim to the title of a virtuous woman who does not feel this weight of family responsibility? And what a responsibility! Let every wife read it, tremble and pray. I most urgently enjoin all the acquirements of good and clever housewifery—of frugality without stinginess—plenty without profusion—attention without slavery—order without fastidiousness—efficiency without hurry—and elegance without extravagance.
"This bear in mind," said an accomplished writer, in giving his advice to his son, when he is directing him as to the choice of a wife, "that if she is not frugal, if she is not what is called a good home manager, if she does not pride herself on her knowledge of family affairs, and laying out her money to the best advantage; let her be ever so sweetly tempered, gracefully made, or elegantly accomplished—she is no wife for a tradesman; and all these amiable talents will but open just so many ways to ruin. In short, remember your mother, who was so exquisitely versed in this art, that her dress, her table, and every other particular, appeared rather splendid than otherwise; and yet good housewifery was the foundation of all; and her bills, to my certain knowledge, were a fourth less than most of her neighbors, who had hardly cleanliness to boast, in return for their awkward liberality." This is all true, and all good as far as it goes. But then it is not enough, for to this must be added moral and religious oversight and care.
7.I may now introduce her conduct as a MOTHER. "Her children arise up and call her blessed." Happy the children of such a mother, who receive the lessons of wisdom taught by her lips, as well as by the example of piety, prudence, and sobriety—which she sets them in her conduct. With their character formed under the resilient influence of her own, and the consciousness how much they owe to her influence, they rise up around her with feelings of gratitude and veneration; when surrounded with families of their own, they teach her grandchildren to reverence her; and when she has descended to the tomb, they pour those blessings over her grave which they had during her life been accustomed to offer round her chair, or in their evening prayer for her welfare.
Let it be the holy and honorable ambition of every mother to be crowned with the blessings of her children. Let every mother seriously ponder what she would really wish her daughters to be; what by general consent they would be praised for being—and that let her be herself! The mother should be as perfect a model as possible, for her daughters to imitate.
In the last chapter I gave directions to young mothers in reference to the early training of their children; let me now give a few hints to those whose children are rising up around them, or have become young men and women. I say then, be much at home yourselves, and that is the way, if your disposition, spirit, and conduct be loving and agreeable—to keep them at home. Make them fond of your society—by causing them to feel that you are fond of theirs. Throw an air of cheerfulness over the circle. A mother's smile is the sunshine of the domestic group, in which all delight to bask. Be happy yourselves, and you will then make your children happy around you. And yet let it not be a cheerfulness that degenerates into levity. Nothing can be more unseemly than a frivolous mother, indulging in undignified mirth—or frothy, gossiping, or slanderous discourse—in the midst of grown-up sons and daughters. To be called a "rattle-brain" is no commendation of a mother.
Of all subjects on which a discreet mother will never joke with her children—love and courtship will be the last. A wise and good woman will avoid all trifling with matters of such delicacy and importance. To her sons she will exhibit in herself the model after which she would wish them to choose a wife; and to her daughters, the pattern she would wish them to copy, should they ever become wives and mothers themselves. There should be a high and dignified bearing, softened by the tenderest affection; and a kindness and affability uncorrupted by a base familiarity. Her authority should insure the prompt obedience of her children, whatever be their age; as her wisdom should attract their confidence, and her love their gratitude and affection. She must be thus their companion, counselor, and comforter—and by the frankness of her own disposition, encourage their openness with her. They must be so treated as to be made to feel that they have no momentous secrets they could wish to conceal from her. And especially should she exhibit to them all the holiness, meekness, consistency, beauty and attractiveness of true religion—the sanctifying, humbling, spiritualizing power of genuine godliness in times of prosperity—and all its Divine support and heavenly consolation in times of adversity—that they may be won by her example to piety—and thus rise up not only on earth, and in time—but in heaven, and through all eternity—to call her blessed!
8.She is not destitute of taste and elegance. "She makes herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple." Though not addicted to 'pride in dress' and 'vanity in decorations', she maintains her rank and station in society by their external and conventional signs. Her wardrobe and her furniture are in keeping with her circumstances, her virtues, and her industry. And it is right that they should be so. Religion, my female friends, is not at war with elegance and good taste. It is itself the "beauty of holiness," and the richest and purest moral taste. Neither despise nor idolize these matters. Be neither poorly dressed—nor a 'dressed doll'; neither the slave—nor the despiser of fashion; neither excite disgust by your lack of attention to little matters of order, suitableness and ornament—nor court admiration by extravagance, splendor and expensiveness. Be consistent with your station in all respects. Do not pretend the pride of poverty—any more than that of magnificence.
As to the elegant occupations for leisure hours of modern times, I refer to what in former chapters I have said on the subject of worldly accomplishments.
9.Note her prudence in speech. "She opens her mouth in wisdom." She thinks before she speaks; and therefore neither introduces a bad subject, nor disgraces a good one by an improper manner of discoursing upon it. She has too just a sense of the value of the gift of speech, and too accurate an idea of the power of words for good or for evil, to employ them in idle gossip, petty scandal, or slanderous backbiting. She is neither too disinclined to talk—knowing that speech is given to be employed; nor too talkative—equally knowing that "When words are many, sin is not absent—but he who holds his tongue is wise." The apostle James says—"If any man offends not in word, the same is a perfect man." This, perhaps, is still more true of a woman, inasmuch as she is thought to have a greater propensity to loquacity.
The gift of speech is never more adorned than when employed in the soft and gentle tones of woman's voice uttering the words of wisdom and kindness. The gift of speech is never more dissonant and repulsive than when her tongue is voluble in folly or falsehood, malice or anger. Have we not all known husbands, a large portion of whose time has been employed in explaining the mistakes, correcting the follies, healing the feuds, and repairing the mischiefs, of wives who opened their mouths without wisdom? While on the other hand, has not many an Abigail, by her discreet and timely interposition and wise speech, averted the storm that was gathering over the family from the churlish language of Nabal, her husband?
Blessed is the woman who knows how to charm to repose the troubled thoughts of an angry or a vexed husband—who can discern when to be silent and when to speak—and how by the sweet tones of her voice to lull his agitated mind, and drive the evil spirit out of his bosom. Ah! it is at home that this wisdom of speech is most needed. What stormy scenes sometimes arise from the absence of it, driving peace from the family and filling it with harsh discord and fearful strife!
10.Is kindness and benevolence no part of the spirit and conduct of the virtuous woman? Let the text reply. "In her tongue is the law of kindness. She stretches out her hand to the poor; yes, she reaches forth her hands to the needy." Her kindness begins with thoughts, goes on to words, and ends in works. In her heart, it is as a principle of charity; upon her tongue, as a law to dictate gentle, and soothing, and pleasing words. She speaks, and her expressions are as the droppings of the honeycomb, or the falling of the dew.
But her mercy is in her hand as well as in her heart and upon her lips. She does not merely say to the hungry and shivering, "Be warmed and be filled," but she gives them with which to satisfy their hunger and clothe their limbs. And her kindliness of disposition is the golden thread which runs through all her life, and binds up all her actions, not only into a womanly, but saintly, benevolence. Her spindle and distaff so industriously employed, are worked not for herself alone, but for the poor and needy. She is not so taken up with those within the circle of her family as to forget those that are outside. Her benevolence is like a spring, which not only refreshes and fertilizes the spot where it gushes up and makes all verdant round its margin—but flows onward to carry its benefits to those at a distance.
She adorns herself with "silk and purple," and makes "coverings of tapestry" for her own habitation, and clothes her household; but then also, like Dorcas, she makes garments for the poor. How beautifully does this feature of kindness come into the portrait; how does this diamond of mercy sparkle amid the other jewels of this charming character! What a blank would the absence of it have made! How would we have turned away, not with admiration, but with sadness, from this industry, frugality, marital affection, good housewifery, maternal excellency, prudence, and elegance—if all these virtues had been exhibited in the iron setting of selfishness—instead of the gold of mercy! If this woman, the pattern of all household virtues, had been presented to us as so swallowed up in her cares for her own well-provided household as to do nothing for the starving and naked families around her—a dark shadow would have fallen on her otherwise bright character, and its luminousness would have passed at once if not into total, yet into partial eclipse. But it is not so. Mercy, like a midday sun, rises upon the scene, and sheds its luster upon all. Christian women, you must be the brightest patterns of kindness and mercy which our selfish world contains—and add to temperance, patience, and godliness—Christian kindness and charity.
11.Such a character cannot be unnoticed or unacknowledged; nor can such excellence pass through the world without admiration and commendation; and I now therefore note the honor and esteem with which she is treated. "Strength and honor are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come." "Her husband also, and he praises her." "Many daughters have done virtuously, but you excel them all." "Favor is deceitful and beauty is vain; but a woman who fears the Lord—she shall be praised." "Give her of the fruits of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates."
She seeks not human applause, and therefore acts no theatrical part; nor, for the sake of praise, attempts ostentatious display. Content with the love and esteem of her husband, the veneration and affection of her children, and the respect of her friends—she is not anxious to obtrude herself upon public attention, to shine in brilliant circles, or to have even her excellence made the subject of general commendation. Still, unsought praise will be given her. Spontaneous tributes and free-will offerings of honor and respect will be paid her.
Her husband will be the first to perceive, and the foremost to acknowledge, her excellence. If a grateful man, he will make her sensible of his just appreciation of her excellences, not by mere caresses, but by respect for her judgment and character; by commending her to her children, and bidding them follow her example. (Cases do sometimes occur of men so inferior to their wives, and so conscious of that inferiority, as to be jealous of their wives superior godliness, and envious of the talents and virtues they cannot imitate.)
A husband blessed with such a woman as is described in this chapter, should not be backward on suitable occasions to let others know the estimate he forms of her character. True it is that a wise man will not be always talking of his wife's excellences; but he will, at proper seasons, feel a pride and a pleasure in exalting her in public estimation, and the public will not fail to give her the fruit of her doings. "Let every one extol her virtue. Let her not lack the just commendation of her pious labors. But while some are magnified for the nobleness of the stock from whence they sprang; others for their fortune; others for their beauty; others for other possessions—let the good deeds which she herself has done, be publicly praised in the greatest assemblies, where, if all men shall be silent, her own works will declare her excellent works."
And to use the poetic language of Horne, "The crown which her own hands have thus formed shall be placed upon her head as it were by general consent, even in this life; and her good deeds celebrated in public assemblies, shall diffuse an odor as pleasant as the smell of Eden, or as the cloud of frankincense ascending from the holy altar. When her task is ended, the answer of a good conscience, and the blessings of all around, sweeter than the sweetest music, shall chant her to her repose—until awakened on the great morning of the world, descending angels shall introduce this daughter of Jerusalem into the joy of her Lord."
Such then is the character of the virtuous woman, as delineated by the mother of King Lemuel. By expanding the miniature as it was drawn by the pen of inspiration into a large and full-length picture, I have perhaps done injustice to the subject. If so, let those who are of this opinion, perpetually and closely study the original as it is found in the book of Proverbs. "There," says Matthew Henry, in his quaint style, "is shut up this looking glass for ladies, which they are desired to open and dress themselves by; and if they do so, their adorning will be found to praise, and honor, and glory, at the appearing of Jesus Christ."
If, however, a wife devoid of all that constitutes her real excellence, will run counter to this beautiful picture—if instead of being the glory of her husband, she will seek to rival him, and will either attempt to be in the domestic skies the greater light to rule the day, or to throw into eclipse him before whom she should be content to be partially obscured—if instead of being content to be praised by him, and deeming his approving smile her worthiest object of ambition and her richest reward, she will seek the gaze of admiration and the language of flattery from strangers—if she is a wife who wantonly opposes his tastes, or neglects his comfort; who despises his opinion, and contradicts him with rigor, and resents with improper heat his real or unintentional slights—who exhibits indolence and not industry in the management of his household—and either by slovenliness allows all things to sink into uncleanness and confusion—or by extravagance hastens on the approach of poverty and ruin—who neglects even her children, and causes them to rise up in grief and shame for their mother—who gives her maidens constant occasion for reproach and complaint, on account of her ill-temper and worse conduct—who is restless and uneasy at home, but gracious and engaging everywhere else—who by her own conduct makes her husband happier everywhere else than at his own fireside—"or if she be a wife, using her empire over her husband to turn him away from the Lord, as the wife of Jehoram, whose fatal influence the Holy Spirit paints in the single expression, 'But Jehoram followed the example of the kings of Israel and was as wicked as King Ahab, for he had married one of Ahab's daughters.' A wife, in short, who constrains her husband to sigh in secret over the hour when he was blind enough to ask for her hand in marriage—and to look forward to the day when he shall lay before the tribunal of God the eternal wrongs she has done him—what plea can she offer for her conduct?" (Monod)
There are some few things of a GENERAL CHARACTER which may be worthy of notice in surveying this portraiture.
It is a very true and judicious remark of Mr. Bridges, that the standard of godliness here exhibited is not that of the religious recluse, shut up from active obligations under pretense of greater sanctity and consecration to God. Here are none of those habits of monastic asceticism that are extolled by some as the highest point of Christian perfection. Nor does any other part of Scripture, either of the Old Testament or the New, set up a finger-post pointing to the convent. I repeat what I affirmed in a former chapter, that no single practice pleading the sanction of religion, was ever the source of so much pollution and vice, or inflicted so deep a wound on morals—as monasticism. Woman's natural state is the marital one, into which she ought to be, and is usually, willing to enter at the call of Providence, and with all due discretion—and for which she should assiduously prepare herself.
Still, should there be some women of singular unselfishness, or exalted piety, who, either for the benefit of near relations, or from motives of zeal and mercy, and not from a superstitious notion of 'the superior sanctity of celibacy', shall be willing to forego the duties and felicities of the wife and the mother; who, I ask, shall forbid them? Such was the mind of the apostle Paul, whose words on this subject have been so eagerly twisted in favor of erroneous opinions. "If I search," says Monod, "throughout the whole world for the type of the most useful, the most pure, the most Christian charity, I nowhere find all these conditions better fulfilled than in the good aunt, who by a marvelous sacrifice, accepts the fatigues and the cares of maternity, without knowing its ineffable consolation. Sad she may be, but her sadness is heavenly, and transforms itself completely into love and sacrifice. But if no family engagements bind you, extend your view further; find out a family who has need of you; comfort the afflicted; form or support charitable institutions; assist a pious minister in his labors—in short in every good work for which God appears to have expressly reserved your liberty. Or embrace, for you may, a yet wider sphere. Embrace the world if you will, provided it be in the spirit of charity. In fine, accomplish your mission so faithfully, that when the hour of your death shall arrive, all may rejoice in the happy isolation which permitted you thus to devote yourself—and that amid the tender regrets which shall follow your mortal remains to the tomb, it may no longer be discerned in the sacrifice which you have made, whether you were wife or sister, aunt or mother, relative or stranger."
It cannot fail to impress every reader of this beautiful description of the "virtuous woman," that the delineation chiefly regards the ACTIVE virtues of the female character. It portrays the clever, energetic, and prosperous female, surrounded by circumstances that call forth her industrious assiduities, invest her with power, and array her with public honor; rather than the quiet, gentle, and retired sufferer, struggling with adversity, or crushed by oppression, whose virtues consist of submission to the will of God, and patient uncomplaining endurance of the wrongs of man, perhaps of her husband—and the brightness of whose character is admired by God and angels in heaven, rather than seen and extolled by men on earth. To the latter I would say, look up with believing prayer to God for the grace that is necessary to fill your dark sphere with the illumination of that holy virtue, which with lunar radiance shines brightest in the night.
Little of the glory of the character which I have been describing may fall upon you in the secluded shades amid which you are called to dwell. In solitude, with no eye to pity, no voice to soothe, no hand to help—you may be called to drink the cup of sorrow. Well, drink it, as did the greatest and holiest sufferer who ever passed through our valley of tears, saying, "The cup which my Father gives me to drink, shall I not drink it?" The time will come when he who loves you better than you love yourself, shall wipe away all tears from your eyes.
To those who by divine grace are copying the pattern set before them in this chapter, and are in circumstances to do so, I would say, cast the veil of gentleness, modesty, and humility, over all these fine traits of active, energetic character. Let the passive virtues of your femininity blend with and soften the active ones. Be sure to single out that lovely feature, "the law of kindness is on her tongue." With all this courageous energy in womanly conduct, unite feminine tenderness and softness. Whatever else in character you may be, still be a woman, with all a woman's grace and loveliness. and while as a wife, a mother, and domestic manager, you wield the authority and exert the influence which belongs to you, remember still there is one in the family, I mean your husband, whose authority is still higher than your own, and that it is at once your duty, and will be for your happiness, meekly and gracefully, though not abjectly and crouchingly—to bow to him.
Young women, I beseech you to make yourselves familiar with this exquisite passage of Holy Writ. It must be a study for you. There is much, very much, to be learned from it. You will here see that piety is the broadest and most solid basis of all female excellence, and so far from interfering with temporal duties, will, wherever it is genuine, quicken attention to them. Godliness is profitable for all things—and assists every lawful pursuit. There is not a single good quality in the character which it will not improve—and no one earthly interest, provided it is legitimate—which godliness will not effectually promote.
Do not allow yourselves to be imposed upon by the misrepresentations of its enemies, who will persuade you, if they can, that piety is unfriendly to general character, and inimical to personal happiness; that it enjoins harsh duties—and forbids pleasures essential to youthful enjoyment. Upon candid examination it will be found that this objection to it, like all others, is utterly unfounded. Is there a virtue or a practice which can adorn or bless humanity which piety does not enjoin? And as to its most solemn, and what some would consider its most sorrowful duty—I mean repentance—I would remind you that this is not the only exercise of true religion; for there is the joy unspeakable of faith, as well as the grief of contrition; and the latter leads on to the former, just as the shower in the sultry heat of summer portends and produces a cooler atmosphere. True religion forbids no pleasure—but only such things as are injurious to the soul. True religion substitutes the substance of happiness for its shadows. It resembles a fine country in spring, where the hedges bloom and every thorn produces a flower.
Perhaps it will be thought by some a pity that a delineation of the virtuous man, equally minute, comprehensive, and impressive, was not drawn by the hand which gave us this picture of female excellence. In diminishing of our regret however, it is observable how much of what is here said may be copied into the character and conduct of the masculine sex. There is scarcely a rule of conduct here presented which may not, with a little change, be observed by the husband, the father, and the master. This virtuous woman's fidelity to her husband, personal industry, good management and diligence in her family, consideration for the comfort and necessities of others, kindness of speech and pity for the poor, courtesy to all, and especially her sincere and practical piety—belong to her husband also—and are required of him as well as of herself! These virtues are appropriate to both sexes. They are the general principles of excellence and virtue—though adapted here to the female sex. And therefore we recommend husbands to study this portraiture, not only to see what their wives should be, but what is required of themselves also.
But who of either sex is sufficient for these things? None but those whose sufficiency is of God; and He will ever bestow upon docile and humble petitioners at the footstool of his grace—that gracious aid which is equal to the exigency of every case. While enforcing your various duties, and calling upon you to form for yourself a godly character, which, after exhibiting to the admiration of every beholder on earth its graceful proportions—shall endure with unfading beauty and undiminished grandeur through eternity—I would also remind you of your own indecision, feebleness of purpose, exposure to temptation—and consequent necessity of divine assistance. To obtain this help you must have faith in Christ, the source of all spiritual efficacy, and earnest prayer to God; and none shall seek this grace in vain.
I close a series of discourses on which, in consequence of the rarity of the effort and the delicacy of the subject, I entered, not indeed without some hope—but with much fear and trembling. So far as the pleasure of my own mind in preparing and preaching them, and the monthly attendance upon their delivery from the pulpit, were concerned, my expectations were more than realized. In laying down rules, pointing out defects, and occasionally in comparing the excellences and the faults of the sexes, I have had a somewhat difficult task to perform, and I can scarcely presume to hope that in the performance of it, I have given satisfaction to all parties. I must be contented (and it is no small matter to be so,) with the conviction that I have endeavored to hold the balance with a steady and impartial hand—and in this I have satisfied my own conscience. I have praised, where praise was called for, and that was very often—but my commendation has not degenerated into flattery. And I have blamed, when blame was just—but it has been without bitterness. My object has been to promote the happiness of both sexes, by improving the character of the one on which so much of the happiness of both depends; and to advance the welfare of society by purifying its earthly source. How far I have succeeded it is impossible that I should ever know, and in the absence of certainty I must be comforted with hope.
I have looked upon woman as related to both worlds, as being bound to this world—by the ties of a wife, a mother, and a domestic manager; and to that world which is to come—by the grander and more enduring bond of immortality; and therefore as having to attain not only to social excellence—but to that which is individual in special relation to God, heaven, and eternity. I have contemplated you, my young friends, as the future wives and mothers of the next generation—and have endeavored to prepare you for discharging the duties of these momentous relationships. It has been my aim in these sermons, to open and prepare for you a smooth passage through this earthly state, gathering out of your way as many stones, and planting as many flowers as I could. And imperfect as may have been my counsels, and defective as may have been my views, I am confident that if my advice be taken and my rules observed, though there may be much sorrow in reserve for you—there will not be lacking a large share of consolation and happiness. It will be your fault, not mine, if your life becomes a dreary blank—a desert without an oasis—a wilderness without a spring.
But I have looked beyond this world, to that state where you will find yourselves with all those tender ties fallen from around you, and yourselves standing alone in your individuality and immortality. I am duly aware, and I wish you to be so, that you sustain a personal relation to God, which requires an appropriate and prescribed line of conduct towards him, and for the neglect of which no other duties, excellences, or merits whatever, can be a substitute. It is not merely what you have been as a woman in society, or as a wife, a mother, or a manager in your family—but what you have been towards God, that will decide your lot in the day of judgment. You may have been the most exalted, noble, and learned of women; the most faithful of wives; the most devoted and kindest of mothers; but if, with all this, you have not had repentance towards God, faith in our Lord Jesus, and true holiness—your domestic virtues, as they had in themselves no relation to God, and in their performance no reference to God, will, in the end, meet with no recompense from him—and instead of "Well done, good and faithful servant," you will hear nothing more than, "On earth, she had all the reward she will ever get."
Young women, contemplate your situation as I do, and as I now present it to you. There, further than the eye can reach, stretches out the vast plain of earthly existence, with all its varied landscape, its numerous roads, its busy population, its duties, its pleasures, and its dangers; you are traveling across it, and needing guidance, assistance, protection, and comfort along the way. Step by step you are going on, never stopping, but ever advancing, to what? To that 'boundless ocean of eternity' which lies beyond—on which you must soon embark—and on which so many of your fellow-travelers are every hour adventuring. Yes, yes, you are emigrants passing through time to embark for eternity! And ought you not, like other emigrants, to prepare for the voyage, and for the country to which you are going? Shall your attention be so taken up with the plain across which you are traveling, as to forget your embarkment upon the ocean that lies beyond it? Does one of all the thousands who are now crowding onto ships to immigrate, forget that he is soon to leave his country for one beyond the sea? Oh, no! And will you forget that you must soon, and how soon you know not, perhaps next year, or next month, immigrate to eternity? By what motive shall I induce you to prepare for eternity! By what? Only by itself. For if Eternity be not enough to induce you to prepare for Eternity, by what other motive can I hope to succeed?
I now, in conclusion, refer you to that day and that scene, when the result of all ministerial efforts for the spiritual welfare of mankind, and of this among the rest, shall be ascertained and made public. Before that dread tribunal, you and I must appear. Not one single person of all who heard, or who shall read these discourses, will then be absent; and among the things to be brought into judgment will be this feeble, yet sincere and earnest, endeavor for your spiritual benefit. In reference to some of you it will, I fear, be found that I have been "the savor of death unto death;" but it is my prayer and my expectation, that to very many I may be "the savor of life unto life." "For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy!" 1 Thes. 2:19-20