“You Beauty!” a sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Proverbs 31 on Sunday 5 August 2018.
The key to unlocking the meaning of the passage in Proverb chapter 31 comes in the second last verse.
Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Unfortunately, I suffer from three deficiencies in persuading you to the truth of these words. Firstly, I have all the charm of a pile of falling bricks. Secondly, any beauty that I was born with was so fleeting it ran out by the end of my first week of life. And thirdly, I am not now nor have I ever been a woman.
So I do not stand here before you today as an expert in these matters. But I will say in my defense, firstly that I have heard of charm. I am aware of charm as an option in social interactions. In fact, sometimes I’ve been guilty of trying to lay on the charm a bit too thick. Unsuccessfully. Secondly, I may not be beautiful, but I do know beauty when I see it. A beautiful sunset. A beautiful spot to have a two week holiday. A beautiful ball and all rugby tackle. And thirdly, I may not be a woman, but I have dedicated my whole life to trying to understand them.
So I may not be an expert in these things. I am, I must admit, a struggler. But I have found that strugglers are often the best teachers. Those who are good at what they do often can’t put into words how they know what they know. They fly over the top of the jungle of knowledge and are no help to those who have to slog their way through it. It is those who have to hack through the jungle of knowledge with their own bare hands, for whom every advance in knowledge is hard fought and won, it is they who make the going easier for those who come after them.
And so as a struggler in the field of charm and beauty, I can say that the one thing they both share is that they deal with appearances. With how things look. With how things seem. Charm is a matter of words and mannerisms. Being friendly, attentive, polite. Holding the door open for someone. Remembering to say please and thank you. And never ever eating with your mouth full. Charm should not be underestimated. Charm can sell cars. Charm can win votes. Charm can influence people.
Beauty is a matter of looks, of body and clothes and jewellery. We are attracted to people who look young, and healthy, and strong, whose faces and bodies are in proportion. We enhance our beauty or distract from our ugliness by clothes that are smart or jewellery that is colourful and expensive or make up that hides our imperfections or teeth that are straightened. So charm and beauty deal with appearances. With how things look. With how things seem. But perhaps not with how things really are.
Verse 30 says that charm is deceptive. It can be deceitful. Charm can lie. Charm can say, “I like you.” But what it really means is, “I like you doing what I want.” Charm can say, “You are important.” But what it really means is, “You are an important cog in my plans.” Charm can say, “Marry me, and life will be amazing.” But what it really means is, “Marry me, and my life will be amazing.”
Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting. It runs faster than a mountain stream, faster than an antelope being chased by a cheetah, faster than Usain Bolt on rollerskates. Today’s athlete can be tomorrow’s couch potato. The journey from supermodel to bag lady can take only forty or fifty years. Even quicker if she’s taken methamphetamines or used cosmetic surgery. Beauty is temporary. But ugly is forever.
So if charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, if this is the key to understanding this passage, then what Proverbs chapter 31 is about, is what is real and what really lasts. And that is character. Character is who we really are behind the masks of charm that we wear. Character is who we really are underneath the veneer of beauty. Proverbs chapter 31 verse 10 says,
A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.
And the verses that follow are about this woman of noble character. She is a woman of strength, but she isn’t a heavyweight lifter. She is a woman of courage, but she doesn’t ride to battle with the cavalry. She is a woman of endurance, but she doesn’t run a marathon. She is a woman of ingenuity, but she doesn’t win the Nobel Prize for Physics. But she demonstrates these qualities by the things she does and by the choices she make. Her family rely on her and she doesn’t let them down. Her husband has full confidence in her. He doesn’t check up on her or monitor her every step, and she provides for her children. They are always well fed and when winter comes, they are well clothed. She works hard and her hard work is rewarded. She shows her initiative in buying a field, in planting a vineyard, in making fine fabrics and selling them to merchants.
Her true character shines so brightly that it reflects off those who are around her. Some people are so good that they make others look bad by comparison. But she is so good that she makes others look better. Her husband is well respected in the community, but it is mainly through her efforts. Those who envy her might call her a domestic goddess, implying that her example is too hard to follow. But being who she is and doing what she does is a matter of choice. She is a success at home and in business because she fears the Lord. She does not rely on charm, she does not rely on beauty. Because “charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” She relies on God and that choice shows itself in everything she does.
In a nutshell, what she shows by her actions is true love. It is not a love shown by long embraces or tender kisses. It is not a love shown by expensive gifts or by outrageous sacrifices. Instead it is a love shown by wise choices and long endurance, and ingenuity and skill and hard work. And her beauty is not shown by her pretty face or her elaborate clothes or by her perfectly styled hair. But it is shown by her character. She is like a force of nature, but she leaves people in her wake who are better off and feel better about themselves.
This passage is firstly about finding a person like this. It is about not being distracted by appearances. By someone else’s charm or by their beauty. By the person they pretend to be. It is about seeing people’s true character. Seeing the person they really are and being attracted not by a beautiful body but by a beautiful soul. This passage is trying to teach young men to recognise true inner beauty when they see it. To find that beautiful woman and never let her go. A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.
But this passage isn’t just about young men finding a person like this. It is about all of us, young or old, man or woman, single or married, being a person like this. Becoming a person like this. What is the point of a man finding a beautiful soul to make him happy for the rest of his life, if his ugliness makes her miserable? What is the point of relying on what little charm and beauty we have if the only people we attract are as shallow as we are? This passage is about developing our character. And our true character shows in many different ways.
Former United States President Ronald Reagan once said, “You can tell a lot about a person from the way they eat their jelly beans.” Now I eat my jelly beans one at a time. I make each one last and I don’t start the next one until I’ve finished the one before. This obviously shows that I am neat, well ordered and patient person. To tell you the truth, I am not sure if eating jelly beans is a reliable test of character. I am much more persuaded by those who say,
“You can tell a lot about a person from the way they treat their servants.”
Or by those who say,
“You can tell a lot about a person from the way they treat the waiter.”
“You can tell a lot about a person from the way they treat their animals.”
Because it is easy to lay on the charm for those who are more powerful than us. It is easy to enhance our beauty to attract those who are equal to us. But true character is revealed by how we treat the poor and the powerless. Those whom we don’t have to impress. Those from whom we have nothing to gain.
The woman in Proverbs 31 shows her noble character by being generous to the poor, by providing food for her servants, and by being loved and praised by her children. They have nothing she wants or needs. There is nothing they can give her that she does not already have. But she shows who she really is and her true beauty shines clearly when she is good to them. Every young man should want to find her and marry her. Every person, young or old, woman or man, should want to be like her.
In this respect she reminds me of the Lord Jesus. The prophet Isaiah said that he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. But as Forrest Gump’s mother taught him, “Handsome is as handsome does.” And the real character of Jesus isn’t shown by the pictures that people imagine of him in icons, or in stained glass windows or in children’s illustrated bibles. It is shown by his actions. And the overwhelming picture of Jesus that is painted by his actions is that he stood up for the powerless. The sick. The lost. The sinner. The outcast. And the children. Jesus said,
Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
Jesus truly is a beautiful saviour. Not the handsome man in the stained glass windows, but a man whose soul shone with all the noble qualities of the woman in Proverbs chapter 31. A man of strength and courage and truth and love. A man who met people and left them better. And yet his death on the cross reveals the depth of human ugliness that was hurled against him. As Isaiah said,
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
But not for his ugliness, but for ours. None of us lives up to the example of the woman in Proverbs 31. All of us use charm and fancy clothes to cover our true character that we are afraid to reveal. But as Isaiah said,
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows. He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities; and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the ugliness of us all.
If Proverbs 31 is about developing our character, then the first step must be to find that beautiful saviour and to never let him go. And in him to exchange our ugliness for his beauty.
Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but the man or woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.