Ruth and the Proverbs 31 Woman
In the eyes of a world so infatuated with physical beauty and social status, Ruth would not have amounted to much. She was a poor Moabite widow, and thus a sort of outcast living in the land of Israel. Yet something about Ruth caught the eye of Boaz, who was so impressed with her character that he later praised her as a “virtuous woman” in Ruth 3:11. Not only did Boaz know it; the whole village of Bethlehem (including its town leaders) were aware of Ruth’s excellent reputation.
Boaz’s praise rightly reminds us of the worthy woman in Proverbs 31:10-31, also described as a “virtuous wife” (or “woman”—the Hebrew word can mean either). Interestingly, one ancient Hebrew tradition places the book of Ruth immediately following Proverbs in the Jewish Bible, perhaps because of the obvious connection between Ruth and the Proverbs 31 woman. Commentator Edward F. Campbell notes, “Proverbs concludes with an acrostic poem celebrating a ‘worthy woman,’ and Ruth then goes on to describe just such a woman, calling her a ‘worthy woman.’”
The parallels are too hard to ignore. The wife in Proverbs 31 is hardworking, trustworthy, selfless, dedicated to her family, strong, hopeful, dignified, and above all, fears God. The same qualities are present in Ruth. She is a “flesh and blood” example of what the Proverbs 31 woman looks like in real life.
Yet the contrasts must not be overlooked either. For one thing, the virtuous wife in Proverbs is married (Prov. 31:10-12) and has children (Prov. 31:28), while Ruth was praised as a “woman of excellence” (NASB) while she was an unmarried widow without any children at all. Secondly, the wife in Proverbs is rather wealthy, indicated by the fact that she had servants to look after (v. 15), could afford to purchase a field (v. 16), regularly helped the poor (v. 20), and was clothed in expensive clothing (vv. 21-22). Ruth, however, was on the bottom rung of the ladder; she was so poor she had to glean in another’s field to support herself and her mother-in-law (see Leviticus 19:9-10).
When we study the woman described in Proverbs 31 (possibly the wife of King Lemuel, Prov. 31:1) and Ruth side-by-side, we find remarkable similarities and contrasts. They came from different backgrounds and fared very differently in their own economic spheres, yet they have the most important thing in common: they both feared the LORD (Prov. 31:30; Ruth 1:16-17).
Often, when women study the Proverbs 31 woman they see an unattainable standard: “I could never do all the things she did! How can I possibly be as perfect as her?” The worthy woman is not superhuman, nor was Ruth. Ruth suffered great personal tragedy in losing her husband after 10 years of marriage, and I am sure her distress was real. But she did not allow that to stop her from pressing onward.
Other times, young women think their identity is tied to their marriage status, as if they could never be happy while unmarried. Yet Ruth was a worthy woman before her marriage to Boaz. Apparently she purposed to please God as His daughter even while she had no husband.
Again, those who are less well-off financially than the Proverbs 31 woman might think they are useless since they cannot do everything she did. Take comfort, for Ruth was not able to clothe herself in purple or Naomi in scarlet, let alone consider and field and buy it! She may not have been able to extend her hand to the poor in the same way a king’s wife could, but she did what she could in providing for her needy and grieving mother-in-law, gleaning in Boaz’s field and sharing with her the leftovers from her midday meal (Ruth 2:18).
The point is simple: any woman can be a virtuous woman, regardless of her life’s circumstances—rich or poor, married or single, enjoying a comfortable life or suffering tragedy. The only thing that really matters is what she does with the cards dealt her. Will she try to impress the world with her physical beauty or charm, or please the God who created her by fearing Him with a gentle and quiet spirit? After all, that is what makes a woman precious in the sight of God (1 Peter 3:3-4).