“Do you ever remember your mom helping you put your clothes on?”
The question came from my wife, a mother of two young boys who have not yet mastered the art of getting dressed. I thumbed through the files of those early years and came up blank, the thousands of pant-pull-ups and shirt-put-ons lost to conscious memory. My wife came up blank too.
It was a humbling moment, as we imagined our boys, thirty years from now, remembering almost nothing of these everyday routines. It was also a moment — and they seem to come often these days — that put motherhood in a new and hallowed light.
“The wisest of women builds her house,” Solomon tells us (Proverbs 14:1) — and house-building, I am learning, is both beautiful and forgettable. Essential and often unnoticed. One of the world’s most important tasks, and one of the most easily overlooked. Clothing children, feeding children, teaching children, disciplining children — this is brickwork: painful and painstaking, slow going and mundane.
But if you follow godly men and women back to their beginnings, you will often find a mother pulling a foot through a pant leg, reciting a psalm from a smudged index card, and through ten thousand other small moments, building a house whose walls gleam with godly wisdom and whose floors rest on the fear of the Lord.
Two Women, Two Homes
The book of Proverbs, like much wisdom literature, describes two ways to live. And at the heart of these two ways are two women and two homes: Lady Wisdom and “her house” (Proverbs 9:1), Woman Folly and “her house” (Proverbs 9:13–14). Both women call out to the simple (Proverbs 9:3, 15); both invite the young and immature to “turn in here” (Proverbs 9:4, 16). But while those in Wisdom’s home find life (Proverbs 9:6, 11), Folly’s door leads to death (Proverbs 9:18).
We might assume these women are no more than creative literary devices, personifications of two life paths. But Proverbs invites us to see more. In this book addressed mainly to sons, one of the greatest recurring dangers appears in the figure of the “forbidden woman,” a real-life temptress who seduces simple men (Proverbs 7:5, 21). Proverbs portrays her as Folly incarnate (Proverbs 7:11; 9:13), the ruin of many sons (Proverbs 7:26).
Meanwhile, however, Lady Wisdom also appears in bodily form, ultimately in the figure of the godly wife. Just as wisdom crowns a man (Proverbs 4:9), so too does an excellent wife (Proverbs 12:4). Just as “whoever finds [wisdom] finds life and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 8:35), so “he who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22). Proverbs ends with a poem portraying such a woman, who not only “opens her mouth with wisdom” (Proverbs 31:26) but is Lady Wisdom in wifely form (Proverbs 8:11; 31:10).
Yet before a man meets Lady Wisdom as wife, he is meant to meet her as mother.
The book of Proverbs culminates with a mother’s teaching to her son (Proverbs 31:1). Long before Proverbs 31, however, the book teaches us to see a godly mother as Lady Wisdom’s first embodiment. Note the similarity between Proverbs 9:1 (about Lady Wisdom) and Proverbs 14:1 (about wise mothers):
Wisdom has built her house. (Proverbs 9:1)
The wisest of women builds her house. (Proverbs 14:1)
More is happening in the small moments of motherhood than meets the eye. As an imperfect but God-fearing woman builds her house, she becomes for her children Wisdom’s first face, first voice, first touch. Through her daily presence, children learn what Wisdom looks like and feels like; through her daily words, children hear Wisdom’s plea: “O sons, listen to me. . . . Leave your simple ways, and live” (Proverbs 8:32; 9:6).
At the crossroads between life and death, then, Proverbs would have us picture a woman, a mother, teaching and calling and living such that her children choose the fear of the Lord, choose wisdom, choose life. Her voice may not sound as loud as Woman Folly’s (Proverbs 9:13); she may often be hidden from public view; her work may sometimes seem as forgettable as fastening a Velcro strap on a toddler’s shoe. But over time, her home becomes the very womb of Wisdom, forming children who scorn the house of Folly.
Heart of the Family
Of course, a father stands at the crossroads between life and death as well. Much of the direct teaching in Proverbs, in fact, comes from a father to his sons. Like Lady Wisdom, he too instructs and warns and pleads with his children to choose life (Proverbs 3:13–18), and he appears throughout chapters 1–9 as the family’s primary teacher and exhorter (Proverbs 1:8; 3:12; 4:1; 6:20). Even still, Proverbs personifies wisdom as a woman and then embodies her in the real-life figures of wife and mother. Why?
Surely in part because a father’s influence in the home, though deep and foundational, is also limited by the typical calling God places upon him. In Proverbs 31, the husband and father is standing “in the gates” (Proverbs 31:23), away from home, while the wife and mother “looks well to the ways of her household” (Proverbs 31:27).
This father, no doubt, spends much time at home — and this mother, we know, is not afraid to venture into the marketplace (Proverbs 31:18, 24). But in the complementary union of husband and wife, his daytime calling leans more toward society, while hers leans more toward family. And therefore, as home-builder, home-maker, home-keeper, she is wisdom’s steady presence through so many hours when her husband cannot be.
Even in families where a mother sometimes works outside the home, Herman Bavinck’s observation still often holds true: “Far more than the husband, she lives along with all her children, and for the children she is the source of comfort amid suffering, the source of counsel amid need, the refuge and fortress by day and by night.” Indeed, “if the husband is the head, then the wife is the heart of the family” (The Christian Family, 95–96). Day by day — at mealtimes and nap times, through tantrums and tears — she is wisdom’s beating heart.
A mother’s profound influence on her children, then, comes not in spite of her seemingly small work in small places, but precisely because of it. Each jacket zipped with cheerfulness, each cracker or Cheerio served with love, each promise of God whispered over little beds adds another brick upon the wall of wisdom’s house, and gives children another reason to follow in her steps.
When Her Children Rise
My young sons do not yet grasp the gift God has given them in this mother “who fears the Lord” (Proverbs 31:30). In all likelihood, they will not remember how she lifted them onto the potty or gently sang God’s praises this morning. But day by day, they are feeling the touch and hearing the voice of Lady Wisdom. And when, God willing, they learn to embrace her for themselves (and the Christ she represents), they will no doubt add their voices to the children of the wise:
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her. (Proverbs 31:28)
The praiseworthy hero, as often happens in God’s kingdom, is not the one our society would expect: not the big, but the small; not the well-known, but the obscure; not the woman wrestling men in the movies, but the woman wrestling a T-shirt over a toddler’s head. When we rise up and call her blessed, we anticipate the day when everything hidden will be revealed and the forgotten labors of every wise mother will be proclaimed from the housetops.
“The wisest of women builds her house,” Solomon tells us. And our wisdom is to rejoice in such a woman.