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Risky Love

Wisdom in being a godly spouse

Proverbs 12:4

4 An excellent wife is the crown of her husband,
But she who causes shame is like rottenness in his bones.

Are you in a “toxic relationship?” You may have heard and even used this phrase many times. Its origin lies in the modern era, having been first coined in a 1972 paper by the American Academy of Psychotherapists. The definition of this as a phrase is elusive, but employing the adjective “toxic” to the word "relationship" forms an apt description of what it must be like to be joined with a friend, co-worker, family member, or spouse who continually uses and abuses you.

A quick internet search reveals that the phrase “toxic relationship” is one that is all over the cultural map when it comes to its use. From health blogs, to trendy publications like Time, Psychology Today, and even bridal magazines (Take This Quiz to See if You are in a Toxic Relationship!), it seems to mean anything from domestic abuse to whatever makes you unhappy. 

It is also the theme of many movies, books, and classic songs–such as the 1963 Dee Dee Warwick hit "You're No Good." [Covered HERE in 1974 by Linda Ronstadt.]

Much of the book of Proverbs concerns relationships. Solomon seeks to teach the young people of Israel the way of wisdom, and living wisely brings benefits to yourself, the world, and the Kingdom of God. In contrast, living foolishly or wickedly will do far more than harm the self-esteem of yourself or others, it can being earthly and even everlasting death. 

Many passages in Proverbs concern that most basic, and yet significant, relationship that exists between husband and wife. If wisdom is not pursued in such an arrangement, Solomon says, the result can be akin to living with someone who is indeed toxic: 

4 An excellent wife is the crown of her husband,
But she who causes shame is like rottenness in his bones.–Proverbs 12:4

In our modern age of the therapeutic mindset, it can be easy to see this verse as some form of self-help, or as a handy quotable for a friend in need. Solomon, of course, is speaking to something much deeper, for in this we see a spiritual component that even echoes across eternity.  

Let’s look at this passage together. Solomon speaks of “an excellent wife.” Most of the passages in proverbs apply to men and women. This verse is no different–but there is a distinct point being made here. This verse speaks metaphorically about two wives: one wise and one foolish. One serves her husband as an outward crown and the other causes inward decay. The actions of both wives have a direct effect, as commentator Bruce Waltke explains:

The shameful wife robs husband of social standing, and the noble wife strengthens him by giving him social honor and empowerment to rule in the community.–Bruce Waltke, “Proverbs”

In contrast an excellent wife is one to be prized above all else. The word excellent word here is sufficient in modern minds to convey the thought but the Hebrew here is חַ֭יִל (“hayil”), and it is often rendered as “valiant,” or more accurately: “noble and virtuous.” 

“Noble and virtuous” is a hendyadis, which is the expression of a single idea by two words together, like “safe and warm.” (I had to look up this term and found it fascinating!) 

Is your spouse “valiant?” As a wife, are you “noble and virtuous?” These are words of high praise for they honor the office of wife–which is noble indeed. Other examples of this in the Bible are found in other verses in Proverbs: 

10 Who can find a virtuous wife?
For her worth is far above rubies.–Proverbs 31:10

And in the book of Ruth: 

10 Then he said, “Blessed are you of the Lord, my daughter! For you have shown more kindness at the end than at the beginning, in that you did not go after young men, whether poor or rich. 11 And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you request, for all the people of my town know that you are a virtuous woman.–Ruth 3:10-11

Ruth, as a “virtuous woman,” is a widow devoted to the care of Naomi, her mother-in-law. She gains the attention of the noble Boaz, her kinsman-redeemer, who immediately recognizes her character and worth. Boaz knows the blessing that will come to his household by making Ruth his wife. As you have read previously in Proverbs:

18 Let your fountain be blessed,
And rejoice with the wife of your youth.–Proverbs 5:18 

Gone are the days, it seems, when western culture understood and honored the significance of “husband” and “wife” as offices unto themselves. Modern emphasis on the individual may lift up “motherhood” or masculinity, but husband and wife are generally treated simply as targets for marketing products at best, or as oppressor and oppressed, at worst. 

Do you hold your office of husband or wife to be sacred? These offices are instituted by God and play out on a cosmic scale through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ. The church, by Christ’s completed work, has been made His bride. This is a clue as to why Solomon is lifting up the virtuous and noble wife.  

You hold your office to be sacred by being faithful to your spouse, but by also taking your role seriously. Husbands, do you make mature decisions and take responsibility for your actions? Is your love sacrificial, like Christ for His bride? Peter explains this in his first letter: 

Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.–I Peter 3:7

You and your spouse are heirs together in God’s kingdom. This proverb assumes the husband is wise and understands this. Husbands are not to shame, abuse, or disregard their wives–and wives are to share in this honor, and hold a special place in the family. 

Solomon continues in verse 4 by describing her as a crown to her husband’s head. A crown is a visible, outward sign of position and authority:

11 Go forth, O daughters of Zion,
And see King Solomon with the crown
With which his mother crowned him
On the day of his wedding,
The day of the gladness of his heart.–Song of Solomon 3:11 

What does it mean to be a “crown” to your husband? Years ago, my church called a new pastor. When I contacted one of his references, I was given a good report of his character and abilities. He was a good man, and a good pastor at his previous church. “What’s more,” the reference continued, “you are getting more than him, you are getting his wife!” He then went on to describe her virtues, her grace, and her devotion to Christ and her husband. In time, she truly did reveal herself to be a true helpmeet to him, and to the congregation.

Can you do this? Perhaps you feel that your husband takes you for granted, that your sacrifices are ignored or unappreciated. Maybe you are in the grip of one of the “waves” of feminism, and you feel that you are the true head of your household and that your husband is like your oldest child. Maybe he is a man-child, who does not fulfill his role and regularly trades the family cow for magic beans. 

Even so, your calling to be a godly wife does not change. Your faithfulness and virtues may go unnoticed all your life, but your Heavenly Father sees and knows. Perhaps your faith will sanctify your husband’s (I Corinthians 1:7) and as you honor Christ as a good wife, he can grow with you. 

The alternative is unthinkable. Solomon describes the opposite of the noble and virtuous wife as one who brings shame on her husband. The result is that she becomes like rottenness in his bones.

This is a curious expression that is found in several places in scripture. In Proverbs as a consequence of envy:

30 A sound heart is life to the body,
But envy is rottenness to the bones.–Proverbs 14:30

And David, crying out to God for help:

3 When I kept silent, my bones grew old
Through my groaning all the day long.–Psalm 32:3

His bones “grew old” is a somewhat nicer way to put it. Habakkuk, on the other hand, heard the voice of God and immediately felt his mortality, as death raced through his veins and along every nerve: 

16 When I heard, my body trembled;
My lips quivered at the voice;
Rottenness entered my bones;
And I trembled in myself,
That I might rest in the day of trouble.
When he comes up to the people,
He will invade them with his troops.–Habakkuk 3:16

So what does this mean? It means that love, and especially marriage is a risky business. A shameful wife indicates that the husband, in a sense, has risked marriage to gain dignity and stature–but instead received the opposite. 

Just as a wife can go from being her daddy’s princess, to chief cook and bottle washer to a lazy husband, so a man can become wed to a harridan who will not cut him any slack. As Solomon tells in another proverb:

9 Better to dwell in a corner of a housetop,
Than in a house shared with a contentious woman.–Proverbs 21:9 

This is a passage that will be further explored later, but the image is one of a controlling wife, who figuratively pushes her husband out of “her” domain, and makes him a tenant in his own home. 

If you are married, do you and your spouse build each other up, or too often criticize and pursue your own selfish ends? A good husband or wife can take your flaws, faults and past hurts and make you whole again. A spouse who lives competitively with you, or seeks to put you down will only sap your inner happiness and usefulness, until you feel that you are wasting away. [I am reminded of "Colin, the energy vampire" in the quirky, funny TV show "What We Do in the Shadows"]  

Instead, you are to be like Christ. You can be your husband’s crown, or your wife’s champion by seeking to die to your sinful self each day as you seek to live as Christ. It is not sufficient simply to love your husband or wife, or to seek their happiness–you must love Christ more than them, or else their love will be your idol. As Paul instructs in Romans:

10 Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another;–Romans 12:10

These things are what C.S. Lewis called “perversions of affection.” In his book “The Four Loves,” Lewis describes the different types of love you are made to experience in life: affection, friendship, eros, and charity. To focus only on one of these, is to place yourself, and your marriage, in jeopardy. But love must be risked:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.-C.S. Lewis, “The Four Loves”

In the end, you love your spouse sacrificially, just as Jesus loves you, and has sacrificed Himself for your very heart. Your earthly relationships will bring you happiness and sorrow–but there is everlasting joy in walking with the One who is the eternal lover of your soul.

When you fully give your heart to Christ, you will be a like a crown to Him that brings honor for all eternity.




The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

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