Forty women: 40. The Shulammite

When I started writing these posts, on something of a whim on Ash Wednesday, I wasn’t really sure I would make it to the end. It seemed rather risky to name the series ‘Forty women’, but here we are.

A couple of people have asked whether it was easy to find forty women, or if I was scratching around to make up the numbers. It’s been pretty easy. There’s quite a few women who were on an early version of the list, to be later replaced by others I’d forgotten but knew I wanted to include. I think it would be possible to find 52 women, to do a weekly version in a year, but I would struggle to make 365 for a year’s worth of posts, even if I did include the NT women.

But of course, there’s one woman who has been on every version of the list. The bride. The beautiful darling. The vineyard, the garden, the orchard of fruits. The stately palm tree, beautiful as armies, lovely as Jerusalem.

She’s one of just a handful of unnamed women on the list, and she’s the only one who probably isn’t a historical figure. She’s the Shulammite, that is, the Solomoness. She’s the wise woman who teaches the daughters of Jerusalem, how to love wisely but not too soon. She’s the bride of the king, brought up out of the wilderness on the arm of her beloved, who will be crowned on his wedding day.

She’s not afraid to go after what she wants, even when it takes her out into the dangers of the city streets. She’s not ashamed to bring her lover home to meet her mother. She’s proud to be the one beloved of just one man, unlike the many myriad wives and concubines of Solomon.

She’s in love, you see. She is her beloved’s and he is hers. She’s longing for his kisses and his embrace. Every moment apart from him is agony and every moment in his presence is deep rest.

For the first time since the curse fell on Adam and Eve, mutual desire is unencumbered with manipulative oppression. When she speaks, she no longer needs to say ‘My desire is for him but he rules over me’ (see Genesis 3:16). This woman can say ‘I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me’ (Song 7:10).

This is no ordinary woman, and her lover is no ordinary man. Their love does not belong in a broken, barren, sinful world. Their love belongs in a sanctuary. In a safe space, unthreatened by serpents and sin. In a place inhabited where the Lord himself walks among the trees and flowers.

She’s longing to be there, in that paradise, with her beloved, forever, with nothing to separate them.

She’s still longing.

Her book ends with her longing for her lover: “Come away, my beloved,     and be like a gazelle or like a young stag on the spice-laden mountains.” (Song 8:14)

We’re all still longing.

‘The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” (Revelation 22:17)

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Forty women: 39. Gomer

It seemed like the full on fairytale. It was the Pretty Woman happy ending for the prostitute and the prophet, when Hosea took Gomer, ‘the promiscuous woman’ and married her. They settled down. They had a family together. That should have been the happily ever after.

But, you know, that’s actually the first chapter of their story, not the last.

Because change is hard. External change is the easy part: the new home, the new husband, the new children. It’s the internal change that’s hard: the new mindset, the new patterns of thinking, the new beliefs about yourself and the world.

For Gomer, it was hard to believe that she was safe, secure, beloved. It was hard to stop herself catching the eye of any likely bloke who wandered past. It was hard not to flirt with them. It was hard to keep working at a relationship with the same man, day after day. It was hard to think of herself as a mother, with responsibility for others. It was hard to suddenly become a different person.

And so, inevitably, she failed: she was unfaithful to Hosea. She went off and lived with another man.

But that’s not the end of this story either.

‘The Lord said to [Hosea], “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” ‘(Hosea 3:1)

God loves his bride, despite her unfaithfulness, despite her adultery in turning to false gods. He doesn’t wash his hands of her and walk away. He loves her. He goes after her. He woos her tenderly, and heals her hurts, and forgives her sins, and restores her in their marriage.

Hosea is to love Gomer in the same way: he is not to wash his hands of her and walk away. He is to go after her, to woo her, to heal her and forgive her, and restore her in their marriage.

I don’t know how many times Hosea had to do that for Gomer. I don’t know how many times she had to forgive him, too. But I do know that this is the kind of love which lasts: the kind of love which doesn’t expect or demand perfection, the kind which extends grace and forgiveness.

It is the kind of love we all, desperately, need.

Forty women: 38. Esther

God loves beauty. God has, after all, made everything beautiful in its time. He’s made beautiful sunsets and beautiful mathematics and beautiful music. Because he loves to look on his beautiful creation which reflects his own beauty.

And he’s made beautiful people. And, let me be clear, not just people with the inner beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, though that is beautiful, too. He’s made people with beautiful eyes and beautiful hair, with beautiful smiles and beautiful figures. That outer beauty is not something to be sneered at or disdained. It’s something to be delighted in and celebrated by us, just as it is by God.

God made Esther very beautiful indeed: “This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful.” (Esther 2:7). She was beautiful enough to win the Miss Persian Empire beauty contest circa 482 BC.

She was beautiful in herself, but she also spent 12 months becoming even more beautiful: “Before a young woman’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics.” (Esther 2:12) Beauty was a serious business back then, just as it is now.

God made Esther very beautiful in order that she would have the opportunity to enter the palace, to win the ear of the king, and thus to save the Jewish people in exile. Beauty was not the only quality that Esther needed: she showed courage, wisdom, faith and loyalty as well. But without her beauty, she would not have had the chance to show any of those other qualities.

When God made Esther ‘for such a time as this’, he made her beautiful enough ‘for such a time as this.’ (Esther 4:14).

God has made you beautiful, too. You are beautiful enough that he delights to look on you. You are beautiful enough to be able to fulfil his plans for you.

So, celebrate your God-given beauty, delight in it. Seek an outer beauty which honours the beauty of God’s glorious creation, and reflects the inner beauty of your spirit, so that, both outwardly and inwardly, you will display the beauty of God himself.

Forty women: 37. Vashti

It’s been quite a party, all told. Six months worth of pomp and ceremony celebrating all 197 provinces from India to Ethiopia, culminating in seven days of solid feasting in Susa, the capital city. Ahasuerus is showing off, big style.

Because he is the most successful person to be the king of the biggest empire. No one’s ever been more successful than him. He’s showing off his huge financials. He’s making sure they all know that his IQ is one of the highest – they don’t need to feel stupid or insecure, it’s not their fault. Some people would say he’s very, very, very intelligent.

And he will be phenomenal to the women. I mean, he wants to help women. Of course, they all flirt with him – consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected. And you know, when guys tell him they want women of substance, not beautiful models, it just means they can’t get beautiful models. Ahasuerus can get the beautiful models.

He’s a winner, for sure.

It must be fabulous being married to a man like that.

While he’s having his feast for a week, his wife is hosting her own banquet for the women. But Ahasuerus is showing off. He wants to show everyone that he can get the beautiful models. So, “on the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at.” (Esther 1:10-11)

Just what any woman would want: to be paraded in front of a hall full of drunken men, with your own drunken husband grabbing you by the pussy.

Vashti does the unthinkable.

Vashti says no.

Vashti knew her husband well enough to know what would happen, no doubt: “But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him.” (Esther 1:12)

Let us be clear: if a woman cannot refuse her husband without provoking him to rage, that woman is in an abusive marriage.

He’s so enraged that not only is Vashti herself dismissed from the palace and stripped of her royal status, but a decree is issued ensuring that all women across the empire are compelled to obey their husbands. Every man is to be master in his own household. They are afraid that other women will follow Vashti’s example, because the royal household is the model for all households.

This isn’t godly sacrificial leadership of a husband for his wife, or godly sacrificial submission of a wife for her husband.

This is a license for domestic abuse.

It matters who our leaders are. It matters how they conduct their personal life. Modern politicians may not be literal emperors, but nonetheless they have influence through their example, as well as through their policy making. Let us be careful who we choose to be our exemplars.

Forty women: 36. Huldah

Prophets don’t just predict the future. In fact, prophets rarely predict the future. They aren’t fortune tellers.

Huldah was not a fortune teller, looking into a crystal ball to predict the future for the nation of Judah. Huldah was a prophet, speaking God’s word into a particular historical situation. Sometimes prophecies aren’t about the future at all, but merely God’s comment on the past or present. Where they are about the future, sometimes prophecies function as promises but sometimes they are warnings. Sometimes they are absolute: “This will happen” but sometimes they are conditional: “If you continue in your ways, this will happen.”

In Huldah’s day, Judah’s king, Josiah, sent to tell the high priest to use the tithes appropriately for the rebuilding of the temple. In that work, the high priest had rediscovered the book of the law, which had apparently lain lost and and forgotten for generations.

When the book was read out to the king, he tore his clothes in a sign of repentance, and told his advisors: “Go, enquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” (2 Kings 22:13)

How do you enquire of the Lord? You ask a prophet. And in this case, you ask a female prophet. You ask Huldah.

Huldah listens. She hears the news that the book of the law has been found and the king’s reaction.

And then she speaks God’s word of both warning and promise. The warning is of God’s wrath and judgment on the people who have forsaken the Lord and worshipped other gods. The promise is for King Josiah, who because of his penitence, will escape that judgment. How? By being gathered to the Lord before the destruction comes.

His death will be his salvation.

Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.” (2 Kings 2:20)

Death is very near at the moment. It is real and it seems very frightening. But the word of God, spoken through the prophet Huldah, tells us that God’s unquenchable wrath is by far more frightening. Do not fear being gathered to your grave in peace by the Lord. Fear the destruction that God will bring on those who have turned away from him.

And let your fear move you to repentance, while it is not too late.

Forty women: 35. Jehosheba

The history of Athaliah made for pretty grim reading, but tied up in those same events was another woman. A very different woman. While Athaliah was busily murdering all of her grandchildren that she could lay her hands on, Jehosheba was quietly saving the life of one of them.

Jehosheba was the daughter of a king, and the sister of a king, which makes her the aunt to Athaliah’s grandchildren. She clearly knew what sort of woman her mother (or possibly stepmother) was and when she saw what was happening she acted, fast:

“But Jehosheba, the daughter of King Joram, sister of Ahaziah, took Joash the son of Ahaziah and stole him away from among the king’s sons who were being put to death, and she put him and his nurse in a bedroom. Thus they hid him from Athaliah, so that he was not put to death. And he remained with her for six years, hidden in the house of the Lord, while Athaliah reigned over the land.” (2 Kings 11:2-3)

The child was a year old. He was not, of course, the first baby boy who needed to be hidden in order to save his life, and nor would he be the last. But he was the one (in the Bible) who was hidden for the longest. He couldn’t stay in the palace for that long and expect to escape his grandmother’s notice. So Jehosheba arranges for him to be smuggled out to the one place even Athaliah could not go: to the temple.

Jehosheba, unlike the women who saved Moses’s life, knows that she is doing more than protecting a baby. She knows that Athaliah is not the rightful ruler of the kingdom of Judah. She knows that God has made promises to David’s descendants which should pass to her nephew. She knows that Jehoash is God’s anointed king. And so, even though she can’t save all the children, she saves the one who God will use to save his people.

Jehoash isn’t absolutely the best king that Judah ever has, but he’s better than most, and infinitely better than Athaliah. At seven years old, he takes the throne, and under the guidance of the high priest who has hidden and protected him since he was a baby, ‘he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.’ (2 Kings 12:2).

One day, another woman would hide a baby from a murderous ruler. And that baby would also be God’s anointed king. That woman would not be able to save all the children from death either, but she too would save the one whom God would use to save his people. And he too would do what was right in the eyes of the Lord.

Thank God for women like that.

1 2 3 7