The Sexual Life (Part 1)
October 24, 1999 AM
By Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
From: The Doctrine and Practice of Marriage
- The establishment of marriage and the creation of man and
woman for marriage.
- Celebratory Speech as the primary means of the practice of
- The Headship of the man in marriage and the submission of
wives as realities of nature, and so divine callings, that are
to be sanctified and practiced in a Christ-like way, to the
mutual pleasure and blessing of man and woman.
- The endemic temptations of married life: the peculiar
temptations of men and women in marriage and where, so often,
marriages go wrong.
- Then, last week, we considered the biblical data concerning
the proper choice of a spouse.
The Sexual Life (Partial)
We had to come to this subject sooner or later! One of the
great purposes of marriage in the Bible is precisely to create
the context of love, loyalty, and purity in which the sexual life
can be lived to the blessing and not the destruction of human
beings. In our culture, that has done its best to break the
exclusive bond between the practice of sex and the permanent and
exclusive intimacy and loyalty of marriage, it is particularly
important to remember how emphatically Holy Scripture restricts
sexual union to husbands and wives. Certainly "one flesh" means
more than simply sexual union, but it obviously incorporates into
that distinctly profound and unique intimacy of marriage the
sexual dimension of love and makes, for that reason, sex outside
of marriage a fundamental betrayal of God’s intention for
men and women, as it then also becomes, a fundamental betrayal of
God’s law. Both fornication and adultery are forbidden in
the Bible precisely because they amount to sex without marriage
and outside of marriage, or, in other words, they amount to sex
outside of the context in which sex is good, pure, and
A striking juxtaposition of these two sexual contexts is
provided in Prov. 5:1-23 (actually chapters 5-7). Here we have
the wise and discerning father educating his son in the sexual
dimension of life. And he begins in vv. 1-14 by describing the
strength of sexual desire and its corresponding temptations (a
point he elaborates in greater detail in 7:6-20) and then the
catastrophe that sexual sin produces in the life of the one who
commits it (a point he further elaborates and emphasizes in
6:20-35 and 7:22-27).
"…the lips of an adulteress drop honey, and her
speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as
"I have come to the brink of utter ruin…"
There is a great deal there, of course for parents, for their
training of their children. But, the father does not stop there
with the warning against the power of sexual temptation and its
ruinous effects. He goes on to provide an alternative in vv.
"Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your
own well. Should your springs overflow in the streets, your
streams of water in the public squares? Let them be yours
alone…" [These images – "running water, springs,
streams" are all metaphors for sexual love-making. We will see
this subsequently, but you can prove it to yourself by looking
at The Song of Songs 4:12, 15, where the same images are used
in the context of sexual love.]
"May your fountain [a metaphor for the woman as an object of
sexual desire and as a partner in sexual love, Song of Songs
4:12,15] be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your
youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer, may her breasts satisfy
In other words, the father is telling his son, and God is
telling his people, that there is an alternative to sinful sexual
activity, there is a way to satisfy sexual desire in a manner
that is wholesome, pure, and life-affirming, and that is the
sexual relationship between a husband and a wife within their
marriage. The breasts that satisfy this man in v. 19 obviously
are not breasts insofar as they suckle children, but a
woman’s breasts insofar as they produce sexual desire and
delight in a man.
The reality here, as we shall see, is the same as that Paul
bears witness to when he writes in 1 Cor. 7 that it is better to
marry than to burn with passion (a remark made in the context of
the sexual life of husbands and wives), it is simply put here in
a much more positive and beautiful form. Here the father wishes
for his son an erotically satisfying marriage as the true and
lasting and pure antidote to sexual temptation and as the chaste
fulfillment of sexual desire.
And here we begin to notice how candid and earthy the Bible is
about sexual desire and activity. God made us sexual creatures;
he made the sexual dimension of life very important; its
corruption in sin is an important reality of fallen life and its
pure expression an important part of life’s blessedness.
All of that is clear enough to anyone who reads the Bible.
- It is a book full of sex of all kinds. You don’t get
out of Genesis without encountering prostitution, rape, and the
lust of men for women and women for men (Potiphar’s wife
for Joseph, Gen. 39). But, you also find in that first book of
the Bible the sexual delight of godly men and women in one
another. (Isaac and Rebekah at Gerar, 26:8).
- There is no hiding the catastrophe of illicit sex. The
Bible’s principal illustration of the godly falling prey
to temptation concerns David’s dalliance with Bathsheba,
which is succeeded almost immediately in the narrative by
Amnon’s rape of Tamar. (But there are many other such
examples: Judah; Samson; Israel at Peor; are examples of
God’s people being undone by sexual sin. It is one of the
sins especially mentioned in the decree of the Jerusalem
- There is a great deal in the law of God concerning the
sexual life of mankind. Sexual purity is one of the Ten
Commandments, and its application is elaborated at length in
the case law (e.g. Lev. 18). And we find emphatic recitals of
that law in OT and NT alike. The principal illustration of
excommunication in the NT concerns a man guilty of a sexual
- But, at the same time, there is much as well in the
celebration of sex, its delights, its wonders, its fulfillment
of romantic feeling, its expression of married love. We will
look at that material in due time.
But, clearly there is no prudishness in the Bible, no
Victorianism that confuses probity with silence or chastity with
an embarrassment in the presence of the subject. There is always
a chasteness in the Bible’s presentation; it is never
prurient, but it is also definitely not prudish.
There are more elaborate and definite demonstrations of this
fact, as we will see, but you probably have it also in a lovely
statement in Prov. 30:18-19.
"There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that
I do not understand; the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a
snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way
of a man with a maiden."
The NIV has taken the final phrase there as a kind of
indefinite statement, the way a young man takes with a young
woman. And, no doubt, one could think of ways in which that is
"wonderful" and "mysterious." But many commentaries take the
phrase rather as a reference to sexual intercourse. It does
literally read, after all, "the way of a man in a maiden."
The other references, to the eagle, the snake, and the ship, all
refer to the motion of one thing in another medium, the air, the
rock, the high seas, and there is something supremely wonderful
and mysterious about those motions: the great bird soaring
effortlessly, often without even moving his wings, through the
sky; the snake moving sideward to go forward; and the ship
bobbing on the mountainous waves, surely about to be crushed, but
then on top again. Most human beings at one time or another have
been struck by wonderment at the purely physical character of
sex, the amazing act that it is in so many ways. Emphasis here,
as the word is "maiden" [almah, as at Isa. 7:14], may be falling
on sex for the first time. This is the way the Talmud took the
verse, reflecting the centuries of ancient Jewish interpretation.
This is the way it is taken in the commentary of Keil and
Delitzch, for a century the standard evangelical authority for
the interpretation of the Hebrew OT, and this is the way Dr.
Waltke takes it in his work on Proverbs, giving it as an example
of what he calls "the earthiness of Scripture."
However stern and inflexible the Bible is in condemning
illicit sex, it is wonderfully positive in its celebration of the
sexual dimension of married love. Indeed, it is so enthusiastic,
especially in the Song of Songs, that it is not unnatural to feel
a certain reluctance to read some biblical texts aloud! Mr.
Still, my pastor in Aberdeen during our three years there in the
1970s, used to skip over parts of the biblical text that he
thought were inappropriate for children.
And I don’t doubt that, especially with younger
children, it is sometimes hard to know exactly where to draw the
line and keep the veil closed over this dimension of life.
Especially in a highly sexualized culture such as ours, with its
utterly foolish and ruinous determination to introduce the young
to the secrets of sexual life, there is reason to be careful
here. Florence has been reading King Solomon’s Mines
to our youngest son of late, and she came to a part where there
is talk of climbing a mountain known as the "Breasts of Sheba"
(actually the instructions were to ascend to the "nipple" of one
of the summits!). She wasn’t entirely sure what to do. But,
then, I take note of the fact that "may her breasts satisfy you
always" is in Proverbs, a book that was taught to children in the
ancient church. And, as we will see when we consider the Song of
Songs, the Bible’s habit is to present its most erotically
charged material in metaphorical and figurative terms, such that
children would be largely unaware that sex was even the topic,
much less the meaning of what was being said.
But, that marriage is and is to be a highly sexual affair the
Bible leaves us in no doubt. Even Paul, who might very well
strike us as a man with a different cast of mind than the author
of the Song of Songs – though that may be an entirely
unfair characterization – makes no bones about this.
I Corinthians 7:1-7 (Read)
There are some complications in the interpretation of these
verses, but they do not effect the general drift, which is clear
enough. For example, it is not certain whether "It is not good
for a man to touch a woman" (lit., the NIV’s "to marry" is
an interpretation, not a translation; "touch a woman is
unmistakably a euphemism for sexual intercourse" – most all
cultures use euphemisms for both sex and death, we certainly do:
"sleeping together"; "making love" etc.) is Paul’s
statement or the Corinthians’ in the letter they wrote to
him. But the drift of the following argument is clear enough.
Whether Paul, in v. 2, is talking here about whether a
Christian should marry at all – a subject he definitely
addresses in vv. 7ff. – or whether, in marriage, husbands
and wives should be sexually active -- the subject of the
immediately following verses -- it is clear that he does make the
latter point emphatically. The only question is whether "have his
own wife" in v. 2 refers to getting married or to sex in
marriage. No matter which interpretation is chosen, the point is
made clearly enough in the following verses. (Note that Paul says
"wife" in the singular, not "wives.") No polygamy.
Now the particular point that Paul is making here is the same
general one that the father made in Proverbs 5:15ff., viz. that
marriage is a protection against sexual sin. "…since there
is so much immorality." And v. 9: "it is better to marry than to
burn with passion." We should not make the mistake, of course, of
supposing that this is Paul’s whole idea of marriage
– that it is simply a contrivance to ward off fornication.
But, in the context of the Corinthians’ inquiry, this is
what he is saying and it is, without doubt, a point well-taken
and of vast importance. Given the strength of sexual desire (and
we are the last people who can doubt that having seen
before our eyes one public life after another ruined by untamed
sexual desire) marriage does serve this most critical function
– it provides a means by which sexual desire can be
expressed and fulfilled in purity and chastity.
And you will notice the emphasis Paul places on this function
of marriage. So much is it true that sexual desire must be
expressed and fulfilled that he is unwilling to consider that
this might be only the occasional experience in marriage.
Husbands and wives are not to deprive one another (note the
mutuality of obligation there; a radical thought in the first
century!) except for religious purposes – fasting and
prayer -- and then only for a time. They must come together
Now it is hard to believe that lying behind this exhortation
is not the beginnings of the practice of "spiritual marriage"
that was to become so common later in early Christianity. In that
culture there was abroad, especially among the religious, a
strongly ascetic cast of thought. Evil was thought to be attached
to and conveyed by the material part of the world; good resided
in pure spirit. The less "physical" or "material" one’s
life, the purer it was. This had implications for one’s
diet, one’s clothing, one’s living accommodations,
and one’s sexual life. Jerome, among other fathers of the
church, became a champion of these celibate marriages in which
the couple agreed to live together in fasting and prayer and
without a sexual relationship. The church in general frowned on
such arrangements and a series of synods legislated against
Chrysostom, on the other hand, with his pastoral insight and
spiritual commonsense and with his scintillating wit, his
captivating writing style and ferocious and unrelenting polemic,
wrote two tracts against the practice. He brings up the obvious:
the moral danger of that form of life, the way in which it
invites the mockery and coarse joking of the world, and how such
arrangements foster hypocrisy. John is a champion of virginity,
of course, for men and women, but not in marriage and not under
the same roof. He includes some bitingly sarcastic cameos in
these tracts. There is the monk, supposedly an athlete of the
cross, who spends his time, instead, in chatter with his "wife",
running errands to the jewelry or perfume shops for her [one
cause of the "spiritual" marriages was that wealthier women
needed someone to look out for them and provide the domestic
services they were used to; and wealthy men needed a
house-keeper, etc.], "with her sandals, girdles and hairnets
having for all to see in his house." In another he describes the
"embarrassing encounters, during the night or the early morning,
when they cross from one room to the other…" "These may be
small things," he says, "but they bring to birth big coals of
lust." "His main argument is that for two people of different sex
to continue to live together, under the same roof and in such
close personal relations, is humanly impossible without
succumbing to sexual passion" and so compromising the vows of
chastity they have taken. [Kelly, Golden Mouth, 50-51]
The history of the Christian Church since those days has been
full of the demonstration of the need of men and women for one
another, that it still remains for most people as it was for
Adam, "it is not good for the man to be alone." Robert Nesbit was
one of the St. Andrews Seven (I told you of Alexander Duff and
his "congenialising" last week). He went to India a single man,
committed to a single life in the service of Christ and the
gospel. Thirteen years later he married and obtained an undreamed
of happiness. He put his story, a chaste but suggestive poetic
reflection on 1 Cor. 7:1-7, into verse.
My soul appeared to soar beyond the earth,
And earth’s dependencies – Heaven’s love was
And I could draw direct from thence, and feel
No want. The earthly channels to convey
The heavenly fountain’s waters to the soul
needed not, -- alas! I knew not then
My heart’s necessities.
But, it couldn’t be clearer that Paul would have nothing
of this so-called spiritual marriage! Sexual desires are powerful
things. In the case of most people – Paul won’t say
all and we will return to that point in a subsequent study
– they must be and ought to be expressed and fulfilled and
marriage is the means to that! But, in vv. 3-5 he says still
more. There is a sexual obligation to fulfill in marriage. You
cannot truly belong to one another, he seems to say, you cannot
be one flesh as marriage is intended to make you, you cannot be
to one another what husbands and wives are to be, unless you are
sexual partners also.
So, whether we look at the subject from the vantage point of
the happy and life-giving fulfillment of our sexual nature or
from the vantage point of warding off sexual sin and the
catastrophe that such sins bring to human life, the Bible does
not hesitate to portray marriage as the divinely appointed means
of human sexual fulfillment. And it does so with a candid
acknowledgement of the place of sexual desire and fulfillment in
human life and happiness. We will elaborate that point
still further next time.