The Sexual Life (Part 1)

October 24, 1999 AM
By Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
From: The Doctrine and Practice of Marriage


  1. The establishment of marriage and the creation of man and woman for marriage.
  2. Celebratory Speech as the primary means of the practice of married love.
  3. 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.
  4. The endemic temptations of married life: the peculiar temptations of men and women in marriage and where, so often, marriages go wrong.
  5. 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 life-giving.

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 gall."

"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. 15ff.

"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 you always."

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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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 Council.
  3. 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 scandal.
  4. 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 again.

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 them.

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 felt,

And I could draw direct from thence, and feel

No want. The earthly channels to convey

The heavenly fountain’s waters to the soul

I 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.

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