We have so far introduced the book of Proverbs over two Lord’s Day evenings and then next considered a fundamental perspective of the book last Lord’s Day, viz. the heart as the source of our life and behavior, and, therefore, the necessity of keeping or guarding our hearts. I said that we would take Proverbs subject by subject rather than chapter by chapter and the first subject we will consider is that of romance and the sexual life. Proverbs has a great deal to say about all of this. And surely, it should be no difficulty for us to see how true wisdom, true skill at living life, would require the mastery of these dimensions of our lives.
- The sexual and romantic desires awaken early in our life as human beings and, for most all of us, continue unabated until we are old or sick. I suspect there are only a few of us who cannot remember episodes in our early life when we behaved very foolishly in respect to these desires and no doubt a number of us live with real shame in the remembrance of how we were unmanned by these desires or how we mistreated someone else as a result of them.
- They are some of the most powerful drives we experience. In adolescence most boys discover how much is being asked of them as Christian men when they realize that they must submit those desires to the Lordship of Christ and the purity demanded in the Word of God. Dr. James Dobson, in the original film series that made him famous, minimized the significance of masturbation among adolescent boys: everybody does it; it’s a natural part of self-discovery, and so on. But, I think that is a great mistake. Most boys know the sin of it, feel the shame of it, and it is precisely the power of the temptation to do it that teaches a Christian boy that the Christian life is going to be warfare just as the Bible says; bloody warfare! True masculine godliness is never built on the foundation of “everybody does it!” And, of course, no one can possibly justify the thoughts and mental images involved for they are a direct violation of the Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about lusting and committing adultery in one’s heart.
- The sins that we commit in this area of life are some of the most painful and consequential of life. A romantic attachment between young people often blinds them to factors that ought to be carefully weighed before marriage. In the bloom of romance they act quickly but then must repent at length. How many young people do you know who, under the impulse of romantic attachment, made very unwise choices?
- And how many lives – is it possible for us to begin to appreciate the size of this number – how many lives, how many marriages, how many families have been destroyed by sexual sin; how many reputations have been ruined; how much promise has been destroyed. It seems to be virtually always the case: when I travel and return to another community of believers I know, I learn of some new catastrophe that has overcome the life of someone I know. And this last trip was no exception. A young wife and children now must pick up the pieces of their shattered existence because a professing Christian father couldn’t keep his hands off another woman!
- But the danger notwithstanding, how powerful these desires continue to be through adulthood. It is not the case, as the entire tradition of godly Christian life bears eloquent witness, that after the storms of adolescent desire have passed one settles quietly into the routine of sexual and romantic peace. The storms continue!
- And contrarily, how much happiness and pleasure and fulfillment do human beings find in romance and sexual love! I suspect that your experience has been as mine: you haven’t found many a man or woman who is head over heels in love but still somehow deeply unhappy in life; or a marriage that is romantically satisfying and erotically fulfilling but is somehow for some reason still genuinely unhappy.
- I would love to know, wouldn’t you, what percentage of human daydreams concern romantic or sexual subjects. They are a huge part of our mental life as human beings. So, as the whole Bible testifies and as Proverbs confirms, the romantic and sexual life being such a major force and large part of our lives, true wisdom inevitably must master these dimensions of life; otherwise instead of wonderful happiness and fulfillment a roaring lion remains loose to devour our lives.
Surely it is interesting and revealing that when Christianity is rejected it is very often objected to precisely because of its sexual and marital ethics. This happens on all levels.
As Aldous Huxley famously wrote in Ends and Means:
“I took it for granted that there was no meaning… I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently, I assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.”
“The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust.”
Huxley later admitted that this kind of reasoning was incoherent, but the fact is he has given us a candid account of how he had and how many people come to their conclusions about truth and falsehood, about God and man, and sexual interests often have more to do with those conclusions than anyone wishes to admit.
Here is a more recent example. Thomas Nagel is a Serbian born philosopher who taught at NYU. In speaking about his unbelief, he admits that theism, the belief in God repulses him, in part for its objectionable moral doctrines…
“I am talking about something much deeper – namely the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is not God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” [Cited in Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 143]
My point tonight is that if you could sit down with Thomas Nagel or with others in our modern elite culture who wish to defend their atheism and interview them about what they find so offensive about the existence of God, it will not be long before it becomes clear that their view of God is that of the Christian God who makes demands upon his people: demands such as that homosexuals must live in chastity, that pre-marital sex is forbidden, so is adultery, that one must in fact submit the thoughts of the heart in purity to the Lord, and so on. The sexual aspect of life looms so large and always has that one needn’t dig very deep before you find it no matter what subject one is discussing.
So it should surprise no one that the Bible is full of sex, good sex and bad sex, is full of romance, good and bad, and speaks directly to this enormously consequential dimension of life. And since Proverbs talks directly about the practice of life and about the skill of living well in righteousness and purity and love, it was inevitable that it should address these issues among others. Indeed, if you thumb through the first 9 chapters of the book, those cast in the form of a father exhorting his son to live a wise life, no subject receives so much attention as does this one. I counted up the verses: of the 237 verses in the first eight chapters (chapter 9 is something of a general conclusion to the entire section) 65 are devoted to the subject of sexual purity and sexual love (more than a quarter of the total). No other subject gets remotely so comprehensive treatment.
It is very interesting and important I think that this material is a mixture of realism, understanding – even sympathy – and a flinty no nonsense demand and warning. Perhaps that is because Proverbs is written for the young in the first place, though that sort of mixture of attitude and approach should always be ours. We should be defiantly unwilling to excuse bad conduct in this area of life, we should leave no one – especially our children – in the dark as to the tragic consequences that await those who fail to honor the Lord in their romantic and sexual life, but who has lived in the world and tried to maintain a pure heart who cannot sympathize with those who have fallen or who are struggling to submit this area of their lives to Christ.
I think, for example, you find a good bit of this ideal father of Proverbs 1-9 in the pastoral work of the great Augustine. In his preaching, scholars tell us, he hardly harped on sex as some have accused him of doing. Greed, violence, and deception were greater concerns in his preaching. Pelagius even called Augustine “lax” when it came to sexual sin! When a priest and a monk were accused of homosexuality in Augustine’s diocese, Augustine sent them to a shrine to pray for God’s judgment while telling his parishioners to suspend judgment when they did not know the secrets of other men’s hearts. As it happened, he eventually came to believe in the innocence of one of the men. On the other hand, when a monk of his monastery was found to be deceiving the brothers about property he had, Augustine expelled the man and did an audit of everyone else’s property and explained the investigation in two sermons to his people. Sins of calculation, cold acts of lying, were what he was most concerned about. Augustine’s own experience of the terrible power of sexual and romantic attraction made him compassionate with those who fell in that way. He told his people during the homosexual scandal in the monastery that his motto was taken from St. Paul: “Who is weak, and I am not weak?” [The above from Wills, Augustine, 135; Augustine, Letters, No. 78]
Well, one very quickly gets the idea when reading this father in Proverbs on the sexual life that the man knows what he talking about from first-hand experience. He’s felt the terrific power of these temptations and knows what it takes to resist them. He is wonderfully and helpfully worldly wise in his instruction to his son. His counsel, his wisdom is a mixture of iron and sympathetic understanding.
So, let’s look at the first of the three passages devoted to the sexual life we find in the first nine chapters of Proverbs: 5:1-19.
v.2 This is insightful. Honest speech is a protection against the dishonesty of sexual temptation. Think of how Joseph fended off the adulterous wife by speaking the truth to her. [Waltke, i, 307-308] He said that what she was proposing was a betrayal of her husband’s kindness to Joseph and still more a sin against God. And it was! Joseph spoke the truth and by that speaking he fended off the temptation. But it may also be double entendre, for one kisses with the lips as well. And in the next verse we read that the lips of the adulteress drip honey; they lie but they are also sweet to kiss. [Longman, 159]
v.3 Her speech draws him “toward mystery, excitement, and delight.” [McKane in Waltke, 308]
v.4 This is the viewpoint of Proverbs and a key part of true wisdom: always look to the end of the matter. Of course the opportunity of a sexual escapade is enticing, but if you could see the shameful catastrophe that awaits you at last would find the enticement less appealing! As Derek Kidner puts it, “the delicious ends as the disgusting; the soothing, as the murderous.” 
v.7 Notice that “my son” has become “O sons.” The point is for all of us!
v.8 We will return to this point next time. Robert Murray McCheyne says that he found that he was tempted to go as near to the temptation as he possibly could without actually committing the sin. Utter foolishness as he would be the first one to admit. Vincimus fugiendo: We conquer by flight! Avoiding the occasions is the best way to conquer many temptations. Or as Spurgeon once put it, the best antidote to a temptation is very often a good pair of legs and the king’s highway! We find the same, seemingly unheroic advice in the New Testament. “Flee youthful lusts…” In any case, working this out may mean changing your job, changing your friends, changing your reading or watching habits, adding Covenant Eyes to your computer and so on. Very practical stuff, this.
v.14 This is the kind of thing that happens to the promiscuous and the adulterer. In Israel, of course, there was a death penalty for adultery whether or not it was ever consistently carried out, but before that there was public humiliation, ostracism, and the loss of the promise of one’s way of life. Dante makes this point famously in the fifth canto of his Inferno. As so often in Dante the nature of the sufferings of the damned are directly related to their sins.
Into a place I came where light was silent all.
Bellowing there groan’d a noise as of a sea in tempest torn
By warring winds. The stormy blast of hell
With restless fury drives the spirits on,
Whirl’d round and dash’d amain with sore annoy.
(In other words these tremendous desires that cast you back and forth will be still casting you back and forth in hell but without any fulfillment, even temporary.)
I understood, that to this torment sad
The carnal sinners are condemn’d, in whom
Reason by lust is sway’d. …
So bears the tyrannous gust those evil souls.
On this side and on that, above, below, it drives them:
Hope of rest to solace them is none, no e’en of milder pang.
He asks one woman how it was she came there and she tells him her story of being alone with her boyfriend one day, no one was around to observe them, and while reading the romance of Lancelot the two of them were overcome with desire. They forgot the lesson of v. 8.
In that canto is one of Dante’s famous lines:
“No greater grief than to remember days of joy when misery
is at hand.”
Do you think Eliot Spitzer fits that bill and a hosts of other public figures whose lives have been destroyed and they have been made the object of public ridicule because they couldn’t control the sexual desires to which they gave themselves? Or at least they couldn’t control the consequences.
That is what the father is telling his son. Think! Consider what will come of what you are being tempted to do! While unchastity does not lead to prison or slavery in our day, it still leads to sexually transmitted diseases, to divorce, broken homes, the blighting of the lives of children, alimony, poverty, child support, loneliness, and hatred. [Waltke, 313] What we have at the end of this passage is a “sad litany of regrets,”  all the foolish fellow has to show for his momentary pleasure long ago.
v.19 But it is not merely warning that this father gives his son. There must be an antidote to the terrible power of sexual temptation. And there is. It is a sexually fulfilling marriage. The Bible is never churlish about sex, never simply negative. But it insists that there is a right way and a wrong way of sexual fulfillment.
These metaphors: of running water, of springs, of fountains are all typical ANE ways of speaking about sexual activity. Everyone speaks about death and sex using figures of speech. We do today. We speak of sleeping with someone. We’re not sleeping at all. We speak of making love or whatever other term we use. We don’t speak clinically but figuratively of sex. All cultures do. Interestingly you find these same images in the Song of Songs where, again, it is the pure sexual life of marriage that is being described. In the Song 4:12 the young woman before her marriage is described as a “garden locked,” “a spring locked,” and “a fountain sealed.” Those describe virginity and a woman who is as yet unavailable for love-making. But the prospect of wedded sex is described a few verses later as “a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.”
Here in Proverbs 5:15-19 the Father is speaking of married sexual and romantic love. Obviously not simply sexual but romantic as well. The reference to the wife’s breasts in v. 19 obviously refer not to breasts as they suckle a child but breasts for the sexual stimulation they provide a husband, and rejoicing and the blessing of the fountain refer to a happy marriage and a happy home. It is this romantic/sexual love the father says will be intoxicating and as such will protect a man from the temptations and the dangers and the soul-destroying consequences of illicit and immoral sex. In the Song of Songs we read of love being better than wine: again the idea of delicious fulfillment in romantic/sexual love.
v.23 But because his son is young and does not yet have the experience of an erotic marriage to compare with the temptations he faces, the father returns to warning: the Lord will know what you do and you will not escape his judgment!
The points are obvious. Purity, fidelity to the Lord in your sexual life, however difficult that may prove to be is not some impoverishing isolation as you are tempted to think, but a means of liberation: liberation not only from the sordid and ruinous consequences of promiscuity and adultery but liberation to a life of sexual and romantic fulfillment in a lasting relationship of love, in a way of life that is life-giving, not life-destroying. [Kidner, 70] There is no asceticism in the Bible. Even the man or woman who took the Nazirite vow (described in Number 6) and so gave up many things was not required to be celibate.
So what is wisdom regarding the romantic sexual life so far? It is the skill of deciphering the true intention of a temptation. Each temptation you face, if it had its way, would destroy you; would leave your life in complete ruin. You have the remnants of your flesh, a sinful human nature that is given over to death. Left to itself it would take you to hell. And you have an adversary who wishes your destruction so that you might suffer his fate in the Lake of Fire. Wisdom sees temptations for what they are and what they intend and what they produce at last. Don’t say that this is not the case because we have all seen it and seen it far too often. How many public figures have been subjected to national disgrace for their inability to resist sexual temptation? Believe me, most of them realized what danger they were exposing themselves to – at least in an intellectual way – but they couldn’t muster the spiritual wherewithal to grasp the issue of the temptation and the disgrace that would follow discovery. They didn’t speak knowledge to themselves and they let themselves concentrate on the enticement rather than the disgrace and catastrophe the few minutes of pleasure would bring. How many Christian ministers have brought shame upon the church and upon themselves and have utterly devastated their wives and families for the same reason. They were secretive; they knew that they might get caught and it would be disaster for them. But they saw the temptation and allowed the temptation to out-talk the knowledge in their heads. Classmates of mine in college and seminary have fallen in just this way. They listened to the honey-dripping lips of the forbidden woman and did not think to use their own lips to guard knowledge. Far from keeping a foot far from her door, they walked past her door hoping that perhaps she would come out and invite them in. But wisdom sees through the temptation to its actual end, its final result and steers clear lest one end up wishing, as so many have, that they could simply die and end the misery of it all.
Wisdom is also the recognition that these desires, God-given as they are, can be fulfilled in a completely happy, healthy, wholesome, pure, and life-giving way, a way that is a blessing not only to oneself but to others. The Bible does not tell young people “No!” It tells them, “Wait, wait until you can enjoy this without harm, without shame, and without deep and lasting regret.” And to a young person who is sorely tempted to say “I don’t want to wait,” the Bible replies “the regret will be there whether or not you want it if you don’t wait.”
We will have more to say about this next time because Proverbs has more to say. But young people and older people take note of both parts of biblical wisdom. The first part is the fear of consequences. Don’t imagine that the Bible is so highfalutin that it cannot descend to considerations as practical as this one – the fear of horrific consequences. As we read in another of these passages on sexual temptation in these early chapters of Proverbs:
“Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished.” [6:27-28]
But the second part, wonderful and beguiling as is so much of God’s creation, is the romantic and sexual dimension of a truly good and holy life. Why did God make us this way? It is a question worth pondering. And why did he combine something so utterly functional (the sexual process of human reproduction) with something so profoundly and beautifully personal and personally fulfilling. How did he make something so physical in its nature at one and the same time so deeply and mystically spiritual at the same time?
It is wisdom to celebrate this divine goodness in our life and living but to recognize at every turn how even the best things God has made and has given to us have been corrupted and denatured by sin.
As I was preparing this sermon, I happened to come across a review of a collection of essays, all published before at various times, by the English OT scholar John Goldingay. The reviewer took note of the personal element in several of these essays. In an explanation of what the Old Testament teaches us about what it means to be a human being, Goldingay confides in his readers:
“I write in the context of being married to someone who has been physically disabled, who in her own being is a different person from the one I married, and who as I write has just asked me what day it is.” [Key Questions about Christian Faith: Old Testament Answers, 42]
In his discussion of the Song of Songs Prof. Goldingay really lets his hair down:
“Thinking about the Song makes me reflect on the way over the past year or two I have been trying to let myself feel the warmth of feelings for Ann that I used to have, which is a painful business because it reminds me of happier times…but it still feels also a good thing.” [317; cited in JETS 54, 3 (Sept. 2011), 613]
Love lost! Why is it so devastating? Why do people who have known that love ache so when it is lost even though as Christians they have other grand reasons to go on with life, and other wonderfully satisfying pleasures walking with God as they do? Because love is so wonderful, especially the sort of love that binds a man and woman together in that way that is both profoundly spiritual and profoundly physical at the same time. There is nothing like this in the world, no human experience so fulfilling, no experience which so completes our lives, which is why the Lord uses it to describe his relationship with us and ours with him (bride and bridegroom and the like), and why the loss of it leaves such a terrible hole in a human heart.
There is a very real sense in which most of the world is always looking for this romantic/sexual love and joy, but sadly so often looking for it in the wrong places and in the wrong ways. Wisdom knows where it cannot be found and where it can. And that, brothers and sisters, is an extraordinarily important thing to know!