Last Lord’s Day evening we began our study of the romantic and sexual life, dimensions of life that must be mastered by true wisdom (that is, must be made part of that skillful living that Proverbs is teaching) by pointing out 1) the importance of the issue – evidenced by the amount of material devoted to it in Proverbs –, 2) the typically down-to-earth and practical approach to it taken in Proverbs, and 3) the twin emphases that we find throughout the Bible and throughout the material in this book: that is, both the catastrophe that awaits those who misuse and abuse romantic and sexual desires and practice them outside the boundaries defined by God’s law and the great blessing, security, and happiness that await those who enjoy romance and sex within marriage as God intended them to be enjoyed. A romantic/erotic marriage is the true antidote to both the sins of the flesh and their horrific consequences.
I want to move on tonight to elaborate the biblical wisdom regarding sex and romance as we are given it in this wonderful and helpful book of the Bible.
And I want to begin with a beautiful text: 30:18-19. I’m going as well to read the next verse, as both in form and subject it seems to belong to the two that go before it.
v.18 “Too wonderful for me” suggests that these things provoke astonishment and in a believing heart they provoke praise of God. The fourth item receives special emphasis as the real focus of the author’s point about things that are amazing and wonderful. In other words, this is a little poem about the glories of sexual love. [Waltke, ii, 490]
v.19 The first wonderful thing is the way of the eagle in the sky: that is, the soaring, seeming effortlessness with which the great bird defies gravity. Eagles are very large birds, very heavy. If you could ever lift one up it would amaze you that so much weight can navigate the sky with such seeming ease. The condor, for example, when it is aloft, flaps its wings on average once per hour! And the condor is even bigger than the eagle! Wonderful indeed.
The second is the movement of a serpent on a smooth rock. It has no legs and the rock has nothing to grab onto, but a snake moves lickety-split across the rock and even as you watch it is not easy to see precisely how it manages to move as quickly and easily as it does.
The third is a ship on the high seas. The marvelous thing is the way it defies the hidden depths of the sea and is untroubled even by great waves. In those days ships were smaller than our large ships today but even the mighty ocean with its terrible power couldn’t drag them under. They would disappear in the trough between two waves and seem to be certain to be buried, but then would pop up on the crest of the next wave, safe and sound.
The fourth and climactic “way” in this list is that of a man with a maiden, a virgin. That is how the ESV and the NIV read the text. I think, frankly, it is the result of a failure of nerve on the part of the translators. Most commentators today will tell you that the proper translation is the way of “a man in a virgin.” This is the way the text was taken in the Talmud, written, of course, by Hebrew speakers who would catch the sense of a phrase more easily than we; it is the interpretation of the commentary of Keil and Delitzsch, for a century and a half a standard authority for evangelicals on the Hebrew text of the OT; it is the view of most modern commentaries, of Bruce Waltke and Tremper Longman, authors of the two best evangelical commentaries on Proverbs and, frankly, the two best commentaries on the book of Proverbs period! (It’s by the way increasingly the case that the best commentaries on books of the Bible are nowadays written by believing scholars. That wasn’t always the case, but happily it has come to be the case in our time.) Commentators choose that translation of the phrase for these reasons:
- “In” is the ordinary meaning of the preposition. It can certainly be translated ‘with” but its first and primary meaning is “in.”
- Each of the previous items described the physical movement of something in a medium and “in” would preserve consistency with the comparisons that have been offered before. The marvelous thing that all of these things have to do with is physical motion in a medium.
- There is no prudishness in the Bible. There is a proper reserve, and a chaste way of speaking about sexual things, but it is hardly the case that we wouldn’t expect such explicitness in the Bible. In fact we find exactly this kind of explicitness in the Song of Songs.
What is being described then is the movement of a man’s body in a woman’s body and, in this case, the first sexual intercourse of bride and groom, which is the goal, however long sought, of that mysterious and magnetic romantic attraction that has brought the two together. [Waltke, ii, 19] In the Song of Songs first sex on the marriage night is also the conclusion and the reason of celebration in the poem.
v.20 Here we have a jarring contrast. We can gather that it belongs with what comes before it 1) because it concerns the primary subject of the previous two verses, the sexual life; 2) because it repeats the leitwort of those verses (“way”); and 3) because it sits between two formulaic sections: one about four things, another about thee things but is not related to the second of these sets. Here we find not a wonderful mastery of an environment that provokes amazement and wonder and gratitude but a woman who is entirely at home in her sin: comfortable, secure, and self-assured. This is not a woman who has pangs of conscience; she is entirely used to her way of life and defensive against any criticism. Like so many outrageous sinners she says, “I’ve done nothing wrong,” and in so saying admits that there are reasons why so many think that wrong is precisely what she has done.
By the way, the fact that it is the woman who is sinful in Proverbs 5, 6, and 7, and here as well should not lead us to conclude that the author of Proverbs was some misogynist who blamed women for all the problems men have. The fact is, of course, it is the fools among the men who trade with such women. But, to be sure, in one sense, it is the women who make such sinful foolishness possible. Women are not always innocent victims and the Bible does not patronize women by supposing that they are not responsible for their moral choices! But Proverbs is equally hard on the men if not more so. We have gone to the other extreme in our society. A police officer who lectured on sexual assault on a U.S. campus a few years ago was vilified afterwards for mentioning, not making a major point of it but simply mentioning, that young women ought to be careful how they dress if they wish not to attract unwanted attention. He barely saved his job and now, I’m told, across American campuses young women engage in what are called “slut walks” to protest the notion that they have any responsibility for provoking foolish and sinful behavior on the part of young men. This is sheer stupidity and needs to be identified for what it is!
Now what we have here is in these few verses is a perfect example of the earthiness of biblical wisdom. We’ll see more of that in a few minutes, but Agur, the wise man who happens to be speaking in this case, celebrates “the easy mastery of elements as difficult to negotiate as air, rock, and sea – and [a] young woman.” [Kidner, 180] There is something wonderful and amazing about the sexual life, about sex itself. It is amazing and the more one thinks about it the more amazing it becomes: how all of this works, how various things are combined in it, function and feeling, reproduction and romance, how something so earthly can be so heavenly at the same time. It can be celebrated, it can be enjoyed, and God can be thanked for it so long as it is pure and faithful sex. It can’t be celebrated and God cannot be thanked for it if it is the sex illustrated by the calculating, selfish behavior of the woman in v. 20, which, in one way or another, all sex is that is not the expression of a life-long commitment and of true love, which is to say selfless love, between a man and a woman in marriage.
The sense of humanity, I think you are aware of this, from the beginning of time has been that this blissful and procreative activity is highly charged with significance. We live in a time when, perhaps for the first time, a concerted effort is underway to deny that obvious fact. We live in a time when people are actually attempting to convince a culture that sex is a simple uncomplicated pleasure and should not be confined by the forbidding taboos of previous times, should be rather set loose for the enjoyment of people in whatever way, at whatever time, and in whatever circumstances they choose to enjoy it. There are anthropologists who are searching fervently to discover some ancient tribe for whom it made no difference who slept with whom, where sexuality existed on a par with breathing or eating, other perfectly natural and uncomplicated functions of human life, to prove that our constraints and moralities are an unnecessary interference with the enjoyment of life. Good luck. They haven’t found the tribe yet and never will. The entire tradition of human thinking about sex supercharges it with great and even terrible significance. Everywhere and always sex has been a “hot potato.” It has always been thought to mean much more than the pleasure of a romp. Sex has power, it is connected to so much more than the mere pleasure of the act, it means so much more to human beings and it both blesses them and hurts them so much more than mere success or failure in bed. [The above from T. Howard, Chance or the Dance? 116-121]
Don’t let anyone sell you a bill of goods in regard to all of this. You young people and young adults, hear me. Sex is a mysterious wonder, a great gift of God, and something he has invested with mighty power. It is ours to enjoy to the fullest extent but it is also ours to steward, to protect, and to use as God intended, like all his other great gifts to us. When it is so used, as in marital sex that is loving and romantic and selfless, men and women find what a wonderful mystery it is! When it is misused it destroys individual lives, marriages, families, and eventually whole societies. There is no way a culture given over to promiscuity and pornography is ever going to be ultimately successful and prosperous in the other dimensions of its life. This is the way everybody in our elite culture speaks: as if somehow or other these fundamental sexual problems in our culture, these sexual dysfunctions and sins are not going to destroy us from the inside out. We can talk about the economy and we can talk about foreign policy without talking about this far more fundamental problem in our societal life. Well you can talk about the economy and you can talk about foreign policy but you are not going to fix our problems until this is fixed. Western society is rotting from the inside out. Sex can be the cheerful fire in the fireplace on a cold winter night, or it can be a fire that consumes the house and kills its inhabitants!
I offer this for the conclusion of my little reflection on Proverbs 30: 18-19. John Adams, the second president of the United States, confided to his journal the story of a Mrs. Bicknal. She admitted to friends that when she married she was very anxious about the sexual act. She feared, she trembled, she could not go to bed. But she remembered that she had put her hand to the plow and could not look back, so she mustered up her spirits, committed her soul to God and her body to Mr. Bicknal and into bed she leaped – and in the morning she was amazed, she could not think for the life of her what it was that had so scared her. [In McCullough, John Adams, 54] That’s the happy end of married sex as described here in Prov. 30:18-19!
Now, before moving on, let me say that there are, of course, other ways to spoil the beauty and wonder and life-giving power of sexual love than simply to have sex outside of a faithful marriage. There are a great many marriages, including, alas, Christian marriages for which the wonder of 30:19 is a distant memory at best or perhaps a longing never once fulfilled.
When we read, for example, in 27:5: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love,” a proverb that in context probably refers not to married love but more general friendship, we are still given a principle that applies to the life of marriage, which ought to be the deepest and most intimate form of human friendship. Fact is, it is possible, as we know very well, for there to be in a marriage very little real love, little real affection, and very little real communication of affection and admiration. It is a special failure of men in marriage. You know the old jokes:
“I told you I loved you when I married you and if I ever change my mind, I’ll let you know.” And my particular favorite:
“You don’t keep running after you’ve caught the bus.”
If the sexual life is detached from the romantic impulse – which is so closely connected to it in, for example, Proverbs 5:18-19 and the Song of Songs – sex is denatured even if it is practiced within a marriage. It is no longer the expression of love but of mere desire and, too often, of the desire of one partner only. If sex is not submitted to the higher interests of Christian ethics – selfless love such as Jesus Christ has modeled for us – it is denatured as all human activity must be. If men do not make love to their wives precisely so as genuinely to love them in that higher, purer way we have been taught to love, then sex has been reduced to an act, not so wonderful any longer, too much like the act of the sinful woman who seeks her interest and pleasure in it, but cares nothing for her partner, indeed, as we read elsewhere in Proverbs has, in fact, reduced him to a loaf of bread (6:26). Sex in that way is simply for oneself.
I think myself that it is one of the grand demonstrations that the one who made human life and made us is the one who gave us the Bible is that nothing, and sex especially, only works as it should when it becomes one more way of putting the interests of others before your own and loving someone else as Christ loved you!
And Proverbs has more to say about how that is done, especially by a husband and wife who really want to love one another and honor the Lord in their intimate life.
Our next text is 7:6-27. This is a longer reading but it will go quickly. I should read the first five verses, but I’ll save the time it would take. I will refer later to something in v. 4: “say to wisdom you are my sister” at the end of this consideration.
v.7 “Simple” is a synonym for “foolish” in Proverbs. A lack of sense or judgment is what characterizes the simple, the fool, or the unwise. This fellow is, as Derek Kidner describes him, “young, inexperienced, featherbrained… He wanders into temptation…and if he is aimless, his temptress is not.”  He is not a downright immoral fellow, but a dimwit like so many men are in this area of life.
v.8 So he was not doing what the father said to do in 5:8, “keep a path far from her door.” I read the other day of William Gladstone, the devout 19th century English Prime Minister, who though married, in love with his wife and a faithful husband, once found himself attracted to a woman who was strikingly beautiful, had led at one time a very immoral life, but had been converted to evangelical Christianity. They got to be acquaintances when they found themselves thrown together by a common interest in an evangelical ministry in which they were both involved. As a result of their propinquity, their nearness to one another, they found themselves in a growing friendship and perhaps said a few things in letters that were inappropriate in a relationship between an unmarried woman and a married man. In her eagerness to protect Gladstone’s reputation she proposed burning their correspondence, but Gladstone declined to do so. Destroying the letters, he said, would remove a bridle. If you know evidence is out there, you’ll be much more careful never to cross the line. That is the kind of attitude this young dimwit didn’t have. [Bebbington, 139]
v.9 So much more sexual sin is committed at night. Sitting on a sofa in a dimly lit living room when everyone else is either gone or abed is no place for a teenaged boy and girl to be if they want to be holy! What is this but the Lord’s observation in John 3:19: “they love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.” Or that of Job, another wise man, in 24:15:
“The eye of the adulterer watches for dusk; he thinks, ‘No eye will see me,’ and he keeps his face concealed.”
So Shakespeare, in his account of the rape of Lucrece by Tarquin (in Lucrece):
This said, he [i.e. Tarquin] set his foot upon the light,
For light and lust are deadly enemies;
[Cited in Waltke, 373]
v.10 She is, we might say, “dressed to kill,” and that is precisely what she will do! She is attractive but has no interest in the spiritual and ultimate issues of life. Her dress offers her body but, as a perceptive commentator says, “to the morally stupid it is camouflage” [Waltke, 374], disguising her real intentions to use this fellow for her own sake.
v.12 This is a wolf preparing to devour a lamb. The young man doesn’t think of himself as prey, but he is and if we add the Devil to the mix, he is nothing but a hapless victim. If the dimwit noticed the fact that she was everywhere looking for prey, he would have realized that she hardly was looking only for him, as she will say in v. 15.
v.13 What every young fellow hopes for: a woman who will offer herself unasked so he doesn’t have to take the risk of rejection and humiliation. Now we observe her strategy.
v.14 She tells him that it is right occasion. It’s prom night, in other words. She is, of course, blaspheming here: turning the peace or fellowship offering into an occasion for sin. Perhaps – it is unclear – she is offering him some of the food which we know from Leviticus had to be eaten on the same day it was offered and cooked on the altar. So she is offering him both a meal and her body. [cf. Waltke, 377]
v.15 Next comes flattery. The truth is, of course, very different. She seized on him not because he was such an attractive catch but because she could tell he was gullible, an easy mark.
v.17 Everything is ready. She might say today: “I have satin sheets on the bed and “Bolero” playing in the bedroom. Sexual pleasure can involve all the senses: taste, touch, smell, and so on. Only the rich owned furniture such as this bed in the ANE, so the young man is overawed by the offer.
v.18 Now comes the proposition.
v.20 Now she assures him that there will be no consequences for him. The husband is far away and will never know. He won’t be back for two weeks. The dullard doesn’t pick up on the fact that she is obviously a deceitful woman for in propositioning him she is betraying her husband. Why would she not cheat on him as well? She certainly has no intention of giving up her comfortable lifestyle for her one-night stand. [Waltke, 382]
v.21 Now she moves in for the kill.
v.22 The “all at once” suggests a sudden decision after a time of indecision. He’s debating with himself about whether he should do this, whether it is safe, and so on. He thinks at last, “what the heck, she looks terrific and what do I have to lose? Nobody is going to know; the husband’s away, its night.” He has no sense of the danger. Think of the Far Side panel that shows cows in line to enter the slaughter house complaining about another cow attempting to butt in line.
v.25 We are being made to think about ourselves in a similar situation, facing a similar temptation. Guard your heart, advice we have already received in chapter 4; keep away from her as we read in chapter 5; and look past her to the end of the matter, to the consequences likely to ensue, as we also were urged to do in chapter 5. The best defense is a strong offense! As in chapter 5 where we learn that a sexually happy marriage is the best antidote to sin, here in chapter 7 we learn that the best way to protect yourself from the catastrophe of illicit sex is to love another woman: Lady Wisdom, the woman who was introduced at the beginning of this text, in v. 4. [Longman, 193] Say to her “You are my sister,” means not what it sounds like to us. It probably means, “You are my lover” as “sister” is a familiar euphemism or term of endearment for the female lover in the ANE and in the Song of Songs is used by the groom to refer to his bride. [Waltke, i, 370] “My sister, my bride,” he calls her.
v.27 What has been left out of consideration by the woman and the young fool is God: that he knows; the darkness is the same as the light to him; that he cares; he is offended by these sins and he will punish them.
Now, all the same lessons of the text from chapter 5 we read last week are here again: 1) the seductiveness and power of sexual temptation, 2) the need to be on guard and to love and value wisdom before you are tempted so that it becomes the structure of your life and you are ready to face temptations when they come, 3) the terrible consequences of a fall here, and so on. I won’t repeat those tonight.
In fact, I want to concentrate on the significance of a detail in this account of a sexual dalliance, in particular vv. 16-17. The colored linens from Egypt, the myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon are, of course, all aphrodisiacs: things that heighten the experience and increase the power and pleasure of love making. What is so interesting about all of that is that if you turn over to the Song of Songs 4:10-14 you will find that all of those same ingredients that are part of a prostitutes pitch in Proverbs 7 are part of the holy love-making between bride and groom in the Song.
Now the simple points that I want to bring to your attention are 1) the wonderful earthiness of biblical wisdom regarding the sexual life and 2) the obvious conclusion, namely that love-making is an art. Aphrodisiacs, by all means! Is there something somehow less spiritual about cultivating the sexual life to make it more enticing more pleasing still? By no means. Make it as wonderful, powerful, pleasurable as you can, and from culture to culture men and women have learned how to do this in different ways and in ways appropriate to their time and place, but in ways that have made a great deal of difference in increasing the pleasure of their sexual lives.
What I find so interesting is that there is no sense whatsoever in the Bible that Christians – because they are to be holy – are to be sexual naive, innocent, other-worldly, or unsophisticated. Quite the contrary. Believers in the Bible are as fully competent sexually as the unbelieving, but they have the immense advantage that they enjoy sex in a life-giving context rather than a life-destroying one. But as to the practice of sex itself, they can be as exuberant and worldly-wise as anyone else; indeed, they are more likely to be still more successful. It is, by the way, a dismal fact of modern life that the promiscuous practice of sex now taken for granted in our culture leaves a great many people, and women especially, utterly unfulfilled. Promiscuity is selfish in the deepest sense and it is hard to build a great sex life on selfishness!
But let’s break this down, because we are speaking of wisdom, the skill of living well. A wise man and woman learn how to practice this dimension of life skillfully, with savvy, understanding, worldly wisdom, and poise. And wise husbands especially, who are first and foremost responsible, are men who never rest until their sexual lives are the delight and fulfillment of their wives, creating a bond deeper and stronger still and keeping love intoxicating, as it ought to be as we read last week from 5:19. Sex is an art and godly husbands get more and more skilled at this art as time goes on.
- Such a man learns that there is no aphrodisiac as powerful as the communication of love and the celebration of his wife in his speech. The Song of Songs emphasizes the terrific importance of the utterance of love to the sexual and romantic life. What is the Song of Songs? Have you ever stopped to look at that small book of the Bible? It starts out with her saying all these wonderful things about him and then he turns around and says all these wonderful things about her and then she says some more wonderful things about him and he says some more wonderful things about her. He describes her body in very complimentary detail three times in the poem and she describes his…once. (I could venture an explanation for that that but I’m not going to!) This is unnatural to men but men who learn to do it and who continue to be faithful at doing it discover its power and are carried along by the experience of love and want to do it more and more by the wonderful reinforcement of love that such celebratory speech carries with it.
- The practice of love in other ways, the evidence that one is thinking of the other, that one wants to bless the life of the other, and that one delights in the other creates the proper context for the sharing of sexual love. No one in such a marriage is ever tempted to think herself nothing more than an object of desire, that sex is nothing more than the fulfillment of his physical desire. No wife feels used in sex when her husband has proved in a hundred different ways – from washing the dishes to rubbing her sore feet – that he treasures his wife and that he cherishes her happiness.
- Then learn from one another the secrets of sexual pleasure, which must be learned from one another because men and women are so profoundly different in both their sexual physiology and their sexual psychology that neither can guess what the other feels. For men especially, this is an act of real humility, to want to be instructed by their wives and to take that instruction to heart and practice it. Happy is the wife with a husband like that! The porn culture is profoundly selfish. Pornography is sold to men mostly and so contrives to confirm them in the utterly selfish and stupid conceit that whatever they like the wife ipso facto likes as well. Don’t believe it. This world has been made to work in one way only and because sex is part of this world it has been made to work in one way only. When you consider the interests of others more important more important than your own then you find out the mystery, the power and the wonder of sexual love.
- And then take from the culture what you will, whatever the myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon may be in twenty-first century America: from the visual to the olfactory to the tactile to the aural, to the tastes of love.
The wayward woman of whom we have just read was an expert at one side of sex. She knew what attracted, she knew what increased desire: her dress, her words, her carriage, her aphrodisiacs. All of that is perfectly proper if found in the sexual love of a husband and wife. If she had done this for her husband she would not have been a wayward woman at all but a very wise woman! And he would have been a fortunate man. But, then, I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact I suspect, that her downward spiral began in his indifference, or in his selfish using of his wife that left her feeling more an object than a person in his view, or in her sense that she was not treasured by her husband because he seemed at every turn to take her and her heart for granted.
Look, we must be careful not to overdo this, because we are, all of us, greatly needful of God’s grace. We are sinners and failures in many ways. But that is but one side of the equation of faith. It is also true in the Bible that the gospel is supposed to work in life and certainly Proverbs expects that those who seek and practice wisdom will enjoy the fruit of it in happier and more fruitful lives. Our marriages ought to be the envy of the world. If they are not, it is not the fault of marriage, as our culture would have us believe; it is our fault, one or the other of us or both together, and first and foremost it’s the husband’s fault.
Christian husbands and wives ought obviously to be in love and happy in their love. That requires – of course it requires – a happy sexual life. If yours is not it needs to change. And gentlemen if there is a problem here in your life, you need to man-up and humble yourself before God and your wife and fix that problem. Make it the story of your life together – husband and wife – that things were not as they ought to be and then you put things right for the sake of your wife and in obedience to the Lord and to his Word. That is wisdom: both the knowledge that it can be changed and what it is that needs to change. It is Christian humility to admit the need to oneself, Christian grace and humility to admit it to your wife, and Christian wisdom to make the changes required.