We have considered the last two Lord’s Day evenings the teaching of Proverbs concerning the romantic and sexual life. We have mentioned throughout our consideration of that teaching that the sexual life in Proverbs, as in the rest of the Bible, is to be practiced only in marriage. Sex is, to be sure, a reality that pervades all of life. Everything human beings do is sexual in one respect. Men and women do not even love God in precisely the same way. We love and live as men and as women. In that sense our lives are sexual to the core. But I am speaking of the practice of sexual intimacy, of erotic acts. This part of life is for husbands and wives alone. “Sex is for marriage” is a statement that everyone understands even if it is one with which everyone does not agree. But Proverbs has more to say about marriage than that it is the proper context of the erotic life. It is to this other instruction regarding marriage and the life of marriage that we turn tonight. We won’t be reading a single text. I will be quoting to you a number of proverbs as we go.
We are all well aware of the dismal facts regarding the institution of marriage in our time. Divorce is more likely than not the prospect of couples when they marry and for that reason and others many more young adult Americans and Europeans are co-habiting rather than marrying, it being easier to extract oneself from a failed “relationship” than a failed marriage. Why set yourself up for the same failure you watched your parents suffer through and which caused you so much pain? Even when they marry, young American and European adults tend to marry later, have fewer children, if any at all, and few make of marriage the happy success that was much more typical in those by-gone days that modern people tend to scorn for their prudery, chauvinism, and sexual repression. There are very many more people of the elite culture today than at any time in Western history whose disdain for the biblical understanding of marriage is out in the open and, consequently, there are a great many more ordinary folk whose views of marriage are less certain, whose opinions regarding the importance of marriage are less confident, and whose understanding of what it takes to make a good marriage more vague and cloudy. None of this, however, has kept a secure, faithful, romantic, loving marriage from being the fondest dream of most people still today.
Today we have before us on every side the evidence of the truth of economist John Maynard Keynes’ famous observation that elite thinkers in any culture or society, philosophers, and intellectuals exercise their influence indirectly over hosts of people who never have read a word they have written. Keynes spoke of the “gradual encroachment of ideas” and of how slowly but surely an entire society, under the influence of ideas that were generated in the elite academic and philosophical culture, then began to permeate the society as a whole, changes the way it sees the world, changes the way it thinks the world ought to be, and, indeed, of what is even possible in human behavior. And that is what has happened over the past several generations in the western world. People nowadays take for granted ideas that were never taken for granted before: that young people cannot be chaste until marriage, that political freedom involves sexual freedom, that marriage is simply a contract and like other contracts should be permitted to lapse at the will of one or the other partner, and so on.
There was no outcry from the masses to change the divorce laws in the United States, it was a movement of people with cultural and political influence, people influenced by the American intelligentsia – the self-proclaimed enlightened caste of the American university – who assured us that we would all be better off with no-fault divorce, that the change would make marriage more stable, lead to no more divorces, but make the process of divorce less antagonistic, and create a more peaceful world for the children of divorce. Of course, as is so regularly the case with intellectuals and so with the people in government who are inclined to defer to them, they were wrong about virtually everything, galactically wrong. We now know that, but it seems too late to turn the clock back. We might expect that the voting public would have realized by now that they had been sold a bill of goods and that they had been suckered into an unmitigated disaster by people who obviously didn’t know what they were talking about, by people whose continued support for this revolution in marriage law represents a cynical triumph of philosophy over experience. But there is no such outcry. And, of course, no one goes back to read the arguments so confidently advanced in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the arguments that led to the alteration of centuries of social jurisprudence, the arguments that have been so dramatically disproved by the passage of time. Nothing turned out as they said it would but no one is blaming them for the carnage! It is the happy fate of the intellectual: no matter how ridiculous his views prove eventually to be, he is rarely remembered for them. By the time everyone knows he was wrong everyone has forgotten the role he played in convincing the society to follow him.
Most of the political rhetoric on the conservative side of the American political spectrum is invested simply in attempting to prevent the next inevitable step toward a society in which marriage no longer functions as the bedrock of the family and the family no longer functions as the bedrock of society, the very result the intelligentsia were seeking in the first place. No one is proposing to go back to what used to be: divorce that was difficult to secure, to marriage understood as creating a family as a permanent, unchangeable set of relationships. And they are not proposing to go back because they can no longer imagine such a world. They don’t think it is possible, no matter that in many places in the world it is still the ordinary state of affairs and no matter that it wasn’t so long ago the ordinary state of affairs in our own country. People can’t any longer imagine such a state of affairs as existed not so long ago, even though the one they substituted for it is in every measurable way completely inferior to it and has been horrific in its consequences for children, for families, for women, and for the country. Such is the power of Keyne’s “gradual encroachment of ideas.”
Societies that have embraced the modern practice of marriage – really much more like the ancient practice of concubinage rather than marriage, a relationship that is legal but does not create a family as marriage has always been understood to do – I say those societies who have embraced marriage in its modern transformation are all dying. The birth rate plummets as the number of marriages declines and the number of divorces rise. The birth rate in the United States is trending downward, following that in Europe, and, indeed would be below replacement rate already were it not for the much higher birth rate of our immigrant population. But few in the intelligentsia and few in politics care. There are perhaps many reasons for their indifference, philosophical, theological, and political, but one should not dismiss the fact that as naturalists and materialists philosophically and religiously they have little of their persons invested in the future. Christians care about the future because the significance of life, even their own lives, lies in the future. Not so for those who think themselves here today and gone tomorrow.
What is more, so many of them are so personally invested in these social changes that to advocate a return to more sensible public policy would be the equivalent of a supreme act of penitence, the admission that they bear some responsibility for the ghastly disaster that has befallen the American family and so American society. You will have noticed if you were paying attention that when it became too obvious to deny that the great urban housing projects of the 60s and 70s was an unmitigated disaster – as the highrises that had become instant slums, warrens of crime and hopelessness, began to be blown up and the debris carried away from the inner cities of America – nobody lined up to admit that those projects were their idea, that it was a terrible idea, and that they were responsible for it. No, they went on to the next project in unshaken confidence that they knew best how to fix the world. But take my point: the gradual encroachment of ideas has changed our society’s way of looking at the world and Americans in immense numbers – far too many Christians among them – can no longer believe that it would be right or possible to go back, no matter the carnage these changes have visited upon modern society.
This is the world we live in and such is marriage in our world. Even advocates of gay marriage have said openly that they have no interest in marriage as it used to be. If marriage were what it once was, Andrew Sullivan of the New Republic and a number of other advocates of gay marriage have willingly admitted, homosexual men would have no interest in the institution of marriage and there would be no clamor for gays to be able to marry. They are not interested in making a commitment that cannot later be relatively easily abandoned. They have no intention of entering a marriage that requires exclusive devotion to one’s spouse. As Sullivan put it, “All homosexuals are saying…is that, under the current definition [of marriage], there’s no reason to exclude us. If you want to return straight marriage to the 1950s go ahead. But until you do, the exclusion of gays is…a denial of basic civil equality.” “Why can’t they be concubines like everybody else?” is effectively what Andrew Sullivan is asking.
Now I say all of this because the wisdom of Proverbs, the training in the skillful life that is presented in this book is far removed from what is now accepted as normal in our culture. It requires some imagination, even for American Christians today, to see this life in the mind’s eye, so different as it is from what one observes in our land everywhere he or she looks.
I don’t say that it is as difficult for a Christian, even a young Christian, as it is for a non-Christian. In the church one is far more likely to find secure marriages, far more likely to find a view of marriage, its permanence, its laws, its requirements much more like the public understanding of marriage as it prevailed not so long ago. For example, forget what you read and hear over and over again about how the rate of divorce among Christians is the same as that among non-Christians. Consult any pastor of a church that takes its faith seriously and you will find a negligible divorce rate even in our day of no-fault divorce.
In 33 years in the ministry I have officiated at 111 weddings. In 8 of those cases I was marrying unbelievers to unbelievers. That was the case and I made it clear to them that that was what I was doing. That leaves 103 weddings of Christians to Christians, almost always serious Christians to serious Christians. Of those 103 couples 98 are still married today. That makes 5 divorces out of 103 marriages, less than 5%. But in two of those five cases the spouse who left the marriage left the Christian faith at the same time. The divorce was sought by an apostate. That leaves 3 marriages out of 103 between two Christians that have ended in divorce, less than 3%. Would that our society had a divorce rate of 3%! In other words, marriage for serious Christians is what it has always been: a lifelong and exclusive commitment of love that creates a family. And by saying that biblical marriage, even traditional marriage, creates a family, I mean it creates relationships you cannot change; that’s what a family is. You have a father; you have a mother. You might even wish you have a different father or mother, but you only get one. It’s one of life’s injustices that you don’t get to pick your relatives. We must not allow the world to define marriage for us. Rather the church should define marriage for the world.
Now, then, what does Proverbs have to say to us about marriage. What is the throwback advice, counsel and wisdom that is presented to us in this book?
- First great stress is laid on choosing the right spouse!
You think that I am going to say you can only marry in the Lord. That is absolutely true and the Bible makes a great emphasis of that, but that is not what Proverbs talks about.
“House and wealth are inherited from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the Lord.”
“An excellent wife is the crown of her husband, but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones.”
“A foolish son is ruin to his father, and a wife’s quarreling is a continual dripping of rain.”
Or 21:9 and 19:
“It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.”
“It is better to live in a desert land than with a quarrelsome and fretful woman.”
Remember now, everything in Proverbs, as we have already said about wives, applies mutatis mutandis, that is, necessary changes being made, to husbands. Fact is personalities and characters, absent Christian conversion later in life, are pretty much set by the time of young adulthood. Most young men and women can know what sort of person they are marrying if only they are willing to observe and judge according to the standards of the Word of God. The fact is the entire philosophy of Proverbs is expressed in the famous statement to which we will return when talking about parents and children:
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
That is, the child is the father of the man or woman and a well raised child will live predictably as a responsible, mature, and godly adult and a poorly raised child can be expected to behave in particular ways when he or she is an adult. We will have much more to say about the whys and wherefores of that, its limitations and so on, but for the moment, take the point: it isn’t as hard as people want to believe to tell before you marry what a person is like and how that person will be as a husband or a wife, what his or her great commitments in life are and will be, whether or not they have a tender conscience toward the will of God, and so on. You don’t have, you never have to wait until some years into your marriage to know what you have got in your wife or your husband, whether your wife is prudent or quarrelsome. I tell young women that the thing they want to know more than anything else about a young man they are thinking of marrying is whether he has a Christian conscience. You will be in good hands if when he speaks unkindly to you or fails you in some other way his sin is going to bother him more than it bothers you, if his conscience is going to demand that he not only apologize but put matters right and as quickly as possible.
I know people who expressed shock and dismay that shortly after they married they discovered that their spouses seemed indifferent to living the Christian life or even positively uninterested. Baloney! No one can fake true devotion to Christ through the months of friendship and courtship, not if the other person really cares to know! Real devotion, real faith, real commitment to Christ and his kingdom, real love for the Lord, his Word, and for the life of faith, real joy in salvation, a conscience shaped by the Word of God, all these things are demonstrated in speech, in action, in attitude in a hundred ways every day. If you can’t find such things or find them rarely or inconsistently, you have no one to blame but yourself if your spouse turns out to be so much less than you hoped for.
What Proverbs tells you is that you must wait for the right man or woman, you must entrust your life to the Lord, or as we read in 3:6: “in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” If you choose unwisely at the outset there is little that can be done later. In other words, if you don’t want to live with a quarrelsome wife, don’t marry her in the first place. If you don’t want to live with an angry man, or a lazy man, or a thoughtless man, don’t marry him in the first place. Don’t imagine that this is advice that you don’t need to hear. We’ve all seen people make foolish choices. We’ve all known people, otherwise fine, likeable, and sensible people, whose friends and family pled with them not to make the choice they made and to no avail. Romantic love has pulled the wool over a great many eyes!
Hear me, young people. This is vital, which is why Proverbs addresses it as it does. There are many problems in life the only solution to which is not to get into them in the first place. Repentance can mend many things but an ill-made marriage is not one of them. Choose wisely at the outset and the rest becomes so much easier!
On the other hand I don’t want to ignore the very real possibility that a husband’s treatment of his wife can have the effect of making her a complainer, a quarrelsome woman; she has no way to assert herself in her misery but to whine! So emphasis also falls on two other parts of biblical wisdom regarding the life of marriage.
II. Second, there is a proper role for both husband and wife to fill and there is happiness in that individuality and distinctiveness.
This is more assumed than actually taught in Proverbs, but it is clear enough for that. In chapter 31’s account of the virtuous woman – to which we will return in another sermon – we see a man in the gate of the city, in his professional responsibilities as a leader of the people, and we see a woman – a very busy woman – whose focus is upon her children and her home. Let no one fail to notice how much this woman does, how busy she is, in how many things she is expert, indeed, in how many ways she is a woman of the world, competent and entrepreneurial. She is, as we would say today, the quintessential multi-tasker. There is no end to what this woman can do or does. Full opportunity is given her to make the most of her life. There is nothing of the cramped, limited life that feminism imagines must be the lot of a woman who devotes herself to her home and family. But nevertheless there remains a clear distinction between his life and hers, between their roles at home and abroad.
The man obviously is not threatened by his wife’s competence or achievements (she buys a field for goodness sake!). One of our husband’s in the congregation told me not so long ago that his wife called him in the afternoon one day and said, “You need to move some money into this other account because I just bought a house.” “You what?” was his reply. Proverbs 31. He is no dictator. He is not so insecure that he needs to limit her life. He is proud of her and celebrates her achievements to her and others.
A good deal of what you hear and read about “roles” in the biblical teaching about marriage is not biblical at all. Make sure you test that teaching against the Word of God. What does the Bible actually say? Well, read Proverbs 31 and find out how much a godly woman might be and do in such an agricultural economy as Israel’s in ancient times and then translate that into our commercial economy in America in A.D. 2011. Still, note the difference too. There is a difference between men and women in many ways but also in their callings, in their place in a marriage. No one really wants there not to be such a difference. These are not restrictions but invitations to fulfillment and happiness. Accept them for what they are: God’s intentions for men and women in life and in marriage and then stop worrying about the other’s role and work at finding fulfillment in your own, as this godly woman did. We will talk more about that at another point. You’ll find things always work better God’s way: when there is a division of labor to accomplish mutual goals, when in the relationship of husband and wife there is a lover and a beloved, and when each partner undertakes that work for which each is best suited.
- Third, communication – by which I mean especially loving communication – is the key to the practice of marriage.
We might very well expect that the Bible would give us six rules for the successful marriage or ten rules for a happy married life. But the only thing the Bible says with respect to the technique of marriage, besides don’t let the sun go down on your wrath, is this emphasis on loving and celebratory speech. We’ve already read of the quarrelsome wife’s tongue dripping acid into the fabric of the marriage and the home. Here is still another warning of the same:
“A continual dripping on a rainy day and a quarrelsome wife are alike; to restrain her is to restrain the wind or to grasp oil in one’s right hand.” [27:15-16]
Turn it around. An angry husband’s speech is the same thing. Folks, when you read something like that in Proverbs, instead of racing through the chapter to get your reading through the Bible in a year done, you should always do this: ask yourself if you are such a person whose tongue drips acid; if you are the kind of man your wife would rather have at work than at home; if you are the kind of woman whose speech casts a pall over the home for its perpetual whine; if you are the kind of man your children avoid because they are afraid of what you will say to them.
But this principle applies as well to guilty silence as it does to contemptuous speech.
“Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” [27:5]
It is no good having loving thoughts toward one’s spouse if they are not expressed. The husband of the good wife in chapter 31 tells her how much he loves and admires her as all husbands should: “Many women do noble things but you surpass them all!” Gentlemen, do you speak to your wives that way? Often? Regularly? You must. It is the stuff of life in a marriage according to the Word of God.
I do not hesitate to say that this is the most common and most consequential failure of men in marriage and one of, if not the greatest of unfulfilled longings of women in marriage: the overt, spoken communication of love, affection, and admiration. Men have the power to lift their wives six inches off the ground with their words and, nothing so profoundly illustrates the fallenness of human life than that though men have this power to bless their wives they do not use it. Some husbands never use it. They either keep their mouths shut or they run on about anything and everything else. If some American Christian men spent one 20th of the time speaking love to their wives that they spend talking about sports they would have strikingly better marriages! That is a pathetic thing to have to admit about my sex, but it is the truth, has always been the truth, and everyone knows it’s the truth.
A well-made marriage in which husband and wife fulfill their God-given roles and are always communicating their love for one another will always be not only a happy and satisfying marriage but the foundation of a happy family life that will be the great blessing of their children to enjoy.
Christian marriages ought to be like this. It is one of the most powerful recommendations we can make to the world of the love of God and the goodness of his kingdom, all the more in a world like ours in which married love has become a forlorn hope for so many.
G.K. Chesterton once said: “The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman are, as such, incompatible.”
Do you get his point, made in Chesterton’s paradoxical way? There will be times – there must be times in any marriage between sinners such as we are – when husbands and wives will fail to understand or appreciate one another, will fail one another in some objective and demonstrable way, will annoy or genuinely offend one another by things said or done or never said or done. No marriage can be built on the expectation that we will always be to one another everything we ought to be. No Christian can think that. Of course we are going to fail. The question is rather: can sinners like us still make a great and happy marriage, full of love and fulfillment? And the answer is obviously “yes!” Many have enjoyed such marriages. And there are some simple, obvious, understandable ways to ensure such a result. This is the skill in life that is taught in Proverbs.
- Make the marriage well in the first place; choose your spouse wisely;
- Play the role you have been designed to play by your heavenly Father, not grudgingly but willingly and happily;
- And continue after you are married to shower one another with love in speech and action.
This isn’t rocket science. The only thing that keeps anyone from doing this is foolishness not turned into wisdom; spiritual indolence in other words: that kind of moral simplicity that refuses to learn life’s lessons and is incapable of turning good counsel into proper behavior.
Look, we said last time that sex in marriage is not simply whatever comes naturally to one or the other partner. Love-making is an art to be practiced and cultivated. One ought to be a better lover years into a marriage than one was at its beginning. Doing what comes naturally is never the way to go forward in the things of God and the love of others! Well, in the same way husbands and wives ought to be better talkers to one another than they were at first, better companions, a better man for his wife and a better woman for her husband than they were at the outset of their married life.
There are many things I suppose that might be said about improving a marriage, but I will say this about the teaching of Proverbs. If you do those simple things that form the bulk of the teaching of Proverbs about marriage, about how to live skillfully as husband and wife, most of the rest will come in train with little need to think about it.
Let me close with another quote from G.K. Chesterton.
“They have invented a new phrase, a phrase that is a black-and-white contradiction in two words – “free love” – as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.” [Both citations of GKC taken from C.J. Collins, Syllabus: Psalms and Wisdom Literature (Proverbs Section) 89-90]
Right! Marriage requires honest commitment, faithfulness; the very things we promised at our wedding.
There is a right way to live in marriage and that way is the way of mutual devotion, sexual intimacy, loving speech, and the cheerful acceptance of one’s place, role, and calling. Gentlemen, if that doesn’t describe your marriage, then before God it is your responsibility – for which you will give account on the Great Day – to make up what is missing and to correct what is at fault. And ladies, if you are deficient in the wisdom of biblical married life, then listen, learn, and put that wisdom into practice.
W.E. Orchard was a somewhat eccentric 19th century English churchman. He once recommended that every husband ought “On Ash Wednesday morning, to say to your wife, ‘My dear, is there any virtue you would like me to acquire?’” You needn’t put it exactly that way, but are the men of this congregation man enough sincerely to ask their wives that question and then men of God enough to do something with the answer they receive? I very much hope so for the Lord’s sake, for your wives’ sake, for your children’s sake, and for the sake of the witness we all together bear to the truth of the Word of God and the love of God in Jesus Christ.
I leave you with this from the German scholar Werner Neuer [Man and Woman in Christian Perspective, 177]:
“…the more convincingly husbands reflect Jesus’ treatment of the church in the sense of Ephesians 5:22ff., and Christian fathers mirror God’s loving fatherhood, the more credible will the love of God be to people around them. Christian marriages and Christian churches in which the biblical ordering of male and female takes shape offer a unique acted parable of the eternal love of the triune God.”