Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Intimacy, particularly sex, outside of marriage is dangerous and destructive. But inside of marriage it leads to a lifetime of joy.
3 Though the lips of the forbidden woman drip honey and her words are smoother than oil, 4 in the end she’s as bitter as wormwood and as sharp as a double-edged sword. Proverbs 5
Solomon's words in Proverbs 5 give both a warning and a promise. Let's heed them.
Let's Talk about Sex
I don't think there are any appropriate light-hearted ways to get into a discussion like this, so perhaps you might start your time describing an awkward or uncomfortable situation involving a person of the opposite gender. What came of it? What made it uncomfortable?
If you can't think of anything, perhaps you're not paying close enough attention. David talked about this to our grads last Sunday: the moment we let down our guard is the moment we open ourselves to disaster. If we are to protect our sexual integrity (and respect the integrity of the people around us), we have to be on guard every moment of every day.
Another starter might be the statement "sex outside of marriage is dangerous". How would people react to that statement? What reasons would you give for its truthfulness? I did some research on pertinent topics, and my findings are below.
Warning: the following paragraphs focus on statistics involving sex, including sexually transmitted diseases. I go into no details -- just numbers. As you know, survey results can be manipulated to prove almost any point, so take everything I'm about to say with a grain of salt.
Extramarital Affairs. More than 75% of Americans believe that having an affair is wrong, and affairs are listed as a leading cause for marriage failure. (Note: when both spouses have had an affair, the rate of divorce does not significantly increase.) About 16% of Americans have admitted to having an affair (that number has held steady for several decades), although a number of researchers insist that it is actually between 30-60%. Here's an interesting statistic: 20% of people over 55 have admitted such, but only 14% of people under 55. (That could be a longevity thing, a mid-life crisis thing, or a result of the proliferation of ED drugs; researchers don't really know.) The chart below breaks a different study down by gender; it also shows the increase with age.
Sex before Marriage. Many researchers proclaim that more than 75% of all Americans have had sex before marriage. The numbers that disturb me the most, however, are related to the number of sexual partners. I mentioned this statistic in a Sunday School handout last year. The average American reports having had 7.2 different partners (2017 study). One study from 2013 said less than 5% of brides were virgins. The number of sexual partners did increase the rate of divorce, but interestingly that increase flattened off after about two partners. (The cynic in me looks at the declining marriage rates -- only 29% of 34-yr-olds are marriage in our country, down from 50% in 1978 -- and concludes that the committed people are the ones getting married, which is why adultery rates are relatively low in those age groups!) This IFS chart reports similar statistics:
Children of Single Parents. I find these statistics staggering. A 2019 study showed that 57% of millennial moms are single moms. 25% of all households in America are led by a single parent (usually a mom). 19 million children live with a single parent (note that this number has decreased slightly in the last few years). However, because it is so common now, there are more resources and support networks for single parents, and that has helped the outlook for children in single-parent homes improve. Not the least change has been with the stigma of being a single parent. For example, churches that may have shunned single parents have begun to recognize the importance of support (you cannot change the past). However, as can be expected, single parents are still significantly more likely to struggle to pay for food and shelter than two-parent households.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases. There are 20 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States every year. Half of those are reported among people between 15-24. (The CDC information on this topic is overwhelming.) I said I wasn't going to get graphic, and so I won't. If you want to learn about the impact of STDs, the CDC has plenty of fact sheets on this page: https://www.cdc.gov/std/healthcomm/fact_sheets.htm. STDs can result in sores, rashes, pain, infection, inflammation, difficulties during pregnancy, certain types of cancer, infertility, and immunodeficiencies.
How Does This Help Us with Proverbs 5? Solomon is going to tell us that sex outside of marriage is very tempting, but also destructive and dangerous. How can sex outside of marriage be dangerous? As you might have guessed, I chose the topics above based on what I thought to be the answer to that question:
I hypothesized that sex outside of marriage led to divorce and single-parent households, both of which could be damaging. There is at least some truth in that hypothesis, although things are never that simple.
I hypothesized that sex outside of marriage led to an increase in STDs, which could be very dangerous. The reality here is actually worse than I thought.
If indeed Solomon said (3,000 years ago) that sex outside of marriage is dangerous, I think we enter this Bible study still believing him to be right. But let's investigate exactly what he says and why.
Where We Are in Proverbs
Still in the introduction. Warnings against infidelity fill this book, so it is no surprise that it receives its own section in the intro.
Some Helpful Context. God built marriage into the foundation of Jewish society. Consider the commandments, "Do not commit adultery" and "Do not covet your neighbor’s wife". When Jewish men were tempted to have an affair (and that seemed to happen quite often), God responded by punishing them severely (think of the episode in Numbers 25/31 that we studied last year). Goodness, when God confronted the Israelites with their idolatry, He likened it to an affair! In other words, every Jewish male would have known very clearly that adultery was a sin. (Unfortunately, in a male-dominated society, men might forget that the rules apply to them.)
There are groups that still today argue that we should abandon the traditional view of the nuclear family because it is a product of Western civilization. No -- it's the design of God. When those groups reject traditional marriage and family, they are quite clearly saying that they want to build a society apart from God's wisdom. I shudder for those prospects.
Part 1: See the Reality (Proverbs 5:3-6)
3 Though the lips of the forbidden woman drip honey and her words are smoother than oil, 4 in the end she’s as bitter as wormwood and as sharp as a double-edged sword. 5 Her feet go down to death; her steps head straight for Sheol. 6 She doesn’t consider the path of life; she doesn’t know that her ways are unstable.
Let's get this out of the way immediately: Solomon certainly has a specific group of women in mind -- sexual predators. This would include prostitutes (anyone who makes a living through seduction) or women seeking an affair (like Potiphar's wife). Certainly, stay away from them; they're out to get you! But remember Solomon's context: he was the king, the richest and most powerful man in the world. No woman behaved innocently around him.
But let's say that you're not the king, and you have reason to believe that this person is not actively seducing you. Does that change the end result of a sexual encounter with them? No! Whether you're the victim of a predator or the participant in a dalliance, the outcome is the same. There are no innocent affairs. As we said last week, wisdom is a choice. At any point, you can choose to stop walking down the path of wickedness and walk toward the path of wisdom. So it is with an affair. Whether seduction is involved or not, Solomon's words apply to every sexual encounter outside of marriage.
Solomon's words are quite self-explanatory with respect to a sexual predator. It makes me think of that old song by Jay and the Americans, "Come a Little Bit Closer" (yes, millennials, this was featured in Guardians of the Galaxy 2), which is kind of lighthearted, but if you actually get into the lyrics is quite dark. Essentially, the woman in the song doesn't really care if she gets the singer killed; she just wants some companionship. Yikes! That was from my parents' era; a song from my childhood would be "She Ain't Worth It" by Glenn Medeiros which actually includes the lyric "she loves me into the ground".
It's an extremely common feature in films -- Fatal Attraction and Fatal Beauty even put it in the title -- so common, that it has a trope: femme fatale. Here's a definition from the internet: "beautiful, seductive, but ultimately villainous, women who use the malignant power of their sexuality in order to ensnare the hapless hero into danger." I wonder . . . did they base this character on Proverbs 5?
But now let's set that aside. My guess is that most of us do not expect to meet a true femme fatale in our humdrum lives. Does this passage still mean anything to us? Absolutely. And it comes down to this general rule:
Intent does not make seduction more or less dangerous.
Think about it. Most affairs are nondescript in their beginnings. Let's talk about this:
Where do most affairs begin? [If you know how to be careful with your Googling, this is a topic worth researching. As leaders in our churches, knowing the red flags and warning signs can help us help our church members.] Most affairs begin in the office and the gym. Why? Because that is where you are most likely to strike up a consistent acquaintance, and it's a place where you can talk casually. And that's a big deal because . . .
40% of women who had affairs said they did so because they were emotionally dissatisfied in their marriage. And so when they strike up conversations with a man who seems interesting and also seems to find her interesting, they find that man emotionally fulfilling. At that point, his words, even if innocent, drip honey. It's not about how the words were spoken; it is how they were received.
How hang on! Isn't Solomon putting the blame for an affair on the woman? Yes, he seems to be, but let me explain why and then explain how we should understand it.
Remember Solomon's audience: young men who have been taught the Torah. They should know that sex outside of marriage is wrong and never pursue it. Ergo, if they were ever involved in sex outside of marriage, it had better be because they were seduced. His audience was also being groomed for community leadership. That would make them more desirable for a sexual predator, something they needed to take seriously. (Note: any successful or influential person needs to be aware of this target, including pastors. Sadly, I read that 14% of SBC pastors have admitted to inappropriate sexual conduct.)
But in modern America, that's just not the case. The numbers are pretty consistent: men have more affairs than women. 75% of the time, they say it is because they are sexually dissatisfied in their marriage. Well, that makes them the predator. (Note: 35% of women also mentioned sexual dissatisfaction and 10% mentioned revenge. Also note that in the millennial generation, just as many women as men have affairs.)
In other words, this is probably more about men than women.
So there you go. Sexual temptation is real, and it is dangerous. Obviously, the most important application we could make is how to avoid it, but that's the content of the next section.
Part 2: Think Long Term
7 So now, sons, listen to me, and don’t turn away from the words from my mouth. 8 Keep your way far from her. Don’t go near the door of her house. 9 Otherwise, you will give up your vitality to others and your years to someone cruel; 10 strangers will drain your resources, and your hard-earned pay will end up in a foreigner’s house. 11 At the end of your life, you will lament when your physical body has been consumed,
The lesson focuses on the additional consequences for sexual misconduct. I'll talk about those, but I want to focus on Solomon's solution for this temptation:
Keep far away from her.
Stay away from her and you will not commit sexual sin with her. It's that simple. Ask this question: what's the best way not to fall off of a cliff? Simple: don't go anywhere near the edge. Is that an extreme solution? Yes. Is it the most effective solution? Also yes. Think about what Jesus said in Matthew 5:
You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
Jesus is not saying literally to gouge out your eye but rather figuratively to take whatever extreme measure you must to avoid that temptation.
So let's go back to the cliff illustration. What if someone says "but I love the thrill of being close to the edge and looking into the beautiful canyon" or what about "I'm employed by the cliff owner to care for the fence so I have to go close to the edge"? How might you respond to that? Here's what I would say:
To the person who says they love the thrill of being close to the cliff edge, would they not agree that it is safer to stay back? Do they have to get close to the cliff edge or do they want to? The person who thinks that way is the person who thinks they can dabble in relationships without harm. The phrase "if you play with fire you're going to get burn" comes to mind (and the Nancy Sinatra song "These Boots Are Made for Walking").
To the person who says they have to do it for a job, I sympathize. This would be the person who works in close proximity with people of the opposite gender. Unfortunately, if you ever find yourself tempted, your extreme solution is to quit your job. But ask yourself: would finding another job be better than the destruction that comes with an affair?
Billy Graham was famous for the lengths he would go to to avoid even the appearance of sexual impropriety. He worried about the intentions of the other person, and he worried about the appearance if someone saw him. You might think that extreme. It was! But it also worked. (As you might imagine, some people have negatively re-cast Graham as a dinosaur. Jesus said that His teachings would not be popular in the world.) But let's say that in your job, there is no way to avoid being alone with someone of the opposite gender. Well, in and of itself that does not have to be a problem. You just have to be on your guard all the time. If things start to make you uncomfortable, or if you see your "path" going the wrong direction, certainly try to make changes and stay in your job. But realize that, as a Christian (or, really, anybody), you are better off finding another job than falling into sexual misconduct.
With all of that said, a good exercise here would be to list the consequences Solomon mentions of sex outside of marriage ("death" "vitality to others" etc.). Then, next to that, write what you think they mean in our world today. For example, let's look at the strange phrase "give up your years to someone cruel". First, think about what it likely meant to Solomon. Your study guide gives an overview of these possibilities:
Maybe she was a prostitute and her cruel pimp will now blackmail you or just make your life miserable.
Maybe she was a betrothal candidate whose father would manipulate the relationship to get money out of you.
Maybe she was married, and her husband would come after you.
What might that mean today? Are there additional options? In this case, I focus on the embittered former lover/spouse. Tabloids are filled with divorce court proceedings. You know the phrase "hell hath no fury as a woman scorned" (which is not Shakespeare, as many assume) -- I think it applies here, mainly because people have learned on "Divorce Court" all of the things you can do to get back at the person who cheated on you.
But really, Solomon's point is simply that a sexual sin can ruin your life. The extreme examples from recent history -- Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey -- might distract us into thinking that such an outcome is reserved for wicked criminals. But the truth is that any such act can change the course of our life. Sadly, the only way we will find out is when it is too late, as Solomon says "at the end of your life". That's why Solomon makes the blanket statement "keep far away from her". That's why Jesus tells us to take extreme measures to stay away from sin. Preventing a fire is better than putting out a fire.
[Note: we aren't even mentioning the spiritual consequences of sin and conscience!]
You might think you have reasons to doubt Solomon's wisdom in this case, and I'll bring that up below. But don't doubt Jesus' wisdom.
Part 3: Enjoy God's Provision (Proverbs 5:15-18)
15 Drink water from your own cistern, water flowing from your own well. 16 Should your springs flow in the streets, streams in the public squares? 17 They should be for you alone and not for you to share with strangers. 18 Let your fountain be blessed, and take pleasure in the wife of your youth.
This is, in my opinion, one of the most amazing statements of sexual fidelity anywhere in human words: "drink water from your own cistern". Water is life. In Israel, surrounded by desert and sea, water is precious. I laugh that "thirsty" is now slang for sexual desires; Solomon established that meaning 3,000 years ago!
Here, Solomon acknowledges that sex is a fundamental urging in human nature. But if you want to drink it, do so from your "own cistern", i.e. your own marriage. Look at all the water images Solomon uses! Cistern, well, spring, stream, fountain. You might put some thought into how each different way Solomon speaks of water applies to the different ways we express sexuality.
I am particularly moved by the "should your springs flow in the streets" phrase. That's the ultimate waste of water. You might think, "Wait - I would be doing this is the privacy of someone's bedroom!" As if that protects you? How long can an affair truly stay secret? You can read stories of people who have done so for several years. But eventually the truth comes out. And now your sexual misconduct is flowing in the streets for all to see. (I'll admit to being grateful not to be a celebrity, where you have paparazzi constantly looking for something about you they can dump in the streets.)
But look at the second half of this passage. Think about the statistic I mentioned above - 75% of men and 40% of women mentioned sexual dissatisfaction as a reason for having an affair. Solomon is saying that that reason can be removed. [Leader tip: be very circumspect in broaching a topic that is so very personal. I would avoid going into any detail.] A strong marriage is sexually fulfilling. Unfortunately, it's also something that "goes stale" as time passes. It doesn't have to. It takes work, commitment, and vulnerability, but a marriage relationship can and should remain sexually vital for a long, long time.
Note that Solomon will talk about this a lot more in Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), which we will take two weeks to talk about after Proverbs. When Shelly and I were newly married, we went through Tommy Nelson's study The Song of Solomon: God's Best for Love, Marriage, Sex, and Romance, which continues to be released and is available today.
Yes, Nelson encourages young people to remain sexually pure, but I remember distinctly how much he talked about the importance of long-standing marriages to remain romantic and sexually active. 20 years later, I still remember those sessions. (The video is of one of the sessions that made the internet. 1995 - look at the hair!) It's a mistake for Christians not to talk about this at all; sex is nothing to be ashamed of within a marriage! God created sex -- not just for procreation but also for our enjoyment. The Bible makes that clear.
Doesn't it give you joy to see an elderly couple holding hands, clearly taking great delight in one another? Perhaps physical intimacy is past, but now a deeper intimacy remains. And that's because they weathered the storms of life together, and now their joy in one another is deeper than we can comprehend.
That's the way that God designed marriage. It was never going to be easy. But it is always going to be worth it. Is your marriage struggling? Commit together to stick it out. God will help you. For now, let me acknowledge that sexual purity is so much easier said than done! And that's yet another reason to stay on your guard against sexual temptation -- whether your marriage is struggling or great. Solomon wants us to heed his warning. He cannot speak any more clearly about this.
Now, about Solomon. Solomon of the 700 wives and 300 concubines. Do we really need to be listening to him on this topic? The complete cynic in me says that he was just following his own rules: if you want to have sex with someone, just marry them! But that would not be fair to the Old Testament. God is clear that marriage is to be between one man and one woman. In my opinion, the Old Testament goes out of its way to draw a direct line between the polygamy of that era (from Abraham to Solomon) and the disastrous events that ultimately destroyed Israel. So with that said, there are two ways we can look at this advice:
Solomon wrote his proverbs early, long before he made the foolish decisions that caused the crumbing of Israel, in the prime of wisdom from God.
Solomon wrote his proverbs extremely late, long after it had become clear what terrible mistakes he had made, in the brokenness of wisdom from experience.
I follow the second option. However, there is a third option: Solomon didn't write the introduction of Proverbs at all, but someone much later who compiled and edited the wisdom of the Jewish court. This is one of the big reasons why some scholars believe that; after the consequences of polygamy became evident, later Jews finally acknowledged that their forebears were wrong to practice it, and so made monogamy a focal point of their recorded wisdom literature. That makes sense, too. It doesn't change the meaning of the proverbs: sexual activity outside of marriage is dangerous and destructive.
But what if you're single? There's a difficulty in this passage. Solomon tells us that sex is like water, and we need to enjoy the wife of our youth. But what if we have never been married?
You might not like this, but the truth of the passage does not change. We are not supposed to be sexually involved with anyone we are not married to. If we are not married, then we are not supposed to be sexually active in any way. Does that sound hard? According to the New Testament, it is. Here are some words from Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:
1 Now in response to the matters you wrote[a] about: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” 2 But because sexual immorality is so common, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman should have sexual relations with her own husband.
6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all people were as I am. But each has his own gift from God, one person has this gift, another has that.
8 I say to the unmarried and to widows: It is good for them if they remain as I am. 9 But if they do not have self-control, they should marry, since it is better to marry than to burn with desire.
How else can it be said? It is difficult to be single, not the least reason for which is the necessity of abstaining from all sexual activity.
Here is the lesson that Lifeway wants to make through these verses:
God expects His people to show His wisdom through sexual purity.
Living for sexual gratification will lead to bitterness.
Considering the consequences of unwise choices can help a person make a wise choice.
God gave the gift of sexual intimacy to be enjoyed exclusively within the marriage relationship.
Each one of those statements is absolutely true. And I want to make sure that we come away with just as much positive as negative. Yes, sex outside of marriage is destructive and wrong. But sex within marriage is a gift to be enjoyed, something that deepens the marriage relationship. But to take the most pleasure in it, we must use sex as God designed it.
This is a tough topic. If the statistics mean anything, it's basically inevitable that someone reading this article is either struggling with thoughts of infidelity, in some stage of infidelity, or in a relationship with someone who is currently unfaithful. Solomon (and I) have painted a bleak picture about the end result of any kind of sexual misconduct. But it's not inevitable!
First, you have the power to stop and turn around! Solomon has made it clear that your two feet are carrying you down the path, and those two feet can turn around. Today, on this side of Jesus, God has given us the Holy Spirit to put strength in those decision. We can repent of our sin.
Second, God will forgive you, and it's possible that others will forgive you too. Jesus died so that your sins could be forgiven. Don't you think that means that God wants to forgive you? Repent of your sexual error -- that means admit that God's design for sex is right, and you were wrong for sidestepping it -- and you will be forgiven. And forgiveness is a beautiful thing. As for the person you committed adultery with, or for your spouse if you cheated, it's possible that the damage is too great.
If so, then you live a life worthy of forgiveness and pray that one day forgiveness can be given. And if you have to swallow your pride in many ways in order to restore the trust of your spouse, then I suggest you to it.
Now, if someone has cheated on you, my heart hurts for you. This passage is about preventing that from happening in the first place; it's not about picking up the pieces after infidelity has occurred. All I can say is that you need to protect yourself and your children. You do need to forgive, just as God has always forgiven you. But that doesn't mean that you simply forget the real damage that has been done. If it can be worked through, work through it. If you're not sure it can, then rest in the love of God and seek His strength and wisdom. I pray your church family will also be a source of support and encouragement.
Otherwise, if you're married, take some time this week to spice up your relationship. Make your spouse feel extra special. In Jesus, mww