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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 5
May 25, 2014 - Sixth Sunday of Easter

         My mother taught me not to talk to strangers long before someone coined the helpful phrase “stranger danger.” When I was about eight years old, she got quite upset one afternoon at the community pool when a man we didn’t know tried to chat me up and teach me better swimming technique. Kids of my generation were at least basically aware that a stranger could “do bad things to you,” though we mostly had no idea what those bad things were or just how tricky and deceptive some strangers could be.

         However, our daughters grew up with the constant  reminder, both at school and at home, to avoid enticing strangers who offer ice cream or a ride or a look at some new puppies or a little role in a movie or help with homework or any other seemingly innocent pleasure a child would find attractive. Here at church we try to be vigilant to ensure there are always two adults with children and that those adults have had a background check. It’s part of simple common sense and wisdom in this day and age.

         We have rightly and wisely ramped up our efforts to protect the youngest among us from, and warn them about, the danger of strangers. Still, we are apt to find the warning here in Proverbs 5 a little quaint, silly, and male chauvinist. Here in full force is a theme I’ve already said shows up constantly in the first chapters and all through the book. It’s a warning against unfaithfulness, a warning against a “strange woman.”

         The NRSV calls her a “loose” woman, and the NIV makes her an “adulterous” woman, but the Hebrew word in verse 3 is literally “strange.” “For the lips of a strange woman drip honey.” This is Proverbs’ version of “stranger danger,” and the warning is not for small children, but for young adults, for all adults.

         Our attention immediately jumps to the warning about adultery and sexual misconduct, but the first two verses tell us this is also part of wisdom. If we want to learn how to live wisely, this lesson is part of the course, part of understanding and prudence and knowledge. As is repeated many times, verse 1 begins “My child.” This is a parent wanting the best for his or her child, wanting the young person to be not only smart but wise in the way he or she lives. And that includes how a person uses God’s precious gift of sexuality.

         The “strangeness” of the woman here is not some kind of weirdness or peculiarity. She is “strange” because she is not the spouse of the child, of the person being addressed. “Adulterous” gets at it pretty well, but we should understand it in the Bible’s overall picture that the joy of sex, to borrow an old book title, belongs in a life-long committed relationship between a man and a woman, in marriage. Anything else, whether adultery or not, is a dangerous path and anyone who entices you to follow such a path is dangerous.

         Please once again make adjustments along the way if you are female. Don’t discount this chapter thinking the only images of a woman here is as temptress or as faithful wife. Let yourself be the child receiving instruction about the dangers of being tempted along a dangerous path by an attractive, seductive person.

         The image there in verse 3 is frankly and deliberately erotic. Lips that “drip with honey” are a picture of a fantasy woman, liked the airbrushed faces and bodies in pornography or in advertisements. I will simply point out that where in English we read that “her speech is smoother than oil,” it is literally her “mouth” that is slick like oil. She is an imaginary dream woman, sensually licking her lips, her sexuality literally dripping from her.

         Verse 4 swiftly pushes the delete key on that fantasy. In the end she is not sweet like honey, but bitter as wormwood, a pungent, bitter tasting plant. And she is not smoother than oil, but sharp and as cutting as “two-edged sword.”

         Like the famous poem by Robert Frost, Proverbs frequently talks about a choice between two paths. The basic decision is between the path of wisdom and the path of folly. Verses 5 and 6 say the choice to pursue sexual immorality is a foolish choice, to take a path which ultimately leads “down to death.” It’s a good word for our culture which tends to view unrestricted sexual activity as life-affirming and anyone who wants to put restrictions on sex as life-denying. But verse 6 tells us the fantasy woman “does not keep straight to the path of life, her ways wander, and she does not know it.”

         That last phrase is worth sitting with awhile, “she does not know it.” The “strange” woman is a seductive, evil temptress, but she herself is not really aware of what is happening, of the destructive path she and her partners are on. My guess is that describes an awful lot of our friends and acquaintances around us, and possibly some of us. They, we make choices, sexual choices, choices about flirting and entertainment and on-line viewing, and we don’t recognize the danger that is looming before us.

         Which is why the “parent” here takes the next few verses to drive that danger, that stranger danger, home. And just to make sure we understand this applies to all of us, verse 7 switches from the singular to the plural. In Hebrew it’s not “my son,” or “my child,” but “my sons,” “my children.” All of wisdom’s children face this danger, all of us are tempted.

         The first and best advice is in verse 8, “Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house.” It’s simple wisdom. An alcoholic needs to stay out of bars, to not keep liquor in the house. A recovering drug addict needs to make new friends, find new places to hang out, not on the corners where she used to buy her hits. Someone who has trouble overeating shouldn’t go to Sizzler or Home Town Buffet. And nearly everyone of us needs to avoid people and situations which tempt us sexually.

         You may not be able to change the fact that you work or go to school with a person you find tempting, but you can avoid being alone with that person. And one of the primary ways to keep off the sidewalk in front of the strange woman’s house is to do whatever is needed to avoid pornography. That may mean a porn filter on your computer because the delete key is not really enough. It might mean canceling cable television or getting rid of your TV. It might mean getting some help and support from Christian friends or your church. But avoidance of temptation is the first and best strategy for resisting temptation. That’s why we pray as Jesus taught us, “Lead us not into temptation.”

         The next instruction is the same thing we do with children for other dangers. Knowing as a child that strangers might do “bad things” to me wasn’t very instructive, but it worked well enough on my little imagination to give me a healthy fear of what could happen if I went along with a stranger. Healthy fear is not a bad thing, even for adults.

         We take great pains to inculcate in our young people the consequences of smoking or illegal drug use. We show them pictures of lungs blackened by years of inhaling. We make them watch public serve announcements where old people eaten up cancer sit in wheel chairs and cough their lungs out. We let them view graphic images of grizzly car accidents where a driver was intoxicated or high. But it might not hurt to have a similar warning in regard to sexual behavior like Proverbs gives in the next few verses.

         We don’t know exactly what the scene or social situation is that’s being described, but it’s obvious that verses 9 to 14 are a description of a life ruined by “indiscretion,” to use a euphemism that makes way too light of such things.

         It’s not quite clear how a young man’s affair with another woman is so destructive, but verses 9 and 10 talk about losing honor, about losing years of one’s life, about losing wealth and the fruits of your labor. In ancient culture your scorned wife’s family might hold you up for disgrace or demand payment of restitution which would force you to work for them.

         We all know very well that the consequence of an affair today is frequently divorce, which means humiliation and alimony and attorney fees and the feeling that years of life having gone down the drain. I wish I could run a video for you with testimonies from some of the marriages and children whose lives I’ve seen devastated and ruined by the affair of one spouse or even both. But you probably know some stories like that yourself.

         Yes, there is healing and redemption with God. There can be second chances at a good and lasting marriage. I know the Lord has blessed some of you in that way. But even if that has been your experience you can understand and may even express some of the sort of regret the young person does here in verses 11 to 14. At the end of his life he realizes he should have listened to the wisdom and discipline his parents offered. “I did not listen to the voice of my teachers or incline my ear to my instructors. Now I am at the point of utter ruin in the public assembly.”

         Public humiliation is one of the reasons sexual sins are so destructive. We try to teach our Covenant pastors to adhere to strict standards of morality, to avoid temptation, to be chaste if they are single and faithful if they are married. But some of us fail. A few years ago a Covenant pastor not far from here in Oregon was found out in a sexual sin. He lost his church and for awhile it looked like he might lose his family. He repented and God and his wife gave him grace and forgiveness. But he’s no longer a pastor. The calling he loved is still out of reach, after many years. Even though it’s ended in redemption, it was a sad, harmful season for him, for his family, for that church.

         Now you might be thinking what so many people think about Christianity, what one of the atheist professors expressed in conversation at the University of Oregon last month. You may imagine the Bible teaches that sex is bad, or just a necessary evil. It should always and everywhere be avoided and suppressed. But that’s not the Bible’s view of sex, and is not God’s view of sex. To paraphrase a line by C. S. Lewis, God likes sex, He invented it.

         So this chapter moves from all the negative consequences of sexual sin to a positive and even enticing description of sex in its proper context, sex in marriage. Verse 15 is a simple, apt metaphor that develops and unfolds into its literal object in just a few lines, “Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well.”

         Like it is in Arizona where my family is from, and where that terrible fire is burning right now, water in the ancient world of the Bible was very precious. Water sources were closely cherished and guarded. In Genesis 26 we find Isaac trying to reopen and lay claim to wells dug by his father Abraham. Twice he dug a well, but neighboring tribes fought with them and claimed it as their own. So Isaac moves on. Finally, the third time, Isaac’s laborers dig a well and no one disputes the claim, so he named it Rehoboth, which means “room,” because the Lord had given him room to live and water to live on.

         A person in that world did not go lightly to take water from someone else’s cistern or well or spring. You drank water that was yours, that was on your own land, that flowed by your own house. Here we learn that it should be the same with sex. When God gives us a spouse, that is the room He has made for us in the world. That relationship is a place where we draw in life and joy.

         You can read the next verses about springs being scattered and water spilled in the street and a fountain that is blessed and come up with sexual images. Several commentaries I read did just that and had fun doing it. But the commentary by my friend Paul Koptak just said that water is the biblical image of life, and all those water sources here—cistern, well, spring, fountain—are images of the same thing, of a good and faithful marriage, where a man and a woman draw life and joy from their love for each other.[1]

         Films and television would make you think that illicit relationships always offer the most excitement, that stolen kisses are better than honest ones, that the pleasure of forbidden sex is greater than any you can find at home. But in sensual words that remind us of the Song of Solomon, verses 18 and 19 declare that love at home can not only be satisfying but intoxicating. That’s why verse 20 asks why you need to go elsewhere, why you need be with another person besides your spouse, to get drunk on love. Television, movies, romance novels and pornography are full of lies about all this. To switch the metaphor to modern terms, when a marriage is as it should be, when your eyes aren’t constantly looking elsewhere, the fires of love at home burn the hottest.

         Now let me pause and say that I am painfully aware of what many of us may be thinking. That’s all well and good and wonderful if you have a deep, cool, refreshing well waiting for you at home. But what if you are alone? Or what if you might as well be, for all the joy and refreshment you get out of your marriage? How can a pastor, or the Bible, or even God expect you to drink water from your own cistern, when it cracked and went dry a long time ago or was never filled in the first place?

         Those are hard questions. I admit that standing where I am as a pretty content, happily married, heterosexual male there are pains and struggles for single people and gay people and unhappily married people of which I know very little by experience. What I do know is what verse 21 affirms, drawing all this talk of sex and marriage into a larger framework. “For human ways are under the eyes of the Lord, and he examines all their paths.”

         Whatever road you are on, God sees where you are, and he considers and cares about the paths you are taking. If you think you might as well take pleasure where you can find it because it doesn’t matter to anyone but you, it’s not true. It matters especially to the person who created you and loves you more than any human being can.

         That’s why it’s good that our Gospel reading today was John 14, beginning in verse 15. Jesus said that loving Him means keeping His commands. That includes His commands about the holiness of marriage. But then He also said to us, “I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you.” In other words, if Jesus gives you a challenging, difficult path to walk, like a difficult marriage or a life by yourself, He is not going to leave you alone. He is there. When being faithful is hard, when it causes suffering, that’s when Jesus comes to us.

         Our lesson from I Peter 3 also fits well with Proverbs 5 as Peter calls us to choose between suffering for doing what is wrong and suffering for doing what is good. It may be hard, but it is much better, says Peter, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. It’s better to live a hard and maybe frustrating single life than to suffer the disastrous consequences of a string of casual hook-ups. And, we Christians need to say this more often, it is better to live honorably in a challenging marriage than to suffer the pain and humiliation which typically comes from having an affair, no matter how tempting.

         May’s book of the month is Wendell Berry’s story of a man who quietly suffers all sorts of loneliness and frustration yet grows deep and strong in the process. Part of his suffering is that he remains single. He secretly loves a woman he can never have because she is married to someone else. He is the town barber and later the church janitor and grave digger. He cuts hair, cleans and digs graves for people in his community. And he learns to love them in a costly way that teaches him true joy and friendship. The novel is a way of unpacking and showing us a life that displays the truth in what Proverbs says, in what Jesus says, in what Peter says. By following God’s laws, even when it hurts, even when it would be more fun to do something else, by following those gentle commands, we tap into God’s well of life, the well of abundant life that Jesus came to bring us.

         Chapter 5 of Proverbs closes with a kind of warning that will be repeated over and over, that even though their pleasures and profit and riches may seem enviable, those who turn from God and from their commitments will be miserable, “they are caught in the toils of their sin… because of their great folly they are lost.”

         That warning is a harsh place to end, but just turn it around and remember that if you turn toward God, if you follow Jesus, if you treat others with the love and faithfulness with which God loves you, then in the end God will be faithful to you. Your end will be just the opposite of that foolish, wicked person. You will be saved. You will drink deep from the wells of our Lord’s grace and love and you will be satisfied.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] The NIV Application Commentary: Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), p. 170.

Last updated May 25, 2014