Passionate faithfulness isn’t something our culture values highly in relationships these days. And yet our culture is remarkably obsessed with matters of sex, gender, roles, equality, and so on. Partly that’s a response to oppressive, misguided treatment of women and same-sex attracted people – both by society in general and by the church in particular.
The Bible is God’s word. It is absolute. “It is written.” So God’s word speaks to culture. And it speaks to all cultures, not to be adjusted by taste and whim. But we need to be careful that our own understanding of the Bible isn’t, in fact, tainted by our own historic Christian culture. The good news is that what the Bible has to say is actually wonderful and leads to true happiness and flourishing.
A word to the wise
Proverbs 5 is fairly simple and obvious in many ways, but there are quite broad applications for us to take from it. Read Proverbs 5:1-6.
Remember Proverbs is written as lessons in wisdom from a father to a son. Now that firmly shapes the gender language. These verses can just as easily be inverted: “My daughter, the lips of an immoral man are as sweet as honey…” In fact, women should read them that way; there are plenty of predatory men around equal to this “immoral woman” here.
So the father warns the son about this immoral woman. But the language seems really strong: “Her steps lead straight to the grave.” Really? He explains why in two ways: One practical, one theological.
In practical terms, v7-14 speak about the destructiveness of succumbing to temptation and adultery: You will lose honour, wealth, health. In modern terms, you will cause damage to your family; your finances might be hit by maintenance payments, your health might struggle (stress, STD). For Christians (and leaders in particular), there’s the public disgrace. You’re an adulterer. Not trustworthy. Don’t go there! Read v8. But the message isn’t just “avoid her” – it’s much more positive.
Read v18. Proverbs 5:15-20 makes Song of Songs look prudish! It leaves nothing to the imagination. Young man: Enjoy your wife. Young woman: Enjoy your husband.
Note the tone of absolute positivity, of joy, of delight. It’s really important. You’re not to “make do” with your spouse, as compensation for not having someone else. Enjoy. Delight. Be captivated. Be satisfied.
So avoid the immoral person: Delight in your spouse. But there’s a theological element too: Read v21-23.
If someone is prepared to give in to adultery, what else? It’s not a sin of a moment. It’s a sequence of steps that you take, temptations you give in to. You choose sin. Instead of being captivated by the delight of your husband or wife, you’re held captive by sin (v22). And the LORD sees it. You’re accountable to him.
All this is, of course, based on a marriage being between one man and one woman. Without exception, that’s the Bible’s pattern for marriage. But many, many people would think that’s just plain wrong:
- Some couples have “open relationships” where either partner is welcome to enjoy sex with others.
- It’s largely normal in modern society for a young person to have a number of sexual partners before settling down.
- And same-sex relationships are becoming increasingly normalised.
A word to the wise, not the ungodly
But Proverbs 5 is specifically a word to the wise – or, at least, a word to someone who wants to be wise in God’s ways. To anyone who cares nothing for God, there’s no absolute morality as a basis for sexual ethics. “Love is love” – so anything goes. Actually, not anything. Society defines and agrees its own boundaries which change over time. Polyamorous relationships would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but now there are ad campaigns with “How do you know if you’re polyamorous?”
So, if you care nothing for God, go your own way. He will hold you to account for all you do.
And for those who sit in judgment on others, remember that the sin that is actually being condemned in Proverbs 5 is heterosexual adultery. And your imagination can condemn you. As Jesus put it in Matthew 7:28-29 “I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away.” Strong stuff.
So, to those who want to be wise in God’s ways, porn will wreck you just as completely as adultery. It’s an addiction. It will hold you captive. Read v22 again.
Which is just one reason why all this is as relevant to single people as to married ones. In fact, this is all helpful to the single too: Firstly, remember the Bible doesn’t require you to marry. Marriage is a gift; singleness is a gift; each has a place. The church is to grow through witness, not childbirth. But Proverbs 5 is helpful for young single people to guard your hearts from sexual predators; don’t be lured. It will also help you set positive expectations for any marriage you do have – forsake all others, delight in one.
But whether married or single, these verses have two more powerful applications for everyone who would be wise to God: Friendship relationships with members of the opposite sex, and ultimately fixing your eyes on Jesus.
The Billy Graham Rule
Many years ago, the evangelist Billy Graham spent a lot of time touring the world, staying in hotels, away from home and wife. He had a rule never to dine, travel, or meet alone with a woman who was not his wife. It’s become known as the “Billy Graham rule” and is now used by many evangelical leaders and politicians.
At first glance, you might think Proverbs 5 would support it: “Flee the immoral woman.” But there’s more to it. At a very simple level, it shouldn’t be a rule. In John 4, Jesus sat alone with a woman who had had 5 husbands. Presumably an immoral woman; presumably attractive. And Jesus spoke life to her – she was a changed woman!
It’s always important to remember that temptation is not sin. Jesus was tempted as you are but was wholly without sin. Temptation becomes sin when you give in to your own evil desire.
The object of desire isn’t the problem
Proverbs 5 warns a young man against an immoral woman’s allure. Her condemnation is assumed (tempting someone to sin is itself sinful). But read v21-23 again. The “He” at the start of v23 is emphatic. You’re to take responsibility for your own sin. So if you sin, it’s your fault, not hers. You chose to sin. You could have stopped. So the Lord will hold you accountable.
Some men will adopt the Billy Graham rule either to keep themselves pure or to be seen to be behaving appropriately. But as a universal rule it’s really not helpful: It regards all women as tempting sexual objects first and foremost – a danger to men! The rule suggests that women are some kind of problem to be avoided. It actually dishonours women.
It also doesn’t work, when you’re a man in the workplace with a woman boss and women working for you. “Chaperone?” No.
Worse, this kind of thinking has led to a decidedly two-tier set-up in many churches: The phrases “purity culture” and “toxic masculinity” are never far from each other when people speak about church experiences – especially women who have been suppressed and abused by men who only saw their sex. Proverbs 5 calls on men to exhibit self-control regarding immoral women. You can certainly do the same with women who, frankly, aren’t attracted to you.
Men and women are image-bearers of God. We’re not the same, but we mustn’t crush the gifts God gives to us all for his kingdom.
- Men: Flee the immoral woman! But love your sister in Christ as a sister – don’t regard or suppress her as a sexual threat. Exercise self-control! We will all be the richer for it.
- Women: Flourish in the church. You are valuable to God and gifted by him for the church. Pray, read, lead.
But we still haven’t reached the best teaching from Proverbs 5!
In the New Testament, Paul wrote to the young pastor Timothy with advice similar to what we’ve seen in Proverbs 5. 2 Timothy 2:22 Run from anything that stimulates youthful lusts. Instead, pursue righteous living, faithfulness, love, and peace.
The words of Proverbs 5 will always ring true: Flee the immoral person because that will lead to ruin in life and judgment from God; better, take full delight in your spouse. Enjoy! Be satisfied!
Paul’s instruction takes the whole thing up a level, to the ultimate marriage between Christ and his bride, the church. Because righteous living can only be accomplished in Christ. While you sin and sin again, you are forgiven all sin, credited with righteousness, and strengthened to go again every day. He is the ultimate faithful husband, loving and bringing peace to his bride.
A model marriage
Christ’s love for his bride is the model for all married relationships:
- There will be no sleeping around, trying out other gods.
- Monogamy – he is all your delight. This is not an open relationship!
- Going after other gods will wreck your life, because Jesus came to bring you life to the full – only found in him.
- His passionate love for his bride is demonstrated in the fact that he gave his life to save her.
- More, to those unmarried but struggling with sexual sins, Christ’s love to you is unwavering; his church is your love.
Proverbs 5 tells us to delight and be satisfied with our spouse. Christ delights in his church, and you are to delight in him! Delight, enjoy, be satisfied in Christ.
- When you come to pray, it makes no sense to say “I never know what to say” – what kind of relationship is that?
- Relationships thrive on talking, so talk. Pray.
- Married people often wear a wedding ring as a public display. No-one should say to a married person, “I didn’t know you were married!” nor to a Christian, “I didn’t know you went to church!”
- Proverbs 5 encourages you to be captivated by your spouse. The church should be captivated by Christ.
- Meditate on him; think about him; set time aside for him (“date night” as it were!)
Helpful to married and single
The image of marriage for the church’s relationship with Christ is powerful, which is why it’s helpful for both single and married people to think about the Bible’s teaching on marriage itself.
So there’s a lovely matrix of thought that builds up for us:
- Since God has chosen us to be Christ’s bride,
- let’s model our marriages on the joy and faithfulness he displays to us
- enjoying one another, delighting in one another
- while avoiding extremes of
- succumbing to immoral temptations and also
- regarding everyone of the opposite sex as a sexual temptation
- and renewing your own “marriage” to Jesus in joy and fidelity, in passion and pleasure. Enjoy him.