Editing and additions by Dennis Bratcher
Proverbs 5 provides the eighth "instruction" in the series of twelve instructions in Proverbs 1:8-9:18. It continues the admonitions to avoid the strange or foreign women, admonitions that have been appearing since Proverbs 2:16. In fact, with the exception of Proverbs 6:1-19 almost all of chapters 5-7 address the question of temptation to illicit sexual activity. Scholars have not agreed on how Proverbs 6:1-19 fits into the flow of the book. Some see it as another instruction while others see it as a collection of miscellaneous admonitions. The style is somewhat different than the other instructions of the opening section of Proverbs. As a result this study will treat those verses as a collection of admonitions but will not identify that section as an "instruction" in the technical sense. Proverbs 6:20-35 then forms the ninth instruction.
The Eighth Instruction: Proverbs 5:1-23
Chapter 5 begins with the typical opening words of an instruction, "my son." It then turns to an appeal to hear the father’s teaching. The main subject of the instruction is outlined in verses 3-6 where the "strange" woman is described. The final part of the chapter consists of a series of commands and prohibitions relating to avoiding the strange woman. Motivation statements are designed to persuade the young listener/reader to obey the father’s instructions.
Verse 1 begins with the command to pay close attention to the father’s wisdom. The two lines of verse 1 are parallel in meaning. Both verbs emphasize giving attention to the father. The effort of listening is part of the requirements of wisdom. The purpose of such intense listening is to "guard discretion." The word translated "discretion" (mezimma; NRSV: prudence) is used negatively to refer to the plots of wicked people and positively to describe insightful planning. Discretion or prudence is the ability to discover the consequences of actions and to make the right choices accordingly. The author wants the son to learn from experience, but not from the painful experience of his own failures. He is to watch and listen, observing the successes and failures of others. Then he will be equipped to make the right choices that will lead to the best consequences.
The second line of verse 2 focuses more narrowly on what the son/reader should speak. His lips are to preserve or guard knowledge. Proverbs understands very well that part of wisdom is the ability not to talk too much. The wrong words to the wrong people at the wrong time can undo a lifetime of building trust and confidence.
Verse 3 returns to the subject of the "strange woman" or adulteress. The masculine form of the same word is often translated as "stranger." It is likely that the author is not just warning against an Israelite prostitute or adultery with a neighbor lady. The term used strongly suggests the danger of a foreign woman. The point is not nationalistic pride or ethnic prejudice. The Old Testament is keenly aware of the pain of being rejected for being a foreigner. That was the status of Israel in Egypt and the Old Testament is full of injunctions to remember and fairly treat the "sojourners" or resident aliens who were living in Israel.
This section of Proverbs is warning against becoming entangled with foreigners who would seduce Israel from worship of and obedience to Yahweh God. Much of the success of Baalism in Israel came from temple prostitutes – foreign women offering their sexual services for Baal (see Baal Worship in the Old Testament). Beyond the temple prostitutes, Israel had difficulty marrying foreign women without becoming enmeshed in that "strange woman’s" foreign religious practices.
The Old Testament stands firmly in favor of marrying within the religious tradition. Marriage outside the faith puts a person at risk. The issue today is not narrow mindedness versus open mindedness. The issue is how important a role faith plays in one’s life. The fact that few people warn against marrying outside one’s religious faith nowadays is not a sign of increasing tolerance. It is a reflection of our cultural assumption that religious faith and practice plays only a small role in a person’s life. When one set of doctrinal teaching is considered interchangeable with another set, then there is no truth about God upon which is considered worth building your life.
Verse 3 contrasts the "lips of a strange woman" with the lips that preserve knowledge in verse 2. Though some scholars believe that lips that drip honey in verse 3 refers to kisses rather than words, the parallelism suggests that her speech is the author’s concern. Honey was one of the promised blessings of the land of Canaan and oil was highly prized for cosmetics as well as for cooking. Thus verse 3 describes the strange woman as speaking enchanting and attractive words. Whether the invitation of the temple prostitute or the flirtatious appeal of the foreign wife to worship her idol, the end result would be devastating.
The word "end" that appears in verse 4 could be literally translated "afterwards." Though sin – and especially sexual sin – seems sweet as honey and as natural as oil is smooth, there is an afterwards. Afterwards the sweetness becomes bitterness and instead of smooth comfort there is slicing pain.
No good comes out of marital infidelity. No good comes from disregarding God’s covenant. No good comes from thinking oneself an exception to the standards of faithfulness and obedience that God has laid down for both marriage and relationship with himself. God has constructed the universe with moral structures as unbreakable as the scientific laws that govern matter and energy. The Biblical commands to sexual purity, marital fidelity, and spiritual holiness were not given to restrict life and take away joy. They were given because God created for wholeness and holiness, because purity and focus and joy is only possible when we live within the structures of the moral universe God has created. Proverbs did not philosophize about this in theological or abstract terms. The author simply warns of the devastating consequences of wrong sexual choices.
Verses 5-14 catalog some of the consequences of succumbing to the strange woman. That the first consequence mentioned is "death" should be a sobering thought. As the Old Testament writers often did, the author went straight to the bottom line. Following the footsteps of the strange woman would lead to the grave.
The KJV phrase "her steps take hold on hell" can be easily misunderstood. The Hebrew word the KJV translated as "hell" is Sheol (NRSV: Sheol). It was not the place of eternal punishment, but simply the gathering place of the dead. It is parallel to the idea of death (as the Hebrew parallelism shows) and may be translated as "grave" (NIV) or "pit" (see Sheol, Hell and the Dead).
Along the path that leads to death there are many pitfalls for the person who becomes entangled with the strange woman. Verse 9 warns that the son’s strength will be given to strangers. Kidner (p.70) puts it very pointedly when he writes, "loose living…dissipates irrevocably the powers a man has been given to invest. He will wake up to find that he has been exploited by his chosen circle, with whom he had no real ties (9,10), condemned by his conscience (11-13), and on the brink of public ruin (14)." One only has so much strength and time, only so much energy and passion, and it is tragic to pour out those precious resources on relationships that are temporary. Whether the son is entangled with the temple prostitute or the idolatrous wife he has no hope of the kind of covenant relationship God designed for him. When one comes to the realization that all his life’s energy has been poured into an eternally empty relationship nothing but bitterness can result. But that bitterness can only be directed against yourself because you are the one who makes the choices.
Pursuit of the strange woman not only risks devastating disease, it also undercuts one’s ability to enter wholesome and faithful relationships. The deception and disobedience wrapped up in making impurity look presentable is a cancer that destroys one’s ability to make the honest and vulnerable commitments that sustain a Christian marriage. One is left with only self-accusation, "I hated discipline. I would not obey. I refused to listen."
Verses 15-23 focus on the positive values of fidelity. These verses are filled with figures of speech, but the subject is clearly the enjoyment of sexual relationship within marriage. There are still people who believe that the Bible has a dim view of sexuality. But that viewpoint is the product of centuries of misinterpretation by Christian theologians with more training in Greek philosophy than in Hebrew theology. The Old Testament clearly sees sexual fulfillment within marriage as a delightful matter. This section of Proverbs is a case in point.
Verses 15-19 are built around water as a figure of speech for sexuality. This comparison had two sources. Hebrew medical understanding perceived semen as a form of water. Even earlier, the Canaanite culture of the Near East incorporated this metaphorically into their myths, in which rain (always from a male deity) was the cause of fertility of the ground (a female deity, Mother Earth; see Baal Worship in the Old Testament).
Further, water was vital for life. Waters, rivers, springs, cisterns and wells were frequently mentioned in the Old Testament as sources of life. It is sexual reproduction that enables life to continue past the present generation and since water and sexuality were connected to life, they were related to each other. Water was also a symbol of joy and renewal in the arid land of Palestine. Finding an oasis in the desert brought relief from the scorching heat and moments of relaxation in the shade enjoying the cool water.
With such a background the injunction to drink from your own cistern, the flowing waters from your own well powerfully expressed the joy of sexual fulfillment with one’s spouse alone. In verse 17 the Hebrew text emphasizes that these joys are for you "alone;" they are not to be shared.
Verse 16 points out the opposite. Throwing water in the street was unthinkable in the ancient Near East. Water was too precious to be thrown in the street. Wasting sexual intimacy was equally ridiculous. Should the illicit liaisons result in children the foolish man who indulges his sexual desires outside marriage throws precious children into the streets with no name and no love – a wasting of their lives.
The reference to "fountain" in verse 18 appears to focus especially on children. In the agricultural world of the Old Testament with no governmental social security, children provided for their parents in old age. Thus the greatest sign of blessing in Hebrew culture was to have many children. The greatest joy imaginable to our author was the growth of a large, happy family brought to life by the love of a man and the wife of his youth.
Verses 18 and 19 make it clear that the figures of speech in this section refer to sexual love. Verse 19 uses language very similar to the Song of Solomon (2:9, 17, 4:5; and 7:3) to compare one’s wife to a deer gracefully cavorting in the meadow. She satisfies her lover with her breasts and ravishes him with her love. Who could ask for more? The author clearly believes there can be no improvement on such a delightful sexual relationship. Verse 21 shows this by posing the question, "Why be captured by the strange woman? Why fall into the bosom of the foreign woman?" The answer is clearly, "There is no sane reason under the sun to seek sexual fulfillment outside marriage."
Proverbs 5 was written to men struggling with the temptations of either temple prostitutes or intriguing foreign women. It envisions either marital unfaithfulness by use of the temple prostitute or covenant unfaithfulness by marriage to a non-Israelite woman. This chapter does not directly address the issue of divorce as experienced in our contemporary Western culture. Though divorce did take place in Israelite culture it had not reached the epidemic proportions that it would by the time of Jesus and that it has in our day and age.
Nevertheless, these verses make a strong case for the permanence of marriage. God designed sexual intimacy as the most obvious expression and symbol of the unity of a husband and wife. The author of Proverbs in no way thought that either a man or a woman could experience sexual union and then abandon the relationship without scars. The shared joy and the sense of belonging that these verses mention speak of an emotional intimacy and bonding more powerful than the sex act itself. Violation of that emotional bonding brings devastation to both partners, as verses 9-14 make clear.
A Christian marriage bears the delightful, but heavy, responsibility to nurture and sustain the emotional bonds created by sexual intimacy. Sexual relationship without emotional bonding violates God’s plan for marriage and treats one’s partner as a prostitute. Once such sexual/emotional bonding has occurred it is God’s will that it be maintained, enriched, and developed. Failure to maintain the emotional oneness of a relationship violates God’s plan for a marriage.
The clear implication of Proverbs 5:9-20 is the importance of constantly filling the reservoirs of joy, family, and love. There are instances in which one marriage partner refuses to cooperate in the shared process of building such reservoirs when the other partner wants to develop that intimacy and joy. However, in too many cases the problem goes back to earlier stages in the marriages when problems of communication, needs and desires were not dealt with.
Verses 21-23 are sometimes treated as part of chapter 6. However, they state general principles that form an appropriate conclusion to the warning against strange women. The Lord watches human lives and knows our choices. There is nothing hidden from him. When sexual sins are hidden from public knowledge a person may develop the false confidence that God does not know or care either. But sin always captures the sinners; the foolishness of trying to fool God and of rejecting his discipline always leads to death.
Four Brief Admonitions: Proverbs 6:1-19
The structure of Proverbs 6:1-19 is perceived in different ways by different scholars. Some see these verses as containing simply another "instruction" in the same format as the other twelve instructions in Proverbs 1:8-9:18. They point to the initial address in verse 1, "my son." Others point out that these verses do not contain the same kind of commands and prohibitions as found in the other instructions. The motivation statements are different and the comparisons differ. The use of the ant, the sluggard, and the numerical sayings are more similar to later portions of Proverbs than to the instructions of Proverbs 1-9. However, there are four distinct subject matter units contained in verses 1-5, 6-11, 12-15, and 16-19.
Proverbs 6:1-5 advises the son/reader to stay out of arrangements in which he provides surety for another’s debts. The two lines of verse 1 include pledging financial backing or cosigning for a neighbor and for a stranger. If the son has made such a promise – perhaps in a moment of sympathy or compassion – he is urged to run immediately and do anything to get out of that promise.
Deuteronomy 15:1-6 shows that Israel dealt more ruthlessly with foreigners than with Israelites. If we read Proverbs 6:1 legalistically, it would forbid any kindness or generosity. It is important to remember the way proverbs work. They often present both sides of an issue and certainly one side of the financial issue is that cosigning for someone else always carries potential danger. It would be an irresponsible use of the Bible to quote this verse to deflect the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:42 not to refuse anyone wishing to borrow from you. On the other hand, it is foolish naively to obey Matthew 5:42 and expect that everyone will honor their word and pay you back. Kidner’s argument (p. 71) that the proverb is not designed to prevent generosity, but to prevent gambling misses the point. There is always a risk when we commit financial resources to another.
Verse 2 points out that such commitments come from one’s own mouth. Financial promises are free choices. One always has the choice of keeping one’s mouth shut or of saying, "No," when the neighbor or stranger asks for help.
Verse 3 uses very expressive language to show how dangerous the promise of surety can be: you have come into your neighbor’s power. The Hebrew literally states that you are in the palm of your neighbor’s hand when you have promised surety for him. Urgently hurry to him, beg, plead, grovel – do anything to extract yourself from such obligation. Verse 5 compares the one who has made the promise to a hunted gazelle or bird. No effort is to be spared in getting out of such obligation.
Verses 6-11 deal with diligence. A significant part of Proverbs’ wisdom deals with one’s diligence in work. Both here and in chapter 30 the ant provides a point of comparison. The ant was also mentioned with admiration in other ancient Near Eastern writings. The point of comparison here is with the ant’s diligence in gathering its food. Verse 7 points out that ants have no visible rulers or governmental structures, but they take the initiative and see to their needs without external motivation. Some scholars believe this verse might have been a swipe at the inefficient bureaucracy that often crippled Israel from the time of Solomon on. The oldest known Greek version of Proverbs contains three additional verses at this point. The Jerusalem Bible translates them this way:
Or go to the bee and see how diligent she is,
These additional verses address the problem of lazy women since the ant was compared with men.
The reader of this section is addressed as "sluggard" (NRSV: lazybones). The Hebrew word means lazy or slow moving. The Anchor Bible appropriately translates it "loafer." Verses 9 and 10 suggest that the agenda is not a slow moving versus fast moving person, but a criticism of those who sleep in, take frequent naps, or go to bed too early. Verse 11 portrays poverty and scarcity sneaking up like a robber and leaving the loafer shocked by what he does not have that his industrious neighbor had acquired. This section affirms the value of hard work; it does not guarantee that all hard work will yield equally prosperous economic rewards. Some people must work extremely hard to have what others achieve much easier. However, laziness ultimately creates its own punishment.
Some scholars connect verses 12-15 with verses 6-11. However, the subject of verses 12-15 is not laziness but the disaster that accompanies certain inappropriate behavior. Alden (p. 57) takes these verses to refer to lying in general deceptiveness. However, the language is not sufficiently specific to draw that conclusion. Verse 12 names the subject as "a worthless person, a wicked man" (NASB). The Hebrew words are forceful. The first phrase is 'adam belial, a worthless human being. Belial is a compound word in Hebrew meaning without worth or use or (NRSV: a scoundrel). By the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls the word was used as a name for Satan and it appears in 2 Corinthians 6:15 with that meaning. The second phrase is 'ish 'aven, a man of wickedness or perversion (NRSV: a villain). The modifier speaks of twistedness and distortion. This person goes about with a twisted or corrupt mouth that produces crooked speech.
It is possible that the author intends to refer to lying, but it is more likely that suggestive or provocative language is meant. The following lines refer to winks of the eye and gestures with feet and fingers. The exact gestures and their meaning cannot be known now. Different cultures develop meaningful gestures with both positive and negative connotations. The fact that verse 14 speaks of evil, deceit, and dissension is ample evidence that it is the negative gestures to which the author refers.
The final paragraph of this section, verses 16-19, is a graded numerical saying. Such proverbial constructions were common in both the Old Testament and in the non-biblical ancient Near Eastern writings. Amos 1-2 and Proverbs 30 make significant use of the "for three . . . for four . . . " sayings, but sequential combinations of numbers from one to eight can be found. Verses 16-19 list the six, no seven, things that the Lord hates. Arrogance, deceit, and lack of compassion head the list. Most graded numerical sayings have the most important element, the one that the sage wants to emphasize, in the last added saying. Here the full force of the Lord hates falls on the one who sows discord in a family. This serves to underscore the preceding instructions about fidelity in marriage and commitment to family, as well as to introduce the ninth instruction that returns to similar teachings.
The Ninth Instruction: Proverbs 6:20-35
The instruction format returns in verses 20-35. The familiar address, "my son," appears in verse 20 and is followed by a mixture of commands, prohibitions, and motivation statements. The subject comes back to the danger of becoming involved with the strange or foreign woman. Verses 20-21 echo the language of Proverbs 1:8 and 3:1-3 with the appeal to bind the wise teaching of parents upon your heart.
Verse 22 makes specific promises of the benefits of wisdom teaching. Incorporating such teaching into your life will provide guidance by day and protection by night. In addition such teaching will speak to you when you are awake. The word for "speak" or "talk" here in the final line of verse 22 is used in Psalms 77 and 119 to suggest meditation. These verses portray Wisdom as a faithful friend who is always beside you to help and advise.
Verse 23 piles on further compliments to wisdom. Her command (mitzvah) is a lamp; her torah is a light; and her corrective discipline (musar, NRSV: reproof) provides the path of life. If the light and direction of wisdom teaching is accepted it will keep the son/reader from adultery and sexual immorality.
Verse 24 returns to the subject of sexual purity. The seducing woman speaks smoothly, has an attractive beauty and beguiling eyes. However, the consequences of sexual failure at this point are again recounted – perhaps more devastatingly here than in previous chapters. The focus in these verses is specifically on adultery, sexual intimacy with another man’s wife. Verse 26 points out that the prostitute’s price is a loaf of bread, but adultery can cost a man his very life.
This is not, as some have supposed, a recommendation of a prostitute (a better deal than adultery); prostitution has already been roundly condemned. This points out that as devastating as sharing the prostitute’s bed may be, adultery exacts and even more terrible price. Just as a person cannot hug a fire into his lap or walk on red hot coals without burning consequences so a man cannot go to bed with his neighbor’s wife without staggering punishment.
The illustrations of verse 27 and 28 are double-edged. The hugging or scooping fire into a man’s lap is an obvious allusion to pulling another’s wife into his embrace. The reference to feet may well be another of the frequent biblical examples of feet being used as a euphemism for male genitalia. The point is clear; if you play with fire you will be burned.
Verses 30-31 point out that a thief can make restitution and after paying his debt to the victims and to society may resume a somewhat normal life. However, verses 32-35 declare in contrast to thievery adultery will not be wiped off the books. It leaves an indelible stain and no price can buy off the guilt of the guilty parties. Believers need to give special attention to this section of Proverbs. In contemporary society the rushing avalanche of office affairs and the media mocking of marital fidelity create the illusion that adultery is no longer a real problem. Wisdom knows better.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to speak to you through his word. Ask the Holy Spirit to make the word come alive to you for that day.
First Day: Read the notes on Proverbs 5:1-6:35. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two bits of new information that seemed important to you in this lesson. Why were these facts important?
2. Select one or two spiritual insights that spoke to you personally. Describe the spiritual significance of those insights for your life.
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you exemplify and promote the kind of sexual purity that will bring glory to his name.
Second Day: Read Proverbs 7:1-27. Now focus your attention on Proverbs 7:1-23.
1. What teaching about wisdom appears in verses 1-5? How would you apply the comparison of teaching to the apple of your eye to your own life?
2. What techniques does the strange woman use to entice to young man in verses 6-21? What desires of the young man does she appeal to? How would you recommend that he guard himself against such appeals?
3. What consequences will fall upon the young man according to verses 22-23? What other consequences are you aware of that are part of the penalty for illicit sexual relationships? What can you do to help young men discover the importance of sexual purity?
Third Day: Read Proverbs 7:1-8:11. Now focus in on Proverbs 7:24-8:11.
1. Does Proverbs 7:24-27 add anything to your understanding? If so, what? Why do you think the author keeps going on and on about this subject? Do we need to spend much time on it? Why or why not?
2. What clues in Proverbs 8:1-11 suggest that Wisdom is being portrayed as a rival seductress trying to win the young man away from the strange woman? What does Lady Wisdom have going for her?
3. How important is it to choose Wisdom? How costly is it? Are you willing to pay that cost? Why or why not? What ideas do you have about how to encourage others to pay the cost?
Fourth Day: Read Proverbs 8:1-36. Focus your study on Proverbs 8:12-31.
1. What political and economic influence does Wisdom have? Can you give examples of the benefit of biblical wisdom in government or in business? What do we need to do to make biblical wisdom more influential in politics and economics?
2. What is the relationship of Wisdom and creation according to verses 22-31? What application to your life do you suppose should be drawn from the emphasis on delight and rejoicing in verses 30-31?
3. If New Testament passages such as John 1:1-5; 1 Corinthians 1:24; Colossians 1:15-17; and Hebrews 1:1-3 compare Christ to Lady Wisdom, what insights about Christ could you then derive from Proverbs 8:22-31? Which, if any, would have specific meaning for your life?
Fifth Day: Read Proverbs 8:12-9:18. Now focus in on Proverbs 8:32-9:6.
1. What new benefits (if any) do Proverbs 8:32-36 promise to the one who seeks wisdom? How important is the reference to the favor of the Lord in verse 35? What would that mean in your life? What would you need to do to receive the favor of the Lord?
2. What figures of speech does the author use in Proverbs 9:1-6 to portray Wisdom as an attractive lady? What ways do you use to communicate to others the value of biblical wisdom?
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to give you wisdom to better promote the cause of biblical wisdom in the world in which you live.
Sixth Day: Read Proverbs 9:1-18. Now focus your attention on Proverbs 9:7-18.
1. Based on verses 7-9 what attitude should you take toward a scoffer or wicked man? What attitude should you take toward a wise or righteous person? Is the advice of these verses one sided? What should or should not be added to them?
2. Summarize the meaning of verses 10-12 in your own words. How strong is your desire to enter into Wisdom’s beginning? What holds you back?
3. What does the author mean by verse 17? Have you experienced what he is talking about? What were the consequences in your life? Write a brief affirmation of your desire to live by God’s wisdom.