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The Two Women: Proverbs 7
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Proverbs, and again this morning we’re in chapter 6.
Proverbs is one of the wisdom books, like Ecclesiastes; think about it like a letter written by a father and a mother to their children, and to generations they’ll never get to meet; telling them what’s actually important in life, and how to live it right. Wisdom is calling out in the streets, they write, but it’s hard to hear over the noise of everything going on in the world. There’s so much being said—it’s hard to know what’s good and nourishing.
I started out in this series making a contrast, drawing a line between wisdom and what we’ve replaced it with in our time: immediacy and information. The world is happy to tell you everything popular and trending and therefore, from the world’s perspective, important and true. But in all the noise forming you, shaping and misshaping you spiritually, do we know what’s wise? Can we step out of our own perspectives, for just a moment, and notice the way we see the world? Are we willing to look at our world, and the ways in which we live our lives, and recognize that not all progress has been toward a good end?
We’ve talked about those things which are meant to be at the core of our lives; things like love, wisdom, family, compassion, and the Spirit of God. They are necessary things, to keep in your heart, meaning at the deepest part of your thoughts and desires. Your heart is like a well or a spring. If you lose it, or if you allow the enemy to poison it, you run dry.
For the past couple weeks, we’ve been studying death, trying to get a good understanding of death and evil. Sin and death consume you without ever being satisfied, but death doesn’t always look like some monster with a gaping mouth trying to swallow you whole. Sometimes death seduces you. Sometimes it looks fun and exciting. And usually evil is proud of itself. It doesn’t hide, it argues for itself on Twitter until everyone calls it truth. It throws itself a gala and gives itself an award.
This week begins a new section of the book, and the last section of Proverbs before it goes into Twitter mode, couplets of advice. Last week Solomon contrasted three men—this week wisdom and death are personified as two women. Let’s read it, starting in 6:20 [Proverbs 6:20-7:27] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
On its surface, the passage is about adultery, which is heavy. Again, since chapter 4, the focus has been on death and sin, trying to get a good idea of what it looks like. I had a hard time writing this sermon, just a hard time connecting the dots and when I told my wife I was struggling she looks at me and goes. “Isn’t this one about adultery? You better not have trouble writing this one. You just go on back and read it again.”
So on the surface, a father is warning his son not to sleep with married women, because it leads to death, he writes. Which is good advice. And this is not your parents being prudish, this is Solomon, 3000 years ago, saying I’ve done it a thousand times, I’ve seen it, this is what I’ve learned. I, personally, I’ve seen adultery kill, not just marriages, but the people in them. I’ve cared for children traumatized by the fallout, and watched multiple church families sicken and close. I’ve seen people genuinely trying to make it work after the relationship started in adultery, and the poor beginning hangs over the new relationship ever after to where they’re never healthy. There’s only death down that road.
I’ve also seen the more modern takes on adultery, things like open relationships, polyamory, and swinging, I’ve seen multiple friends experiment with them, thinking they were being modern and open, and thus far the only result I’ve seen is death. The modern press on these things is ironic to me, where people act like they’ve had a new idea, considering most of the advice I’ve received against it, again, is 3000 years old. Hear me, I’m being stark because I love you. Because I’ve seen the deaths of multiple marriages—people I love—parents losing custody of children, loads of pain. I know it seems enticing, but there’s only death and numbness down those roads, and I would spare you that.
No matter how much your spouse tells you, no, I don’t care, I just want you to be happy—they care. We can’t help it; we can’t just turn off love once we waken it. With sex and marriage, that kind of intimacy, according to the Bible, it makes you one person with the other, and when you break that bond or try to stretch it to fit others in, there’s only pain.
Don’t even start down that road. Don’t even send the flirty or emotionally indulgent direct message, or start the conversation in that app your wife probably won’t check. Don’t even go where you usually see her. Don’t play the complement game, or the we both keep happening to work late game, or the I just need to decompress about my husband game. My marriage is basically done anyway. Just don’t do it. Go home. Choose to love your spouse. Love is always a choice, as much as we like to tell ourselves the lie that we fall into and out of it.
Talk about it with me as you hit obstacles, I’ll help. Or if you don’t want to talk to me, go to therapy—that can be helpful. You don’t have to go it alone, like admitting you have problems is a weakness. Confession is always the road to life and strength in Christ. You owe it to yourself, and to her, and to God, and to the kids who will grow up blaming themselves, and to the friends who will have to take sides. There’s only death that way.
So that’s the advice on the surface, but there’s loads beneath the surface I want you to see, too. This passage isn’t just about adultery. The two women in the passage are wisdom and death, personified, meaning he’s imagining wisdom and death as two women. This will be a theme through the next two chapters as well. He’s saying wisdom and death are like two women you have to choose between, and I want us to notice, specifically, what he’s imagining. He’s imagining an unmarried man having a conversation with his parents about whom he should marry.
In this choice between wisdom and death, the scriptures are like a guiding light. He says they’re like a lamp when you’re out on a path and need to find your way—a metaphor pulled from Psalm 119. And he says wisdom is like the apple of your eye, meaning your pupil—wisdom is what lets the light in. Wisdom isn’t something just to see and know, but by wisdom you are able to see the whole world in a new light. As C.S. Lewis writes, beautifully, “I believe in Christianity as I believe…the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Marriage in ancient times was seen, not just as the joining of two individuals, but as the joining of two families. Parents were required to consent as well as the children, so choosing between spouses would have been a constant and common conversation in almost every household as parents and children debated the merits of marrying this or that man or woman.
Parents were heavily involved in helping their children choose a spouse. It’s not like the arranged marriages we see sometimes today, where children are promised at a young age and forced into a hateful marriage—the parents were expected to find someone their child would consent and be glad to marry; the child had choice in the matter, it was a conversation, just like the conversation we see in our text today—but it also was not like what we have in our culture where teens and young people are left to date and decide on a spouse almost entirely on their own. Anne-Elise and I got married at 21. I know some 21 year olds now, and we should not have been able to decide to get married on our own. I mean, it’s worked out, but yikes.
In 6:22, Solomon imagines a day spent with wisdom, almost like a date. She leads him down a path on a hike, and he falls asleep when they sit down to rest. She watches over him to make sure nothing happens to him while he rests. He wakes up and they talk about God and life and everything. Time passes, they don’t notice. I imagine them laughing together as the light filters through the leaves of the trees. He says in chapter 7, that woman—the honorable one, who actually cares about you enough to watch over you and and hear about your life and your thoughts—she’s the one you want as your wife, in your family, as your close friend. He doesn’t spend a whole lot of time describing wisdom here, he’s going to spend the next two chapters describing a life lived with wisdom like a life lived in a healthy marriage. In this chapter, he is mainly talking about the other woman, death.
He tells a story. A young man knows a woman’s husband is away on business, and he goes walking down her road. And there’s this whole cultural backdrop about the worship of Aphrodite that I’m not going to go into, but for several reasons, she meets him on the road. And just as wisdom led her young man down a path, death leads this fool down a path to her house. They talk, not about God and life, but about desire, unchecked by wisdom, hearts out of balance and misshapen.
Solomon says, you think its just the path to her room, but it’s also a path to Sheol, to death itself. You think no one gets hurt from this—we always tell ourselves that about sex, that it can be no big deal—but in reality you’re killing yourself and your community. He said he watched this married woman leading him down the path like he would watch an ox being led to slaughter, or a deer walk into a hunter’s trap. Solomon imagines the adulteress’s house like a mass grave, saying she’s led more people to death than you can count.
Solomon’s not saying she’s literally going to kill the young man, although he mentions in chapter 6 that her husband might kill him when he finds out. Solomon is thinking of a different kind of death—in many ways a worse kind of death. Theologian William McKane writes of this passage, “There is a living kind of death.” If you continually go in foolish directions, you can be breathing and moving but have nothing life-like about you—you’re just existing, just waiting, just breathing to death.
I know in our culture, people are suspicious of moral claims. You’re not supposed to pass any kind of judgement on others. You’re supposed to keep an open mind. Ethics are supposed to be personal, not shared, part of your quest for identity, you have to decide what’s true for you. It’s an ethic of tolerance, of coexistence, endemic of our culture of polytheistic secularism. That’s not the Christian ethic, though. Tolerance isn’t what the Bible teaches at all.
The Bible teaches, not just tolerance, but love. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And church, we’re not doing well with this right now. We haven’t loved people, we’ve either tolerated their sins or excluded them, but those aren’t the only two options. There is a “more excellent way.” Love is complicated. Love occasionally tells you you’re going down the wrong road, and you need to turn around. There’s only death that way.
Love tries to change people, and isn’t content to leave them in patterns of sin that will eventually kill them. Love occasionally says things like, you need to stop drinking, and why are you with her if she doesn’t want to build a life with you? Why are you following this person down a path if they don’t watch over you, if they don’t want at the core of your relationship those things which are meant to be at the core of our lives—love, wisdom, family, compassion, the Spirit of God?
Love is able to talk about the sin in someone’s life without making them feel ashamed or excluded. “Love is patient and kind.” Love disregards cultural barriers and norms. Love confronts the mistakes a person has made, not to feel superior, but to help genuinely. Love means you’re always on the same team, even if your team is losing, and a mess, and embarrassing itself. Love is quick to admit its own fault and confess its own sin.
Especially between parents and children, like what’s imagined in this passage, there’s this tricky dance where you know you need to teach them how to be in the world, but you don’t want to make them feel like you’re disappointed with them. You want to tell them, both and at the same time, I love you and I’m with you regardless of what you do, and at the same time I want you to do right. I want you to avoid the mistakes I made that caused me so much heartbreak. That kind of love is complicated.
So as your pastor, let me echo Solomon in this passage, and please hear me. I love you, regardless of what you do, what you’ve done, and at the same time, I want you to do right, because there’s only death that way, and I would spare you that. It’s true that we may not all share the same ethics, the same idea of what is right and wrong, but there are some things we all share. All of our hearts share the same deep desires, and all of our hearts break along the same fault lines. Love guards the heart and teaches wisdom.
In my first-ever ministry job, I was working as a roofer for an urban home repair ministry in Memphis called Service Over Self, or SOS. I was a terrible roofer, and was at the same house all Summer, but because of that I got to know my homeowner well. I was assigned to the home of a 98-year-old WWII veteran whose home was in disrepair. Mr. Richards; he was a believer, so in my mind he was my first-ever congregant in a little church of one as we helped him repair his home. At break times, we would sit on the porch with him to talk and pray.
After the war, he stayed in the army for years and travelled the world. He married young—I don’t remember if he had children—but his wife had only just passed two years previous at 96. They had been married for 75 years. I asked him one day, sitting on his front porch, if he could tell me only one thing he learned in all of those years traveling the world, and in 98 years of life, what would he want me to know at my age (I was 19)? He thought for a moment and said, “Everywhere I went, for all those years, every race and country, people are always just people.”
We talked for a while after that about what he meant. He talked about how we may get confused when we’re young, but by the time we’re old we all seem to want the same things—love, family, to be provided. Freedom. Happiness, contentedness. Peace, and some sort of stem to the tide of loss. To really live, and know when you’re old that you’ve lived. Someone to talk to, to love and be loved, someone to mourn you. In his near century of travel, nations at war and at peace, that’s what he noticed.
Our deepest desires are shared—our hearts recognize each other. We disagree on how to go about these things, how to express them, and who is being most genuine, but we all want the same things.
Earlier in this sermon series, we talked about how the ancients believed your soul was in three parts, with your head bearing your intellect and reason, your gut or base bearing your deepest emotions, and your heart holding the deepest parts of both your thoughts and your deepest desires, hopefully in balance. When you get down to the core of a person, whatever surrounds her, whatever happens to her, if you’re talking about the heart, our hearts share the same deep longings, and our hearts break along the same fault lines.
My dear friends, this morning, I love you. Which is why I want to tell you, don’t go down those roads that lead to death. Don’t fool around with ideas and things that will break your heart. They’ve been tried. You’re not going to find a new way, it’s the same road that’s always lead to death.
And more important than my love this morning is the love of Christ, who himself is a husband to a wayward spouse—we, each of us, has gone our own way, and he stands ever ready to redeem us. Christ, who, yes, desires to change you. Living things change always; lifeless things keep the same form. He desires to set you free and to give you life. And in your heart of hearts, don’t you kong to be free? Not just doing whatever you want, but really free? In your heart of hearts, don’t you want to live? Not just breath to death, but live?
Choose wisdom this morning. Choose to walk down roads that lead to life. Choose to shape your heart and life according to the wisdom of the centuries of brothers and sisters who have come before us on this pilgrimage. Choose to follow Christ in his ways.