30 May 2014

Preaching Proverbs 6 — sex, sex, sex? (#5)

by Dan Phillips

Having figured out what to do with Proverbs 6:1-19, we now turn to the final section, verses 20-35. Looks simple. Is it?

Sex, then sex, then, oh yes, sex? I noticed among a number of commentators the tendency to say Solomon warns against sex in chapters 5, 6 and 7. This is not inaccurate, as far as it goes. Nor can one really assemble much of an objection, right? If he's preparing a young man to enter life on his own, one of the greatest looming traps for men or women, spiritually and morally, is the specter of sexual sin. Many parents regret not spending more time in warning their children; Solomon certainly isn't guilty of that omission. So we can forgive the repetitiveness... if that's what it is.

Is it?

Let me just say this, as a longtime student of Proverbs: many go wrong at just this point. They think something is repetitive or doesn't make sense, so they amend the text or make a curt little critical remark, and then move on. However, I have found it invariably to be the case that if we pay a bit more respect to the wisest man to predate Christ, it pays off. Apparent repetitions are clues, but we have to stop and think rather than snark and hurry on.

Not like the others. And so for instance, even on a lightly thoughtful reading of these sections, they aren't all the same. In chapter 5, Solomon counsels his son to take his teaching to heart as protection from a sexual temptress. The woman envisioned here is not specifically said to be married, and the son is urged to protect himself by (A) taking the teaching/God's Word to heart, and (B) taking joy sexually in a wife of his own. The stress here is preservation by the word and a healthy active marriage.

Then in chapter 6, no spouse is mentioned for the son, but one is for the temptress. Further, protection comes not from marriage, but from the robust and comprehensive excellence of the teaching/God's Word is (vv. 20-23). The ruin envisioned is not quite that of chapter five; it is a jealous husband, as well as the wheels of justice. The stress here is taking the Word to heart, as well as the fear of fierce judgement.

After that, all of chapter 7 is devoted to a long interpretive narrative of one clueless young sap who falls prey (pretty much literally) to a shady lady and her sweet talk. Many previous themes coalesce in this chapter. For instance, we've been warned before of this woman's smooth talking (2:16; 5:3); here in this chapter, we have an actual sample (7:14ff.).

The boy here is not said to be married, and the jealous husband doesn't seem to be a factor (vv. 19-20). What is stressed is the whole process of temptation, and the doom that follows. On reflection, this whole chapter bears many parallels to Genesis 3. Sexual temptation here seems to me to be emblematic for any temptation. The chapter, then, isn't just about sex. It's about temptation. Sex is just the specific.

So our focus now is chapter 6:20-35. This section does stand apart from from vv. 1-19, which we puzzled through before and saw as featuring three progressively-foolish character portraits. Is this trio completely separate from the chapter's end?

What's missing? In thinking it through, I noticed something rather striking. For one thing — well, let me put it as an unfunny riddle. What word is missing from this section that is central to the book's theme and has occurred 15x before this, in every chapter (except 4), including the immediately-preceding section? If you guessed "Yahweh," you'd be right. The Name occurs nearly 90 times in the book, but not once in this section. In fact, some commenters do note that fact, and come to (I believe) the exactly-wrong conclusion: that Yahweh doesn't loom very large to Solomon right here, as opposed to the fear of husbandly jealousy.

Not that Gap Theory, but still... We all know that what is present in the text is important. Sometimes, what is absent from the text is just as important. The phenomenon known as gapping usually applies to single missing words, but the idea can go larger. Perhaps one of the biggest is the ending question of the book of Jonah, and how it is never answered. Read the final words  (4:10-11), to refresh your memory.

Why is Yahweh's question not answered? This gapping of the expected is a device to involve the reader. If you've seen "Frozen" you've seen the sort of setup I'm thinking of at about 1:23 in the song "In Summer." The snowman singer pauses at one word, and every last person in the audience supplies the word "puddle."

I would suggest that Solomon's doing something like that here, and that he's still on the same progression that began the chapter.

First, Solomon spoke of the folly of surety (vv. 1-5). Then in effect, he asked "But do you know what's even dumber than surety? I'll tell you what: being a sluggard (vv. 6-11)!" Having lampooned the hapless layabout, Solomon then said "Ah, but there is something even worse than going surety or being a sluggard. It's making Yahweh your enemy by treating people hatefully (vv. 12-19)!"

So how does adultery follow, if it does? It's interesting. If we grant that it's part of the same progression, it does seem like it could be an anticlimax. Except...

Remember the hinge between the two sections of the third portrait? Verse 15 mentioned judgment but did not name the Judge, verse 16 named the Judge but did not mention judgment? Well then after that we have this section on adultery which ends with judgment but does not once name Yahweh. That's more than strange in a book whose very premise and theme is the centrality of the fear of Yahweh in everything, a book that names Yahweh 87 times in 31 chapters.

So here's what I'm suggesting. Given the progression thus far, I'm wondering whether Solomon did not intend the reader to ask himself one more time, "But is there something even worse than a man committing adultery with a woman? And say... where's Yahweh in this?" He's brought the reader to this point at least twice, if not three times, already. What is worse than surety? Sloth. What is worse than sloth? Antagonizing Yahweh by treating people hatefully. And maybe: what is worse than antagonizing Yahweh by treating people hatefully?

The answer Solomon spells out is adultery with a married woman, but I think something even worse is hinted at, by a species of gapping: adultery against Yahweh.

Precedent? This isn't so far-fetched as it might seem at first blush. Yahweh's relationship with Israel is described as a marriage covenant (Ezekiel 16:8, among others). In this covenant, as Solomon well knew, Yahweh was said to be a jealous God who would allow Israel to have no other gods besides Him (Exodus 20:3, 5). But Israel was not faithful to Yahweh; indeed, in the quaint KJV language they "went a-whoring" after other gods (cf. Exodus 34:14-16; Hosea 1:2). So spiritual apostasy after idols was specifically put in terms of adulterous unfaithfulness to Yahweh.

Ah, that fits. And so, in a book whose premise and theme is that the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (1:7; 9:10), it makes perfect sense for Solomon to build to a climactic case that what the son needs to avoid above all is being unfaithful to Yahweh his God. And in this, we're right at home with NT teaching as well (2 Cor. 11:1-4, 14b).

So: there are many dumb choices we can make, or wise choices we can foolishly refuse to make.

But the worst of all is to turn from Yahweh, the fear of whom is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom... and pretty much everything else.

How I preached it: First, I introduced the whole section, and singled out 6:20-23 in a sermon titled How To Hear God Speak to You. I dwelt on the sufficiency of Scripture, and its role in our lives. In so doing I tackled what terms like law and commandments mean in Proverbs. Then I treated 6:24-35 in Adultery De-Glamorized.

First post: Introduction and Overview:
Second post: Getting Started
Third post: Commentaries
Fourth post: Getting in shape, preaching 6:1-19

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Alex Philip said...

I've been finding all of these posts supremely helpful and edifying. Thanks for posting them. I hadn't noticed the absence of Yahweh in this section before.

jmb said...

"Sex, sex, sex." If Charlie Sheen were the Antichrist.

Michael Coughlin said...

Seriously thought-provoking; thank you.