The other day I was leafing through an old photo album of ours from decades ago. My eye was caught by the picture of a young married couple – not members of our family, nor anything to do with this church. Seeing them from all those years ago triggered my memory and a wave of sadness. The wife in that photo, not so very long afterwards, entered into an adulterous relationship with a married man. They were both professing Christians, and their Christians lives were shipwrecked. Two marriages were destroyed. And the damage was not just to them. The waves of harm went out in all directions.
Adultery is devastating foolishness – so it's wise to be faithful. Don't commit adultery. That's the message of the Bible that we're looking at this morning – but this is adultery and faithfulness in a wider sense than we might first think. We'll come to that.
We're in our series on the early chapters of the Book of Proverbs – chapters 1 to 9. My title is simply: 'Be faithful'. And as you'll see from my outline at the back of the service sheet, the section that we're looking at is all of chapters 5 to 7 except for 6.1-19, which we're going to come back to in a couple of weeks time. You really need to have that open in front of you please.
But to get the most out of this, we need to understand that Proverbs 1 to 9 are all of a piece. They hang together. The rest of the Book of Proverbs from chapter 10 onwards can seem like more of a collection of disparate short proverbs – what we expect proverbs to be like. Chapters 1 – 9 are different. This opening section is like one long teaching session – almost a sermon you could say – from a father to his son. It's all about the wisdom of wisdom and the foolishness of foolishness. Wisdom and folly. Proverbs 1.7 really puts the whole thing in a nutshell. Turn back and look at that:
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction."
Wisdom comes from the Word of God. Folly comes from lies. That's a message that developed and filled out in the New Testament. It's clear that Jesus is our wisdom. Wisdom comes from Jesus as we know him and trust him and follow what he says to us. So in Colossians 2.3, the apostle Paul says:
"… in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."
Wisdom comes from Jesus who is the Word made flesh, and from his word in the Scriptures. And it is through him that we can all find forgiveness for our foolishness. Folly, on the other hand, comes from lies. And Jesus is explicit that lies come from Satan, who is the father of lies. Jesus says (this is John 8.44):
"When [the devil] lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies."
So that gives us a New Testament, Christian perspective on Proverbs 1-9. And that also then helps us to see the two levels of teaching that are going on in chapters 5-7. At first glance, they are about sexual ethics and adultery. And so they are. But adultery is also a picture of wider foolishness, and spiritual adultery against the true and living God. Adultery is a case study in folly. You could say, then, that these chapters are a picture of foolishness using adultery as an example and an illustration.
That's even clearer when we realise that both Wisdom and Folly are spoken of as people in Proverbs 1-9. They are personified. You can see that, for instance, in Proverbs 7.4-5:
"Say to wisdom, 'You are my sister', and call insight your intimate friend, to keep you from the forbidden woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words."
And who is this silver-tongued and seductive adulteress? That's made explicit over in Proverbs 9.13 which says:
"The woman Folly is loud; she is seductive and knows nothing …"
So we need to see these chapters 5-7 as talking about the foolishness of spiritual adultery against God, using physical and sexual adultery as an image of that, and also as a specific example of folly in practice.
Let me mention a bit of detail here that throws more light on those two levels we need to see. If you go back to Proverbs 7.4-5, you'll see if your eyesight is good that there are two footnotes. They're interesting. They relate to the phrase "forbidden woman", and the word "adulteress".
"Say to wisdom, 'You are my sister', and call insight your intimate friend, to keep you from the forbidden woman [footnote], from the adulteress [another footnote] with her smooth words."
What the footnotes tell us is that the phrase "forbidden woman" is more literally "strange woman". And the word "adulteress" is more literally "foreign woman". Now this is not an early example of racism. The point about strangers and foreign women was that they worshipped foreign gods, and if you took up with them they would seduce you away from the true God of Israel and into their idolatry. King Solomon himself is a classic example of that.
Adultery is a common Biblical image for turning away from the true and living God to idols, and to the immorality both sexual and otherwise that flows from it. So, for instance, the prophets Hosea and Ezekiel make much of that image in their teaching.
So that's some of the big picture here. We're not going to be able to look at all the rich detail of our long section. Can I recommend that we take some time for a leisurely reading and meditation on the whole thing, so we can really take its life-giving message to heart.
But I want to give us a framework for that more careful reading – and that's what's there in my three headings that are on the outline. They are: the attraction of foolishness; the danger of foolishness; and the avoidance of foolishness. Because of our two levels, they could equally well have been: the attraction of adultery; the danger of adultery; and the avoidance of adultery. But I've gone for the wider view on the outline. So – a look at each of those in turn.
First, the Attraction of Foolishness
This message about attraction, danger and avoidance is hammered home with vivid imagery and much repetition. Why? Because this is so important for our lives, and because the magnetic seductive power of folly is so strong. We need to be well defended against it. That's what this is doing for us – protecting us.
So the attraction of foolishness is there in the seductive words of Proverbs 5.3:
"For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil."
Folly on the face of it is both easy and pleasant. And then again in Proverbs 6.24b-26, which speaks of …
"… the smooth tongue of the adulteress. Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes; for the price of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread …"
Folly, like adultery, when you're dazzled by it, seems desirable, captivating, and without any significant cost. How wrong – but how attractive.
In Proverbs 7.6-21 there is a graphic seduction scene. The Bible is very graphic at times, when we need it. It ends like this (Proverbs 7.21):
"With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him."
Derek Kidner in his brilliant Tyndale Commentary on Proverbs sums up her tactics:
"First, comes shock treatment; second, a circumstantial story – it is a special day, a celebration; it would be unthinkable to refuse. Third, flattery: he is the very one she had to find; fourth, sensuous appeal; fifth, reassurance. The whole is pressed home with a flood of words."
"She is loud and wayward; … now in the street, now in the market, and at every corner she lies in wait."
Folly is noisy and it's everywhere. Like Vanity Fair in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, it fills our eyes and ears. That's just like our godless culture, isn't it? Foolishness – and adultery – are seductive and attractive. Let's not be under any illusions about that. If we are, we just make ourselves even more vulnerable to her charms.
Secondly, the Danger of Foolishness
Like the attractions, the dangers are repeatedly spelled out. Here's Proverbs 5.4-6:
"… but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol [that is, the land of the dead]; she does not ponder the path of life; her ways wander, and she does not know it."
And there are more vivid images in chapter 6 – here's Proverbs 6.27-29:
"Can a man carry fire next to his chest, and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbour's wife; none who touches her will go unpunished."
And more again in Proverbs 7.22-23, at the end of that graphic seduction scene – image piling on image:
"All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a stag is caught fast till an arrow pierces its liver; as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life."
In the end, the price of godless foolishness is death. "The wages of sin is death," as the apostle Paul says in Romans 6.23. Foolishness and adultery could not be more dangerous.
And it can be so fleeting and momentary. As I was reflecting on this I was reminded again of something that happened to me many years ago. I was seventeen. I had just, on the third attempt, passed my driving test. I was euphoric. I wanted to go for a drive on my own for the first time. I borrowed my parent's (rather powerful) car. I don't remember, but I'm sure my father would have said to me as I went out, "Drive carefully!" But the freedom of the open road taken at speed was so attractive. I wasn't thinking about the dangers. I was on a winding country lane when I realised too late that I was going too fast for the blind corner ahead. I couldn't help but stray across the road into the opposite lane. As I went round the corner almost out of control, I was horrified to see a car coming fast straight towards me. I thought, "I'm going to die." Somehow we passed without colliding. To this day I don't know how. The other car disappeared down the road without stopping. I pulled over, switched off the engine, sat there trembling for several minutes, and gave thanks to God that he had saved me from my foolishness. I learned a lesson that day. Death is always – and all unexpected – just around the corner when we take the road of foolishness, ignoring the dangers. We dare not. We need to learn the lesson before it's too late. So:
Thirdly, the Avoidance of Foolishness
What is the advice here on how not to fall into this deadly trap? Well the first thing is so simple that we might miss it. Listen. Listen not to the insistent clamour of Vanity Fair, but to the warning that's right here. Listen to the voice of our Heavenly Father. Proverbs 5.1-2:
"My son, be attentive to my wisdom; incline your ear to my understanding, that you may keep discretion, and your lips may guard knowledge."
And again from Proverbs 6.20:
"My son, keep your father's commandment, and forsake not your mother's teaching. Bind them on your heart always; tie them around your neck. When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you. For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life."
So we're not just to let this wisdom go in one ear and out the other. It is to be on our hearts, so it's always there when the vital moment comes that we need it, lighting our way in the darkness of temptation.
And again from Proverbs 7.1:
"My son, keep my words and treasure up my commandments with you; keep my commandments and live; keep my teaching as the apple of your eye …"
And you can see the same message repeated elsewhere. So we're told again and again and again and again – because we're so slow to learn. Listen to your dad! He knows what he's talking about. "Drive carefully!" Treasure these words from our heavenly Father. Do we realise how valuable they are?
Then – second piece of advice – steer well clear of where you know the temptation hangs out. Proverbs 5.8:
"Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house …"
Don't put your hand in the fire and expect to be able to take it out before you get burnt. Just don't go near. Don't toy with temptation because it will turn round and bite you.
Then there's a third piece of advice for the avoidance of foolishness. Take delight in the blessings that God has given you. Stick to what he's given you for your good. This is a marvellously positive piece of advice. The more you enjoy the blessings that God has given you, the less you'll be drawn to fake promises of pleasure that are like bait with a hook hidden inside.
So, in the terms of this teaching from a father to a son, if those blessings include a wife, take delight in her for as long as you both shall live. There's this wonderfully earthy and graphic passage on that here in Proverbs 5.15-20 which I'm too embarrassed to read out. But husbands – take it to heart. And wives, you can transpose it into your own terms as you wish. And all of us can take the spiritual lesson from it too. Be faithful. Be faithful to the God who loves you and gave himself for you. Take delight in him. Don't get distracted by dross, however much it glitters.
What then is our Conclusion from all this? It's pretty obvious. Doing it is the work of a lifetime, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Understand the attraction of folly and adultery – and don't be fooled by it. Be very aware of the intense danger that it represents. Practice the principles of avoidance that we can see set out here. Above all listen to the word of Jesus and live it out. Be faithful.
The uncomfortable truth is that none of us always follows this path of wisdom. We all stray into folly of one sort or another. Maybe the folly of adultery. We need to understand that folly does have consequences that we'll have to live with. We also need to be absolutely clear that it's never too late to turn back to Jesus. He is our "wisdom, righteousness and redemption". He went to his death on the cross so that we could escape death and be forgiven our foolish ways and ultimately be free of them. So if you find yourself on a foolish road right now – turn back to Jesus. He is waiting for you. Start afresh on the path of wisdom.
Then we in our turn need to teach the wisdom of faithfulness to the next generation. As our heavenly Father says to us (this is Proverbs 7.1-2):
"My son, keep my words and treasure up my commandments with you; keep my commandments and live; keep my teaching as the apple of your eye …"