Can a man carry fire next to his chest
and his clothes not be burned?
The sage again counsels us about our sexuality. Why? Why does it matter that much to God? He’s way up there, we’re way down here. How much difference can our lives make to him? Augustine asked God,
What am I to you that you command me to love you, and that, if I fail to love you, you are angry with me and threaten me with vast miseries?
Especially in our manhood and womanhood, such an earthy aspect of our lives, why does God care so much?
Our sexuality sure matters to us, even intuitively. For example, you’re walking down the street, maybe going to the post office, and you happen to notice someone out of the corner of your eye, what is it about that person you notice first? Isn’t it whether that person is a man or a woman? And if you can’t tell, don’t you take a second look? Or you meet someone with a newborn baby, and you ask, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Sexual identity matters to us. We know that our manhood or womanhood means something, it’s worth something, it says something about us, something glorious. Think of all the songs and novels and poems and movies about romance. All of this matters to us, and it matters to God too.
Here’s why – and this anticipates the conclusion to the sermon. The gospel reveals something we never would have known. We are men and women playing out this drama of human romance over and over again because of who God is. Romance is not an evolution-generated mechanism for the survival of the human species. Romance came from God. Romance reveals God. Ultimate reality is not cold, dark, blank space out there going on forever with no meaning or message. Ultimate reality is romance. God loves us, and not with a platonic love but with a romantic love. God loves us not with chilly indifference but with hot passion. The gospel reveals, that’s who God is. It means many things. For starters, it means marriage is not just another mutation in human social development. Marriage is a divine creation, pointing to something beyond us. A man and woman falling in love, committing themselves with lifelong vows of faithfulness, uniting sexually, living life together “till death us do part” – it is all pointing to the mega-romance of Christ and the church in love forever. A man and a woman in love display the ultimate story of the Son of God coming down to win to his heart, with great suffering, a bride from the wrong side of town. God created the universe for the purpose of telling that love story. More than any other reason, that is why our sexuality matters, whether married or single. Just being a man is a gospel privilege, and just being a woman is a gospel privilege. What we are is about the gospel. That’s why we need to learn gospel sexuality.
In Proverbs 6:20-7:27 the sage counsels his son about this massively significant area of life. The counsel is addressed to a son but applies equally to women. There are two major sections. In 6:20-35 the father warns us about the consequences of sexual folly. In 7:1-27 the father warns us about the strategies of sexual temptation. We will look at each section, and then we’ll turn to the New Testament to see the ultimate relevance to us today – where we all can go for the love we crave.
The consequences of sexual folly
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,
but a married woman hunts down a precious life.
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 neighbor’s wife;
none who touches her will go unpunished.
Basically, verses 20-35 make one point – the high price of committing adultery. We need to be told, and we need to take it to heart: “Bind [this teaching] on your heart always” (verse 21). How then does wisdom counsel us, when we men notice a beautiful woman who is not our wife? Wisdom says, Don’t even go there in your thoughts: “Do not desire her beauty in your heart” (verse 25). When a wise man sees a beautiful woman who is not his wife, here is how he thinks: “She’s beautiful. So? Nothing to do with me. Beautiful and irrelevant. I am so outta here mentally.” And that wise man keeps going straight on ahead, for Christ, into a destiny of greatness. But a fool doesn’t even have those categories.
If only evil were always ugly, life would be simpler. If only everything were color-coded to make it obvious, if only there were warning labels on all the poisons. But in this world, disaster can be attractive. “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). He is magnificent. But does that magnificent person know how to build a relationship? He seems so successful, but does he know how to live? He’s a fool, and he wants us to be fools stepping on his well-placed land mines.
The whole argument here is real-life consequences. It isn’t primarily an ethical argument. It isn’t primarily a right-versus-wrong argument. It’s a practical argument. If this were an ethical argument, it might arouse in us an nit-picky response about how far we can go before we cross a line into sin. Instead, the sage helps us get to the point. He tells us two things about the practical consequences of sexual folly.
One, the pain experienced is inevitable: “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned?” (verse 27). People who play with fire inevitably get burned. Fire can only burn. I have never heard anyone say to me, “Pastor, I committed adultery, and I’m so glad I did. My whole life has gotten better. That was the best decision I ever made.” I have heard people say, “If only I could relive that moment! If only I could go back and change what I did!” The pain is inevitable.
Two, the offense committed is unsatisfiable: “Jealousy makes a man furious, and he will not spare when he takes revenge” (verse 34). That is a realistic look at how an offended husband reacts when he finds out someone has had sex with his wife. If you are the offending man, do not expect forgiveness; expect revenge. A friend in Dallas told me of a man in that city, a wealthy man, who committed adultery. The husband was furious, just as the Bible says. He told that man, “I’m going to kill you.” So that wealthy man turned his home into a prison, with a big fence all around and floodlights on his grounds at night and guard dogs. Realistically, an offended husband will not spare, because adultery attacks his home, his marriage, his honor, his manhood. If a man steals money to keep from starving, it’s wrong but understandable (verse 30). But if a man steals another man’s wife, if he sneaks into another man’s personal sexual world, the Bible says his disgrace will not be wiped away (verse 33). Even if that man repents and is restored to God through Christ, a footnote in the family history will be, “Grandpa was the one who committed adultery.”
That is the truth about sexual sin. It matters. It matters to God, and it matters to us. But is that the warning we hear from TV and the internet and movies and magazines? No one but God levels with us. Several years ago a businessman was sent out of town by his company. The first night in the other city he phoned for a call girl. She came to his hotel room and knocked on the door. He opened the door, and there was his daughter. He immediately began having chest pains with an apparent heart attack. Sexual folly carries consequences that are inevitable and unsatisfiable. That’s real. So we can praise God for being honest with us. He wants to help us walk in wisdom through the brothel of our modern world. And because every one of us is a sexual sinner at some level, here is how you can know right now where you stand with God:
The difference between an unconverted man and a converted man is not that one has sins and the other has none; but that the one takes part with his cherished sins against a dreaded God, and the other takes part with a reconciled God against his hated sins.
God wants to be your ally against your sins. Will you let him? Bring your sins to him and lay them at the foot of the cross. He promises to take them away from you freely and forever.
The strategies of sexual temptation
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;
bind them on your fingers;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
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.
This is Old Testament language for what the New Testament calls being born again of the Holy Spirit (John 3:1-9). Something deep inside us changes. We start treasuring God’s commands from the heart. We experience the gospel as an intimate friend. We’re not geniuses. We’re just saying to God’s wisdom, “I want you more than any woman or man.” Here’s why we all need God to give us new hearts like that. Look at the kind of world we’re living in:
For at the window of my house
I have looked out through my lattice,
and I have seen among the simple,
I have perceived among the youths,
a young man lacking sense,
passing along the street near her corner,
taking the road to her house
in the twilight, in the evening,
at the time of night and darkness.
The father saw something. He wants his teenage son to see it too, so he can walk into adulthood fully aware. The father tells us three things about the strategies of sexual temptation: the approach of temptation (verses 6-13), the speech of temptation (verses 14-20), and the impact of giving in to temptation (verses 21-27).
Who is involved? The guy, in this case, is one of “the simple.” We have seen the simple before (Proverbs 1:4, 22). A simple person, a petî – related to the Hebrew verb meaning “to be open” – this person is keeping his options open, he is stand-off-ish, uncommitted, still “exploring life,” we might say. So this particular simpleton is feeling restless early one evening and takes a walk. He’s curious. He’s heard about a certain part of town – or certain sites on the internet. So there he is, probably thinking, “I can handle this. I’m strong. And I need to see these things for myself anyway.”
And behold, the woman meets him,
dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart.
She is loud and wayward;
her feet do not stay at home;
now in the street, now in the market,
and at every corner she lies in wait.
“Wily of heart” means, literally, “guarded of heart.” She is unguarded in her dress, revealing much. But she is guarded in her heart, revealing nothing. There are men and women who do not know what a relationship is. They have never experienced it. They can role-play a relationship, but they do not give their hearts away. Sex they give, but themselves they guard. This poor guy has no idea what he’s walking into.
She seizes him and kisses him,
and with bold face she says to him,
“I had to offer sacrifices,
and today I have paid my vows;
so now I have come out to meet you,
to seek you eagerly, and I have found you.”
Back in these times, religious sacrifices could include a meal from the meat of the animal sacrificed. Eating meat was a luxury anyway. So here the woman is saying, “Not only am I caught up on my religion, but I also have a feast of extra-special food waiting at home. It’s a special occasion, like Prom Night or Mardi Gras. Come on, everybody needs a break. And you’re the one I want to share all this with.”
“I have spread my couch with coverings,
colored linens from Egyptian linen;
I have perfumed my bed with myrrh,
aloes, and cinnamon.”
Only the rich owned furniture in their homes back in this world. So this guy thinks he’s hitting the jackpot. A beautiful woman, a great feast, a luxurious setting, exotic experiences are all just waiting for him.
“Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;
let us delight ourselves with love.”
The Hebrew could be paraphrased and expanded, “Come, let’s saturate ourselves with love-making in all its forms, let’s enjoy ourselves with every act, all night long, slowly passing the night, no hurry.” But as one commentator points out,
To have a full sexual relationship with somebody is to give physical expression to what is meant to be a covenanted relationship – that is, stable, faithful, permanent. To say physically, “I am giving myself to you,” while emotionally and spiritually holding back from covenanted commitment is in fact to live a lie – a split in the personality which is ultimately stressful and destructive.
“For my husband is not at home;
he has gone on a long journey;
he took a bag of money with him;
at full moon he will come home.”
“Nobody will ever know.” But if she’s willing to betray her husband, why does Mr. Dimwit think she’ll be fair to him? The offer of sin-with-no-regret is how Satan lied to us in the Garden of Eden. When (not if) a man or woman tempts you with the assurance that no one will ever know, that person is really saying to you, “God does not exist.”
But this young man, on an impulse, falls for this strong temptation. And the Bible compares him to a dumb ox led to the slaughter (verse 22), because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). It just is. And by the time this young man feels the impact, it will be too late. But he’s not the only one. History is like a battlefield, with casualties of sexual folly lying everywhere: “Many a victim she has laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng” (verse 26). It is no accident that Babylon’s most important female deity, Ishtar, was the goddess of love and war, because in this world of folly, sex and violence have long gone together. In our modern world, studies now show that pornography rewires our brains with addictive power, taking us prisoner. But we can be wired back for intimacy with God and real relationships with others through God’s redeeming love.
It’s not enough for us to know how foolish we’ve been. We also need to know how good it is really to be loved. Maybe you’ve noticed that something is missing from our entire passage here in Proverbs. The word “God” appears nowhere in the text. Elsewhere in the Bible we find out how good it is to be loved by God:
Where to find the love we long for
Do you not know that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. —1 Corinthians 6:15-17
That helps. The concept of “accepting Jesus” is biblical (John 1:12) but misunderstood. Here in the Bible Belt, people need to be saved from their salvation and come to Jesus. So many people have “accepted Jesus” in the sense that they’ve allowed him into their lives to some degree, up to a point. But this passage shows us more. Becoming a Christian is the joining of two into one. It is trust and surrender such that we give ourselves entirely to Christ, like sexual union. But if all you’ve done is “accept Jesus” on your terms so that you retain control of your life, you have only flirted with Christ, and you need to go all the way. Then you will feel loved.
Here’s what it means to be a Christian. You become joined to the Lord Jesus Christ in body and spirit. He gives himself to you completely, and you give yourself to him completely. The members of your body, your very organs, are so indwelt by the living Christ that you are his physical presence in the world today. From head to toe, all that you are, is not only for Christ but also of Christ. That includes your sexuality, married or single, because you are married – to Christ. You have been joined by grace to the Lord. You have been brought into union with the most loving Person in the universe. He is giving his love to you with all his passionate heart. He is so close to you, he identifies so intensely with you, the Bible is saying he and you have become one spirit, the way a married man and woman become one flesh. But to be one spirit is more profound, more intimate, deeper and richer than to be one flesh. And Paul wrote this to sinful Christians. Throughout the New Testament this Corinthian church was the biggest mess of all. But Christ loves and redeems people no one else can love. He loves you to this full extent.
Believe it. Receive it. Open your heart and rejoice in him today.