It seems like nearly every month I hear news of another pastor who has disqualified himself from ministry because of adultery. It’s heartbreaking to hear about, but it can also serve as a warning to all of us. No one wakes up and just decides to sleep with someone who isn’t their spouse. Instead they make hundreds of little decisions, decisions to reject wisdom and pursue foolishness. The book of Proverbs gives us strong warnings about the foolish and destructive path of adultery.
Adultery, the act of engaging in sexual intimacy with someone who is not your spouse, is a violation of God’s plan for marriage. In the Ten Commandments, he states, “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14; Deut. 5:18). Marriage is a covenant between one man and one woman, a commitment to devote oneself to the other. Adultery is violation of that covenant, a betrayal of your spouse, a breaking of marriage vows. It is disobedience to God, and furthermore it dishonors the “marriage bed” (Heb. 13:4). Adultery is particularly devastating because marriage is designed to reflect God’s love for His people, and adultery distorts and perverts that image for selfish reasons.
No one sets out to become an adulterer. They don’t wake up and just randomly decide one morning that they will sleep with someone else today. No, instead they make lots choices that lead them down that path. Various Proverbs warn us of that reality and caution us not to take those first steps which will lead to destruction. Many proverbs start with the warning to get wisdom so that one may know how to avoid the “temptress”. Proverbs chapter 2 tells us that if we are “attentive to wisdom…” and if we “incline [our] hearts to understanding” (v. 2), then we will be “delivered from the forbidden woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words” (v. 16). Chapter 5 starts the same way, inviting a young man to listen to instruction. A father pleads, “be attentive to my wisdom; incline your ear to my understanding” (v. 1). “For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil” (v. 3). Without wisdom the tempting words of the “forbidden woman” will seem persuasive and compelling. But to follow her, to pursue adultery, would mean regret and destruction, as the Proverb continues:
And now, O sons, listen to me, and do not depart from the words of my mouth. Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house, lest you give your honor to others and your years to the merciless, lest strangers take their fill of your strength,
and your labors go to the house of a foreigner, and at the end of your life you groan,
when your flesh and body are consumed, and you say, “How I hated discipline,
and my heart despised reproof! I did not listen to the voice of my teachers or incline my ear to my instructors. I am at the brink of utter ruin in the assembled congregation.” (v. 7-14)
If only the young man had listened to wisdom. If he had said to wisdom, “you are my sister” (7:4), then he could have been “kept from the forbidden woman” (v. 5).
One of the major themes developed regarding adultery in Proverbs is its deceptiveness. The hundreds of little choices men and women make prior to an actual act of intercourse seem harmless. They convince themselves that these little decisions are “no big deal.” A little texting, a few Facebook messages, a harmless meet-up. “We’re just friends.” Eventually things go to far, but a person is aware long before then that they are making decisions that will lead to that point. They don’t stop. They are self-deceived. The Proverbs warn us about the deceptive nature of adultery.
Adultery looks inviting. The “temptress” has compelling words, and an inviting speech. She is reassuring, “it’s no big deal.” “We’re just talking.” “Nothing is going to happen.” “You can leave whenever you want.” He lips “drip honey” and her words are “smoother than oil,” but there is a hidden bite to her. We read:
For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, 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; she does not ponder the path of life; her ways wander, and she does not know it.(5:3-6)
The adulteress is deceptive. She baits you with one something attractive and compelling, but once you bite there is a hook beneath. She “flatters with her words” (2:16; 7:5), but it is a trick. In the end the invitation to her house is an invitation to the grave (7:27).
While the emphasis of these passages tends to be on the “temptress” or the “forbidden woman,” I am inclined to believe that she is just the personification of adultery. Elicit sexual relationships are not the fault of tempting women, they are the fault of fallen hearts (both men and women). The passages are a warning, not to stay away from women per se, but to avoid the temptation to adultery in particular.
The theme continues to develop a realistic picture of adultery. In particular the Proverbs are bold in their description of the destructive outcome of violating your marriage. Adultery leads to chaos, ruin, devastation, and death. The word choices are intentionally strong, if a bit poetic. On the front end of an affair, or during an illicit sexual relationship, men and women only see the excitement of the moment. The Proverbs warn us to look down the road at all this one moment will cost. So, chapter 7 reveals that adultery has destroyed many and led “throngs” to their death. We read:
And now, O sons, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of my mouth. Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths, for many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng. Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death. (24-27)
The death may not be literally, but adultery is a tearing apart of the “one flesh” union of a husband and wife (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:8; Eph. 5:31). It is like a death, and the outcome of such relationships bring death to a certain way of life. Adultery leads to chaos, pain, and destruction. The mouth of the adulterous woman is called “a deep pit” (22:14), and she is said to “lie in wait like a robber” (23:28). To fall into an adulterous relationship is to fall into a bottomless pit. Toying around with adultery is like carrying “hot coals” in your lap and expecting not to get burned (6:27-28).
In perhaps one of the most pointed passages about the destructive nature of adultery, Proverbs 6 warns us:
He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself. He will get wounds and dishonor, and his disgrace will not be wiped away. (6:32-33)
The person who commits adultery “destroys himself.” Adultery leads to wounds, to dishonor, and to a disgrace that “will not be wiped away.” Adultery can certainly be forgiven, both by God and, over time, by betrayed spouses. Yet, the violation of trust in earthly relationships is immensely difficult to recovery, and there is a sense in which distrust may linger for a long time. The Proverbs are by nature hyperbolic, they often exaggerate for effect, but if the disgrace of adultery is not absolutely permanent in every case, it certainly lingers for a long time. In some cases, the relational trust is so damage that it can never be recovered and divorce is the only result; God grants such gracious permission to victims of covenant betrayals (Matt. 19:9).
Adultery destroys lives, families, and marriages. Ultimately, however, adultery distorts the gospel. If marriage is intended, as Paul tells us, to reflect the mystery of Christ’s love for the church (Eph. 5:31-32), then adultery lies about what Christ’s love is like. Adultery tells us that God’s love is not that important, that it can be traded in for momentary pleasure, that we can serve whatever God we want whenever it most suits us. Adultery lies about Jesus, the gospel, love, and the Covenant keeping God of Scripture. In fact, the book of Hosea in the Old Testament depicts spiritual adultery in all its ugliness, but it is in the New Testament that we see the connection to the gospel. Adultery has many disastrous implications, but one that we ought to take seriously is the way in which it distorts the gospel message.
Throughout the Proverbs adultery is depicted as foolish and dangerous. The wise steer clear of this temptation and warn themselves of the outcome of such affairs. Perhaps pastors, along with all Christians, need to read through the book of Proverbs more often.