A Matter of Life and Death

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the January 17, 2015 Sabbath School Lesson


“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Matthew 5:31-32, NIV

Our lesson this week from Proverbs 6-7, takes up the issue of adultery. Sexual sins are perhaps the most difficult sins for the Christian community to address. Even Matthew found Christ’s saying regarding adultery a very hard one. It may be the same for us. In various discussions of sexuality, sin and grace that I have participated in over the decades, many have expressed that it is harder to forgive a sexual sin than one involving money or even physical violence. Recently this has taken on added import when we consider those who are now listed as sexual offenders with the legal system. Can we safely admit these individuals into fellowship? Is it possible for a sexual offender to become a “new creature” under Christ, transformed by His grace? As a church, we continue to struggle with this.

These are questions that might never have been necessary if the individual had been endowed with the wisdom of Proverbs and simply not have gone into that sexual area in the first place. But then isn’t that the case for every sin? Yet, we all have gone there. None of us is free from sin.[i] It would appear from the Bible, not only are we all sinners, but we are all equally guilty of adultery, as well as every other act of sin, sexual and otherwise.[ii] Perhaps this is why Jesus could so readily say that only a person who is without sin could cast the first stone of condemnation at someone else.[iii] He knew who and what we are better than we know ourselves.[iv]

Today there often seems to be little left to the imagination when it comes to sexuality. Even though western society has determined that the legal age for sexual consent comes during the latter portion of the teen years, we nonetheless often encourage gender specific enhancement of sexual expression during the pre-teen years, even in some extreme cases involving toddlers in the marketing of sexuality. In a recent trip to a major retailer, I was surprised to see how sexualized some clothing lines had become for those barely out of infancy. Somehow cute has, for some, been displaced by a necessity to be sexually precocious. Whether through music videos, movies, television programming, or even by the merchandise and clothing lines marketed by retailers, the message is very clear that sex is desirable and fun, without even so much as lip service to the legality of underage sex. When this message is so pervasive, the pressure we and our peers face while growing up to engage in sexual activity is enormous. When I was growing up in the sixties, we saw the beginning of all of this in the so-called “Sexual Revolution.” Sexual activity was sometimes considered an essential part of “sticking it to the man” and the conservative mores of the previous generation. Not being raised in a Christian home, my understanding was left to be shaped by what was happening on the street during this sexually turbulent era. In consequence, I became involved in liaisons that were neither healthy for me or my partners. I can only speculate on whether or not the wisdom from this week’s lesson in Proverbs would have helped. Hindsight is always 20/20.

It is interesting that the author of this section of Proverbs seems to place the liability for much of the problem of adultery on the woman. But that may be illusory, for it also is apparent from the text that the man goes in search of the liaison as well, for he finds himself on her street and at her door.[v] No one compelled him to go in search of the woman. It is an old story, as old as the Bible. Many more modern authors, like Guy de Maupassant, have built entire careers detailing the ins and outs of these sexual pursuits, often with rather dire outcomes. What begins as a casual glance at a chance meeting becomes a flirtation. The flirtation then becomes an assignation, which in turn becomes a liaison, and then blossoms into an affair. Interestingly, the Bible does not condemn this process, provided it is carried on by eligible parties who will eventually be married, or who are already married to each other. However, the problem comes when one or more of the parties is not eligible but is still engaged in the process. There are those men and women who, even though long married, still seek to take up the beginning of the process by turning every casual glance from the opposite sex into an opportunity for flirtation. It can be a hard habit for them to break. After all, when sexuality is promoted at such an early age, the habits are well ingrained. Perhaps they may even be addicted to the hormonal rush that comes when such flirtations are returned. It may be very difficult to stem that tide of hormones once it begins to rise.

Proverbs seems to acknowledge the hormonal exigencies of our sexual natures. The author goes so far as to say it is better to pay the price of a prostitute to meet those overwhelming urges than to travel the path to adultery and death.[vi] This has often been a justification for the whole brothel system, based on men’s inability to control their urges and the brothel’s willingness to “sacrifice” in order to contribute to the health and good order of society. However, it is highly suspect that brothels have any such effect as adulterous liaisons, rapes, and other sexual crimes did not disappear in cities with brothels. In fact, if this logic were to hold true then those individuals with girlfriends or who are married would not be rapists. This, in fact, has not proven to be true.[vii] In some instances, the commercializing of sex may have even resulted in a greater expectation of sexual promiscuity on the part of those women not in the sex trade. While this bit of Proverbs may or may not have been good counsel back then, it is certainly suspect today with sexually transmitted diseases that are not only common, but can plague the participants’ health for the rest of their lives. Death may just as truly dwell at the prostitute’s door now as at the door of the adulterer, only perhaps in a less immediate fashion than what may be brought by a vengeful spouse.

Perhaps an aspect of these verses in Proverbs that might be considered sexist, today, is the author’s caricature of the sexually aggressive woman. To be fair, as has been previously mentioned, he has not left the man without blame either, but far more text is dedicated to the woman’s extensive preparations to “ensnare” the unwary male. Perhaps this is an offhand reference to a woman’s hormonal urges as well, but it may also be a perpetuation of the myth that a male is helpless against a woman’s wiles once exposed to them. However, these facile stereotypes ignore the far more complex interactions that take place. For instance, if we consider the case of David and Bathsheba,[viii] we can see that things are not as black and white in these adulterous interactions as the author paints them.

Bathsheba, a married woman, was taking a bath on her roof in view of the palace. David, a married man, while walking on the palace parapet, saw her. He then sent for her and the affair began. Was Bathsheba an adulterous woman setting a snare for the King by bathing in a provocative manner in full view of the palace? Did she know that David was accustomed to walk at that time each day? Opinions may be divided on this. Apparently Matthew, the gospel writer, was still so convinced that she was the evil party many centuries later that he even refused to mention her by name, instead only making reference to the adultery.[ix] After all, how could we reconcile a man “after God’s own heart,”[x] with willing adultery? But in spite of the temptation he may have felt when viewing her as she made her toilette, he chose to bring her to the palace where things progressed to sexual intimacy and a resulting pregnancy. Perhaps the writer in Proverbs considered this well-known sexual liaison while writing what he did. Perhaps he, along with Matthew, felt that the bulk of the blame was with Bathsheba.

In any event, God’s use of the whole affair is illuminating and is perhaps echoed in Jesus’ handling of the woman accused of adultery that John wrote about. Surprisingly for those who tend to see everything in black and white, either right or wrong, with no shades of gray, God chose to bring forth the line that would give us Jesus, the Messiah, through David and Bathsheba. This was in spite of the fact that among David’s wives were undoubtedly some who were not guilty of so grievous an error. The example of wise and faithful Abigail comes to mind. She bore him a son, Kileab.[xi] Perhaps the lesson in this is that when we read Proverbs, we need to do so with a heart of grace and not one of condemnation of those who fail to follow the advice contained therein. While there may appear to us to be a right path and a wrong path, God’s grace can overrule and change hearts in spite of bad choices, even those deliberately made.


[i] Romans 3:10, 23

[ii] James 2:10

[iii] John 8:1-11

[iv] John 2:23-25

[v] Proverbs 7:8-9

[vi] Proverbs 6:26

[vii] "Legal Prostitution, Pros and Cons." http://prostitution.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=000122

[viii] 2 Samuel 11:1-12:25

[ix] Matthew 1:6

[x] Acts 13:22

[xi] 2 Samuel 3:2



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