20 Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
21 At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
23 Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
24 Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
25 and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
26 I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
27 when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
29 Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
30 would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.
32 For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
33 but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”
This is a picture of my son, Grady, when he was seven years old, in Princeton New Jersey, with his first “real Bible” — an old King James Version that had been given to me when I was a boy. I gave it to him because he was outgrowing all the kids Bibles and picture Bibles we had given him before that. Most of them were abridged versions which left out a lot of parts, and he always had a million questions (still does!) that I was getting tired of answering.
So I gave him his first full-length, complete unabridged Bible. As an English major, I figured the older, poetic language of the King James Version would slow him down some and help him build up his vocabulary. And it did. It couldn’t have been more than five minutes after I gave him that Bible that he came back out of his room, Bible in hand, and looked up into my eyes with all the curiosity that a seven-year-old kid can muster, and said to me, “Dad…what’s a Harlot?”
What’s a harlot! He must have flipped that King James Bible open right to the book of Proverbs, which is pretty close to the middle of the book. Harlot is the old Elizabethan word used by the KJV to translate the Hebrew word זָנָה (zanah) which appears in Proverbs 6, 7, 23, and 29. Some modern translations render this word “loose woman.” She is a recurring figure throughout the book, also sometimes called זוּר (zoor) which means “strange woman” in Proverbs 2, 5, 6, 7, 11, 14, 20, 22, 23, and 27.
The first time she shows up is in Proverbs chapter 2, as “the loose woman . . . the adulteress with her smooth words, who forsakes the partner of her youth and forgets her sacred covenant . . . her way leads down to death, and her paths to the shades; those who go to her never come back, nor do they regain the paths of life.”
In chapter five, her lips “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 keep straight to the path of life; her ways wander, and she does not know it.”
In chapter seven, the entire chapter is devoted to warning about her. I won’t read the whole thing, but here are some juicy excerpts:
“For at the window of my house I looked out through my lattice, and I saw . . . a young man without 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. Then a woman comes toward him . . . now in the street, now in the squares, and at every corner she lies in wait. She seizes him and kisses him, and with impudent face she says to him . . . Come, let us take our fill of love until morning . . . For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey.”
“Right away he follows her, and goes like an ox to the slaughter . . . He is like a bird rushing into a snare, not knowing that it will cost him his life. And now, my children, listen to me . . . Do not let your hearts turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths. For many are those she has laid low, and numerous are her victims. Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.”
Did I mention today’s sermon is PG-13?
In 1975 (the year I was born) the classic rock band Aerosmith released their hit song “Walk This Way.” No, I wasn’t listening to Aerosmith then, but in 1986, they re-released the song along with the rap group Run DMC, and if you were a kid in the 80’s you couldn’t have avoided the song if you tried. I’m not sure I quite understood all the lyrics back then (which is a really good thing) but the song is basically about a young man who is seduced by various loose women, each verse culminating in her suggestive appeal for him to “walk this way, walk this way.”
Steve Tyler and Joe Perry swear that they came up with song after watching the Mel Brooks film “Young Frankenstein,” but I’m convinced this isn’t true. It would have completely ruined their rock-star reputation to say, “Yeah, we were doing a Bible study one day and reading the book of Proverbs…” And yet their imagery, their subject matter, even words of the chorus, “walk this way” seem to leap right out of the pages of the book of Proverbs.
Since they so obviously borrowed their title form Proverbs, I decided to borrow it back for the title of this sermon series. I really believe that the key to understanding Proverbs is understanding the woman who stands “in the squares, and at every corner” calling out “Walk This Way.”
But here’s where Aerosmith, and even most Christian interpretations of Proverbs, get it wrong: The Aerosmith song is clearly about sex, lust, and adultery (not surprising for a hit rock song from the seventies). On the surface, so is Proverbs. On the surface.
Here’s the thing–Proverbs cannot be about sex, lust, and adultery. Why not? Because (if you remember our introduction last week) Proverbs is attributed to King Solomon. Even if he didn’t actually write it, it was associated with him, with his teaching, and with all of the values that he represented in the minds of the ancient Israelites.
King Solomon is the one who, according to 1 Kings chapter 11, had 700 wives and 300 concubines. A concubine is a woman you sleep with who is not your wife. In other words, for King Solomon, there was no such thing as a “strange woman” — Every woman he met was “familiar” to him! And although the Bible condemns this aspect of Solomon’s life, he never changed or repented right up to the end of his life.
So it would make no sense for Solomon to advise anyone against sex, lust, or adultery, or for that kind of advice to be collected under his name. Unless, of course, the “loose woman” is not an actual woman…but a metaphor. A symbol representing something else entirely. I think we can know this is the case when we read Proverbs closely, and when we realize that there are actually TWO women, both metaphorical, standing in the squares, and at every corner calling out “Walk This Way.”
Enter our scripture passage today (finally). In verse 20, we read that “20 Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares SHE raises her voice. At the busiest corner SHE cries out; at the entrance of the city gates SHE speaks.” In Proverbs, Wisdom is personified with the attributes of a woman. Her opposite, her counterpart, is the strange woman, the harlot, the loose woman who has one other name I haven’t mentioned yet. Listen here for the obvious metaphor in Proverbs 9 (NIV):
“Folly is an unruly woman; she is simple and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house . . .calling out to those who pass by, “Let all who are simple come to my house!” (Walk this way).
Lady folly is the opposite of Lady Wisdom. Foolishness is the opposite of wisdom. Foolishness is seductive, easy, and ultimately deadly. Wisdom is beautiful, life-giving, and a lot harder to hear, harder to follow.
“Because I have called and you refused,” Wisdom says, beginning in verse 24, “because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.”
Panic, calamity, distress, and anguish. Eventually, these come into every life. And it is precisely in times of panic, calamity, distress, and anguish that we need wisdom most. But if we have not sought her out–if we have been spending our time in foolish pursuits instead, then we read that
“They will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.”
In Proverbs there is no middle ground. If you don’t love wisdom, you hate it. Verse 29: “Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord . . . therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices.”
Proverbs is the Karma of the Bible: You get what’s coming to you, one way or another. But then after ten straight verses of dire warning, there is a promise, too, in the last verse: “Those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey this week, I think it’s important to read that last verse very closely. Proverbs doesn’t promise a life without disaster. It promises a life without DREAD of disaster. The wise, those who have diligently prepared for disaster, those who have put the things of this world in proper perspective…they will still be secure; they will still live at ease; they will not live in fear of whatever the future holds in store.
Those who listen. Those who study. Those who prepare. Those who shun foolish pursuits; who pursue knowledge and wisdom in the community of God’s people.