Temptation of Beauty
Dr Tim Keller
Now, in Hebrew poetry your cistern and your well were an image of female sexuality. You have to go into the cistern; you have to go down into the well in order to get the water. On the other hand, the writer says in 5:18, “May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.” This isn’t water that you go down in to get, this is water that spurts out, and it’s a very vivid image of male sexuality. In 5:19 you again see how erotic this is when it says “may [your wife's] breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love.” – the word captivated is a word that literally means to stagger because you’re drunk. However, Proverbs 5:16 makes a very strong statement, “Should your springs overflow in the streets, your streams of water in the public squares?” This is talking about male sexuality. He’s saying that you don’t just put it out there; casual sex is out and sex with people outside of marriage is out.
This is an incredibly positive view of sexuality. This is barefaced rejoicing in sexual pleasure. And there isn’t the tiniest bit of prudishness at all. In fact, verse 18 is asking for a divine blessing on the fountain. There’s a joy about it. Not only is it an incredibly high view of sexuality, it’s an incredibly high view of marriage itself.
In that time, and still in parts of this world today, the primary reason to marry was to secure the best economic and social status possible. The second reason was fertility, to have children. In any culture in those days nobody got married for love. If you wanted romantic love you got it somewhere else. Nobody got married for companionship or for friendship. And yet the book of Proverbs says that you’re supposed to be crazy in love, intoxicated with your spouse. If your wife is someone you’re crazy in love with and is your very best friend, it implies and entails equality.
Here’s the book of Proverbs, written at a time when not a culture on earth thought that women were equal to men, talking about romance, saying that you need to be in love with your wife and that she has to be your absolute best friend. This is the loftiest view of marriage and sexuality that’s possible.
Contrast this with another view: “18 There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: 19 the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden. 20 This is the way of an adulteress: She eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’” (Proverbs 30:18-20) It’s quite a beautiful poem. Sex is likened to soaring, to sailing, to propulsion, but the most beauteous and wondrous of all is simply the act of human sex, a man with a maiden. Suddenly verse 20 is totally jarring, and it’s meant to be; it’s a didactic device. Here we don’t have sexuality likened to soaring or sailing, but to sloppy eating.
Sex is appetite, sex is consumption, sex is routine. The person’s attitude is “Well, sex is just an appetite, hey, what’s the big deal? I feel hungry, I eat, I feel sexy, I have sex. What’s the big deal?” No wonder, sex is consumption. For the last thirty years, sociologists have talked about something called “commodification”. The following definition is from a glossary of sociological terms – “Commodification is a process by which social relations are reduced to economic exchange relations.” An economic exchange relationship is a consumer/vendor relationship. A consumer only stays in a relationship with a vendor if the product is available at a cost that’s acceptable. For example, you might go to your grocery store where you might know the grocers and they might know you. You say hi, they get to know you personally and that’s nice. But if the produce goes down in quality or if the prices go up too high (in other words if the product is not coming to you at an acceptable cost) you’re out of there. It’s nice to know them, but you have a consumer relationship with them, which means you’re there for the product and not the person. And your needs and your rights are more important than the relationship. This is an exchange relationship; it’s a consumer relationship.
Throughout history social relationships were not run on the same basis. They were not consumerbased. Social relations were commitment-based. Your relationships with your neighbors, your friends, your family, your children, your spouse, would be commitment-based relationships. Why? In a social relationship that’s commitment-based the relationship is an end in itself. You stay in the relationship whether it’s meeting your individual needs or not. And even though that can be costly at times, all cultures have understood that a life filled with only consumer relationships is a lonely life and a life filled with commitment relationships is the most fulfilling, rich and happy life possible.
However, what observers have been noticing about our modern culture for the last several years is that the market model of commodification has gained ascendancy. Many people in our society are now applying the model of the market to relationships; almost all of our relationships now are consumer-based rather than commitment based. To some degree (in some cases to a complete degree) even our relationships with our family are consumer-based. That is, we are in them as long as they are meeting our needs and then we’re out of there. It’s the product and not the person that matters.
The Bible says this: you should never “commodify” sex; you should never abstract sex from the whole person. You must never give somebody your sexuality, your body, without giving them your whole self. And you must never receive sexuality, someone’s body, unless you receive their whole self. You must not abstract the product from the person. You must not commodify sex.
What do I mean by “receive the whole person?” You need to be married, that’s what the Bible says. If you’re not married, if you’re having sex with somebody but you’re not married, then you’ve held onto your life. You’re still in control of your life. You’re not sharing control of your money, you’re not sharing control of your space and you’re not sharing control of yourself. You have the right over your own decisions. And not only have you not given yourself if you’re not married, but you haven’t received the other person. You’re receiving the other person’s sex, but not all their problems, all their flaws, all their needs. You haven’t sworn to make them your responsibility.
In other words, when you have sex outside of marriage it’s an exchange of products, not an exchange of selves. You’re saying, “I want the pleasure, I want the product, but I don’t want you.” It’s sex as groceries, sex as consumption, sex as commodity. According to the Bible, sex is not a means of self-gratification; it’s not even a means of self-expression. It is a radical, unconditional, deeply personal means of selfdonation.
And if you use it like that, if you only ever give your sexuality with your whole person – in other words, in marriage – then you’re soaring! If you don’t use it like that then you’ve turned it into a commodity, you’ve turned it into groceries, you’ve turned it into just an appetite. It’ll be routine, it’ll be boring; there’ll be no wonder left.
So, the Bible shows us why and how we undervalue sex by turning it into just an appetite, just a product. We did it back then and we do it now. However (and this takes real talent), at the same time that we undervalue sex, we overvalue it. We overvalue attractiveness and physical beauty. Proverbs 11:22 says, “A woman who is beautiful but lacks discretion is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout.” What is the illustration? You see a beautiful ring and you want to reach out and grab it to pull it to yourself. But it’s attached inextricably and inseparably to a pig that rolls around in the dirt, the mud and in its own feces, and it eats slop. You reached out for beauty and you’ve got a mess. The sage is saying that if you look at someone’s physical attractiveness and you pull that person toward yourself without noticing whether that person’s shallow, whether that person is selfish, whether that person is foolish or whether that person is a mess internally, then you’re an idiot. Because, you see, it’s the inside that counts, not the outside. It’s that person’s character that’s going to determine what the person’s life is like and what the life of everyone around him or her is like. You’re just as silly to be distracted by what’s on the outside as a person who pulls the ring and doesn’t happen to notice that there’s a hog attached to it.
This verse is actually a critique of men. It’s the reason why the beautiful person in the proverb is a woman. It is saying that the habitual and widespread habit of men to objectify, dehumanize, and commodify women by evaluating them almost strictly on their looks is destructive foolishness. Men, let me just suggest that if you don’t believe this is true then you’re probably not going to see it in yourself, so watch the other men. You will see it. It’s enormously obvious. The women already know it. They’ve seen it. And it not only erodes their trust of men, it not only has terribly damaged the relationships between the genders and continues to, but it also terribly damages their own self-image and selfregard.
It is psychologically and socially destructively foolish. That is how the male idolatry of sexual attractiveness and physical beauty is played out. However, it plays out in women’s lives too, and the example is in Proverbs 11:16: “Beautiful women obtain wealth, and violent men get rich.” The word “wealth” is a translation of the Hebrew word “kâbôd” which means “glory” and this means a lot more than wealth. In the Bible the word “glory” literally means “importance” or “significance.” Notice what it’s saying: men (not all men, but many men) habitually use coercive power in order to get prestige and women (not all women, but many women) use looks – to get what? Significance. Too many women tie their self-regard to their looks in too great a degree – to how their face looks, to how their body looks, to how their shape looks, to how they dress. Women have their own particular form of this pathology, men have their own form of this pathology and the pathologies interlock! The pathologies aggravate and fuel one another and it gets worse and worse and worse as the years go by.
“Well,” somebody says, “I’m not going to obsess on beauty, my own beauty or other people’s. I am going to change. How? I’m going to try. I’m going to leave here and I’m going to try harder.” It’s not going to be enough and I don’t need just to look to the Bible to know this. The psychologists and even the evolutionary biologists will tell you that you will never break this enormous power that beauty, sexual and physical beauty, has on us in our culture today just by trying. Firstly, a psychologist will tell you that one of the reasons we’re obsessed with beauty – I need to be beautiful or I need to be with the beautiful – is because we don’t like what’s inside. There’s a shame or guilt or a feeling like I haven’t lived up.
And if I’m really great looking on the outside or if I’m with somebody who’s really great looking then somehow this feels like it covers the unsightliness that’s on the inside. Genesis 3 says the minute we experienced alienation from God, the minute we experienced a sense of shame, we needed to cover up and we needed something to cover that sense of nakedness we felt – we needed cosmetics, we needed a great outfit, we needed beauty. Until we are radically sure that we are loved and lovable, we are not going to be free of this desperate need to be with or to be the beautiful.
Secondly, the evolutionary biologists go further. They say we’re obsessed with beauty (men dump their wives for younger women, women desperately try to continue to look young) because we want to survive and we don’t want to admit that we’re going to die. And until we’re completely free of fear of death, completely free of any inner shame or sense of spiritual inadequacy, we’re never going to overcome this obsession or this overvaluing of physical beauty and sexual attractiveness. You need a power to come into your life if you’re going to overcome it.
Where do we get that power? It’s not going to work just by trying hard. Here’s where we get that power. Going back to Proverbs 30:18-20, the sage says something beautiful. He says, “I look at the wonders of creation, the eagle soaring, the ship sailing…I look at the beauties of creation and I see them all reflected in human sexuality.” He says, “You don’t understand human sexuality unless you see in human sexuality the glories of creation.” But the apostle Paul, in the New Testament, goes one up on the sage and says, “you do not understand human sexuality unless you understand the glories of redemption.” He says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5: 25-27) Paul says, “Husbands, you’re never going to understand. Wives, you’re never going to understand married love and sexuality unless you understand that God himself is your lover, who has died to make you beautiful.” That’s what this verse says.
God made us, not just to be his subjects and not just to be his sheep, but to be his lovers. When you’re in love with somebody, you can’t not think of them; you think of them all the time. When you’re reading a book, you think of them; when you’re going somewhere, you think of them, even when they’re not around you. When you’re in love, you’re thinking of them all the time.
Look at what God said he wanted in his relationship with all of us. He wanted us to center everything on him; he wanted us to do everything in the name of his glory; he wanted us to be obsessed with his glory; he wanted to be preeminent in every area of our lives. Is this overdoing it? Is this overbearing? No! He wanted us to be in love with him! He just wanted us to treat him the way we treat people when we fall in love with them. He wanted us to see him as the ultimate beauty, which he is. But we turned, as the Bible says, and gave our heart to other things.
“Well,” says God, in the beginning of the book of Genesis, the beginning of human history, “I will get you back. I love you, but I lost you, but I’m coming to get you back.” And so he comes, in the person of Jesus Christ. Here is our lover, come back to win our hearts and yet we’re told in Isaiah 53:2, which describes the Messiah, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Why would he deliberately come externally unsightly?
To show you real beauty. The only way we are going to be shaken out of the illusions that are distorting our lives is if we see this: Jesus Christ was beautiful. He had all the glory, but he emptied himself of his beauty and came to earth to die for our sins.
He came into a world that’s obsessed with power – he had no power; with beauty – he had no beauty; with credentials – he had no credentials; and so we cast him aside, we rejected him, we killed him. He lost his beauty and became the ultimate person of character (who on the inside was gorgeous and on the outside wasn’t) to die for us, not because we were beautiful, but to make us beautiful. Ephesians 5 says he died to make us radiant and spotless and without blemish. Why did he do it for us? It tells us in Isaiah 53:11, “the results of his suffering he will see and be satisfied.” What’s the result of his suffering? Us! What kept Jesus going through the cross? What kept him going? You and me. The prospect of us, in his arms, was the beauty that kept him going. When you see this, then your heart will finally be melted out of all of its distorted understandings of beauty, because this is what is beautiful.
Excerpted and adapted from a sermon by Dr. Tim Keller, one in a series on Proverbs, preached October 24, 2004, at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City. Audio of the full sermon is available for purchase at www.redeemer3.com/store/.
All rights retained. Copyright Timothy Keller 2005. For more information on Redeemer’s Arts Ministries, visit www.faithandwork.org/arts.
[via Artisan, Issue 05]