Proverbs 5:19, “Ravished Always,” and Marital Intimacy

Proverbs 5:19 is God-inspired Scripture, yet those who speak reverently of God’s gift of marriage and are careful about purity rarely teach it.  This is understandable, for both the Hebrew and English wording are very direct on the pleasures of marriage.  Yet, it creates a problem, for into the gap have stepped the kind of preachers who think it is a good idea to preach God’s Word while wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt, preachers who may often misuse this passage.

The verse, understood properly, refutes the pleasure-worship which pervades society and mars many Christian marriages.  Many modern translations neglect a wordplay in the original Hebrew.  In this post, we’ll look at just enough Hebrew to help English readers understand why the Authorised Version translators handled this verse as they did, but mainly we’ll look at what this verse says to believers living in a pleasure-crazed world.

Note to Parents
Why I Say “Marital Intimacy”
The Purposes of Marital Intimacy
Psalm 45, “Greatly Desire Thy Beauty,” and Marital Intimacy

The Context

Proverbs 5:19

…be thou ravished always with her love.

This section of Proverbs commands marital fidelity.  Although some of the imagery is unusual to modern readers, the message is clear — don’t wander, be true to your wife, enjoy your marriage and don’t get involved with prostitutes or other immoral women.

Without going into detail, this passage and especially this verse is very direct in discussing marital intimacy.  God intended intimacy to bring great pleasure, and Solomon, guided by the Spirit, tells his son to enjoy that pleasure.  The right teaching of purity is not to deny or minimise the pleasures of marriage.  In fact, God stresses those pleasures in this passage.  Rather, the Biblical teaching is to keep them in the right context and with the right emphasis.  This passage assuredly does tell of pleasure, but the right emphasis is often overlooked — in part, because a key word in the text is often misunderstood.

The Key Hebrew Word

The word translated “ravished” in this verse is shahgah, which means to err, go astray.  It occurs about 20 times in the Old Testament, and always except in this verse describes negative behaviour.  That is true even in the immediate context, where Solomon uses it in verse 23 (“go astray”), as if to make sure we know he is using a negative word.  In some contexts, such as Proverbs 20:1 (“deceived”), it refers to going astray through drunkenness.

Solomon is instructing his son to “go astray,” to err!  God never commands us to sin, but this almost sounds like it.  It contrasts with verse 20, where the command is to not “err” (same word, however one translates it) with an immoral woman.  Modern translations have used words such as “intoxicated”, “captivated”, “exhilarated”, “infatuated”, and “be lost”.

These translations fit the context that the son should enjoy the pleasures of intimacy with his wife.  Certainly, that is being said here.  The modern translators have conveyed part of the sense of Solomon’s words — but something is missing in most of them.

The Play on Words

The unique use of the negative Hebrew word shahgah in a positive context, in close proximity with its use negatively (verse 23), shows Solomon wants his readers to notice he is doing something unusual with words.  If he wanted to simply convey intoxication, as the most popular modern translations render it, the normal word would be shawkar.  This is Hebrew poetry, using vivid language and word pictures, but why did Solomon use this particular word in this way?

The AV translators found an answer in another Hebrew word which is very close in form, shahgal.  It occurs in four Scriptures and is twice translated “ravished” (Isaiah 13:16 and Zechariah 14:2, the others are Deuteronomy 28:30 and Jeremiah 3:2).  In at least three of the four, it describes women being enslaved and physically humiliated by a conquering army.

It appears that the use of shah-gah, so close to shah-gal, in a passage using very direct language to describe physical intimacy in marriage, is intentional.  This is poetic language with unusual wording to give one meaning while also bringing another word to mind — a pun, a play on words.  The point of poetic or picturesque wording is to cause a reader to reflect, and in this case the author wants his readers to reflect on both meanings.

The Point of the Pun

The main meaning of the text is clear.  Solomon instructs his son to fully enjoy marital intimacy with the wife of his youth.  The pun brings out a further blessing of intimacy.  The pleasures of intimacy render you a slave, conquered by and surrendered to the love of your wife.  As we’ve seen in other passages, one purpose of intimacy in marriage is its unifying / bonding effect between spouses.  This play on words tells us this is caused by the great pleasure of marital intimacy — it causes you to surrender yourself.

But there is a warning, as well — if you stray, you become a slave of an immoral woman, conquered by her.  In verse 19 the husband is a slave, not to his wife but to her love.  In verse 20, he become a slave, not to love but to an immoral woman.  Thus we see a warning, but also the other purpose of pleasure in this verse.  True God-honouring pleasure protects from the temptations of false pleasures.

The passage is about marital pleasure, but it is pleasure with purposes — to unite husband and wife, to protect from temptation.  Solomon used shahgah in a way never elsewhere used, to bring shahgal to the mind of a Hebrew reader and thus convey these God-ordained purposes for pleasure in marital intimacy.

Side Note — The Translator’s Craft

The Hebrew shahgah is never translated “be ravished” elsewhere in Scripture.   Our translators obviously knew what it meant — they translated it “go astray” in verse 23.  They apparently chose “be ravished” as a way to convey the play on words.

This was coordinated translation of several verses, using other passages so Bible readers would recognise two meanings of “ravished.”  In Isaiah 13 and Zechariah 14 they used it to  translate shahgal, and readers recognise by the context that “ravished” means the humbling of enslaved women after a military conquest.  In Song of Solomon 4:9 they chose it to speak of the delights of marital love.  And they used it here in Proverbs 5:19, where poetic Hebrew wording would bring both meanings to the mind of a Hebrew reader, to create a play on words in English to parallel the Hebrew.

It is fashionable to criticise the scholarship of the AV translators.  Some even say they got this verse wrong, but it is a masterpiece.  They succeeded where poetry translators usually fail — they found a way to carry a play on words into the target language.  No modern translation really does that in this verse.

Why the Play on Words Matters

In a pleasure-exalting society, too many preachers / teachers fall into the trap of speaking as if pleasure is the purpose, in and of itself, of marital intimacy.  They emphasise the pleasure taught in the passage while failing to convey its purpose.

When we get the full picture here, we see that Solomon is not instructing his son to enjoy pleasure for pleasure’s sake.  He tells him that by doing so he binds himself to his wife.  Solomon uses creative wording so that his son, when reflecting on it, will understand that he enjoys pleasure for the purpose of a greater unity in a stronger marriage, and for the purpose of protecting against temptation.

God does not want His people to forsake the pleasures of marital intimacy — He wants them to enjoy them.  But He also wants us to understand that pleasure is not the goal, but (as we saw in Psalm 45), it is a means to an end.  II Timothy 3:4 contrasts “lovers of pleasures” with “lovers of God.” We should not love pleasure for its own sake, but for what it accomplishes.

Pleasure is strong, but it is to be our servant, not our master.  When we use it for God’s purposes, our delight in the pleasures He gives is God-honouring, joyous, and spiritually beneficial.  When we pursue it for its own sake, whether in intimacy or in other aspects of our life, we make pleasure into a cruel and destructive master, destroying and perverting God’s wonderful gifts in this life.

Next: Homosexuality and the Purposes of Marital Intimacy

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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4 Responses to Proverbs 5:19, “Ravished Always,” and Marital Intimacy

  1. UK Fred says:

    This is not the only passage where the Authorised Version has a translation that I believe captures the nuance of the original. John 5:6 “Wilt thou be made whole?” has a far better reflection of the original meaning than the NIV’s wishy-washy “Do you want to get well?”

    One area in which the Church has not covered itself in glory in recent years has been its failure to teach the whole Bible, and in particular to explain that God’s way leads to a much better life for everyone than the pleasure-centred selfish approach that is so beloved in popular culture. Too often it has conformed to the ways of the world.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hi, Fred. Good comment.

      The Bible itself demonstrates there can be more than one way to translate a verse.

      But there can be ok translations and much better ones, and I agree that the AV is far better in that verse.

      Conforming to the ways of the world is great. It makes you more popular, it means you’ll have less opposition. You might even for a while have a bigger crowd on Sunday morning. It’s more comfortable in this life. It just has this little drawback of not pleasing the Lord, not being obedient to Scripture, building something that can’t last, not leaving one with a clear conscience, and a bunch of other problems.

  2. Thy word is truth says:

    Bible agnostics – people who do not know where to find a copy of the complete, inspired and 100% true words of God – get all upset when we ask them if they believe that any Bible in any language IS or ever was the preserved and infallible words of God. They say we are “mud slinging”, or “calling them names”, or “dividing the church” and that the whole Bible version thingy is of no real importance and we should all just get along and focus on what’s really important like getting out there and saving souls.

    Only a person who does NOT in fact believe that any Bible IS the infallible words of God talks like this. He is deflecting our attention away from what God Himself tells us about His words and the importance He places upon them. The true Bible says that God has magnified His word above all His name – See Psalm 138:2 in the King James Bible (Most modern perversions have messed up this verse).

    And He tells us in Isaiah 66:2 “…but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.”

    The recent polls tell us that the majority of present day professing Christians no longer believe “The Bible” is the infallible words of God. The Bible is the only source of truth we have in this world as the basis of everything we believe as Christians. As the atheist French philosopher Voltaire once said: “If we would destroy the Christian religion, we must first of all destroy man’s belief in the Bible.”

    The absolute truth of the Bible is under attack today more than at any other time in history, and the sad and ironic thing is that it is professing Christians who are doing the attacking. According to recent polls around 90% of pastors and seminary teachers do NOT believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Most Christian sites now tell us that ONLY the originals WERE inspired and inerrant, which means that we do NOT have an infallible Bible now. Polls also show that people are reading and believing these modern day versions less and less and many young people are abandoning their once held Christian beliefs when they get to college or face challenges to the truth of their faith and of the Bible.

    If “the Bible” is full of contradictions and there are so many different versions out there, some with thousands of words in the New Testament that are omitted by others, then why believe ANY of it? Many people are coming to this rational conclusion.

    The professing church is already divided into hundreds of different little groups each with their own peculiarities or false doctrines and God’s words tells us it will only get worse, not better. God tells us that there will be a falling away from the faith in the last days; that evil men and seducers will wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived, and that many will turn away their ears from the truth and shall be turned unto fables.

    So, please realize that when we refer to people as “bible agnostics” it is to get them to think more seriously about what they REALLY believe about “the Bible”, and hopefully this will drive you to seek the mind and revealed will of God concerning this most vital matter. Do you truly believe God has given to the world a complete and infallible Book that is the Absolute Standard of revealed Truth, or do we just have a ballpark approximation of what God may or may not have said, and we just really don’t know for sure?

    There are thousands of us who believe God HAS given us such a Book and we can tell anyone where to get a copy of it for themselves. It’s called the Authorized King James Holy Bible and there are lots of reasons for believing it is the true Book of the Lord. Those that I refer to as “bible agnostics” do NOT believe that such a Book exists and have nothing but either “only the originals” (which do not exist and they have never seen) or the ever changing and contradictory “probably close enough, imperfect approximations of what we think God may have said versions” (my paraphrase) to give you.

    So, either SHOW US the Book, or else admit that the alleged “name calling” is true. You are either a Bible believer or a “part time bible agnostic” – you believe certain parts of some but all of none and do not know where to find an infallible words of God type of Bible to give to anyone.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Well, friend, if you want to discuss broad issues of inspiration / inerrancy, preservation of Scripture, or translation matters, I suggest you click on Bibliology on the side bar, choose one of the posts there, and comment on the ones that you wish to address. This post is about marital intimacy and the dangers of worshiping pleasure.

      The translation matters discussed here help us to understand that topic better, and the AV translators did a superb job with this verse. But this is not a post primarily about translations or the other things you’ve discussed, and I don’t want to distract from it with off-topic discussion in the comments.

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