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.
…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.