An Ancient Bible Riddle Benefits Married Couples
The Best Man rises to deliver his wedding toast, and addressing his friend the Groom, he smiles as he warns:
“Drink water from your own cistern,
And running water from your own well.”
(Proverbs 5:15 New King James Version)
Drawing Water From A Well
The modern couple and their guests question the necessity of a reminder to drink water, and they wonder at the reference to cistern and wells since they are no longer objects in common usage. However, when they hear the additional lines, they know that the words of the toast cannot be taken literally:
“Should your fountains be dispersed abroad,
Streams of water in the streets?
Let them be only your own,
And not for strangers with you.”
(Verses 16 and 17)
It must be a riddle (puzzle) since not sharing with strangers from a literal body of water is a selfish and inappropriate counsel for the new husband. So exactly what does this riddle mean? First, consider who composed it.
Author of the Riddle
King Solomon, the established author of Proverbs 5, begins the chapter with a warning for young men to avoid the company of immoral women. It is not certain whether he wrote this as a young man teaching his biological and spiritual sons how to live, or as an older man sharing wisdom from his experiences for “King Solomon loved many foreign women. . . He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines.” (1 Kings 11: 1, 3) Either way, Matthew Henry’s comment is applicable: “It is easier to see a mischief, and to show it to others, than to shun it ourselves.”
Given Solomon’s consequence of involvement with multiple wives (his wives turned away his heart.” 1 Kings 11:3), and his confession that foolishness and lack of self-control can cause a man to self-destruct (Proverbs 5:23), he is qualified to advise other men, even by using his wit and wisdom to present his warning in a riddle.
Interpretation of the Riddle
The people in Solomon’s original audience would have figured it out easily.
Cistern / Well
Woman symbolized by water seemed not to be an unthinkable reference. In Song of Songs Chapter 4:12 she is referred to again as a “spring shut up, a fountain sealed,” and in verse 15 as “a fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.” In marriage, she became her husband’s private cistern, the one he selected. It conveyed an image of value since the cistern or well, according to the Pulpit Commentary was one of the most valuable attachment to an Eastern house.
"’Drinking’ carries with it the satisfying of a natural want,” states the Commentary. The husband had the right to have his thirst satisfied from his cistern.
Literally speaking, the riddle counseled the groom to practice fidelity in a non-adulterous relationship.
"Never Share It With Strangers" (NLT)
Modern Input to the Riddle
According to the records of Bible authors and the dates of writing, this riddle was composed in the tenth century, and addressed to men. Modern thinking has progressed to the understanding that both the male and female need and can attain physical satisfaction in the relationship. The woman is not a silent partner. To help both the male and female achieve mutual fidelity and happiness in marriage, the following observations are necessary.
- Both the male and female experience “natural wants” and both are entitled to pleasurable intimacy in the marriage.
- Replenishing the “cistern”regularly (for example, with affection and appreciation), will empower her to supply the drinker adequately.
- Fidelity (no sharing with strangers) is an equal-gender responsibility; no special consideration based on social customs. The cistern supplies only her own drinker; the drinker drinks only from his own cistern.
The New Living Translation (1996) adds explanation to the riddle.
"Drink water from your own well—share your love only with your wife.
Why spill the water of your springs in the streets, having sex with just anyone?
You should reserve it for yourselves. Never share it with strangers."
Benefits of Applying the Riddle
By the time Solomon's audience solved the riddle, he began to speak clearly about the benefits of following his advice. Modern couples, whether or not they are Bible practitioners, usually wish for the same outcomes. Applying the meaning of the riddle will be an asset.
"Let your fountain be blessed."
The blessing of the fountain, in the culture of Solomon's time, was primarily the children the wife bore. Solomon's counsel guaranteed that she (and no other woman) would be blessed with all her husband's children.
"And rejoice with the wife of your youth." (Verse 18)
The couple would have many joys to share about overcoming the bad times and delighting in the good times when, in old age, they still share a relationship with the mates they had in their youth.
Rejoicing Together In Later Years
"Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; and always be enraptured with her love." (Verse 19)
According to Matthew Poole's Commentary, Solomon is referring to the love expressed as the man lay between the woman's breasts in their most intimate embrace. This verse is as much an appreciation for her satisfaction of his needs in the past, as it is a suggestion to let it continue, ensuring that they love each other continually to the very end.
"For the ways of man are before the eyes of the Lord, and He ponders all his paths." (Verse 21)
Solomon gives a final reminder that no conduct is hidden from God's eyes. The man [or woman] who is faithful to the marriage vows, as advised by the riddle, will live with the freedom of a clear conscience—before the spouse and before God.
Reference: Bible Hub Commentaries Proverbs 5:15-21, Copyright 2004-18 by Bible Hub.
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© 2018 Dora Weithers