Wisdom literature often employs metaphorical language to instruct the reader about delicate subjects like married love and sexual relations. The idea that “stolen water is sweet” (Proverbs 9:17) refers to forbidden sexual indulgence.
Using personification, Solomon contrasts wisdom with folly. Both wisdom and folly are like women who invite passing guests into their homes for a feast. The person who accepts wisdom’s invitation makes the critical choice that leads to life: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:5–6; cf. John 6:51–56). However, the person who accepts folly’s invitation chooses a path that leads to death (Proverbs 9:18; cf. Romans 8:6).
Earlier, in Proverbs 5:1–23, Solomon warns the young man against adultery. He compares water to physical intimacy: “Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well. Should your springs overflow in the streets, your streams of water in the public squares? Let them be yours alone, never to be shared with strangers. May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Proverbs 5:15–18).
Water was an apt and meaningful illustration in the desert-like conditions of ancient Jerusalem. Keeping a clean and fresh water supply was crucial to sustaining life. Rainwater was collected and stored in hollowed out rocks or underground cisterns lined with plaster-like limestone to prevent them from leaking. Due to the scarcity of rainfall, these cisterns had to be carefully maintained and guarded. Drinking from one’s own private water supply was much preferred over transporting water from a public well or stream.
God builds a wall around marital intimacy, ordaining marriage and the marriage bed as a private and exclusive “fountain” or “spring” for the enjoyment of sexual pleasure. No one but a man and woman joined in marriage are to drink water from this fountain or share in its joy (Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 18:20). In Proverbs 9:17, Solomon uses the idea of “stolen water” as an allusion to illicit, forbidden, extramarital sex.
Stolen water is taken from someone else’s fountain. It is sexual pleasure outside the bounds of what is lawful and proper. Water from one’s own fountain is pure, clean, and refreshing, but stolen water, no matter how sweet it may seem at the time, is polluted by sin. So, what is it about stolen water that makes it so sweet?
For some, the thrill of getting away with something unlawful—the dangerous and secret aspect of an affair, for example—excites and appeals to their baser instincts. The sinful nature craves what it cannot have (Galatians 5:17; Romans 7:14–23). The more prohibited something is, the more tempting and desirable it becomes. In the New Living Translation, Proverbs 9:17 suggests, “Stolen water is refreshing; food eaten in secret tastes the best!” Both “stolen water” and “food eaten in secret” imply forbidden and covert activities.
Nevertheless, in Proverbs 20:17, Solomon warns, “Stolen bread tastes sweet, but it turns to gravel in the mouth” (NLT). The pleasantness of sinful pleasure is short-lived and misleading (Ecclesiastes 2:10–11; Hebrews 11:25; 1 Timothy 5:6). What was initially sweet on the tongue quickly turns to bitterness and death once swallowed (Isaiah 5:20). Folly’s invitation may look and sound attractive. The bread and water she offers may taste sweet, but, eventually, death awaits those who walk through her door (Proverbs 9:18).
God designed physical intimacy not just for the reproduction of human life but for the refreshment and pleasure of couples joined in the covenant bond of marriage (Genesis 1:28; 2:18, 23–24; Matthew 19:4–6; 1 Corinthians 7:32–34; Song of Solomon 4:16—5:1, 19). Sex is God’s gift to strengthen a married couple’s emotional bond. According to Solomon, sexual intimacy within the appropriate bounds of marriage is like a delicious mouthful of pure spring water. But committing adultery is like ingesting polluted water. Stolen water may seem sweet, but it’s like slurping deadly poison from a sewer. Sex outside of marriage may be exciting and enjoyable initially, but it eventually defiles and destroys everyone who partakes of it (Proverbs 6:20–35).