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The Two Women: Madam Folly and Dame Wisdom (Proverbs 7-9)

Introduction

While I was a student in seminary I took advantage of an opportunity to accompany two police officers as an observer. They were patrolling one of the higher crime areas, where there were many bars and other business establishments catering to man’s sinful nature. What puzzled me the most was the way they seemed to know who everybody was. They would point out a young woman who was a prostitute. Then they would identify the agent. I could not understand how they did it. I wondered if they were wearing name tags. How could they so easily distinguish the prostitutes from the other women around them? The fact was that they know a lot more about certain kinds of women than I did.

In Proverbs 1-9 Solomon spends a great deal of time telling us about two different kinds of women: Dame Wisdom and Madam Folly.18 We have already learned from Proverbs chapter 1 that we must avoid the way of evil men; we must also be warned that the way of evil has its seductive women. In chapters 1-9 Solomon has much to teach us about the differences between these two kinds of women. In addition, we will find that these two women personify two ways, the way of wisdom and the way of folly. Let us listen carefully to the warning of Proverbs concerning the wrong kind of woman.

A Contrast of Character

The most prominent theme of Proverbs 1-9 is the contrast between Dame Wisdom and Madam Folly. In each chapter of this introductory section we find either Madam Folly (2:16-19; 5:1-14; 6:20-35), Dame Wisdom (1:20-33; 3:13-18; 4:5-9; 8:1-36), or both (7:1-4, 5-27; 9:1-6, 13-18). Both the way of wisdom and the way of folly are personified by women. This would be especially relevant in light of the father-to-son instruction which is given in Proverbs. If there is one thing a father should teach his son, it is the kind of woman to pursue and the kind of woman to avoid. Dame Wisdom and Madam Folly are literary tools to teach the young man a lesson on two levels, the literal and the metaphorical.

Let us first contrast the character of these two women. Madam Folly is not a prostitute, but an adulteress (2:16, NASB). She “leaves the companion of her youth” (2:17).The one who is foolish enough to become involved with her must deal with an angry husband (6:29-35).She must assure her victim that her husband is not at home and won’t return for some time (7:19-20).

Madam Folly is godless and immoral. She “forgets the covenant of her God” (2:17). She is often called a “foreign woman” (2:16, NASB, margin), suggesting that her religion is pagan, rather than a vital faith in Israel’s God. This term “foreign woman” is also used in I Kings 11:1 of the “foreign women” Solomon married, who turned his heart from the Lord. Madam Folly is senseless and simple (9:13). She does not consider her own path or the fact that it leads others to death. She is shameless about her sin: (4:6).

This is the way of an adulterous woman: She eats and wipes her mouth, And says, “I have done no wrong” (Prov. 30:20).

Wisdom, on the other hand, is personified as a virgin, whom the wise son should pursue, and with whom he should seek a wholesome, yet intimate relationship. While a young man should avoid Madam Folly, he should pursue wisdom as he would the woman who would be his bride.

She is more precious than jewels; And nothing you desire compares with her (3:15).

“Do not forsake her, and she will guard you; Love her, and she will watch over you. The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom: And with all your acquiring, get understanding. Prize her and she will exalt you; She will honor you if you embrace her (4:6-8).

Say to wisdom, “You are my sister.”19 And call understanding your intimate friend (7:4).

If Madam Folly is godless, Dame Wisdom is God-like. Wisdom, as represented in Proverbs, is not an abstract commodity, but a person. She offers to give men her spirit (1:23). She guards men and delivers them from the way of death (1:33; 2:16ff.; 4:6-9). She is called a “tree of life” in 3:18, an expression familiar to us from the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:9; 3:22), and from the Paradise of Revelation 22:2. In Proverbs 3:19-20 and 8:22-31 wisdom is spoken of as eternal, and as One who participated in the creation of the world. While it might be going too far to say that the description of wisdom is such that we can dogmatically say it was a reference to the Lord Jesus Christ, it certainly leaves room for such an identification. The similarities, in my opinion, are more than coincidental.

Both wisdom and folly are portrayed as pursuing men and urging them to follow in their paths. Madam Folly calls to “those who pass by,” to those “who are making their paths straight” (9:16), but she is particularly in pursuit of those who are simple, for they are the most vulnerable and likely to follow her (7:6ff.).Wisdom also calls to the simple and the fool, urging them to forsake their folly and to follow the path of righteousness and wisdom (1:22ff.; 8:4-5; 9:4).

While Dame Wisdom and Madam Folly may both pursue the same men, their message and their methods differ greatly. Dame Wisdom warns men of the destruction and death into which all who continue on the path of folly will fall (1:24ff.). She does not tell men what they want to hear, but what they need to hear if they are to be delivered from death. Dame Wisdom is straightforward, speaking of noble things (8:6-8).She offers her teaching and commandments (7:1-2), counsel and sound wisdom (8:14).She promises security (1:33), peace, long life, riches and honor (3:16-17), and, most of all, life(3:18).20

Madam Folly gives no thought to her own fate (5:6; 9:13), nor does she warn men that following her leads inevitably to death (2:18-19; 6:26; 7:22-23; 9:18). If Dame Wisdom appeals to the spiritual, Madam Folly stimulates the sensual impulses of the simple. She dresses seductively (7:10) and speaks erotically of her bed with its spices and expensive coverings (7:16-17). She offers to satiate her victim with love.

While Madam Folly may offer some outward beauty, I am not so certain that she is as beautiful as we might suppose. In Proverbs 2:17 we are told that she “leaves the companion of her youth.” She is apparently a woman who has been married for a number of years. Perhaps her makeup is used to cover wrinkles, her sleek black hair may have come from a bottle of dye, covering those gray hairs which accompany age.

Whether or not you agree with me that Madam Folly is not quite so young and pretty, I will admit that she does have some outward beauty (6:25). But her primary weapon is not her beauty; it is her tongue.

For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, And smoother than oil is her speech; But in the end she is bitter as wormwood, Sharp as a two-edged sword (5:3-4; cf. also 2:16; 7:5; 22:14).

The one thing which Madam Folly knows better than anyone is how to flatter her victim. There is a proverb (of sorts) which says, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Madam Folly knew this, and a dinner invitation was a part of her seductive ploy (7:14), but the way to disarm a man is by appealing to his ego. Madam Folly approached the young man with these words,

“Therefore I have come out to meet you, To seek your presence earnestly, and I have found you” (7:15).

In truth, Madam Folly was seeking any man foolish enough to give in to her advances. But she gave this young man the impression that of all the men she might have, it was him she really wanted.

It is my personal opinion that the male ego is the primary factor in a man’s willingness to engage in immorality. That may be true of women as well. Mind you I do not believe that the way to keep your mate is for you to flatter him, for flattery is always condemned in Proverbs (cf. 26:28; 28:23; 29:5). I do believe, however, that it is both healthy and wise to express appreciation for the positive qualities of our mates. Who, if not the husband of the virtuous woman, would have been the one “praising her in the gates” (31:31)?

One of the things to note about Madam Folly is that she too is skilled in the use of proverbs. When she seeks to seduce her prey she quotes this proverb:

“Stolen water is sweet; And bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (9:17).

While Dame Wisdom speaks only truth, Madam Folly brazenly proclaims folly. She does not apologize for sin or seek to excuse it. As a matter of fact, she flaunts sin, for it is because a relationship with her is illicit that makes it so appealing. Stolen water, she suggests, is sweeter than “drinking from your own well” (cf. 5:15). It is sinning that is exciting to the fool, and she does not hesitate to capitalize on this.

Madison Avenue has nothing to teach Madam Folly. She knows that it pays to advertise. Her methods are no different, and not one whit inferior, to those of the most sophisticated advertising agency. Basically she appeals to the fleshly desires of her victim. She offers him a sumptuous meal and a sexual encounter which matches his wildest fantasies. She assures him that there is no danger of being caught. She emphasizes momentary, short-lived pleasure, and minimizes long-range consequences.

Have you consciously analyzed the advertising on the billboards and television screen lately? Everything from deodorant to dishwashing soap is sold by women who are clad in sensual garb, who appeal to our basest appetites. We are encouraged to satisfy our desires now, and not to wait until later. We are given little plastic cards so we do not have to wait for what we want, and we are not encouraged to consider that month after month we will end up paying for something we really didn’t need. Madison Avenue and Madam Folly both would have us live today as though there were no tomorrow, offering us short-term thrills at very painful and long-term prices.

Taking these two women, Dame Wisdom and Madam Folly, on face value, there is one lesson we should learn: The priority of sexual purity. Solomon knew that there were few dangers greater than that of sexual impurity. He and the other writers of Proverbs had much to say on this subject. We know that this was the area of Solomon’s downfall (I Kings ll:lff.), as well as that of David, his father (II Samuel 11). Foreign women were a snare to Samson (Judges 14--16) and to the nation of Israel (Numbers 25:lff.). Sexual purity is a priority for those who would be godly and wise.

Proverbs reminds parents that we should not be prudish about teaching our children candidly the dangers of sexual sin. Sex is spoken of openly, yet discreetly. If we have reservations about our children learning about sex on the street or in the school, let us be sure that we do as this wise father did, who taught his son about the kind of women who should be sought, as well as those who should be shunned.

I am the father of five daughters. I do not have sons who need this warning. But the teaching of Proverbs is just as relevant to my daughters. If Proverbs instructs a young man about the kind of woman to seek and the kind to shun, it teaches my daughters the kind of women they should strive to be, by God’s grace. The world is reinforcing the model of Madam Folly. The popular movie stars, the glamorous models, the women who advertise--all are those whose moral life is sinful, and whose wiles and flattery are like that of Madam Folly. Girls are told that they can find approval by flaunting their bodies, by wearing provocative clothing, by putting on sensuous perfumes, by adorning their eyelids, and so on. The godly woman, Dame Wisdom, is not the model our young women are familiar with. The words of chapter 31 have a foreign ring, when we read,

Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised (31:30).

Dame Wisdom and Madam Folly are worthy of consideration by every man and woman who desires to be godly. Women are warned that it is possible for them to contribute to the spiritual downfall of a brother in Christ. Christian women are instructed not be preoccupied with outward adornment, but with inward character (I Tim. 2:9-10; I Peter 3:1-6). When Christian women are insensitive about their clothing and their conduct, they can cause a Christian brother to sin by tempting him in thought and action.

The Book of Proverbs is required reading for men who desire to be godly and free from immorality. Proverbs exalts wisdom, and it reminds us not only of the danger of Madam Folly, but of the value of a godly wife (18:22; 19:14; 31:10-31). We are encouraged to find sexual satisfaction in the purity of a marital union (5:15-23). And when we find an immoral thought coming to our minds, let us give serious though to what Proverbs informs us is the inevitable end of immorality--shame, dissipation, and death (2:18-19; 5:7-14).

The Two Women are Two Ways

Dame Wisdom and Madam Folly teach us valuable lessons in the area of sex and marriage, but I believe they teach us much more than this. In addition to providing us with instruction about two kinds of women, they personify the two ways of life--the way of wisdom and the way of folly. I will try to demonstrate five lines of evidence which indicate to the reader of Proverbs that Dame Wisdom and Madam Folly were intended to represent the two ways of life.

1. BOTH DAME WISDOM AND MADAM FOLLY ARE IDENTIFIED AS “WAYS” IN PROVERBS. In Chapter 1, Wisdom warns those who reject her that they will be “satiated with the fruit of their own way” (v. 31). In chapter 2 Wisdom is said to keep a man from the way of evil (v. 12), which is expanded on in the following verses. The way of evil is the way of wicked men (vv. 12b-15) and the way of the adulteress woman (vv. 16-22). In verses 12-22 the word “way” or “path” is found eight times, stressing the fact that the evil way is the way of wicked women and violent men. Repeatedly in the first chapter of Proverbs both wisdom and folly are described as “ways” (cf. 3:31; 4:11,14; 5:21; 6:23; 7:24-27; 8:13,20; 9:6,15). The conclusion must be that Dame Wisdom and Madam Folly are not just women; they are the personification of two ways, the way of wisdom and the way of folly.

2. THE CONTRAST BETWEEN DAME WISDOM AND MADAM FOLLY IS NOT REALLY THAT BETWEEN A GOOD WIFE AND A BAD ONE. Dame Wisdom is the kind of women a young man should seek to marry and Madam Folly is the kind of woman with whom a young man should not become involved, but the major thrust of the contrast between the two women is not sex or marriage. Elsewhere in Proverbs the wrong kind of wife is described (cf. 19:13; 30:23), as well as the virtuous wife (31:10-31), but here Solomon is not just simply contrasting two kinds of women who are candidates for courtship. My point is that the outcome of choosing the one and rejecting the other is not a good or bad marriage, but life or death. This is further evidence that while we can learn much here about the right kind of wife, that is not the primary lesson to be learned.

3. THERE ARE NOT JUST TWO KINDS OF WOMEN. If Solomon wanted to teach us about women, he would have to describe many more kinds of women than just two. I once heard Bill Gothard remark that in Proverbs it was always the woman who was the aggressor, the seducer. I had the impression at the time that Bill concluded that this is the way it always is in life. I don’t think so. Most of the infidelity I have had the unfortunate experience of observing in Christian and non-Christian marriages has not been initiated by the woman, but rather by the man. I do not think Solomon intended for us to conclude that it is most often the woman that seduces the man. Rather, I believe Proverbs pictures Madam Folly as the aggressor because she personifies the evil way. While not all women seek to seduce men, Satan is aggressively seeking to draw men away from God and into the evil way. In other words, it is a woman who is the seducer in Proverbs because she, Madam Folly, personifies sin.

4. PROVERBS SPEAKS OF DAME WISDOM AND MADAM FOLLY METAPHORICALLY. Anyone who reads Proverbs as wisdom literature recognizes that much of what is said is not be understood literally, but metaphorically. For example, in 9:1-6 Dame Wisdom is described as a virtuous and industrious woman who has built her own house, prepared a banquet, and sent her maidens out to invite men to eat with her. Few people would insist that we should take this passage literally, in that wisdom really wants to feed men. The banquet is a figure, a metaphor, illustrating the bounty of what wisdom has to offer and of the universal invitation for men to partake of it. Why then do we feel it is necessary to take the bed of Madam Folly as always literal when we take the banquet figuratively? While we must avoid the bed of Madam Folly, is that all that the way of evil has to offer? I think not. The bed of immorality must be avoided, but there are many other manifestations of wickedness besides adultery.

5. NOT ALL OF THOSE ON THE PATH OF FOLLY ARE VIOLENT MEN. In Proverbs 1 Solomon has mapped out for the reader the two ways of life. In verses 10-14 the way of evil is described in terms of wicked and violent men. I think most of us would agree that while the way of violence is an option we must deal with, the majority of those who have rejected the way of wisdom could not be described in terms of verses 10-14. From chapter two we learn that the evil way has two dangers, the first, the way of wicked men (vv. 12-15), but the second is the wiles of Madam Folly (vv. 16-22). would therefore like to suggest that Madam Folly best personifies the path of folly.

What this means is that Madam Folly best portrays the message and the method which Satan uses to deceive and destroy the majority of those who do not choose to follow the way of wisdom. Satan, like Madam Folly, will appeal to sensual desires, urging them to fill to the brim the cup of passion and desire. He will seek to show the appeal of momentary pleasure, while minimizing the consequences which inevitably follow. He will stimulate our desire to disobey God and to reject wisdom by stressing that sin is stimulating and exciting. But in the end, Satan will lead men along the same path of destruction which he himself is following. Those who follow him, like those who follow Madam Folly, will suffer the consequences of their leader.

Madam Folly is not just a seductive woman, nor immoral women in general--she personifies a system which leads men and women along a path of destruction. Those who are on the way of folly do not necessarily rob innocent victims or willfully cause injury to others (1:10-14), but they do choose to reject the way of wisdom. They choose to follow a way which seems to offer them pleasure for the present, while ignoring the future.

In the Book of Colossians, Paul warns the saints about being taken “captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).This system is false, first and foremost, because it rejects Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). It does not openly advocate violence and greed; it does not even promote immorality. In this case this adulterous system seeks to establish human righteousness by asceticism and self-denial (Col. 2:20-23).

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)--in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Col. 2:20-23).

Satan does not really care which lane you are in on the freeway to destruction. Some may choose the lane of violence and greed, while others may choose that of self-denial and asceticism. Satan will openly tempt some to commit sin and immorality, while others he will deceive with overly strict rules and regulations (of. I Tim. 4:1-5).The distinguishing characteristic of the way of folly is that it begins with a rejection of God, with a refusal to “fear the Lord” (Prov. 1:7,29). Satan allows men to be very creative in the way they go to hell. He does not care how you live, so long as you live trusting in yourself, rather than God, following your own way, rather than the narrow way of wisdom.

There is no decision in life more important than the choice as to whom you will follow. Will you follow Dame Wisdom or Madam Folly? Will you choose to submit to Jesus Christ, or will you follow Satan? The way of wisdom is the way of faith. It involves trusting God to keep His word, to save you eternally and to bless you. The way of wisdom requires that you cease trusting in yourself and trust only in Jesus Christ for eternal life (Prov. 3:5-6; John 14:6). The way of wisdom requires discipline and self-denial. But it will bring peace, security and everlasting life.

Hebrews 11 has been called the “Hall of Faith.” The men and women who are members of the Hall of Faith are those who have chosen to endure present affliction, while awaiting their future reward:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward (Heb. 11:24-26).

Jesus Christ, like Dame Wisdom, calls on you to forsake your evil way and to follow Him. Will you persist in seeking only momentary pleasure, or will you choose the way of righteousness and peace which leads to eternal salvation? Jesus Christ is that way (John 14:6). By faith in Him, you may enter into the way that leads to life.

Christian friend, Madam Folly frequently passes our way, calling to those “who are making their paths straight” (Prov. 9:15). She will focus our attention on the passing pleasures of sin, and will minimize the consequences. She will urge us to forget the future and live for the moment. We must not listen to her, for we are but strangers and pilgrims on the earth:

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul (I Peter 2:11).


18 The titles “Dame Wisdom” and “Madam Folly” I obtained from James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), P. 72.

19 The Hebrew word rendered “sister” here is used in Song of Songs (4:9,10,12; 5:1,2) with the sense of “lover.” It seems to have that nuance here as well. The young man is therefore urged to pursue wisdom as a lover and intimate friend, a healthy contrast to Madam Folly.

20 While “life” and “death” were terms primarily focusing on earthly blessing or difficulty, there is at least the inference that there is life or death beyond the grave. After a helpful discussion of “life” and “death” Kidner concludes: “Life after death lies beyond the horizon of Proverbs . . . But there are two sayings about natural death which draw attention to some form of hope or confidence which the wicked man forfeits at that point (11:7, ‘when a wicked man dieth, his expectation shall perish’) and the good man retains (14:32, . . . , ‘but the righteous hath hope in his death’). Later revelation was to fill in that outline; meanwhile the bare assurance that one’s labour was, in some unspecified way, ‘not in vain in the Lord’ inspired a hope that eventually was to seek and receive a fuller answer.” Derek Kidner, The Proverbs (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964), P. 56.

Related Topics: Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)