Last time we looked in some detail at the Song of Songs and argued that when matters of genre and structure are taken into account the Song is seen to be a poem about the powerful passionate attraction of love, love in its romantic and erotic dimension: of the wait required before that love can be consummated, of the necessity of the moral control of erotic attraction, and of the lovemaking of marriage as the joyful and righteous fulfillment of these human longings.
Now I want to continue our consideration of the Song – which is, after all, the Bible’s great celebration of the theme of marital erotic love – by pointing out that there are some vastly important consequences to understanding the Song in this way. I want to draw your attention to two of them.
- The first is the emphasis placed here upon the highly erotic, the sexually charged nature of marriage. Throughout the Song it is clear that if it is to be a marriage such as God intends, it ought to be a highly erotic affair. There should be physical pleasure and passion shot through it. The Song is all about a passionate love shot through with erotic desire and longing. As we saw earlier in Proverbs 5, in a passage similar to the Song in its spirit and teaching, the sexual delight of husband and wife is regarded as the great protection against sexual sin and its ruinous consequences. There the father hopes for his son that he marry a woman who is sexually attractive to him. No, that does not put the point strongly enough: a woman who is sexually consuming to him; a woman he can’t keep his hands off of.
“May her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love.”[5:19]
But here in the Song erotic passion is less prophylactic or protective against sexual sin and more the very nature and character of married love. True enough, let marriage be sexually enthralling and the husband and wife not only will have a deep and growing love and appreciation for one another, but be protected from the otherwise almost universal tendency of human flesh to fulfill our potent sexual desires in destructive ways. As we saw previously Paul says the same thing, in a much more prosaic way, in 1 Corinthians 7. But, useful as sexual passion in marriage is as a protection against sexual sin, it is still much more something beautiful in itself and important for its own sake; as part of, as the electricity of the love of man and woman.
Let me elaborate this point. There is a perhaps usually unnoticed indication of the interest in sexual pleasure that ought to characterize marriage to be found in some of the detail of the Song. Let me draw your attention to this detail first by saying that I think it a matter of some importance that the Song of Songs is written in the common way of ancient Near Eastern love poems. Though clearly placing this dimension of our lives on a different moral foundation, it draws unashamedly on the universal sexual experience of mankind and on the sexual custom and ethos of the day. It expresses erotic ideas and describes sexual eroticism in the way that was common to that culture. In other words, the sex of the Song is sex as everyone in that world understood it to be and experienced it to be, save the moral context insisted upon in the Song.
For example, I find it intriguing and important – a lesson to be learned by Christian husbands and wives insofar as they are sexual lovers – that the lovers, in anticipation of their sexual union, make mention of aphrodisiacs. An aphrodisiac is, as you know, some agent that arouses or is thought to arouse sexual desire. In that sense, we have already in this passage had mention of incense, jewelry, and perfume. Jewelry and perfume are not aphrodisiacs per se, but they certainly draw attention and enhance beauty and here they are said to have made the beloved even more desirable to her lover. But the spices of vv. 13-14 seem to contribute – whether literally or figuratively (some of these spices were very expensive and it may be too much to expect that this young couple actually expected to possess all of those listed here) – represent an ideal situation for love-making. Other such enhancements of sexual pleasure are mentioned in the Song. We saw the connection between sexual love and wine in both 1:2 and 4:10 and we have mention of mandrakes in 7:13. The mandrake or “love apple” as it is also called, an herb of the nightshade family, a pungently fragrant plant, had long before this been considered an aphrodisiac and an aid to conception as we learn in Genesis 30:14-16 where mandrakes surface in the contest between Leah and Rachel, the two wives of Jacob.
Now it is worth noting, in the first place, that the use of aphrodisiacs in itself tells us something of the place of sexual pleasure in the godly marriage. It is something to be cultivated, enhanced, and enjoyed to the full. There are ways to increase that pleasure and believers are entirely free to make use of those ways. The notion that sex is simply functional – a notion that has hovered about the edges of Christian reflection through the ages – obviously finds no place in the Bible’s teaching. In the Song sex is a pleasure to be milked, a pleasure to be enjoyed to the fullest extent.
Now the aphrodisiacs mentioned in the Song in 4:13-14 are the common aphrodisiacs of the ANE. We would, of course, have a different list today. We might say, “I’ve got satin sheets on my bed and Bolero playing on the CD; or I’m wearing your favorite lingerie!
But what I find very interesting is that the aphrodisiacs mentioned by the lover in 4:13-14 include some of the very same employed by the prostitute in Proverbs 7:16-17.
“I have covered my bed with colored linens from Egypt. I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.”
In other words, the prostitute and the two about-to-be-married lovers looking forward to their wedding night – both the righteous and the unrighteous sexually speaking – are employing the same means by which to enhance the sexual experience. The prostitute uses such enhancements as an enticement to sin; the couple uses them in a holy way to increase their delight.
What all of this means is not only that the godly couple are aware of and savvy in the world of love-making but that the world doesn’t know anything about sex and sexual pleasure that God’s people don’t know. Christian lovers are to be just as expert in love-making and the enhancement of sexual pleasure as any Playboy columnist. They too are to know what intensifies the experience and what makes it more delightful and fulfilling. But Christians also know how to integrate the sexual dimension of life into the rest of life in such a way as to make it a blessing and not a curse, a joy and not a sorrow, a piece of life and not of death. And chiefly they achieve that successful integration by expressing that erotic desire and experiencing that erotic pleasure in and only in the context of a faithful marriage. That is the chief lesson of the Song of Songs. But here is implication number one: Christians are to be or become knowing lovers.
Now, some of that knowledge comes from the culture and is absorbed as part of the ethos of sex in any time and place and among any people. Obviously the aphrodisiacs of the ANE are not those of modern 21st century America. Aphrodisiacs, like so many other things employed in the sexual realm, derive their power from their psychological effect. Mandrakes would do nothing for the modern American and mid-19th century lingerie would probably seem only doughty to the modern eye. In their time and place they had a power to increase excitement but not today and not for us. It wasn’t the believers in chapter 4 of the Song who invented the notion that such spices would have an aphrodisiacal effect, but, living when and where they did, they knew that and took advantage of the knowledge. It is simply a fact that in many ways – ways that have no moral content to them in and of themselves – we are creatures of our time and our culture. And we are so sexually, as this text makes clear.
But in taking from this and other like texts the understanding that Christians are to be savvy sexual lovers, we enter a world littered with difficulties, disappointments, and confusion. There is only so much that I can say in a venue such as this, but let me at least introduce this entire matter of sexual technique. It is too important not to. This is where people live. This is where in even many Christian marriages great disappointment is to be found and even deep resentment. The couple in the Song makes it appear that their sexual life, once they are married, is going to be the unending source of the profoundest pleasure, but it is not always so. And there are very simple reasons for this.
- The woman’s sexual psychology and sexual physiology is generally speaking much more complicated than the man’s and arousal and fulfillment are more difficult to achieve for her than for him. Everyone knows this – it is the stuff of late-night comedy – but knowing the fact hardly solves the problem. Put a man, whose own sexual psychology and physiology is quite superficial and easily satisfied, together with a woman whose psychology and physiology makes many more demands of her lover, and you have a recipe for difficulties and resentments. Do you wish to know how different men and women are sexually? Take prostitution, an industry – the world’s oldest profession – whose clientele is 99.99999999% male. Why? Why don’t you see women in pick-up trucks cruising airport strips looking to pick up a male prostitute? Because a man can have a satisfying sexual encounter with a woman he doesn’t know, doesn’t respect, doesn’t want to know, with a woman he knows doesn’t respect him, and with a woman who would never do for him what she does except for the fact that he is paying her money. Women look at men and think, “You pond scum! How could you have sex under such conditions?” But men do, by the millions, every day and women never do. But stop to consider what an immense difference between men and women, sexually speaking, that demonstrates!
- Men and women are and remain strangers to one another sexually. They do not have the same bodies, the same sexual “equipment,” the same responses and so there must be a willingness not only to learn from the other, but to embrace the differences and surmount the obstacles they place in the way (live in different worlds). Here is what happens in all too many marriages. The couple has thought that one thing they would never have difficulty with is sex. There is so much pent-up desire that they imagine that their marriage will be one virtually uninterrupted act of making love. But as their life together begins the responsibilities of life pile up, they come to the end of their day tired, and they discover that sexual explosion is harder to achieve than they thought. They are concerned about it, even disappointed, but perhaps not yet worried. But as time passes and bed does not provide the ideal conclusion, they wonder what to do. Perhaps the woman screws up the courage to suggest that he might do this or that differently. The man – every man imagines that he is some Don Juan and that a woman should thank her lucky starts that she gets to crawl into bed with him – gets his feelings hurt and resents what he takes to be the implied criticism. Perhaps he looks up books in the library to find out what it is that he is supposed to know but doesn’t, but they aren’t much use. He tries but bed still isn’t what it ought to be and, in a way they would have thought impossible before, they are making love less and less and enjoying it less and less. That is what happens in many marriages, including many Christian marriages.
- I tell couples about to marry that they know much less about all of this than they think they do – the fellow especially – and that here too they have a calling, the man, as always in marriage, the one with the primary calling. Insofar as the husband is the lover of his wife, as a husband his calling is to learn how to extract the maximum amount of sexual pleasure this particular female body is capable of producing. And, I say to him, “You don’t know how to do that. It will take a long time to learn how to do that. And it is your job to make that process of education and discovery as much fun for your wife as it ought to be.” “What is more,” I tell him, “the only one who can teach you what you need to know is your wife herself. She needs to know, to hear it over and over again, that you want to please her and want to know how, so that she feels free to tell you what she feels and thinks without worrying that you will be offended or your pride injured.” Isn’t it amazing that humility and love should have so much to do with great sex? Isn’t that a magnificent demonstration that the one who made us is the very same one who said that the principle that makes this world work is that of loving your neighbor more than you love yourself? And that is what a man learns: he must sacrifice the demanding interests of his own sexual desire if he is truly to love and please his wife. How predictably biblical that is! Not the myth of pornographic sex! Not in real life!
- I know there are exceptions. I don’t want to suggest that it is always the failure of the husband to create a truly loving environment for sex, that it is always male selfishness or indifference or offended pride or foolishness that defeats the sexual delight and fulfillment pictured so beautifully in the Song of Songs. I know there are exceptions. But there is no doubt that it is the failure of the husband that is the ordinary problem. Let me illustrate it this way. There is a spot on the front wall of a woman’s vagina nowadays known as the G Spot. It was originally known as the Grafenberg Spot, so named after the gynecologist Ernst Gräfenberg, who first described it in 1944. In some women more than others, but in most, it is a zone that, when stimulated, can provide intense pleasure. I’m certain that over the course of history there have been untold multitudes of women who have lived, loved, had children, and died and never known that they had such a thing as a G Spot. That is a simple illustration of the tragedy of sexual life in this world: that it so often falls so far short of what it might have been. But who can be blamed for that? Surely not the woman. It was her husband who was to master her body and her sexual responses. He was to learn how to please her and to discover her secrets. That he did not is the index of his failure as a husband, at least sexually speaking. Such women suffered from inattentive, uncommitted, and selfish husbands who loved themselves without a determination first to love their wives to the utmost.
- There is no doubt that women are the weaker vessels as sexual human beings.
- It is upon them that the burden of pregnancy falls with all of the danger to them that it has represented through the ages and with all the beating their bodies take because of it; (weight, varicose veins, stretch marks)
- They more easily contract STDs;
- They find sexual fulfillment more difficult to achieve and so depend more upon the consideration of their lovers;
- And so, for that and other reasons, they are more often disappointed, resentful, frustrated, confused, and even despairing because of this dimension of their lives, a dimension meant to be a center of joy and satisfaction.
- We have only the one indication in the Song to suggest that this young man will be a savvy lover of his wife. His knowledge and intended use of aphrodisiacs suggests that he intends to give his wife the fullest conceivable pleasure sexually. But that one indication is enough to lay all husbands under the obligation to take seriously their responsibilities as the lovers of their wives. Anything in this fallen world this important, fraught with this much potential for joy and fulfillment, will not be without difficulties. But that fact should cause Christian men only to redouble their commitment to ensure that their wives always thank God for the lover he gave to them. Every couple should be striving for the sort of sex described in the Song: electric, fulfilling, and full of delight. It is the faithful stewardship of God’s gifts.
- And the man is the head of his home here as well. Let me finish this thought with a letter that Dorothy Sayers wrote to Charles Williams in 1944. She was discoursing on the “distinguishing marks of true bedworthiness in the male” which, she said, she found “to consist in the presence of three grand assumptions:” 1) That the primary aim and object of bed is that a good time should be had by all; 2) That (other things being equal) it is the business of the male to make it so; and 3) That he knows his usiness. [Coomes, 93-94] I think that is right and I think that it is the male lover who talks about the aphrodisiacs in the Song confirms what the general principles of the Bible’s teaching about marriage also indicate: Christian men are to consider it their calling to be the savviest lovers of their wives.
That is the first implication of our interpretation of the Song of Songs: the highly erotic, the sexually charged nature of marriage as it is described in the Song becomes the calling and the responsibility of the lovers in a marriage. This is what a godly marriage should be: a relationship full of sexual fire.
- The second implication or conclusion to be drawn from this interpretation of the Song is the romantic context of the sexual life. If there is anything peculiarly perverse about our modern culture’s sexualization of life, it is the divorce we everywhere observe between sex and love. But here, in the Song, those two passions are powerfully intertwined. These two young people are lovers in the truest sense of the word. When the young woman confesses, in 2:5, that she is “faint with love,” she means everything we have always thought was involved in the passion of romantic love: longing, desire, delight all compact.
Here is an excerpt from the letter that G.K. Chesterton wrote to Frances, the night that she gave her assent to his proposal of marriage.
“…little as you may suppose it at the first glance, I have discovered that my existence until today has been, in truth, passed in the most intense gloom. Comparatively speaking, Pain, Hatred, Despair and Madness have been the companions of my days and nights. Nothing could woo a smile from my sombre and forbidding visage. Such (comparatively speaking) had been my previous condition. Intrinsically speaking it has been very jolly. But I never knew what being happy meant before tonight. Happiness is not at all smug: it is not peaceful or contented, as I have always been till today. Happiness [or love] brings not peace but a sword: it shakes you like rattling dice; it breaks your speech and darkens your sight. [The] Happiness [of love] is stronger than oneself and sets its palpable foot upon one’s neck.” [Ffinch, 55]
That is what everyone understands love between man and woman to be: a passion, a power, a longing, a desire, a joy. And clearly that is the love of these two in the Song. It is highly sexual in its caste, but it is not at all only sexual, or, perhaps better, its sexuality is hardly exhausted by the physical desire for the sexual act itself.
It is interesting that this love is conveyed in the Song in terms that are, in and of themselves, the sort of thing most people would find embarrassing to have to repeat in public. The expressions, even of this beautiful poem and even for their time, certainly are, to some extent, “over the top.” They are appropriate only as the speech of love. There is a kind of speech between lovers that transcends good taste in any other company. You can say things – husbands and wives do say things – to one another that you would be mortified to have overheard by your friends!
The Puritan Thomas Gataker remarks that “The Holy Spirit did allow some such private dalliance and behavior to married persons between themselves as to others might seem dotage.” [In Ryken, Worldly Saints, 45]
One of my favorite illustrations of this is a letter from David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister in the early 20th century. He is writing to his mistress, a cultivated Irishwoman.
“When I woke up at 6 my first thought was of the living little face engraved on my heart and I had a fierce thought to go there and then to cover it with kisses. But darling I am jealous once more. I know your thoughts are on roast mutton and partridge and chicken and potatoes and that you are longing to pass them through the lips which are mine and to bite them with luscious joy with the dazzling white teeth that I love to press. I know that today I am a little out of it and that your heart is throbbing for other thrills…” His mistress, whose name was Frances, had told him that she was hungry and that had inspired this! [Manchester, The Last Lion, 644]
Lloyd Jones was a sophisticated man; a learned man; a powerful man. But love makes fools of sophisticates. Here is its power to overwhelm and to draw a person entirely up into its maw. This romantic passion isn’t just sexual desire; this is sexual desire in the context of a man who is heart-sick for a particular woman and cannot think of other things because all her thoughts are of her.
We have drawn the conclusion, and rightly, that an asexual marriage is a perversion of God’s intention. The love of the song is highly erotic. But, in the same way, a sexual marriage that is not truly personal and romantic, not also amorous and affectionate in its communion of hearts and minds, is likewise a perversion of the ideal. I have had enough women complain to me that they feel that their husbands’ sexual desire for them is not a manifestation of real love to know that the problem is found as well on this side as on the other. The erotic love of the Song is the love of celebration, of praise, of longing, of delight in one another, of a passion to be with the other. It is the holding of hands and the stealing of a kiss as surely as it is the act of intercourse; it is the endearing smile as much as the erotic touch. This too is the lesson of the Song. Sex is rightly the fulfillment and consummation of love, the ultimate expression of the union of two hearts, not just two bodies. The desires that are consummated in love-making have many others avenues of fulfillment and produce much more in relationship between husband and wife.
Here is C.S. Lewis:
“The Christian idea of marriage is based on Christ’s words that a man and wife are to be regarded as a single organism… The male and female, were made to be combined together in pairs, not simply on the sexual level, but totally combined. The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it.” [Mere Christianity, 95-96]
That is certainly right. And here again we find the divine goodness and genius on display. The world imagines that after some years of marriage, the sex must grow stale. After all, you are not going to see anything you haven’t seen thousands of times before and you’re not going to do anything you haven’t done before. You will need a change. So the world thinks.
But true lovers discover and have always discovered that when sex is the effulgence of love, when it is but one dimension of a multi-faceted love, a bond has been forged that crowds out any discontent that might arise from the sameness of the sex itself. Sex has become the sharing of life at its most intimate degree. And the lover finds that there is not a woman in the world he would rather watch take her clothes off than the woman he has made love to these thousands of times already. Another proof, by the way, that the one who made us is the one who wrote the book.
The lovers in the Song are hand-holders, cuddlers; a couple that loves to do things together, and that finds a genuine pleasure in one another’s company. Their sexual life is the expression of this, not something separate from it or an addition to it. It is the consummation of an intimacy that is expressed in countless other ways.
The Song anticipates not only the sexual pleasure of untold numbers of Christian marriages, but as well the communion of heart and soul, the many-sided love, appreciation, and mutual benefit that countless believing men and women found in their marriages. Whether Martin and Katy Luther, or John and Mary Newton, or Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, such a marriage of love and longing is hardly to be something rare. It is to be the very character of Christian marriage. We are to content ourselves with nothing less! Sex is part of something greater, larger in marriage and it will never play its proper role in the joy of life unless that something larger is present to shape it and provide its context.