Song of Songs No. 3


In considering the Song of Songs as a whole I have sought to demonstrate two things so far. First, the song is a love poem about human romantic and erotic love. It is not in fact an allegory about the love of God for his people or Christ for his church. Second that it is a palistrophe or has a chiastic structure which serves to emphasize in a typically ancient Near Eastern literary way the ardor of the couple in love and their progress toward marriage. Seen in these terms the Song confirms in a particularly beautiful and powerful way the message of the rest of the Bible that the only context in which romantic ardor, physical desire and delight, and sexual consummation can be righteously, safely, and properly fulfilled is in marriage. It is a huge point with immense implications, all the more in a promiscuous culture such as ours. I won’t go over all the details again except to say that such an interpretation of the Song places this book of the Bible not only squarely within its historical/literary context as an ancient Near Eastern love poem, but confirms that it is, as it seems to be, a book of “wisdom,” that is, it concerns the practice of godly living, the skillful navigation of life, the practical art that must be mastered if a young Israelite man or woman is to fulfill his or her calling as a child of God and member of God’s covenant family. Remember, this couple is young. There is even a question at one point early on as to whether she is sexually mature enough for marriage. This is likely an account of teenagers, not thirty-somethings, though it applies equally to them of course. In Israel, training in wisdom was understood to be necessary for young people, before they could make mistakes that would ruin their lives and the lives of others.

The Song of Songs, as I mentioned, is more like Proverbs 5 – a chapter we considered in treating the teaching of the Book of Proverbs about the sexual life – than it is like any other passage of Holy Scripture. In Proverbs 5, if you remember, the father warns his son against the catastrophic consequences of sexual sin and sets before him the true antidote, the God-given protection against such sin: viz. a romantically and  sexually fulfilling marriage. The Song covers the same ground still more positively and this time from the vantage point of the young couple, first as the bride and groom to be and then, in the middle of the poem – at the completion and culmination of the chiasmus or palistrophe – as the bride and groom themselves. Eager anticipation leads through righteous waiting to glorious fulfillment. In regard to the sexual life that is biblical wisdom. That is supposed to be the life story of most believers: eager anticipation leading through righteous waiting to glorious fulfillment. The Bible of course leaves room for exceptions: those who do not marry for some reason or once were married but are no longer.

Every culture in the world has always considered romance and the sexual life a very big deal. Nobody has considered it as something trivial and unimportant and insignificant. In that sense there is nothing unusual about the modern western culture of which we are a part. It is part and parcel of what it means to be a human being to be a sexual creature and to express that sexuality in romantic desire. That is how God made human beings. He placed a powerful kind of love at the center of human life. Almost every song you hear played on the radio, almost every song you have on your I-pod has the love of man and woman as its theme. Given that the Bible concerns the life of men and women, and given the terrific consequences of both sexual misbehavior and sexual fulfillment in faithfulness, it is no wonder that the Bible should address this area of life as frankly, as emphatically, and as frequently as it does and that it should devote an entire book of wisdom to the subject. What is dramatically different about our culture is that it has thrown off the wisdom of the ages in respect to the sexual life and has made sexual desire itself and the fulfillment of desire the be-all and end-all rather than the responsible, faithful, and loving  exercise of that desire. The Song of Songs will help us to remain wise in a time and culture that has become extraordinarily foolish and is paying a terrible price for that foolishness!

Tonight before I summarize the teaching of the Song I want to read two sections of the book just to give us the flavor of the whole.

Read: 2:2-7

Now, we have said, in general, that before and after the central section of the poem, the love of the couple is mostly in feelings and their anticipation of experience of love in marriage, certainly not in a sexual relationship. So, for example, in 1:2 the beloved says, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” She wants his kisses, but has she yet received them? So the question as we read these verses is precisely whether this is anticipation or experience. Or, if experience: what and how much experience of loving exchange?

v.2       He says she is the fairest of ten thousand, a lily among the brambles. There is a lot of this characteristic language of love in the Song, by which I mean what is literally hyperbole,  an exaggeration – the man wouldn’t want to be taken to mean that all other women are actually ugly (brambles) – but as an expression of love such language is a literal expression of his feeling. A man doesn’t have to believe that his beloved is literally the most beautiful woman in the world – and that objective observers would agree that she is, professional photographers, Hollywood casting directors, etc. – in order to say and mean that she is to him the most beautiful woman in the world. Beauty, like so many other things in life, is an effect, and the man’s love for her makes any woman the most beautiful in the world!

v.3       Now, she responds with a like statement about him. Now, obviously the couple has met before and had the opportunity in some way to fall in love and to enjoy one another’s company and attention and then to feel and in some way to express the mutual attraction. Their love cannot have been a secret to one another! You may be aware that there has been of late a movement of conservative Christians attempting to revive what they call the “courtship” model of choosing a mate. According to this model parents, especially fathers, play a much more active role in selecting a spouse for their children, especially their daughters. Now, it is fair to say that our American model of dating has been largely discredited by the results, however “obvious” it seems nowadays to American young people. Ours is about the dumbest approach to spouse selection – viz. young people trying out a series of possibilities, unprotected from sexual experience by parentally and societally erected barriers – that the world has ever contrived. No wonder we are, in this respect, the laughing stock of the world. However, it goes beyond the biblical evidence to say that parents are supposed to control the selection process. In the Song it is quite obvious that the couple made their own choice and the parents, or, in this case, the brothers are simply serving their younger sister by protecting her purity until the wedding.

v.4       “Banqueting house” is literally “house of wine,” and since it occurs only here in the OT there is understandably some question as to its meaning. The other outdoor references suggest that it may well be a reference to the fellow’s vineyard, perhaps his family’s farm. But it could also refer to a meal that was shared in the family dining room, no doubt with others present but the couple having no eyes for anyone but one another.

            “Banner” is even more difficult. The word is found elsewhere, ordinarily referring to a flag or pennant, such as we read in Numbers identified each of the twelve tribes situated within the camp of Israel in the wilderness. But it is also possible that the word should be translated “look on,” – that is, he looked on me with love – or “wish,” that is, he wished to love me. [Eaton, TOTC, 91]

v.5       Some take vv. 4-5 to describe their love-making, which, of course, if true would disprove  the view of the book I gave you last time. My sense is that it is precisely the strength of a desire that remains yet unfulfilled that explains the expressions of both v. 5 and v. 7. Here too extravagant language is being used to express the strength of love and desire and the tension is created by the fact that these longings cannot yet be fulfilled.

            Both apples and raisins are “pleasure foods.” So speaking about them is another way of describing both the pleasure and the tension of a love that cannot yet be experienced. [Hess, 80]

            The literature of the world is full of such extravagant expressions of love: I am “faint” [NIV] or “dizzy” or “sick” with love. Here is G.K. Chesterton, writing to his fiancée Frances, the night they were engaged:

            “…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 somber 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 breaks your speech and darkens your sight. Happiness is stronger than oneself and sets its palpable foot upon one’s neck.” [Cited in Michael Ffinch, G.K. Chesterton, 55-56]

The American Puritan minister and poet, Edward Taylor, wrote to his wife that his passion for her was a “golden ball of pure fire.”

v.6       The position here described is a “classic position” for lovers; imagine them lying side by side in a field or vineyard. [Hess, 81[

Is she imagining being with him in this way or is she describing a time they had together alone, a kind of ancient Near Eastern date? It is hard to say. The RSV begins the verse “O that his left hand were under my head…” But the next verse suggests that she is aware that she must wait for love-making. The passions are great, but the time is not right. Love is a terribly powerful force and must not be misused. That is the major theme of the book. There is certainly nothing to suggest that there was elicit love-making and that v. 7 was a confession of sin. That interpretation would be contrary to the entire character of the poem. In fact, the same statements we find in 2:6-7 we find in 8:3-4 and there it seems clear that the love-making has not taken place, but is anticipated in the girl’s imagination.

“I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” That statement further to indicate that the couple has not consummated their relationship. But it is a struggle to wait.

Read: 6:1-9

There are three extensive physical descriptions of the beloved by the lover in the poem: 4:1-7; 6:4-9; and 7:1-9, though there are other brief exclamations of some facet of her beauty (there is one description of the lover by the beloved in 5:10-16). These are very typical and can be found also in Arabic wedding poems into the modern period. Indeed, they are so typical and so much a feature of a particular literary type that that such poems have a name (wasf with a dot under the “s”).In 4:1-7 she is described from her head downwards as far as her breasts. In 7:1-9 she is described from her sandaled feet upwards. In 6:4-9 only her head and face are described.

Now the metaphors used in the language of love, as we said two Lord’s Day evenings ago, differ dramatically from culture to culture and time to time. Some of the metaphors employed in the Song seem amusing to us, but that is only because we belong to a different culture and don’t immediately get the point of comparison.

v.1       She’s missing him. And, as still today, other women take a great interest in the romantic experiences of their friends.

v.3       Her comfort is that he is not really gone away, because their love is such that wherever he is, she is as well and wherever she is, he is as well. Again, remember that these words – garden, browsing among the lilies – are explicitly erotic expressions; not simply romantic. Theirs is the love of sexual fire, even if not yet consummated. They are obviously not physically together but just as obviously the physical attraction is a part of their desire for one another. Tirzah was a city in the center of Israel; in fact it served as the capital of the northern kingdom for the fifty years before Samaria was built. It had one of the best water supplies in Israel and so had lush gardens and groves of trees. It is an argument for an early date for the writing of the Song, by the way, as after the division of the kingdom it is unlikely that a southern writer would use Tirzah as a symbol of beauty.

            In Lamentations 2:15 Jerusalem is described as “the perfection of beauty, the joy of the whole earth.”

            In the last line, the word “armies” does not actually appear in the Hebrew text. It may be that it is the cities just mentioned that are “bannered” in her imagination. The sense, whatever it is precisely, may be simply that she is beautiful to look upon or he may be saying again that her beauty gives her a terrible power over his heart. [Hess, 200-201] That may explain the next thought in the first half of v. 5. She overwhelms him.

v.5       He has already said this about her hair in 4:1. Any resident of Israel would know that the sleek black of hair of goats made the whole mountain side shimmer when the flock moved.

v.6       The ewes’ coats would be white from having been washed. In other words she has an arresting mouth, a full set of white teeth, perfectly formed.

v.7       Already the same thing was said of her in 4:3. Her whole face is lovely, beautifully formed, arresting to look at.

v.9       Again, this is the exuberant language of love, as when the husband says of his wife in Proverbs 31: “many women do noble things but you surpass them all.” Here the lover says, “take the most beautiful women in the kingdom – and the King, of course, has his pick of the most beautiful women for his harem; and there are plenty of other virgins, unmarried girls to compare – compared to the girl I love they are all middle-of-the-roaders; that is what he’s saying!

            By the way, if the speaker were in fact Solomon himself, that is, if Solomon were the male lover in the Song, we would expect “I have sixty queens…”

Now, with what we have already learned of the Song of Songs, and taking the two texts we have read this evening – entirely representative as they are of the entire poem – there are some important conclusions we can draw, four of them in particular.

First, there is a beautiful chasteness and proper reserve in the Bible’s description of and celebration of the sexual life. It is striking to me that in a book that is unabashedly about sexual love for long ages people were to a great extent unaware of how explicitly the subject is treated in the Song of Songs. The reason for that is that the subject is described almost entirely with figures of speech. There is nothing of the crass literalism of the modern American treatment of sex. A child hearing or reading the Song is very likely to think it is about fields and gardens, about fruit trees and fountains, rather than about love-making of the sexual type. When read at Passover, as the Song was, the husbands and wives would be nudging one another while the children would be listening wholly unaware of how explicitly erotic the text actually was.

Second, however chaste the book’s description of the sexual life may be, once you understand the reference of the metaphors the Song virtually seethes with pent-up sexual desire and the anticipation of making-love. Wine, fountain, garden, gathering lilies, eating honeycomb and the beloved’s choice fruits, and so on make not for a sex-manual, to be sure, as some people have tried to argue, but for a very explicitly erotic account of the love of a man and a woman. There may be reserve and chasteness in the description of this dimension of life, but it is addressed frankly, without embarrassment, and with a practical understanding of how the sexual life is to be managed.

Israelite young people were the furthest thing from rubes or naïfs. They obviously knew all about how feminine beauty and sexual attractiveness were cultivated – there is reference in the Song to dress, to jewelry, to perfume (4:9-10) – a practice universal in human culture, however the techniques change somewhat from culture to culture, though not that much. Virtually every culture employs jewelry, and virtually every culture employs perfume, and every culture employs dress. Women can come to resent this emphasis on the cultivation of feminine appearance, I know, and men must take care here in making demands and suggestions. But I take note of the obvious facts that the Nordstrom floor plan devotes approximately one eighth of the store to men’s clothing and the rest to women’s and that while there is a Victoria’s Secret at the mall I have yet to find a Prince Albert’s Secret. If jewelry makers and perfume companies could only sell to male users they would be out of business tomorrow. What women wear is a matter of great cultural importance; not so with men. Women could burn their bras and make a political statement. What could men burn? Let’s not even think about that! The sexual revolution was a revolution in women’s dress, but not in man’s. As a result a woman’s dress advertised her charms more explicitly; a man’s dress stayed largely the same; what changes there were served only to make him look dumber. It is a fact of life: the woman is an object of attention, her beauty a power quite beyond that of a man, which, as a man, I admit with gratitude. If I had had to be as handsome as my wife is beautiful my children would have had a different mother!

These two also knew already, before any actual experience of love-making, how sexual pleasure was enhanced – I mentioned last time that the same aphrodisiacs used by the prostitute in Proverbs 7 are found here in the Song (4:13-14) for use by the bride and groom. There is a worldly wisdom about sex, frankness about the art and skill of love-making in the Song of Songs even as there is a moral seriousness about it. The two things are not mutually exclusive; they go together however much they have been separated in our culture.

This is a summons to parents. This is a book of wisdom and wisdom has first to be learned by parents and then taught to children. Parents, your children must know all about all of this: how the sexual life works, how to increase their pleasure in it, first in anticipation and then in consummation. This is the Lord’s gift to them. Christian husbands and wives should have the best sex lives of all: full of fun and pleasure and love. When it is they will discover the great power of sexual love to bind a man and woman together at the heart. There is a world of knowledge and practical art presupposed in the Song of Songs. They got it from somewhere and it wasn’t from a dirty book! As in Proverbs these young people had parents who prepared them well for life and for this dimension of life in particular.

In a letter to Charles Williams written in 1944, Dorothy Sayers, the English novelist and playwright described what she called “the distinguishing marks of true bed-worthiness in the male,” which she found to be 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. 3) That he knows his business.” [In Coomes, 93-94]

This couple grew up in a wholesome environment in which young men and women were taught their business and both had the blessing of it.

Third, lest the point be missed because I don’t make it explicitly, there is in the Song a vindication, a celebration of the pleasures of physical love. We said last time that sexual consummation is found in the exact middle of the poem: in 4:16-5:1:

“Awake, O north wind,
And come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden,
Let its spices flow.
Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.

I came to my garden, my sister, my bride [note that important word!],
I gathered my myrrh with my spice,
I ate my honeycomb with my honey,
I drank my wine with my milk.”

Compare those past tenses in 5:1, for example, to 7:8:

“You stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters.
I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its fruit.”

All through the poem there is this breathless anticipation of their love and then finally the glorious consummation, the greatly heightened pleasure reserved for those who wait. The poem celebrates this love and this pleasure in it. As difficult as it has been for the church to gain and keep this perspective through the ages, as difficult as it has been for many Christian husbands and wives to achieve this pleasure in the sexual life, there can be no question that in Holy Scripture sexual love is a beautiful thing, its pleasure a divine gift and a very important piece of a godly life for a married man or woman, and that a Christian marriage is supposed to be a highly erotic affair.

The Apostle Paul makes the same point in a much more prosaic way in 1 Corinthians 7, but he too reminds us of what we are taught more positively and beautifully in the Song of Songs: we cannot afford to miss this delight and when we do its absence is a cauldron of temptations of various kinds, or as Paul puts it, an opportunity you have given to the devil.

A sexless marriage, a marriage without the joy of sex, and without the giving and receiving of this pleasure is a defective marriage and does not match the profile of a godly marriage given us in the Word of God. Here too, as everywhere else in life, if we love the Lord Jesus we will keep his commandments.

Another way to put this is to say that in the Song, as elsewhere in Scripture, the ideal set before men and women who marry is that of a romantic marriage. It may well be that marriage serves other purposes – other fabulously important and sacred purposes – than romance, but romantic/love is surely one of its chief purposes. It is remarkable, fundamental as romance is to human experience throughout history, how difficult it has been for human beings to realize this and preserve this ideal over time. In the Greco-Roman world, in the world of Renaissance Europe, in many parts of the Muslim world, the ideal woman, the ideal female lover was or is the courtesan or the mistress, not the wife, whose role it is to provide children, run the home, and give the man his status as a married man. But in the Bible the female lover is always and everywhere the wife! The object, the preoccupation of the husband romantically and sexually is always and everywhere his wife, the mother of his children!

We are, as you know, as a culture, losing this ideal once again and the wife is losing her status as her husband’s sexual and romantic fixation. Long articles are being written in journals of comment and of culture describing the distress that this is increasingly to American women. She, the wife that is, has been replaced by other women in many cases, but as often or more often by women on a computer screen. We have managed to digitize our courtesans and our mistresses, which is not only profoundly sinful as it has always been, but deeply pathetic as well. The American male if he wished to recover what shreds remain of his dignity should die of shame!

Fourth, though we have said this a number of times already, it needs to be said once again because it is, after all, the primary lesson of the poem as we argued last Lord’s Day evening. The proper setting for the fulfillment of all these powerful and wonderful pleasures the sexual life offers is the marriage bed and only the marriage bed. It is the irony of human life in sin that the very things that can be so wonderful and can so wonderfully enrich our lives are invariably equally destructive if removed from their proper use and context.

Morphine and other pain medications are wonderful gifts. They have enabled life-saving surgeries that would be impossible without anesthetic and can remove pain in illness and in the later stages of disease that would otherwise make dying sheer torture, as it often was in past times. But taken out of its medical context, the same drugs ruin lives by the millions. And sex is even more destructive when abused, when taken from its proper environment. It is so powerful that a taste of it can virtually drive people mad with desire, but misused it not only can, it often does, and it usually does destroy large pieces of people’s lives if it doesn’t destroy the life altogether. Here is the first and last lesson of the Song of Songs: there is something wonderful in store for godly young men and women, a powerful experience that forges a bond between a man and a woman that is mystical in its pleasure and power. But practice sex outside of the permanent commitment of marriage, separate it from the life-long commitment and affection of husband and wife, use it as a mere pleasure rather than revere it as the high pleasure of married love, and this wonderful fruit rots in your hand, this life-giving act produces death instead, this happy love produces hatred, bitterness, and undying regret.

Waiting is hard. People have always known that; but they also knew sexual love was worth waiting for. So her brothers spoke of the walls and battlements they would place around their younger sister until the time was right. For her it would be sexual love of the pure type that brought no regret, only delight. Young people, don’t jump the gun here. If you do, I can promise you without one shred of doubt that you will deeply regret that you did. Some things are too precious to spoil. Don’t spoil this!

The world thinks that to exploit the full pleasure of sex you need to try it out with many others. The fact is that even many generations of unbelievers knew better. They had learned that the sexual life in the context of a lifelong and faithful marriage, that sex joined with faithful love, that sex that is part of a life created by husband and wife together, gets better by the year and that it utterly transcends the ephemeral sexual experiences of the serial lover, who never learns, never experiences what sexual love could be and was meant to be. For nothing is clearer in the Song than that the delight of these two lovers in one another was not to end at the wedding or a few weeks later. Their wedding night consummation was only the beginning of a lifetime of the same, better, deeper, stronger as the years passed.

John Newton, so much in love with his wife Polly, wondered whether he was guilty of loving her too much, making an idol of her that in some measure displaced the love he owed to God. Jonathan Aitken, Newton’s recent biographer, thought his concern was an excessive focus on one another, something akin to Stendhal’s definition of the love of man and woman as έgoisme à deux., egoism for two. [141] Well, let me say to all the men here that this is a problem worth having, the kind of worry that it is good to have and a Christian husband ought to have from time to time. I can imagine this husband worrying just as Newton did. But it will prove not to be a sin in virtually every case, for it is precisely the Lord’s will that men and women in marriage should love one another that deeply and passionately, should focus upon one another with such a happy preoccupation as we have so beautifully expressed and illustrated in the Song of Songs. He gave us that desire, he gave us marriage which is the perfect environment for its experience and continued cultivation, and he taught us in his Word, especially in the Song of Songs, to aspire to nothing less.

Gentlemen, what you are to aspire to is a wife who thinks like this about your love for her. This is the American Puritan Anne Bradstreet.

“If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then Thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if ye can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the east doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold I pray.

And isn’t it an amazing world God has made that there is such a possibility of this beautiful love for virtually everyone, if only they will learn and practice the art. What a beautiful book is the Song of Songs!