The Sexual Life (Part 2)


Review

  1. The establishment of marriage and the creation of man and
    woman for marriage.
  2. Celebratory Speech as the primary means of the practice of
    married love.
  3. The Headship of the man in marriage and the submission of
    wives as realities of nature, and so divine callings, that are
    to be sanctified and practiced in a Christ-like way, to the
    mutual pleasure and blessing of man and woman.
  4. The endemic temptations of married life: the peculiar
    temptations of men and women in marriage and where, so often,
    marriages go wrong.
  5. Then we considered the biblical data concerning the proper
    choice of a spouse.
  6. Finally, last week, we began our consideration of marriage
    as a sexual union and as the divinely ordained context for the
    sexual life.

We continue that subject today.

The Sexual Life (continued)

Last week we considered the Bible’s candid, earthy, and
emphatic teaching not only that marriage is the only proper
context for sexual love, but that God intends marriage to be
actively a sexual union of a husband and a wife. (Christians
should be careful, by the way, of using the world’s way of
speaking about sexuality. “In our increasingly androgynous age,
sexual speech and mores are designed to fit all couples, homo-
and heterosexual, and all manners of intimacy, serious or
frivolous.” [A. and L. Kass, “Proposing Courtship,” First
Things 96 (Oct. 1999) 32.] A married couple is “sexually active,”
a teenager is promiscuous!)

We noticed that in a preliminary way last week from both
Proverbs 5:15ff. and 1 Cor. 7:1-7. In the Proverbs text the
father hopes for his son a wife in whom he can “rejoice”, a
“fountain” who will be blessed to him (“fountain”, as we saw last
week in comparison with Song of Songs 4:12 is a reference to the
woman as a sexual partner or to the sexual union of a husband and
wife), whose breasts will always satisfy him, and whose love will
always “captivate” him (love, obviously here, and so “captivate”
have erotic overtones).

As the Puritan Thomas Watson comments on this passage, in
regard to the way in which an erotic marriage is a barrier to
sexual sin,

“It is not having a wife, but loving a wife, that makes a
man live chastely. He who loves his wife, whom Solomon calls
his fountain, will not go abroad to drink of muddy, poisoned
waters. Pure conjugal love is a gift of God, and comes from
heaven; but like the vestal fire, it must be cherished that it
go not out.” [The Ten Commandments, 160-161]

You will notice, by the way, that the Bible’s interest
in sex education is entirely moral, a matter of character
formation or, what is called in the Bible, “wisdom.” It is not
clinical, the birds and the bees. It is, in other words, the
exact reverse of the sex education abroad in our culture
today.

The Bible’s great statement of this theme of the life of
marriage as an erotic, sexual union is The Song of Songs.
And it does concern wedded sexual fulfillment (3:11,
though “king” and “queen” may also be titles for the groom and
bride during the celebration of the wedding feast, a NE
custom).

You are aware, that through the centuries,
first in Jewish exegesis and then in Christian, the Song
has been interpreted as a celebration of God’s love for his
people or Christ’s for the church. The Banner of Truth, for
example, still publishes the 19th century commentary
of George Burrowes’ written according to this
interpretation.

Here is Burrowes’ comment on Song of
Songs
1:2.

“The desire which in the heart of the saint
absorbs every other, is for the manifestation of the love of
the Lord Jesus, through the influences of the Holy Spirit; and
this love is thus ardently desired, because its effect is more
reviving and exhilarating than any of the pleasures of sense,
even of wine, the most refreshing of them all.” [105]

We used to like to sing, from the first
edition of Trinity Hymnal, Isaac Watts’ lovely hymn
“Christ hath a garden walled around” which takes Song of
Songs
4:16 as a reference to the moving of the Holy Spirit in
the midst of the church. Now, it should be said that most of the
time it would have been admitted that the Song had
something to say about the love of husbands and wives too; after
all, it was that love that Christ’s love was here being
compared to. But, the justification of the book, the explanation
of its place in the Bible, was as a statement of divine love, not
human, marital love. Jerome, in the 4th century, laid
out a reading plan for a Christian girl that had the Song
tackled only after she had acquired a thorough grounding in the
rest of the Scripture, lest, if studied too soon, she jump to the
mistaken, damaging conclusion that the book is about physical
love. [Kelly, Jerome, 274]

Now there were always immense problems with this
interpretation of the book. Allegorical interpretation always
suffers from want of adequate control. How do we know, really,
what anything means? After all, Christian interpreters have given
every conceivable interpretation of virtually every text in the
book. One of my favorite examples is the church father, Cyril of
Alexandria, who took 1:12, “My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh
resting between my breasts” as a reference to Christ between the
Old and the New Testaments. Well, maybe; but how would anyone
know? Similarly, Origen took 1:5 to refer to our blackness in
sin, but beauty in conversion.

But there is a more fundamental problem with this view of the
Song. Christ’s love for the church is “agape” love,
love in spite of. But as anyone can see who reads the
Song, the love being described and expressed – from both
sides, that of the lover and the beloved – is not agape,
but eros, love because of. The reason why the lover loves
the beloved so ardently is because he finds her so beautiful, so
desirable, so much the fulfillment of all his dreams and desires.
That is not Christ’s love for the church!

What we have in the Song is a celebration of the love
of a man and a woman, first who are about to marry and then who
marry. And a number of things can be said about this love.


First it is described, in breathless terms, as a
romantic/erotic passion
. You have this at the outset, in the
very first verse. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth
– for your love is more delightful than wine.” The love
that is being talked about is physical love (kisses) that produce
wonderful sensations (wine). The association between sexual love
and wine is well attested in the ANE. Here is a poem from the
group of poems called “The Cairo Love Songs” that date from
1300-1100 B.C. [No. 23]

I
embrace her,

and her arms open wide,

I
am like a man in Punt, [Punt was a town on the Somali coast,
known for

its myrrh trees]

like someone overwhelmed with drugs.

I
kiss her,

her lips open,

and I am drunk without a beer.

The parallelism of love and wine is a signal to us that “love”
throughout the book will refer not to love in the broader or more
abstract sense, but rather love with its erotic, romantic
connotations, the love of strong-feeling and physical response
and delight. Wine is use precisely because of its associations
with joy and excitement. It played a role in all biblical
celebrations because “it makes glad the heart of a man.”

In 2:5 we read the Beloved saying, “Strengthen me with
raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love.”
Raisins and apples were both erotic symbols, aphrodisiacs in the
ANE and the thought is probably sexual here. She needs to be
restored for more love-making, as the previous two verses readily
suggest. But, in any case, the breathless, romantic passion is in
full view. Take it is as an expression of romance in general, or
as an erotically charged romantic passion, the passion is itself
unmistakable and a large part of the characteristic of love in
the Song.

G.K. Chesterton wrote to his fiancée, Frances, the
night of their engagement:

“…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) has 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 brings not peace but a sword: it shakes you like
rattling dice; it breaks your speech and darkens your sight.
Happiness [in love, he means] is stronger than oneself and sets
its palpable foot upon one’s neck.”

It is the power of this attraction that meets us everywhere in
the Song. And, of course, meets us everywhere in life and
in every different way. I remember reading of James Denney, the
Scottish theologian, who died in 1917, but whose books on the
death of Christ and the doctrine of redemption are still in print
and being read by evangelicals today.

“…a friend met him one day standing still in the
street, his head bare, and tears on his cheeks. He said simply,
it was there [where he stood] his beloved wife had felt the
first pangs of the illness from which she died…. The
last years of unsparing activity were the spendings of a broken
heart.” [Letters of Denny to Nicoll, xliii]

What were those tears but another way of a husband saying that
he was “faint with love.”


Second, this love of husband and wife is described
in the Song as an overtly sexual passion, fulfilled in
love-making.

This is a continuation of the first point, but needs special
emphasis, for, to a degree that has not been recognized in the
Church, the Song of Songs is about sexual desire and
sexual fulfillment. We already have that in chapter 1 most
explicitly: “my lover…between my breasts” (v. 12); “our
bed is verdant” (v. 16).

The full and complete demonstration of that fact would take
too long and would perhaps leave you embarrassed, sitting as we
are in mixed company. But, you know, the Song was read
annually to the gathered companies at Passover who would have
perfectly well understood the erotic imagery. We can easily
imagine husbands and wives nudging one another at the most erotic
parts.

But let me draw your attention to two features of this love
poem, or, better, this set of love poems. First there are
the four descriptions of the pair, three of the woman (4:1-7;
6:4-9; 7:9) and one of the man (5:10-16) and there is no denying
the erotically charged interest in the physical attractiveness of
their respective bodies to one another (however difficult we may
find it to enter into the meaning of the imagery!). Note, for
example, 7:7-8.

Then, there is 4:9-15 (noting “sister” as a term for the
female lover in ANE love poems; the romantic/erotic speech
– cf. 4:11 with the prostitute’s in Prov. 5:3; the
aphrodisiacs (cf. the prostitute’s use of them in Prov.
7:16-17). “Garden” is a familiar ANE image in love poems for the
female genitals or for her sexual charm in general.

In some erotic ritual texts from the ANE a goddess will invite
the king to “plough her.”

One of the Egyptian love poems from the period begins

Distracting is the foliage of my pasture:

[The mouth] of my girl is a lotus bud,

her breasts are mandrake apples…

and proceeds to describe her charms in similar figures. Both
“lotus” and “mouth” are widely recognized euphemisms for the
female genitals. In another we read,

I
am your best girl:

I
belong to you like an acre of land

which I have planted

with flowers and every sweet-smelling grass.

Now, you clearly find this double entendre here in the use of
these “garden” and “plant” images in 4:11ff. because you have
them all mixed together with other unmistakable references to a
woman as a sexual object or to her sexual charm. For example, we
saw last week in Prov. 5:15ff. that “spring”, “fountain”, and
“well of flowing water” were all sexual images. In v. 12 we find
“spring” and “fountain” paralleled with “garden.”

But, you will notice that the reference there is to a “spring
enclosed,” a “sealed fountain.” This is virginity. Consummation
has not yet been experienced. But 4:16 and 5:1 clearly describe
the consummation of sexual pleasure and experience. Remarkably
erotic texts if you appreciate the meaning of the imagery! [One
of the wonderful things about the Bible’s way of presenting
this material is that a child would have no knowledge of what is
being talked about even while adults were growing red in the
face!]

4:16 and 5:11, and their account of sexual consummation after
virginity, interestingly, are the exact center of the book. There
are 111 lines of verse before 4:16 and 111 lines after 5:2.
Sexual delight and fulfillment in one another is clearly the
central theme here, as indicated by its position in the book.
Proof that we are reading nothing into this is the fact that the
terminology of sex and love-making employed here is the same as
that used by the wise father in Proverbs 5-7 in describing to his
son the sexual enticements and offered pleasures of the
prostitute.

There is a great deal more than this that is overtly sexual in
the Song that I will leave to you to discern in your next
reading. Once you realize the drift of the imagery, the book
takes on a completely different character.

But, what is most important for us to realize, all of this
is in Holy Scripture. This too is the word of God.
And it is
a word for brides and for grooms, for those who are marrying! It
celebrates the power and wonder and pleasure of sexual desire and
fulfillment. It is God’s own celebration of this dimension
of life and marriage!


Third, this sexual, romantic ardor of marriage is
mutual.

There is as much sexual fire on the woman’s part as on
the man’s. Indeed, almost twice as many verses in the
Song come from her lips as from his. She is not reticent
about expressing her desire and, clearly, there is a mutuality of
sexual pleasure. In the days of the Reformation this was
recognized clearly and there was a reassertion of the
woman’s rights in marriage that had been far too long
forgotten in the church.. Calvin, in his comment on Deut 24:5
wrote that God [“imo ultro concedit, ut maritus et uxor se
oblectant”] “indeed…grants to both, that husband and wife
delight themselves.”

You get this, to some degree, much earlier as well. In the
preaching of John Chrysostom, in the 4th century, for
example, you find a remarkably earthy and candid acknowledgement
of the goodness of mutual sexual pleasure. In a sermon on the
last verses of Colossians he speaks of the pleasure of sexual
love which welds two spouses together, fusing and commingling
their bodies just as when we pour myrrh into olive oil. And to
those who were embarrassed by his frankness he went on to scold
them; there is no need to blush when talking openly about
marriage, an honorable estate and an image of the presence of
Christ.

I do not deny that there is an initiative that belongs to the
man and that the woman needs, but I say that the Song does
not permit us the view that in marriage one or the other should
delight in the sexual/romantic aspect of love more than the other
or get the good of it more than the other. But that fire must be
kept lit! And, as we said weeks before, it is lit and kept aflame
by nothing so much as loving, appreciative, celebratory, romantic
speech, which is, after all, what you find in the Song,
indeed, that’s all you find in the song. It is sexual
passion fueled by words of love!

But there is a further complication and that is the profoundly
different sexual physiology and psychology of men and women. They
are as different as night and day and everyone knows it, even if
everyone does not wisely accept the practical implications of
this fact. An easy way of illustrating the difference is to
consider prostitution, the world’s oldest profession. It is
a way of life to be found everywhere in the world; a mega-billion
dollar business and it serves a clientele that is 99.9% male
– either women serving male customers or men serving male
customers. One does not see women in pick-up trucks, cruising
strips looking to pick up male prostitutes. And why is that?
Because a man can have a satisfying sexual encounter with a woman
he does not know, does not like, does not respect, and whom he
knows full well would not do this for him were he not paying her
money. A woman looks at this and thinks, “You pond scum!” She
cannot imagine a sexual dalliance on those terms. We could easily
enlarge the number of illustrations of how the vast difference
between men and women sexually is an artifact of human culture
and leaves its evidence everywhere to be seen. Suffice it to say
that men and women are not the same and those differences are
what ordinarily complicate love-making in marriage.

And it is the man’s calling to create the romantic
environment in which those differences cannot only be overcome,
but exploited to fulfill the erotic pleasure that God intends for
husbands and wives.

Dorothy Sayers, in a letter to Charles Williams in 1944 wrote
of what she considered “the distinguishing marks of true
bedworthiness in the male.” She found them 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. 3. That he knows his business.” [In Coomes, 93-94]

But there is a great deal for a man to learn and much that
only his wife can teach him. I find it a wonderful mystery and
certainly God’s intention that he had deliberately created
us strangers of one another sexually. A man has no breasts, for
example, and so will go to his grave never knowing what a woman
feels there, and vice versa. That requires a man to learn from
his wife and to create an atmosphere of openness and trust if
ever there is to be the full experience of sexual pleasure. And
he had ordered human life so that men and women are stimulated
differently, requiring, at the last, in the most intimate act of
all, that we consider the interests of others before our own. And
he had determined that here too, one gains one’s life by
losing it. I offer only those hints in a setting such as this
one. Still, how remarkable the Bible’s emphasis on sexual
pleasure as the blessing of marriage. And how much that pleasure
– as the expression of a romantic love – invests all
of life with charm and delight. It is hard to be very sad or very
disturbed about other things for very long when you are head over
heels for your wife or husband and when loving him or her and
making love to him or her gives you, day by day, the purest
pleasure.