Human love? Divine Love? Too raunchy for kids?
This Sunday we are starting a new sermon series in the Song of Songs, with its celebration of sexual intimacy within marriage and how it foreshadows God’s love to us in Jesus Christ.
It is not the easiest of books to understand with one commentator calling it ‘the most obscure book of the Old Testament’. But given the peer pressure teenagers are under in the UK to start having sex at 16 1; given children are now exposed to pornography as young as seven in this country 2; given long-term British couples are having less sex than ever before 3; and given the confusion around sexuality in the Church of England with the recent ‘Living in Love and Faith’ resource, it is to our loss if we ignore the one book of the Bible, which celebrates the wonder of sexual intimacy and how it fits into God’s good purposes for His world.
So, with that in mind, here are four interpretative pointers to help us navigate this most beautiful and passionate of Bible books:
1. A Song
It is important to recognise that this entire book of the Bible is a song (1:1a). It is called the Song of Songs. In other words, its genre is not law, not prophecy, not narrative, not apocalyptic, not a letter. It is a God-inspired love song. So it should be read as such and preached as such. Whether that means Pete and I will be warming up our vocal cords for some singing in our sermons, you will have to wait and see! But it does mean this book of the Bible wants to engage all our senses as we hear the ‘He’ and ‘She’ of the song express their love for each other.
So, look on King Solomon in all his glory (3:10). See the gazelles bounding over the hills (2:8). Smell the sachet of myrrh (1:13), the spices (4:13), the fragrance of perfume (1:3). Taste the wine (1:2), the apples (2:3), the honey (5:1). Hear the cooing of doves (2:11) and the voice of love (2:14). Touch the pillars of marble (5:15). And try to feel the strength of the mighty flames of blazing love (8:6).
Let this song capture your heart and imagination.
2. About Marital Love
The song starts with a strong desire from the bride for her beloved to ‘kiss me with the kisses of his mouth … and let the king bring me into his chambers,’ which should not leave too much to the imagination about what this song is about. This is about marital love – ‘the deeply rooted urges of physical attraction, mutual love and sexual consummation between a man and a woman’. 4
With all the bad rap that the church gets about its attitude to sex, there is nothing prudish here. ‘How beautiful you are, my darling’ (1:15), ‘How handsome you are my beloved!’ (1:16) ‘His right hand embraces me’ (2:6). ‘Your breasts are like two fawns’ (7:3), ‘Let my beloved come into his garden and taste its choice fruits’ (4:16), and so on!
For parents who have children with them in the Sunday services 5, you can think of this book as having a PG rating and so you might want to read through the passages first and talk with your children about it before and afterwards. But don’t be ashamed. God wants our children to be getting their sex education from him first and not the lastest Cardi B song or Netflix series. So let me encourage you to take that opportunity with this sermon series and teach your children about the wonder, beauty and sacredness of sexual love between a man and a woman within the bounds of marriage.
3. About Divine Love
You may be surprised to hear that the majority view during the first 1600 years of Jewish and Christian interpretation was that the Song of Songs was not about human love, but divine love. This seems to be based upon an assumption that human sexual love is not an appropriate subject for Scripture and an unhealthy secular/sacred divide 6. Nevertheless, this desire to read the Song of Songs within the wider canon of Scripture is an important one because the whole Bible ultimately points to Jesus Christ.
Indeed, the apostle Paul himself describes human marriage in this way: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church (Eph. 5:32).
In other words, the human love celebrated in this song finds its ultimate fulfilment in Christ’s love for the church. He is our true bridegroom (John 3:29). He is our perfect husband (2 Cor. 11:2). His kingdom is like a wedding feast (Revelation 19:7). He is the only one in whom all human longing and desire is satisfied.
4. For Everyone
In terms of who this Bible book is written for, please don’t think it is only for married couples. Certainly, there is an encouragement for spouses to keep the flames of sexual intimacy alive in their own marriage, with the repeated refrain “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” And so, an important question this book asks married couples is: How’s your love life? Do you need to turn the temperature up?
But this book is primarily written to the unmarried, in particular single young women: ‘the daughters of Jerusalem’,7 who are strongly warned to wait until the right time for sexual intimacy. Three times they are told ‘Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires’ (2:7b; 3:5; 8:4). Now, this is something we all have a role in: to teach our young people to resist the peer pressure and degrading of sex in society, but instead trust God’s good purposes for the joy and pleasure of sexual intimacy within the loving security of marriage.
Of course, we just saw in the previous section, the Song of Songs is not ultimately about human love, but divine love. And so whether you are single, celibate, divorced, widowed, married or unmarried – this book is for you. It is for everyone as we await the day we will see Jesus Christ face to face: the true lover of our souls.