Through the ages many have wondered just how to deal with the book of the Bible known as Song of Songs, its sensuality and sexuality surprising many and causing many a good Christian to skip ahead to a much more modestly behaved Isaiah. However, celebrating fifteen years of marriage this week I found the words of Song of Solomon quite fitting: “For your love is better than chocolate” (1:2 mostly NRSV, except that I prefer chocolate to wine!). The Bible itself teaches that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 NRSV). So we might ask, just how does Song of Songs help us with righteousness?
To answer that we first need to ask what the book is about. In it we find a love triangle with powerful Solomon who never speaks, a male shepherd who does, and a female who is brought into Solomon’s harem, but who is in love with the shepherd. With many just seeing it as a love poem between Solomon and his bride, why do we see a love triangle instead? Consider:
- With regards to Solomon we know that “Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kings 11:3 NRSV), So . . . “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3 NRSV) could hardly make sense for a bride of Solomon who must instead say “I am one of my beloved’s many, and my beloved is shared between us.” Also, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me” (7:10) again does not fit for a man with so many women. If the woman is speaking about Solomon it would be “I am one of my beloved’s, and his desire is to build up his own ego by conquering women.”
- In 6:1-3 when the female looks for her lover, she does not look for a king in a palace, but a shepherd in a garden.
- The male voice says in 6:8,9 “There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens without number. My dove, my perfect one, is the only one” (NRSV). I am hardly romantic, but even I know that it would be horrible love poetry for Solomon to tell the female how many women he already has at home. This makes far better sense on the lips of an exclusive partner, the shepherd.
- In 8:11-12 the male voice points to the wealth and power of Solomon. “My vineyard, my very own, is for myself; you, O Solomon, may have the thousand [pieces of silver]” (NRSV). In other words, “you can keep your wealth, I will enjoy being in love with this woman which is a far better life.”
- In 3:6-11 we read about Solomon arriving to marry the woman. But in contrast to all the garden imagery she uses to speak of the shepherd, she points out Solomon’s power: “sixty might men of Israel, all equipped with swords and expert in war” (3:7,8 NRSV). How could she say no that?
Given this love triangle, Song of Songs has much to teach about righteousness.
First, Song of Songs was a corrective to the faulty wisdom of Solomon in matters of love, sex, and marriage. True love is not found in the multiple wives of Solomon, or even Abraham, or any of the males of the Old Testament for that matter. God’s intention is found in the Garden of Eden with one man and one woman exclusively and mutually in love. The shepherd has it right, not Solomon. The exclusive relationship is more romantic by far! And notice how much the female speaks in the poem. That too is far more romantic than the domineering male scenario which Solomon represents. So this poem shows a better way ahead for love, sexuality, and marriage, a more righteous way for Solomon and men like him.
Second, Song of Songs is a corrective to the faulty wisdom of the Christian Church in matters of love, sex, and marriage. So often throughout the history of the Christian Church Song of Songs was interpreted in an allegorical way which would soften the “obscene” bits. It was seen as a description of love between God and His people. However, this often seems a bit forced and the explanations become very arbitrary. Better to see it for what it is, a celebration of love, sex, and marriage. Given the ‘bad press’ that parts of the Church have often given to the physical aspects of love, this poem does help us recover the goodness of sexuality. God invented it, is not surprised by it, and it existed back when God looked at His creation and called it good. That the Church has often downplayed the goodness of sex has more to do with being swayed by Greek and gnostic thinking than with sticking to solid Biblical theology. When we affirm the goodness of a mutually expressed sexuality within marriage we find a way towards greater righteousness.
Finally, Song of Songs is a corrective to the faulty wisdom of society today in matters of love, sex, and marriage. If the Church has at times needed the lesson that sexuality is good, then society needs to learn that sexuality is a big deal. That is why it has traditionally been linked to the lifelong commitment and covenant of marriage. It is too sacred, too holy, too important, too powerful, too harmful, too exploitable to be without boundaries. In God’s design, the covenant of marriage is that boundary.
While people will tell the Church to “get with the times” and that the sex-within-marriage is old fashioned, we do well to notice the teaching of the apostles in the New Testament to people coming to Christ from the Roman culture. They do not often talk about keeping the Sabbath, or tithing, or some of the other things you might expect former pagans to know when drawing close to Israel’s God. But they do warn again and again against sexual immorality. In the ancient Roman society sexuality was “no big deal.” The Christian Church did not “get with the times” then and it should not now. It has always been a counter-cultural revolution.
We have been hearing more often about “rape culture” on university campuses which has been met with a “no means no” campaign. But suppose a young man points a water pistol at a young woman and she says “no.” Is he not likely to pull the trigger anyway and say “What? Where is your sense of fun? A little water is no big deal!” Far too many men and women are playing with loaded guns while thinking they are playing with water pistols. And people are getting hurt. Song of Songs, in teaching that love, sexuality, and marriage is a big deal provides a corrective to the wisdom of our society and points the way to righteousness.
While it is difficult for me to select passages for the scripture reading as some parts are too saucy, and others are, for us today, comically weird, this is the Word of God. And the Word of God tells us that sex is good, exclusive marriage is great, and the two belong together.
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned
(Song of Songs 8:6-7 NRSV)