Text: Song of Songs 7:9b-8:7
The Song of Songs is a strange, unique, beautiful book.
Strange – partly because God isn’t mentioned from beginning to end.
Unique – because it is the one book of the Bible that gives a sustained and detailed celebration of love between a man and a woman.
Beautiful – because it does all of this in wonderfully imaginative poetry. It has every right to be called ‘The Song of Songs’, the greatest love song of them all.
I find in this passage three aspects of love. Three characteristics of God’s ideal for a relationship between a man and a woman. I want to speak to you about love’s delight, love’s devotion, and love’s durability.
1. Love’s delight
The Song of Songs is full of expressions of pleasure and delight. See, for example, 7:9, where the woman sings, ‘May the wine go straight to my lover, flowing gently over lips and teeth.’
Truly, her kisses are ‘sweeter than wine.’
7:13 – She says, ‘at our door is every delicacy, both new and old, that I have stored up for you, my lover.’
One thing to notice before we go any further is that just about everything in our passage tonight is spoken by the girl.
Interesting, isn’t it, that the notion that a woman can enjoy making love is often assumed to be a 20th-century discovery. But here we have a vivid example, up to 1,000 years before the time of Christ, of a young woman delighting in physical intimacy.
Two things stand out as being particularly delightful:-
Dignity. Sex is not always dignified. Cf. Lot’s daughters, Gen 19 – “There’s no man around here that we can have sex with. Let’s get our father drunk and have sex with him.”
The lovers in the Song of Songs see one another as persons, not just bodies. Their desire is for one another, not just for ‘it’. They are interested in human dynamics, not just physical mechanics. They are committed to developing their relationship, not just practicing their technique. They are equally willing partners. When the woman takes the initiative 7:12 – it’s not, ‘let’s have sex’, but, ‘I will give you my love’.
Communication. Throughout the Song they are talking to one another! Now there’s a thought. Notice how in 7:11ff – she talks to her lover. They look into each others’ eyes and pay one another loving, lingering compliments.
So, part of God’s ideal for love between a man and a woman is that they should find delight in one another. There is delight in dignity and trust and mutual respect. There is delight in looking into one another’s eyes and talking: intimately, playfully, tenderly.
2. Love’s devotion
According to 8:6, love between a man and a woman is like a blazing fire. And a blazing fire is a very good thing, so long as it stays where it belongs in the fireplace. Human love-making is very good too, so long as it stays within its own proper bounds and limits. It belongs in the context of a life-long devotion between a man and a woman.
A beautiful expression of their devotion is found in 7:10 – ‘I am my beloved’s and he is mine’.
But where is this relationship going? 8:4 repeats a warning first heard in ch 2 – ‘Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.’
There comes a time in the relationship between the lovers when they need to make a definite commitment.
This longing for commitment is expressed most clearly in 8:6 – ‘Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm.’
The seal over the heart expresses private commitment. The seal on the arm represents public recognition.
Private: We know that we belong to one another. Public: everyone can see that we belong to one another.
I think it’s important to emphasise the importance of public recognition of a relationship.
The idea that getting married involves ‘just a piece of paper’ is short-sighted. A marriage certificate is no more ‘just a piece of paper’, than are the certificates of your achievements and qualifications, or the deeds of your house, or a cheque for £10,000.
I do not say, of course, that marriage always works, or that cohabitation never works. But cohabitation will always be inherently unstable, because it is a private and provisional arrangement. Marriage, on the other hand, lends itself to stability: for it is public and permanent arrangement. It is both a private and a public seal of a couple’s devotion.
But, speaking of permanence, we come to,
3. Love’s durability
8:6. ‘Love is as strong as death.’
Let us fix it in our minds that God’s ideal for marriage is a life-long commitment.
8:7 – ‘Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.’ This suggests that even life-long commitment can come under threat. The path of true love does not always run smooth.
Of course, many swear undying love, but do they really mean it?
On the day of their engagement, a young man gave his fiancée a rather expensive necklace. It came with a note which said, “My dearest Diane, I love you with all my heart. I love you more and more each day. I will love you for ever and ever. I am yours for all eternity.” Signed, “Tom”. P.S. “If we ever split up, I want this necklace back.”
To enter into marriage is to renounce the possibility of leaving it. Not ‘until something better comes along; ‘but, ‘till death us do part’.
It makes a huge difference when a couple marry thinking that it might not be permanent. When marriage is entered into with the thought that divorce is a possibility, this places an immense emotional burden on one or both of the partners. ‘Does/he still love me? Will s/he find someone younger or better than me’.
Think ahead. It has been said that all marriages are blissfully happy. It’s just the living together afterwards that causes all the trouble. Some couples grow so far apart that in the end the only thing they have in common is that they were married on the same day. Just as there are some women who want babies, but not children, so there are some men who want a bride, but not a wife. Here’s a simple test when considering marriage: Could you imagine being with this person in 10, 25, 50, years’ time?
There are many things that both partners can do to help keep the flame alive. ‘Romance comes and goes and comes again; it is…a flickering flame that constantly needs to be fuelled. The will to refuel and nurture is the true love that makes for survival. We need to fan the flames by little acts of kindness, springing thoughtful surprises that break the patterns of dull routine.’ (Gledhill)
In any church, there are likely to be married couples who have been together for 40, 50 or more years. And they still delight in one another. They are still devoted to one another. They are a joy and an inspiration.
Here, then, is God’s ideal for love, sex and marriage. Here is wonderful affirmation of the physical and emotional delight that is to be discovered. Here is a beautiful picture of the devotion between a man and a woman. Here is the lofty goal and challenges of working at durability.
Is it worth it? 8:7 – ‘If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.’ Such love is said to be ‘priceless’.
But I’ve kept referring to this as God’s ideal. After all, this is poetry, folks. It is always spring in the Song of Songs. The lovers are forever young. There are minor anxieties, but no concerns expressed about paying the mortgage, contraception, where the children will go to school. But love, in this life, is not like that. Maybe it is winter, in more ways than one, in your life, in your home, in your relationship.
Over the past week I’ve come across the following, just in my own circle of acquaintances:-
- A woman in her thirties, married for ten years and with two children, blurts out: “I’ve just found out my husband has been having an affair.”
- A woman in her forties receives a message at work, telling her that her husband has been rushed to hospital as an emergency.
- An elderly mother shares that her son and daughter-in-law have separated, now that their children have grown up. They’re still good friends, and see one another several times a week, but they realise that have always been unsuited, and perhaps should never have married in the first place.
- A Christian gentleman in his eighties has recently lost his wife of 64 years. He says he can accept it intellectually, because she suffered so much towards the end. But he sheds tears of sadness every day, because he misses her so much.
It’s good to have ideals to aim at, but we need to be realists as well.
And there are plenty of people for whom marriage is not on the horizon at all. In any Christian gathering there will be those who are not married, but might be one day. There will be others who have been married, but no longer are. There will be those who are single either through choice or circumstance. And there may be those who find themselves attracted to members of their own sex.
So let me conclude with a word to all, whatever our personal situation with regard to love, sex and marriage. According to the teaching of Jesus, even the most delightful, devoted and enduring of marriages in this life is not where it is all going to end up.
Lk 20: 34f “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage.”
The Song of Songs, in celebrating all that is best in human love, it points to something still more satisfying, still more enduring. In its very idealism the Song points away from itself to something else; from the human to the divine; from the love between a man and a woman to the love between Christ and his church. Quoting the archetypal marriage text in Gen 2:24, Paul says in Eph 5:31f “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.’
Here is an eternal love, a transcendent love. It will offer the same delight, the same devotedness, the same durability, only on an infinitely higher plane than the most blissful partnership between a man and woman can ever achieve. And it’s open to every one of us.