OK, wake up—this book is about love, courtship, marriage and sex! And why not? Sexuality, don’t forget, is God’s invention, a gift of his goodness:

‘Since the world views sex so sordidly and perverts and exploits it so persistently and since so many marriages are crumbling because of lack of love, commitment, and devotion, it is advantageous to have a book in the Bible that gives God's endorsement of marital love as wholesome and pure.’[1]

Note that our title is ‘A Man And A Woman’, not ‘A Man And A Man’ or ‘A Woman And A Woman’. God’s Word approves only heterosexual relationships, condemning homosexual ones with unmistakable finality—if you take the Bible seriously this isn’t even up for debate, despite frequent protestations to the contrary.

The author was King Solomon.[2] This is the best of the 1005 songs he wrote[3] and the only one recorded in Scripture. You may be wondering how a man with 700 wives and 300 concubines was qualified to write on monogamous marital love. We can only assume that he wrote the Song on the basis of his first marriage, before he fell away from God’s best into the crazy polygamy so typical of Eastern kings in his day.

It’s not just a book of principles. It has a storyline, but it’s not the easiest one to follow and you should take any paragraph headings in your Bible for what they are: non-inspired editorial attempts to suggest an outline. The story probably goes something like this: Solomon owned some vineyards in Lebanon. These were managed by several brothers, who employed their young single sister to work there. One day Solomon visited his vineyards and fell for the girl, who was unfashionably dark-skinned through her long hours of outdoor work. He courted her seriously, spending time in the area as a shepherd—he had many flocks.[4] Eventually they married, and the Song describes both the wedding procession and the wedding night.

Some people have a problem with this book. Its subject matter has shocked and embarrassed both Jewish and Christian interpreters, who have wondered what place there can be in the canon of Scripture for a book with nothing to say about faith or worship and that fails even to mention God’s name. At the same time it has a lot to say about human affection, marital love and sexual passion. So they have allegorised the book, making it a picture of God’s love for his people Israel, or of Christ’s love either for his bride, the church,[5] or for the individual believer.[6]

The problem with this allegorical approach is in the details. For instance, what are we to make of the girl’s statement, ‘My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts’?[7] The normal meaning is not too hard to figure out. The girl wears a sachet of perfume round her neck; she can smell it all the time. Solomon is in her thoughts all the time and the implication is that, when they are married, he will lie where the perfume-sachet now lies. Nice—but too earthy and fruity for some Jewish interpreters, who say it refers to the shekinah glory between the two carved cherubim on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. Similarly, some Christians say it refers to the appearance of Jesus on earth between the Old and New Testaments. Clever, but somehow unconvincing.

What do you think? Quite apart from the fact that the book itself makes not the slightest claim to any allegorical meaning, clearly this approach is highly subjective and speculative. So handle with care. Far wiser, I think, to see the Song as in the Bible to show that love, marriage and sex are good, gifts of God intended for his creatures’ enjoyment and fulfilment.

If we are right on this, the opening section (1:2-3:5) describes the courtship, and from it we can highlight some of the features of a sound courtship. This will be our main focus in this article.

The first of these features is sexual restraint. The girl longs, of course, for deeper physical intimacy but she doesn’t let it happen at this stage; both she and Solomon wisely put the brakes on. This contrasts strongly with their throwing off of all sexual restraints once they are married.[8] Today’s liberal generation, at least in the West, sees pre-marital restraint as oddly old-fashioned. Standards have changed enormously, even in my own lifetime. Time was when the hero kissed the heroine on the last page of a novel, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. Now he often kisses her on the first page and the body of the novel describes what follows in explicit detail.

But there are sound reasons for a couple in love to keep sex for the wedding night and, in the meantime, to set agreed limits on the physical side of their relationship. Three times the girl in the Song says, as a kind of refrain, ‘Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires’.[9] Her statement is capable of several interpretations, but it probably means, ‘Don’t stir up sexual passion until it can be legitimately satisfied’, namely within the marriage bond. That makes good sense, in spite of the fact that the soaps, the film industry and society at large assume that if you ‘fall in love’ you are no longer in control and can’t help giving way to sexual desire.

A second aspect of sound courtship is the appreciation of character. ‘Your name is like perfume poured out’, says the girl to the young Solomon.[10] Notice the word ‘name’. In the Bible ‘name’ is more than just a handle; it means ‘character’ or ‘reputation’.[11] In courtship, the person you are getting to know needs to be more than a good looker and a great kisser. Look to their character: qualities like kindness, gentleness, courage, diligence, a sense of humour and consideration for others. In the end, these count for more than sex, even in marriage.

Would you question that? Well, in preparing some pre-marriage counselling notes I once did a bit of calculation. If a married couple spend half an hour every single day in sexual activity, that adds up to three and a half hours a week. There are 168 hours in a week. Deduct the three and a half and that leaves 164½ hours for other aspects of the relationship. In round figures that means that only 2% of the couple’s relationship is sex and 98% is the rest.

Some of the aspects of Solomon’s character and behaviour that the girl came to appreciate emerge in Chapter 2.[12] She compares him to an apple tree in whose shade she delighted to sit. In other words he was protective towards her. The boy in a relationship must avoid treating the girl as if she were his mother, expecting her to do everything for him; instead he needs to adopt a decisive, caring, protective approach. She continues, ‘And his fruit is sweet to my taste’. ‘Taste’ suggests a deep understanding, as when Scripture says, ‘Taste and see that the LORD is good’.[13] Solomon had opened his heart to her, sharing his thoughts, ideas and plans rather than just treating her as a living doll or sex object. And he was proud to acknowledge her in public: ‘His banner over me is love’, she declared. It was plain for all to see, like a military banner in battle.

Again, couples in a sound courtship value outside opinions. They avoid being locked exclusively into each other. They hold on to the same-sex friendships that pre-dated the courtship and value the views of their friends on the blossoming relationship. This girl talked to the girls she had known for years, and they said, ‘We rejoice and delight in you; we will praise your love more than wine’.[14] ‘You’ here is masculine singular; they were expressing their approval of her choice of man, and of the relationship they saw developing between him and their friend. Third-party opinions are valuable. Listen to them. When you are head over heels in love it’s hard to be even remotely objective about the one you love, and your friends may have some valuable insights to share. Don’t dismiss them too quickly.

It was during their courtship, also, that the couple learnt to handle setbacks. Learning it at this stage is a great preparation for coping with the setbacks that occur in every marriage. Solomon calls her ‘my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding-places on the mountainside’ and says to her, ‘Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards’.[15] It may be that ‘clefts’ and ‘hiding-places’ suggest her tendency to withdraw in the face of problems rather tackle them boldly. The ‘foxes’, in that case, are the little problems that tend to spoil every relationship. One commentator observes:

‘The foxes represent as many obstacles or temptations as have plagued lovers throughout the centuries. Perhaps it is the fox of uncontrolled desire which drives a wedge of guilt between a couple. Perhaps it is the fox of mistrust and jealousy which breaks the bond of love. Or it may be the fox of selfishness and pride which refuses to let one acknowledge his fault to another. Or it may be an unforgiving spirit which will not accept the apology of the other. These foxes have been ruining vineyards for years and the end of their work is not in sight.’[16]

The couple needed to ‘catch’ these foxes—to deal with them openly and honestly rather than leave them to continue their destructive work—and the courtship stage is the time to do it. There are signs that one such fox was the girl’s insecurity, which caused her to back off from Solomon.[17] As an ordinary country girl she could well have felt utterly unworthy of such a man as him. Certainly she had misgivings about her appearance,[18] as so many girls do. Beauty, we all know, is in the eye of the beholder. Rejoice in the fact that your fiancé(e) thinks you are beautiful, or handsome, because if they think that, then you are!

Another aspect of her insecurity was her fear of losing him. ‘All night long on my bed’, she said, she feared it. Perhaps Solomon had gone back to Jerusalem for a while to attend to his royal duties there and in her dreams she wondered if he might not come back for her.[19]

So the courtship was marked by sexual restraint, an appreciation of character as well as looks, being open to other people’s views of the friendship, and facing up to the inevitable challenges and insecurities of a growing relationship.

After that came the wedding and the consummation of their love. These fruity bits are described in typically Eastern language in chapter four; read them for yourself. For now, we’ll skip to the end of the book, where we find the couple still happily married in spite of the challenges they have faced together—and they have faced some tough ones. The wife’s friends ask, ‘Who is this coming up from the wilderness leaning on her beloved?’[20]

‘Wilderness’ or ‘desert’ is a powerful biblical symbol, often linked with Israel’s period of testing there after the exodus.[21] Just as the Israelites eventually came through it and entered the Promised Land, so our couple have come through a series of tests: her insecurity, the ‘little foxes’ and a cool period during their marriage. The wilderness also speaks of God’s curse. Joel, for instance, says of the plague of locusts that ravaged the land in his day, ‘Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, behind them, a desert waste.’[22] It was in Eden, of course, that God had pronounced the curse following Adam and Eve’s fall, a curse that included an element of potential marital disharmony.[23] Solomon and his wife, however, had overcome all that and were now ‘coming up from the wilderness’ together.

What reasons can we offer for the success of their marriage? Certainly a good attitude at the courtship stage was one factor. Another, no doubt, was the attitudes of her parents and guardians as she was growing up. The end of the book sheds light on this. The girl’s brothers say, ‘We have a young sister, and her breasts are not yet grown. What shall we do for our sister for the day she is spoken for?’[24] Maybe their parents were dead—we don’t know—but her older brothers were clearly responsible for her, and here we have them discussing how best to prepare her for eventual courtship and marriage. That, of course, will depend on the kind of girl she turns out to be: ‘If she is a wall, we will build towers of silver on her. If she is a door, we will enclose her with panels of cedar.’[25]

This is the language of Eastern poetry but its meaning is easy to decipher. ‘If she is a wall’ means ‘If she shows good character and puts up barriers to temptation’. In this case they will reward her, they will ‘build towers of silver on her’—maybe give her a silver head-ornament to show their approval. But ‘if she is a door’, flaunting herself and making herself open to temptation, they will restrict her freedom; they will ‘enclose her with panels of cedar’, boarding up the door, so to speak, to keep her from moral harm. That’s a wise approach that parents should consider for their daughters. Today it is considered cool for girls to look sexy. But looking sexy attracts an interest from boys that has little more than sex as its object, and a sound relationship must be based on much more than that.

Happily, the girl herself, now matured, says, ‘I am a wall, and my breasts are like towers. Thus I have become in his eyes like one bringing contentment.’[26] She is reaping the benefits of her earlier restraint. She is not ‘used goods’ and, as a result, can bring full sexual contentment to her husband.

Are you a parent or guardian? Take your responsibilities dead seriously. Play an active part is shaping your child’s attitudes rather than just letting society do it. Your child’s life could benefit out of all proportion to the effort you put in.

So here in the Song of Solomon we have noted some sound advice to young people on how to conduct a relationship, and some advice to parents and guardians about how to steer their young charges in the right direction. ‘For best results follow maker’s directions’. God is our Maker, and the Song of Solomon is a part, at least, of his directions for life and for love.

Take them to heart—and be blessed.

Copyright © David Matthew 2009

 

 

SONG OF SOLOMON

A Man And A Woman

 

This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

 

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Song Of Solomon

The gist of this article

Yes, the Bible contains a book about love and sex, and this is it! Many prefer to see it as allegorical, describing the love between Christ and his church, but this is not its primary message. Read on to learn about courtship and marriage.

 

1. Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary, Bible Knowledge Commentary, Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, Vol 1, p1009.

2. Song 1:1

3. 1 Kings 4:32

4. Ecclesiastes 2:7

5. They do this on the basis of Paul’s imagery in Ephesians 5:25-32.

6. Hudson Taylor’s booklet, Union And Communion, takes this approach.

7. Song 1:13

8. See Song 3:6-11

9. Song 2:7; 3:5; 8:4

10. Song 1:3

11. E.g. Naomi, meaning ‘pleasant’ wanted to change her name to Marah, meaning ‘bitter’, because of the sorrows she had endured. And Jacob, meaning ‘twister’ underwent a change of character to become Israel, ‘a prince with God’.

12. See Song 2:3-4

13. Psalm 34:8

14. Song 1:4b

15. Song 2:14-15

16. S. Craig Glickman, A Song for Lovers

17. See Song 2:14

18. Song 1:5-6

19. Song 3:1-4

20. Song 3:1-4