Singing Sex’s Praises
Singing Sex’s Praises
Some years ago Julie and I chose to celebrate our wedding anniversary at home with our children, rather than at a restaurant. I’ve long since forgotten what was on the menu that evening, but I will never forget what happened during the candlelit dinner. Our six-year-old, sensing that the occasion called for something appropriate, reached for the Bible and read what he described as his favourite passage.
My lover spoke and said to me, “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance. Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.” Song of Solomon 2:10-13
I have no idea how much of this he understood, but it was a case of “out of the mouths of babes...” Many Christians have never discovered the charm of this Supreme Song (to give it its Hebrew title). After all, it is tucked away in that part of the Bible which some treat as sub-Christian and as superseded by the New Testament.
And of those who do stumble across the Song, many are puzzled, perhaps even scandalised by its contents. For the Song is not a historical account of God’s dramatic interventions in the affairs of this world, nor his dealings with his wayward people. In fact, it’s doubtful whether the name of God occurs at all. Nor do we find such “theological” issues as righteousness or faith, and we scan it in vain for instruction on matters of living wisely in God’s world.
What the Song appears to be is a cycle of erotic poems depicting the delights of human sexuality. Surely that can’t be its real meaning! Well, many Christians from at least as early as the third century have thought so. Such a glorying in things of the “flesh” would be an embarrassment in the canon of Scripture. Many Christians, adapting a framework laid down by earlier Jewish commentators, have understood the Song as an allegorical work, where spiritual realities are described in physical terms.
Because it is in the Bible, they feel, it can’t be read on the surface, but must have something to do with the mystical union between Christ and the Church.
Such hesitancy, however, at seeing the beauty of breasts or thighs and the exhilaration of sexual contact between a man and a woman depicted in the Bible owes nothing to genuine Christian piety. It is closer to pagan Greek notions of the inherent unworthiness of the body and all things physical.
The Bible begins by portraying a physical world which God made and declared good. The only thing which was not good was the fact that man was without a sexual partner until God provided one exactly corresponding to him.
The Song gives us richly sensual images of the mutual appreciation and enjoyment of a bride and groom in one another’s physical charms. For a description of a stunningly beautiful woman we could not go past 4:1-15, while the dashing figure of 5:10-16 must be every woman’s dream. The intense desire for and pleasure in the consummation of the relationship is tenderly expressed at a number of points, such as 7:8-13.
Some readers see in the Song a lovers’ triangle of a king, a Shulammite girl and her shepherd lover. It is by no means clear, however, that such a dramatic reading can be sustained. I prefer to see the Song as a series of impressionistic cameos, not as an unfolding drama.
The Song abounds in rich imagery drawn from rural and garden settings reminding us of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2). Here all of our senses are engaged at once. The most delightful fruits are there for the picking. The fragrances of every variety of aromatic plant imaginable greet our noses. There is music in the air. In this idyllic world, man and woman feel no shame as they lie together among the henna bushes. There is also a lavish use of the royal imagery of palaces, crowns and royal chariots; of gold, lapis lazuli and ivory; for in this setting of luxury we see man and woman with the royal dignity God designed us to enjoy.
Sex is a good gift. Like everything else in God’s world it has been corrupted now by our rebellion and the consequent skewing of the whole created order. We need to recapture something of God’s good design in married love. The Song affirms that despite the Fall (Genesis 3), God’s wonderful purpose in marriage is not lost. Through the Song, we catch a glimpse of the “redemption of sexuality” just as other parts of Scripture point us to the redemption of other aspects of our lives.
The Song is not an allegory. However, in portraying the tender lovemaking of husband and wife in the context of the canon of Scripture, it may help us to grasp something of the intimacy of the marriage imagery used elsewhere in the Bible. God in Christ relates to us as a groom does to his bride. This marriage metaphor is begun in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 2:20; 3:1; Ezekiel 16, 23, Hosea) and developed in the New (Ephesians 5:22-23; Revelation 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17).
Today our culture surrounds us with tired images of perverted sexuality and the supposed pleasures of someone else’s garden. The Song, in contrast, is an exuberant celebration of the delights God intends us to enjoy in our own garden. It may also then serve as a pointer to the love and joy to be found in the relationship which transcends all others, a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. This Supreme Song is surely the hottest book in the Bible!
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