What is love? Join Dr. Mark Gignilliat from Beeson Divinity School, as he teaches on the book of Song of Solomon, also called Song of Songs.
This book of lyrical poetry is a collection of 10 simple poems, where the couple speaking are freely describing their marital intimacy with joy and freedom. Song of Songs gives us a biblical example of God’s beautiful gift of physical intimacy in marriage for a husband and wife. This kind of love is a foretaste of the eternal love we will experience in heaven.
Medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux had this to say about Song of Solomon, “If anyone desires to grasp these writings, then he needs to love. For anyone who does not love, it is vain to listen to this Song of love, or to read it, for a cold heart cannot catch fire from its eloquence.”
Here, I want to start with a quote from a medieval theologian who wrote a commentary and did some sermons on the Song of Solomon, a man by the name of Bernard of Clairvaux. This is what Bernard of Clairvaux says about Song of Solomon. “If anyone desires to grasp these writings, then he needs to love. For anyone who does not love, it is vain to listen to this song of love or to read it, for a cold heart cannot catch fire from its eloquence.”
Now, that’s interesting, I think, because Bernard is making a statement here that a book like Song of Solomon requires and anticipates a certain kind of reader. It anticipates someone who can come to a book like this with the capacity and perhaps also the experience of love, because you need something of that experience in your life to be able to make heads or tails of a book that really has stunned readers for generations.
One of the questions that fascinates me about the book of Song of Songs is why would a book like this be in our Bibles? That’s a great question. Song of Songs shares something in common with another book in the Bible named Esther. I’m sure you’ve heard of that one as well. Esther and Song of Songs are books that never mention very important Old Testament themes. There’s not a mention of the temple here in Song of Songs. There’s no mention of God. There’s no mention of the Exodus. There’s no mention of Israel per se, in terms of its covenant relationship with the Lord. I mean, what you have here in Song of Songs are really highly charged erotic poems. Robert Jensen, commentator on the Song of Songs, describes Song of Songs as erotic, lyrical poetry. So, let’s talk about that just for a second.
Lyrical poetry, I asked this to the group yesterday. Do any of you, are you interested in poetry? Got any poetry by your nightstand, maybe in the bathroom? There you, I have some, and I have to work, I admit, I have to work hard at it. It’s not, it doesn’t come naturally to me. In fact, I’ll read poetry and feel that impulse to just want to continue to ask myself, what’s your point, right? I mean, I can remember having to read certain poems when I was in college. I was at an event about two or three years ago, and they mentioned this new poet that everyone needed to be reading. And so, I thought, well, okay, I guess I’ll try to read that as well and do keep that in my bathroom, actually. And you know, and that’s, and some Tuesdays and Thursdays it works. The other days of the week, not really, because poetry can get complicated. I mean, especially, but I would call highfalutin poets can get complicated. Song of Solomon is not highfalutin poetry. Song of Solomon is simple, lyrical poetry. And lyrical poetry is known for being simple, a single voice. You know what? I better write that bigger for the Zoom people. It’s simple. You have a singular voice, and you have a single subject matter.
I’m going to talk about simple first. Even when I was in college, I remember being taught that Song of Solomon is a book that has a kind of complex love narrative built within it that you have to read in the seam. Some of you may have been taught this before, so that you have Solomon and the Shunammite woman. And eventually, perhaps a third figure comes into the scene, and it turns into this sort of complex love triangle, kind of turns into like a Spanish TV soap opera or something like that. I don’t think so anymore. I just think what you have in Song of Solomon is a collection of 10 simple poems. Not a lot of lines, not a complex structure. You have a singular voice, and we’ll talk about this a little bit more.
Interestingly enough, the voice that tends to dominate the book of Song of Songs is the voice of the woman. She’s speaking a lot in this; lots to talk about that here in terms of the sexual relation within marriage. It’s the woman is not objectified. She’s not a sort of a passive agent. She’s fully engaged. She’s fully alert. She’s describing the situation with joy and freedom. She’s unfettered in her expression of sexual delight as well. That’s a fascinating thing, I think, to find in the Bible. So, you have the female voice primarily, and then you have a single subject matter. And the single subject matter, the Song of Songs, is the celebration of love. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and write this up here and I’m going to come back to it. But love in Song of Songs is almost a personified agent. Matter of fact, I’ll just release the qualifier there and just say, love is a personified agent. It’s a figure. It’s almost a person that you could place verbs on and begin to describe it like you would a human being. So that that itself is suggesting something about what love is and how important love and the erotic fulfillment of love plays within the Bible. And it’s a song that sort of draws from the images of the natural world to describe the love between this man and this woman.
Now, if you were here for the Ecclesiastes talk last month, you’ll remember that within the Jewish tradition, Solomon, and you Zoom people, tell me if you can’t see this, Solomon is known for writing or being at least responsible for three books of the Bible, right? You have, Solomon writes Song of Songs when he is young. At least that’s what they say in the Jewish tradition.
Interestingly enough, in the Christian tradition, they tend to put Song of Solomon at the end of Solomon’s life. I like that actually. It gives me hope as I age. Song of Solomon at the end of his life. Primarily because they thought Song of Solomon illustrated and demonstrates what Heaven will be in the completeness of its bliss. I’m persuaded by that, by the way. And we can come back around and talk about this, but they’d put Song of Solomon here. We put, the Jewish tradition put, Song of Songs at the beginning of Solomon’s life. Why, and this is the cheap joke that I’ve been using with this. But because at this point in his life, Solomon takes no note of Cialis commercials. He doesn’t need; he’s in the full bloom of his virility, and he’s writing from the standpoint of that, and we get that. Middle life, he writes Proverbs, and then the end of his life, he writes Ecclesiastes. So, a Song of Songs talking about the freedom and the beautiful expression of love and erotic fulfillment and marriage. Proverbs, you have as reflections on how to live well in life, skilled living. And then Ecclesiastes is this retrospective kind of reflection on life from the standpoint of old age. We didn’t even talk about this last month, but in Ecclesiastes 12, Solomon describes his old age and talks about lacking desire anymore. It’s interesting to pair lacking desire here at the end with Song of Songs. So, he sees this sort of movement of his own life sort of wrapped up with the complexity of sexuality as we age.
So, can we dive in? I don’t know if this is going to work with what we’re doing this morning, but would one of you mind if someone reads, is that going to be okay? All right. Would one of you mind reading? We’re going to do a couple of these poems, 10 of them, And I’d like to l look at the first two this morning. Anyone willing to read Song of Solomon? One, two through six.
Richard: All right, Come on. We need a volunteer.
Unidentified audience member: There we go, I see that hand. Here, right?
Patrick? One, two through six.
Patrick: Yes, sir.
“The bride confesses her love. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. For your love is better than wine. Your anointing oils are fragrant. Fragrant. Your name is oil poured out. Therefore, Virgins love you. Draw me after you, let us run. The king has brought me into his chambers. We will exult and rejoice in you. We will extol your love more than wine. Rightly do they love you. I am very dark, but lovely o the daughters of Jerusalem. Like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon. Do not gaze at me because I’m dark because the sun has looked upon me. My mother’s sons were angry with me. They made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept.”
Okay, that’s poem number one, right? Okay? This, this first set of poems begins with yearning. And again, as mentioned already, with the yearning of the woman. The scene here are kisses and the bed chamber. That’s where we are. We’re allowed into something that’s very, very intimate. The senses are fully engaged. Love is better than the taste and the experience of wine, right? So, let’s talk about this for a second, right? So, love and kisses are better than wine.
Now I want to start thinking about that. When you hear wine, what associations do you have with wine? Because what you see happening right out of the gate in verse two, think about it, verse two of Song of Songs is an illustration of what happens through the whole book. To the point that it kind of makes us a little bit uncomfortable, like being around two young lovers who are just you know, fawning over each other. And you know, I think what we would say in modern terminology, if someone were to embody these poems in our living room, you would say something like, you need to get a room. You know, you don’t, you don’t do this out, you don’t talk this way out in public. So, it’s highly charged. It’s kind of pulsating.
And it’s these two lovers that are going through the natural world and looking at all of these various things they see around them and drawing analogies, metaphoric analogies between their love and their erotic desires and what they see around them. So, here’s the man, you know, walking on the countryside. It’s like, well, there, there’s two gazelles, sort of round soft things over there, you know, on a hillside. I wonder what on your body, you know, reminds me of two gazelles. I think I’ll write a poem on that. Or your teeth are like a flock of sheep, which, you know, I don’t think will get you a lot of bonus points today if you go with that compliment. Your neck is like a tower of David. Your naval is like a well filled with wine. I mean that. So, they’re just diffusive in their praise. And if you don’t like metaphors, if you think metaphors are over the top, the book of Song of Songs is going to drive you insane, right? Because this is loaded with metaphors. Then we get one in verse two. Your love and your kisses are better than wine. So, when you hear the word wine, we got some great answers on this yesterday. What, what do you, what do you associate wine with that would be an analogy between love and kisses. What?
Unidentified audience member: Intoxication.
Yes. That’s right. That’s right. Intoxication. Right. Your kisses make me swoon, right? Yeah, exactly. Anything else?
Unidentified audience member: Kind of is a compliment to food.
Okay? So, it compliments, it needs to be an association with something else. I would like to press into that. That’s, I like that, associated, associative.
Unidentified audience member: What about addictive?
Yes. I don’t think anyone said that one yesterday. Addictive. And we are going to talk about that before we leave this morning. Because this is one of the, this is why human sexuality poses such challenges for all of us, is we know its addictive quality. We also know that it’s not ultimately satisfying in the sense that it leaves you in the place of your experience. Eventually the experience closes in on itself, and you have to move on, which requires what, the desire for the experience again and again and again. We’ll, we’ll talk about that in a little bit. That’s great. Anything else?
Unidentified audience member: Metaphysical.
Whew! You went deep. Metaphysical. Tell me more about what you mean by that.
Unidentified audience member: Well, just the taste of the spiritual.
Okay. And we’re going there this morning. A good bottle of wine in the right moment, in the right setting, can be a very special experience. Yep. That whispers of something more. Ooh, I like that. It’s good. Anything else? I got one more. Maybe just for me, satisfaction, that can be satisfying.
So, love is better than the taste and the experience of wine. A perfume wafts through the air here in this first poem, the scene is evocative of adoration and delight, and you have these other maidens that are there like a scene from some medieval royal movie in England where you have the ladies in waiting that are kind of around watching in on the scene. They interact with the woman’s language of love. And then she teases here with the self-deprecation, she describes herself as dark yet lovely. Does anybody have the King James version in here? I can remember this from when I got bored in high school and junior high and church, I would read Song of Solomon. So, I feel like I know this book. It’s a, I caught one of my teenage boys one time reading Song of Solomon, I’m like, you just keep right on it, son, that’ll be fine. The, I think the King James says, I’m black but comely, it’s, think you have a great turn of phrase. Unlike today, right, where people will pay to have their bodies tanned, okay? A dark tan in this world, the ancient world, revealed one’s status as a common laborer. So, the woman makes use of the vineyard here as a metaphor for her body. While she had to work in her brother’s vineyard, she had to work hard out in the sun for her brother who owned a vineyard. Her body, which is her vineyard, she was not able to attend to, she couldn’t care for her body because she, her vineyard, because she was caring for her brother’s real vineyard. So, naturally, the description here of the woman’s body as a vineyard in other settings as a garden, again, we’re back to these metaphors.
Metaphors are associating things that are not alike for the sake of understanding something better, right? We know that love and kisses are not wine, but the experience of wine helps me understand love and kisses more. We know that the woman’s body is not a vineyard or a garden, but the associations that you bring with the encyclopedia of your own knowledge and the knowledge of that world lets you now understand this, the, the, the depth of the, the female physique from the standpoint of the lushness of gardens and vineyards and the fruits that are produced there. So, this is about desire, it’s about human sexuality, but it’s also given this point right here, and we’re going there this morning, it’s also about so much more because, and I’ll just plant this seed, because human sexuality is about so much more. That’s the point. Alright? Can we do one more poem? Are you okay with that? Anyone willing to read? Now this one’s longer. One seven through two seven.
Richard: We need a volunteer.
So, I shouldn’t do that to y’all. Okay, Richard.
“Tell me you whom my soul loves. Where do you pasture your flock? Where do you make it lie down at noon? Or why should I be like one who veils herself besides the flocks of your companions? If you yourself do not know, most beautiful among women, go forth on the trail of the flock and pasture your young goats by the tents of the shepherds. To me, my darling, you are like my mare among the chariots of Pharaoh. Your cheeks are lovely with ornaments, your neck, with strings of bees, we will make for you ornaments of gold with bees of silver. While the king was at his table, my perfume gave forth its fragrance. My beloved is to me, a pouch of myrrh, which lies all night between my breasts. My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of Engedi. How beautiful you are, my darling. How beautiful you are. Your eyes are like doves. How handsome you are my beloved and so pleasant. Indeed, our couch is luxurious. The beams of our houses are cedars. Our, rafters, cypresses. I am the rose of Sharon, the Lily of the valleys, like a Lilly among the thorns, so is my darling, among the maidens. Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. In his shade, I took great delight and sat down, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He has brought me to his banquet hall, and his banner over me is love. Sustain me with raisin cakes. Refresh me with apples because I am lovesick. Let his left hand be under my head and his right hand embrace me. I adjure you of daughters of Jerusalem by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field that you will not arouse or waken my love until she pleases.”
All right? That’s, that’s the last poem that we’re going to read for the morning. But there are eight more that are like it. Okay? So, if you got a taste of this, the others are very similar in the way in which they frame the relationship between the man and the woman. And this poem here is this playful back and forth between the two lovers. Where can I find you? She asks, as you graze your flocks in verse seven. And then in verse eight, the man retorts, you know, just follow the tracks of the sheep. Most beautiful of women. I mean, it’s like a scene of Romeo and Juliet, you know, talking through the lattice, you know with young lovers playing games with one another. Where, where can I find you? Well, you just gotta keep following the sheep. I’m around the corner, you’ll find me.
So, these poems, even in the back and forth at the beginning, they’re intended, I think, to raise your pulse as you read them. That again, what makes this, the fact that these are in our Bible, so wild. It’s intended to raise your pulse. The lovers communicate back and forth with the language of passion. And, and if you just sit with these images, I mean, at one point, it’s like your hand is under your left hand is under my head. Your right hand embraces me. Like, try to think about, you gotta get into a certain position for that to work. I’ll let you kind of chase that. So, the language back and forth is the language of passion. The full force of what is said between these two is very intimate and actually a bit embarrassing. This is the language of the bedroom.
It’s the kind of thing that you might do in the sort of whispered quiets of your intimate private life with your wife. But you would never, ever want anyone else to hear. The man praises the woman’s physical features. The woman describes the alluring effects of her perfume, leading the man to lie in intimate repose with her all night long. And from here then it’s this back and forth as the two of them tries to try to raise the ante with praising the features of the other person’s body. I do ask my wife sometimes, I’m like, I just, just for my own sake, I need to know, you didn’t marry me just for my body, did you? And she assures me that that’s not the case. So, I’m glad to, I’m glad to know that. The woman playfully describes herself as a rose of Sharon, as a lily of the valley.
And I actually don’t think that description that she gives us is self-affirming. I think it’s actually a modest coy kind of playful response. Why? These kinds of flowers, the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valleys, when they were in bloom in ancient Israel, they were all over the place. To put it in our language, they were a dime a dozen. Nothing really. She’s like, there’s nothing really special about me, right? I mean, you can just kind of see the play here. This works on stage. You can see it working out in a play. And how does the man retort? He says, like a lily among the thorns is my darling among the young women. No, no, no, no. You’re not just a lily of the valley and a rose of Sharon. You’re no simple lily of the field. You are a singular flower among the thorns of all the other maidens out there. No one is like you. And then the poem ends with a sensual love scene. It’s the bed chamber. When you get in verse chapter two verses three through seven, right? You, you’ve gone into an intimate moment. So, you have this poetic flourish that suggest images, that allow the passion of the moment to peek right through the pages of the poem itself. So, it’s you know, it’s kind of, shocking stuff. And then it ends with verse seven, the last little phrase of verse seven. I want to write this up here.
Do not arouse, some of your translations may say awaken, I imagine. Do not arouse or awaken love until it, so I’ll just, desires. That’s an enigmatic phrase. It’s a little opaque. It’s not self-obvious what that means, but it’s a phrase that’s obviously important to the poet because it shows up in chapter three, verse five as well. And it shows up at the end of the book at chapter eight, verse four, too. Do not awaken or arouse love until it so desires. Here, with this language, we begin to see that love is a personified agent. It’s a thing. Don’t awaken love until it so desires.
This is where I think the intent of the book begins to peek through. It’s a little late in the game for me to be asking this question, but I’ll go ahead and ask it. Is the book of Song of Songs or Song of Solomon about human sexuality and the confines of the covenant of marriage?
My answer to that is obviously yes. Right? And we just, we just read a, read a poem that was pretty charged. Yes, it is. But there’s an intimation through this book that we’re dealing with something so much more because love itself as an agent does not make any sense from the standpoint of the Bible outside of God’s loving relationship with his people. And in fact, it’s not an accident when you begin to sort of press in to the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament. It’s not a surprise that God’s favorite illustration, His favorite illustration for God’s love for His people, Israel, or God’s, Christ’s love for His church in the New Testament. It’s not an accident that it’s marriage and love that are the favored metaphors. In fact, the logic for the Apostle Paul, interestingly enough, is not, and God looked down from heaven and thought, I wonder what human institution I can use to illustrate My love for My church.
Could I use the field of business and commerce, well, or the royal throne? Or, I mean, the list is endless. That’s not, that’s not the idea. The idea is God actually instituted marriage; Marriage exists for the purpose of illustrating to the world Christ’s love for His church. That’s why it exists. It’s part of its purpose, it’s part of its reason for being this, this is the reason why I think in the best of the Christian and the Jewish interpretive tradition, they read Song of Songs as a book that’s describing so much more than human sexuality, because human sexuality itself, and this gets back, I’m sad that I erased it, to the metaphysical thing that we were talking about earlier. Human sexuality itself is not a cul-de-sac. It’s not an end unto itself. It’s a whisper and a taste of something transcendent.
I was listening to a Roman Catholic priest interviewed, and Thomas Joseph White, I think was his name maybe two, three years ago. And we were in the middle of the hookup culture, I mean, it’s been around since the sexual revolution, really in the sixties, and, you know, sexual sins aren’t new to the 1960s. I mean, I think we know that. But we’re living with the fallout of a lot of this. And someone asked Joe, this Catholic priest, about the young people that he’s engaging, and he said, I’ve come to realize with so many of the young people that are beleaguered by the heaviness of the sexualized moment in which we live, that so many of them are involved in these illicit affairs and relationships because they really are hungering for something transcendent. You know, they’re hungering for something more.
And human sexuality, the sex act itself, in that moment, allows them to have a momentary suspension of normal human existence with all of its heaviness. You think about the mental health issues that young people are having today. It is off the charts, off the charts. I sit on a board at a school, and I mean, I’ve heard the headmaster of this school talk about the need for more counseling for young people because the mental health struggles, especially post COVID, but in our moment, I mean, we could talk about this for a while, but we’ve trained our children with all of the technologies, we’re guilty in the general home as well, to not know what it means to be bored anymore, right? I mean, we’re constantly distracted and we’re constantly frenetically looking for something more, constantly looking to be entertained because we’re hungry people. We’re made to desire. You know, Saint Augustine was right on this. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God. And we’re made, we’ve been created with this cavern of desire that’s built within the DNA of what it means to be a human, and our human sexuality sits right on top of that. And our human sexuality, even when it’s ordered properly, we’ll come back to this, but even when it’s ordered properly, witnesses to something more than just sex itself. That’s why, in the Bible, the Apostle Paul takes the body so seriously. The body really matters. Sins against the body really matter. And this is why I think it’s saying here, do not arouse love until it desires. You allow love, which is revealed in the Creator.
So, think of that. And Saint Augustine was famous for this. Love is that which is the Holy Spirit that binds the Father and the Son in eternity. So, love is properly basic to the very being of God Himself and His triune relations. So, love, whatever love that we have, is derivative of that love. So, it’s from the Creator revealed in the Son, making its presence known in the world and drawing us and whispering to us about our ultimate destiny in Him. And this is why love is called, I think, within Song of Solomon, to be properly ordered. When it’s disordered or operating outside of the framework of its divine intent, do not arouse love until it desires. Allow love to follow the course that it was intended to follow from its Creator. And when it does that, I mean, it’s like the Elysian fields of delight are waiting for you.
When it’s not followed according to the intent of its Creator revealed in His Son, it leads to all kinds of disorder and internal despair. And all of us know. We’re fallen creatures. You’re all men in here. Me too. We all deal and wrestle with the brokenness of our sexuality and struggle with that and many of us will struggle with that until the day that we die. So, when you see the poet here says, do not awaken love until it desires, he’s calling for love to follow its own course, not to be artificially generated. Allowing love to work itself out according to its proper timing, and its proper setting with its true purpose, and its true meaning.
Have any of you read C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters? That is worth your time. And I will tell you, I’ve always felt a little guilty that I’ve not been a very good evangelical because C.S. Lewis didn’t always light my fire, just to be honest with you.
But as I get older, for whatever reason, I find myself turning to him more and more. And I think this, for my money, if I had to choose one of his books off the shelf, that’s the one that would travel with me. I just think that the insight that comes from that book is remarkable. And what do you have in Screwtape Letters? You have Uncle Demon, Screwtape, mentoring his nephew Demon, Wormwood, on how to best trip up this new Christian in the faith. It’s fantastic. And so, you’re basically getting a roundabout way of presenting to you a positive place of what it means to be a Christian. But he’s doing it through this, the lens of, the negative lens of the Demon.
And one of the things that I think makes Lewis so special is I think Lewis has a real theology of pleasure. A proper theology of pleasure. And Lewis, Uncle Screwtape, the Demon, says to his nephew, hey, you want to trip up this new Christian? Get his pleasures distorted. And I love this phrase, “Because whenever we’re dealing with genuine pleasure, real pleasure, properly ordered pleasure, we’re on the enemy’s turf.” That’s not our playing ground. That’s not the playing ground of evil and the demonic. Real pleasure is the playground of the divine. Evil can only be parasitic to it. It’s all evil can do. He said, and so, here’s some of his advice. You ready for this? “Teach him not to just enjoy reading good books, but to find some pride in telling people the books that he’s read.” You see the distinction, all right? And Alan Jacobs calls this “enjoying having read more than actually reading”, because that allows you at the next cocktail party, you know, to drop a few one-liners to let people know how, you know, supposedly intelligent we are or something.
He says, get him to do that, or turn him into a food critic so that he can’t eat any meal and really enjoy it without finding something to criticize. You can get him there because that’s a parasitic pleasure. That’s not a real pleasure. And of course, he also goes with human sexuality. Human sexuality is so quickly disordered. Our hearts are given to it because our hearts, our hearts have the tendency to find pleasure wherever we can find it, but not knowing that the ultimate source is in God Himself.
Now, my time’s running. So can I just end with a few points and then maybe we’ll bat this around some. I think Song of Solomon, because of its linking of human sexuality to the divine, the transcendent, love itself, is telling us a few things. Number one. Number one, I think it’s letting us know that the affections are important to our Christian faith.
Robert Murray McShane, I wanted to read this quote to you, Robert Murray McShane says this, which is a bit of a stunner. “There’s not any other book of the Bible which affords a better test of the depths of a man’s Christianity than Song of Solomon.” Is that stunning? I mean, I don’t think I would come up with a phrase like that to describe the book on my own. Murray McShane, that great Scottish 18th-century preacher says, that “few books actually reveal the depth of someone’s faith like Song of Songs.” And what do I think he’s talking about there? He’s letting us know that God, and we see this all throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament, God is not interested merely in our religious observance and ritualization. He doesn’t want us just to kind of be able to think rationally about the thing put our intellectual faith in it and do the things that we’re supposed to do.
I think that’s one of the reasons why the prophet Joel says, Rend your hearts and not your garments. I’m not just looking for external religion. Christianity is a religion of the heart. Now, we don’t always feel it on the same level, but I think the call here in a book like Song of Solomon is our affections, our delight, even the delight of human sensuality, properly ordered, witnesses and attests to our ultimate delight in the Lord. This is why Jonathan Edwards, I think, wrote a beautiful sermon called “Heaven is a World of Love”, but what’s heaven going to be? The new heavens and the new Earth? It will be a world of love. Real love worked out in its fullness with no hindrance of sin attached to it in our relationship to God, our neighbor, our friends, our family, and the world around us. That is good news. So, God wants our affections. He wants our affections.
Number two. Number two, if I can find number two, there it is. Back to this phrase. Do not arouse love until it awakens. Do not arouse love until it awakens. It’s an elusive phrase speaking about one, love and sex properly ordered, and what do I mean by that? I mean, it flows from the intent of the Creator revealed in his Son, number one. Number two, I think it’s a call to time. True love, marital love, takes time. It needs lots and lots of time. Christian marriages are covenanted acts. They include vows that we make before the man and the woman, and then before the congregation and family and friends, and most importantly, before God. And what the, and if you’re married in here, the marriage vow that you took had a fine print qualification to it that you might not have read. Too late now. You’re in, but you might not have read it. And what it says is this, what you’re entering into right now will require lots and lots and lots of time to sort it out. I mean, I’ll tell you, I’ve been married 22 years. I joked with this yesterday as well. I’ve been married to five different women. But I’ve only been married to one woman, but she’s been five different people and I have been too. The shifting sands of time have altered us in ways that we could never have even anticipated. Our first two years of marriage were not delightful. I mean, there were real challenges there. I think we brought in all these expectations, and they weren’t really being met. And yet, loyalty, commitment to the other, commitment to the covenant itself of marriage, the institution, that’s the field in which real love and romance can grow. Our culture is lying to us all the time. That the real, the lie of our culture is, you want real love, it’s going to grow in the fertile field of romance.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard calls that juvenile love. That’s puppy love. Real love that lasts to the cemetery, to the 25th year anniversary, and the 50th anniversary, real love that lasts that long is a love that’s grown out of the field, the fertile field of loyalty. And loyalty and commitment to the other requires lots and lots of time. We’ve got to talk to our kids this way because we’re in a world that’s heavily therapeutic and believe in quick fixes, we have access to everything like this. And here’s the hard thing, you’re about to get married. You do not have access to the thing that you’re about to enter into like that. You will need lots and lots of time. And the good news is the covenant that you’re making to each other and before God affords you, until God’s providence brings one of you out of this world, it will afford you lots and lots of time to work it out.
And then lastly, lastly, the Song of Solomon in chapter eight, verses six through seven. Now this is going to be over the top, all right? But I really think this is one of the greatest descriptions of love in all of Western literature. And I say that it’s one, that I don’t think all of the, I mean, I think there are some things that are written that aren’t Biblical, that are better literature than the Bible, right? I mean, that doesn’t diminish its authority or its inspiration, but I mean, George Elliott’s “Middle March”, that’s pretty awesome, right? But I think this description here is one of the best descriptions of love in all of Western literature. And let me read it to you.
Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death. It’s jealousy is unyielding as the grave, burns like a blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
We’re talking about the divine here.
Many waters cannot quench love. Rivers cannot sweep it away. If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love, it would be utterly scorned.
I mean, that’s a couple of verses worth memorizing and passing it on to your children, repeating it for the next generation. Lovers seal each other’s hearts, and they settle on each other’s bodies like a seal on the arm. They become one flesh. Their identity is no longer their own possession. The identity of the individual is now bound up with another, not just themselves, so to speak of the one person requires the presence of the other. Love is described here as being as strong as death. That’s intense, clarifies our finitude. The ending of a love is like a death. Many of us experience that in this world. It’s absolute. Love is zealous, it’s jealous, it refuses to yield. Graves do not relinquish their dead and love holds on to its object with a fevered ferocity. As the great Shakespeare said, Love is not love, which alters when it alteration finds.
And the Song of Songs could not agree more. Love burns. It consumes, it’s an unquenchable flame. If a person were to stand before the offer of great wealth or the offer of love, only a fool would take the wealth over love. Song of Songs leaves its readers, it leaves us with this stunning portrait of love, letting us know that love, even love at its best between a man and a woman expressed in the fullness of the erotic moment of a marriage bed, even that transcendent moment is witnessing to something much bigger and greater because we were made for God. And even the experience of human sexuality worked out in marriage witnesses to us that we’ve been made for something more. Okay. All right. I’m done. You want to bat this around? Any questions? We’ll pretend the camera’s not here, you want to bat it around and have a little chat?
Richard: Anybody on Zoom have a question? We’ve got 20 something people on Zoom.
Oh wow. Okay.
Richard: I’ll ask a question that…
Oh yeah. Yes, yes. I forgot about that.
Richard: I think that a lot of Christians don’t seem to realize that there will be a new heaven and a new earth and that we will have physical bodies in heaven. And that we also know that one of the things Jesus says, and I know it disappoints a lot of people, is that we will not be given to marriage. That mean we won’t have relationships with our spouses, but we, they won’t be, we won’t have a covenant relationship with them. We won’t. And so there will be no sexuality in heaven. But what I’ve, what I’ve concluded, and I’d like your comment, is because there’s, because going to be in the presence of God, there’s going to, it will, it won’t get any better than that.
Right. No, I love it. It’s a great question. That’s been, I would say, an area of my own sort of Christian faith that’s had to be re-calibrated. You know, I grew up in a kind of Christian environment that downplayed the significance of the body. In other words, the view was that the goal of the Christian life is to die, evacuate your body in a soulish way, in a spiritual way, and then to be with Jesus and we’re trying to shed this thing to be spirits that are in heaven. That, I mean, I’ll be a little naughty here, but that’s a form of Buddhism. I mean, that’s not Christianity. Christianity does say to be absent from the body, is to be present with the Lord so, there is this intermittent state, but that’s not the goal and many of you in your churchly tradition say something like this every Sunday, whether it’s the Apostles creed or the Nicene creed. I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. The goal of God’s creative and redemptive purposes for humanity is for us to have raised and glorified bodies, to be embodied, our bodies and our souls together in a new heaven, in a new earth, in the new creation. Now this, you know, our imaginations are limited on this. What does that mean? What does a glorified body do? What are its capabilities? I mean, Jesus in His raised body sort of illustrates that it’s not, it’s linked to his former body because they could recognize Him, but there is, but He is also passing through a door. So, there’s things that we don’t know, but it will be an embodiment. And that’s, I think that’s really good news. I mean, I find great comfort in that. And then on the sexuality thing, that that’s the thing that every why every, teenage boy that’s committed, to trying to commit to purity of some sort, prays that Jesus doesn’t come back before his wedding night. Like, I just want one round. You know, don’t tell him that, say, just want one more, one round. And I like the way in which you said that as well.
I mean, again, the fact that Jesus says there’s no giving of marriage in heaven, I think, lends credence to what we’ve been talking about today. Human sexuality is not an end into itself. It’s meant to be an invitation and a bit of a sky opening of human bliss, because, let’s face it, I mean, I don’t know where you are now in your sexuality, but I mean, most of us at one point in our lives thought that having sex was the best human experience that you could have. I remember doing the birds and the bees talk with my oldest son. It was so funny to have these conversations. My oldest son, he was, I think 10 or 11 and we’re having some conversation and I said, William, and we laid it out. This is how it’s going to be to, and his eyes were like that. And he was like, oh, no. And he thought that was the grossest thing he’d ever heard. And I’ll never forget, I grabbed him by the shoulders, and I said, I just need you to understand, son, the day’s going to come when you’re going to want to do that more than anything in the world. You seem to understand that.
Now, my second son, when we had the conversation, he was like, that sounds awesome. So, it was very, very different. So, we tend to think of our human sexuality as the most blissful experience that we might have in this world. Now, others might say different things. We tend to think of that, and that itself is a kind of opening of something to the transcendent to let us know what a foretaste of eternity, because that’s the hard thing about our human sexuality. That moment collapses in on itself. It’s remarkable how quickly we can forget it and then desire it again. It’s a remarkable feature. So, it’s just, I like how you said that, Richard. It shows the limitations of our imagination. If we think about heaven and I, again, whatever the sexuality is there, if it’s absent sex, and that’s disappointing to us, that just shows that we don’t really know what’s on offer, because whatever’s on offer is the perfection of whatever human sexuality was intended to witness to. Yeah, it’s great. Yes sir.
Unidentified audience member: This book’s called The Song of Solomon.
Unidentified audience member: Did Solomon write this?
I have no problem saying that. I mean, one of the challenges with authorship with Solomon is sometimes you’ll have an ancient mindset of authorship will attach a name to something that provides for a kind of authority. So, you think about author as authorizing agent. We tend to think of authorship in our world on the far side of the Gutenberg press and copyright laws, you know, so I don’t have any issues saying that Song of Solomon wrote Song of Songs but wouldn’t have any issue thinking that some poor poet wrote them as well in light of Solomon. You know, that wouldn’t trouble me either. But the title Song of Songs is actually a very kind of interesting way that Hebrew elevates something. So, when it says Song of Songs, the singular followed by plural, what it’s doing is it’s letting you know that these are not just normal songs. These are elevated songs that are highly rarefied and special. I think that’s the claim. But I don’t have any issue with saying that Solomon wrote these.
Richard: All right, we’ve gotta wrap this up. It’s 8’oclock. Would you close for us?
Will do. Okay.
Father, we’re so grateful for Your mercies to us. They’re new every morning. Lord, there are a lot of mysteries in the universe that we don’t understand. I think even human sexuality is one of them. It’s a great mystery. And Lord, it causes us so many problems as men. Lord, I pray that You will free us, that You will give us the gift of repentance to turn to You again and again, and that Lord, You would let us know that You have called us to Yourself and Your Son and demonstrated a love that goes beyond anything that we can even imagine or conceive. Let that shape us, I pray, in Jesus name. Amen.
Dr. Mark Gignilliat is professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, where he teaches courses in Old Testament and Hebrew, and also serves as theologian in residence at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Birmingham. Dr. Gignilliat is married to Naomi, and they have four children.