A Sermon on Song of Songs 7-8Lionel Windsor, 18 July 2004
Desire … disconnected
We seem to live in a world where sexual desire is everywhere, but means almost nothing. Turn on the TV, and you’ll soon find sexual desire in the ads, in the movies, on the sitcoms. Take a drive, and there it is displayed on the billboards. Open a newspaper, and you’ll find it everywhere; the driving force of so many scandals, sensations and sleaze.
Sexual desire, it seems, can achieve anything. It can sell ice cream and cars. It can spice up a news item. It can keep millions of moviegoers entertained for hours. Sexual desire seems to have a life of its own: strong, powerful, evocative, captivating. And yet, sexual desire is so often disconnected from anything meaningful or worthwhile.
You know the story: two career-oriented individuals meet. They date. They feel desire. They share a bed. They share an apartment. They call themselves ‘partners’, like a business transaction. After a while they get sick of each other. Their partnership is dissolved. Their careers both move on. If it’s a sitcom, they laugh and stay friends. If it’s real life, each of their hearts becomes a little bit more scarred and bitter.
Desire is everywhere, but so often it’s not connected, not anchored, not secure or firm or meaningful beyond temporary convenience.
Of course that shouldn’t be surprising to you if you know anything about the story of the Bible. Right back in the beginning, when God made the heavens and earth, and all the living creatures, God’s crowning glory of his creation was humanity, man and woman, who were both naked and felt no shame, made to serve God together as one flesh. Sexual desire is right there at the beginning of the Bible, fundamental to who we are as God’s special creatures: a mutual loving and giving and receiving.
Desire … distorted
Yet that desire was very soon twisted.
When the man and woman turned their backs on God, and failed to believe him or obey him, they were cursed in their own relationships too
In Genesis 3:16, God curses the woman, and says
‘your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’
Desire, disconnected from God’s purposes, became a cruel power play. Unsatisfying, yet still so appallingly real. As the Bible’s story continues, we soon see desire become the empty transaction of prostitution, the chilling weapon of rape, the cheap thrill of multiple partners. And in so many marriages even today, desire is little more than a bargaining chip.
Desire … restored (the ideal)
But the Bible is the story of how God acted to restore the relationship between himself, humanity and the whole created order. Initially he did it through the nation of Israel. The one nation God chose to restore the world. And there is a great climax in the biblical story when the nation Israel finally came of age. David, and then Solomon, come to the throne. And we see in Solomon a picture of what the ideal relationship between God and his people should look like: God’s king ruling over his people in his land. Worshipping God in his temple. Blessed by God with wealth and prosperity. Bringing wisdom and wealth to all the nations. Not perfect, by any means, but still a wonderful picture. What better time was there than the glorious reign of king Solomon to sing about God’s ideal for sexual desire? Because when God’s people are restored there is also the hope of restoring that thing that is so fundamental to being human: The love between a man and a woman.
And so we have the greatest Song of all, dedicated to Solomon. Song of Songs, the ideal for sexual desire. It is an ideal, of course. This a song, not a medical journal, or a list of rules, or even a story with a plotline. It is a song that celebrates an ideal. That means none of us will perfectly live up to it. In fact, it may be impossible for you to reach it at all, given your past or present life situation. It may be a source of pain if you are single, divorced or unhappily married. But this ideal is still important to grasp and understand, as an anchor that enables us to orient our lives to God’s plan, or even to help others orient their lives towards it. As Hebrews 13:4 says: marriage should be honoured by all.
Today we’ll be looking at the last two chapters of the song, 7 and 8. We will find there how sexual desire is both celebrated as an ideal, and connected with the things that give it meaning.
Desire … restored (Chapter 7)
Desire nurtured (7:1-8)
Please look with me at chapter 7, verse 1:
Here the man is speaking to his beloved:
1 How beautiful your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter! Your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of a craftsman’s hands. 2 Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine. Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies. 3 Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. 4 Your neck is like an ivory tower. Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon by the gate of Bath Rabbim. Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon looking toward Damascus. 5 Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel. Your hair is like royal tapestry; the king is held captive by its tresses. 6 How beautiful you are and how pleasing, O love, with your delights! 7 Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit. 8 I said, “I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.” May your breasts be like the clusters of the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples, 9 and your mouth like the best wine.
Some of the language sounds very strange to us. Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon? Husbands, don’t try this at home, OK? But you have to understand how an ancient Israelite’s mind worked. For them, the greatest thing in the world was the promised land, the land that God gave to Israel and blessed with abundance, especially in Solomon’s reign. A land overflowing with wheat and wine and fruit. The jewels and tapestries of royal prosperity. For them, the promised land was heaven on earth. And so the man describes the woman as a slice of heaven¸ in the language of his time. We might speak of sunshine and starlight. They spoke of pools and mountains and towers.
Do you notice how purposeful and deliberate the man is in describing his beloved? Not cold and calculating. But not weak and aimless either. So often our own culture treats love as something that just happens to you, something you fall into, or that strikes you without warning. An arrow fired by Cupid when you’re not looking. Now love at first sight happens, and it can be great, but if you leave it there, the desire usually doesn’t last. Cupid, in case you didn’t know, is a pagan Greek idol, he’s not an angel of God.
Desire has to be worked at, maintained, lovingly and purposefully nurtured. That is what the man is doing in these verses. His eyes move over his beloved’s feet, legs, navel, waist, breasts, neck, eyes, nose, head, hair, mouth.
Maybe your reaction to this part of the Bible is to think: That’s all very well, but the desire has disappeared from my marriage. I’ve fallen out of love, just like I once fell in love. Well maybe, just maybe, it’s because you’re passively waiting around for desire to happen to you again. If you sit there and wait, desire for your spouse is very unlikely to just happen. It needs time and effort and loving care, it may need you to do something. Love is active, not passive. It’s an action, not just a feeling. You may need to spend more time with your spouse, praising their positive characteristics and thanking God for their beauty.
Of course, that’s why pornography is so disastrous, isn’t it? It takes the active desire that belongs to your spouse or future spouse, and makes it passive. It disconnects desire from reality. And connects it to something unreal and unattainable. Pornography steals love from where it belongs. Statistics show that pornography has stolen the love of millions of Australians. Don’t let it steal yours. But foster and nurture your desire for your spouse.
Desire enjoyed (7:9-13)
In verses 9-10, the woman rejoices in her lover’s desire and responds:
9 May the wine go straight to my lover, flowing gently over lips and teeth. 10 I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me.
See how active she is, too? She invites him to come with her into the countryside
11 Come, my lover, let us go to the countryside, let us spend the night in the villages. 12 Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, if their blossoms have opened, and if the pomegranates are in bloom– there I will give you my love. 13 The mandrakes send out their fragrance, and at our door is every delicacy, both new and old, that I have stored up for you, my lover.
These verses, I think, show how natural and good their desire is. It is connected to the creation, to life and growth. And so connected to God’s good original purposes in creation. It’s almost a restoration of the situation of Adam and Eve. Remember, when the man and woman originally sinned against God, they were thrown out of the garden, and the woman’s desire for her husband was cursed, disconnected. Yet in these verses we see that desire restored and placed back in the garden. Natural, good, meaningful and purposeful; connected again to creation. Remember, this is an ideal, not a rule.
Desire … connected (Chapter 8)
And yet … something is still missing. The woman yearns for more; she is still not satisfied. She says, ‘if only’…
When love so desires? (8:1-4)
Please read with me from chapter 8, verse 1:
1 If only you were to me like a brother, who was nursed at my mother’s breasts! Then, if I found you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me. 2 I would lead you and bring you to my mother’s house– she who has taught me. I would give you spiced wine to drink, the nectar of my pomegranates. 3 His left arm is under my head and his right arm embraces me. 4 Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.
The woman realizes that it’s not enough just to have this desire. The desire must be awakened appropriately. The desire has to be further connected to the reality of her life. The woman has a family, a mother, she has a whole life, already rich with relationships. And she wants her lover to be completely connected into her life. Not just an appendage, a thrill, a disconnected compartment of her experience. ‘Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires,’ she says.
When does love desire to be awoken? When is the appropriate time? The following verses go towards answering it:
Desire needs to be connected to total commitment (8:6-7)
Let’s read from verse 6
6 Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. 7 Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.
She doesn’t simply want to be an object of his desire. She wants to be a seal over his heart, incorporated into his very existence, unable to be removed. Why? Because she knows the strength of love, and she realizes that there must be a strong commitment, to match the strength of their desire. Love / desire here is described as utterly powerful like death, all-consuming like fire, infinitely valuable like vast wealth. Such a strong force cannot be treated lightly. It must not be aroused or awakened without the security of a commitment.
A few years ago, my brother-in-law’s friend bought a Subaru WRX. A beautiful car, world Rally Blue, gold-trimmed hubcaps, able to go from 0 to 100 kilometres per hour in 5 seconds. It cost him about $80,000. But the power of the car had to be matched by its safety and security features:High quality airbags for high-speed crashes, a password-encrypted engine cut-off switch to guard against car-jacking, GPS Satellite tracking so that police can track the car from outer space if it’s stolen. You don’t buy a superb car like that and then forget about safety and security, do you? You’d be an idiot.
How much more powerful, and valuable, is sexual desire. Our world so often treats sex like an old pushbike, something you can lend to friends, use to go for cheap thrill rides. But the Bible says that love is so valuable that if you were to give all the wealth you owned for it, it would be utterly scorned. It’s as powerful as death. It needs the security and connectedness of lifelong commitment.
That’s why a well-nurtured, valued, lifelong marriage is what connects sexual desire to reality. It makes sexual desire the smooth-running engine room of life-long relationships, rather than the destroyer of lives, or a burnt-out stolen vehicle in the ditch.
But there’s more.
Desire is not just about private commitment. The woman does not just want to be a private seal on the man’s heart, she wants to be a public seal on his arm, a ring on his finger; displayed to the world.
And we see in this chapter that desire is also connected to social reality. The woman has a mother who loves her and gave her birth. In verses 8-9 she has older brothers, who wanted to protect her beauty and purity when she was growing up. And so in verse 5 she dreams of coming home from the desert, leaning on her lover, having her friends and family wondering and rejoicing at her relationship.
That’s why marriage is a public ceremony. Not just an excuse for a big party, but a public affirmation, a connection of your private life with public reality. Friends, family.
There is a myth going around, that most people believe. The myth that sex is only the activity of two consenting adults in the privacy of their own bedroom. Nothing more. Just a completely private matter, totally disconnected from anything else. Have you heard that myth? That is so wrong. Your private love life will have a profound public effect on everybody around you. If you’re not faithful and committed in your love life, how can you be expected to be faithful and committed in any other part of your life? It’s why the private lives of politicians do actually matter. It’s why your own private life matters. Not just to God, but to all of us. It’s why you can’t isolate what you do or think or say in private, and pretend it won’t make any difference to anybody else.
And so, in verses 13 and 14, we see the ideal for sexual desire. A man and a woman, continuing their relationship, fulfilled and yet constantly ebbing and flowing in love. Connected with friends, connected with creation, connected in commitment with one another.
13 You who dwell in the gardens with friends in attendance, let me hear your voice! 14 Come away, my lover, and be like a gazelle or like a young stag on the spice-laden mountains.
You can almost hear the song fade-out into the sunset.
Peace greater than Solomon (8:10-12)
I said at the start that Solomon was a picture of God’s ideal king. But do you notice in verse 10-12 that Solomon, in fact, totally failed? Let’s read them, and see the contrast:
10 I am a wall, and my breasts are like towers. Thus I have become in his eyes like one bringing contentment. 11 Solomon had a vineyard in Baal Hamon; he let out his vineyard to tenants. Each was to bring for its fruit a thousand shekels of silver. 12 But my own vineyard is mine to give; the thousand shekels are for you, O Solomon, and two hundred are for those who tend its fruit.
Solomon himself fell tragically short of God’s ideal in the area of love and desire. His desire was so disconnected from God’s purposes, that he had a harem of a thousand. He entered into marriage simply to cement political alliances and make commercial treaties. That’s nothing more than political, state-endorsed prostitution. It eventually led his heart away from God, and, even more, led to the slow but sure destruction of his kingdom, and his people and even the promised land.
You know, in Hebrew, you say Solomon ‘shelomo’. The woman says that shelomo can keep his harem and his money. In verse 10, she has found shalom, contentment, peace, wholeness, in her husband.
Jesus was the true descendent of shelomo. Who brings true peace, true shalom. Forgiving our sins, restoring our relationship with God, reconnecting our lives. Perfectly at the last day, and even, in part, in our lives now.
So what will you, a follower of Jesus, do with his word here? Maybe you need to ask God for forgiveness through Jesus. Forgiveness for treating your God-given desire with contempt. Disconnecting it from your life. Using it in a way it was never intended. Hurting others, defying God’s good purposes
Maybe you need to work at living the restored life God has given you in Christ. Reconnect your desire to the reality of God’s purposes.
Perhaps you need to foster and nurture desire in your marriage, actively loving your spouse, purposefully and deliberately matching your desire with your relationship. Maybe you need to ask for help in this area.
On the other hand, maybe you need to stop using your desire in disconnected ways that harm relationships, and seek to help those you have hurt.
Maybe you just need to be thankful for what God has given you.
Or perhaps you are someone who cannot realize this ideal in your life, because of singleness, or divorce, or sickness, either temporary or permanent. If that’s you, remember that the Song of Songs is a song about this world, and this creation, which is still incomplete and marred by sin. Ultimately what matters is a relationship with Jesus Christ, and that will bring true peace, no matter what your circumstances. Ephesians 5 speaks to everybody, no matter what their situation, when it says,
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
If you belong to Christ, then you have true, everlasting peace, connection and fulfilment; and commitment from the one who will never let you down.