Song of Solomon: Communicating Affection

Sermon by Derek Thomas on August 17, 2003

Song of Solomon 6:4-8:4

These summer evenings we've been in the Song of Solomon and tonight we're reading from chapter 6 into chapter eight. Last week, at the beginning of chapter six, we left them in beds of spices and gathering lilies, and we delicately passed over what that actually meant, keeping to the metaphor instead. Now, we begin with the man, who loves poetry, but he's not such a great poet. He repeats himself a little here, speaks of her hair being like a flock of goats, he's got this thing about her teeth, and then he says, and the woman will actually pick it up again in verse 10, she reminds him of General Patton, “awesome as an army under banners,” but I think we lose something in the translation.

In verse 4, the man is now speaking in poetic mode:

You are as beautiful as Tirzah, my darling, as lovely as Jerusalem, (Tirzah was for a short time a northern capital under King Omri) as awesome as an army with banners.

Turn your eyes away from me, for they have confused me; (they have shaken me to the core) Your hair is like a flock of goats that have descended from Gilead.

Your teeth are like a flock of ewes which have come up from their washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them has lost her young. Your temples are like a slice of a pomegranate behind your veil. There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens without number; but my dove, my perfect one, is unique:

She is her mother's only daughter; she is the pure child of the one who bore her. The maidens saw her and called her blessed, the queens and the concubines also, and they praised her, saying, 'Who is this that grows like the dawn, as beautiful as the full moon, as pure as the sun, as awesome as an army with banners?'

I went down to the orchard of nut trees to see the blossoms of the valley, to see whether the vine had budded or the pomegranates had bloomed. Before I was aware, my soul set me over the chariots of my noble people.

Come back, come back, O Shulammite (this is a nickname, a play on the name, Solomon); come back, come back, that we may gaze at you!" Why should you gaze at the Shulammite, as at the dance of the two companies?

(Now, the man speaks)
How beautiful are your feet in sandals, O prince's daughter! The curves of your hips are like jewels, the work of the hands of an artist. Your navel is like a round goblet which never lacks mixed wine; your belly is like a heap of wheat fenced about with lilies. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. Your neck is like a tower of ivory, your eyes like the pools in Heshbon by the gate of Bath-rabbim; your nose is like the tower of Lebanon, which faces toward Damascus.Your head crowns you like Carmel, and the flowing locks of your head are like purple threads; the king is captivated by your tresses. How beautiful and how delightful you are, my love, with all your charms! Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I said, 'I will climb the palm tree, I will take hold of its fruit stalks.' Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine!

(Perhaps the woman speaks now)
It goes down smoothly for my beloved, flowing gently through the lips of those who fall asleep. I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me. Come, my beloved, let us go out into the country,
let us spend the night in the villages. Let us rise early and go to the vineyards; let us see whether the vine has budded and its blossoms have opened, and whether the pomegranates have bloomed. There I will give you my love. The mandrakes have given forth fragrance; and over our doors are all choice fruits, both new and old, which I have saved up for you, my beloved. Oh, that you were like a brother to me who nursed at my mother's breasts. If I found you outdoors, I would kiss you; no one would despise me, either. I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother, who used to instruct me; I would give you spiced wine to drink from the juice of my pomegranates. Let his left hand be under my head and his right hand embrace me. I want you to swear, O daughters of Jerusalem, do not arouse or awaken my love until she pleases.”

Amen, may God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word, let's pray.

Our Father, as we turn to this particular Scripture, we remind ourselves again that You caused it to be written for our instruction, that the man of God, the woman of God, may be made perfect. Bless it to us, we pray, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.

You may have noticed that it's hot outside today, and it's hot in chapter 7 of the Song of Solomon. I'm going to need you to compose yourselves and remain cool as we tip toe through this chapter. The little tiff that marked much of the last passage in chapter 5 is over. It's back to sweet talk, really sweet talk, mainly by the man about his bride. At least one major commentator believes that the squabble in chapter 5 actually took place during the wedding festivities. In the Middle East these things would go on for days, and that we're now only a few days after the wedding that's described in chapter 3 and 4. I'm not particularly convinced about that. This is poetry, and although we've been trying to maintain something of a story line, at times that's stretching it just a little.

This may be many months after the wedding. There has been a quarrel, a misunderstanding, a tiff, she’d bolted the door, you’ll remember. When he came home he couldn't get in. Now, as chapter 6:1-3 closes, we focus once again on the wallpaper, and leave these two alone. Actually, we're going to join them for a few minutes this evening. We’re going to listen to what they say, because first of all, they have to talk. That's always the way when there's been a quarrel. There has to be some talking first. The air has to be cleared. Misunderstandings have to be rectified. Words have to be spoken. The damage of a marital tiff isn't easy to overcome. The sting of words spoken in haste and bitterness takes sometimes a long time to heal. It takes work, it takes effort to heal that damage, and what we see here in chapters 6 and 7, are words of affection. In this case it's particularly on the part of the man, communicating affection. He's doing all that sweet talk, again. Some of what he says about her hair, and teeth and neck and so on, is repetition of what we've seen before in chapter 4 on his wedding night, but there are differences now. He omits certain things now that he had mentioned earlier on his wedding night. He doesn't mention now her lips or her breasts or her hips, at least no initially, because he wants her to understand that she is more important to him than merely gratifying some physical pleasure. The suspicion that there's only one thing on this man's mind needs to be overcome, and he speaks to her in these endearing terms. There are more important things in a relationship than sexual gratification. He wants his motives to be purer than that. It's time to speak. He could have gone off with wounded pride, he could have sulked, he could have gone to his office, put his telephone on DND, do not disturb, he could have told his secretary, “He's in a meeting,” he could have given her the silent treatment. “I’ll teach her to be grateful,” he could have said. He could have become psychologically abusive, physically abusive, he wouldn't have been the first, nor would he have been the last. He could have thrown his weight around, he could have shown her the man that he was, he could have insisted on his rights, he could have told her that she was nothing without him, that she’d be a pauper without him, in these days. As I heard a young woman tearfully say to me once of something her husband had said to her, “No one wants used goods.” He could have said that. He could have beaten her up, forcing her to camouflage the bruises, to stay at home and make excuses so that she wouldn't have to appear in public and give all kinds of embarrassing explanations. Things could have gone very sour here. This woman could have found herself in the beginnings of an abusive relationship that could have gone on for years and would have ended up, perhaps, with her having to leave him for her own safety, for the safety of her children. He could have justified an affair. This is how they begin. He could have begun to see his wife as a live in maid, to cook and clean for him, to look pretty when he invites someone from the office to see the football game, and found his satisfaction elsewhere. You see, things could have gone that way, and sometimes it does. And some of you can relate to it, all too painfully. But it doesn't go like that here. These two engage in the language of reconciliation. The man takes his responsibility; he initiates communication of affection for her. They say flattery will get you nowhere, but sometimes we say, “Go ahead, flatter away, I can take it.” And he knows how to flatter. This is Marital Reconciliation 101. Let's listen to them for a minute, shall we. Let's eavesdrop on this very sensitive personal communication between these two.

He begins and ends, in verse 4 and verse 10 of chapter 6, by saying how beautiful she is. That's how he starts. Isn't that something to note, I think it is. The first words out of his mouth are, “How beautiful you are.” That's right. You may be suspecting his motives. You may be saying, “Words are cheap.” Actually, in my experience, for men words are about the most expensive things you can get, especially in situations like this. A harsh word stirs up anger, Solomon says. It's time for softly spoken words, affirming words, reconciling words, endearing words. Let's imagine how this could have started. “Let me tell you, dear, where you went wrong.” “You’re just like your mother.” “John's wife never behaves like this.” “I'm giving you one more chance to say you’re sorry.” He never mentions what she did; he never brings it up. Instead of picking on the dead carcass of bitterness like some vulture, he lets it go. Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross in the United States, was asked one time in an interview about a bad incident in her past, and she said, “I distinctly remember forgetting that.” Isn't that good? “I distinctly remember forgetting that.” “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved that Church and gave himself up for it.” Proverbs 16:21, “Sweetness of the lips increases persuasiveness.” Proverbs 16:24, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”

Do you notice how he doesn't allow himself to get distracted from what he needs to say to her? He says in verse 5, “Turn your eyes away from me…” The New American Standard says, “They confuse me” —-which is confusing. “They overwhelm me. Don't look at me because I just won't be able to say what I need to say. I need to say these things to you. So turn your eyes away for a second.” That's what he's saying. His heart is ablaze for this woman. This is the hardest part isn't it? Affirming your spouse's qualities; getting off your high horse of wounded pride and the pity party. Maybe that's where your relationship is tonight. Is that so? Maybe it's something that you've been avoiding with your spouse and the damage is festering beneath. Well, let the word of God take hold of your heart tonight.

He reminds himself in verse 9 of why he married this woman. He says in verse 9, “You are unique.” As Princess Leah says to Obi-Wan Kenobi, “You are the only one.” “You are the only one,” he says. To him she is more important than anything else in the world. She has no equal. He has eyes only for her. That's a challenge, isn't it? It shouldn't be, but when you’re wounded that can become a challenge. You treat your husband badly and sometimes push him away and he becomes vulnerable.

I’ll tell you how it works. You start talking to your secretary, the woman with whom you work. You meet her at the coffee place, or if it's bad coffee, at Starbuck's. It all starts innocently and you begin to detect that she listens to you’ she's sympathetic to all of your moans and concerns. You find yourself saying, “She understands me.” Men, I'm talking about boundary markers between what is platonic and what is romantic. And in some of your lives, the boundary markers are blurred. That's what I'm talking about. “My secretary listens to me. I can talk to her.” The thrill of working on a project together, a brief, a case, and reaching a conclusion. It may look innocent to you, but I tell you from the outside, that there is “danger” written all over it.

This first part of the poem in chapter 6 ends with the woman, or maybe the man, I'm not sure who is speaking here, and neither are the commentators, but they go off to the nut orchard. Specifically, walnuts, and she's looking for signs of spring, and suddenly she finds herself, or is he finds himself, transported on to a chariot, and the two of them are riding away. Right. There are deeper allusions and double entendres here by the truckload, but let's just go with the metaphor. Just imagine the two of them are in the chariot and they’re riding away. Chapter 7 begins with this intimate, very intimate, extremely intimate conversation between the man and this bride of his. There are things in chapter 7 that you definitely need to be over 30 to understand. It's a love poem of the most intimate nature. He's describing her, this time, beginning at the feet and working upward. In previous poems he's started from the head and worked down, but this time he's staring from the feet and working upwards. Commentators vie with each other to see who is the most daring as to what they see in his allusions. It's a toss up between Tremper Longman and David Hubbard, which one is worse. There's poetic license here. She doesn't really have purple hair. Nor has she forgotten her Lifesavers because her breath smells of wine, or is it apple cider. Nor does she have a nose like Steve Martin in Roxanne, when she is described as having a nose like the Tower of Lebanon. This is poetic license. It all, I think, loses something in the translation. It's a bit like listening to Italian opera in English, the words can sometimes be pretty banal, but I want to note some things here.

I want us to take us this picture of the two of them having reconciled and going off in this chariot together to talk, and then some. I want to talk to you about dating your spouse. This is a married couple we're talking about here. Am I stretching it exegetically? I don't think so. They’re going off together because they need to talk to each other. I love that. There's an elder sitting in this congregation who asked me about seven years ago, when had I last dated my wife? I was trying to finish a Ph.D., I was trying to write 12 new courses to teach at the Seminary, and I was preaching on the side. I'd made some very poor judgment calls. I've never forgotten the question. And I've tried, I've tried hard to make amends, because keeping romance alive can be a real challenge when you’re juggling lots of duties.

Inspiring fresh feeling for one another takes commitment and creativity, but you can do it. You need to separate work life from private life. Sometimes you need to call “time out” on your work and your committees and your reports. I think some of the best things you can ever do in your relationship with your spouse is to take her out on a date, and not be consumed by your office or your work or even your children, but just in each other.

I think I've told you this before, as you get older you keep repeating yourself, you sound just like your mother. My mother said to me on my wedding day, on the steps of the church, “Remember, she said, “to date” she didn't use the word date, that's an Americanism, but let's go with that, “Remember to date your wife, because when the children are gone, she's the only one you've got.” Now, I suppose she could have put it more eloquently, but it was my wedding day and I didn't have any children, but I've never forgotten it. Seek and you shall find the time, and some of us need to be checking our calendars, and we need to be checking our schedules, and making that time, because nothing is more important.

Notice also the language of maturity here. Love ought to grow. There's a greater maturity, there's even a greater intensity to what he says in chapter 7, compared to what he had said in chapter 4 in the description he had given on his wedding night. The details are greater, he's a little more experienced now. You know the jokes. Marriage is a great institution, but who wants to live in an institution. Man is incomplete until he is married and then he's finished. Marriage is not a word it's a sentence, a life sentence. You've heard them all. What I think we see here, in a small way, is the growing love that he has for his bride.

I sum it up this way: there's a tenderness to chapter 7. I was trying to find a word as I was looking at this chapter. He is so tender. His words are so tender. If he isn't tender, what happens? I’ll tell you what happens. She’ll look for appreciation somewhere else. Maybe she’ll start working and being out of the house. Maybe she’ll spend more time with her mother. Maybe she’ll spend more time with her friends. Maybe she’ll spend all of her time with her children. And one day she’ll find herself in a cafй somewhere, and she hears a voice, a man's voice, saying to her, “Do you come in here often?” And she says, “I come in here every Tuesday.” Now, she never goes on Tuesday, but for some reason she wanted him to know she’d be there next Tuesday. It's begun. It's started.

I'm saying to us men, we need to learn the language of this tenderness. This book is here for a reason. The Holy Spirit inspired this book for a reason. All the above, I think, may have first taken place in a public view, perhaps.

There's been some sort of party, there seems to be mention of dancing even at one point at the end of chapter 6, but by the time we get to chapter 7 verse 11, the bride says to her husband, “It's time to go home. Let's go out into the fields and lodge in the villages.” And when she starts talking about mandrakes and pomegranates, we've moved from G into another rating. When we come to chapter 8 verse 3, “his left hand is under my head and his right hand embraces me,” you all understand what she is saying. But, what's interesting is there's a time and place for everything. And what we have here belongs, as she seems to indicate in verse 11, at another location.

Do you notice at the beginning of chapter 8 she says, “I wish you were my brother.” That's a little strange, isn't it. You know, they’re having this wonderful sweet talk and he's doing his level best to speak this effusive language of tenderness and affection and poetry, and she responds by saying, “I wish you were my brother.” She's not saying, “Let's just be friends.” In the culture in which she found herself, public displays of affection would have been frowned upon. She couldn't even have kissed him in public. Her brother, yes. But not her husband. Now, you don't understand that. It's not the society in which you live. You’re a million miles away from this culture. I have to tell you husbands, that in Belfast, if you put your arm around your wife in a church, in a public worship service, it's a “no-no.” They frown on it. They would say, “Americans. Too much display of public affection.” What we have here is just a little snippet, an insight into how cultures change and affect even the display of certain things. Paul says in the New Testament, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” We don't do that here. We shake hands, maybe hug, but no more than that. We don't do the greet one another with a holy kiss. There are cultural expressions and this is one of them.

We had this interesting conversation on Friday in the minister's meeting, about whether or not it would be appropriate in church to breast feed an infant. And I said, “You know, in Britain these days, it happens. You’re preaching from the pulpit and all of a sudden, it's there.” I saw it in a PCA church in Massachusetts not so long ago, but I don't think that would take place in First Pres in Jackson. I may be wrong, but I don't think that's going to happen here. It's a culture thing.

These two are going off to be alone now. What they do is none of your business. But you notice what she says in verse 4, to the women before she goes, “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” Things are getting hot here, and she says something to the women, her friends, perhaps. She said it twice before. This is the third time she's saying it. There are things here that are so powerful, sexual drive, and stimulation, and affection, that are so powerful, that you dare not stir this up if you’re not in a position to consummate that. These daughters of Jerusalem were more than likely unmarried women. And she's saying, you need to be careful.

A young man from this congregation who has gone off to Ole Miss said to me just a few weeks ago after one of these sermons, “That's my prayer. That I will remain a virgin until I get married.” And he scribbled something in the back of his Bible. And I said to him, “When you’re tempted, call me,” and scribbled my phone number. That's a beautiful thing. Pray for him. Pray for others like him and girls, young women here in the congregation, that in the area of sexual purity we might be a church that adorns the doctrines of Christ. That something of the beauty that belongs in a marriage setting might be that very thing that would mark out the distinctiveness of our young people, of our college young men and young women. Make that your prayer, will you. Let's pray together.

Our Father in heaven, as we look at this extraordinary book together, we do want thank You for the spouses that You've given to us. You've given to us spouses that are far better than we deserve, and they make us into men and women better than we actually are. And Lord we pray for marriages, for marriages in trouble, for those who've had harsh words, and need to exercise the very thing this chapter speaks about. Give them grace this very evening to do it. Bless our young people in an age of sexual promiscuity, to be pure in their hearts, and minds, and bodies. Help them to stand firm for Jesus, we pray, and hear us for Jesus’ sake, Amen.

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