Turn with me to the opening chapter of the Song of Solomon. We’ll be reading through into the third verse of chapter 2. I don't normally do this, but I'm going to interject some comments as we read the passage together. That is, in part, because at different points in the chapter, and this is true throughout the Song of Solomon, different people are speaking; sometimes it's the woman that is speaking; sometimes it's the man that's speaking; and sometimes it seems as though a third person or maybe a group of people and usually identified as some unmarried women and friends of the main woman in the song and they interject something. This is not a narrative, as such; it is a collection of poems. And if you are reading along with me, for example, in the New International version or a more modern translation, you may have sort of subtitles identifying who is saying what–those, I have to say, are not infallible. I'm going to disagree, at least on one occasion, with the NIV this evening. So let's look at the section beginning in the first chapter and the first verse. It begins with this superscription identifying it as a piece ostensibly by Solomon although I'm going to disagree with my intern in a second. I'm not so sure about that, but we’ll come to that in a minute, but it's definitely Solomonic and it begins thus:
“The Song of Songs which is Solomon's.”
Now, it begins with the words of a young country girl who has perhaps glimpsed a prince, a young man passing by; she has fallen in love with him. She hasn't identified him for us here in the chapter. She's longing for him to invite her to his home, or into his chambers as it is in the middle of verse 4. And she says:
“May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine.
Your oils have a pleasing fragrance, your name is like purified oil; therefore, the maidens love you.
Draw me after you and let us run together!
The king has brought me into his chambers.”
Note the change now into the first person plural. It's now we, and it's probably friends–women, unmarried women–of the girl probably now speaking:
“We will rejoice in you and be glad; we will extol your love more than wine.”
Now the woman responds again speaking of the love of these women for this man, that he's a man worthy of respect:
“Rightly (she says) do they love you.”
And she continues:
“I am black but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.”
Now she explains what she means by that:
“Do not stare at me because I am swarthy, for the sun has burned me. My mother's sons were angry with me; they made me caretaker of the vineyards, but I have not taken care of my own vineyard. Tell me, O you whom my soul loves, where do you pasture your flock, where do you make it lie down at noon? For why should I be like one who veils herself beside the flocks of your companions?”
Now, these women again answer, or is it the man?
“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.”
Now it's definitely the man who is speaking in verse 9:
“To me, my darling, you’re like my mare among the chariots of Pharaoh. Your cheeks are lovely with ornaments, your neck with strings of beads.”
Perhaps the daughters of Jerusalem interject in verse 11:
“We will make for you ornaments of gold with beads of silver.”
And now the woman replies in verse 12:
“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.”
The man again:
“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 luxuriant!"
Now, possibly the man–if you’re in the NIV, it's not–but it's probably the man:
“The beams of our houses are cedars, our rafters, cypresses.
“I am the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valleys.”
“Like a lily 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.”
And thus far, God's holy and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to the reading of it. Let's pray together.
Our Father in heaven, as we come this evening to a new study of the Song of Solomon, we pray for the blessing of Your Spirit; we ask that you would give us a spirit of understanding and of illumination, and that you would speak to our hearts. Keep us, we pray, from titillation in this sensitive of books, and grant that our eyes may ever be upward toward Yourself. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.
This evening I want us to introduce the book, The Song of Solomon; sometimes called The Song of Songs, and sometimes in the Latin version it is called Canticum canticorum and hence, it's sometimes referred to in older commentaries and Puritan sermons as Canticles, meaning a song. There's a delicious statement by Dorothy Sayers; she puts it in the mouth of Lord Peter Whimsey. Some of you may be fans of her books and short stories. “In my youth they used to make me read the Bible,” he says. “Trouble was, the only books I took to naturally were the ones that they weren't over and above keen on, but I got to know the Song of Songs pretty well, by heart.”
This is one of the wisdom books. As it happens, we are in Ecclesiastes in the morning and the Song of Solomon in the evening. Both of them, along with the book of Proverbs, are part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. And by wisdom literature, we generally mean books that teach us and instruct us how we may live in the practical affairs of everyday life to the glory of God. Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes that there is a time to embrace, and there is a time to refrain from embracing. Clearly, the Song of Solomon is one of those times to embrace. A few remarks here right at the very beginning.
I. The author.
Firstly, about the author. I must disagree about the authorship of the book. I have a little problem, as I suspect you also do, of taking wisdom from Solomon about matters of love, and relationships, and sexuality. Don't you? Solomon had 700 wives. Now, come on. Who is Solomon to be giving us advice? I know it says the Song of Songs which is Solomon's and the Hebrew for those who want to be technical, is the lahmed and that can mean many, many things, but it doesn't necessarily mean that everything in here comes from the pen of Solomon. Perhaps, all that it means is that it was Solomonic, that is, it belonged to that group of literature that was regarded as wisdom literature, and was generally spoken of as the wisdom of Solomon.
Solomon did have one favorite wife, the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt, but even when you read 1 Kings; she's only the favorite for political reasons more than anything else. And you all know how Solomon ended his life; he ended his life in idolatry. He ended his life in idolatry because he yielded to the gods of some of the wives that he had taken.
So, let's dispense with the idea now that this is all of Solomon's wisdom; this is God's Word. This is the infallible, inerrant word of God. I say that because I've been preaching for almost thirty years, and when I think about it, it's probably more than thirty years; and I've never preached on, apart from one sermon here in First Pres last summer on chapter 2, I've never preached on the Song of Solomon. I’ll be absolutely honest; I'm a little afraid of the Song of Solomon. I’ll be even more honest, I have thought this week that I have been stark-raving bonkers to agree to do this. If I could have called Ligon on his cell phone and said, “Ligon, can I do something else?” I'd have gladly done it. And yet, this is God's word. It's like the book of Revelation. We’re frightened of the book of Revelation because we don't know what it means. And it's a vicious circle because the more we don't know what it means, the more frightened we get and the more we stay away from it. And, by the way, the more likely we are to bring to the surface errant interpretations. This is God's word and it is “profitable for teaching and rebuking and correcting and instructing in the way of righteousness that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work.”
This has something to say about our relationships. This has something to say about marriage. This has something to say about courtship. This book has something to say about human sexuality. This has something to say about romance; it has something to say about love and how that is defined. And all of those things, let me say, are things that we need to learn. We’re never too old to learn some of the things that are in this book.
I have a secret prayer. Well, it's not that secret because I'm about to tell you what it is. I do long–that's my prayer–I do long that as we study this Song of Solomon, that our marriages will be deeper and stronger, and more reflective of Christ. Because the way Christ is revealed in our lives is very often in the intimacy and the love and the companionship of our marriages. This is God's word. It's also a book about sexuality, that's unavoidable. We will do it, to quote a phrase, “In the best possible taste.” This book isn't sordid. This book isn't pornographic. Actually, this book only hints and paints pictures here and there, but they’re not graphic pictures. That doesn't belong in here; it doesn't belong in this pulpit. That may mean the crowd will be half the size next week, but so be it. Understand that there is something about propriety and decency, so that in a public setting like this, the Song of Solomon has to be treated in such a way. I do think that this book has something of extraordinary value to teach every single one of us particularly, those of us who are married, or, are contemplating marriage. So, let's start, shall we?
II. Style and interpretation
And let me start by saying that this is poetry. I say that not because it's obvious, and it is obvious that this is poetry, but because it introduces us to a significant issue when we read the Song of Solomon, namely, the interpretation of it. There's been a debate about the inclusion of the Song of Solomon in the canon of the Old Testament. In fact, in the Council of Jamnia, which met around 100 AD, the only two books that were under discussion for inclusion in the Old Testament canon, were Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon. And part of the argument was over the interpretation of the Song of Solomon: Was the Song of Solomon first and foremost a book about human relationships and, in particular, about human sexuality? Because if that was so, not just for post-Victorians squeamish about such things, but in the very first century there was some difficulty about that kind of interpretation, and particularly a book in the Bible that would include something like that. Or, is this book an extended allegory? Such as Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Are the characters and life situations meant to be reflective of something else or someone else, of the love of Jesus for the Church? The man is Jesus, the woman in the story is the Church of Jesus Christ, and actually what this book is teaching us is how we ought to love Jesus.
You’re all familiar, of course, that the Puritans interpreted the book this way. Actually, if we go back to the Council of Jamnia in the first century AD, Rabbi Akiba, one of the prominent names in that Council, only won the argument regarding the inclusion of the Song of Solomon in the canon of Scripture because he argued it as allegorical. If all the sacred writings are holy, then this one, he argued, is the holy of holies, but he added that it shouldn't be read in public until your thirtieth birthday.
In the Hebrew Bible, the ordering of books is different from our English Bible, but we won't go into that now. It's interesting, however, the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible comes before Ecclesiastes. So, you've got this order: Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes. Proverbs, which actually ends, you remember, with the picture of that ideal woman, the virtuous woman. Ruth gives us an example of a virtuous woman. And the Song of Songs continues with a virtuous woman who marries her ideal husband.
The second century exegete, Origin, pioneered the view that this was an allegory, an extended allegory of the love of Jesus for the Church. Calvin held to that view, even at one point, ensuring that a young man who had come to Geneva with the view that the Song of Songs was actually teaching about love and human sexuality, Calvin ensured that that young man wasn't ordained and he was put out of the City of Geneva. I have to say, in defense of Calvin, the guy had some other things wrong with him, too.
But a century later, the Puritans, especially adopted this allegorical view. One of the great commentaries on the Song of Solomon is by the Scottish divine, James Durham, and it's thoroughly allegorical in its approach. Spurgeon identifies 57 Puritan commentaries, all of which he commends, and all of them devoted to the Song of Solomon. The Puritans loved the Song of Solomon. They, all of them, interpreted the Song of Solomon in an allegorical way. Among them, Spurgeon highlights one by Richard Sibbes, written in 1639, entitled Discovery of the Near and Dear Love, Union and Communion Between Christ and the Church. One by the famous Baptist systematic theologian, John Gill, An Exposition of the book of Solomon's Song, Spurgeon adds that “one who despises it are incapable of elevated spiritual feelings.” And one by John Collinge, written in 1676, Intercourses of Divine Love Between Christ and His Church Metaphorically Expressed by Solomon in Canticles 1 and 2, 999 pages that only covers the first two chapters of the Song of Solomon, and no sex. Jonathan Edwards, looking back to his late teenage period, and talking about his conversion, speaks of a verse in the Song of Solomon that he remembers, the words especially of chapter two verse one: “I am the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys.” And actually, in the history of allegorical interpretation, that verse has often been ascribed, of course, to Jesus Christ, but in the Song itself, it's the woman who is saying that, not the man, and therefore the allegorical interpretation of that verse as a reference to Jesus. And I can't tell you how many times I've quoted that in prayer referring to Jesus as the Lily of the Valleys and the Rose of Sharon, but actually in the Song of Solomon it's attributed to the woman rather than to the man. I remember 30 years ago, the late William Still, the minister of Gilcomston South Church, in Aberdeen, the Church of Scotland, and he was giving an exposition of the Song of Solomon, as I recall in four sermons, and all of it allegorical. You can imagine how disappointing that was to a group of university students. There's undoubtedly a sense in which that allegorical interpretation is true. There's a sense, in which, we as husbands are to love our wives as Christ loved the Church, and therefore, there is a sense in which the intensity and propriety of our love as it is expressed to our wives is to be reflective of Christ's love for the Church. And from time to time in our studies, we’ll need to go down that road and apply it in that spiritual way.
This is poetry. But this is, in particular, love poetry. I want to put it like that because the Song of Solomon is actually a collection of poems, and it depends upon which commentary you’re reading as to how many poems it contains, and some see seven poems and some see 23 poems. But it's not that important. I asked Michael Travers, whom many of you know and remember, at one time Chairman of the English Department at Mississippi College, “What is so significant about love poetry?” This was his reply. “Poetry is more intense than prose; it's briefer than prose. It has rhythm; it uses physical objects as symbols. Love involves the emotions and senses as well as the mind. Prose relies on the sequence of words to develop a logical statement. Prose can't capture love's immediacy and urgency. In short, poetry says a great deal in a few words and it does so intensely. When we have intense emotion, we need to express it in physical terms. Poetry does that for us. Poetry is more than pretty language. It expresses the depth and breadth of love more completely than prose. Another factor in poetry is that is demands a response from its reader; it is written to someone in particular, whereas prose is written to a generic audience. In love poetry, the reader becomes the loved one. Whether or not we like it, we are forced to respond. The love poetry in the Song of Songs involves us emotionally as well as intellectually. We cannot dismiss it.”
Do you understand what he's saying? There's something specific about the genre here. My own favorite love poetry is Shakespeare's Sonnets, and believe it or not, I have a copy of his sonnets and it's beside my bed. All 154 of them; they were written in 1609, and of course, number 18 is known to all of you:
“Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, and summer's leaves have all too short a date. Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, and often is his gold complexion dimmed…and so on.”
Why not try these lines?
“How beautiful you are my darling. Your hair is like a flock of goats.”
“Your temples are like slices of pomegranate. Your neck is like the tower of David built with rows of stones.”
Perhaps this one to your bride on your wedding night:
“Your teeth are like newly shorn ewes which have come up from the washing, all of which are paired and not one of them is alone.”
The sight of your bride pulling out her false teeth, you see, would be a real dampening effect. That's what he's saying.
Or perhaps, my favorite one:
“Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon which faces toward Damascus.”
Well, clearly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You see, what this manages to do is to talk about something without it becoming smutty and inappropriate. There's a love scene in chapter four; you’re going to have to tighten your belts for that one. It's in the most delicate of terms, and actually, I suppose you could read it and miss what it is actually saying. It's not cheap; it's not a manual that you pick up, or don't, from Books-a-Million. It is celebrating monogamous, sexual union within the boundaries of marriage, and it does so with discretion and taste, but it also does so with romance and enthusiasm and love and there's the element of on-going courtship here.
III. The songs
The first song is a series of snapshots in which we are introduced to two principal characters; there's a third–actually, it's a group, I think–of women of Jerusalem. They are probably unmarried and friends of the woman in the character, but principally, we're introduced to characters and some of you are using more modern Bibles which are actually a little helpful in trying to discern who is speaking what, and to whom.
First, the woman speaks to her lover in verse 2: “O that he would kiss me. May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” She wants him; she's fallen in love with him evidently. She has seen him, she's seen something about him that is attractive–there's physical attraction here. And even in times of arranged marriages this is still an important issue. We’re attracted to different people and that's a good thing. Oh, by the way, the allegorical interpretation here is of Israel asking God to bring her out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. “O that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!”
It begins then with this physical attraction. It moves into something far more objective–his character, his name, his reputation, his standing before others, his spiritual side. In verse 3: “Your name is like purified oil,” she says. Therefore the maidens love you.” Everybody knew his character. Everybody liked this man. He had a standing; he had a reputation. It's all very well to fall in love with a hunk, but you have to ask, “A hunk of what?” This man was everyone's ideal of a husband. There's something about him which she likes; she calls him “perfume poured out.” It's more than just that he smelled good, although that was important. Men rarely bathe in these times, you understand. And they would put on these oils, ablutions to cover a multitude of sins. There's a description of his character. The girls evidently have noticed it too, and she's talking about someone that obviously she respects. There is standing; there is depth. It is more than physical attraction. There's chemistry. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” There is more than chemistry, there is depth of personality. There is character, and that's important. Because, young people, you should never ever entertain engaging in a relationship with someone that you don't respect, and that others don't respect because it will get you nowhere. Actually, it will get you into trouble. You know, maybe you’re saying, “I want someone who is —I don't know–6’2,” 175 pounds. Green eyes, a great body, $100,000 a month, and drives a Porsche.” Yes, and hell may come along with it.
And I wonder tonight, if you’re saying instead, “I want someone who loves God more than he loves me. I want someone who loves Jesus more than he loves me. I want someone with a servant's heart, and I want someone who the world can see, and society can see, and my friends can see is a man of standing and reputation and character.” And let me say, young people, that you’re not ready to date until you can say that. Of all the discussions about I Kissed Dating Good-bye, and all of that, you’re not ready to date until you can say that.
Then in verses 5 and 6, and this shows how contextual we need to be, she is tanned. You understand. She explains what she means in verse 5 by saying in verse 6. “Do not stare at me because I am swarthy, for the sun has burned me.” In verse 5, she says, “I am black but lovely.” What she means by that is that she is tanned, and in those days, being tanned was not such a good thing. How times have changed.
She's also got a problem. She speaks about her mother's sons having put her out–maybe stepbrothers to her. She's been forced out into the fields to labor; she's had a hard life. She's suffered a little. Isn't it interesting that the man falls in love with someone whom, at least, from the world's point of view wasn't such a great catch. Isn't that interesting? She wants to meet him again and is asking where he rests his flocks. She doesn't want to appear as a veiled woman, that is, as a prostitute. She wants to do the right thing; she doesn't want to act in an inappropriate way.
In verses 9-11, he's speaking to her, and he likens her–do you note—to a horse. Right. It's meant to be a compliment. You have to understand the context a little. He refers especially to an Egyptian horse and Egyptian horses, apparently, were the best that there were in the world, and this is a mare amongst stallions. In Egypt, chariots were usually pulled by stallions. And actually, it was done on more than one occasion, in order to defeat an enemy coming at you with horses–stallions and chariots–you would put a mare in amongst them and it would drive the stallions wild. Maybe that's what he means; that she drives him wild. You know, there's a physical, emotional, psychological response.
Then in verses 12-14, she's at a banquet. There are lots of people there. There is eating and talking and she's there too, and she has eyes only for him. The language is aromatherapy. She's wearing one of those pouches and in the pouch would be myrrh, scent–Chanel 50?–whatever it is. And it is in this pouch. She imagines, and go with the poetry for a second. She imagines instead of this pouch hanging between her breasts that they head of her lover might be there. Cyril of Alexandria thought the two breasts were the Old and the New Testament, and that the one lying between them was Jesus. Don't you love that? To her, he is like a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of Engedi. Right–it doesn't do anything for me, but Engedi is an oasis in the desert, in the wasteland. And even today, if you drive on a tour of Israel and go to Engedi, all of a sudden you see blossom and fruit. This is her husband and she will marry him. This is a song of love about him and about her.
And finally there is the fifth, and final picture. The two are alone and they are walking in the country and they are resting under an apple tree. And they are looking at each other; their eyes are locked in each other's embrace and he says to her, “Behold, you are beautiful, my darling. Your eyes are like doves.”
And she says to him, “You are handsome… and so on.” They've fallen in love and they are telling each other so. And this is not the furtive glances of the earlier pictures that sent their hearts racing. She says something about herself now in verse 1 of chapter 2, that is really interesting. She says, “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.” Do you note that? It's the woman who is saying that, not the man.
Do you note the change that's taken place from chapter 1? In chapter 1, in the very beginning, she's unsure of herself. She's unsure of her looks, her demeanor; she's tanned, and she's not sure whether he is going to like her, and now, all of a sudden, in the first verse of chapter 2, there is self-confidence. There is something that has happened now and she has risen in her self-esteem. Love has done that. That's what his love for her has done for her. She’d begun to see herself as one who is loved, and that makes all the difference in the world. You know that. Those of us who are married know that. We’re amazed by it everyday, that someone should say they want to spend the rest of their lives with us–and they know us! And they’re still saying, “I want to spend the rest of my life with you; I want to grow old with you; I want to share my stories with you; I want to wake up in the morning and talk to you; I want to go to bed at night and talk to you.” And that's what has happened here. “This bud of love by summer's ripening breath may prove to be a beauteous flower when next we meet,” Shakespeare says in Romeo and Juliet. Well, this is the Romeo and Juliet of the Bible; it's a love story. It's a beautiful story. The idea that we see in those we love. What Charles Williams, the friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who, by the way, Lewis described as ugly as a chimpanzee–but we’ll pass that by. Charles Williams said that “when we love someone, we see their eternal identity.” There's something to that. You know, when you love someone, all the defects seem to go to the side. You know they’re there; love isn't in denial, you know the faults and sometimes the faults come into focus and have to be dealt with. But when you truly love someone, you forgive them their faults because you see something deeper. You see what Charles Williams calls their “eternal identity.”
That's what some of you saw in your spouse many years ago, many, many years ago, for some of you. And you know, what I long for is that spark, that romance, which is a biblical concept. The engaging of our affections in a love for someone else other than ourselves, because that's what being a servant is about. It's actually what Jesus does in denying himself and becoming a human individual and coming into this world to redeem us of our sins. He too, saw our sins—but He loved us. And he loved us right to the very end, and there is something of that to be seen in the love between a man and a woman. What is going to unfold in the Song of Solomon is those words of Genesis. “And they were naked and were not ashamed.” And there's something of the beauty of that that this book speaks to. May God minister to us and bless us in our union and our partnerships and our marriages as we unfold in the coming weeks until the end of August, the Song of Solomon. Let's pray together.
Our Father in heaven, we thank You for this extraordinary book. But now, especially, we want to thank You for the providence that drew us to one that we loved and still love. And we pray, Lord, as we study this book together, forgive us of our sins. Give us a servant's heart. We ask in Jesus' name, Amen.
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