Turn with me to the Song of Solomon to chapter 3 and we will pick it up at verse 6 and read through into the first verse of chapter 5. The section begins with a question that draws us out into the wilderness somewhere, and in the distance, there is what we might call a palanquin, a grand chair being carried by a group of beefy men, actually, there are sixty of them. At first sight it's just dust that this lady can see, but after awhile, she can focus and see what it is.
Let's pick it up at verse 6. Hear the Word of God. This is the woman speaking.
" What is this coming up from the wilderness Like columns of smoke,
Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all scented powders of the merchant?
"Behold, it is the traveling couch of Solomon; Sixty mighty men around it, Of the mighty men of Israel.
"All of them are wielders of the sword, Expert in war;
Each man has his sword at his side, Guarding against the terrors of the night.
"King Solomon has made for himself a sedan chair From the timber of Lebanon.
(Solomon is actually mentioned three times in this section, but I think we need to recall that this is poetry and I don't think this is actually Solomon that's in view. Solomon had become a sort of by-word, really, with all the ladies and perhaps, especially in poetry to signify a young, handsome young man–Solomon would be the name you would put in a poem.)
"He made its posts of silver, Its back of gold And its seat of purple fabric,
(This purple dye was made from a Mediterranean shellfish, and someone has gone to the lengths of calculating that it would have taken around 10,000 of them to make sufficient for what is recorded here.)
With its interior lovingly fitted out By the daughters of Jerusalem.
Now, the woman continues speaking directly to the daughters of Jerusalem urging them to take a look at him as he arrives for his wedding day.
"Go forth, O daughters of Zion, And gaze on King Solomon with the crown
With which his mother has crowned him On the day of his wedding,
And on the day of his gladness of heart."
Now the man speaks in chapter 4, and he speaks of the beauty of his bride. Hold your breath. Imagine a bride adorned for her bridegroom. Does she ever look prettier than this?
Solomon's Love Expressed
" How beautiful you are, my darling, How beautiful you are!
Your eyes are like doves behind your veil;
Your hair is like a flock of goats That have descended from Mount Gilead.
"Your teeth are like a flock of newly shorn ewes
Which have come up from their washing, All of which bear twins,
And not one among them has lost her young.
It all puts a twist on the proverb: “Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.”
"Your lips are like a scarlet thread, And your mouth is lovely.
Your temples are like a slice of a pomegranate Behind your veil.
"Your neck is like the tower of David, Built with rows of stones
On which are hung a thousand shields, All the round shields of the mighty men.
"Your two breasts are like two fawns, Twins of a gazelle Which feed among the lilies.
"Until the cool of the day When the shadows flee away,
I will go my way to the mountain of myrrh And to the hill of frankincense.
"You are altogether beautiful, my darling, And there is no blemish in you.
The man continues now and urging her to come away with him.
"Come with me from Lebanon, my bride, May you come with me from Lebanon.
Journey down from the summit of Amana, From the summit of Senir and Hermon,
From the dens of lions, From the mountains of leopards.
"You have made my heart beat faster, my sister, my bride;
You have made my heart beat faster with a single glance of your eyes,
With a single strand of your necklace.
"How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine,
And the fragrance of your oils Than all kinds of spices!
"Your lips, my bride, drip honey; Honey and milk are under your tongue,
And the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
"A garden locked is my sister, my bride, A rock garden locked, a spring sealed up.
"Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates With choice fruits, henna with nard plants,
Nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, With all the trees of frankincense,
Myrrh and aloes, along with all the finest spices.
"You are a garden spring, A well of fresh water, And streams flowing from Lebanon."
Now the woman responds to all of this sweet talk, though some versions don't have the woman speak until halfway through this verse.
"Awake, O north wind, And come, wind of the south;
Make my garden breathe out fragrance, Let its spices be wafted abroad.
May my beloved come into his garden And eat its choice fruits!"
Do I really need to tell you what she's saying? The man speaks again in chapter 5.
The Torment of Separation
"I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh along with my balsam.
I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey; I have drunk my wine and my milk.
And now what appears to be the women, the daughters of Jerusalem speaking.
Eat, friends; Drink and imbibe deeply, O lovers."
Amen. May God bless to us the reading of his holy and inerrant word. Let's pray together.
Our Father in heaven, we ask for the sanctity of the presence of the Holy Spirit as we consider these things. Amen.
It is their wedding day. This morning I was telling you as I was looking at Solomon and Ecclesiastes, I felt as if I wanted to make what was unclear a little more clear. Tonight I want to make what's all too clear a little less clear.
Weddings are beautiful occasions; I love weddings. I love the thrill and honor of actually performing a wedding. Two people who fall in love and they look into each other's eyes as they stand on these steps here. They say they want to spend the rest of their lives together. The beauty, the pageantry, the vows, the sense of occasion, the providences of God as He's brought these two people together, the anticipation of their union. I love performing weddings.
Let me do something with this passage, and somewhat destroy the poetry in order to say something that is a little more logical.
First of all, we have a picture here of a wedding, and this is some wedding–a wedding fit for a king–sixty groomsmen. I think the most I've seen is six, but sixty groomsmen dressed in military uniform, swords glinting in the sun. Perhaps they’re there to insure that he doesn't back out. It provides a sense of occasion. And then there's a carriage, a palanquin, a sedan chair which he has made from the trees of Lebanon for this occasion. Silver, gold, purple cloth adorn this palanquin. He's using the best things to demonstrate just how much all of this means to him. All the world loves a lover. Why? Because it brings out the best in him. A good wife will make a man better than he actually is. Or, at least will make him look better than he actually is. Some of his finest qualities emerge–manliness, tenderness, responsibility. His mother has given to him a crown, perhaps a signal that the parents are giving their sign of approval and blessing to this wedding. The daughters of Jerusalem have been busy preparing the interior of this carriage. Months of work have gone into this. You know all about it. Many of you can identify as we've just glimpsed at all of the details here in preparation for this marriage. You want it to be a special occasion. You want to remember this day. It's not a case of trying to outdo everybody else. Ah, full disclosure here. I'm preparing for a wedding, you understand; I know what it is when father's balk at yet another item that has to be paid for. Fathers, the wisdom here is: pay up, turn up, and shut up. Marriage is something God has planned for us. For most of us, that's His will.
I. Biblical marriage is God's creation plan for most men and women.
The marriage of one man to one woman–not one man to one man. Not one woman to one woman. We have to say that now. That's the world we're living in now, and that is utterly foreign to the Judeo-Christian worldview. For all the charges of homophobia that will come against us–and they’re come and they will get worse. The shrillness of that charge will deafen you in the years to come; mark my word. It's part of the inevitable challenge of the liberal, western democracy in which we live unless God intervenes, unless God sends His Spirit.
There's no record here of a marriage ceremony, as such. This is poetry, not history; but there would have been one, of course. Marriage is the creation ordinance. Although we celebrate marriages in church, there's a civil side to marriage. That's why the church has the right to insist that the state has legislation about marriage. It's a creation ordinance. Our marriages reflect some of the beautiful liturgy of Phillip Melancthon and Martin Bucher, and especially the Book of Common Prayer and Thomas Cranmer. The time-honored tradition, and I just have to read these words and it brings back floods of memories to you.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God and in the fact of this congregation to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is an honorable estate instituted by God in the time of man's innocency signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and His Church…”and so on, and so on.
Who isn't moved by those words? Who would want to change those words and modernize them? It's a time when two people gather together for solemn and binding vows. They’re committing themselves to each other “ ‘til death us do part.” They’re making solemn promises that they will not be the cause of divorce. They’re promising to be faithful to each other, to have eyes only for each other, to esteem each other in the Lord. “I take you to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish–and she adds, to obey–‘til death us do part. According to God's holy ordinance and thereunto I plight thee my troth.”
It's a public occasion. Here in this, the worship committee underlined the fact that it is a worship service. There are things that take place in weddings that don't take place here. All kinds of things that would be appropriate in another setting, but would not be appropriate here because it's a worship service, a solemn occasion. Vows are being exchanged; it's a wedding ceremony between two people. It's a beautiful thing.
II. God's marriage plan includes cerebral and physical intimacy.
But in the second place, we have here a picture of love and that includes sex here. The picture turns from the man to the woman. He begins to describe her. She is, after all, the center of attention as it ought to be. Imagine if the bride were standing here on her wedding day and the groom was walking down the aisle with his groomsmen. It’ll happen, I'm sure–one day. But it ought not to be. She has noticed him. In verse 11, she says, I think to the daughters of Jerusalem, “Go out, O daughters of Zion, and look upon King Solomon.” It's this person she's going to marry. And now he has noticed her. He describes her, notice in verse 1, and then again in verse 7 he describes her as altogether beautiful. It's her wedding day. Hours and hours of preparation have gone into making her look as beautiful as it's possible to be on her wedding day. Have you ever seen a bride who doesn't look beautiful on her wedding day? She's wearing a veil. You notice that in verse one of chapter four, a diaphanous muslin gauze, or as one commentator somewhat unromantically describes it–a veil. Still part of the custom in the east to this very day. And even in our western cultures, at least until recently, a woman wore a veil at weddings. At least until the moment when vows were to be exchanged when that veil was lifted. Sometimes by the father as he hands her over to the bridegroom, and sometimes, in some traditions, the bridegroom himself does it. It's altogether possible here in the context of the Song of Solomon, it's altogether possible that this bridegroom had never seen her before. This, in fact, was the first time he had ever seen her. That's altogether possible.
Now, the scene becomes very intimate, and many commentators now on the Song of Solomon imagine that we've moved from a public setting to a private setting. From the place of ceremony, if you like, to the honeymoon suite. This is their wedding night, and he's telling her how beautiful she is. Smart man. I find it interesting that as much as this passage is about sex, and it is about physical attraction, it's also on another level, an appeal to her mind. Do you notice that? It's poetry after all. Men, if you think poetry is for sissies, you've missed the point. I was reading this week, Tom Howard who teaches at Gordon College, and he said something that I utterly disagreed with. He was talking about the Song of Solomon, and actually, he was talking about the place of physical union and sex in life and he said, “The height of communion is, and excuse the phrase, “skin on skin” was the phrase. As important as physical love is; I disagree. It's not all there is to marriage and actually, it's not even the main thing about marriage. There's something quintessentially beautiful when two minds meet. Don't you think? The Song of Solomon is about words, after all. It's about poetry. And the communication that is taking place here at least on one level is taking place on a cerebral plain. When two minds meet together, whether it's about poetry or baseball, it's a beautiful thing.
As I was saying this morning about Ecclesiastes, this is not a complete book about love and marriage. This is just one aspect. This is a picture of two people on their wedding night, and what is said here and what goes on here is entirely appropriate. But marriage is more than that. There isn't anything in the Song of Solomon about how you’re supposed to respond when she has wrinkles, or when he has cancer, or when bits of you don't work anymore. There are unrealistic expectations around, my friends, and they’re fed by the Hollywoodization of sex and physical intimacy. And as Christians, we don't need to heed it.
Let's get back to the Song of Songs. Someone placed in my mailbox a few weeks ago–I have a suspicion that it came from the CE Department–a picture of this woman, a collage of the similes that he employs to describe her. It wasn't very flattering. I'm referring now to verses 1-7 of chapter 4. She's smiling because he's just told her how beautiful she is. And as she smiles, he notices that–well–her teeth are like newly shorn ewes that have come up from the river, and not one of them is alone. She has all her teeth. Forget about teeth whiteners. What is important here is that she had a full set. He mentions other things; her lips, her neck. “Like the tower of David and built for an armory.” A linebacker? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you understand. And it goes on in verses 9-15. The Song, if you can weave your way through the similes and metaphors, it's a description of their lovemaking. I'm not going to go into the details. Right. I am chicken. But let me say, it all sounds exquisitely beautiful. But it's garden imagery. Enclosed, shut up, locked, and he alone has the key of entry. Read it. It will spare me having to read it to you again. It's getting a little intimate now. I think the details are best suited for another occasion. He longs to be intimate with her, and her with him.
III. The world view of marriage is a cheap imitation of God's wonderful design.
Let me say a couple of things at this point. First of all, I want to make a general point. I'm fully aware of the sensitivities; I share them, as you can see. The Jews discouraged the reading of the Song of Solomon until you were thirty. We find it difficult to read this in public. Perhaps if you are visiting, you’re somewhat shocked that First Presbyterian Church is doing a series on the Song of Solomon. I lost my mind. I've been at my share of meetings. I've been at sermons where I wanted to walk out because I was embarrassed. C. S. Lewis in his book, Mere Christianity, has a chapter called “Sexual Morality, and he says this:
“I'm sorry to have to go into all these details, but I must. The reason why I must is that you and I, for the last twenty years, have been fed all day long good, solid lies about sex. We've been told, until one is sick of hearing it, that sexual desire is in the same state as any of our other natural desires and that if only we abandon the silly old Victorian idea of hushing it up, everything in the garden would be lovely. It is not true.”
There's something very powerful about sexual imagery, and it needs to be handled with a great deal of care. But I'm also convinced that our people, and we here especially, need help. The fastest growing force in America today, and one which is challenging the very fabric of our society, isn't Islam; it's not Buddhism. It's eroticism. It is our current society's drive for fulfillment in sexuality. The television, Hollywood, literature, popular music–they’re all obsessed with sexuality. The advertising industry is obsessed with it. It's a form of materialism; it's a form of hedonism. This week the courts of Episcopal bishops have discussed issues of homosexuality and tolerance. Now, far be it from me to tell somebody in another denomination what they should and should not do, but this was the bottom line. Should a man who has left his wife, and left his children, and gone to live in a sexual relationship with another man
My point is that we can say several things here. We can respond to all of this in several ways. We can surrender to our desires. We can do what the world says, “Be a hedonist.” Well, we're Christians, and we can't. We can deny these powerful forces. To a large extent, it's what the Roman Catholic Church did for centuries. Imbibing a doctrine actually going back to Augustine, and his doctrine of Concupiscence. It's why the Catholic Church got into such a mess over birth control. Because it saw sexual union as only for the propagation of the race and no more. Or, we can readily acknowledge that God has made us sexual beings, and God has provided a forum where that can be done and be fulfilled in a loving, self-denying, Christ-glorifying way in marriage. That's why many of us urge would be couples who are about to get married to read the Song of Solomon together. Let's not be wiser than the Holy Spirit here.
IV. Christian men and women will only find true marriage happiness by following God's design.
But I want to say a second thing, and perhaps this is the most important thing. In this passage that describes a wedding day and a wedding night. And the imagery of the second half of chapter four is about as graphic as you can find in Scripture, though it's still in poetry. And I suppose you could read that and have no idea what it is saying. But this is very important, and I want you young people to pay attention to me for a minute because this intimacy that's described is described in the context of marriage where it belongs. He calls for his bride, in verse 8, the first time he's called her his bride.
Let me brutally frank for a minute or two. Excuse me, but my conscience just won't allow me to sleep tonight if I don't say this. Premarital sex is wrong; it is always wrong. It is wrong in every context, in every circumstance. It's just as much wrong for a guy as it is for a girl. And we need to rid ourselves of that patronizing sexism that says that it's ‘ok’ for a guy. Sex is more than exchanging bodily fluids–to use the colloquialism. Sex before marriage is like moving into the house before you buy it. Young women, young men, this is something that once you give away, you can never retrieve. You can never get it back; never. Now, that may sound old fashioned to you–and it does. Sounds old fashioned to me. I'm shamelessly old fashioned about it. You have no business violating the virginity of another before you are married. You have no business doing that. Don't date someone who isn't honorable here. If they can violate your trust before you get married, what's to stop them after you get married? A few words in church? It's a matter of commitment; it's a matter of what you are. I applaud young people who shamelessly tell the world that they are virgins until they get married. They wear t-shirts telling the whole world. I applaud them. I wouldn't have done it myself, but I applaud them.
Later in the Song of Solomon, in chapter 8, there's a depiction of a young woman on the verge of puberty and sexual awareness, and her brothers come to her and say to her in verses 8 and 9, in chapter 8. You can be one of two things. You can be a wall, or you can be a door. If you are a door, that means that anybody can enter. And if you’re a door, these brothers are saying, we're going to have to build cedar walls around you. Young people tonight, what are you going to be in regard to your future spouse? For some of you, it's too late. I regret that more than I can say. Sure, there's forgiveness. There's repentance, there's acknowledgment, there's confession, and there's forgiveness with God. There isn't always forgiveness between you and your would-be spouse.
Here at the church we ask various questions of people who want to get married. It's part of the policy of the church here that you confess all of these things before you get married. Better to find out before than afterwards, about your history. But it's a question, you see, of discipleship. You claim to be a follower of Jesus and you claim to have the Holy Spirit in your heart. You come to church and you carry your Bible and read it and you sing the hymns and you claim to be a Christian. What does it mean to be a Christian? It means that I retain my virginity until I get married. Yes, that's what it means. I want God to have every part of me. I want God to have this part of me. I want that first night of my wedding to be the most beautiful thing in all the world. I want it to be my gift to my spouse. I want to be able to say on that night, “I waited for you.” It means that I say to Jesus, “I love You so much for what You've done for me; it's my response. I present my body a living sacrifice to You which is my reasonable act of worship.” Young people, will you do that? Will you make a promise, a covenant, a vow? A very solemn thing. Go home tonight and think about it. If you keep a journal, write something in your journal. “This is what I promise before God.” Tell your parents, if you can speak to your parents about these things. I could never have spoken to my parents about these things, but if you can do that, tell them. Because, dear young people, this is the most beautiful thing that you could ever give to your spouse. Let's pray together.
Our Father in heaven, as we study this passage together in coming weeks, we pray that that which You want us to learn, write it upon our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen
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