Song of Solomon 2:8-13; James 1:16-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Not every book in the Bible says, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” (Song of Sol. 1:2) or “Look! Here [comes my beloved], leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills” (2:8). Start reading Song of Solomon and you realize – wow, I’ve stepped into something different here! The book is like an ancient near eastern love song, with some references that seem spot on and some that seem culturally distant.
In today’s passage, the woman lover compares her beloved to a gazelle, leaping over the mountains. Gazelles, as you know, are not often present in modern love songs. But then the rest of the passage talks about how the winter is over and everything is blooming. Her lover is here: there are doves cooing and flowers bursting forth. I thought today’s passage is like an ancient Hebrew version of, “Why do birds/suddenly appear/every time/ you are near? Just like me/they want to be/close to you?” (The Carpenters, Close to You)
In preparing for this sermon, I decided to read all 8 chapters of Song of Solomon in order to get a better grasp of the literary context. I’d read it before—at least a few times—but it had honestly been several years. Reading now in 2015, our current cultural context gave me a slightly different perspective on the book than I’ve had before. In Chapter 5, the author exhorts the listeners, “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.” I read this and was like, “Drunk with love? Wait, what? Like Beyoncé’s song?” So I decided to google the lyrics of Beyoncé’s song “Drunk in Love” in order to see if there were any parallels.
For those of you who haven’t heard it, the song uses fairly vivid metaphors to describe the sexual desire and lovemaking between Beyoncé and her husband, Jay Z, aka Shawn Carter, who also sings with her on the track. I won’t read from the lyrics here; some people will find some references questionable. And yet, I can’t deny how the song broadly parallels Song of Solomon. Both involve two voices: lovers talking about each other, how they adore each other, and also how they feel about each other’s bodies – sometimes with explicit imagery. Song of Solomon is steamy stuff, folks. And it’s in the Bible.
A Love Song that is Explicit – but Not about God
The church hasn’t been known for good teaching about sex. For some churches, the only time that sex is talked about is to say, “Don’t have sex. Don’t have sex. No, really, don’t sex.” Other churches, they don’t take that approach. They don’t want to be the church that only says, “Don’t have sex.” But in not wanting to be that church, some churches end up not talking about sex at all. Neither of these seem like good solutions.
As a Ministry Team here at Washington City, we typically preach through the lectionary – a series of passages that are laid out in three year cycles. Especially since we are a team, this reduces our need to coordinate topics. But it also means that some topics only come up when they’re in the lectionary – or when we go out of our way to make a theme sermon. A little while ago, I said to myself, “Gee, we haven’t really had opportunities to talk about sex at Washington City.” Today, however, we are in luck.
It’s easy to find Song of Solomon strange. Oddity number 1: God’s people talking explicitly about sex. Oddity number 2: the unnamed male and female narrators use ancient metaphors of trees and gems and deer to describe how they feel about each other. Oddity number 3: Song of Solomon doesn’t once mention God. It doesn’t mention God a single time. There are only two books of the Bible that don’t mention God: the book of Esther and Song of Solomon. So, you may ask, if it doesn’t talk about God, why is it in the Bible?
One commentator says, “Read in isolation, Song of Solomon is artistically and thematically lovely but not particularly theologically enriching. As part of a unified canon, however, as part of an ongoing, interactive, authoritative whole, this book confirms earlier teachings about marriage while adding its own unique contribution” (House, 1998, p. 469). By this, the writer is saying that Song of Solomon on its own doesn’t tell us much about God – but combined with other books of the Bible, it does.
In some ways I agree, but I also kind of disagree with that statement. Reading Song of Solomon on its own, knowing that it is in the Bible, I can see loud and clear that God the Creator cares about good, joyful sex. I also think it tells us that God is always present in bringing about love and joy and goodness – even if God isn’t explicitly named. Named or unnamed, God is there.
I do admit though, that other books of the Bible bring more insight to Song of Solomon and to sex. Take today’s passage in James 1:16-27, for instance. Verses 16 and 17 read, “Don’t be deceived, my brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (NIV). Every good thing is from above. Song of Solomon presents sex as good and delightful – and through James we see that this is a gift from God.
Wise Living and Wise Loving
Song of Solomon is a wisdom book, placed near two other important relationship passages. During my undergraduate studies in Old Testament, I learned that the order of the books of the Bible hasn’t always been as it is today. Sometimes, we can learn a bit more about a book by the type of genre or literature it is (poetry, narrative, etc.) or by what books it is physically near in the biblical canon (what we call the grouping). An ancient Jewish tradition of scribes called the Masoretes helped preserve the Bible. Where they placed Song of Solomon is different than where we place it. We place it between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah. The Masoretes put it in this order: Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, and then Ecclesiastes.
The end of Proverbs (chapter 31) talks about an ideal spouse—hardworking, committed, and a person who loves and honors God. The book of Ruth shares the narrative of a foreign woman named Ruth. For an oversimplified summary, she marries an Israelite, becomes a widow, and eventually finds a new relationship that ends in marriage. In Ruth, we meet Boaz, a man who treats his workers well, who makes sure that no one preys on vulnerable women, and who joyfully unites with Ruth because she is a widow who serves and loves Yahweh. The narrative clearly illustrates that God has His hand in bringing the couple together and that Boaz is righteous for the way he treats vulnerable women. (As I was writing this, I thought, we need to preach from Ruth more!)
In the Masoretic canon, Song of Solomon follows Proverbs 31 and Ruth. Song of Solomon is focused on two lovers, a man and a woman. It is mostly made up of their voices, with the voices of their friends included at times. It’s about one monogamous couple.
The book purports to be written by Solomon, a King of Israel who asked Yahweh for wisdom rather than riches and ended up having world-renowned wisdom. He wrote a lot of his wise ideas down also in Song of Solomon, Proverbs, and probably Ecclesiastes. We know from Scripture that King Solomon was not monogamous his whole life, eventually taking hundreds of wives and concubines (1 Ki 11:1-8). I don’t know when Solomon wrote this book or if it is about one of his relationships. I do know that this story of two lovers is lifted up as “wise,” whereas Solomon’s polygamy ends up being linked to his downfall in 1 Kings. While a person’s words and actions are supposed to line up, I think that God was able to use Solomon’s wisdom to write this book. Solomon’s bad choices don’t necessarily negate a beautiful, God-inspired text.
One commentator, Old Testament biblical theologian Paul House, said that the book shows “wise living through wise loving” (House, 1998, p. 463). As we’ve said already today, Song of Solomon is wisdom literature but it’s also really a love song. It’s poetry, at times erotic poetry, which loosely tells a story and can teach us several things about relationships and sex. House provides an outline that I find helpful in understanding what this wisdom love poetry teaches us.
The book starts (1:2-2:7) by illustrating that “wise loving begins with the lovers unashamedly declaring their love for one another” (House, 1998, p. 465). The two lovers then express how much they want to be together; they talk about their emotional and physical desire (2:8-3:5) and they join together in marriage (3:6-5:1). Somehow, they get separated for a time and yearn to be back together (5:2-6:3). When the lovers are reunited, “the pair extol one another’s virtues (6:4-8:4),” talking about how beautiful the other is, how they are best friends (House, 1998, p. 465). The book closes with expressions of commitment: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grace” (8:6). Lovers declaring love, being open about feelings, committing to be together and making sure you stay together, lifting one another up, and reminding each other of their fierce love: this is Song of Solomon.
Sex and Pharisees
In Song of Solomon, we see desire, friendship, passion, commitment, and sex. We see lovers who feel safe to frolic about naked—harkening back to Genesis, where Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed. Safety, consent, dignity, delight, respect, covenantal commitment: this is the picture of wise loving that we see in Song of Solomon (and also Ruth, for that matter). James says that all good things are from God—and yet, things that are good are only good in the right circumstances. Food is described in the Bible as a gift from God, but not all foods today are good or healthy, at all times, or in all settings.
Sex is good and healthy when defined by safety, consent, dignity, delight, respect, and covenantal commitment. Healthy sex is a good, holy gift made by God. Sex outside of these characteristics is not a picture of the wholeness and the goodness that God has designed.
Our gospel text this morning is found in Mark 7. In it, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law see Jesus’ disciples eating food without washing their hands. The Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands – they defile our tradition.” We are doing what is right and religious, because we’re over here doing the letter of the law, washing our hands! It wasn’t so much hygiene but the religious rule that they were concerned with. Jesus responds, “You are actually hypocrites, too concerned with the outward than with what the heart is about.”
As a pastor, I will argue that sex for Christians belongs in a marriage. Covenantal commitment provides a setting for safety, respect, and dignity – which, in turn, allow for delightful, erotic, and healthy sex. Sex without commitment can lack respect, dignity, and safety. Song of Solomon says a few times, “Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready” (3:5; 8:4). One of my favorite bands, mewithoutYou, has a line saying, “May we old-fashionably suggest – the unmarried – not undress. We all know, we’re gonna reap what we so.” As followers of Jesus, marriage provides a setting to enjoy healthy sex in its place as a good gift from God.
Yet marriage is not the special key to healthy sex. Like the Pharisees with their hand washing, some Christians have been so consumed with whether sex involves a marriage certificate that they haven’t stopped to think about the heart. They haven’t focused on whether sex (inside marriage or outside of marriage) involves safety, consent, dignity, delight, respect—they’ve only been looking at the marriage certificates. Being married does not equate healthy sex. Commitment must be combined with safety, consent, and dignity in order to be healthy, joyful sex.
Thinking that marriage is the one qualification that makes sex healthy or not healthy is like a Pharisee saying in Jesus’ time saying, “as long as I’m washing my hands, I’m doing what God requires.” Some married Christians have unhealthy sex that is degrading and abusive. Some unmarried sexual partners, I’m sure, have sex that is consensual, safe, committed, and full of dignity and joy.
Wholeness, the Gospel, and Sex
Looking at the Bible as a whole, we see all types of sexual experiences. There are happy stories: a virgin named Mary, monogamous marriages like Adam and Eve and Ruth and Boaz, and even an unmarried single-for-life preacher named Paul. It’s important to mention Paul: when talking about sex, marriage, and relationships in the church, we need to remember that being married is not the end-all-be-all of Christian life.
Beyond these happy and healthy stories, there are also messed up or complicated folks: Solomon with his thousand wives, Judah who ends up sleeping with his daughter-in-law whom he thinks is a prostitute, and King David with his greedy lust for another man’s wife that ends in murder. Somehow, we see God working through these messed up and complicated people.
God works through people with all types of sexual experiences. Don’t let anyone tell you that your sexual background prevents you from serving God or following Him. While God is willing to meet us—and work through us—where we are, God is also concerned with wholeness. Wholeness. Our new tagline describes our church this way: seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.
Following Jesus is about bringing our whole lives and selves under His restoring and healing power. For some of us, being changed by the gospel of Jesus might involve transforming how we understand relationships and commitment. It might involve changing how we think about power and dignity and equality. For some of us, it might be finding healthy sex in an existing marriage or it might involve bringing a current sexual relationship into a committed covenantal relationship. How is God calling you to heal and transform the way you think and act about sex?
Sisters and brothers, as followers of Jesus, we should be concerned with sex. Let us seek to follow Jesus with our whole lives. Sex is a good gift, given by God, when it is defined by safety, consent, dignity, respect, delight, and covenantal commitment.
House, P. (1998). Old Testament Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.