The Joy of Sex
This was the first in a series of 4 sermons on the Song of Songs (SOS) preached to our Sunday evening congregation at St Helen's Church, London. It's a young congregation (predominantly people in their twenties) so issues of human sexuality are crucial and I could be fairly blunt in discussing them. The series was aimed in part at dispersing myths about a Christian view of sex. But, it was also designed to show the connection between the Gospel and our sex ethic. This initial sermon begins to develop a responsible way of reading the SOS. My hunch was that the SOS has such a history of unhelpful misreadings that we needed to spend a fair time doing this. This is the groundwork and the beginning for a biblical theological reading which would be continued in the next three sermons.
2. What this book is not about - false trails in the sermon
In the course of the sermon I identify the following false trails growing out of a wrong theology of sex and the erotic:
The SOS is an allegory of the relationship between Christ and his church which leads to a selective ‘eroticising' of the relationship.
The SOS is a detailed sex and marriage manual outlining appropriate behaviour for every stage of a romantic relationship.
(The introduction of my sermon outlines the cultural and theological wrong turns which led to a false reading of the SOS).
3. What this book is about - the difference biblical theology makes
The Song of Songs and sex
The SOS appears to be primarily about sex. There are no generic indicators within the text to suggest that it is an allegory. Hence it is best read at 'face value' as erotic poetry. The focus of many of the poems is physical intimacy (e.g. the book begins in 1:1-3 with an invitation to kiss and to go to bed, 2:3-7 speaks of intimate embrace [the word 'embrace' has sexual overtones]). There are extended celebrations of each of the lovers physiques which don't flinch when it comes to delighting in each others erogenous zones (e.g. 4:1-16 especially v.5, 5:10-16, 7:1-9 especially v.7-9). The poems use a variety of sexual metaphors and images (e.g. 2:17 'cleft mountains' is understood by many to be a reference to the woman's breasts or genitalia; 7:13 mandrakes were considered to be aphrodisiacs; 8:9 the image of a door is used elsewhere in ancient near eastern literature for a sexually promiscuous woman).
The Song of Songs and Jesus
The approach I developed in later weeks was to argue that the reason sexual love is so powerful that it needs to be sealed is due to God's relationship with his people. Sex is never ‘just sex' in the Bible. Sexual union within marriage is a reflection of God's relationship with his people which ultimately results in spiritual union with Christ. To abandon God is spiritual adultery. I traced the theme through the prophets (Isaiah 54:5-8, Jeremiah 2:2, 20b, Ezekiel 23 and Hosea 1:2, 3:1) with particular emphasis on Hosea 2:14-16, 19-20 where God promises one day to irrevocably ‘marry' his people, never to be divorced. The NT sees this fulfilled in the death of Christ for his people (Ephesians 5:33) and finally completed in the renewed Creation (Revelation 21:2). The human marriage relationship is a visible, concrete metaphor for Christ's love for the church. In Jesus Christ love is as strong as death, it's jealousy as unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.
Notice this is not the same as an allegorical reading where every detail of the text is interpreted as an aspect of Christ's relationship to the church. The biblical-theological approach I adopt delivers the reader from the unhelpful ‘selective eroticism' of the allegorical approach whilst retaining the passion and intimacy of the church's relationship to Christ.
I worked this out in subsequent weeks by drawing on the poems in the SOS which emphasise that sexual desire is never totally satisfied - it's a constant cycle of the satisfaction of desire followed by renewed or unsatisfied desire (2:8-17, 3:1-4, 8:13-14). Sexual desire points beyond itself to a final consummation (Matthew 22:29-33, Revelation 19:7-9, 21:2).
This approach addresses all kinds of people in the congregation - for people who do not count themselves as Christian it shows that the Christian sex ethic is rooted in the Gospel not in moralism. We keep sex within monogamous, faithful, passionate marriages because of God's relationship to his people secured by the death of Christ; for single and married Christians it says that there is more to (eternal) life than sex. We can delight in and celebrate sex without falling into the idolatrous patterns of our culture. Sex is a sign to a great and final consummation between Christ and all his people whether they have been single of married in this world.
4. Sermon Shape and Structure
There wasn't a specific text for this introductory sermon. This decision was driven in part by the nature of the SOS (an anthology which requires a thematic approach rather than a linear narrative requiring a consecutive approach - see below). But it was also driven by the sense that I needed to spend a good deal of time clearing away many of the unhelpful approaches which have been taken to the book. Therefore, the textual material is used to illustrate and control a responsible reading strategy. Furthermore, this approach also influenced the structure of the sermon - I deliberately tried to get away from a classic Aristotelian structure (introduction, 3 points and a conclusion) in favour of a less predictable structure. In essence the shape of the sermon is as follows:
The need for a healthy hermeneutic
The de-sexing of SOS
and bad Bible reading
and bad spirituality
the joyful celebration of the goodness of sexual love
an anthology of celebrative poetry rather than a DIY manual for lovers
SOS, marriage and sex.
5. The Sermon
Let me tell you about Origen. Origen was a Egyptian Christian leader whose life spanned the 2nd and 3rd centuries. In many ways he was a great thinker and systematiser of the Christian faith. He was so great that people still read him today. But, Origen, influenced by Greek philosophy, despised his body. He saw the body and its desires as a hindrance to being a good Christian. In fact he saw it as such a hindrance that fairly early in his Christian life Origen castrated himself. Interestingly, Origen wrote 10 volumes of commentary on the Song of Songs.
The example of Origen might confirm everything you thought to be true about Christianity's attitude to sex and the body. For many years, during the middle ages and beyond, the church taught that sex was only about procreation. It was sinful to take pleasure in the sexual act - the only point in having sex was to make babies. The super-spiritual hierarchy, the priests, monk and nuns, were to take a vow of lifelong celibacy. Sex muddied the spiritual waters and prevented you living a truly godly life.
The church's mixed feelings about sex continued into the twentieth century. I remember as a Christian teenager the most memorable teaching I received about pre-marital, physical relationships between men and women was, ÒIf you haven't got it then don't touch itÓ. You can imagine the debates about which bits we both had and if it was OK to touch them!
These introductory comments were intended to show that theology matters when it comes to understanding the Bible - bad theology always has consequences in the way we read the Bible and therefore will impact negatively the way we live. Our systematic theology will impact our biblical theology. The two disciplines, far from being opposed to one another, are essential for our hermeneutical and spiritual health. I now go on to comment on how a theological mis-move created confusion in the church as it approached the SOS.
The church's struggle to develop a balanced view of sexual love is reflected in the history of the interpretation of the Song of Songs. The initial problem with the book is that it doesn't mention God - there is a possible hint of his name in 8:6 but no more. So, people felt they had to somehow ‘rescue' the book if it was to remain in the list of inspired books of the Bible.
But, even more problematic for a confused church is this: if you read the book at face value then it is an extremely erotic piece of literature. Look at the opening verses of chapter 1 - the woman basically says, ÒKiss me passionately and then let's go to bedÓ and she doesn't mean to sleep. If the eroticism wasn't enough then for many the fact it was a woman taking such a sexual initiative was a problem. Or look at chapter 7:6-10 - I don't need to spell out what's going on! In fact, in various places, our English translations spare our blushes particularly when the lovers describe one another's genitalia.
This next section shows how confused theology has hermeneutical consequences. If sex is of dubious or negative value then the SOS cannot be read at face value. Hence, the church had to find ways of de-sexing the book. It also shows how not every Christocentric reading of the OT is a right reading. It is possible to preach Christ from the OT in an unhelpful way.
This is how the church got around the problem - it turned the book into an allegory of Christ's love for his people. It ‘de-sexed' the book. It said that the Song of Songs describes the highs and lows of a believer's love relationship with Jesus. Let me give you an example of that. Turn back to chapter 1:13. A commentator in the fifth century said that the beloved's breasts in the book were the Old Testament and New Testament - the Bible was the source of the church's nourishment. Therefore, who is the sachet of myrrh who lies between the breasts? You've guessed it - Jesus!
The book was hugely popular as a result - in the lists of commentaries we have from the 4th -11th centuries, 32 commentaries on the Song are listed in comparison to 9 on Romans. Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century preached 86 sermons on the first two chapters! If you'd come into St Helens in 1086 then Nigel De Beynon would have welcomed you, encouraged you to join a small group and told you that RML Song of Songs was the best place to start.
Now, I work point out the consequences of a wrong hermeneutic in the life of the church. We see this both in the way we read the Bible as a whole and in the way we relate to God. Theology has legs!
It's easy to laugh at that kind of obsessive interpretation but it has had a number of serious negative effects. First, it leads us to read the Bible badly. Allegory is a legitimate literary genre where the text invites us to look beneath the surface for another meaning. A good example of the genre is John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.
But, nowhere does the Song give us a hint that it is to be read as allegory. If you read the Bible incorrectly then you will live incorrectly - the church had a wrong view about sex which was confirmed by a poor reading of the Song of Songs which in turn confirmed its bad view of sex. Origen's castration is an example of that. Another example is Jerome a Christian teacher and follower of Origen in the 4th-5th century. He used to throw himself into thorn bushes whenever he felt any surge of sexual desire.
A second negative effect is that the church developed a bad spirituality. It began to talk about the believer's relationship with Jesus in highly introspective, erotic terms. I call it a "Jesus-is-my-boyfriend" spirituality. When I was a teenager we used to sing a song taken from the Song of Songs:
v.1 He took me onto his banqueting table and his banner over me is love ; v.2 I am my beloved's and he is mine and his banner over me is love.
It was strangely selective! We chose not to sing, "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth".
It made me feel uneasy - did I have to have a hormonal relationship to Jesus?
You see it worked out today in a song like, "By your side I would stay, in your arms I would lay. Jesus lover of my soul. Nothing from you would I withhold. Lord I love you and adore you. What more can I say. You cause my love to grow stronger with every passing day".
There is a huge difference between that and Isaac Watt's great hymn ‘Jesus lover of my soul' - Watts centres us on our sin and our need for Christ as our saviour from sin. I am not saying Jesus does not love us and that the church is not to love Jesus. There is an intense, passionate love relationship between the two as we will see in week four of this series. But, it is not a simple erotic relationship.
So far I've been majored on the negative. It seemed to me that we needed to spend a lot of time on the negative if we were ever going to hear the SOS properly. Some books of the Bible have such a history of misreading that an awful lot of weeding has to be done if we're going to smell the flowers! I've also begun to hint that the SOS will take us to Christ. I deliberately took us to Christ fairly slowly in the series assuming that most would be there for 4 weeks. But I also went slowly as I thought it might take people more than one week to readjust their views on how Jesus fulfils the SOS.
The next section begins to construct a positive hermeneutic for the SOS based on a closer reading of the text. This reading spills over into application. The first comment on the SOS as a celebration of sexual love is particularly designed to wrong-foot the person who thinks that Christians are uptight or repressed about sex. At points it's deliberately provocative (e.g. the ‘Last Temptation' illustration). It is intended to prepare the way for the gospel as it removes obstacles to listening.
So, how are we to read the Song of Songs? First of all we are to read it as a joyful celebration of the goodness of sexual love. As you read the book you get swept up into the delight these two people have in one another. Look at chapter 5:10-ff or 6:4-ff - v.6 your teeth are white and you've got a full set! The images tumble out as the lovers try to find the words to describe the beauty of the other.
The Song of Songs crushes any idea that the body is evil or an obstacle to the spiritual. The Song of Songs rebukes Christians or churches who avoid the subject of sex. Sex is so good that a whole book of the Bible is devoted to it! It's a book that barely mentions sex as an instrument of procreation but rather talks up sex as a pleasure and as an expression of love. Our generation imagines that it discovered sex, that it has liberated itself from an outdated Victorian prudishness driven by an outdated Christian ethic. The Song of Songs says the physical is good; sex is good; love is good. Let's celebrate it.
A number of years ago Martin Scorcese made an artistically flawed (too long) and theologically flawed (a Christ who didn't seem to be divine) film called the ÒLast Temptation of ChristÓ. The last temptation of Christ is to reject the cross, sleep with Mary Magdalene and then marry her. The film is clear that Jesus resists the temptation. Lots of Christians got hot under the collar about the film but maybe for the wrong reasons. Scorcese presented a doubt wracked Jesus who might not have been divine. But, it was hard not to think that all the fuss was over the sexual nature of Christ's temptation. Did Jesus have a sex drive? If the Song of Songs is true then it's heresy to say he didn't - he would be less than human.
This second comment introduces a discussion of the structure of the SOS - is it a linear narrative or a poetic anthology? The answer to this question will determine how we preach it. If the former then a classic consecutive, expository approach is appropriate; if the latter then our exposition will be more thematic as we isolate different strands within the anthology. I opt for the latter option due to the difficulties encountered in a trying to make the book fit a linear narrative. There are too many loose ends which we use to tie ourselves into knots for this to work. The internal control for the anthology seems to be the refrain which I draw attention to. I also introduce in this section the wider canonical context as a hermeneutical control for how we can and can't read the SOS.
Secondly, we are not to read it as a book of sex and marriage ethics. Why do I say that? Many commentators as they rediscovered the primary meaning of the book as erotic literature, decided that the book should therefore be read as a counselling handbook for engaged and married couples. There was advice here for how to behave sexually before marriage and how to behave after marriage. For example, I've read Christian books which take verses such as 8:3 as advice on good sexual positions!
The book was read as an unfolding drama which chronicled the movement of a young couple through their courtship to their marriage. Various commentators place their marriage at different points in the book Chapter 4 or chapter 8 are the usual candidates. Often they would have to tie themselves in knots because the lovers appear to be behaving in a way which is inappropriate to their stage of relationship. For example, 5:4-5 - a highly erotic sequence is usually explained as being part of a dream or fantasy because of 5:2.
Now, I don't think the most constructive way to read the book is as a drama intended to teach sexual ethics. Rather the book seems to be an anthology of poetry designed to celebrate sexual love. There are many different poems in the book, maybe as many as 30 which are unified by some common refrains. For instance - the main refrain is first heard in 2:7. We hear it again in 3:5 and then in 8:4. If we look for a linear narrative then we tie ourselves in knots.
I think that the SOS is a little like this - a few years ago a book of poems by Ted Hughes was published. It was called "Birthday Letters" and was an anthology chronicling his love affair and marriage to Sylvia Plath. The anthology was non-linear, each poem was self contained and could be read by itself. But, there were common themes throughout the anthology to the extent that it works as one piece - the parts enhance the whole.
But, (and this is really important), the Song of Songs finds itself in the context of the OT and the Bible as a whole. The sexual ethic of Judaism and Christianity has always been very clear - the appropriate place for the practice of sexual love is lifelong, heterosexual marriage. The Song of Songs must be read against that background. It is not a sixties style invitation to free love. It find itself as a good gift of God to the people of the book, a book which affirms a strong framework for sex. I think that leads us to the third thing I want to say about how we are to read the Song of Songs.
This final comment introduces the main internal control for the understanding of the SOS. It allows the SOS to provide its own commentary on its theme and then spills over into an application about the context for sexual love. Again, I didn't end by taking people to Christ. Was I therefore preaching moralism? If this was a one-off sermon then I think that would be a fair criticism. If it was a one-off sermon then I would have moved faster to the Gospel. However, in my head I had one big sermon which was going to be preached over three weeks. All the moves were necessary to get a right biblical theological perspective. This approach does beg the following questions, "Can I safely assume that the majority of my congregation are going to be around for 4 weeks?", "Do people need to hear Christ preached in depth every time we open the Scriptures?"
We are to read it as a celebration of and a warning about the power of sexual love. I think the controlling poem of the Song is found in 8:5-7. This is the one place in the book where we are given a commentary on the nature of the love which gives rise to sex. Verse 5 - the desert is the place where their love has been consummated, the apple tree was an erotic metaphor in the ANE describing a place of sexual arousal. Verse 6a the woman asks her lover to place like a seal over his heart, like a seal on his arm. She belongs to him body and soul. It's an image of total commitment. Why? Verse 6bff. The kind of love described in the Song of Songs is fierce. If it is not expressed in an appropriate relationship then it will break you. Hence the refrain we hear throughout the book - "Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires"
Listen, this is why God insists in the Bible that sex belongs in marriage. Marriage is a public ceremony where two people vow to maintain a lifelong commitment to one another body and soul. Sex is an expression of that one hundred percent commitment. To have sex without that commitment is to lie with our bodies. It's to say, "I am committed to you with my body but not with the rest of my life". Ask yourself, if you're sleeping with someone to whom you are not married, "what prevents me saying with the rest of my life what I say with my body?" True love won't tolerate that because it's as strong as death, it's jealousy as unyielding as the grave - something has to give.
If that's true then you'd expect to see a negative effect if we refuse to accept it. The General Household Survey of 1992 told us that couples who co-habit then marry are twice as likely to divorce as couples who have not cohabited, The British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes 1994 told us that you are 50% more likely to be unfaithful if co-habiting than married. Love is as strong as death.
The conclusion attempts to show that the Bible provides a completely different account of sex to the usual options - it is neither conservative nor liberal nor a ‘third way'!
Can you see the beauty of the Bible's view of sex? It refuses to be trapped in a repressed corner where sex is never for recreation or celebration. But, equally it refuses to be trapped in a liberal corner which sees sex as pure recreation. Sex is to be celebrated but respected. Sexual love is powerful. It has the capability of destroying us if not structured properly. Next week we'll come back to look at the dark side of sex as portrayed in the Song of Songs.
Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs, (NICOT Eerdmans, 2001)
I was heavily dependent on this commentary. Excellent on unpacking the metaphors and alludes to biblical theological themes.
There is very little else out there which does not fall into the various traps I've warned against in the sermon.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature