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Song of Songs aint just a sex manual – besides there aint no “just” to sex

"What assumptions about sex are behind the common opinion that the Song is only an erotic poem, only a celebration of human sexuality and marriage, full stop?

Tremper Longman: “There is absolutely nothing in the Song of Songs itself that hints of a meaning different from the sexual meaning.”

When commentators express such opinions, are they already implicitly assuming a materialist view of sexuality?  Are they coming to the text with a presupposition that sex has no inherent transcendent meaning?  To put it the other way round: Doesn’t sex itself hint at a meaning different from the sexual meaning?"  Peter Leithart


14 thoughts on “Song of Songs aint just a sex manual – besides there aint no “just” to sex

  1. Heather

    To put it the other way round: Doesn’t sex itself hint at a meaning different from the sexual meaning?” Peter Leithart

    I've always thought the euphamism "knew his wife" to be interesting in light of the shared intimacy of marriage and

    Matthew 7:22-23 Many will say to Me in that day, Lord! Lord! Did we not prophesy in Your name, and through Your name throw out demons, and through Your name do many wonderful works?
    And then I will say to them I never knew you! Depart from Me, those working lawlessness!

    "I never knew you" suggests to me that an intimacy of relationship is lacking in those Christ will turn away.

    Maybe I'm reading too much into it, though.

  2. Glen

    I think that's absolutely right Heather. Right from the beginning 'knowing' means more than intellectual assent. "Knowing good and evil" means taking those terms to yourself, making them yours (being God then). Knowing Eve means taking her to himself, making her his. Knowing the LORD is an intimate belonging to one another. The LORD "knew" the Israelites in the desert (Hosea 13:5). Sex is a covenantal knowing of one another (which is why sex with strangers is such a perversion of real sex).

  3. codepoke

    It's just crushing what they're doing to the Song these days. I'm glad you're standing for the deeper meaning. Thank you.

  4. Glen

    Hey Tim and Code - I reckon it's just an expanded version of Psalm 45. So Tim - there's a quick way of doing an overview!

  5. Paul Blackham

    This is important. I've been reading some of the books and sermons on sex/virginity from the early centuries after the apostles. The contrast with especially modern evangelical thought is shocking. Today, in the church community almost as much as outside, sex is something to be simply 'celebrated' and enjoyed - and there are plenty of Christian sex manuals etc etc. Sex problems are seen as resolved through better techniques or losing repression or 'communication'. The idea that a closer relationship with Jesus might be helpful is not a common solution. Of course, when the most intense experience of intimacy in the culture is 'mind-blowing sex'... then of course sex is seen as an end in itself. To celebrate sex is seen as a big enough goal in itself and why shouldn't the Bible be forced to have such a limited horizon? The deep damage that this kind of attitude has for single and LGBT Christians is frightening. How can we really hold sexual practice up as the most intense relationship/intimacy, constantly trying to pair everybody up, and also pretend to be so shocked when single and LGBT Christians believe the hype?

    In those apostolic days sex was seen as something much more complicated and not the preferred option for human life. The first and best option was to have a completely monogamous intimate relationship with Jesus and to remain a virgin for life. If that is not possible then it is acceptable to split our affections by becoming married.

    With relevant provisos in place, it is good to call marriage a 'means of grace' - in that it is then seen as part of the real and full relationship that really fulfils us and completes us.

    If you are a fan of Saxondale [and you should be!] you will remember how there are those uncomfortable moments when Tommy and Magz become kind of 'lost in each other' - 'you complete me'; 'you rock my world' 'you are my anchor in the storm' etc etc. That is the kind of language for our big and substantial relationship with Jesus and only to be used in a secondary and limited sense of our human romance/marriage.

    The best sex help we can offer is to remind us/seduce us back to the Divine Romance. That is the full and complete and ultimate human experience of intimacy... and from that ecstasy we do begin to see both the joys and sorrows of our fallen human sexuality... not in hopeless frustration or obsession, but as a grace given to some of us in order to lead us to our true Spouse.

    Having said all that...

    I think Song of Songs is slightly more tricky than I once thought. The king is not so great with his multiple wives and harem. He seems to want to add a new lover... BUT is her true affection for the Shepherd who lives out in the country. Doesn't she really love Him and long for Him to come for her? When she spends so much time looking for Him, doesn't this indicate that He is not the playboy king [who would be all too easy to find in the royal city] but the Shepherd who will take her away from the captivity of the world with all its treasures? Notice the strange sequence in 3:4-6 - she has found her lover and embraced him... but then Solomon arrives in his fancy carriages. So, who has she been snuggling up to before Solomon arrived? At the end of the book, she insists that her vineyard is her own and prefers to pay the 1000 silver to Solomon.

    Look, I'm not sure how to handle all the details of the book, but I've been working on it for about 3 years now.

  6. Tim Cairns

    Thanks for that post Paul really great stuff. Having read that I really wish you were coming to preach here on Sunday for me!

    On Sunday I am just trying to keep it simple! it strikes me as interesting that the Song of Songs is in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. So essentially my point is this, wisdom literature takes us from our human experience to our relationship with Jesus Christ. Ultimately everything is meaningless without a relationship with Jesus. In a world searching for meaning, we think we can find meaning in sex, meaning is found only in relationship with Christ. So our human experience finds meaning only in Him. Its hard to do justice to one book in 30 minutes so I want to get us to the gospel as quickly as possible!

    I agree with Paul that there are 3 people involved in this relationship rather than the traditional idea of 2. Have you listened to Mark Driscoll's sermon series on the Song? It saddened me to listen, there was lots of sex talk (which is good), but very little gospel. If the book is just a sex manual and does not take us to the gospel of Jesus Christ then what’s the point? It would be just as meaningless as any sex manual we could buy at the local bookshop.

    I hope I don’t take the congregation too far off track, I kind of figured if I can get to the cross as quickly as possible then we will not be too far away from the truth!

  7. Glen

    Hey Paul - such helpful words about sex, thank you. And I remember first hearing that "Shepherd on the side" theory late one night from you about 8 years ago. It certainly makes more sense of why the watchmen beat her up etc. But what does it do to the Christ typology? Is it the idea that reigning king who the world recognizes is Solomon in his pomp (Adam/Satan). But the true bride loves the lowly Shepherd. Is that what's going on?

    Oh - and I just dug out a photo of you and Emma from that very time. I'll have to send it to you. It's hilarious...

  8. Paul Blackham

    Hey, thanks for the photo. Brilliant!

    Yes, I think that there are two men after the bride - the wealthy and powerful king with his many lovers and the humble, rural Shepherd who has eyes only for His love. The bride is caught up into the king's seduction/power... but her heart is always really for her true Love. Will she be one of many in the glittering palace... or will she be the 'one, true love' out on the mountains, in the shepherd's home?

    One of the classic problems with The Song is marking out who is speaking at any moment. I find that it becomes much easier when I consider the possibility of the Shepherd versus the king.

    In one sense both the suitors are like King David - the shepherd king. David the shepherd boy, annointed to serve, was a powerful type of Jesus, but David the sleazy king, curled up in bed with some super-model... is a very different kind of 'pattern'. Two 'Davids' ... two Adams.

    The king 'typology' is always a bit tricky. Jesus the True King is not a fan of kings anyway, as 1 Samuel makes very clear. The best of the kings [and there aren't many] are very poor compared to Jesus. David is the first to admit that he is nothing like his Lord, the Divine King who reigns from Zion. Yet, David is promised that the Messiah would be one of his descendants. When Jesus does declare His royal status He is riding on a donkey, riding to execution and He reigns from the tree. His crown is made of thorns. The way that Solomon is depicted, with his vast wealth, many wives, pagan shrines/statues... is very unappealling as a picture of Jesus. Read Deuteronomy 17:14-20 and then read 1 Kings 11:1-13. Solomon is not who the LORD had in mind in 2 Samuel 7:11-16.

    Solomon perhaps learns his wisdom the hard way, through making all the mistakes... as the book of Ecclesiastes records. Yet, Jesus learns wisdom the best way, through trust and obedience.

    The reign of Solomon marks the high point of wealth and influence... but a new low in spiritual prostitution and leaves a legacy of a divided kingdom.

    When people point to the wealth and power of Solomon as a sign that he is a type of Christ, I remain somewhat unconvinced. Wealth and power are not what Christ is offering, not what His kingdom is all about. Why is David a man after God's own heart? Because of his wealth and power? No, because, in spite of all his sin and promiscuity and greed, he loves his Lord with all his heart. We are not yearning for a King who will make us rich, but the King who will bring justice, peace, love, joy and ... most of all... Himself.

    Will the church be caught up into the divine passion in the divine family getting ready for life in the family home... or will she choose the lover[s] of the world, the flesh and the devil who all seem so much more immediately appealing? These other lovers are more popular, more powerful, more wealthy... and tell us all that we want to hear. Yet, still, there is that true Lover who has given His life for us, who will never look at another, who promises all we really need, who never leaves us feeling ashamed or guilty or used.

    Which of the lovers really offers a love stronger than death?

    That is why this Bible book is such a powerful analysis of our sexuality. So often we might feel caught between the excitement/thrill/eroticism of the short term/one night/'one of many' versus the quieter/deeper/more fulfilling exclusive passion of the life time. The classic trap is to dress up the first kind of sex in the clothes of the second. So, people love to talk about 'growing old together, being more in love with each passing year', but have none of the deep beliefs and commitments that make that possible.

    When our fundamental issues of sexuality/intimacy are realised in the Divine Romance, then we are much more able to deal with these concerns with each other. Why are our passions so strong? Why do they seem so uncontrollable? They were designed for a God as a Lover! Of course our passion and sexuality is powerful and feels so uncontrollable when detached from such an intense and passionate Lover! We cannot hope to find completion of such desire in any merely human lover no matter how much the chemistry works or the techniques are learned or the communication flows etc.

    I come to the garden alone
    While the dew is still on the roses
    And the voice I hear falling on my ear
    The Son of God discloses.

    And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
    And He tells me I am His own;
    And the joy we share as we tarry there,
    None other has ever known.

  9. Glen

    Paul, that's brilliant. Would you mind if I copied and pasted your comments into a post (crediting you of course). Or would you rather they were kept in the underbelly here? ;-)

  10. Dev

    are you sure chapter 3 is a different person
    or as the ESV comments - a dream of things that will happen in the future?
    since He went off to the place of myrrh and frankincense
    and that's where the King of Peace (the ascended King) comes in from

    so in chapter 5 - the reality is things are quite difficult...


  11. Leon

    Can't add to details, but I remember a commentary by Richard Brooks (Christian Focus) who takes the Song of Songs as an expansion of Psalm 45 and begins by quoting from Spurgeon's Treasury of David to makes his point about the Subject of Psalm 45 and the Song: Some here [Ps 45] see Solomon and Pharaoh's daughter only—they are short sighted; others see both Solomon and Christ—they are cross eyed; well focused spiritual eyes see here Jesus only, or if Solomon be present at all, it must be like those hazy shadows of by passers which cross the face of the camera, and therefore are dimly traceable upon a photographic landscape. "The King, "the God whose throne is for ever and ever, is no mere mortal and his everlasting dominion is not bounded by Lebanon and Egypt's river. This is no wedding song of earthly nuptials, but an Epithalamium for the Heavenly Bridegroom and his elect spouse.

  12. Tim Cairns

    Paul, I love this quote, which I am using tonight at our midweek bible study (which looks at Sunday's sermon "That is why this Bible book is such a powerful analysis of our sexuality. So often we might feel caught between the excitement/thrill/eroticism of the short term/one night/’one of many’ versus the quieter/deeper/more fulfilling exclusive passion of the life time. The classic trap is to dress up the first kind of sex in the clothes of the second. So, people love to talk about ‘growing old together, being more in love with each passing year’, but have none of the deep beliefs and commitments that make that possible."

    I also found this quote from James Houston "“in the song of songs we see that all love derives its validity only from the love which exists within God himself"

    So the wisdom of the Song of Solomon takes us from human sexuality to divine love, the love of the Good Shepherd, which takes us back to human love but with a completely changed perspective. Well that's the line I took on Sunday anyway, thanks for the posts they really helped


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