This sermon is part of the sermon series "Love and the City". See series.
A few months ago, Karen and I went to the movies. We were in the mood for a romantic comedy, so we went to see a film called Love, Actually. We didn't know too much about it, but it had a handful of British actors and actresses we like, and sounded like the kind of film we were looking for. We didn't realize till we were standing in line that it was an "R" movie, which we don't typically go to, but it looked pretty harmless so we decided to go ahead. Forty-five minutes later we scooped up our coats and walked out of the theater. It wasn't the offensive language or the flashes of nudity which drove us out. It was the trashing of love; the trivialization of sex; the trifling with people's deep longings that I just couldn't take anymore.
At first I was angry. Angry that this film purported to be about love, when in fact it was about adultery and flirtation and lust and confusion. It bothered me that all over the country people were sitting in theaters soaking it up, subliminally surrendering to the notion that what they were watching on the big screen was Love, Actually. I felt like standing up in the theater and shouting out, "No, no. That's not it at all!"
I left the theater mad, especially since we'd blown $18 and a night out. But as I drove home, I became afraid. Afraid for what our culture is telling people about love and sex and marriage. Afraid for the damage people are doing to themselves and to one another and to society.
That movie was just one of many value-shaping forces in our world today. There are the reality dating shows—The Bachelor, the Bachelorette, Joe Millionaire. I happened to catch a few minutes of The Bachelor this past week, as one of the women contestants described how she had slept with 35 men in her quest for true love. Later in the show, the bachelor would take four of the women away, individually, on romantic weekends to explore their compatibility more fully.
The HBO hit, Sex and the City, just completed its six-year run, following the romantic exploits of four supposedly empowered women as they shop and sleep their way through one relationship after another in search of the real thing. I never actually saw the show, but 6 or 7 million people tuned in each week. One fan of the series, a twenty-something aspiring fashion model, said about the final night, "It's been an essential part of my adulthood. It's been like a bit of therapy." Does that scare you as much as it does me?
The contemporary music scene certainly adds to the confusion. I heard a song on the radio the other day; a hard-rocker screaming the words, "I hate everything about you, so why do I still love you." A top 40 song laments, "this love has taken it's toll on me …."
On the closing episode of Friends, Rachel suggests to Ross that sleeping together is the perfect way to say goodbye. She ends up changing her mind (for the time being anyway). But after the way these "friends" have lived for the past ten years, the suggestion sounds frighteningly plausible.
Now, I realize that right about now I'm beginning to sound like a cranky, prudish, out-of-touch preacher. But understand that I'm not suggesting that we should never watch TV or go the movies, that we should hide our heads in the sand. I know that love can be complicated and messy and disappointing. I understand the purpose of art is to explore and expose the full-range of human experience. But recently I find myself angry and afraid about the messages our culture is sending and receiving about love and relationships. If you think those messages aren't having an impact; if you think people aren't confused about these things, then the interviews we listened to a few minutes ago should make you think again.
Much to Karen's relief, I didn't stand up in the theater and start preaching. But driving home that night I knew that sometime soon I needed to do some teaching on the subject of love. After searching the Scripture for awhile, looking for God's wisdom on the matter, I found myself in a book I'd never preached on before, and hardly ever studied before. The Old Testament book called Song of Songs, also known as Song of Solomon. We're going to spend four weeks in this book, gaining God's perspective on the subjects of love, sex, marriage, and the deep longings of our hearts. If you should have a particular question or issue you'd like me to address, I'd like to try to do that. You can write it down on the Guest Card and leave it in the offering plate, or send it to sermonfeedback.org. If I can work it in the next few weeks, I'll do that.
Let's begin by reading the opening chapter of the book, 1:1-2:2.
A history of the Song of Songs.
As you may have guessed already, Song of Songs is one of the most curious books in the Bible. First of all, God is never mentioned in the book. Not once. Neither is faith, sin, forgiveness, grace, prayer, holiness, worship, or eternal life. In fact, there is nothing explicitly spiritual in the whole book. On top of that, the sexual content of the book is graphic, intense, and at times downright erotic. Down through history there have been debates over whether the book should even be included in the Bible. At certain times in history, young people were forbidden from reading the book. Can you imagine a mother knocking on her son's bedroom door, "Johnny, you'd better not be reading your Bible in there!?"
Scholars and preachers have gone to great lengths to find ways to rationalize the book's usefulness. It's been explained as an allegory of God's love for Israel, or the church's love for Christ. The medieval mystic Bernard of Clairvaux preached 86 messages on the first two chapters, without ever really discussing human love or sexuality.
But most commentators have agreed that the best way to understand the book is to take for what it is—a collection of love songs, celebrating the mystery and delights of romantic love. Such collections were common in ancient literature, but the title suggests that of all such songs this is the best song. Like saying, King of Kings, or Holy of Holies. While the book is attributed to Solomon, we're not sure if it was written by Solomon, for Solomon, about Solomon, or simply during Solomon's reign.
The songs don't tell a story as much as they explore a theme. In other words, it's more like the musical Cats than it is like Les Miserables; more like an oratorio than an opera. It can't really be understood chronologically; it's more like a "chiasmus," which Alice Matthews explained so helpfully to us last week. An arrangement of songs with a pivotal center point. That central, pivot point is a wedding night, the physical consummation of love by a bride and bridegroom. The songs may in fact have been composed and performed for a wedding celebration—before they had DJ's and the Macarena. There appear to be three singers, or speakers—the bride, referred to as the Beloved; the bridegroom, identified as the Lover, and a chorus, described as Friends, perhaps like bridesmaids in a wedding. As the book unfolds, the characters anticipate and/or reflect upon that wedding night.
In this opening chapter, the song explores the wonder of romantic love. What's the big deal with love, anyway? Why does it so captivate our hearts and minds? Years ago, Paul McCartney and Wings sang a song, "You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs. I look around me and I see it isn't so." Why is that? Why do we never get tired of love songs? Why are shows like The Bachelor and Friends and Sex and the City so popular? Let's take a closer look at some of these verses, and see what we can learn about the wonder of romantic love.
Love brings us pleasure.
In the opening verses we learn that love brings us pleasure. The song begins with the bride saying, "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine." Right from the get-go the writer leaves no doubt as to what this book is about. We jump right in to the timeless, universal physical expression of love—the kiss. "Kiss me, you fool!" the bride is saying. "Lay one on me!" The song is telling us that one of the reasons love is so wonderful is that it is a source of great pleasure and delight.
Do you remember when you discovered kissing? For years, as a little kid, you couldn't imagine ever wanting to kiss someone on the lips. When you saw someone kiss on TV, you closed your eyes and said, "Eeww." But then suddenly, one day, the thought of kissing a boy or a girl didn't seem so awful. In fact, it seemed kind of exciting. You felt a strange rush through your body just thinking about kissing someone. And when you finally did kiss someone, someone you really cared about, it felt like one of the most wonderful things you'd ever done in your life. Chances are, you didn't want to stop. And when you did stop, you began thinking about when you would get to do that again. A passionate kiss from the one you love is like nothing else in life. It's better than wine, the singer says. She wants that experience—she wants to be kissed passionately and tenderly by the person she loves. And so do we.
She goes on, in verse 3, "Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes, your name is like perfume poured out." What happens when you take a vial of perfume and pour it out? Instantly, the room fills with the fragrance. It's the only thing you can smell. That's what happens every time she thinks of her lover's name—he captures her imagination; he's the only thing she can think about.
Do you remember, as a kid, sitting in class, daydreaming about some boy or girl you liked, and writing their name in your notebook, over and over again? "Bobby and Sally—tru luv 4 ever." Suddenly, you realize that the teacher is calling on you, and you're sitting there with this silly grin on your face. Just thinking of the person's name makes you happy.
Verse 4: "Take me away with you—let us hurry! The king has brought me into his chambers!" The fact that she refers to him as the king doesn't mean he was a real king, or that it was Solomon in particular she was thinking of. It was common in ancient literature to use royal terms in love poetry and wedding ceremonies.
She fantasizes about running away with the one she loves, of having him all to herself, of spending the night together. Again, whether she is anticipating her wedding night or remembering it, we're not quite sure, and it doesn't really matter. The point is that nothing would make her happier than to be alone and intimate with the one she loves.
Remember the old Beach Boys song: "Wouldn't it be nice if we were older, then we wouldn't have to wait so long. After having spent the day together, hold each other close the whole night through. Wouldn't it be nice." She's singing the same song!
Then the chorus kicks in—the friends of the bride. "We rejoice and delight in you; we will praise your love more than wine." Those two words—rejoice and delight. Those are words used throughout the Old Testament to describe worship. Love is so wonderful that, when we see it or experience it, we praise it.
I was driving through the neighborhood the other evening and saw this couple walking toward me on the sidewalk. An older couple. Walking slowly; he was a little bent over. She was kind of shuffling along. They were holding hands. It made me smile. I was happy for them. I want to be holding my wife's hand on a summer's night when I'm 75 or 80 years old.
Love is wonderful because it brings us pleasure, from that first pubescent pang of desire right through to the tender, twilight years of life. We never get tired of it. We never get enough of it. It's like wine, the chorus says—sweet and intoxicating. In fact, it's better than wine. It's better than anything.
Love releases our beauty and potential.
In the next verses, we discover that love is wonderful because it releases our God-given beauty and potential. The bride speaks again, in verse 6, "Do not stare at me because I am dark, because I am darkened by the sun. My mother's sons were angry with me and made me take care of the vineyards; my own vineyard I have neglected." There were no tanning salons in the ancient world. The people who were tanned were peasants who worked in the fields. A woman with tanned skin would be less desirable, less attractive than a woman with the means and the freedom to stay indoors, out of the sun. It seems that this young woman is self-conscious about her appearance; insecure, even, as most young women and men are.
As adolescents, and even as adults, we look in the mirror and wonder who would want us, who could ever love us. I was reading the other day about online dating, which has become one of the most lucrative legal commodities on the internet. Forty million Americans a month visit an online dating site. The most nerve-wracking aspect of online dating is creating your profile—the "self" you will present to the world. Seasoned e-daters know that by shaving a few years off their age, or adding a few inches to their height, they can increase the likelihood that someone will notice and give them a chance. In fact, you can subscribe to a service called e-Cyrano.com which will write a personal profile for you that's guaranteed to attract attention. The problem, as one guy puts it, is that when the person actually meets you, they discover quite quickly that you are not a tall, handsome investment banker who drives race cars and owns an island in the Caribbean. Like the rest of us, this woman is insecure about her desirability and attractiveness.
But there's something else going on here, too. This woman is stuck at home. Her brothers make her work in the fields. In the ancient world, an unmarried woman didn't have much of a life. She did what her family told her to do. She didn't have any status. She couldn't own or inherit anything. The expectation was that eventually she would be married off and leave the family, so why not get as much work out of her as possible while she was still at home. So this is actually a Cinderella story, with mean brothers instead of stepsisters. This woman longs to be free from that repressive environment. She wants to be rescued by a lover who will take her away and allow her to become a woman; not only to be sexually fulfilled, but to have a home and family and life of her own. It's a coming of age story.
And sure enough, here comes Prince Charming in verse 8, "If you do not know, most beautiful of women …" Did you hear that? Most beautiful of women. He thinks she's desirable. He wants her, and calls her out to meet him in the fields. He goes on in verse 9, "I liken you, my darling, to a mare, harnessed to one of the chariots of Pharaoh." How's that for a pick-up line? "Hey babe, anybody ever tell you you look just like Smarty Jones?" You've gotta remember this is poetry, ancient poetry. Apparently, a horse was the most magnificent creature he could think of at the moment. And of all horses, Egyptian horses were the most magnificent, and of all Egyptian horses, Pharaoh's would have been the very most magnificent. Guys, I wouldn't advise trying this at home, but apparently it worked for this couple. He goes on, "Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings, your neck with strings of jewels. We will make you earrings of gold, studded with silver." He sees beyond her sun-darkened skin to her inner beauty. She's no peasant girl to him; she's a princess. He's going to show the world what a knockout she is. Like that make-over show, The Swan, only without the plastic surgery.
And it works. Suddenly she can see herself sitting at his banquet table, freed from the constraints of her life at home, experiencing the delights of sexual intimacy. Love will rescue her free her to become the person she longs to be. It's Beauty and the Beast. It's Shrek and Fiona. It's Rocky and Adrian.
When you love someone, when you are loved in return, it brings out of you things you didn't know were there. You're free to be your true self; your best self. A cheapskate is suddenly a big spender. A selfish person becomes thoughtful and considerate. A quiet person opens up, and a scaredy-cat finds courage. That's the power, the wonder, of love. It releases our beauty and potential.
Love points us toward marriage.
This is where the love song gets kind of smoochy-smoochy. The bride and groom get this love banter going between them. It's almost embarrassing to listen to. He says, "How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are like doves." (Better than the horse line.) She responds, "How handsome you are, my lover! Oh, how charming! And our bed is verdant." In 2:1, she says, "I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys." Again, we see the transformation taking place as she accepts the fact that he finds her beautiful. She sees herself as a beautiful flower—a rose or lily. But notice that she sees herself as just one among many flowers. Sharon was a coastal plain region of Judea, where flowers were abundant. She sees a valley full of lilies, and she is just one of them. There are many women out there to choose from, she suggests.
But he responds, "Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the maidens." You hear what he's saying? You, my darling, are not only the most beautiful of the flowers, you are so beautiful all the other flowers are like thorns in comparison. Nice comeback, buddy! "You're the one," he says, "the only one. And you're mine. My darling." He uses that expression nine times in the song. It's a word that expresses care and protection as well as desire. That's where this relationship is headed—to marriage. To that most intimate and exclusive of all human relationships.
Their love is special. It can't be shared with anyone else. It can't be spread thinly in a series of relationships. It must be protected. It must be allowed to flourish. And so he and she set their sights on marriage.
Have you picked up on the "chemistry" between this man and woman? We use that word to describe the mysterious, unpredictable, irresistible attraction a man and woman feel for one another. It's more than friendship. It's more than partnership. It's more than sex. It's a spark of something that sets their hearts on fire with the burning desire to be together, to be close, to be intimate, to belong to one another now and always. That is the ultimate destination of romantic love—marriage—the union of a man and a woman, different from one another in so many ways, but drawn together by an irresistible force, and joined to one another by a physical, emotional, and spiritual bond of love.
Marriage is to romance what the World Series is to baseball. It's the ultimate contest; the big show. Not every team will get there, but it's the possibility of getting there that makes the entire season so interesting, that brings out the best in the players, that makes every game exciting.
Obviously, every romantic relationship doesn't end in marriage. Sometimes it can't, the other person isn't interested, or isn't ready. Sometimes it shouldn't. Maybe the other person isn't a believer. Maybe there are incompatibilities or weaknesses in the relationship that can't be overcome. Sometimes love fades; what seemed like the real thing turns out not to be. If you haven't found the real thing, then don't get married. Don't settle for anything less than the kind of love we've been describing today. It's worth waiting for. It's worth pursuing. If you find that kind of love, then you need to get married and stay married, because that's where love will find its ultimate expression.
There was a time in life, as a young adult, when I wasn't sure I would ever get married. I knew plenty of nice girls. I'd had girlfriends along the way. But I can't honestly say that I loved any of them, and I certainly wasn't prepared to marry any of them. In fact, the single life looked pretty good to me—simple, unencumbered. Spend as much time as I wanted doing ministry. Eat macaroni and cheese every night. Go skiing whenever I wanted.
But then I met Karen, and suddenly, everything changed. I became like the bride in this love song—I couldn't stop thinking about her. She was more fun to be with than any girl I'd ever known. I could talk to her about anything, and I did. She gave me courage and confidence. Everything was better when we were together. I realized before long that going out on the weekends and talking on the phone wasn't going to cut it. I wanted to be with her all the time, every day, for the rest of my life. I wanted her all to myself. She was the one for me, the only one. I wanted to be with her, and only with her, in the most intimate way possible, for my whole life.
True love points us toward that kind of commitment. Now, again, romantic love doesn't always lead to marriage. But when we experience love, when we long for love, when we admire love in another couple, it reminds us that God created men and women to desire one another; to enjoy one another; to bring out the best in one another, and to seek intimacy and union with one another in a lifelong commitment called marriage. And that is a good thing. In fact, it's a sacred thing.
And that, ultimately, is why this book is in the Bible. Not to teach us about God's love for His people, or the church's love for Christ. But to teach us that romantic love is a gift from God. It was His idea—not Shakespeare's or Hollywood's. Romantic love is something to be cherished; to be pursued and enjoyed in God-honoring ways. When we do that it becomes sacred. A means by which God meets us, and blesses us, and develops us into the men and women He created us to be, and leads us into the relationships that He has ordained for us.
That's why I get mad when people trash it, when they trivialize it, when they trifle with it. Love, as God has designed it, is a treasure. Something to be pursued. Something to be protected. Something to be praised, and enjoyed to the glory of God.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.