This sermon is part of the sermon series "Love and the City". See series.
More than ever, people want to know what love is. More than ever, people are confused. Last Sunday, we introduced this series by considering the messages our culture is sending and receiving about love, sexuality, and marriage. Many of us find ourselves angry and afraid about those messages. We concerned about the impact they're having on our lives, our kids, and our society.
But in addition to being angry and afraid, we also find ourselves confused, sometimes. With so many messages coming at us from so many different directions, we feel overwhelmed. We begin to wonder what we really believe about love, and everything that goes along with it. That was evident in the questions some of you submitted this past week—from teenagers and parents, from married people and singles. Questions about sex before marriage, sex in marriage, dating, courtship, homosexuality, pornography, and loneliness. Can God tell us what love is? Can He show us what it looks like in this over-sexed, love-starved, dysfunctional culture? That's what this series is all about.
We're working out of one of the least familiar and most curious books in the Bible, the Song of Songs. We learned that this book is a collection of poems—love songs that were probably composed and performed as part of a wedding celebration. The songs celebrate the delights of love, romance, and sexual intimacy between a man and woman. A couple of people asked why Solomon would be a reliable source for teaching on love and sexuality when he handled that part of his life so poorly. As I mentioned last week, most interpreters agree that Solomon was probably not the author of the book. It may have been dedicated to him, or commissioned by him, or linked to him because it is a book of wisdom. But we would hardly want to set Solomon up as a model for married love.
We discovered that the Song is remarkably graphic and surprisingly positive in it's portrayal of romance and sexuality. Last week we learned that romance is sacred. God has ordained that the pursuit and experience of romantic love should bring us pleasure, release our beauty and potential as men and women, and point us toward marriage as the ultimate romantic relationship. Next week we'll consider marriage in more detail, and in a few weeks we'll look at the deep longings of our hearts. Today, we'll discover what God has to say about sexuality. As I mentioned last week, if you have young children with you this morning, and you haven't had "the talk" yet, this message may be over their heads, or more than you want them to hear.
Let's read from Song of Songs,chapter 4. As you're turning let me quickly answer one question that a couple of you asked regarding reality TV shows. Someone wrote, "It appears that you are very familiar with reality shows like The Bachelor and Survivor, do you actually watch them? My answer is, "Hardly ever." I find them voyeuristic and exploitive and at times just plain tedious. But I do like to know what's going on—what people are watching and reading and listening to, and why. From time to time I will tune in to a popular show just to see what the buzz is all about, but I rarely make it through the whole thing. So, no, I don't typically watch those shows, and don't recommend them.
I'd also like to mention that one of the books I've found helpful in this series is by Tommy Nelson, called The Book of Romance. Tommy Nelson is a pastor in Texas, and will be the speaker at GC's Family Camp at Camp of the Woods this summer. (There's still room, by the way.)
Sex is beautiful.
Now, we spoke last week about the challenges of interpreting this book. Poetry, by its very nature, defies analysis. And Hebrew poetry is not familiar to us. Poetry in English reads from top to bottom, or from left to right. There's usually a linear progression of thought, with the main idea at the beginning or the end. Hebrew poetry doesn't work that way. It reads like this—X—with the main idea at the center of the poem. That's where we are this morning, at the centerpiece of the collection. It's the description of a wedding night, in which the main characters, the lover and his beloved, consummate their love.
In these opening verses, the man is describing his bride—admiring her beauty. He uses a variety of images that seem strange to us, but were apparently quite familiar and flattering in his culture. He says that her eyes are like doves behind her veil. The mention of the veil makes clear that this is a wedding ceremony, because typically a Hebrew woman didn't have her face covered, except for a special occasion like this. It could be she's standing beside him in the ceremony, or it could be they are alone in their bedchamber on the night of their wedding.
Her hair is like a flock of goats descending from Mt. Gilead, and her teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn. (Men, don't try this at home.) The descending goats suggest a sensuous tumble of hair falling down around her shoulders, and the freshly shorn and washed sheep suggest that her teeth are white. He's especially happy that none of her teeth are missing, which is a desirable quality in a bride. Her lips are like a scarlet ribbon—no need for collagen here. Her cheeks are smooth and pink like the halves of a pomegranate. Her neck is an elegant tower, adorned with jewelry for her wedding day.
"Your two breasts are like two fawns, twin fawns of a gazelle." That's probably not the first image a man or a woman would choose to describe that particular part of the female anatomy, but, in the art and literature of the ancient Near East, deer and gazelles were often associated with sensuality. I'll only get myself in trouble if I try to explain why, so I'll leave it to your imagination.
But I would like to linger over this verse for a moment, because it calls attention to one of the primary messages of the book—which is that the human body and human sexuality is beautiful. That message hasn't always been understood or accepted by Christian people. I mentioned last week that, down through the centuries, many Bible readers and teachers have had difficulty with the sensuality of the Song of Songs. As a result, many of them treated the book allegorically, assigning symbolic meaning to just about everything. As you can imagine this verse was especially challenging! These "twin fawns" have been identified by some interpreters as "the Old and New Testaments", "the King and the High Priest", "the two stone tablets of the law", and even "the Lord's Supper and baptism!" These interpreters just couldn't accept the fact that the Holy Spirit would inspire a whole book of the Bible just to affirm and celebrate romantic love.
But that's exactly why this book is here! Look at the next verse, "Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, I will go to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of incense." I'm pretty sure he's not dreaming about staying up all night and reading the Old and New Testaments! He's looking forward to loving his new bride—all night long. And that's okay! In fact, it's better than okay. It's beautiful. "All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you." The message of this book is that sex between a married man and woman is beautiful.
For some reason, Christian people have always had a difficult time understanding and accepting that message. For centuries, marital sex was understood as a necessary evil; permissible only for procreating and controlling our unholy desires. St. Augustine argued that sex for any reason other than procreation was a sin, and said he wished God had never invented it. Married couples were taught that sex in marriage should be "rare and restrained." If they enjoyed it too much, it would be sinful. Celibacy was considered more virtuous than marriage, which is why it became a requirement for the priesthood. The thinking was that spiritual leaders couldn't and shouldn't be engaging in sexual relationships, even in marriage. In the Victorian era, people covered the legs of furniture lest they stir up impure thoughts!
We'd like to think we've come a long way since then, but remnants of that kind of thinking still haunt us, and warp our understanding and experience of sexuality. Listen to one email that came in. A happily married person describes some of these nagging fears and doubts:
Sex has always been a bit of an obstacle in my relationship with God. In the Christian culture in which I grew up there is a deep puritanical tradition that teaches us to feel ashamed of sex and guilty every time we experience sexual desire … To this day I feel like I have to keep God and sex separate, as though I need to turn off the God mode whenever I turn on the sex mode … even though I think I've always done a good job of channeling those desires in the right direction. I want to feel like that part of my life is pleasing to God, but I find it very hard to do so.
The point of the message this morning, and one of the reasons I'm preaching this series, is to make it clear that sexuality is one of God's good and perfect gifts to us. Too often we get the impression that the only thing the Bible has to say about sex and romance is NO! But God's Word on sex is YES!-at the right time and with the right person, which we'll talk about in a minute. Something is wrong when church is the only place people don't hear about sex. I want kids and adults to know that the Bible has something to say about these things, and that the something isn't always negative. It bothers me that we've let the culture snatch this God-given gift right out of our hands and wave it around as if they thought of it and are the experts. It's God's idea. God is the expert. His people ought to be the ones who know what love is. We ought to be the ones who can show them.
There's something else we need to point out here, especially since several of you asked about it. Sex, as God has designed it, is to be enjoyed between members of the opposite sex, not the same sex. It's clear throughout this Song of Songs that the lover and beloved are two distinctively different kinds of people. Their sexual differences as male and female are obvious, not just physically, but emotionally as well. They come at the experience of love from two different perspectives. And that's what makes it so exciting, so satisfying; that's what makes them so attractive to one another, and causes the "chemistry," the romance, we talked about last week.
Human sexuality is more than just physical pleasure. It is the mystical, metaphysical union of male and female. For this reason, the Bible says, a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. That kind of union is not possible in a same-sex relationship. Which is why homosexual relationships ultimately fall short of the joy and fulfillment that God desires for human beings. It's why I believe they are ultimately disappointing and harmful, to people and to society.
I understand that, for a variety of complicated reasons, some people find themselves attracted to members of the same sex. I understand that for many people those attractions have been there for as long as they can remember. The reasons are not easily explained or unraveled. But we know from Scripture that God did not create men and women for those kinds of relationships. And we also know, from Scripture and experience, that God can give people grace to deal with those desires. He can restore a person's attraction to the opposite sex, and some in this congregation have experienced that. When that doesn't happen, he can help a same-sex oriented person to manage those desires—to refrain from sexual intimacy and to enjoy honorable and satisfying friendships with members of both sexes.
But the message we discover here in Song of Songs is that sex, as God designed it, is beautiful. In fact, it's so beautiful, it's worth waiting for.
Sex is worth waiting for.
Notice that in verse 8 the lover refers to the woman as "my bride." That's the first time he's used that term to refer to her, and he'll use it 6 more times in this section. This is a transitional point in their relationship. For some time now, they have been "courting" one another—building a relationship in anticipation of marriage. They've been looking forward to sexual intimacy, but during this period of courtship it has been off limits. She has been distant from him—as far away as the high mountains of Lebanon. She has been to him like a garden locked up, like a spring with a fence around it. There was the promise of delight and refreshment, but is has been inaccessible to them. It's clear that they have saved sexual intimacy for this night, for their wedding night. Now they are free to explore all the delights of that sensual garden, to drink deeply from the fountain of love. That's how God intends it to be, for some very good reasons.
Last week we showed a video of some on-the-street interviews. People were asked what the difference was between love and sex. Most of the people said that love is something you feel; sex is something you do. Sex is just an activity, they said. You can do it with or without feeling anything emotionally.
Is that true? Is that all sex is-a physical activity? Are we just animals, exercising our primal urges with no consequence or meaning? Not according to the Song of Songs. This man and woman are giving their whole selves to one another. "You have stolen my heart," he says.
A few years ago, Madonna sang a song about a woman involved in an intimate relationship who's confused about what she's experienced, and afraid she might get hurt. "Don't tell me love isn't true; it's just something that we do. Tell the wind not to blow … Take the black off a crow … But don't tell me to go. Don't tell me love isn't true." Deep inside, we know the truth. Love is not just something that we do, and neither is sex. It's all wrapped up together, and it touches us in the deepest places of our beings. And when that touch comes at the wrong time, by the wrong person, it wounds us deeply. When that touch comes at the right time, by the right person, it's beautiful and deeply satisfying. The right time is your wedding night, and the right person is your husband or wife, to whom you have made a lifelong commitment.
The video also asked people what they thought about sex before marriage. One young man said, "Everybody's doing it in high school, so I guess it's okay." A young woman said, "I think it's okay, as long as you love each other and it doesn't hurt anybody." A slightly older couple agreed that, "Marriage doesn't matter. People are grown ups, and they need to explore that part of their relationship to see if they're compatible."
First of all, everybody's not doing it in high school. The latest figures reveal that more than half of high school students have not been sexually intimate, and that more and more young people are waiting till marriage. Secondly, it does hurt somebody. It hurts everybody involved. If not in that moment, then certainly down the road. Counselors' offices and recovery groups are full of people who years later are dealing with the emotional consequences of sex outside of marriage. Thirdly, sexual involvement before marriage doesn't help you discover your compatibility. On the contrary, it masks the weaknesses in the relationship and keeps you from exploring the other dimensions of your relationship.
Several of the questions that came in were from young people, asking for help in dealing with the pressure. One teenager asked, "What are some things we can do now to guard our hearts for the man or woman we marry?" It's a great question. First, guard your body. Make a commitment before God that you will save sexual intimacy for your spouse. (Notice that we're talking about any form of sexual intimacy here, not just sexual intercourse.) Write it down somewhere—in your journal, in your Bible. Tell someone else you have made that commitment —a parent or a friend or a mentor. Make sure any person you get involved with knows that right from the beginning. If they don't share that commitment, then walk away. The second thing you can do is to guard your mind. Stay away from anything or anyone that undermines that commitment, including TV shows and magazines and "friends" who give you bad advice. Get good teaching on the subject. The third thing you can do is guard your heart. Don't say the words, "I love you" too easily, or too early. Save them until you really mean them. Don't get too involved with a person too early in life. Meet a variety of people. Go out in groups. If you are in a relationship, keep it balanced. Remember that the more of yourself you save, the more you'll have to give to the person you truly love and marry.
There's a verse that appears three times in this Song. I've included it on the back IG. "Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you; Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires." In other words, save it for the proper time, and the proper person.
Sex is beautiful. It's so beautiful it's worth waiting for. It's so beautiful, it should be enjoyed fully and freely.
Sex is something to be enjoyed fully and freely.
Finally, in verse 16, the bride speaks. She responds to her beloved's invitation.
The show Sex and the City was supposed to be about empowering women to take control of their sexuality. In the end, that's not what happened at all. The more they gave themselves away, the less power they had over themselves and their relationships. Again, I didn't watch the show, but I read extensively about it. One secular commentator wrote, "It was never the feminist celebration that the critics said it was, unless feminism is about female freedom to exploit sex in multiples of many kinds. It's hardly a victory for feminism, it seems to me, for women to do unto men as they have been done unto."
The woman we meet in Song of Songs is empowered. She has control over her sexual self. She has saved herself for the one she truly loves, and now, at the proper time, on her wedding night, she is able to give herself freely and wholeheartedly to him, and to the experience of sexual intimacy.
In 5:1 the groom speaks again. Read. Do you hear the freedom? The reckless abandon. Look how tender it is. There's no coercion here. No manipulation. Look how satisfying it is for both parties. That's why married sex is so beautiful. Because there's safety. There are no comparisons. There's no competition. No fear of waking up the next morning alone, feeling used or abandoned or rejected by someone you've given yourself away to. One-night stands and serial relationships don't provide that safety and security. Neither does cohabitation. When you're simply living together, you're always on probation, sexually and every other way. Surveys consistently reveal that the most sexually satisfied people in America are married people. They are enjoying sexual intimacy more often and with greater satisfaction than those who are active outside of marriage. That shouldn't be a surprise; that's how God designed it.
The description of this beautiful night ends with the chorus, the friends of the bride, expressing their joy over the newlyweds' lovemaking: "Eat, oh friends, and drink. Drink your fill, O lovers." One commentator suggests that the friends are speaking for God here, pronouncing His blessing on the consummation of their marriage. There's no need to feel ashamed or guilty. No need to separate the spiritual part of our lives from the sexual part of our lives. God takes pleasure in the love between a husband and wife.
Let me encourage husbands and wives to cultivate this aspect of your relationship. Enjoy it. Explore it. If you're not experiencing the kind of joy we read about here, then do something about it. Talk it over with your spouse. Read a Christian book on the subject. If the realities of life are getting in the way, then rearrange your schedule, go away for the weekend. If there are deeper issues getting in the way of intimacy, then go after them. See a counselor. If this kind of intimacy seems like a long way off, take a few simple steps in that direction. Hold hands. Kiss your spouse when he or she walks in the door. Offer some tender words of affection and appreciation. Whatever you do, don't give up.
Sex is beautiful. It's worth waiting for. And it can be enjoyed fully and freely in the safe haven of marriage.
I realize I'm speaking to a wide audience this morning—people of all ages, in a variety of relationships, and all of us with our own issues and hang-ups and longings. It would be easier not to bring these things up; not to risk embarrassment or offense or criticism, and just leave it alone. But my pastor's heart won't allow me to do that. More importantly, the Scripture won't allow me to do that. Song of Songs is just one of many places God speaks to us about our sexuality. How we handle it not only affects our health and happiness, it affects our relationship with God, our witness and our ministry. So let me close with a word for each of you who are here today.
For those of you who are young, make a commitment today to save yourself for your wedding day. Let it be the beautiful night God intends it to be.
For those of you who are single adults, don't give in to the pressure of people and culture around you. You can enjoy being male or female without being sexually active.
For those of you who have made mistakes already, receive God's forgiveness through Christ today, and with God's help do it God's way. If you're struggling with sexual sin, including pornography, confess it to somebody right away, and get help to break it's stranglehold on your life.
For those of you who struggle with same-sex desires, know that God loves you, and can lead you to a wholesome lifestyle and to satisfying relationships, if you ask Him.
For those of you who are married, cultivate the sexual dimension of your relationship. I hope that some of you later today will say to your husband or wife, "Honey, can we talk about a few things?"
For those of you who are parents, talk to your kids about these things, from the earliest possible age. Look them in the eye and tell them to guard their hearts and minds and bodies. Hug them and tell them how valuable they are, to you and to God and to their future spouse.
For those who have been wounded and disappointed in this area, turn to God for healing. Allow Him to restore your soul, and to lead you into relationships that can bring wholeness and wellness.
For those of us who follow Christ, may we let the world know that sex is beautiful, that it's worth waiting for, and that it can be enjoyed fully and freely, to the glory of God.
Never before have so many people needed to know what love is. Never before has it been more important for God's people to show them.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.