So today we come to the end of the Song of Songs. We have followed this young couple’s relationship from its beginnings in the countryside, to their marriage in the city where their relationship was severely tested and almost destroyed. It survived only because the man and the woman both decided to trust in the covenant that they had made with one another.
And as we closed last week we noticed that the Song of Songs is retelling the story of the bible. Part 1 was the story of creation, the innocence of the man and the woman in the garden. Part 2 was the story of the marriage covenant, because God knew that their love for one another was going to be tested. Part 3, last week, was the story of the Fall, and the husband’s redemption of his bride, his victory over those who wanted to destroy their relationship, and her victory dance.
And so today we are going to see what follows: what takes place after victory has been won.
This last section opens, as the whole book did, with the voice of the young woman. But everything has changed. In the beginning she was daydreaming about this young man from a distance, longing for him but not sure if he might be out of reach. Today, she says this:
Her:  Come, my beloved, let us go out into the fields and lodge in the villages;
 let us go out early to the vineyards and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.
Now, after everything they have been through together — now that they have come to some peace with the city and with one another — now she wants to balik kampung. She wants to go back to where they started. She is suggesting that they spend the night in their anscestral village, that they get up early in the morning and go have a picnic in their family vineyards. And she is suggesting that they make love there, in the open, on their anscestral lands. She wants to go back and remember how it all started, that first day when they snuck away from their friends and spent the afternoon together in the woods.
And through this, the poet is still wanting to remind us of where we came from: that place of innocence in the garden, before everything went wrong. The poet is also wanting us to notice how much this relationship has grown: because, until this point in the story, it has always been the young man who has said, “Come, let’s go!” Now it is the young woman who is secure enough in the relationship to say, “Come! Let’s go!”
But this young woman is not just wanting to go back and remember how it all started. The real reason she wants to go back to the place of beginnings is because she wants to begin something now.
So, here, in these next lines, they are back in the kampung, they have spent the night, the dawn is coming, and this is what she says:
 The mandrakes give forth fragrance, and beside our doors are all choice fruits,
new as well as old, which I have laid up for you, O my beloved.
 Oh that you were like a brother to me who nursed at my mother’s breasts!
If I found you outside, I would kiss you, and none would despise me.
 I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother—she who used to teach me.
I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranate.
 His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me!
So as they are waking up, she points out the smell of the mandrake flowers coming in from the outdoors, she points out that everything they’re going to need for their picnic is already packed and ready to go by the front door — and we read these lines and we think, “Oh, that’s nice,” but the original audience would have understood at once that she is telling him, “Let’s go make a baby!”
See, the mandrake flower is attached to a root that looks like a chubby little human, a baby. And so for thousands of years the mandrake root was considered a fertility drug: women who ate it had a better chance of conceiving. So the young woman is pointing out that there is a lot of mandrake plants around: this is very fertile countryside, a good place to conceive a child!
And she knows that the act of conception is exhausting, especially for the male, so she points out that she has packed plenty of food for him to help him keep his strength up!
And as they are walking together to the vineyard she is talking to him, wishing that he were her brother — and, again, we read these lines and we think, “Oh, that’s weird!” — just like when, back on the wedding day, the groom was calling her “my sister, my bride.” But, again, the original audience would have understood that she is telling him, “I want to kiss you in public! I want to show you public displays of affection!”
Because, in that culture, just as in conservative Asian cultures, public displays of affection between a man and a woman — even between a husband and wife — were not permitted. The only time boys and girls hugged or kissed in public was if they were brother and sister. So the young woman is basically saying, “I wish it was better than this. I wish we could be naked and unashamed in public. I wish we didn’t have to care about what other people think.”
And here, again, the poet is reminding us — through the longings of this young woman — that we are not living in the world we were supposed to live in. It was supposed to be better than this. This young woman’s desire to be naked and unashamed with her husband, without a care in the world, without worrying about what other people think — her desire is our desire.
And then they arrive in the vineyard, and we hear her say this line that she said way back on that long ago afternoon under the trees, His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me! They spend the morning there, the whole day perhaps! picnicking and making a baby.
And all this is hard work, as we have already noted, which is why she ends with this warning:
 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.
She has warned the Daughters of Jerusalem three times now about the dangers of love. The first time was after that first afternoon in the forest, when she realized that she had fallen in love without any guarantees from the young man. The second time was after that night the couple spent whispering through the window of her mother’s house, when she went out and risked everything to chase him down and bring him back: love makes you take crazy risks.
This third time, now, is after the wedding, after the crisis, after the reconciliation — her life is perfect! — but somehow she still wants more. Before, she wanted just him. Now she wants more than him. She wants to duplicate him. She wants to go further. She has discovered for herself that falling in love and getting married is not the end of the story, it’s just the beginning. And so she warns the Daughters of Jerusalem here to count the cost. Be careful not to stir up or awaken love until you’re ready to pay the price, because it is going to cost you more than you expect!
Love is always going to cost you more than you expect.
True love is always going to cost you your life.
And, next, the Daughters of Jerusalem notice for themselves how much love costs:
Daughters of Jerusalem:
 Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning on her beloved?
Back in Chapter 3 the Daughters of Jerusalem noticed someone coming up from the wilderness — and it turned out to be the wedding procession.
This time it is just the young couple, coming back to the city after their night and day in the kampung. They notice that the young woman is leaning on the young man as they walk, and this is evidence that the act of conception is not just exhausting for the male: the young woman is worn out as well…especially because she has conceived. And this is how she breaks the news to her husband:
Her: Under the apple tree I awakened you.
There your mother was in labor with you; there she who bore you was in labor.
 Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD.
 Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, he would be utterly despised.
They went back to the kampung, back to the land of mandrakes, the land of flowers and fruit, back to the garden where life began, back to the place where the young man’s life began — and the young woman is telling him, “I have brought back some of that life within me.”
And then she says, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm.” The heart is the source of the man’s will; his arm is the source of his actions. Will leads to action. We do what we will. So the young woman here is reminding him of the covenant he made with her. She is saying, “Make me such a part of who you are, bind me together with you so completely that, whatever you will and do in life, we will and do together.”
She wants to reproduce. She wants to have a family. But she knows she does not want to do it alone.
See, it’s not that she just wants a baby, and now that she has one she doesn’t care what happens to the sperm-donor. No: she wants to be part of something bigger. She is looking back down through all the generations of fathers and mothers that it took to produce her and her husband, and now she wants them to take the life they have been entrusted with and pass it on faithfully to the next generation.
And she knows that the best way to do this is in the context of covenant love. Jealous love. The same kind of love that God has for his people. And she knows that, ultimately, this covenant love depends upon her husband’s faithfulness. She knows is much easier for men to walk away from pregnancy than it is for women. So she reminds him of the covenant he made. And she asks him to renew it, to make his promises all over again. She is saying, “Remember that you bound yourself to me. Now bind me to yourself more and more! Be jealous of me in the same way God is jealous of us! No matter what happens, no matter what goes wrong, keep bringing me back to yourself.”
She is asking him for the kind of love that will outlive everything: floods, fires, even death. She is asking him for the kind of love that is so valuable it no one can afford it.
And here she is touching on one of greatest ironies of all time: true love, covenant love, is so valuable that no one can buy it. You can spend everything you have — even your life — and come up with nothing. Most people understand that already. The irony is this: the only way to receive true covenant love is by asking for it. The only way to receive this impossibly valuable covenant love is as a gift, freely given, freely received.
And to make this point even more clearly, the poet now brings some characters back into the story, some guys we haven’t seen or heard from in a while: the young woman’s brothers.
When we first met her brothers, they were jealous of her. They, perhaps, thought she was a little bit too flirty with the other boys in the marketplace, so they sent her out to take care of the family’s vineyards and flocks and herds. They thought they could keep her from meeting other men, and we’ve seen how well that worked out for them!
Their presence was also felt during that night the young lovers spent whispering through the window of her house. The brothers didn’t say anything — because they were asleep — but they were some of the “foxes that spoil the vineyards”: they represented society, society that has to recognize the validity of the relationship. And we saw how the young woman told the young man that night that he would have to get her brothers’ permission before they could continue.
Well, here they are, back again. And it turns out that they are still a bit obsessed with making sure their sister is a good woman:
 We have a little sister, and she has no breasts.
What shall we do for our sister on the day when she is spoken for?
 If she is a wall, we will build on her a battlement of silver,
but if she is a door, we will enclose her with boards of cedar.
So what we’ve just discovered here is that these brothers are still jealous for their sister’s reputation. And we read these lines and we think, “C’mon guys, she’s married now, this is not your problem anymore!” But the original audience would have understood their concern, because a young woman’s reputation would reflect on the family’s reputation, even after marriage.
And we have to remember that this young woman’s reputation has recently come into question: she was caught out wandering the city streets at night. And even though she did not deserve what happened to her, even though her husband took her back, and defended her, and restored her reputation — there is still a shadow. People whisper. People gossip. And many people would look at what happened and say, “Well, the reason she was out there at night in the first place is because her brothers let her get away with that when she was small. If they had raised her properly that never would have happened.”
These brothers want to defend themselves from those whispers. So they describe the Standard Operating Procedures they decided to use when their sister was small: if she grows up to be a wall — that is, if she cares about her reputation and stays away from men — then we will reinforce that by building battlements of silver on that wall. But if she grows up to be a door — that is, if she likes men a little too much — then we are going to nail some boards over that door to make sure nobody comes in!
They are trying to tell everyone: “Hey, we raised her the best we could, okay? We did our best to make sure she would still be a virgin when some guy came to marry her. Whatever happened after that point is not our fault!”
This is a subtle critique of the husband’s mis-management. They locked her up when she was under their care. If the young man had locked her up — instead of getting locked out — nothing bad would have happened.
This is also a subtle critique of God’s mis-management of that whole Adam and Eve situation. It is pretty common for society, for human beings — for us — to say, “You know, if I had been in charge I would have made sure there was no forbidden fruit…” Right? If we had been in charge, we would have locked Adam and Eve into the garden and told them, “There! You’re safe!”
But what is safety without freedom? We have a word for safety without freedom: we call it “prison.” We call it “captivity.” And some people might argue and say, “Yes, but still it would have been better for us to be imprisoned in that perfect garden than to be free in the midst of this ruined world! Surely it would have been better for us to be slaves to a good master than to be free to rule ourselves in such terrible ways!”
But God created us to be more than just slaves. He gave Adam and Eve safety in the garden. He also gave them the freedom to screw up. He gave them the freedom to choose to love him…or not love him. Because love, by its very nature, cannot be forced, it cannot be bought; it can only be given. And this is true of God also. He could not force Adam and Eve to love him by giving them no choice because that is, by definition, not love.
And this is one of the hardest concepts for us to understand. I mean: we can understand it cognitively; in our heads we know we can’t buy love or force it. But in our lives we are constantly trying to manipulate the situation in such a way that we guarantee love for ourselves. So we understand it, but our lives show — and our societies show — that we don’t really understand it.
And this is where the brothers are. They wanted a good thing for their sister. They wanted to protect her from predators, from abuse, from heartbreak. But they tried to enforce it through authority and control and manipulation. Obviously they had a duty to protect her when she was too young to know what was going on. They had an obligation to keep her safe when she was small! They also had an obligation to give her more and more freedom as she grew up. Anything less leads to feelings of resentment and imprisonment.
And this is why the young woman responds as she does. She feels controlled. So she pushes back against her brothers, and against all those in society who think they can control or manage love:
Her:  I was a wall, and my breasts were like towers; then I was in his eyes as one who finds peace.
 Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon; he let out the vineyard to keepers;
each one was to bring for its fruit a thousand pieces of silver.
 My vineyard, my very own, is before me;
you, O Solomon, may have the thousand, and the keepers of the fruit two hundred.
Her brothers tried to force their little sister to be faithful by locking her up. They think her husband should have done the same. And they are not alone in thinking this way: King Solomon, the greatest husband in the land, also thinks that the best way to keep his wives faithful is by locking them up. He has this large “vineyard” — his harem of women — and he pays “keepers” — managers — to take care of them, or, more precisely: to make sure they have no access to any other men.
Well, the young woman says to her brothers and to King Solomon: “No. That is not how it works, gentlemen!”
She says to her brothers, “I am a wall for my husband. I am faithful to my husband. Not because he forces me to be, but because he loves me. He has proven himself faithful to the covenant he made with me, and that makes me want to be faithful to him! I trust him, and he trusts me, and so we have peace and security in our marriage.”
And she says to King Solomon, “Hey, it’s great that you have all these women, and that you have enough money to keep them all under control. My husband is better off than you are, because I stay faithful to him for free.”
And just think about this for a moment: the young woman would never have discovered these things if she had remained locked up in her house that night. If her husband had not given her the freedom to leave the house, if she had not suffered what she suffered, then covenant faithfulness would have remained only a theory for them.
But because their relationship has passed through the flames; because it has been tested; because they were each given a choice — remain faithful, or walk away — their marriage is now stronger and sweeter than ever. Now they both know for certain that they love each other freely.
And out of this peace, out of this mutual trust, we find ourselves back in the garden we have been longing to return to all this time. But the garden is different now: it is no longer just one man and one woman under the trees. Now the young woman is like a queen, surrounded by her court, her household, friends and children and servants who all look to her for life and care and protection and joy.
And the young man, who has been off somewhere else, perhaps still working as a shepherd, though more probably now as a chief shepherd overseeing many shepherds, many sons — now he drops in to see his wife, and this is what we hear:
Him:  O you who dwell in the gardens,
with companions listening for your voice; let me hear it.
Her:  Make haste, my beloved,
and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spices.
Once, a long time ago, this young man crouched outside a young woman’s bedroom window at midnight and — very quietly! — asked to hear her voice. And they whispered together there until dawn, when she said, “Turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on cleft mountains!” Get out of here before we get caught!
But now here they are: in the garden, and it is daytime. He calls out to her openly, from a distance, without fear; she tells him to hurry up, without shame —
— and there the Song ends.
This is the word of the Lord!
And we are all left feeling like, “What? You can’t stop there! You have to at least end with a kiss or something before you fade to black! You can’t stop while they’re still apart from each other, we want to see what perfect married life looks like!”
And that is exactly why the poet ended it this way: because now we all share in a common longing for the future.
From the very beginning of the Song, the poet has been pointing us back to the past, reminding us of the garden where we were born, reminding us of what it was like to be naked and unashamed. It has been beautiful! but it has also been painful because we all know that we cannot get back there, no matter how hard we try. The poet’s words have been like “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory).” We long for these things, but we also try not to long for these things, because we know it is impossible to go backwards.
But here, suddenly, the poet leaves us hanging, longing for the future, longing to see this story resolved.
And it leaves us wondering: what exactly is this thing we are longing for? What does perfect married life look like?
Well, it looks like what the poet has been describing to us here, in these last chapters: the garden and the city will be transformed. The city will grow to protect the garden; the garden will grow to fill the city. People will pass from one realm to the next without the need for gates or passports because there will no longer be any war. Every seed we plant will be harvested, every job we work at will succeed. Everything that we have lost, everything that has been stolen from us, everything that we have given up for the sake of our God will be returned to us — but multiplied by a thousand. We will have peace with one another, with society, and with God.
And I think it is becoming obvious by now that the poet is not really talking about the perfect marriage. The ancient commentators are right: this is not just a book about sex; it is a book about God’s love for his people. The desire of this young man and young woman for each other; their wedding; their crisis; their redemption — these things are designed to show us how God works in human history, how the gospel is preached through the human drama, has been preached in every culture from the very beginning. No one’s marriage is perfect; but everyone’s marriage contains at least a faint foreshadowing of what it will be like to enjoy God forever.
And of course this leads us to another question: how do we get there? This question is, perhaps, even more poignant for those who have had to endure marriages where the light of the gospel has been very, very faint, or even destroyed completely by abuse or divorce. If there has not been much happiness in the past it can sometimes be difficult to believe there could be happiness in the future, so we ask: how do we get to this place of peace and joy, where there is no longer any shame?
And we find that this question, too, the poet has been answering for us all throughout the Song: it is covenant love, covenant faithfulness that will get us there; it is God’s love for us, and our love for one another, that will take us home. It has ben that way from the beginning.
But this is the painful twist: in order for us, as a human race, to fully experience covenant love — in order for us to fully experience this glorious future — we had to be free to walk away. We had to be set free to give away the garden before we could be given the chance to gain the garden-city. The reason God made a covenant with Adam and Eve is because he knew that childish love, in order to become mature love, must be tested and given the opportunity to fail. He knew that childish love, in order to become true love, must be freely given, and freely received.
The marriage covenant works the same way. The reason humans make this covenant with one another is because we know that our love is going to be tested, that it must be tested. We don’t know if we will have the strength to remain faithful in the moment of crisis, so we make our covenant vows before the crisis comes, just as God did for us. And there is a profound irony here: many people today think that marriage means locking someone else up, controlling them, depriving them of freedom. And many marriages in this world do look exactly like that. But true marriage, true covenant love, actually sets the other person free. God bound himself to us in the garden so that we could be free to make mistakes and fail. In the same way, in human marriage, a man binds himself to a woman so that she can be free to make mistakes and fail without the fear of being abandoned. And the woman responds with love, faithfulness, freely given.
In a way, the young woman’s brothers are right: if men would just keep their wives and daughters locked up, then their marriages and families would remain perfectly intact, without any chance to fall or fail. But we all know that those are unhappy marriages, unhappy families. It is a feature of our world that the things we think will make us perfectly safe also make us perfectly unhappy.
The painful truth is that covenant love only truly shows itself on the other side of failure and suffering and loss. As the poet just told us: love is as strong as death, it is greater than death — but the only way we can know this for sure is by passing through the valley of the shadow of death. This is true of marriage. This is true of our relationship with God. Only covenant love — freely given, freely received — can carry us safely through the valley and back out into the sunlight on the other side.
Okay, then. Let’s get really practical here. What does our Father want us to believe because of the Song? What does he want us to do? What is the poet trying to say: that if we practice true covenant love in our marriages we are guaranteed a place in paradise?
No. Practicing true covenant love and faithfulness in our marriages can give us a shadow of a taste of what paradise might be like: the raising of children, the passing on of the life we were given, the cool clean air that comes in the morning after the storm. When we practice covenant love in our marriages, our families, our churches, the world, that is when we come closest to imitating our Saviour’s covenant love. And that faithful practice does come with its own reward in this life and the one to come. So it does come highly recommended! Do your utmost to practice covenant faithfulness in all your relationships. You will not be disappointed! Even if you are not a Christian, you will not be disappointed. There are happy covenant marriages and happy covenant relationships outside the Christian faith.
But, ultimately, we cannot come to paradise by what we do. The new heavens and the new earth will be a place where covenant love has been perfected — and remember: covenant love cannot be bought, it cannot be earned, it cannot be controlled, it cannot be locked up. The only way to receive it is by asking for it. The only way to receive it is as a gift, freely given, freely received.
So this is what our Father wants us to believe: we are not saved by our covenant faithfulness; we are saved by Christ’s. He is the one who remains faithful when we have been faithless. He is the one who fights for us when we have been struck down. He is the one who gives up his life for us, so that we can give ours freely in return.
So if you are here today and this whole marriage thing does not seem to be working out for you, if it seems like this whole religion thing is not working out for you — and yet you cannot keep yourself from longing for something more, if your gut keeps telling you that your story cannot possibly end this way! — then do this: read the Song and let it speak to you. There is a God who made an unbreakable covenant of faithfulness with the human race. And all you have to do to enter that covenant is ask. Ask, and you will receive. Seek, and you will find. Be baptised into Jesus Christ — get married to Jesus Christ — and you will find that he will carry you through the valley and up onto the mountain on the other side.
And if you are here today and you are already baptised into Christ, then we know in part, don’t we? We are beginning to taste the goodness of God in our lives. Christ is proving himself faithful. But we haven’t arrived yet, and we know it. That is why we also still have this longing for something more: a country of our very own. And it’s painful. It hurts. But our suffering is shot through with hope. For us the night is nearly over, the day is almost here. So let us do this: let us hear the voice our beloved calling out to us, O you who dwell in the gardens,
with companions listening for your voice; let me hear it!
And let us answer him without shame, without fear, Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spices.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people.