Covenant (Song of Songs 3:6-5:1)

So, last week: girl sees boy, girl flirts with boy, girl sneaks away with boy, girl shuts boy down, girl brings boy home to meet the family.

And from these episodes we learned a few things about how God views human sexuality. We learned that sexual desire is good, that it was God’s gift to Adam and Eve in the garden, and it is still with us as a reminder of that sweetness. We also learned that sexual desire is dangerous because it is powerful, and it is powerful because it points us back to the garden. We all long to return there, and that longing is so strong that many of us are willing to do anything, anything at all, that will get us back there, even if we have to sell ourselves into sexual slavery to do it.

So as we closed last week, we realized that, if sexual desire is good then we definitely don’t want to suppress it. But if sexual desire is dangerous, then we definitely don’t want to just set it free in our society. We don’t want to make everything legal, because if we do the powerless will just end up being sexually victimized by the powerful. But we also don’t want to turn sexuality into an endless list of dos and don’ts. We want to be naked and unashamed. We don’t want to have to consult a rule-book moment by moment — that’s no fun!

So we closed last week with this question: what is God’s solution to this problem? How does God balance the need for freedom in sexuality, and the need for safety?

Last week we saw how the young woman took a tremendous risk, meeting the young man alone in the woods, allowing herself to be sexually awakened and awakening him in return. She learned from that, and she refused to take that risk again, insisting that the young man make a commitment to her first.

This week, the young man makes that commitment. And, as we are going to see, this commitment — this covenant — is God’s solution to the tension between freedom and safety.

So as the day opens, the first thing we hear are the voices of the Daughters of Jerusalem.

We first met them last week: these are the sophisticated city girls who think that this dark-skinned country girl does not deserve their uptown guy. Poetically speaking, these young women represent society; they represent the city, a place of walls and rules, whereas the young woman represents the garden of Eden, a place of freedom and innocence, where risks are minimized and boldness is rewarded.

And what we are about to see here is that the young woman’s boldness last week is about to be rewarded. She wanted the young man to make their relationship public, to make it official, before she went any further.

That is exactly what he does here, and it is the Daughters of Jerusalem who notice it first:

Daughters of Jerusalem:

[6] What is that coming up from the wilderness like columns of smoke,

perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the fragrant powders of a merchant?

[7] Behold, it is the litter of Solomon! Around it are sixty mighty men, some of the mighty men of Israel,

[8] all of them wearing swords and expert in war, each with his sword at his thigh, against terror by night.

[9] King Solomon made himself a carriage from the wood of Lebanon.

[10] He made its posts of silver, its back of gold, its seat of purple;

its interior was inlaid with love by the daughters of Jerusalem.


So the setting is the city of Jerusalem. And one morning the people of the city notice a disturbance in the countryside outside the walls: a huge column of dust rising, which means a very large caravan of travellers is coming toward the city.

So the young women run up to the top of the city wall along with everyone else to see who is coming. It turns out to be their king: Solomon, in his limousine, with the motorcycles in front, and the other armoured cars full of heavily armed military men, his bodyguard. The king is coming from the wilderness to the city, in a large, expensive procession.

And the Daughters of Jerusalem are wondering why. They feel like this is their king. Notice how, in verse 10, they point out that they even helped to decorate the interior of his limousine! So they feel this sense of ownership: this is our guy, this is our handsome young king. So why didn’t we get a memo from the palace that this procession was scheduled for today?

Well, the young woman knows why. So she takes this opportunity to let them know:

Her: [11] Go out, O daughters of Zion, and look upon King Solomon,

with the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding,

on the day of the gladness of his heart.


King Solomon is getting married. He went out into the wilderness to collect his bride. And now he is bringing her into the city: a humble, dark-skinned country girl.

Well, not so humble pehaps. But can you blame her? The Daughters of Jerusalem all told her, “You can’t get this guy. One of us is going to get this guy!” So it makes sense that she wants to stand up through the skylight of the limo and say, “That’s right! You go out and look at King Solomon on the day of his wedding, and guess who you’re going to see sitting beside him? Guess who his mother said was good enough to be his bride?”

Let’s be honest: we would all do the same.

Now, this is poetry, and we have already seen that this young woman has a vivid imagination. She’s not actually marrying King Solomon. But she feels like she is. And she is using this imagery that the citizens of Jerusalem would have been very familiar with. King Solomon got married a lot: approximately once every three weeks, if we do the math right, and if he only married one at a time, at regular intervals.

Anyway, the point here is that the young man has put together a public wedding procession, with all his friends, and the Daughters of Jerusalem are shocked at who he has chosen to marry. And the young woman is…well, we all know very well what she is feeling, and what she is doing as she rolls past…

Now, as a literary nerd, I have to pause here and point out there is something interesting and profoundly beautiful in this verse.

The poet has the young woman say that this day, the wedding day, is “the day of the gladness” of King Solomon’s heart. This is the only time the word “wedding” is used in the whole book. It is also the only time the word “gladness of heart” is used in the whole book. And these words are actually pretty common words throughout the rest of the bible. And if there was one book of the bible where we would expect the words “wedding” and “gladness of heart” to show up a lot, it would surely be in the Song of Songs, the book about sexual love, right?

So why are these common words used only once in this whole book?

Because, by using these words only once, the poet makes them precious, significant. Because these words are rare in this setting, they suddenly stand out.

So why did the poet do this? Why did the writer want to emphasize these words, and pair them together? For instance, in a book about sexual love, what word would we expect to be paired with “gladness of heart?” We would expect the word “sex” or “love” — or some variation of that. Instead, we have “wedding” and “gladness of heart.” And only once.

So the poet is trying to catch our attention. What is he trying to do with our attention? What does he want us to notice?

Well, consider the irony of this line: “the day of King Solomon’s wedding, the day of the gladness of his heart.”

Day, singular.

And now, try to imagine that we are all there in King Solomon’s court, and the poet is reading or singing this poem for the first time. The king is sitting there. He has hundreds of wives. Hundreds of sexual partners. And the poet sings about “the day of the gladness” of Solomon’s heart.

Technically, King Solomon has had hundreds of “days of the gladness of his heart” — but I think we all know that by the twentieth wedding Solomon’s “gladness” would have been pretty blur. It is a common human failing to believe that if a little bit is good, more must surely be better. If one bowl of bak kut teh is good, surely four bowls must be better! If one shot of Scotch is good, surely the whole bottle must be better. If one sexual partner is good, surely ten, twenty — five-hundred! — must be better!

But this is just not true. And this poet, by keeping these words rare, is keeping these words precious. This poet, by pairing these words together, is saying, “King, you would be happier if you had stopped with just one.” This poet is showing us that sexual happiness, true “gladness of heart,” does not come from quantity, but from quality. This poet is linking true happiness with commitment, not sex.

It is rarity that makes something precious. It is singularity that makes something unique. But King Solomon, with his hundreds of sexual partners, can no longer say what the young man is about to say to his beloved now.

Listen to this!

Him: [1] Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful!

Your eyes are doves behind your veil.

Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.

[2] Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing,

all of which bear twins, and not one among them has lost its young.

[3] Your lips are like a scarlet thread, and your mouth is lovely.

Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil.

[4] Your neck is like the tower of David, built in rows of stone;

on it hang a thousand shields, all of them shields of warriors.

[5] Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that graze among the lilies.

[6] Until the day breathes and the shadows flee,

I will go away to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense.

[7] You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.

[8] Come with me from Lebanon, my bride; come with me from Lebanon.

Depart from the peak of Amana, from the peak of Senir and Hermon,

from the dens of lions, from the mountains of leopards.


I do not want to beat this poetry to death by explaining every line. Obviously some of this imagery is funny to us, but clearly this young man is using the most beautiful things he can think of to describe her. So I’m just going to let those details speak for themselves.

I will, however, point out a few things so we can appreciate this a little better:

First, this is the first time in the book the young man calls the young woman “my bride,” so this is definitely their wedding day.

Second, we should notice that these images only work from a distance. For instance, for her black hair flowing over her shoulders to look like a flock of black goats flowing over the shoulders of a mountain…that is a comparison you can only make from a distance. Or, for her neck, with all its jewellery, to look like a tower, this is the sort of thing you can only see from a distance. So the idea we are supposed to get here is of this young man watching his bride come toward him on their wedding day.

Third, we should notice that the imagery he uses today is almost all from nature, from the countryside. Even this picture of David’s tower as a graceful structure is an image that would only be seen from outside the city. Partly this is because the poet wants us to remember that sexual desire is intimately connected to the garden of Eden. But, it is important for me to point this out now because, next week, this imagery is going to change radically. And we won’t notice the change next week — or understand the meaning behind it — if we don’t notice the starting point this week.

Fourth, the young man makes a promise here in verse 6: until the day breathes and the shadows flee, I will go away to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense. But we won’t really know what he means here unless we compare this line with a similar line from before. Remember how, last week, the young woman warned him off at the end of the night as they were whispering through the window? She basically said, “I’m not coming out until I get some commitment from you. You’re welcome to stay and talk with me all night, but when the day breathes and the shadows flee — when the sun rises — you’d better run so my brothers don’t catch you!”

Well, here, the young man is using the same line, the same imagery, to tell his bride, “Here is my commitment. Which mean that from now on, until the day breathes and the shadows flee I’m going to be doing a lot more than just talking to you!”

That is a promise!

Fifth, he still feels like she is inaccessible. Last week he called her a dove hidden away in a cliff, out of reach. Here again he calls to her as if she is far away in the mountains, guarded by lions and leopards. So even though she is walking down the aisle to marry him, he is just full of impatience, he can’t wait for her to become his.

And now, in this next section, we see the young man’s language change focus slightly as she gets closer:

[9] You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride;

you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.

[10] How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride!

How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!

[11] Your lips drip nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue;

the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.


Now she is getting close enough for him to see her eyes, to smell her fragrance.

And now he begins to call her “my sister, my bride.” But why? Those concepts are not supposed to go together in the same person, am I right?

Well, in the culture of that time, the closest friendly relationship a young man could have with a woman was with his sister. The relationship with a mother was supposed to be one of honor and respect, but the relationship of brother and sister was — or was the closest thing to — an affectionate, casual friendship between the sexes. So that is part of the concept the poet wants to capture here: this young man doesn’t just see his bride as a sexual object, he sees her as someone he likes hanging out with, someone he wants to share ordinary life with.

But there is a second feature to the brother/sister relationship that is even more important. And that is this: your bride today could become your ex-wife someday; but your sister is always your sister. You can divorce your wife; you can’t divorce your sister.

So this young man is wanting his bride to know that he is committed to her for life, as if she were his sister. By calling her “my sister, my bride,” this young man is combining the concept of erotic sexual delight with the concept of eternal faithfulness, eternal affection, an eternal covenant.

And the reason the poet pairs these concepts together is because we do not naturally think this way. Biologically, our brains are wired to enjoy novelty, new things. Because of this, we tend to believe that many sexual partners is the road to long-term erotic sexual delight, and we tend to associate faithfulness with sexual boredom.

But this biological wiring of ours actually leads us to believe something that is not true. Yes, constantly having new sexual partners works for a while — but eventually your brain builds up a resistance, and it needs more stimulation. This is why people, if they are not restrained, move gradually from relatively tame perversions to darker and darker ones: because they are looking for a sexual high that they used to get, but cannot get anymore. Our brains become blur, as we have already discussed. Gladness of heart disappears. We are left with nothing except sexual experience.

See, God created men and women to take sexual delight in one another; but the relationship between men and women is meant to be so much more than just sexual. The obvious problem with having many sexual partners is this: you can’t actually have a deep and fulfilling relationship with each one; there’s just not enough time in the day. Which means that having many sexual partners inevitably ends up reducing those partners to nothing more than just sexual partners.

This poet, by combining these words “my sister, my bride,” is showing us that this young man here does not view his bride as simply an outlet for his own sexual desires. He is not just looking forward to sex with her; he is looking forward to life with her. This poet is, once again, telling us that true long-term sexual happiness actually comes from commitment, not from sex.

So we come to the wedding ceremony itself. And the young man is looking at her. And again he feels like she is still just out of reach:

[12] A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a spring locked, a fountain sealed.

[13] Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard,

[14] nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,

with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all choice spices—

[15] a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.


He is looking at her, and it is as if he is on a cliff in the desert, looking down into a hidden valley, full of green growing things, flowing water, cool shade, everything that looks good to a traveller in a dry and weary land.

And this picture here, again, is a picture of the garden of Eden as it was described in Genesis: a deep valley walled off from the wilderness. A place where a man and a woman can be naked and unashamed and safe.

And the poet here, again, is making a subtle commentary on the corruption of King Solomon’s court. When a man makes a marriage covenant with a woman, their relationship is supposed to become like a self-contained valley, a complete and well-balanced eco-system with its own water source.

But when a man has many women, or when a woman has many men, their sexual life becomes like a garden without walls that needs water brought in from outside: very soon it begins to die. The trees, scorched by the sun, stop producing fruit. The spices dry up and blow away.

Our modern age wants us to believe that having many casual sexual partners is a sign of self-actualization and strength — but actually it is a sign that our internal water source has run dry. It is a sign that we actually lack the strength to truly self-actualize, we have to suck the life out of other people instead.

And it was the same way in those days. King Solomon had many sexual partners. His sin was “legal” because he married all the women he was sleeping with. His sin made him look like a great and powerful king, a man’s man. But the truth is: King Solomon was using women to provide something that he couldn’t find within himself.

So here, the poet, with his words, has taken King Solomon to the cliff’s edge, and forced him to look down into the garden he gave up on the day he married his second wife. All Solomon can do now is listen with envy as the young man in the song gazes into the place he can’t get to — yet. The garden is locked. The fountain is sealed. But it’s not going to stay that way. As the ceremony comes to an end, the sun sets, the feast begins, and eventually the bride’s friends take her back into her husband’s bedroom where she waits for her groom to join her:

Her: [16] Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind!

Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow.

Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.

Him: [1] I came to my garden, my sister, my bride, I gathered my myrrh with my spice,

I ate my honeycomb with my honey, I drank my wine with my milk.

Daughters of Jerusalem:

Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love!


And I don’t think I need to say anything more about that, except to point out that as the bride speaks in verse 16, “my garden” becomes “his garden”.

So let’s give the married couple a little privacy, and consider what what all this should mean to us.

We started with a problem that needed a solution: how can we celebrate the goodness of sexual union, while also handling it with appropriate care, so that the sexually powerful don’t end up dominating and using the sexually powerless? We wondered what God’s solution to this problem is.

And now we have it: God’s solution, God’s perfect balance between sexual freedom and sexual safety is marriage: a covenant relationship. And this concept of a covenant really is the very best solution to this problem.

And there are at least three reasons why:

First, covenant marriage keeps things simple. Second, covenant marriage protects the less powerful. Third, covenant marriage is realistic.

So: first, covenant marriage keeps things simple.

Nobody wants long complicated lists of rules that control sexuality; that is the opposite of sexual freedom. But have you noticed that our modern sexually liberated world is now fenced in with long complicated lists of rules? These are the things you are allowed to say, these are the things you are not allowed to say, these are the times you have to ask for consent, and on and on and on. It’s actually a little funny! because many of our non-Christian friends think the bible is just thousands of pages of rules about the kinds of sex we’re not allowed to have — but that is actually their reality, not ours. We don’t have a long complicated list of rules to control our sexuality. We only have one: get married.

And it works! It’s simple. It’s easy to remember. It keeps you out of trouble. For instance, imagine you’re in a bar or club or office somewhere, and someone is flirting with you. And if you’re a modern, liberated person, you have to have all these rules dancing in your head: “Now, when she said this was she giving me consent, or was she just asking to borrow a pen? And if I touch her like this am I being friendly or will I get charged with sexual assault…?” But if you’re a Christian it becomes very simple: “Now, when she said this was she giving me consent, or — oh, wait, we’re not married.” Problem solved!

So covenant marriage sets us free and keeps us safe by making the rules of sexuality simple.

Second, covenant marriage protects the less powerful.

See, a covenant, technically speaking, is not actually a promise made between exact equals. It is a promise made between a stronger person and a weaker person. In a marriage covenant, the male — who is, generally speaking, more sexually powerful — promises not to use his greater strength to dominate the female. Instead, he promises to use his strength to love her, and serve her, and protect her. And the female  — who is, generally speaking, less sexually powerful — promises to take his strength, multiply it, and give it back to him.

Now I know that in our modern world this idea that men are sexually stronger than women is offensive to many. So I want to be clear about what the bible means by this. The Song of Songs has already shown us that women can be just as sexually driven and sexually aggressive as men, and the Song celebrates that. So we’re not talking about sex drive here. We are talking about vulnerability.

It is obvious that throughout history women suffer far more physical sexual violence than men do. What is less obvious to our modern culture is that, throughout history, when a culture becomes polyamorous, women suffer far more emotional sexual violence than men do. When a culture decides that it is good for people to have sex with as many other people as they can, inevitably the women of that culture pay the price. Men carry the seed; but women carry the babies. Men carry the diseases; but it is women, more than men, who are damaged by those diseases. Men get all the freedom; women get to be the slaves to their own sexuality. Even if they avoid unwanted pregnancy and disease, the women of polyamorous societies become nothing more than sexual objects, judged by their appearance and by their sexual and reproductive qualities alone.

Modern culture likes to think that we value women as human beings, for their strengths. We point to how women are dominating the universities, dominating the workplace, being strong and successful and equal with men. So it is ironic, isn’t it, that there is more pressure today than ever for women to look a certain way, to dress a certain way, and to be sexually available to more powerful men? And then we wonder why powerful men like Harvey Weinstein feel like they have the right to sexually harass and assault the women around them. We wonder why statistics on sexual violence are on the rise on university campuses. Could it be that men in our culture have been raised to believe that all women should be sexually available to them all the time?

But men who have been raised to believe that only one woman should be sexually available to them are men who rape less, harass less, and even speak less disrespectfully to the women around them. This is a statistical reality: a study has just been published that finds that young women are safer from sexual violence at conservative Christian universities than they are at secular universities.

Men are sexually more powerful than women. That is a fact. Therefore, every society needs a system in place that will protect women from men, while also offering as much sexual freedom as possible for women as well as men. The best system — God’s system — acknowledges this need. Men are sexually stronger than women. Therefore, we are going to harness that strength. We are going to bind this man’s strength to this woman’s vulnerability, and this will actually make both of them stronger. This man promises to be sexually, emotionally, and financially faithful to this woman. He promises to spend his strength on her well-being, while she promises to give it back again.

A polyamourous system guarantees that only the sexually powerful enjoy freedom, while everyone else becomes a slave. But a monogamous system offers sexual freedom and safety for both the powerful and the less powerful.

So covenant marriage sets us free and keeps us safe by joining the destinies of one man and one woman.

Third, covenant marriage is realistic.

We all want to be loved. But we all know that we are not all lovely all the time. No one deserves to be loved all the time. Sometimes, through illness or stress or just changes in life situation or personality, we become harder to love for a long time. And without a binding covenant in place why would a sexual partner want to stick around?

I know that some people say, “Isn’t this idea of life-long monogamous marriage a bit naive? Isn’t it more realistic to live together for a while, see if you are really compatible, keep the back door open just in case it looks like it’s not going to work out?”

But actually the opposite is true. Those who move in together without a covenant in place are greatly increasing the chances that the relationship will break up. That also is a statistical reality, confirmed by many scientific studies. So moving in together is actually the naive choice. It does not take into account the reality that things will go wrong. This romantic relationship that began last week with the young people in the woods is going to fall on hard times. Fights and betrayals, heartbreak and terrible grief is going to come between them next week, as it happens for everyone. There will be a powerful temptation to run away, to break up. There always is.

And that is why a marriage covenant is the realistic choice. Couples who stand up before their community and make a covenant of marriage with one another are showing that they are wise, not naive! They know things are going to go wrong. They know there will be times when they will want out. They know that the covenant will keep this from happening too easily, too lightly.

So, to keep this simple, then: what does our Father want us to believe? What does he want us to do?

Believe this: the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman is God’s way to provide us with sexual freedom and sexual safety. It preserves the value of sex, while also protecting women — and men — from being devalued into mere sexual objects. It provides us with the greatest chance of long-term sexual happiness, gladness of heart.

So, believe that, and do this: get married if at all possible.

But I know that some among us struggle with this. Perhaps you’re not married, and you want to be, and for some reason God has not provided a spouse. Perhaps you are married, but your marriage is not a happy one emotionally or sexually. Perhaps you struggle with homosexual temptation or gender dysphoria or something else. And you might be thinking, “So what about me? What does this have to do with me?”

Well, the very good news is this: the strength and the beauty and faithfulness of the marriage covenant is for you also. Because the marriage covenant, just like sexual desire itself, points beyond itself to something greater. The Song of Songs has been showing us that sexual desire is an expression of our universal human longing to be naked and unashamed, innocent, and without fear. And now the Song of Songs is going to show us that the marriage covenant is a shadow of God’s promise to keep on loving his people even when they do not deserve it.

Sexual desire tells us that we all long to be set free, that we all want to be safe. The marriage covenant tells us that God can set us free, God can keep us safe. In the New Testament, in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he tells us that human marriage is just a shadow of Jesus’ marriage to his bride, the church. And he makes it clear there that the church is not yet perfect. Things go wrong. But Jesus does not give up on her because he made a marriage covenant with her.

And what this means, friends, is that you do not have to have a happy marriage to enjoy the benefits of Christ’s marriage covenant. You don’t even have to be married! You don’t even have to have a properly balanced heterosexuality. The Song of Songs is a book that celebrates an erotic relationship between one man and one woman. But as we are going to see next week it is not a romantic or naive book, it is powerfully realistic about how hard it is to be faithful…

What I am trying to say is this: the Song of Songs shows us that earthly marriage is for sexually incomplete people; we do not have to be perfect to participate in it. And this earthly reality of marriage points us all to a spiritual reality: that a marriage with Jesus Christ is for sexually incomplete people.

So if you are here today and you are single and frustrated, or married and frustrated, or if you don’t fit comfortably into this matrix of male and female bound together in marriage, then believe this: you are not alone. No one here is perfectly sexually satisfied. And believe this: no matter what your marital or sexual state might be, you are a human being, made in God’s image. Even your frustrated desires are evidence that his breath of life is within you. And believe this: because you are human, and because you are sexually incomplete, you qualify to enter into a marriage covenant with the God who made you. The covenant exists because things go wrong, and Jesus, knowing this, wanted to bind himself to you, to us, so that no matter what happens we will be free and safe.

So, if that is you, then believe those things, and do this: get married to Christ. Be baptized. Be bound together with us. We cannot promise that you will find sexual satisfaction or total sexual restoration in our church. But we can promise that you will not walk alone.

In a way, we are all like that young man standing on the cliff’s-edge in a dry and thirsty land, gazing down into that hidden valley, longing for something that is still out of reach. But there is a promise in scripture, given to all Christians — married and unmarried, sexually confident, sexually confused, to each one of us — that one day we will arrive. The gates to the great city will open, we will walk through and find that the garden we have been longing for has filled the earth.


Scroll to top