So, here we are, about to begin this book called The Song of Songs. As far as we can tell it was written about 3000 years ago, during the golden age of ancient Israel. Written perhaps by King Solomon; perhaps written by a poet — or a collection of poets — in his royal court. Some scholars have even suggested that it was written by a woman, because a woman does most of the speaking in this book, which is unusual for ancient literature.
And ever since this collection of poems was written it has been controversial. Because King Solomon was also a prophet, just like his father David. His writings — or writings commissioned by him — have been considered, since the beginning, to be God’s Word.
But this collection of songs is undeniably erotic. These are poems about the delights of sexual relationship. And so, in the history of ancient Israel and in the history of Christianity, the Song of Songs has sometimes been a book that preachers were reluctant to preach.
There have been three main approaches over the years. First, many ancient Jewish preachers, and many Christian preachers, have said, “This is actually a book about how much God loves his people. It is not about erotic love.” So they’ve preached it like that.
Second, many Jewish and Christian preachers have said, “This is a book about erotic love. Therefore, it is only for married people. So we’re not going to preach on it publically.”
There is a third approach, which is how we are going to approach it, which says, “This is a book about erotic love. And we should preach about it publically because sexual relationship are, first of all, a gift from God, and second of all: sexual relationship are actually a public thing.” To be clear: the erotic act should be a private thing, but the nature of the relationship should be public. That is why weddings are not held in secret!
But I’m actually getting ahead of myself, because these are some of the things that the Song of Songs will be talking about.
So, we are going to be approaching this book as a book about erotic love. We are going to do it delicately. I am going to do my best to let the Songs speak for themselves.
So what this is going to be is, partly, a sort of a poetry appreciation reading. Our readers will read the parts, with appropriate passion, and we will pause every now and then so I can focus our attention on different details of what is going on, that sort of thing.
And then, at the end, I will finish with some concluding thoughts about what this ancient love poetry can teach us in our day. And that will include how these ancient songs about sex actually are designed to turn our eyes back to God’s love for us.
So, with no further delay: Chapter 1, Verse 1:
 The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.
Her:  Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine;
 your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore virgins love you.
 Draw me after you; let us run. The king has brought me into his chambers.
Daughters of Jerusalem:
We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine!
Her: Rightly do they love you.
So The Song starts here with the voice of a young woman who has just fallen in love…from a distance. She’s not talking to this young man, she’s talking about him. She is fantasizing. She is day-dreaming. She wants him to kiss her, because love is better than wine. It makes you drunk, doesn’t it; it makes you high — but it’s a clean high, and it lasts longer.
She talks about how his cologne smells, and she talks about how wonderful his name smells — what that means is: he has a good reputation. So she hasn’t just seen him from a distance; she is close enough to him that she can tell he’s a good guy, and she has heard other people say he is a good guy: honorable, respectful, a hard worker, all that! In fact, he’s such a good guy that other girls like him too!
But this young woman wants him to choose her, and take her away into his house, into his bedroom.
And…he is a king.
So…wow! This young woman is aiming high!
But who is she talking to here? Who are these other women who also, apparently, like this guy? Are they her friends? Are they her competition? Are they just casual onlookers?
Well, as we are about to find out, these other women are city girls. They are sophisticated. And, they are from Jerusalem, the city where the king lives — this guy the young woman has fallen in love with.
And as we see next, this young woman is a bit insecure, talking to these sophisticated city girls. She feels like she needs to justify her love for the king:
 I am very dark, but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.
 Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has looked upon me.
My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!
So this is a working class girl who has fallen in love with a king. And she feels like the sophisticated girls from the city look down on her. So first she’s proud, she stands up to them, “Sure, I’m dark, but I’m lovely!”
Then in the next moment she’s defensive, she feels like she has to explain, “My brothers made me work in the fields because they are trying to keep me out of the way. They don’t want anyone to fall in love with me!”
So the setting here, is the city of Jerusalem, where they all live. And her family is rich enough to own land — vineyards — outside the city. But she doesn’t look like a city girl, she looks like a country girl, because her brothers make her work outside the city in order to keep her away from men.
But even as she complains here, at bit, she is also making another more subtle point: she is a hard worker. She would make a good wife. She’s not just some soft city girl. Her brothers thought they were making sure she wouldn’t be attractive to any man, but ironically, they’ve actually been training her to be very attractive to men, because — frankly — men like women who know how to work hard, who know how to manage flocks and herds and a households.
And that’s why, in these next lines, she stops talking to the Daughters of Jerusalem, and for the first time, speaks to the king:
 Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where you pasture your flock, where you make it lie down at noon;
For why should I be like one who veils herself beside the flocks of your companions?
Him:  If you do not know, O most beautiful among women,
follow in the tracks of the flock, and pasture your young goats beside the shepherds’ tents.
 I compare you, my love, to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots.
 Your cheeks are lovely with ornaments, your neck with strings of jewels.
 We will make for you ornaments of gold, studded with silver.
Oh. He is not a king. That is her imagination. He is a shepherd, and she is a shepherdess. So their families are probably from the same social class: they live in the city, but they own land outside the city, farms and vineyards and flocks. So the Daughters of Jerusalem think this guy is hot, they think this young woman doesn’t deserve him — but she has this advantage: he also works outside the city.
So, she flirts with him, in the morning, in the marketplace, before they head out to work. Women in ancient Israel did not wear veils. So she starts by saying, “Hey, where are you taking your sheep? Are you going to tell me, or do I have to come sneaking around, asking your friends where you are with my face hidden so my brothers don’t figure out what I’m doing?”
And he teases her back: “You wanna find out where I work without your brothers catching on? Just casually drive your flocks out after my flocks and we’ll figure something out!”
And it looks like she’s definitely made a good first impression. He calls her the “most beautiful among women” — even more beautiful than the sophisticated Daughters of Jerusalem. He calls her a “mare among Pharaoh’s chariots.”
And I should explain this one: chariots were drawn into war by stallions, male horses. One way to defeat a chariot attack was to let a mare in heat loose on the battlefield, and the stallions would start fighting each other instead of charging to the attack. So the guy is saying that he can see she’s driving all the men crazy.
Then he notices her cheeks, and her neck — and these would be the sun-tanned parts, so: she’s right! He doesn’t care that she’s dark.
And then he suggests that he could provide even more jewellery for her.
So this would be a good place to point out that the way the young man and the young woman talk is different. The guy tends to talk about the impression she makes on his senses, and about what he can do for her, the impression he wants to make on her. The young woman, by contrast, tends to talk about the relationship; she talks about the connection between them.
So: he focuses on her, and what he can give her, while she focuses on them, on what they are going to do together. And this is a fairly accurate picture of the difference between male and female, and how each sex tends to approach relationship. And we’ll see this throughout the book.
Now, I need to set the scene for the next part:
It is noon. The hottest part of the day. The flocks are lying down in the shade, and so are the shepherds, passing the long lazy hours until the sun begins to go down and it is safe to move again.
And the young woman chooses this time to go gliding past where the young man is lying. She is going to put off as much attitude and fragrance and x-factor as she can, in order to lead him away from his friends to someplace more private so they can…get to know each other a bit better:
Her:  While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance.
 My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh that lies between my breasts.
 My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of Engedi.
Him:  Behold, you are beautiful, my love;
behold, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves.
And it works!
Her “king” gets up from his “couch” in the grass. He follows her. And then…this happens:
Her:  Behold, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly delightful.
Our couch is green;  the beams of our house are cedar; our rafters are pine.
 I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.
Him:  As a lily among brambles, so is my love among the young women.
Her:  As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
 He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.
 Sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love.
 His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me!
So…they spend a whole afternoon together, alone.
And what, exactly — mom and dad want to know — are they doing with their time?
Well, there is a green couch; and a “house” made of trees. So they are deep in the woods, together on grass or moss or something. But are they sitting, or lying down?
Okay…verse 3, she is sitting in his shadow — sitting, that’s good, right? Oooo, but wait: “His fruit was sweet to my taste…” Uh oh. What else: “he brought me to the banqueting house, his banner over me was love,” so now the guy has spread out his cloak over her, it’s the yawn and stretch trick, “sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick wi — “
Waaaait a minute! “Refresh me with apples!?” But she just called him an apple tree didn’t she! Raisins and apples are aphrodisiacs. But she’s not actually talking about food! Remember how this all started? Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine! And now she’s talking about raisins?
This is all about kissing!
Well, at least they’re sitting up!
— wait a minute, verse 6: left hand under head, right hand embracing —
They are lying down!
These kids are making out!
Now, it’s been a long time, but when I was in high school there were different levels of making out: we had Petting, Heavy Petting, and: Grounded for Life. And I can tell you that, by the standards of my high-school, this young couple is well into the “Grounded for Life” category. My wife was my girlfriend when we were in high-school. And if we had ever been caught alone like this —
— when we were caught alone like this —
— let me put it this way: technically, I am still grounded. Because the culture I grew up in was very strict about this stuff, just like the culture of ancient Israel was.
So it is a little shocking to find this episode in the bible, isn’t it! It is so positive! So romantic! So beautiful! There is no hint here that this is bad or against God’s law or anything like that. So what does it mean? Is it okay for young people to kiss and make out alone in the forest?
Uhhhhhh…let me distract you from that question by pointing something else out to you: this is not actually the only place we see this situation in scripture.
Where else in the bible do we find a young man and a young woman alone in a forest, eating “fruit”…?
Friends, this poem is God’s way of giving us a taste of what it was like in the Garden of Eden: a young man, a young woman, naked and unashamed, delighting in each other, a relationship perfectly balanced. Of course, there’s no evidence that this particular young couple are naked…but there’s no shame, at least, not in the moments described here.
Friends, this picture of innocent young love is supposed to make our hearts ache for what we once knew in the infancy of our race. This picture of young fools in the forest, their pre-frontal cortexes completely disconnected, no thought for the consequences, no fear of the future — friends, this is who we want to be! This is who we all wish we still were! In Genesis it says that God created the man and the woman, and then he said, “This is very good!” This is very good, this is beautiful, and we know it. We know that this is the way things were meant to be.
We also know that this is not the way things are. And that is where the ache comes from. Some of us have never experienced this innocent introduction to sexuality, it was stolen away by one thing or another — and so it hurts to read this, a sweetness you have never tasted. Some of us have memories of those earliest moments of falling in love, the sweetness and the holiness of touching another person for the first time — and so it hurts to read this and remember what we cannot experience again. Some of us are older, and wiser, and we know what follows these moments: the disappointments, the fears, the fights, the thousand small acts of divorce sometimes leading to the final one — and so it hurts to read this, knowing that it cannot last. And our impulse is to cry out to these young people, “Oh, be careful!” And we’re not talking about the danger of unwanted pregnancy or STD’s, we’re trying to say, “guard your hearts! Do not give yourselves away too lightly!”
This is what those Christians mean when they say there should be no kissing or sexual touch of any kind before marriage: they are trying to protect young hearts. Their intentions are good. But they are going about it the wrong way, because making a rule against something doesn’t stop the desire, does it! In fact, it often makes the desire even stronger. Because: forbidden sexuality often has the same tang of sweetness and secrecy as our first innocent awakenings to sexuality. And so many people turn to forbidden sexuality in order to replay and recapture these first innocent moments. It is a counterfeit sweetness, it is false — but it tastes enough like the real thing that most of us, at some point in our lives, are fooled into thinking that it is good.
Sexual desire is so dangerous. And the reason it’s so dangerous is because it is so good. It points to something so good. It is a living reminder of Eden. Which means we have to be so careful in the way we handle this desire as a Christian society. We have to be careful not to forbid it, or it will just end up growing in some dark direction. We also have to be careful not to just set it loose, or it will be just spent, and cheapened, and poured out like water in sand, and our lives with it.
So, back to our question, then: is the bible trying to say that it’s fine for young people to kiss and make out alone in the forest?
No. And yet, we should not squash or suppress or deny the beauty of these moments. We should do our best to affirm and acknowledge what these moments are pointing to, even as we experience the grief of knowing that we are not there anymore.
And, trust me, all these thoughts are going through the young woman’s head now. As the sun begins to sink, as they both go back to lead their flocks back into town for the night, this young woman is realizing that she has set something loose in her body and his, something sweet and good, but dangerous and uncontrollable.
And so as she comes back into the city, and sees the sophisticated city girls in the marketplace, she gives them this warning:
 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field,
that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.
Because she doesn’t know, now, if that was just an afternoon fling, or if this young man really is a man of good character. Is this guy just fooling around? Or does he realize that by kissing her, by embracing her, by awakening her with his touch — however innocently! — does he realize that his body has been making unspoken promises to her body? Is he going to keep those promises? Or is he going to move on to some other girl?
So the young woman goes home, she goes to bed, and she is lying there full of delight, full of doubt — and then, in the quietness of the night, she hears this:
Her:  The voice of my beloved!
Behold, he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills.
 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Behold, there he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows, looking through the lattice.
 My beloved speaks and says to me:
Him: Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away,
 for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone.
 The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
 The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.
 O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff,
let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.
This young man is hooked bad. He comes climbing over the garden wall, he comes sneaking up to the house, he scratches at the window, and he whispers, “Hey! Get up. Sneak out! Let’s go back to the woods. Let’s go back to the garden. My body is ready, your body is ready…come on! … O my dove, you’re hidden away from me, you’re out of my reach! At least come to the window! Let me hear your voice, let me see your face!”
What a dog! Or — pardon me — what a gazelle! What a young stag! because those animals were especially associated with robust sexuality back in those days. This guy wants this girl in the worst possible way! No: in the best possible way. Because, while this young man is too caught up in his desire to know it, the poet knows, and we know now, that his desire is not just for sex: his desire is actually for a return to Eden. This young man wants to be naked and unashamed with this young woman not just because of the sexual pleasure, but because sexual pleasure for the human being is our last fleeting genetic taste of what it was like to truly know someone and truly be known in return.
But the young woman has learned a little something from their afternoon tryst. She is not going to give herself away so easily, this time. This time she wants some assurances.
So she gets out of bed — very quietly, because ancient families all slept in the same room, so her mom is right there, not to mention those brothers who want to keep her away from guys, and if they wake up they will wallop this guy! — she creeps up to the window and she says this:
Her:  Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards,
for our vineyards are in blossom.
She acknowledges that their “vinyards are in blossom” — they’re both ready! — but: there are foxes in the vineyards. There are brothers in the way. There are parents in the way. Society is in the way! the Daughters of Jerusalem for instance, who think that she is not good enough for him.
Sexuality is more than just sex. As I mentioned at the beginning: sexual relationships are public relationships. Which means that the public needs to agree to the relationship. Running off into the woods to have sex will feel great! — for a few minutes. But that is not a relationship. Sexuality is like baptism, like adoption: it is public, and the world around you has to agree that the relationship is valid. That’s why there is no such thing as a secret Christian, or a Christian without a church: it is impossible to be a brother or sister in Christ if you have no brothers or sisters in Christ around you who can vouch for you and say, “Yes, this person is my brother, my sister!” In the same way, sexuality is a communal thing. An individual cannot just make it up for themselves.
So the young woman whispers, “No, no, no, no, not this time. I’m not coming out until you solve some of these problems. You talk to my dad. You talk to my brothers. You make this relationship official, and then we’ll see!”
And then, they stay up all night, whispering through the window until the first grey light of dawn begins to appear, then she tells him he’d better run off before her brothers catch him:
 My beloved is mine, and I am his; he grazes among the lilies,
 until the day breathes and the shadows flee.
Turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on cleft mountains!
And she lies down again for maybe another hour of sleep before the household wakes up…but still she can’t sleep. She lies there thinking about him, and thinking about him —
And then she decides she is not going to wait for him to make the first move:
 On my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not.
 I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.
I sought him, but found him not.
 The watchmen found me as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”
 Scarcely had I passed them when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother’s house,
and into the chamber of her who conceived me.
 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field,
that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.
She leaves the house, she wanders the pre-dawn streets, chasing after him. She comes upon the city’s night-watchmen, asks if they’ve seen him, and then: there he is! She grabs him, brings him back home, wakes up the family and says, “This is the guy I want to marry!”
So what can anybody do about it now? The brothers don’t think any guy is good enough for their sister, but…too late now! And the Daughters of Jerusalem think this working class girl is not good enough for their city guy — but their city guy has gone and fallen for this working class girl, and how are you going to stop that now?
And that is why the young woman closes with this warning, again: you can’t fight love! Sexual desire is a powerful force! It is stressful! So: do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.
This is the word of the Lord!
Now I want to mention three interesting things here.
First, throughout the whole book, the young woman nevers talks about her father. And that is because her mother is only one of several wives. Notice that in Chapter 1, verse 6, she calls her brothers “my mother’s sons”. That suggests that she has step-brothers, who are not as responsible to keep her away from guys. And notice here, in Chapter 3, verse 4, that she brings the young man to her “mother’s house,” into her mother’s room. Which suggests that her father owns several houses, several households; or, perhaps, that he owns one large house where only one of the rooms belongs to her mother.
So that is a little sad. And it is meant to be a little sad. This is a song designed to celebrate monogamous love — love between this one guy and this one young woman — but this young woman does not come from a monogamous home. She wants a kind of faithful relationship that her own mother has not experienced. And this is one reason why some scholars think King Solomon did not write this: because he had hundreds of wives. Some scholars suggest that a poet in his court wrote this as a prophetic critique of how King Solomon was going wrong. And that becomes more clear at the end of the book.
The second thing I want to mention is that this young woman is very aggressive! She sees the guy, she flirts with the guy, she sneaks off with the guy, she shuts the guy down cold, and then she practically arranges her own marriage with the guy! And this sense of her as a very forward kind of girl is reinforced by her relationship with her brothers and with the city girls. She tells us that “my mother’s sons were angry with me,” and that’s why they hid her away in the fields. Why were they angry? Probably because they noticed that she tends to be a bit flirty! And the Daughters of Jerusalem certainly seem to want to push her back down into her place. But why? Probably because they noticed that she tends to be a bit uppity!
And this doesn’t seem to fit our usual idea of what “good girls” are supposed to be like. Aren’t “good girls” supposed to be gentle and quiet and submissive? Well, the Song of Songs celebrates a young woman who is strong, and opinionated, and knows how to get what she wants. And, to tell you the truth, most of the women I’ve met in my life are strong and opinionated and know how to get what they want, so…again, this seems pretty accurate to me.
So, what we need to notice here is that scripture makes room for strong, aggressive women. It’s not against God’s law or anything like that! It’s just that strength always needs to be properly focused in order to keep it from being destructive — and scripture makes it clear that this is true of men as well as women. And, in part, that is what the Song of Songs has to teach us: how to bring the strengths of men and the strengths of women together in a productive, long-lasting way.
Third, we are going to see a movement and a tension between the garden and the city, between the couple who want to be together and the pressures of society that wants to pull them apart. In the Song of Songs, unity happens in the gardens and vineyards; separation and anxiety happens in the city, where there are walls. We have already tasted this a bit in the contrast between working class country girl and sophisticated city girls, between the couple’s delightful afternoon in the woods and their night spent whispering through a window in the city. As we go forward in the story of their relationship, we are going to see them move in together in the city. We are going to experience heart-break with them in the city. And then we are going to return to the garden. Except that, in the end, the tension is resolved: the city and the garden are no longer in conflict with one another, they have both been transformed by one another — just as the male and the female are going to transform one another as they become one.
So: application? How should this affect our lives, especially our sex lives? What are we supposed to believe, what are we supposed to do?
Well, on the most obvious level we have this warning that sexual desire is not something to play with. So, believe this: sexual desire is a powerful force, and do this: be careful who you hang out with. Be careful where you offer your heart. Because once that lightning strikes — and especially after you have had some kind of sexualized contact like kissing and caressing — it is so painful to try to bring that relationship to an end. That’s why our advice to you is: don’t even go out casually with non-Christians because…once you have stirred up or awakened love it is very hard to put it back to sleep.
But at a deeper level, this is what the Song of Songs wants us to believe today: sexual desire is very good. It is good because it was created by God. It is good because it existed in the Garden of Eden, and because it is still our strongest genetic link to that garden. It is still our strongest lingering taste of what it was like for Adam and Eve to be naked and unashamed and in fellowship with God. So do this: do feel sexual desire, because sexual desire is not a shameful thing. Do take active steps to satisfy your sexual desire with another person, because sexual union is not a shameful thing. It points us back to the garden; it also points us forward to the great City at the end of time, where we will live with Christ as our eternal king, our eternal shepherd, our eternal husband and Lord.
And this understanding that sexual desire is a good gift from God will also help us do one more thing better: it will help us love our enemies as Jesus told us to. Because — look, this is the situation: people who who are trying to make homosexuality okay, polygamy okay, prostitution okay, pedophilia okay, those who want to cheapen sexuality, and just turn it into an ordinary casual activity that you can do with anybody or anything at any time — these movements, these ideas are the enemy of healthy sexuality, and healthy society. But we are called to love the people who make up these movements. How does the Song of Songs help? Well, the Song of Songs is showing us that all sexual desires — even the twisted ones — are echoes of our desire to return to the garden, echoes of our desire to return to God. The Song of Songs is showing us that, actually, we all want the same thing. We all have this memory, built into our DNA, of a time when sex was free and innocent and good, and all these movements are trying to get us back there. They really are. And this understanding, this recognition, that we all have this deep longing for the same thing should help us, as Christians, love those who are lost and confused about how to get there.
So our disagreement with the world is not about what we want; it’s about how we think we should get there. Conservatives think that if we make most things illegal then we will be safe. Liberals think that if we make most things legal, then we will be free, naked and unashamed. But the bible shows us that making things legal doesn’t take away the shame. And the bible shows us that making things illegal doesn’t stop us from wanting them — it makes the wanting worse!
Christian scripture is neither liberal nor conservative. We are not in favour of making everything legal — though we are in favour of freedom. And we are not in favour of making a long list of rules about what not to do — though we are in favour of safety, of protecting the powerless.
So what is the bible’s solution, God’s solution, to this problem? How can we celebrate sexual desire, while also preserving its beauty and its value? How can we take active steps to satisfy our sexual desires with another person, without giving ourselves away too cheaply?
Come back next week for the wedding, and you’ll find out.