So here we are, beginning Part Three of our sermon series on the Song of Songs.
In Part One, we learned that sexual desire is very good, a gift from God designed to remind us of the garden of Eden. We also learned that sexual desire is powerful and even dangerous, not to be treated lightly.
Last week, in Part Two, we learned that the marriage covenant is also a gift from God, a way to enjoy the delights of sexual union while also protecting us from the dangers. We also learned that the marriage covenant exists because things go wrong.
This week is about what to do when things go wrong. So far in the Song of Songs the story has been about this couple fighting against all odds to get together. Her brothers tried to keep her away from men, the sophisticated Daughters of Jerusalem said she wasn’t good enough for him, all that. But last week they made it! They got married! And then they lived happily ever after…right?
That’s where many of our modern love stories end. For reasons I won’t go into now, our modern culture likes to focus on the struggle to get together. It’s the “Romeo and Juliet kept apart by their families” story. It’s Nick Young and Rachel Chu. And in the end, what happens? Eternal happiness! Roll credits. Or, someone has to die. I’m thinking of Titanic, for instance. And I think the writers made the right choice there. That whole Jack and Rose thing was never going to last, and they knew it! So: bye bye Jack. Shakespeare: same thing. Romeo and Juliet is such a romantic story because we don’t have see how they get married and get disillusioned, and Romeo loses his hair and Juliet has an affair with a gardener half her age. Far better for them just to die!
And this way of telling love stories has actually damaged us. It has given us this idea that the highest goal of any romance is marriage or sexual union. After that, everything is supposed to be easy! But then we actually do get married, or we have sex with some significant other…and our relationship problems don’t go away. They get harder! And then we’re shocked, and we think we must be doing something wrong!
But the Song of Songs is realistic. This book is the Word of God, so it is honest about how hard marriage can be, and what marriage is supposed to accomplish. See, the marriage covenant is not supposed to be the goal of life; it is the means through which life is tested and refined and new life created. Getting married is not the end of the story, it is just the beginning.
And that is good news for all of us who are burned out on relationships. We’ve all been raised on this romantic milk that wants us to believe sexual relationships are easy. But there are more and more people in our world who are waking up and saying, “No! That’s not true!” And they are right, we need to affirm that! They are right.
But the temptation for many, of course, is then to say, “Well, this whole relationship thing is a lie. Marriage is just a social construct. So: I’m out. I’m done.”
So if you are here today, and you are tempted to think that way, I hope this next part of the Song will, first of all, show you that you’re right: romance is crap; and second of all, show you that there is another option than just giving up.
So, our young couple has been married now for a while. They have a house together in the city, they’ve settled into the rhythm of life. And so as we pick up their story here, it is late at night after an ordinary work day. The wife got home earlier, she had some free time so she’s taken a bath, given herself a spa treatment, painted her toe-nails, you know: whatever women do to relax after a long day. She’s gone to bed, but her husband is working late, so, even in her sleep, she’s listening for him:
Her:  I slept, but my heart was awake. A sound! My beloved is knocking.
Him: Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one,
for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.
Her:  I had put off my garment; how could I put it on?
I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them?
 My beloved put his hand to the latch, and my heart was thrilled within me.
 I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with liquid myrrh, on the handles of the bolt.
 I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and gone.
My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
So: what went wrong here?
Well, she locked the door, and he didn’t have a key. Oops.
In those days doors had a wooden latch attached to a string running running over the top of the door. To get in from the outside you’d pull the string and that would unlatch the door. To lock the door from the inside, you just pull the string in.
Now, there was also a hole in the door, so they could also use a sort of wooden key to push through the hole and that would also lift the latch, but most houses only had one key, and it was pretty large so not very convenient for carrying around. So the husband here is stuck outside without a key, and no string to pull, so he calls to her, “Uhhh, honey? My sister, my love, my dove, wanna let me in?” He doesn’t know what’s going on, is she mad at him?
Then he tries to get his fingers into the keyhole to see if he can reach the latch and push it up, and while he’s fiddling around out there she’s in this half-awake state where she knows he’s there, she’s been looking forward to him coming home, but she’s drowsy, she’s all cleaned up, she doesn’t want to get out of bed —
She is experiencing this mix of desire and reluctance. And every married couple here knows just what this is like! We continue to have sexual desire for one another, but…the details of life can kinda start to get in the way. Enjoying one another takes concentration, it takes effort. Running off into the woods to make out is one thing. Sharing a home is different.
And so eventually the husband gives up. Maybe he’s irritated. I know I would be. Like: “Seriously, honey? You locked the door? Uhhh, well, I’ll be at Wee Lern’s house sleeping on his sofa, I guess I’ll see you in the morning?”
So he runs off into the night — just as she opens the door.
And she feels terrible, right? She knows she screwed up. She doesn’t need him to tell her that.
So she does what she did once before, when they were dating: she gets dressed and she goes out looking for him.
And this is when it goes even more wrong:
 The watchmen found me as they went about in the city;
they beat me, they bruised me, they took away my veil,
those watchmen of the walls.
 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him I am sick with love.
The night watchmen — the police, who are supposed to protect the citizens of Jerusalem — find a young woman out on the streets late at night, and they assume she is up to no good. So they beat her. They bruise her. And they take away her veil. Which means that somehow they have dishonored her sexually.
And this sort of thing is common to every society. We’ve noted from the beginning how bold this young woman is. She knows what she wants, and she is going to get it. And I’ve highlighted before how the Song of Songs celebrates that strength. But I think we all know that human societies often take a different view. Women who are perceived as too aggressive, too out-spoken, can be viewed as rule-breakers, or trouble-makers — and often the men who are in charge of protecting society use their power to push that woman back into her perceived “proper” place, because they see rule-breakers as a threat to the stability of their society.
And, unfortunately, one of the easiest ways for men to put a woman down is to violate her in some way.
So, we don’t know exactly what happened here: this is poetry, and it is mercifully discreet. But what the poet is wanting us to recognize is that, while the marriage covenant is the best mix of sexual freedom and sexual safety available to mankind, it does not solve all of our problems. Our world is broken. Things go wrong. Even the best societies fail to show mercy to those who need it the most.
And so this young woman, victimized by the men who were supposed to protect her, stripped of her dignity and honor, has asked the women of the city for help.
But what we see here next, is that bold women are not just punished by the men of a society, they are also punished by the women:
Daughters of Jerusalem:
 What is your beloved more than another beloved, O most beautiful among women?
What is your beloved more than another beloved, that you thus adjure us?
See, in those days, if a woman was violated, society often blamed her for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or for wearing the wrong clothes, or being too seductive —
— and I think we all know that nothing much has changed over the last 3000 years. In eastern cultures, in western cultures, there is often a sense that if a woman is out there acting “unacceptable” in some way then she kind of deserves what happens to her. And often the women of a society are just as judgemental about this as the men.
Men often like to make themselves feel more powerful by pushing women down; women often like to make themselves feel more virtuous by pushing other women down. And that is what the Daughters of Jerusalem are doing here. The young woman asks for their help, she says, “Please, help me find my husband. Tell him that I’m in trouble. I really need his comfort now.”
And these women respond sarcastically. They call her “O most beautiful among women” because they know — and she knows — that she is not beautiful anymore. She has been spoilt. Basically these women respond by saying, “What makes you think that if we go and tell him what just happened to you, what makes you think he is going to want to come and help you? What is your beloved more than another beloved? How is your husband better than all the other husbands out there?”
Because, this is the situation: these women know that very often husbands divorce their wives for things like this. These women are pointing out that the victim’s reputation has been destroyed now. People will continue to wonder, even years later, if she was asking for it. They will continue to wonder if maybe she was out on the streets because she was prostituting herself, or committing adultery, or something like that. And these women know that men are very sensitive about their reputations. No self-respecting man wants to be married to a woman who is suspected of cheating on him. He’ll look like a fool in the eyes of all his friends! — and no man wants that.
So these women are harsh! — but they are being realistic.
And the young woman has been destroyed. She has been crushed. And we can tell because how she responds next is different than the way she responded to the Daughters of Jerusalem at the beginning of the story. Remember how, back in Chapter 1, when she felt like the Daughters of Jerusalem were implying that she wasn’t good enough, she responded by boasting about her charms. She said, “Sure, I’m dark. But I’m lovely! I have a chance of getting this guy!”
But here, the Daughters of Jerusalem have told her again that she’s not good enough for him — and this time it’s true. She can’t respond by boasting about her own charms anymore because: her charms have been stolen from her, violated, trampled, destroyed.
So this time, the young woman doesn’t celebrate herself, because she has nothing left to offer.
Instead, she celebrates him:
Her:  My beloved is radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand.
 His head is the finest gold; his locks are wavy, black as a raven.
 His eyes are like doves beside streams of water, bathed in milk, sitting beside a full pool.
 His cheeks are like beds of spices, mounds of sweet-smelling herbs. His lips are lilies, dripping liquid myrrh.
 His arms are rods of gold, set with jewels. His body is polished ivory, bedecked with sapphires.
 His legs are alabaster columns, set on bases of gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as the cedars.
 His mouth is most sweet, and he is altogether desirable.
This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.
The Daughters of Jerusalem are asking, “Why do you expect him to take you back? What makes you think you deserve to have him back?”
And the wife’s answer is, “I don’t deserve to have him back. But I do expect him to take me back because I know that he is a good man.”
This is the only place in the whole book where the young woman praises the man’s body. Everywhere else she has talked about how he smells, how he tastes, how he acts, how he makes her feel. But here, in the moment when she knows that by the standards of this world she is lost, it is over, she will never experience those things again — this is the moment when he, himself, in his body, becomes the most precious thing to her. She describes him here as vivid, full of life, full of protective strength. She is saying, “My beloved, my husband, is so strong in himself, so secure that he doesn’t have to care about his reputation. He doesn’t care what other people think about me. He is going to be faithful to me, not because I deserve it, but because he is going to be faithful to himself. He made a covenant. And he has the strength to keep that covenant even if it costs him his reputation, even if it costs him everything.”
This young woman is in serious trouble, and she knows it. But instead of trying to cover up what happened, instead of trying to fix it herself, she turns her eyes upon the only one who can make things right.
And her response is so confident that it makes an impression on the Daughters of Jerusalem. Suddenly they also want to find this strange kind of husband who loves his wife so much that he’s willing to overlook everything for her sake:
Daughters of Jerusalem:
 Where has your beloved gone, O most beautiful among women?
Where has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you?
Her:  My beloved has gone down to his garden to the beds of spices,
to graze in the gardens and to gather lilies.
 I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he grazes among the lilies.
The young woman’s song convinced the Daughters of Jerusalem; it has also convinced her.
In the moment of her greatest crisis, she sang the gospel to herself. And then she realized it was true. She told the Daughters of Jerusalem, “You don’t understand: this is the kind of man who is faithful beyond belief!” And here she has realized that she can rest in that reality. She may feel abandoned. She may feel like he is far away. But she knows it is not actually true. He is right there with her, bound together with her by covenant and by sexual union; they are together even though physically they may be apart.
Well, it turns out that she is right.
Later on, after they’re back together, and everything has been told, this is what he says to her:
Him:  You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love,
lovely as Jerusalem, awesome as an army with banners.
 Turn away your eyes from me, for they overwhelm me—
Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.
 Your teeth are like a flock of ewes that have come up from the washing;
all of them bear twins; not one among them has lost its young.
 Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil.
 There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and virgins without number.
 My dove, my perfect one, is the only one,
the only one of her mother, pure to her who bore her.
The young women saw her and called her blessed;
the queens and concubines also, and they praised her:
 Who is this who looks down like the dawn, beautiful as the moon,
bright as the sun, awesome as an army with banners?
Now, last week, at the wedding, we noticed how the groom described his bride as a garden, a hidden valley that was pure and protected from everything — even him!
Here, he describes his wife as a city, protected by high walls, protected by an army with banners, a strong military force. He still uses images from nature, from the garden, but this time they are mixed in with pictures of strength and protection.
He also mentions King Solomon’s court: sixty queens and eighty concubines, and virgins without number. Probably some of the Daughters of Jerusalem are there. But he doesn’t care about all their status and power. “My dove, my perfect one, is the only one. Let Solomon have his thousand women! I don’t need them — because I’ve got you!”
Until this point in the Song of Songs, the poet has been showing us that good things happen in the garden, bad things happen in the city. The man and the woman together in the garden — that’s good. The man and the woman separated in the city — that’s bad!
But now, through the strength of the husband’s faithfulness to the marriage covenant the garden and the city are being brought together. Now the walls of Jerusalem that kept them apart and led to her victimization — now those walls are for her protection. Her reputation is restored. No one is going to despise her for what happened. In fact, from now on the young women, the queens and concubines — all the Daughters of Jerusalem who used to think they were better than her — they are going to praise her: “Who is this who looks down like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun, as terrifying as an army with banners?”
He is not going to give her up. He has restored her. He has made her stronger than ever.
And his wife responds by looking back on their courtship and remembering how they got to this point, how amazing it is that they managed to get married in the first place:
Her:  I went down to the nut orchard to look at the blossoms of the valley,
to see whether the vines had budded, whether the pomegranates were in bloom.
 Before I was aware, my desire set me among the chariots of my kinsman, a prince.
And then she begins to dance.
And at this point, the Daughters of Jerusalem realize they have made a mistake. They were disrespectful to her back when they thought she was going to get dumped. Instead, here she is: stronger and more secure than ever in her husband’s love!
And so now the Daughters of Jerusalem begin wish they could have what she has! So as she dances away from them, they call out:
Daughters of Jerusalem:
 Return, return, O Shulammite, return, return, that we may look upon you.
Now, this name that they call her: “Shulammite,” is the feminine form of the name “Solomon”. Solomon’s name is the highest name in the land. So the Daughters of Jerusalem now call the this young woman by the highest name in the land. It is a way of acknowledging that they were wrong; they misjudged her. Now they want to be her friends!
But her husband turns to the Daughters of Jerusalem now and he says: “No.”
Him: Why should you look upon the Shulammite, as upon a dance before two armies?
He is telling them, “Hey, you remember how you kept telling her that she did not deserve to even look at me? Well, now I’m telling you that you don’t deserve to even watch her dance.”
And he mentions this very specific dance, called the “dance before two armies.” This is a dance that the women of a city would perform as their men came back from a victorious battle. The news would arrive that they had won, and then the women would rush out and dance a victory dance in front of the army as it arrived home. This dance was an ecstatic celebration of victory, a celebration of safety and protection and freedom.
And this is the dance that the young woman is performing, because her husband has won his war against the corruption and derision of society. He has won back her honor, her value in the eyes of the world. She has been vindicated by his love.
So she dances.
And the young man watches her celebrate his victory, and her freedom. That’s why, here, instead of beginning his description from the top down as before, this time he begins with her feet:
 How beautiful are your feet in sandals, O noble daughter!
Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand.
 Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine.
Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies.
 Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.
 Your neck is like an ivory tower.
Your eyes are pools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath-rabbim.
Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon, which looks toward Damascus.
 Your head crowns you like Carmel, and your flowing locks are like purple;
a king is held captive in the tresses.
 How beautiful and pleasant you are, O loved one, with all your delights!
 Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters.
 I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its fruit.
Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples,
 and your mouth like the best wine.
Her: It goes down smoothly for my beloved, gliding over lips and teeth.
 I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.
This is the Word of the Lord!
And it is interesting, isn’t it, that it is here, after the crisis, after the fear and the tension and the desperation, it is after all this that the most erotic and explicit songs are sung? It is after the crisis that the young woman stops focusing on how he makes her feel and turns her eyes upon him. It is after the crisis that the young man finally describes her whole body, and speaks more explicitly about the act of love.
Why? What does it mean? Why did the poet write it like this?
Because the poet knew how people thought about sexuality in King Solomon’s court; how people think about sexuality all over the world. We all want to love and be loved in return, and we all tend to think that sex or marriage will make that happen. But the poet is trying to show us that marriage is the just the beginning; sexual union is just the beginning of a real relationship.
True love, true intimacy, only grows out of a time of testing. Human beings are biologically wired to desire novelty, new things, which is why we all tend to believe that the best sex always happens at the beginning of a relationship, when you are first married. But this is simply not so! True love, true intimacy, true erotic appreciation, only grows over time. It is the result of patience in the face of frustration. It is the result of faithfulness in the face of disappointment. It is the fruit of persistent love in the face of grief and decay and the reality of sin and death.
So: what should this mean to us? What does our Father want us to believe and do because of what we have read here today?
Well, generally speaking, believe this: marriage is designed to grow deeper and richer with time. Like wine. Like liquor.
But I know that many people — many good Christians also! — are going to say, “Well, my marriage has not. It is just as hard today as it was at the beginning.”
And there are a number of things we could say in response. We could say, “Well, everyone has to work hard on their marriage.” But that’s not especially helpful, because the truth is some marriages struggle a lot more than others, and so we want to be careful not to minimize someone else’s problems. We want to be careful not to imply something like, “Well, if you would just work a little harder at it (like me) I’m sure you’d be fine…” That’s no good. That’s not kind.
Instead, we want to acknowledge this: marriage is designed to grow deeper and richer with time, but often it doesn’t. And there are many reasons why. Some of those reasons may be the fault of those in the marriage. But there are always reasons that are simply beyond our control.
However — and this may seem counter-intuitive, but — this is actually why marriage exists. The marriage covenant exists because things go wrong. And what this means is that, by the standards of God’s Word, a difficult, painful, combative marriage can still be a good marriage.
Now, to be clear — I want to be very clear about this! — the bible is not saying this about actively abusive marriages. All marriages contain some abuse on both sides, because we sin against one another, and it is the hard work of forgiving and reconciling and figuring out how to live with one another that the bible blesses, and says, “This is good for you.” But the bible does not bless persistent and deliberate abuse or adultery. So if you are in a marriage or in a relationship like that, please come and talk to me or my wife or some other wise and trustworthy person and we will find you help.
So, believe this: marriage is designed to grow deeper and richer with time, but often it doesn’t. But that does not mean that your marriage is a failure. What counts here, friends, is covenant faithfulness.
Marriage is just like the Christian life. We are not going to do it perfectly. We are going to sin against one another and against Christ. But Christ is above all faithful to himself. He made a promise. He made a covenant. And he is not going to break it. He is not going to break up with his bride. He has turned us into a city, a temple. We are safe behind the walls of his covenant. We are free to eat from any tree in the garden. We are free to drink from the River of Life. We are a self-contained city, with a well in the center, a fountain that will never run dry.
And we have all these things not because we deserve it, not because our marriage with Jesus is an easy one — because it’s not! — but because of who Jesus is.
This image of Christ and his church is what gives Christian marriage its unique quality. No other religion in the world has a God like ours, who has made an unbreakable covenant with his people. In every other religion your god will break up with you if you don’t make him happy. And if your god can break up with you for not making him happy, then obviously it is fair for husbands to break up with wives for not making them happy. After all, how can we hold men to a higher standard than their own god’s standard?
But because Christ has made an unbreakable covenant with us, his bride, the Christian husband is called to remain committed to his wife even though she does not always make him happy. And the Christian wife is called to remain committed to her husband even though she sometimes feels like he is unavailable to her.
So, that is what we are to believe. And so, this is what we are to do:
Brothers, be faithful to your wife. Some women are more difficult to live with. Some women might have a way of dragging on you, perhaps slowing down your career, compromising your professional reputation. But that is no excuse for a Christian husband to walk away physically or spiritually or emotionally. Just like this young man in the Song of Songs, we Christian men should be secure enough in Christ to not care about what other people think. We should be strong enough in Christ to bear whatever burden he has called upon us to bear. We should remember that often the most difficult women are the ones who have been wounded the most deeply, and in Christ we are called to show them more mercy, not less.
And sisters, do this: trust in the marriage covenant. Some men are more difficult to live with. Some men have a way of focusing too much on their career, their reputation, their ego. But that is no excuse for a Christian wife to withdraw physically or spiritually or emotionally. Just like this young woman in the Song of Songs, you Christian ladies are called to turn your eyes upon the covenant that your husband made with you. He may not lead you in quite the way you want; he may not be as emotionally available as you might wish. But if he is a Christian man, the Holy Spirit working within him will drive him to do his best to provide for you everything that he promised on your wedding day. If he is not a Christian man, then the Holy Spirit himself will provide you will everything you need for life and godliness. Sisters, please remember that often the most difficult and annoying men are the ones who are the most fragile. We are the ones who most crave your respect, and in Christ you are called to offer your husband the same honor and respect that is due to Christ himself.
Now, those are some pretty tough commands, aren’t they? And nobody here is doing a perfect job of it. We are all dissatisfied somehow with our marriages. We are all disappointed about something in our spouse or in ourselves — usually both. And all too often we — husbands and wives — look out for our own interests first, instead of entrusting ourselves completely to the other’s care. So what are we supposed to do about that?
Well, believe this: marriage is designed to grow deeper and richer with time, but it is not a vending machine. Sometimes you put in all the right stuff, and you don’t get out of it what you expected. Some marriages start badly and become amazing. Some marriages start well — and end in divorce.
And before you ask: yes, sometimes Christian marriages end in divorce also. There are good and biblical reasons to get divorced. There are also selfish and sinful reasons to get divorced. Sometimes Christians get divorced for the wrong reasons. Is that the end, then, for them? Have they lost their opportunity for love and salvation? Are we supposed to say, “Well, you gave up on your marriage. So what makes you think God is not going to give up on you?”
People are going to say that sort of thing to us. Often we say it to ourselves. Sometimes even other Christian will say something like that to us. Just like the Daughters of Jerusalem, people are going to say, “What, is your God greater than every other god, O most pathetic and sinful of human beings?”
Friends, when that voice comes, do this: answer, “Yes. My God is greater than every other god. Yes. My God is going to take me back. He is going to be faithful to me, not because I deserve it, not because I have a great marriage, but because he is going to be faithful to himself, to his own promise.” We say, along with the young woman in the Song: this is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem!
So: that is lot to think about. A lot to remember. So let me try to keep it simple: the covenant of marriage is our best chance of experiencing the right balance of sexual freedom and sexual safety. But this is not guaranteed. Some marriages are easier than others. But that does not necessarily make them better marriages. The biblical measure of a good marriage is faithfulness, not easiness; commitment, not romance.
And the beautiful thing about being a Christian is this: even when we fail in our marriages to one another, Christ does not fail in his marriage to us. He remains committed where we cannot. And that is where our hope lies. Our faith is not in having a “good” marriage; our faith is in the God who created marriage.
And in closing, as a literary nerd, allow me to point something out: have you 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 covenant, because God knew that their love for one another was going to be tested. Part 3, today, was the story of the Fall, and Christ’s redemption of his bride, and even his Judgement upon those who despised her when she was down and begging for mercy.
Which means that next week, Part 4, will be the story of the consummation, the New Creation. Part 1 gave us a taste of what it was like for Adam and Eve in the garden. Part 4 is going to give us a taste of eternity: the never-ending feast, the never-ending dance.
And trust me, you are going to want to be there for that.