OK, wake up—this book is about love, courtship, marriage and sex! And why not? Sexuality,
don’t forget, is God’s invention, a gift of his goodness:
‘Since the world views sex so sordidly and perverts and exploits it so persistently
and since so many marriages are crumbling because of lack of love, commitment, and
devotion, it is advantageous to have a book in the Bible that gives God's endorsement
of marital love as wholesome and pure.’
Note that our title is ‘A Man And A Woman’, not ‘A Man And A Man’ or ‘A Woman And
A Woman’. God’s Word approves only heterosexual relationships, condemning homosexual
ones with unmistakable finality—if you take the Bible seriously this isn’t even up
for debate, despite frequent protestations to the contrary.
The author was King Solomon. This is the best of the 1005 songs he wrote and
the only one recorded in Scripture. You may be wondering how a man with 700 wives
and 300 concubines was qualified to write on monogamous marital love. We can only
assume that he wrote the Song on the basis of his first marriage, before he fell
away from God’s best into the crazy polygamy so typical of Eastern kings in his day.
It’s not just a book of principles. It has a storyline, but it’s not the easiest
one to follow and you should take any paragraph headings in your Bible for what they
are: non-inspired editorial attempts to suggest an outline. The story probably goes
something like this: Solomon owned some vineyards in Lebanon. These were managed
by several brothers, who employed their young single sister to work there. One day
Solomon visited his vineyards and fell for the girl, who was unfashionably dark-skinned
through her long hours of outdoor work. He courted her seriously, spending time in
the area as a shepherd—he had many flocks. Eventually they married, and the Song
describes both the wedding procession and the wedding night.
Some people have a problem with this book. Its subject matter has shocked and embarrassed
both Jewish and Christian interpreters, who have wondered what place there can be
in the canon of Scripture for a book with nothing to say about faith or worship and
that fails even to mention God’s name. At the same time it has a lot to say about
human affection, marital love and sexual passion. So they have allegorised the book,
making it a picture of God’s love for his people Israel, or of Christ’s love either
for his bride, the church, or for the individual believer.
The problem with this allegorical approach is in the details. For instance, what
are we to make of the girl’s statement, ‘My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh resting
between my breasts’? The normal meaning is not too hard to figure out. The girl
wears a sachet of perfume round her neck; she can smell it all the time. Solomon
is in her thoughts all the time and the implication is that, when they are married,
he will lie where the perfume-sachet now lies. Nice—but too earthy and fruity for
some Jewish interpreters, who say it refers to the shekinah glory between the two
carved cherubim on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. Similarly, some Christians
say it refers to the appearance of Jesus on earth between the Old and New Testaments.
Clever, but somehow unconvincing.
What do you think? Quite apart from the fact that the book itself makes not the slightest
claim to any allegorical meaning, clearly this approach is highly subjective and
speculative. So handle with care. Far wiser, I think, to see the Song as in the Bible
to show that love, marriage and sex are good, gifts of God intended for his creatures’
enjoyment and fulfilment.
If we are right on this, the opening section (1:2-3:5) describes the courtship, and
from it we can highlight some of the features of a sound courtship. This will be
our main focus in this article.
The first of these features is sexual restraint. The girl longs, of course, for deeper
physical intimacy but she doesn’t let it happen at this stage; both she and Solomon
wisely put the brakes on. This contrasts strongly with their throwing off of all
sexual restraints once they are married. Today’s liberal generation, at least
in the West, sees pre-marital restraint as oddly old-fashioned. Standards have changed
enormously, even in my own lifetime. Time was when the hero kissed the heroine on
the last page of a novel, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. Now he often
kisses her on the first page and the body of the novel describes what follows in
But there are sound reasons for a couple in love to keep sex for the wedding night
and, in the meantime, to set agreed limits on the physical side of their relationship.
Three times the girl in the Song says, as a kind of refrain, ‘Do not arouse or awaken
love until it so desires’. Her statement is capable of several interpretations,
but it probably means, ‘Don’t stir up sexual passion until it can be legitimately
satisfied’, namely within the marriage bond. That makes good sense, in spite of the
fact that the soaps, the film industry and society at large assume that if you ‘fall
in love’ you are no longer in control and can’t help giving way to sexual desire.
A second aspect of sound courtship is the appreciation of character. ‘Your name is
like perfume poured out’, says the girl to the young Solomon. Notice the word
‘name’. In the Bible ‘name’ is more than just a handle; it means ‘character’ or ‘reputation’.
In courtship, the person you are getting to know needs to be more than a good looker
and a great kisser. Look to their character: qualities like kindness, gentleness,
courage, diligence, a sense of humour and consideration for others. In the end, these
count for more than sex, even in marriage.
Would you question that? Well, in preparing some pre-marriage counselling notes I
once did a bit of calculation. If a married couple spend half an hour every single
day in sexual activity, that adds up to three and a half hours a week. There are
168 hours in a week. Deduct the three and a half and that leaves 164½ hours for other
aspects of the relationship. In round figures that means that only 2% of the couple’s
relationship is sex and 98% is the rest.
Some of the aspects of Solomon’s character and behaviour that the girl came to appreciate
emerge in Chapter 2. She compares him to an apple tree in whose shade she delighted
to sit. In other words he was protective towards her. The boy in a relationship must
avoid treating the girl as if she were his mother, expecting her to do everything
for him; instead he needs to adopt a decisive, caring, protective approach. She continues,
‘And his fruit is sweet to my taste’. ‘Taste’ suggests a deep understanding, as when
Scripture says, ‘Taste and see that the LORD is good’. Solomon had opened his
heart to her, sharing his thoughts, ideas and plans rather than just treating her
as a living doll or sex object. And he was proud to acknowledge her in public: ‘His
banner over me is love’, she declared. It was plain for all to see, like a military
banner in battle.
Again, couples in a sound courtship value outside opinions. They avoid being locked
exclusively into each other. They hold on to the same-sex friendships that pre-dated
the courtship and value the views of their friends on the blossoming relationship.
This girl talked to the girls she had known for years, and they said, ‘We rejoice
and delight in you; we will praise your love more than wine’. ‘You’ here is masculine
singular; they were expressing their approval of her choice of man, and of the relationship
they saw developing between him and their friend. Third-party opinions are valuable.
Listen to them. When you are head over heels in love it’s hard to be even remotely
objective about the one you love, and your friends may have some valuable insights
to share. Don’t dismiss them too quickly.
It was during their courtship, also, that the couple learnt to handle setbacks. Learning
it at this stage is a great preparation for coping with the setbacks that occur in
every marriage. Solomon calls her ‘my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding-places
on the mountainside’ and says to her, ‘Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that
ruin the vineyards’. It may be that ‘clefts’ and ‘hiding-places’ suggest her
tendency to withdraw in the face of problems rather tackle them boldly. The ‘foxes’,
in that case, are the little problems that tend to spoil every relationship. One
‘The foxes represent as many obstacles or temptations as have plagued lovers throughout
the centuries. Perhaps it is the fox of uncontrolled desire which drives a wedge
of guilt between a couple. Perhaps it is the fox of mistrust and jealousy which breaks
the bond of love. Or it may be the fox of selfishness and pride which refuses to
let one acknowledge his fault to another. Or it may be an unforgiving spirit which
will not accept the apology of the other. These foxes have been ruining vineyards
for years and the end of their work is not in sight.’
The couple needed to ‘catch’ these foxes—to deal with them openly and honestly rather
than leave them to continue their destructive work—and the courtship stage is the
time to do it. There are signs that one such fox was the girl’s insecurity, which
caused her to back off from Solomon. As an ordinary country girl she could well
have felt utterly unworthy of such a man as him. Certainly she had misgivings about
her appearance, as so many girls do. Beauty, we all know, is in the eye of the
beholder. Rejoice in the fact that your fiancé(e) thinks you are beautiful, or handsome,
because if they think that, then you are!
Another aspect of her insecurity was her fear of losing him. ‘All night long on my
bed’, she said, she feared it. Perhaps Solomon had gone back to Jerusalem for a while
to attend to his royal duties there and in her dreams she wondered if he might not
come back for her.
So the courtship was marked by sexual restraint, an appreciation of character as
well as looks, being open to other people’s views of the friendship, and facing up
to the inevitable challenges and insecurities of a growing relationship.
After that came the wedding and the consummation of their love. These fruity bits
are described in typically Eastern language in chapter four; read them for yourself.
For now, we’ll skip to the end of the book, where we find the couple still happily
married in spite of the challenges they have faced together—and they have faced some
tough ones. The wife’s friends ask, ‘Who is this coming up from the wilderness leaning
on her beloved?’
‘Wilderness’ or ‘desert’ is a powerful biblical symbol, often linked with Israel’s
period of testing there after the exodus. Just as the Israelites eventually came
through it and entered the Promised Land, so our couple have come through a series
of tests: her insecurity, the ‘little foxes’ and a cool period during their marriage.
The wilderness also speaks of God’s curse. Joel, for instance, says of the plague
of locusts that ravaged the land in his day, ‘Before them the land is like the garden
of Eden, behind them, a desert waste.’ It was in Eden, of course, that God had
pronounced the curse following Adam and Eve’s fall, a curse that included an element
of potential marital disharmony. Solomon and his wife, however, had overcome
all that and were now ‘coming up from the wilderness’ together.
What reasons can we offer for the success of their marriage? Certainly a good attitude
at the courtship stage was one factor. Another, no doubt, was the attitudes of her
parents and guardians as she was growing up. The end of the book sheds light on this.
The girl’s brothers say, ‘We have a young sister, and her breasts are not yet grown.
What shall we do for our sister for the day she is spoken for?’ Maybe their parents
were dead—we don’t know—but her older brothers were clearly responsible for her,
and here we have them discussing how best to prepare her for eventual courtship and
marriage. That, of course, will depend on the kind of girl she turns out to be: ‘If
she is a wall, we will build towers of silver on her. If she is a door, we will enclose
her with panels of cedar.’
This is the language of Eastern poetry but its meaning is easy to decipher. ‘If she
is a wall’ means ‘If she shows good character and puts up barriers to temptation’.
In this case they will reward her, they will ‘build towers of silver on her’—maybe
give her a silver head-ornament to show their approval. But ‘if she is a door’, flaunting
herself and making herself open to temptation, they will restrict her freedom; they
will ‘enclose her with panels of cedar’, boarding up the door, so to speak, to keep
her from moral harm. That’s a wise approach that parents should consider for their
daughters. Today it is considered cool for girls to look sexy. But looking sexy attracts
an interest from boys that has little more than sex as its object, and a sound relationship
must be based on much more than that.
Happily, the girl herself, now matured, says, ‘I am a wall, and my breasts are like
towers. Thus I have become in his eyes like one bringing contentment.’ She is
reaping the benefits of her earlier restraint. She is not ‘used goods’ and, as a
result, can bring full sexual contentment to her husband.
Are you a parent or guardian? Take your responsibilities dead seriously. Play an
active part is shaping your child’s attitudes rather than just letting society do
it. Your child’s life could benefit out of all proportion to the effort you put in.
So here in the Song of Solomon we have noted some sound advice to young people on
how to conduct a relationship, and some advice to parents and guardians about how
to steer their young charges in the right direction. ‘For best results follow maker’s
directions’. God is our Maker, and the Song of Solomon is a part, at least, of his
directions for life and for love.
This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous
buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in
the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.
The gist of this article
Yes, the Bible contains a book about love and sex, and this is it! Many prefer to
see it as allegorical, describing the love between Christ and his church, but this
is not its primary message. Read on to learn about courtship and marriage.
1. Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary, Bible Knowledge Commentary,
Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, Vol 1, p1009.
2. Song 1:1
3. 1 Kings 4:32
4. Ecclesiastes 2:7
5. They do this on the basis of Paul’s imagery in Ephesians 5:25-32.
6. Hudson Taylor’s booklet, Union And Communion, takes this approach.
7. Song 1:13
8. See Song 3:6-11
9. Song 2:7; 3:5; 8:4
10. Song 1:3
11. E.g. Naomi, meaning ‘pleasant’ wanted to change her name to Marah, meaning ‘bitter’,
because of the sorrows she had endured. And Jacob, meaning ‘twister’ underwent a
change of character to become Israel, ‘a prince with God’.