By Simon ManchesterSunday 18 Oct 2020Christian Growth with Simon Manchester
This is our fourth morning, our last morning in the Song of Songs. This is a book about a couple in love in the Old Testament. It’s a very graphic book and quite an explicit book, but it’s describing a proper way to relate.
Remember, we have been saying that it’s possible that King Solomon, who wrote the book and basically abused many relationships, is now writing at the end of his life a kind of a confession to say this is the way the relationship should be conducted. And this is a book which, ideally, points away from this couple to the perfect bridegroom, the ideal lover who is Jesus Christ. And we’ve seen the couple so far communicate, which is what God does perfectly. He communicates. We’ve seen the couple connect, which is what God does perfectly. And we’ve seen the couple make sacrifices, which is what God does supremely.
First of all, don’t let the book disappoint you. It’d be a great pity if you said to yourself, “This is a book which has left me cold.” I remember hearing a story of a man who was having very hopeless relationships, and he was walking in the street, and he saw a secondhand bookshop, and in the window was a book called “How to Hug.” And he thought, “This could be the secret. This could be the way forward.”
So he went and bought it and discovered that he’d bought Volume 5 of a 30-volume dictionary and that he merely had the definitions of the words between how and hug. And I want to suggest to you, isn’t it lovely when some people get it the second time? You can hear the slow members coming in, and some will be getting it sometime this afternoon. I want to suggest to you that this book is not to disappoint you. It is to show that God delights in relationships and especially the one that we can have with him through Jesus Christ.
Second, don’t expect the book to be simple. It’s a song. Ever tried to analyse some songs? It’s a song. It’s not a maths formula. It’s not a lawyers textbook. It takes quite a bit of intelligent guesswork within the bounds of the Bible to work out what it’s about.
I’ve found the commentaries have been helpful, but often very unhelpful. Sometimes I’ve read lots, and lots of stuff on the Song of Songs and just left it all behind and tried to get it my own way. I want you to receive what I say or reject what I say, as you think it’s appropriate within the authority of God’s word.
So what we’ve seen so far, the couple in their early romance talking to each other, then we saw the wedding and the affection of the wedding. Then last week, we saw them make some progress in difficulty. I want to urge you if you have not listened to the previous three to take some time to listen because you will then get a handle on a book, which I don’t think it’s easy to get a handle on.
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God Gives Grace to Love Beyond Ourselves
Look at Chapter 7:10, “I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me. His desire is for me.”
We’re getting toward the end of the Song of Songs. The woman is dealing with this question, “Why does this man love me well”?
Lots of people don’t love well. Lots of people are not loved well. “Why does this man love me well? She says, “He desires me.” It’s not just that he desires me because I’m attractive, that is nice, and that’s flattering, but it’s a very precarious foundation for a marriage. I’ve mentioned in previous sermons how sad it is and how dangerous it is when somebody feels that they have to earn somebody’s love with some serious attention to their looks.
During the week I was walking in the city, and I saw a man with a very complete birthmark on his face, really covered his face, and it was not only a very dark birthmark, but it was one of those birthmarks that actually thickens all the flesh of the face. Quite a young man. And, of course, we could multiply this kind of appearance by hundreds, but who’s going to look beyond and love the person? That’s what she’s talking about. She says, “He desires me,” and she says, “It’s not just that I’m useful to his purposes.” We all know the grief, the pain of sensing that you’re wanted for what you can do, that is you’re just utilitarian, you’re functional. Every parent occasionally feels this.
Now this man desires her for her, and she feels it. She says, “I belong to my beloved and his desires for me.” This is a great blessing in normal human relationships, to be loved by somebody for who you are. And when you make a mistake, you are loved. And when you do well, you’re loved. It’s a very wonderful thing in normal relationships. And it is the privilege of every Christian to know that they are loved by Christ as they are knowing that he is going to change, transform, sanctify us into his image, but he looks on us with a great love which has got to do with his grace and not our works.
That’s why Paul says in Galatians 2, “I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”
She talks about his desire for her, but there’s something more interesting about this word desire, and those of you who like listening to the details of the Bible may find this interesting and helpful, and that is that the word desire only comes in one other place in the Bible and that’s in the book of Genesis. In Genesis, it’s a negative desire. It’s where in Genesis Chapter 3:16, the couple have rejected God, you remember? And he’s telling them the consequences of their rejection. And he says to the woman, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” In other words, there’s going to be a conflict.
A little bit later in the next chapter, in Chapter 4 of Genesis, the Lord says to Cain, their son who hates his brother, “Sin is crouching at your door. its desire, sin’s desire is to have you.”
So this negative desire is what we would call the desire to control, or manipulate, or use a person. The Lord says to the woman, “Now that you’ve turned your back on me,” Genesis 3, you’re going to be in a fallen world, and you’re going to experience a great deal of rivalry, and awkwardness, and friction as you compete for the controls of your home.” And, of course, the Bible then begins to unfold the tsunami of this friction, as the whole Bible begins to reveal all the relationships that are marked by tension, and friction, and all the arm-twisting, and the self-serving, and the game-playing.
And this is what’s in our own hearts. This desire is in our hearts as well. We would control God if we could, wouldn’t we? Aren’t you the sort of person who, if it were possible, would say to God, “I want you to just to bless me, but don’t control me. Just be good to me, but don’t give me any instructions.” That’s what we’re like in our hearts. And we treat others, don’t we? As people who could meet our needs could satisfy us.
I was thinking through the week of how we’ve lurched historically from chauvinism and how damaging it’s been and how devastating and destructive. And then up is come feminism, and how damaging, and destructive, and devastating that’s been.
So what God said to the woman, the couple in Genesis 3:16 has proved unstoppably true, that there is a desire to control other people. It’s a negative desire and friction is the result.
However, the next time and the only other time in the Old Testament that the word desire is used, it’s here in the Song of Songs, and it’s a positive word. It’s not a negative word. It’s not a desire to control, it’s a desire to serve. What has happened? Why has this man become like this? And the book is teaching us that there is another love at work in the world. It’s a love which God unleashes. He transforms people, and they begin to love somebody beyond their own powers, and that’s how God loves us.
When God looks to love us, He looks for our welfare. I mean, if we don’t believe that, if we think that He is vindictive or sadistic, we are basically just… We’re abusing Him. He looks for our welfare. And then He sends His son, the Lord Jesus into the world to die for our welfare.
When we put our trust in Christ, and his spirit enters into our heart, the Holy Spirit produces a new love in us which is the concern for somebody else’s welfare. And this woman feels it. We’re only seeing it in a shadow here in the Old Testament.
But this man desires his girl for good, and she feels it. Well, it’s easy to say, “Oh, this isn’t it.” It’s easy for us to sit here in the church and for me to stand here and say, “You know, we know God loves us, but we don’t grasp it very easily.”
You can be a Christian for a very long time and still be asking yourself the question of whether God loves you at all.
Because we’re marked by sin, and the world, and the devil, and lots of doubts are still around, aren’t they? And when the devil came, he turned all these upside down, and he said to the couple, “The Lord doesn’t really love you. If he did, he’d give you all the trees. But I love you,” said the devil. “Follow me,” and look at the damage. And then the Lord Jesus comes into the world, and he turns truth right way up. He said, “No, no. The devil’s come to kill and destroy. I’ve come that you may have life. And you can know, ” says Jesus, “That I’m telling you something that’s true because I’m going to die that you get that life.”
So when the man says to the girl, going back now to Chapter 7:1, “How beautiful you are”, and I didn’t really know what to do with these verses from Chapter 7:1, and following, and you’ll see why it’s such a difficult passage to preach on.
If you glance down Chapter 7, and all those verses, it isn’t just that the man is looking at his girl and saying, “Wow, you are gorgeous.” He’s saying, “I desire you.” And that’s what she feels. That’s the gift of God. Love from God to love beyond yourself.
Well, you’ll notice in these verses in Chapter 7 that he praises her. It’s the third time he’s praised her. He’s praised her in Chapter 4, Chapter 6, now Chapter 7. He starts at the feet, he moves up to her head, and he recognises in Verse 1 that a craftsman has made her, an artist. It’s almost the first reference to any kind of creator. You know, “You’ve been made beautifully.” And he calls her his princess, Verse 1. And he uses very expensive language to describe her, the jewels, and the wine, and the ivory, and the tapestry. And he also uses beautiful places like Lebanon, Damascus, Mount Carmel, which were beautiful parts of the promised land.
It’s true that to say “Your waist is a like a mound of wheat.” Or, “Your nose is like the Tower of Lebanon,” may not work so well in our own culture. I’ve found this never works well at home myself. But you and I need to remember what we’ve tried to say every week, which is that these phrases meant a lot in the culture and when he says, “Your waist is like a mound of wheat,” he’s talking about fruitfulness and productivity. And when he says, “Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon,” he’s saying “You’re a work of art.
You’ve been made beautifully.” And so, he wants her. Just look at Verses 8 and 9. It’s very frank, isn’t it? I want to take hold. He wants her, and she wants him from Verse 9 and following. She’s very keen, he’s very keen. And if you’ve ever been to a wedding reception and you’ve heard a groom stand up and make a good, decent speech and look at his bride, his new wife and say, “I cannot believe how blessed I am.” That’s a little bit of the flavour that we’re experiencing here. And now, this desire which the man has for the girl is a work of God. It’s a new desire overcoming the old desire. The old desire, Genesis 3:16 is being overcome by what we might say, the desire of John 3:16, a new desire for her and for her welfare because the gospel changes us.
Most of you here this morning won’t have heard of the name Benjamin Warfield, but he was a very great American theologian. He was the professor of theology at Princeton Seminary in America in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. And some of you may know that he married at the age of 25, a girl called Annie. And when they’re on their honeymoon, she was either struck by lightning, or traumatised by a lightning storm, and she became an invalid emotionally and physically, and she never left the house for the whole of their married life. And he looked after her for 39 years while the professor of the Princeton Seminary. And he never left her for more than two hours in the whole of their married life. There is a love which is beyond human powers, which is exactly what this chapter, I think, is talking about.
God Gives Grace to Look Beyond Ourselves
This is a complex chapter, but I think the key is in Chapter 8:12. I believe this is the critical verse where she says, “My vineyard…” and you know vineyard is a loaded word meaning myself, “is mine to give.”
Solomon may have ordered his women to love him, but she says, “No, I decide who I give myself to. My vineyard is mine to give.” And I think the chapter’s describing a love which thinks outside itself.
Here in Chapter 8, they’re thinking of others. And first of all, Verse 1, they are given grace to resist. Isn’t that important? We need grace to resist. There are lots of things we’d like to do and God gives grace to resist. Look at Verse 1. She says, “I wish you were my brother.” Weird thing to say, isn’t it? What she means by this is, “If we were siblings, we could be affectionate in public pushing each other around, hugging, whatever like siblings. But we’re married and in our culture, you don’t do this.” So she says, Verse 2, “I’m going to take you home.” She’s sensitive to the people around her. She’s sensitive to the cultural standards. She’s not flaunting her relationship or her rights. She’s not pretending that she can do whatever she likes. When people say, “I do what I want,” she says, “I do what’s helpful.”
It’s a little bit like the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10. He says,
I have the right to do anything, but not everything has been official. I have the right to do anything but not everything is constructive.
In other words, I’m just going to stop for a minute and stop thinking about myself and what I want and I’m going to think about what might actually be beneficial to other people.
That’s the way she’s talking. And that’s what God’s grace is like.
Sin says, “What do I want? What do I feel like?”
Grace says, “What’s good? What’s helpful? What’s pleasing to him?”
So there is grace to resist, and she says in Verse 4 to the girls around her, “Don’t rush.” She said it many times.
Now, in Verse 5 to 7, which are the verses we had read for us, and I think they’re the key verses to the whole Song of Songs. She says to her lover, listen carefully, “I want you to place me like a seal, or a badge, or maybe even a tattoo on your heart. I want you to mark yourself with my love.” And she says, “The reason…” Verse 6, “Is because love is as strong as death. Death does not give up. It’s like the grave, “she says. Verse 6, “It doesn’t let go. It burns like a fire.” Verse six, “A flame of God. And it doesn’t go out despite waters and rivers.” Verse 7, “It’s beyond price.”
What’s she saying, she’s saying there is a love which doesn’t finish. And she speaks better than she knows because she says,
“Love is as strong as death.” And the Bible, New Testament, tells us that love is stronger than death.
You remember Lazarus was in the grip of death and Jesus set him free. And then Jesus himself went into the tomb, and the Father raised him. And the believer goes down into the grave and God raised his people up because the words of 1 Corinthians 13 are true. Love never fails. The love of God never fails. And this is the love that Christ has for his people. He’s committed to you. He’s going to see you from start to finish. And he calls you to be committed to him. And this is the love that Christ puts into the heart of his people.
We’re told in the Bible that God engraves us on His hand. Very stark, isn’t it? It’s almost as though He carves our name on His hand. And she says, “Put me as a seal on your heart.” God gives grace to resist just doing exactly what He’s wanted.
Secondly, God gives grace to assist, verse 8. Suddenly, we move away from the couple, and you’ll see, if you look at Chapter 8:8 what a problematic little section this is. But suddenly, we’re introduced to a small girl who’s finding her way. She’s what we would call, a vulnerable girl. And the question is, “What are her prospects?”
And the Bible has a fascinating answer, which is that the friends or the family, the brothers or the sisters are gonna look after her. And look at the language they use. I think this is so interesting. They say, in verse 9, “If she’s a wall,” that is, if she’s firm in her convictions, “If she’s strong,” she’s not a pushover, she’s not easily knocked over. “If she’s got convictions, we’re going to encourage her. We’re going to build towers of silver on her.” That’s how we will encourage her.
But verse 9, “If she’s a door,” meaning foolish, promiscuous, “We’re going to protect her. We will enclose her with panels of cedar.” In other words, we’re committed to her. We’re not thinking about the couple anymore. We’re now thinking about the person who’s coming up in the next generation, and the people around say, ”
This is a love to assist in making sure that this person survives the very tricky and difficult world that we live in.” And the girl, verse 10, “Who’s been talking all the way through the song, she says, “I am a wall. I’m not a plaything. I’m mature, and I’m not a plaything. Solomon may have had these girls for hire,” verse 11, “But my love is my decision.” So she wants this little girl to have the same convictions, and the same safety, and the same joy that she has had.
I don’t want to be too devotional. This is a tricky thing, and I’m just exploring it with you. But I would say this, is this not a reminder of how important it is that we take an interest in the next generation to get through the moral minefield that we live in?
I grew up in the 1970s as a teenager. That was a weird and crazy time straight after the 1960s. But what the youth of our church, let alone the youth of our world is facing and experiencing is beyond belief.
What a wonderful thing it is when the family take an interest in seeing a person who’s more vulnerable actually make it through safely, joyfully. And, of course, this is not only the church that will take a role, but it’ll be the family as well, the parents.
One of the moms in the church told me not too long ago that she had taken her daughter through one of the birds and bees books when she was, about 12 and at the end of reading through this book, there was a little silence and girl said to her, “Eew, that’s disgusting. And you and dad have done that three times.” But there you are. At least they’d done a great job in doing the task of being a parent and helping their children think through the issues.
God Gives Grace To Resist
God gives grace to persist. Closing verses in Chapter 8:13-14.
These verses are marked by, what would you think? They’re characterised by longing. He says, “I want to hear your voice. I’m missing your voice.” And she says, “I want your time.” So they’ve not arrived, this couple. I wonder if the book finishes like this, “Because no matter how great our relationships in the church, in the world, in the home. No matter how great our relationships, they will never ever replace what God has planned.”
The book dangles in the air at the end as if to say, “In this world, we do not arrive. It’s going to be in the next world where all the tension will be taken away, and all the sin will be taken away. And we’ll find ourselves the bride with the bridegroom and all the fellowship of God’s people.
And this is where longings will be truly satisfied, and all the aches, and the disappointments, and the frustrations, and the hurts, and the gaps, and the sense of loneliness and isolation that we feel will suddenly be gone. That’s what God has not only promised but in the resurrection has proved. So, I love the verses in Isaiah 33 the tell us, “You’ll see the king in his beauty.” One day the believer will see the king in His beauty. And the last book of the Bible tells us, Revelation 1, “To Him who loves us be the glory.”
Let’s pray. Father, we thank you for giving us this portion of your Word to see not only your delight in human relationships but also to see a window into the link which you seek and provide for us through Jesus Christ.
We thank you for the enormous cost that has been paid to make that a relationship that will never break. And we pray that you would fill our hearts with love that goes beyond ourselves and we pray that you would also help us to look in the way we live beyond ourselves. We thank you for the way you’ve done that to us, and we pray that you’d help us to do that to others. And we ask it in the name of the Lord Jesus. Amen.