By Simon ManchesterSunday 25 Jun 2023Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 1 minute
We’re beginning a short series in the Old Testament book called Song of Songs, undoubtedly the most controversial book in the Old Testament and the New Testament because of its unashamed love language and description of male and female bodies. So hold onto your seats for the next few weeks.
Behind the romance, there is a much bigger issue going on, here are two people who are actually relating well. It’s not perfect, it’s not all straightforward, but they’re relating well. They’re deepening, they’re wrestling with things. Because Solomon seems to be the writer, and I’m talking about King Solomon, and he was utterly hopeless in his relationships, as we know, hundreds of wives and hundreds of concubines, it may well be that this book is more than just a manual for love, but it may actually be a lesson in how to relate.
Listen very carefully, it’s possible that God, who relates perfectly has brought Solomon to his senses in his old age, and now Solomon, in his old age, has written a song which is to teach people not to make his mistakes, but to enter into love as God intends.
Here is a sentence from that well-known theologian, Jack Nicholson, the Hollywood actor. Every now and again, I read a celebrity biography, I have to confess to you, to find out how people tick, and some of them are just astoundingly vacuous.
This is what Jack Nicholson said, “Expanding sexuality was not satisfied through promiscuity, but through continuously communicating with someone specifically.” And Song of Songs says the same better.
If you get lost in the series, and you get lost in the body parts, I hope that you will see that this is a little book that’s looking at probably the closest human relationship, which is husband and wife, and how to conduct that relationship or any relationship, if you’re single or if you’re separated or if you’re divorced, widowed, any relationship, how to conduct a relationship with tenderness and with perseverance because that’s how God treats us.
Well, people have been polarised on this book. Some have said that it’s all spiritual, it’s all about Jesus, and every single word has been turned into something spiritual. And others have sort of taken a more raunchy view in saying that it’s all very earthy and physical. I want to suggest to you that it’s looking at a critical human relationship pointing to a perfect divine relationship. So it’s here leading to Christ. I’m keen to get to the text, but I need to tell you a couple of things about the book before we keep going. Otherwise, you’ll say to me at the end, “This has been a bizarre series.”
First of all, this book belongs in the wisdom section of the Bible. You know, the wisdom section has
- Song of Songs
They’re practical living books, the wisdom section. It’s a song, and I think it’s one song because it says “song,” singular of songs.
And the reason it’s called Song of Songs is not just because it’s looking at the greater subject, which is love, but it’s also claiming to be the best song ever written. Quite a claim. So when you think about your favourite song, and you’re getting into a discussion with somebody, you might like to just say to them, “You know, the best song that has ever been written claims to be the Song of Songs,” because that’s what the writer is saying.
It is quite a tricky book. One commentator says it is the most obscure book. Do we read it just as it comes, love, physical love, or do we see some kind of spiritual meaning behind it? Old commentators were so confronted and traumatised by the language of the book that they basically spiritualised everything.
So when it says in Chapter 1:13, that the woman has perfume in a little sachet hanging between her breasts, this became Christ being between the two Testaments, Old and New Testament, just to make sure that nobody got too carried away. So that’s one of the significant issues. It’s obviously physical, but it’s got some spiritual significance.
The second question, is it about courtship or is it about marriage? Is it waiting for sex or entering into sex? Are the couple anticipating or are they enjoying?
Three times in the book, the girl says to her friends, “Don’t get physical too early.” I think I should tell you that I’m persuaded now that the couple probably do enter into marriage intimacy in the book, but they are telling their friends not to rush into something which they waited for.
One other issue is that God is not really mentioned in the book at all until you get to Chapter 8:6, the last chapter, and the little word “Yah,” appears as in Yahweh. Just that little phrase, three letters, “Yah.” It appears in Chapter 8. So it’s a song, it’s a song of eight chapters. It’s very honest. It’s not ashamed of love. It’s clearly teaching what makes a good relationship and it’s pointing us to Christ.
I’ve avoided this book for 38 years of ministry. It just seemed to me that I would like for somebody else to do it, but it’s in our Bibles. It’s the inspired word of God. When I was speaking at a pastors’ conference overseas, one of the guys asked me, “How do you preach the Song of Songs?” And I had to say, “I’ve got no idea.” And another pastor came up and gave me a commentary that he’d written on the Song of Songs, which I read devotionally and I found it extremely sane and helpful and persuasive, and I’m hoping this little series will do us good.
It’s not here to waste our time. It’s here to help us and to bless us, and I’m hoping that it’ll do the same. We are going to look at the two chapters under two headings, Words of Affection and Words of Security.
Words of Affection
1 Solomon’s Song of Songs.
2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
for your love is more delightful than wine.
3 Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
your name is like perfume poured out.
No wonder the young women love you!
4 Take me away with you—let us hurry!
Let the king bring me into his chambers.
Here’s a girl kicking off the song saying, “I’m ready to be kissed and I’d like to go out.” But notice two important details. Verse 4, she calls him her king, and we know that he’s not a king, he’s a shepherd. But she’s possibly calling him a king because they’re considering themselves to be king and queen. And it’s also possible that Solomon, who was a king, is saying, “This is a real king. I was a corrupt king. This is a real king.”
The other thing that’s interesting in verse 3 is that she says, “Your name is like perfume.” Meaning your character is attractive. It isn’t just that you necessarily look good. There’s something about your character that is attractive. “No wonder the other girls,” Chapter 1:3, “love you.” You’ve got a reputation that’s impressive. There are girls who wanna be with you because it’s going to be a safe place, it’s going to be a constructive place, it’s going to be a blessed place.
I don’t want to make too much of this, but you can see at the very beginning that Solomon is telling us that a key to a relationship is an attractive character, to have somebody who’s trustworthy.
I was talking to a girl this week and she’s part of the wider church and she’s not old. She’s maybe 20. She was telling me that her boyfriend is just outstanding, and the reason she said he’s outstanding is that at the very beginning, even when we were late teens, he said, “This is going to be a cross-centred relationship. This is going to be a praying relationship. A holy relationship.” And she said, “You know, I’m just so blessed to have this boy.”
Many of us listening to this will be conscious that we have made relationship decisions which had little to do with character in the past. We ran with our senses. We saw how good-looking the person was and we just ran. Then we discover that character is key to a relationship and the mercy of God is very precious because the mercy of God is able to remake what we have disbanded.
Very few of us will nominate ourselves as being of great character, but it is a major part of relationship, to be godly, to be trustworthy, to be mature, to be stable, to be somebody who seeks first the kingdom, and we should work on our conduct because that’s really all we’ve got to work on.
We can’t reach into ourselves and adjust our character like it’s a dial on a radio. We must just work on our conduct saying no to things and saying yes to things and God will rebuild the character by His Spirit. So isn’t it interesting these early verses, which could be read as quite a sort of frothy and meaningless verses, are actually quite weighty?
And the friends, in response, verse 4b, they say, “We rejoice with you. We rejoice and delight with you.” These could be her bridesmaids or something like it. Then in verses 5 – 11, we have a very interesting section where the girl describes a little bit of herself and then the man talks about how he sees her, and she describes herself, verse 5, as dark. This is not a racial comment.
She goes on to say that she’s basically been working in the fields, I know this sounds a little odd to us, and, therefore, she is an outdoor person and she is not a princess in a palace who’s been pampering herself. If beauty was seen to be very indoor, she’s basically saying, “You need to understand I’ve been working outdoors, and I’ve been working outdoors” verse 6, “because my family pushed me into it.”
And she says, “Not only have I been working the vineyards, but my own vineyard has been neglected.” It’s a little bit of self-disclosure on her part. We would say it’s a little bit of personal information or revelation. She’s saying, “Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I’m not pitching myself, I’m not congratulating myself, but this is who I am.” I don’t need to say to you that this is the way God deals with us. He reveals Himself so that we know exactly what He’s like, what He wants and what He doesn’t. Otherwise, we’d be in the dark.
One of the privileges we have in all our relationships, even in the church, whether you’re in a Bible study or whether you’re in a triplet or you’re in a marriage or you’ve got a good friend, is to be able to disclose appropriately in a safe context. There’s nothing like it. To be able to talk in the right context about who you really are and what is really happening where the person is gonna be supportive.
Well, then she says in verse 7, “Tell me how I can find my lover.” I presume she’s saying this to the girls. And they say, “Follow the tracks of the shepherd.” She says, “I’d like to meet my lover,” verse 7, “without a veil,” which could mean I’d like to do it openly and without secrecy, or it could mean this was the way the prostitutes conducted their business. And she’s saying, “I’d like to go and see my boy,” and they say, “Follow the tracks of the shepherd.”
Then the man speaks and says what he thinks of the girl. He says, “You remind me of a lovely horse.” You see that verse 9? “I liken you to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariot horses.” Now, friends, don’t try this at home. This is not going to get you far. You know, you trot like a Clydesdale or something like that. Just keep this to yourself.
But in the context of that time, this was an impressive animal, a valuable animal, a beautiful animal, a sleek animal. And one commentator very carefully and cleverly says, “She says to him, ‘I’m dark,’ and he says, ‘You’re a black beauty.'” So he’s using language which will actually encourage her.
I remember a man who was grieving that his wife had left him and he used the language of a swan. He said, “She’s a beautiful swan and I’ve crushed her.” So we need to think about the kind of language which helps relationships. That’s the point. Don’t just pull this verse out ad hoc.
The man goes on to say some nice things about her. He says in verse 10, 11 that she’s pretty and, therefore, she may be saying, “I’m not particularly special,’ and he says, “You’re really special.”
I’ve been thinking about the men of the church here, as I’ve been preparing this and thinking, so many of us may and will be saying to ourselves, “There’s no way we’re gonna use this kind of language. It’s gonna be a chance in a billion for me to talk like this to somebody who I love.”
I do want to say this, that God says affectionate things to us very well. He says what we need to hear. He communicates in a way that reassures us. He makes us secure. There are times where we are insecure and God’s word makes us secure, and, therefore, we need to see through this Song of Songs language and come up with our own that’s going to work, whether it’s talking to a friend or whether it’s talking to a brother or a sister or a spouse. We need to work out how to say things that are loving.
So don’t throw out the good communication baby with the cultural bath water. The principle is the important thing. How do you say things that help a person go forward with confidence in Christ and reassurance that you are for them and that you love them? We don’t forget those things, do we, that people have said to us that have been very hurtful and we don’t forget those things which people have said which have been absolutely appropriate and perfect at the time. And we’re to express to people the kind of affection which will make them secure and mature.
One commentator says, sadly, that some men would rather die than praise their wives, and I suggest to you that if you starve a friend or a child or a spouse of the appropriate language, it’s worse than starving them physically.
Well, this Chapter 1 has a few more sentences of affection. She calls him handsome, verse 16. He tells her that she’s beautiful, verse 15. There’s lots of references to the garden because it looks as though they may have gone out into the garden, which could be a loaded phrase. It could mean they’ve gone for a walk or it could mean this is very like the garden of Eden, something is being restored.
Why does the Lord put this in our Bibles? it’s because He is not a cold person. He’s an affectionate person. He speaks tenderly to us. Read Zephaniah 3 sometime and how He delights in His people and how He sings over His people.
I mean, you walk out of the building and you think to yourself, “I’m a hopeless Christian.” Your Heavenly Father looks at you and He delights in you for Christ and He sings over you. He is an affectionate person and, obviously, He rejoices to see the same being translated into our relationships, which is gonna make the home into a very special place and also is going to make the church into a very special place.
Words of Security
Chapter 2, and this is where the word seemed to have more to do with being safe. I don’t need to tell you that the home in the 21st century in many Western countries is a very dangerous place and it is an absolute evil that a place that should be safe has become a place which is dangerous.
The police tell us that the biggest demand on their time is domestic violence in Australia. There is a call for help every two minutes. Two women a week are killed in domestic violence. The cost to Australia in dollars, $21 billion, the cost to human lives, immeasurable.
But you’ll see if you look at Chapter 2:3, this girl feels very safe. She says, “I sit with my beloved.” It looks as though they’re out in the woods. “He’s like an apple tree among the trees,” which I presume is a nice way of saying “He’s not only giving me some shade, but he’s a sweet person as well,” or something like that.
“And his banner…” Verse 4, Chapter 2:4, “His banner over me is love,” which I think means that he’s identifying me or he’s protecting me, “and his left arm is under my head.” So she could not be more secure. That’s what she’s saying. She couldn’t feel safer.
This is a relationship as God intended. Of course, it happens to be marriage and many here listening are not married, but it’s a relationship of security. It’s a gift. Not only God making us secure, but a person making us secure. He’s a protective man, a very grateful woman, and every person needs and deserves secure relationships.
We have the privilege, friends, of contributing to that. We have the privilege of praying as we come to gather together, of praying as you walk in the front door, of praying how you might be a person who makes secure, mature the people inside your home. And did not John say in his letter that perfect love casts out fear?
Jon Stock used to say…although he was a single man, he used to say to husbands, “Create a garden in which your wife can bloom and blossom.” It’s the same principle.
We don’t have to pretend that we’re perfect at this. No Christian is free from selfishness. We’re perfectly capable of making life difficult for other people. Are we not? Are you capable of making life difficult for other people? Yes, you are. And I am too. When we take on a role of leadership, it can often be unsettling for people, it can be discouraging.
Then, again, the person that we’re trying to lead, whether it’s a worker or a person in the family, can be uncooperative and even be disloyal. But by the grace of God, you see, we are able to pass on what He gives to us, which is affection and security, and to seek His help to do it.
In my own home, where I’m frequently self-preoccupied, my dear wife will ask me again and again, well, once every 10 years. Once every 10 minutes, she’ll ask me for just a little bit of information. You know, “What’s going through your mind? What are you thinking? What sort of mood are you in?” And it’s exactly right, isn’t it? Somebody needs to be let in on the secret of what’s going on in a person’s mind and brain.
Well, in Chapter 2:7, the girl gives the first of her calls to her friends not to hurry desire. It goes like this. “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.” And you get the same thing in Chapter 3 and you get the same thing in Chapter 8. Don’t rush the relationship. Don’t move too quickly. “We have tried to be patient,” she says, “Don’t rush into things too fast.” I know this sounds like I’m completely antiquarian and I’m preaching from the Victorian age. Actually, this comes from about 900 BC, but it remains a wise word. Don’t go too fast.
And then the scene changes in verse 8 because he comes leaping from outdoors to her door, leaping across the hills like a gazelle or a deer, the sort of language that Kathy uses of me as I’m coming home. And he says to her, verse 10, basically, “Let’s go out.” He says, “My lover spoke and said, ‘Arise, my beautiful one, come. Winter’s over, rains are over, flowers are appearing. Let’s go out. Let’s go out for a date.'”
He makes a shocking request in verses 14 and 15 because he says, look at verse 14, “I’d like to hear your voice. I would like you to speak to me. I would like to hear what you’re thinking. I’d like to hear what you say. I would like you to do some talking.” It’s quite a rare man this, isn’t it? Here is a word to the men, “I’d like to hear what’s going on with you.” Here’s a word to the women, verse 14, “Your voice is sweet.” Nice little balance that, isn’t it? I’d like to hear from you. Say something that’s helpful.
I remember seeing a cartoon of a man watching television with the remote in his hand and his wife in the background is going out the door with the suitcases and he’s calling to her, “Can we not talk about our communication problems in an ad break,” which is very male, isn’t it? You know, as soon as there’s an ad break, we can talk. Now, this man says he’d like to talk, and he also says, verse 15, “I’d like you to speak. I’d like to hear your voice.”
And then this unusual verse, “Catch the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards.” And commentators don’t know what to do with this verse, but I wanna suggest to you that it’s very likely that what he’s saying is, “I’d like some time with you and I’d like to get rid of the things that ruin our relationship. I’d like to get rid of the things that are destroying our communication. I’d like to talk about the things that will be unhelpful to us and concentrate on the things that are helpful.”
He’s quite a man. And Solomon, I think, is saying to us, “This is what I never did and this is what I wish I’d done.” You can imagine Solomon with his great collection of women, no conversation at all, pointing to the girl, sending her to the bedroom, and now he writes with hindsight on how stupid he’s been, and he says, “Here is a man who has brains and wants to talk,” which is, of course, the key to relationship.
And she says, verse 16 – 17, “This is my man. My lover is mine and I’m his.” And then she says a very unusual thing. Verse 17, she says, “Turn, my lover.” Turn, virtually repent. And it’s hard to know whether what she’s saying is, “Turn around in my direction. I think this is a great idea for us to go out and talk,” or whether she’s saying, “Turn in the opposite direction for now.” Because she says in the same verse, “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee.” In other words, she may be saying, “Let’s talk at another time.” It’s hard to know.
I know this is a bit of a shock for you to be looking at this together this morning. I know that poetry is not our natural language, but I do want you to see the point that here are people communicating and it is the secret of relationship. Why does this point us to the Lord Jesus? Why should you go out today and say to yourself, “I am the most privileged person in the world?”
The answer is because there is a lover in the universe who is perfect and his name is Jesus Christ, and he not only speaks affection, but he proves affection, coming, dying, rising, enfolding, keeping, shepherding, loving, forgiving, leading. He is the most perfect lover, and there is, therefore, one perfect lover in the universe who is behind every good loving experience in this world, whether it’s the love of brothers and sisters in Christ or whether it’s the love in a home.
As I reflected on this week, I thought to myself, “What a terrible lover I am in return.” And you must feel the same. We love so fitfully when it suits us, forgetfully, inconsistently, frequently just blocking our eyes to who he is and what he’s done, blocking our ears to what he says. We’re not great lovers, but we have a great lover and we need to repent in the light of his great love for us. We need to repent of lousy loving. We need to repent of lousy loving every day. We need to repent of doing things which are basically just a punch in his face.
We need to put away those things that are basically saying to him, “You love me great. How’s this for a love?” We need to put those things away and we need to be deeply thankful for his perfect loving to us every day because in the end, you see, my security and yours is because he’s a great lover, but our joy in the relationship is going to be with some love in return. That’s why he says, “Those who love me, obey me. They don’t just trust my grace. They seek to love my will.”
There’s great security from Christ, but there’s great joy when we respond to him appropriately. So when the girl says of the man, “His name is above all names among the men of the world,” we can say that literally, can’t we? The person who loves us has a name above all names. And when she says, “His banner over me is love and I’m secure,” we can say that absolutely that his banner over us is love. Let us then seek, by the grace he gives to us, to love him back.
Let’s pray. Loving Father, we thank you for giving to us this part of your word. We ask that you would forgive us for the shameful ways in which we treat you, and we pray that as we have been greatly loved by the Lord Jesus in word and deed, you would fill us with a new love for you, a new love for loved ones, and for those within our fellowship and outside. We pray that the love which you have, which is beyond measure, would increasingly fill and rule our hearts and we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.