Preaching at Good Shepherd really is an incredible privilege.
Not only because of the size and style and multi-cultural demographics, as great as all those blessings are.
An even greater privilege rests in the the freedom the people of the church give me to explore some of the most provocative themes in Scripture and they ways those themes intersect with our lives.
Yesterday’s message is perhaps the prime example. Called “All Of Me” — and yes, Chris Macedo sang that gorgeous song by John Legend to set up the sermon — my talk delved into some of the most scandalous conversation in the Song Of Songs. It all led to a bottom line inspired by my friend Matt O’Reilly: The vulnerability of sex requires the safety of marriage.
A few weeks ago, I started off the Love Song series by telling you that the Song Of Songs (SOS) almost didn’t make it into the bible and when it DID, people then misinterpreted and misapplied it. And then I told you how once it got IN many rabbis said a man should not read it until he is 30 years old. Well, today we’re going to see first all WHY SOS has been the subject of such controversy (so all you under 30, please leave). We’re going to look first hand, primary source, at some of the most scandalous, “I can’t believe that’s in the bible!” verses; the type of words that make Steve Miller singing about peaches and trees seem innocent in comparison.
But before I do that, I do need to tell you about one of the oddest, saddest counseling relationships I ever had. It was many years ago, another church, another town, and a woman comes to see me. And she tells me, “I’m 40, I’m a virgin (insert movie joke here), and I’ve been married for 20 years.” Let that settle in your head for awhile. 40, a virgin, married 20 years. Turns out she and her husband had grown up in a spirit of repression, much of it fostered by the church, and then magnified by certain family dynamics & psychology, and the result was this fear and loathing of sexual intimacy. In marriage! That marriage, in a real, raw sense, was not a marriage – at least a biblical one.
And I don’t know how many here wrestle with issues like that, but I’m sure it’s here. Especially after having heard so many NO messages on sexual intimacy outside of marriage. And some of you have heard so much NO around sex that it is very difficult for you to say YES with your whole self to it even IN marriage. And I acknowledge that from my position as proclaimer and teacher here – especially with having a front row seat to so much of the damage brought by our OVERsexed culture – I really emphasize celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage. Abstinence and chastity. Both of those are hard to come by and I emphasize them so much even I might have contributed to a NO problem even w/in the otherwise YES confines of marriage. Maybe I’ve spoken so much about the NO beyond that people have difficulty celebrating the YES within. Which is why a refresher course on SOS is so helpful. Because it draws a very different picture of intimacy between husband and wife – and yes because of something I’ll show you in a bit, we do believe it’s a husband and wife speaking here.
Or singing. You may remember that we approach SOS almost like a romantic/erotic opera. There is a back and forth between the two main characters, a man & a woman. There’s even a Greek-like chorus of apparently single women. Some teachers have suggested that it’s not an opera but a collection of poems or even a lovesick journal that someone found and released to the world. Like sharing someone else’s secrets on Facebook. Whatever the original presentation of it, what we have is frank, graphic, anything but repressed, and it uses some imagery that is quite foreign to us. We’ve got a couple of related sections we’re going to look at today, starting with 4:1a where the man is speaking to the woman:
How beautiful you are, my darling!
Oh, how beautiful!
Your eyes behind your veil are doves.
Love the affirmation! You’re beautiful! And then immediately to the eyes. So he is looking her directly into her eyes, which conveys personhood, intimacy. She is not just her body parts – which is how mean treated women in that day – but she is an authentic person, his equal. Then he continues in 4:1b:
Your hair is like a flock of goats
descending from the hills of Gilead.
A flock of goats. Not goat hair; your hair like a flock of goats descending down a hill. Huh. Remember: he’s complimenting her but how that’s a compliment is a bit beyond me. Guys: can we agree that this may have worked in ancient times but it does not work now?
Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn,
coming up from the washing.
Each has its twin;
not one of them is alone.
We saw some of this earlier. What a great strategy for romance! You complimenther on her full complement of teeth. They’re clean and you got em all. Then he moves down at 4:3a:
Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon;
your mouth is lovely.
So with the lips it’s getting more graphic, more sensual. Then an odd detour in 4:3b:
Your temples behind your veil
are like the halves of a pomegranate.
Temples? I’ve never stared at someone’s templesand thought, “man, she’s hot there.” Maybe I’m the odd one. And pomegranate? Do you KNOW what a pomegranate looks like?
Then he starts descending and begins appreciating, celebrating, and describing her neck in 4:4:
Your neck is like the tower of David,
built with courses of stone[a];
on it hang a thousand shields,
all of them shields of warriors.
OK. We’ve never excavated a Tower Of David so we don’t know what it looked like. Apparently it was strong and smooth and beautiful. And why is hanging a bunch of shields on a neck a good thing? I don’t know! But it is! Remember: this whole section is explaining why she is beautiful. And so then by the end of 4:4 we’re at the bottom of the neck, he is describing her body, you remember you’re reading the bible and we’re in a public place, you might even be next to your parents and so you’re like, “Stop there! Don’t go lower. Don’t go lower! DON’T GO LOWER!”
And then he goes lower. Look at 4:5:
Your breasts are like two fawns,
like twin fawns of a gazelle
that browse among the lilies.
Every middle schooler here is now snickering right now (cuz they under 30!). And, frankly, so are most adults. Because WHATEVER descriptive words you’ve ever thought of for that part of the female anatomy, GAZELLE FAWNS is not one of them. And then end result is that she stands there, probably naked but definitely vulnerable and certainly NOT ashamed, as her man admires & appreciates her with his eyes and his words. He finishes this section with 4:7:
You are altogether beautiful, my darling;
there is no flaw in you.
which is a bookend (inclusio) to 4:1. Here’s an idea of what she might look like if you took all that imagery LITERALLY:
One other verse here really matters at 4:9:
You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride;
you have stolen my heart
with one glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace.
Ewwww! Except then we learn that “sister” was just a figure of speech people used then in referring to their wives. Odd to us, but then again so it gazelle fawns and goat hair. Bride is more what is going on. So there is this incredible frankness but it’s within a marriage relationship. So husbands: I challenge you – recite SOS 4:1-7 to your wife TONIGHT and no telling where the evening will go!
And then, because SOS is an opera with a back-and-forth and because there is a radical equality here, it’s the woman’s turn. Look at 5:10 where she begins to describe him. Remember, these two are standing open, vulnerable, and unashamed:
My beloved is radiant and ruddy,
outstanding among ten thousand.
At 5:11 she moves to his hair, the thickness and wavy-ness of which I think is completely over-rated:
His head is purest gold;
his hair is wavy
and black as a raven.
Then she goes on a full body tour in 5:12-15:
His eyes are like doves
by the water streams,
washed in milk,
mounted like jewels.
13 His cheeks are like beds of spice
His lips are like lilies
dripping with myrrh.
14 His arms are rods of gold
set with topaz.
His body is like polished ivory
decorated with lapis lazuli.
15 His legs are pillars of marble
set on bases of pure gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon,
choice as its cedars.
The same pattern that her husband had used: top down. The same kinds of things are analogies: buildings, eyes (person), even strong arms and legs. It’s as if the guy is on staff and in a Mr. America and she’s the only judge. He, too, is vulnerable, unashamed, and ultimately appreciated.
And check 7:1 where it’s the man’s turn to admire again. Because remember: this is a back and forth reminiscent of an opera. But look: he starts at her feet in 7:1 and moves UP. To her legs. To her navel:
How beautiful your sandaled feet,
O prince’s daughter!
Your graceful legs are like jewels,
the work of an artist’s hands.
2 Your navel is a rounded goblet
that never lacks blended wine.
Huh?! And then at 7:7-8, some of the most suggestive words in the whole SOS, he wants his body to do what his eyes have just done:
Your stature is like that of the palm,
and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
8 I said, “I will climb the palm tree;
I will take hold of its fruit.”
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine,
the fragrance of your breath like apples,
It’s clear these ain’t no 40 year old virgins; they are instead expressing what has often been repressed. Kinda graphic. Really shocking.
And I just think it’s fun to list all the animals to which they compare each other (AV): doves, goats, sheep, gazelles, fawns. And then the garden/fruit (AV): pomegranate, lilies, wine, wheat, grapes, apples, palm tree. Whew! Where John Legend sings “Love all your curves and all your edges” the SOS answers “Love all your fruits and all your veggies.”
So what do we make of this PG 13 at best show between these two vulnerable people, each under the intense gaze of the other? How open to public ridicule & embarrassment if their words for each other ever got out (which they did!) And I have to believe that the “bride” part of 4:9 is the key: READ. Ominous forces loom in the background of the book, the king is a collector while the husband is a keeper. I realize this: The vulnerability of sex requires the safety of marriage.
See, in sexual intimacy the man and the woman here are completely, abjectly vulnerable. They are literally at the mercy of the other. You give the most intimate and precious part of yourself to someone else. And when that act occurs without the safety of marriage, well . . . every pastor I know has been confronted with more than one out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sometimes involving their own children. They know exactly what I’m talking about. And so do you, too. From an unplanned preg in your life to an STD to the emotional weight of encounters gone by. You were vulnerable, you were held up for inspection (!) but it wasn’t safe because you didn’t have the protection of marriage behind you. And you want those encounters back but the past holds on to them.
The vulnerability of sex requires the safety of marriage.
But on the flip side there is the SOS and the rest of Scripture, which show us that when you have vulnerability and it is coupled with the safety of marriage, the result is beautiful. Open, honest giving, much like what is between F, S, and HS. You see that the church missed the mark when it was historically all about repression – it has repressed or treated as ugly something which is actually quite beautiful. There is the totality, the ownership, the exclusivity . . . and that is beautiful. You express physically what had long been repressed strategically. It’s a bit like what happened when author Sinclair Lewis received a letter from a young & pretty woman who wanted to be his assistant. She said she could type, file, and anything else he needed and she concluded the letter with “When I say anything, I mean anything.” Lewis turned the letter over to his wife Dorothy – she must have had goat hair! – who wrote back: “Mr. Lewis already has an excellent sec’y who can type and file. I do everything else as well, and when I say everything I mean EVERYTHING.” Touche! The vulnerability of sex requires the safety of marriage.
Really what SOS and the rest of the bible show us is this: AV of tennis court. Yes! Back in the day, if I hit it outside these lines, it wasn’t safe. It was out. I would lose. I would throw my racket and cry, but that’s another sermon for another time. But inside those lines? GOLDEN! That’s where it was fun, where the ball went the right place, where I won, and where I got carried off the court on the shoulders of my adoring fans. It’s the same with married folks! (except for the fans, we hope – bleh). Inside the lines, the boundaries, you’re safe. You have the protective canopy of God’s blessing and favor and spend as much time and intensity and creativity in those lines as you like. It’s beautiful. Outside: you lose and so does everyone around you. Inside: what a celebration of all that is right in the world and true about God. Say it with your words and then show it with your self. This is the urgency that made it into the bible. The vulnerability of sex requires the safety of marriage.
So singles and adolescents and single agains: postpone your vulnerability until you have safety. With the safety of marriage, that vulnerability becomes beautiful. And marrieds: you’ve got that safety. Celebrate it. Wouldn’t it be great if the marrieds of Good Shepherd got so much practice being vulnerable that it became beautiful? The vulnerability of sex requires the safety of marriage.