The Song Of Song is scandalous.
All of that and more. And the book’s own history of inclusion and interpretation is one of the interesting of all Scriptural texts. That’s why the introductory sermon in the Love Song series was one of the most fun that I have ever done.
A survey of the song itself, as well as the “creative” approaches to it throughout church history landed me at this bottom line: The sex can only have intimacy if the sexes have equality.
You know what is just fabulous today? We are going to spend the next several weeks with a book that a whole lot of people wanted to keep out of the bible and then when it was included in the library, those same people read it such a way to rob it of its truth and power. We are going to be sitting knee-deep in biblical scandal, which is one of my favorite places to be! It also explains why this is my first attempt in 25 years of preaching to touch this almost out, barely in book.
Which book? It starts with the name, doesn’t it? The Song Of Songs, which in the original language conveyed the idea of The Ultimate Song, The Superlative Song, or in modern terms, Best. Song. Ever. And some of you thought that title went to Stairway To Heaven while others thought it was Rollin’ In The Deep! Nope. This one. Composed at the time of and maybe under the direction of Solomon, but not really his song. And you know how we say the bible is a library with dif types of literature in it? I’d say this is the operasection – there are characters, there is movement, there appears to be music, and it is hard as the devil to follow. But it is an opera / drama that speaks with such frankness about romance, intimacy, and yes, sexuality that when you read some of you you really won’t believe it’s in the bible. Which is why so many in the early church said, Nope, let’s keep it out.
And then, when it was allowed in, as I mentioned, the same type of folks came up with some creative interpretations to make it seem as if the Song is not talking about what it is talking about. Instead of a song about a love between a man & a woman (husband & wife), it become about Christ and his church. Here is my favorite interpretation from a guy named Hippolytus (AV) in the year 215. Here is Song 4:5, and you might blush:
Your breasts are like two fawns,
like twin fawns of a gazelle
that browse among the lilies.
. You know what Hippolytus said that meant? That one breast was the OT and the other was the NT! Yeah, right! That’s justwhat that’s talking about. About 300 years later, the Council of Constantinople (Methodist AC?) actually outlawed the literal reading of the Song. If you read it and if you read it publically, you must read it symbolically as a love song between Christ and his church and NOT between a man and a woman. It can’t mean what it looks like it means so got to tell you how to read it.
And maybe saddest of all the early church involvement with the Song comes from a man named Origen (AV) who lived around 200 AD. He – and this is kinda gross – de-sexed the book in the same way he de-sexed himself. He mutilated his own body to make himself a eunuch so he would no longer have sexual desire. So his approach to the book mirrored the damage he did to himself. Whew. And you thought you were just coming to church today!
So why did so many in the early years of the church do such violence to this erotic opera? A couple of reasons. 1. The church forgot what it meant to be Jewish. Jews and their OT knew that there is not a rigid distinction between soul & body, spirit & matter. The body is holy. The early church leaders – people like Origen and then later people like Martin Luther – were much more influence by Greek thinking you may remember from high school. Folks like Plato & Socrates, both of whom separated “spirit” (good) from “matter” (bad). That’s all worth noting because the church today, in 2014, is still forgetting what it means to be Jewish and being more influenced by Plato than Moses: we have erroneously thought that eternal life is all about a disembodied soul floating in heaven. Nope. That’s not the NT hope. Resurrection of the body is the hope. What happened to Jesus’ good body on Easter will happen to ours.
But the second reason why all those early church folks tried to prevent Songfrom getting a library card and then tried to re-read it is even more important: all these people – Hippolytus, Const, Origen and others – were MEN. Males. X Chromosome. Hombres. Gibrones. Dudes. And of all the scandals in this book, the most scandalous, I say, is the role of the woman. In a time when women did not have rights, could not own property because they WERE property, were not supposed to have opinions in the first place, much less express them . . . the woman at the center of this opera is scandalously assertive and overtly in charge. It’s clear she does not see the act of sexual intimacy as an obligation, but does see it as an act of desire. And that she enters into this dance on – GASP – equal footing with her husband in a world in which such an outlook was inconceivable.
Let me show you what I mean. Take a look at 1:2-5:
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.
Well, right there, she is the aggressor (and perfume really mattered then as they bathed on an annual basis). Then look at 1:9-11:
I liken you, my darling, to a mare
among Pharaoh’s chariot horses.
(Now, evidently, this was a great compliment in ancient times, to compare your wife to a mare. Guys, please don’t call your wife a horse tonight and expect anything good to happen . . . )
10 Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings,
your neck with strings of jewels.
11 We will make you earrings of gold,
studded with silver.
So he returns the desire, NOT by ordering, not by demanding, but by pleading and pleasing. This at a time, again, when women were owned and ordered, not woo’d and won. Then there is the explicit OT / NT reference again (yeah right!) in 1:13:
My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh
resting between my breasts.
And the conversation continues with the back and forth of 1:15-16:
15 How beautiful you are, my darling!
Oh, how beautiful!
Your eyes are doves.
16 How handsome you are, my beloved!
Oh, how charming!
And our bed is verdant.
The back and forth of EQUALS is astounding, shocking, unparalleled and if you were a man in ancient times it’s no wonder you wanted this Son out of the bible altogether or misread in its entirety. This was at a time when husbands were expected to do little more than grunt, point and say if you don’t I will divorce you, I will sell you, I will beat you, I will pass you off as my sister, I will kill you.
And the whole pattern culminates with these shocking words of 2:16:
My beloved is mine and I am his;
he browses among the lilies.
What?! “He is mine.” Every man reading or hearing that in ancient times would have been like “No he’s not! He should point and grunt and get what he wants when he wants it. You are there to serve him.” But yet 2:16 drowns out the male chauvinism there. So underlying this scandalous book sexual honesty is the perhaps greater scandal that the sexes are equal. In fact, the woman speaks/sings 53% of the words in the book! For all we know, she wrote it! I put all that together – the sexual honesty, the scandalous equality, and I realize this, husbands & wives, singles & singles again: The sex can only have intimacy if the sexes have equality. If any part of you in your marriage – or if you are not married I hope you are saving that precious, private thing of yourself for the marriage bed – wants a more fulfilling sexual experience, you might want to check your understanding of gender roles first.
Is she there to serve you? Is he there to be manipulated by you? Is she weaker than you? Is he dumber than you? Do you subtly or not-so-subtly put yourself “over” your mate? Ah, the whole NT is so done with “over” and so about “alongside.” And I’m asking all these pointed questions because while the concept underlying Song is not as scandalous today as it was in ancient times, I believe it is still an issue, particularly in church land, especially in the bedroom. I remember that many years ago I had to do some “reparative” counseling with a woman who had been told by a previous pastor in pre-marital counseling that Eph 5 mean that every time her husband “wanted it” she had to submit. That marriage, for obvious reasons, did not work out, and her bitterness against the mis-use of the bible and pastors who mis-use it! settled in and settled deep.
Or even the well-intentioned guy did a devotion series for high schoolers called: Jesus: A Man’s Man. Huh? And you saw the attitude of his wife and you knew this guy WAS, unfortunately, practicing what he preached. Or even those pastors we trained in another country who asked us in all sincerity if as Xn pastors if it was OK to strike their wives if she disagreed with him. Wow. And it comes from this mindset of hierarchy, “over,” inequality.
And lest you think it’s all about the men, here, women are not immune. Selfish sex is rooted in a distorted understanding of gender roles: the man as collectorand the woman as manipulator. Think about it: a lot of guys are encouraged to collect sexual encounters – the old “notch in the belt” theory. Even those who choose monogamy still have a collecting mentality in terms of sheer numbers. And women, who often have some leverage as the desired object, withhold, negotiate, barter. Neither sees the other as equal! And for some of you the power struggle in your marriage or the demises of your previous marriage or even – GULP! – difs in your dating relationships just SNAPPED into focus. I regard her as weaker! Weaker! I think of him as one I can control! He’s not as smart as I am! Neither outlook honors God; both cause problems in the bedroom. The sex can only have intimacy if the sexes have equality.
It’s why the push for scandalous equality starts early and starts outside the bedroom. Guys who are dating someone right now: if you want to see how she is going to treat you, listen to her talk to her brothers. That will give you an indication. Ladies: if you are in the reverse place and wondering about your future with this guy, listen to him talk to his sister or his mother. Is he dismissive? Disrespectful? Does he ever say “the wife”? Oh, those patterns are hard to break. Bleh. And in marriage, this so applies to rearing kids. Resist the temptation to undermine; to play “good parent / bad parent.” I know our kids learned early and well that they could not play one off against the other – the fail at it once or twice and they don’t try it anymore. Unified front in parenting signifies a unified front in the bedroom. The sex can only have intimacy if the sexes have equality.
And what is so great about the Song is the garden imagery that surrounds the encounter of the man and woman. Look at 1:7 and 1:16-17 for starters:
Tell me, you whom I love,
where you graze your flock
and where you rest your sheep at midday.
Why should I be like a veiled woman
beside the flocks of your friends?
How handsome you are, my beloved!
Oh, how charming!
And our bed is verdant.
17 The beams of our house are cedars;
our rafters are firs.
And that’s a pattern throughout the book – husband and wife outdoors (maybe away from the sinister influence of Solomon the woman collector!) and in intimacy. Well, what does that make you think of? Right! The Garden of Eden! BEFORE THE FALL! We think of the story as only something that happens after the fruit, after the fall, after the banishment, after chapter 3 and with battle of the sexes in place. But The Song (and its Jewish readers!) know that the purpose is to return husbands and wives back to the intimacy, innocence, and equality of Gen 1 & 2! Where they were “naked and not ashamed”! Where they were made in the image of God and look how Gen 1:27 describes THAT:
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Breathtaking! Scandalous equality is embedded in the image of God! Point, grunt, demand? No way! Praise, Gasp, Adore!
See, in the complementary nature of heterosexual intimacy, we get to take part in what it means to be made in God’s image. We get to mirror how God interacts within himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, full of generosity, giving, and completely devoid of selfishness or hierarchy. The Trinity has incredible equality in the midst of its mind-boggling diversity. And get this: the Song Of Songs can ONLY point us to that “symbolic meaning” – you know, the one Origen and others wanted as the only interpretation allowed – if it first is literal. Yeah, when this opera means what it means – that there is something beautiful and not shameful about husbands and wives naked and unashamed . . . only then can it point to a higher love.
I just pray the marrieds in this place have a great week of reflecting the self-giving, scandalously equal love of the Trinity and the beauty of what happened in the Garden.
And I’m pretty glad the book finally got its library card and we get to celebrate it together.