Valentine’s Day beckons, our annual corporate celebration of eros, despite the fact we married folk can each celebrate our anniversaries without having to make single people feel left out. But we’re always willing to sacrifice for what we exalt most and in our culture few things are more exalted than eros. So, we sacrifice the feelings of the single. We contrarians may be tempted to react by decrying eros but the Bible, in its hundreds of pages, has a brief little book, about 0.6% of its pages, really a song, exalting eros: the Song of Solomon.
Immediately, we Christians start fighting on how to interpret it. Platonic philosophy, which pervaded Western culture, encourages an allegorical interpretation. It assumes that the body, and so sex, is degrading, at least unspiritual. So, in the Western church, the approach to sex is first to hush, then to blush, and then to bash. Without the assumptions of Platonism, Asian Christianity sees it differently. While living in Singapore I was tutoring two Korean seminary students in English. Once they asked me: ‘What’s the word for a woman with large breasts?’ Now, besides some slang, there is a proper word: buxom. But I knew that if I just taught them that word that they could very well come to America and greet some woman with, “You’re very buxom.” I didn’t want to be responsible for the slap that would ensue. So, I said, “Just don’t mention it.” They looked at each other puzzled and said, “Why? It’s natural.” “Yes, I know, but don’t mention it.”
In Western society, for centuries, Christians assumed that the Song couldn’t possibly mean what it appears to mean. So, for example, the “rose of Sharon, a lily among the valleys” was Christ Himself whom we are to desire. It sounds so pious. Who wants to argue with it? The problem, first, that’s not what the original author intended. Second, reading it allegorically is arbitrary. Christians say it’s about Jesus’s love for the church while Jews say its Yahweh’s love for Israel and individualists say it’s God’s love for them. Each little thing mentioned, each body part, they say, is symbolic for this or that. But who’s to say? It’s based on nothing other than the feelings of a sentimental interpreter.
In our highly sexualized culture, others have swung to the opposite extreme, so far as to interpret the Song as a sex manual, with, for example, 1:16-17 – “Our couch is green the beams of our house are cedar; our rafters are pine” – giving specific instructions on how you should decorate your bedroom – with cedar and pine. (By the way, they’re in a forest, that’s why their “couch” is green and their “house” is made of cedar and pine; they’re sitting on grass and looking up at trees.) The problem with the sex manual approach is obvious: who writes an instruction manual in poetry? Wouldn’t you be irritated if you got an instruction manual, like on how to assemble a bicycle, and it was written in poetry, with rhymes and symbolic terms? The fact is the Song of Solomon is not all about sex. It’s much bigger than that. It’s about the relationship in which sex is found; what C. S. Lewis calls “eros,” romantic love. In its celebration of eros, it reveals eight truths for your love life.
First, love is affirming; that is, it makes you feel prized, wanted, appreciated. The woman says, about herself, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys” (2:1.) That’s how this relationship makes her feel about herself. We see why, “As a lily among brambles, so is my love among the young women” (2:2.) He’s saying about her, ‘You’re like a flower, a lily, compared to the rest of women who are, at least to me, like thorns. You’re the rose in this rose bush.’ And she responds, “As an apple among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men” (2:3.) Most trees in a forest aren’t much good; they only produce leaves or pine needles. ‘Ah, but then, to me, you’re like an apple tree, fruitful; you have what I want.’ If, instead of that, a woman is made to feel, ‘I’m fat, I’m stupid, I can’t do anything right and I’m just lucky he will put up with me,’ that’s the sign of a bad relationship. That’s not love because love is affirming.
Second, love is specific. The lovers speak of “whom my soul loves” (3:4.) She’s not looking for just any man; she’s looking for that one specific one, the one her soul loves. C. S. Lewis wrote, “Eros makes a man really want, not a woman but one particular woman.”
Third, love is a family affair. She wants to bring her man home to mother (3:4). Contrary to so much romantic fiction, all the way back to Romeo and Juliet, ideally love wants to include the family. Only a bad guy wants to take a woman out of a good social network, isolate her from family, friends, and church. Real love will want to keep you close to good families.
Fourth, wait a minute. If you’re single, you don’t need tips on a love life. What seems a bolt out of the blue in this exaltation of eros three times in the Song is sprinkled the warning, “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (2:7; 3:5; 8:4.) In the midst of the celebration of love is a warning, interspersed in the Song, to the single people who are beginning to long for what the Song is about. (This is decisive evidence against the allegorical interpretation because the Bible isn’t going to warn us against stirring up love for the Lord before its time.) Be warned against the dangers of eros for the same reason we warn against the dangers of electricity. Don’t turn on the power in your home until it’s ready for it. Eros seems so inviting, the single are tempted to crave someone – anyone. But then this comes like a slap in the face: don’t awaken those desires. “I adjure you,” in other words, I make you swear; it’s important enough to make you take an oath to not arouse needs for eros until the time is right, when you are mature enough, in the right situation in life with the right amount of time, with the right person to love. Don’t feed those feelings until you’re ready. Don’t stoke your desires with romance novels, love songs, rom-coms, day-dreams and plans of that great relationship, pining for a Valentine. If you’re single, don’t read bridal magazines and plan your wedding. That kind of pining makes you vulnerable to the first person who comes along who looks like he or she can play the role.
The exaltation of eros in our culture, celebrated on Valentine’s Day, creates desperate youth who make finding it their priority, always playing the boy-friend/girl-friend, dating game, jumping at the first opportunity when they think they may have found love. So, they’ll give sex for it, change their beliefs for it, leave their family, lose friends and think they’ve made a profitable exchange because they’ve been stirring up their craving for eros. Instead, the single Christian should stir up his or her love for the Lord and dampen the fires of eros. “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, he would be utterly despised” (8:7.) That’s why you should not start that fire until you’re ready for it, otherwise you’ll be burned. It’s worth waiting for. So, wait.
Fifth, love is marital. Notice the term, “my bride” (six times from 4:8 to 5:1). They are married! That makes the Song different from so much Hollywood romance in which the action occurs outside of marriage. Here, this love has brought them into a commitment they dream of lasting until death do them part. C. S. Lewis wrote, “To be in love is both to intend and to promise life-long fidelity.” Someone who doesn’t have that intent has no love.
Sixth, love is sexual. “His left hand is under my head and his right hand embraces me!” (2:6.) That’s not symbolic for anything. Love wants to touch; it revels in an embrace. That’s why younger, unmarried couples need to be advised to hurry up and get married so they can touch all they want; sometimes older couples need to be reminded, touch. Don’t keep your hands to yourself! From 4:11 to 5:1, things start to get hot. There’s a building sensuality, with lips and honey and milk. The bride is a garden locked (4:12), that is, she is (or was) a virgin, until now that she’s married. That chastity is celebrated. She was a “spring locked, a fountain sealed,” in other words, no man got to enjoy the pleasures she offered until now that she’s married. Now he is enjoying those pleasures (4:11-16). Ah, there’s all kinds of pleasing aromas, refreshment like from a spring of fresh water and then . . . .
Here’s the great irony about the debate on how to interpret the Song of Solomon. Some say it has to be allegorical, symbolic language used to describe spiritual truths. They say that because they assume no truly inspired book would exalt sex, even just 0.6% of it. But it’s not usually allegorical. It’s mostly symbolic. There’s a difference. When he writes, in poetic comparisons that may seem strange to us, even funny sometimes, that her eyes are like doves, hair like a flock of goats, teeth like shorn ewes, and on and on, he means to praise her beauty (4:1ff.) He’s using analogies, not allegories. But, ironically, in 4:16 and 5:1, it is allegorical. The allegory is of sex itself, the thing the allegorizers think it can’t be about. “Let my beloved come to his garden.” The language is allegorical because they are not really gardening.
I’ll say it again for the Platonists in the back. Love is sexual. People sometimes need to be told this. I know of young women, getting married at 18, who are shocked that their wedding night included sex. No one told them. Sometimes married couples suffer for years with some kind of sexual dysfunction because they won’t talk about it. Serious marital problems, even affairs and divorce, happen because one partner decides the marriage won’t be sexual anymore and the other doesn’t know how to talk about it. Christians haven’t always been so afraid to talk about sex. In my doctoral research I found a Puritan church in which a wife took before the whole congregation the problem of a husband who was not having sex enough for her. That’s Puritanism.
Seventh, love is public. All through the Song of Solomon there are the “others,” a chorus, speaking up, encouraging the man and the woman to love. They are for this relationship. At the end, with the couple now safely in love, married, they mention another young girl coming along. They have a little sister (8:8.) Now this community wants to care for her. “If she is a wall,” that is, she is virtuous and wise, then we’ll help her, “we will build on her battlements of silver.” Is she’s a door, that is, easy to take advantage of; not necessarily immoral only that she’s vulnerable to seduction, taken in by the cute guy with smooth talk? Then the community around her will “enclose her with boards of cedar” (8:9). That is, the community will supply what she lacks in wisdom to preserve her purity. Of course, for that to work, she (or he) has to be committed to listen. If there’s no such commitment or no community, then we can’t protect someone from themselves when temptations come hot and heavy.
When my wife and I were dating in seminary in California, the elders of her church in Singapore sent a professor they knew at the seminary to talk to her, to make sure she was ok. They eventually asked her to come back to Singapore, leaving me in California. She obeyed. She was accountable. She knew they weren’t trying to deprive her of something good. About a year later those same elders performed our wedding. Love is public.
In our age, Christianity’s greatest rival may not be Islam or even materialism but eroticism, now meaning the love of sexual pleasure. Even more powerful than naked eroticism is the whole apparatus of apparent “love” it often comes in, eros exalted as a god. For that, nothing can be denied. It is to be honored unconditionally, obeyed without reservation. Depriving someone of eros is the cruelest barbarity, we think. The worst crime today, our culture imagines, is telling someone that their “love” is forbidden. Even the Lord Himself, some churches clumsily imply, exists to maintain this god, eros. Song of Solomon sermon series are popular, because they help us see how God serves eros. Eros over all. The tragic irony is that as great as eros is, it drives us to promise what eros itself cannot deliver. Romantic love makes us want to give something that it is not capable of making us give. It drives us to give our lives, to commit to death do us part. But it doesn’t enable us to fulfill those vows. Despite all the failed marriages in our day, people still want to get married. They’re “in love” and theirs will last, they believe with all their heart, in the trite phrase “until the stars grow cold.” What they lack is not eros. They have plenty of that. But it is famously fickle. It’s not that eros is bad. It’s simply not enough. It needs to be a jewel in a setting of untarnishable gold that holds it solidly in place: that steadfast love that God has, that covenant love in Ruth, on that road from Moab, where one (non-romantic) lover pledged to another, “where you go, I will go.” Now, for us, it is in the cross that we find a covenant love that is sturdy enough to hold our fleeting loves in place.
Romantic love is a great thing. But it’s not the greatest of things. Without the greater thing of God’s covenant love, eros becomes a god, a cruel god and then a demon. That’s the tragic irony of those who stoke the fire of that “love” while lacking the steadfast love that can hold it in place. In the end, they don’t get any kind of love. They just get burned. Instead, stir up and pursue the greater love of – and love for – the Lord. The greatest love is not found at the marriage altar (or bed) but, still, at the cross.