Your body needs to be held and to hold, to be touched and to touch. None of these needs is to be despised, denied, or repressed. But you have to keep searching for your body’s deeper need, the need for genuine love. Every time you are able to go beyond the body’s superficial desires for love, you are bringing your body home. Henri Nouwen
Convergence (the industry buzzword for that different technologies — mobile phones, cameras, radios, email, Internet access and more — can be combined in a single device) appears to be far less successful when applied to personal relationships! Friendships are vital for wellbeing. It is possible and beneficial to have many close friendships; maintaining many sexual relationships tends to cause serious problems!
Jesus never married and often spent long periods of time alone to pray (Luke 5:16; ! Matt. 14:22—23), was nevertheless close to his disciples, particularly Peter, James and John, and had other friends such as Lazarus, and Martha —Mary Magdalene. Paul, another long-term single, had close friends and travelling companions in his work: Tychicus, Timothy, Epaphroditus, and many others in the churches he planted around the Roman Empire.
Of all the occasions when the church and individuals are told to ‘love’ in the NT, the sense is never sexual. In biblical terms, it turns out that there is far more to love than just sex. 1 Corinthians 13, 1 John 4:7-21; John 13:34—3 5.
‘A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing…’ (Ps. 68:5-6).
The assumption is that what the widow needs is a defender, not a husband. When the widow asks Elijah for help in 1 Kings 17, his solution is not to find her another husband, but to ensure continued financial provision. How would that story have ended if it had been written today? Probably in the same way that Bridget Jones’s Diary did, along with a thousand other books and films: with the lonely, unfulfilled single blissfully pairing off. The lonely do not merely need a partner, but a family.
Family as the basic unit of society is assumed in the Old Testament. Proverbs, however, recognizes that friendship is sometimes of as great or even greater importance than family.
‘A man of [many] friends may be destroyed, but there is a friend [literally ‘one loving"] who sticks closer than a brother’ (Prov 18:24).
And ‘Do not go to your brother’s house when disaster strikes you – better a neighbour nearby than a brother far away’ (Prov 27:10).
Jesus made it clear that family was important (Mark 7:9-13), but that other relationships and concerns could be of even greater importance (Mark 3:31—35).
So friendship, fellowship with both God and other believers, and family all feature as priorities, but not sex. Coming from a mentality that assumes that romantic relationship is better than singleness and that everyone who is not ‘in a relationship’ wishes to be (or else, has something wrong with them), it is easy to devalue singles. The Bible does not equate love or relationship with sex, but neither does it separate sex from relationship. Sexual relationship is one part — an important part, but only a part — of God’s relational plan for us. It is not his only solution to loneliness, or even his first. This may seem an obvious point, but it is a perspective that still needs stating as it can be one that our culture barely permits us to hold (Ps. 68:5-6; 1 Kings 17; Prov. 18:24, Prov. 27:10). In Acts 2:42—47, the picture we have of the early church seems to be something like a warm extended family. To enjoy the same kind of fellowship with and support from other Christians that we do with our closest friends and family is a great challenge for us today.
The text is so marvellously alive, that any comment will appear to be very pedestrian. Beautiful poems can too often be reduced to dust and ashes by dry academic analysis. But, for the purposes of our exposition, we can divide the poem quite naturally into the girl’s eager anticipation (verses 8-9) and the boy’s urgent invitation (verses 10-14).
1. The fear of leaving (SS 2:8-13)
The domestic scene represents safety, security, the acceptance of society’s norms and conventions. But it can speak of dullness and decay and of drab conformity, of a prison within which free spirits are confined. The barriers between these two types of existence are dramatically and forcefully represented by the wall, the windows and the lattice. She must penetrate these obstacles in order to join her lover, not just physically but emotionally and psychologically. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.’
2. The fear of nakedness (SS 2:14) Face = lit form.
Nakedness in the Old Testament is nearly always associated with shame, humiliation and degradation. Our real selves are more fully expressed by our outer clothing, which expresses our personality more than nudity ever can. The Apostle Paul, speaking in the completely different context of the Christian’s resurrection body, writes of this desire, ‘Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked … because we do not wish to be unclothed, but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.’
Foxes are guileful creatures in ancient fable and folklore. But here, their threat seems to be minimized. They are little foxes, playful creatures that romp wantonly through the vineyards destroying the blossom. What then is all this about? Conscious of the attraction that her feminine charms hold for all young men, she is reminding her lover that there may be others who may be tempted to mount a fox raid on her vineyards that are in bloom, and that he had better show a bit of masculine chivalry towards her. Not that there is any hint of possible unfaithfulness or promiscuity here.
But after the uncertain teasing of 2:14-15 we return to a reaffirmation of the fundamental theme of the Song – the mutual belonging of the lovers. In any relationship that is secure at its most fundamental level, there is always room for teasing, for play, for frolicking adventure; also there is always the possibility of nagging insecurities, of doubts, of longings for deeper levels of intimacy, or fear of loss. But for now, all hesitations are gone, and the girl reaffirms in verse 16 the depth of their mutual belonging. He belongs to her just as much as she belongs to him. They own, they possess each other.
Their relationship is totally symmetrical. The whole of each belongs, and is available to the whole of the other. As Pau
l says of the marriage relationship:
‘The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone, but also to his wife."
But here in the Song we are not just talking about bodies. Their bodily sharing is an expression of their mutual love and loyalty, of their determination to treat each other as whole persons. This reciprocity, this mutuality is something that shines out from the Song, something of a protest against the male dominance and macho-masculinity which sin brought into the world.
Here, our culture’s obsession with sex is utterly unhelpful. The Song of Songs repeatedly warns, ‘do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires’ (2:7; 5:3; 8:4) — but the media does exactly that in the name of entertainment and advertising.
Although the Song of Songs addresses the ‘daughters of Jerusalem’, it is men who are disproportionately susceptible and therefore targeted by this kind of visual temptation. In 1 Corinthians 7:9 Paul writes that it ‘is better to marry than to burn with passion’ – a condition that was apparently leading the Corinthians into sexual immorality. Given that our environment is almost as sexually saturated as was theirs, we can hardly expect a different outcome.
However, ours also has the problem of a decreasing marriage rate, while the age at first marriage is rising — from 24 for men and 22 for women in 1970 to 31 and 29 respectively in 2003, a seven-year shift in the marriage age over just three decades. Marriage is not the solution that people are seeking.
As if a concession to this, the likelihood of cohabiting before marriage also rises with age of first marriage — from 19% and 23% for 20- to 24-year-old men and women respectively to 63% and 59% for 3 5 – to 39-year olds.
How should Christians respond to this trend? Should we encourage people to marry younger? If so, how do we keep those marriages together, given that very early marriage, particularly teenage marriage, increases the likelihood of divorce later?
And how do we tackle some of the practical issues that underlie the decision to postpone marriage — increased time in full-time education, student debt and lack of job stability?
Prolonged absence can play havoc with our emotional stability. It is only partially true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. The coals which blazed so brightly when together, may so easily smoulder and be extinguished when forced apart and left alone. The longer the absence, the greater the scope for fantasizing about the relationship. And the imaginations of the heart and mind may not correspond to the actual reality in the flesh when the lovers reunite. Similarly, the absence gives free reign to fear of loss, to jealousy, to insecurity. What is my partner doing now, who is benefitting from his attentions, is he being enticed away, or lured into more immediate relationships? Absence without reassurance can give way to speculative doubts. Are we right for each other? Are we compatible? We rationalize our fears, we counteract them because we cannot bear the possibility of being wrong, the pain of rejection, the loss of self-respect brought about by discovering that we have made mistakes, that we have fooled ourselves for too long.
Separation also gives room for thought, for reflection and contemplation. The girl in our Song takes the initiative to resolve the impasse of her uncertainty. To live too long in uncertainty is debilitating, and needs as far as is possible a stroke of initiative to resolve it. The girl’s initiative here is irrational. But love is a brand of madness. Not that it just makes us do irrational things, but love is a madness of the soul. It so disorients our senses, our rationality, it so takes possession of our hearts and minds, that all else is carried before it in its flood. Its tide is unstoppable, its fire unquenchable (8:6-7). The onset of love, of ‘being in love’ is entering a whole new dimension of existence. The lovers feel as though they had never lived at all before they met each other.
So the ambiguity of the language indicates the ambiguity of human responses. She wants him; she does not want him. This is a tension which every one of us feels. We dislike dependency, yet we cannot do without it; we long for its succour, but wish that things might be otherwise. What strange creatures we are! We want to be free, yet we want to possess and be possessed. We want to maintain independence, yet the loneliness of independence drives us to the desire for intimacy. And intimacy in turn leads us to the ‘chains of love’. Any actual relationship will have to be a compromise. It is possible to suffocate our partners by an overwhelming desire for an unhealthy intimacy, by a cloying togetherness which stunts any development of different interests, and we limp along, leaning on each other as psychological and emotional crutches. Alternatively we can each go our own separate ways, with barely a meeting of minds, let alone bodies. But the adventure of courtship, both within and outside marriage, entails the ability to be flexible enough to cope with these tensions. There is some truth in the saying that only those who have learned to live with the responsible freedom and independence of singleness are qualified to cope with the togetherness and mutual dependency of marriage.
From the text:
1. In SofS 2:15, what is the significance of foxes? What impact can small sins have on a marriage?
Hint: A family of foxes, over a long time, can destroy the roots of the vines and ruin a vineyard.
2. In SofS 3:1-4, why did the woman seek the man here? Is there anything wrong with the women taking the initiative in the relationship? Does Ruth 3:7 help?
3. In SofS 2:7, 3:5 and 8:4, why should people not stir up love until it pleases? What practical steps can be taken to ensure that we ‘do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires’?
Hint: One should not try to rush someone to sexual maturity, sexual intimacy, or a marriage commitment.
Beyond the text:
1. Do you think that the Song undermines the gender stereotypes of our modern society?
2. What degrees of intimacy are appropriate for particular stages in a developing relationship?
3. Are sexual fantasies always an indication of lust?
4. How far may we articulate to our spouses the particular intimacies which we find most pleasurable?
5. When does our desire for intimacy degenerate into a selfish desire for sexual gratification?