Solomon's Song of Love
Each day before school, I gather my children for Bible time. I read a short passage from the Bible and then ask them some questions based on it. When I began preparing for this sermon series in the spring of 2010, I read through a number of commentaries. One morning at breakfast Evelyn, my six-year-old at the time, came up to me and asked, “What are you reading?” I said, “A commentary. It’s a book that talks about the Bible.” Now, in this commentary there was a verse indented from the rest of the text. Evelyn pointed to that verse and said, “Why don’t we just read that verse for Bible time?” It was Song of Solomon 1:4, as translated by Richard S. Hess, the commentator. Here’s part of Hess’s translation:
We will indeed rejoice and be happy for you.
We will indeed recall your lovemaking more than wine.1
I told Evelyn we would read something else.
Afterward I was just glad she didn’t approach me the day before when I was reading Ariel and Chana Bloch’s translation of Song of Solomon 1:2:
Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses!2
It’s hard to explain to my six-year-old daughter how the two things that I will do my best in the next decade to teach her to avoid—kissing boys and comparing such kissing to alcoholic consumption—made it into God’s Holy Word, and that they are fitting for our Bible time as a church, but not her Bible time as a child.
In this study, as we move from the tame title—“The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s” (Song of Solomon 1:1)—into the titillating text of Song of Solomon 1:2-4, I want you to note that there is “no gradual acclimation” into this Song’s theme.3 The Song does not warm us up to the ideas ahead. Instead it’s a baptism by fire. Twentieth-century film director Sam Goldwyn once suggested that “for a successful film you need to start with an earthquake and then work up to the climax!”4 Well, here’s an earthquake of eros.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! (Song of Solomon 1:2)
That’s how it starts! Rupert of Deutz (c. 1075–1129), the medieval Benedictine monk, wrote concerning this verse: “What means this cry, so loud, so startling?”5 Charles Simeon (1759–1836), the famous vicar of Holy Trinity Church Cambridge, said, “The abruptness with which the poem opens is very remarkable.”6 Indeed it was so very remarkable that first-century Jewish rabbis warned the young men of their congregations not to read the Song until they turned thirty. And Christian preacher Adam Clarke counseled pastors, saying, “I advise all young preachers to avoid preaching on Solomon’s Song.”7 This is indeed a delicate and dangerous portion of Scripture. And left to the immature imagination or a godless guide, these inspired words, which were written to make us wise unto salvation—to teach, correct, rebuke, and train us in righteousness (and in love!)—could have the opposite effect.
Yes, what a way to start! It’s an earthquake of eros. But it’s also a “beginning without a beginning,” as Bernard of Clairvaux put it.8 That is, we are introduced to this theme of physical love, but we are not told about the love story. Who is speaking? Who is her man? What is their history? Are they married?
All this is intentional. It’s not that their love story is unimportant; rather it’s that the tone of their love is of primary importance. We will get bits and pieces of their story as the Song unfolds, but here we start with a full-blown flame, a tone that we’re to touch. The earth is shaking. The house is on fire. She wants to be kissed—“Let him kiss me” (Song of Solomon 1:2)—and she gets more than just his lips: “The king has brought me into his chambers” (Song of Solomon 1:4). And then this short opening scene ends with the choir of virgins rising and singing, “We will exult and rejoice . . . in your love,” or as Hess puts it, “in your lovemaking.” There you have it. Welcome to the Song of Songs. It’s the hottest book in the Bible.
What Is the Poetry Doing?
John Milton said that true poetry is “simple, sensuous, and passionate.”9 If so, the Song is certainly true poetry. And this opening poem (Song of Solomon 1:2-4) is true poetry indeed! In what follows, let me explain this true poem and then attempt to truly apply it.
The poem begins with a woman’s voice. Thus the ESV, like many translations, places “SHE” above Song of Solomon 1:2-4 and then “OTHERS” above Song of Solomon 1:4. We know it is a woman talking about a man from the gender of the words used—“Let him kiss me with . . . his mouth.” The speaker of Song of Solomon 1:2-4 later describes herself with the feminine adjectives in Song of Solomon 1:5, confirming that it is a woman talking about her man.
This woman, about whom we will learn more in the next study, is the main speaker throughout this Song—though we never learn quite as much about her as we would like. (There is poetic intention to the vague character descriptions: This woman and man represent every woman and every man who have ever been in love;10 if you say too much about a character, you limit his or her appeal to a broader audience. This couple appeals to all.) She speaks 53 percent of the time, the man 34 percent, and the others, including the “daughters of Jerusalem,” 13 percent of the time.11 Thus David Hubbard rightly calls her “the star of the Song.”12
This star begins her first solo with a provocative plea. This ancient woman boldly invites intimacy. She is neither passive nor weak; she is neither silent nor shy. Colorfully and with unbridled expression, she voices her longings and sheer delight in the joyful prospect of the wedding night experience. She wants to be kissed, “and not just a formal peck on the cheek from cold,” apathetic lips,13 but a kiss that is warm and long and loving (and perhaps not limited to her lips!).14 “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” (Song of Solomon 1:2).
The sequence of the verb “kiss” with the noun “kisses” provides a nice poetic effect, but the context provides clarity as to what kind of kiss she wants. This is not a kiss of honor for a king (“you may kiss my ring”), or a kiss of peace for a fellow believer (the “greet one another with a holy kiss” of the New Testament), or a kiss of friendship or familial affection (“Oh, Aunt Gertrude, so good to see you”). This is a romantic kiss.15 This is the climax of the wedding celebration—“You may kiss your bride”—where the first public kiss turns into many private kisses that continue into the bridal chamber and onto the wedding bed and on through the wedding night.
Next, she moves from his lips to his love. She wants to be kissed, not merely because his kissing is so great, but because his love is so great: “For your love [not, your kiss] is better than wine” (Song of Solomon 1:2). With this metaphor of wine she stays very tactile. His love is like something you can touch and taste and smell. Wine is something sweet and aromatic, and the overall effect is intoxicating. That’s what his love is like.
However, unlike other poetry, she does not employ this metaphor of wine (mentioned seven times in this Song)16 merely because it connotes intoxication. An Egyptian love song from 1300 b.c. says,
I kiss her,
her lips open,
and I am drunk
without a beer.17
More recently, Pablo Neruda wrote,
Drunk as drunk on turpentine
From your open kisses.18
Instead of drunkenness, she uses the metaphor of wine to connote pleasure. In the Bible, wine often symbolizes pleasure or the greatest earthly delights, as in Psalms 104:15 where wine is said to “gladden the heart of man,” or Judges 9:13, where “wine,” we learn, “cheers God and men.”19 Jesus first manifested his glory by turning water to wine at a wedding (John 2:1-11); and he showed humanity the joy that he alone can bring to earth, a joy we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper, our “love feast” of bread and wine (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34), and a joy we will celebrate eternally at the Messianic banquet, where the finest wine will never run out.
In Song of Solomon 1:3 she continues her praise by moving from a physical description to a nonphysical one, as she did in Song of Solomon 1:2, from the way he smells (“your anointing oils are fragrant”) to his character (“your name is oil poured out; therefore virgins love you”). Sexual attraction, as perfume companies well know, comes as often through our noses as through our eyes. Her lover would have worn perfumes to mask his natural body odor. So the oils of the perfume and the oils of his body likely produced a scent that was uniquely his, a scent that now represents his very person.
When my wife is gone and I’m sleeping alone, I have on occasion rolled over onto her pillow and given it a whiff because her pillow has her smell, which I like. Sometimes in secret, as I’m picking out clothes to wear for Sunday morning, I lift one of her dresses to my nose and take it all in. That’s my Emily. I love her smell.
Now, let’s move past my strange smelling obsessions, as this young woman does her lover’s smell. Beyond this physical, sensuous attraction, she is likewise attracted by the fragrance of her lover’s name. In the Bible, one’s name represents one’s character (e.g., 1 Samuel 25:25; Ruth 4:14). We are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit (Matthew 28:19), and there is no other name than Jesus under Heaven given among men by which we must be saved (see Acts 4:11-12). What she is saying here is that his name—his fine reputation and noble character—is irresistibly attractive to her.
So the physical fragrance of his perfume and the metaphorical fragrance of his character overwhelm her. Thus she continues her plea:
Draw me after you; let us run.
The king has brought me into his chambers. (Song of Solomon 1:4)
Her refrain throughout this Song is to wait for love. Three times she addresses her virgin bridesmaids, “[Do] not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (Song of Solomon 2:7; Song of Solomon 3:5; Song of Solomon 8:4). But she has waited all her life for this moment—for her wedding day; thus, she is now justifiably impatient. Now is the time for her to arouse and awaken love.
However, note that as much as she has been aggressive—“kiss me . . . draw me”—she hasn’t reversed traditional gender roles. She asks the man to come and kiss her and whisk her away.20 There is actually a beautiful give and take. She is not like the leading ladies in today’s movies. She doesn’t pull his tie and kiss him deeply. No, she pulls his tie and says, “Kiss me deeply.” Then she waits willingly for him to come and carry her into his chambers, the bridal chambers, his bedroom (1 Kings 1:15; cf. Judges 15:1; Joel 2:16). Yes, it’s like the old picture of the groom lifting his bride over the threshold into their new house, kicking the door closed with his foot.
As we move to the final lines of this opening poem, I want you to notice some of the subtle poetic details. For example, see how she shifts from addressing her lover in the third person to addressing him in the second—“him” has turned into “you.” This occurs in the middle of Song of Solomon 1:2 and remains until Song of Solomon 1:4. This slight grammatical alteration, a common device found in Hebrew poetry,21 is used to enhance the intimacy of the scene, an intimacy that grows with each verse.
She begins, “Let him kiss me.” That sounds far off, as if she is calling out from her balcony. Then she says “your”—“your love . . . your anointing oils . . . your name.” He is close enough to hear her. But then . . . then he’s there! You “draw me after you.” You take me away. Has he climbed up to her? Who knows? Who cares? She doesn’t. You are here!
So we move from “him” to “your,” then to “you.” Finally, we move from third person (him) to second person (you) to first person plural: “Let us run.” The two have become one. And then grammatically (isn’t grammar fun?), Song of Solomon 1:4 creates some distance by switching back to third person—“the king.” This final switch, however, I suggest is the most intimate verse yet. I say that because of what she says: “The king has brought me into his chambers.” She calls her lover a “king.” She will describe him as a shepherd in 1:7. He could be a king and a shepherd literally, like King David. But it is more likely that he is a shepherd literally and a “king” metaphorically.22 “He is her king,”23 her “triumphant king.”24 In other words, she reaches for an image to adorn his honor, worth, and greatness in her eyes. King? Yes that will do.
In the Orthodox Church today, the bride and groom are called “king” and “queen” for their wedding day. I remember attending a wedding of a childhood friend, and the Orthodox priest placed a crown upon the groom’s head, and then all the men surrounded him and congratulated him as king. King for a day! It’s a wonderful, Bible-based tradition.
To her, he is a king. And to her their first night together is majestic. It has a royal righteousness about it. She is not whisked away by some joker at a singles bar to some cheap motel or the backseat of an old Buick. Rather, she is taken captive by the king and brought into his private chambers.25 There the lights dim, the dark curtains close, the scene ends, and the kissing with the kisses of the mouth begins. It is the ideal wedding night.
The only thing left is for the choir to sing. And that they do. Announcing their approval, boasting of their blessing, the voices of the virgins fills the air: “We will exult and rejoice in you” (Song of Solomon 1:4). Yes, your man is right for you. Yes, your time for pleasure is now. Yes, your love, in your own words, dear bride, is better than wine.
What Are We to Do?
So that’s what the poetry is doing. I hope you understand it and feel it. I hope you get close enough to feel the flame. Now we turn from the question, what is the poetry doing? to the question, what are we to do? In other words, how do we apply this ancient Hebrew poem to our contemporary American lives? Below are four applications.
Desire Is Not Demonic
The first application is this: desire is not demonic. Or if you’d like: Eros is not evil. Pick whichever alliteration you like better. That is, this desire for sexual intimacy expressed here so obviously is not only natural but can be (should be) naturally good.
When God created the world he said, “It is good . . . good . . . good . . . good . . . good . . . good” (Genesis 1:4-25). And when he created the pinnacle of his creation—human beings made of flesh and bones and with desires for intimacy—he said, “It is very good” (Genesis 1:31). Although we are now fallen creatures and cover our bodies in shame (as we should), and our natural desires can so easily be distorted and debased (contrast 1 Corinthians 7:9 with 1 Corinthians 7:37), there is still something very good about this natural desire for intimacy.
However, we must be careful. Our desires are dangerous. Ask Tiger Woods. Ask Bill Clinton. Ask Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ted Haggard. This is why we are warned throughout Scripture that we must battle against immorality and that giving in to sexual desires outside of the covenant of marriage is evil, what Paul calls “the works of the flesh [the sinful nature]” (Galatians 5:19), such as fornication (sex before marriage), adultery (sex with someone other than your spouse), and homosexuality (sex with a person of the same gender as you). Eros alone is not evil, but eros outside of God’s ethics is. Thus, Christians are repeatedly told in the New Testament to “put to death . . . whatever is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion [i.e., lust], evil desire”; and we are told to do so because of God’s judgment: “On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:5-6; cf. Hebrews 12:16). It is natural to desire, but don’t let the natural neutralize the ethical. We are to glorify God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20), and glorifying God means playing by his rules.
The Bible doesn’t deny strong sexual desires before marriage and in marriage. It acknowledges them, warns of their potential danger, but also rejoices in their right expression. And that’s what we have here. In this passage, intimacy within marriage is received with thanksgiving, as all of God’s created gifts should be (see 1 Timothy 4:4). Here right love is rightly exalted. Here desire and the fulfillment of that desire are celebrated.
So, desire is dangerous but not demonic.
Let me add one disclaimer to this first point of application. Desire is natural, and the consummation of that desire in marriage is good, but it is not necessary. People have died falling from ladders. People have died by being stung by a swarm of killer bees. People have died for lack of food and water. But no one has died for lack of sex.
I’m not denying that we are sexual beings, but I am denying the myth that to be truly human is to be sexually active. While it’s true that the human race would go the way of the woolly mammoth or the stilt-legged llama without sex, you individually would not. This is an important point. It’s important because the most fulfilled human being ever—our Lord Jesus Christ—lived without it. And so did John the Baptist and many of Jesus’ followers who came after him. Jesus was and is a virgin. That’s an important reality to remind ourselves of today and every day.
Thus when considering eschatological realities—the kingdom of God being at hand and soon to come in full glory (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)—Paul writes that it is “even better” if one remains unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:38). He says earlier that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9), but it is “even better” to be so gospel centered that sex is not only unnecessary but also undesirable when compared to one’s devotion to the Lord.
For all of us the lesson is this: putting Christ and his kingdom first means putting sex second or third or fiftieth; and for those gifted with singleness, putting God’s kingdom first means sex never. Jesus is celibate. And Jesus celebrates the celibate, those who have, in his words, “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12). He celebrates celibacy. And so should we.26
Character and Chemistry Both Matter in the Matters of Love
The second application is that character and chemistry both matter in the matters of love. In our text we see two reasons why she loves him. The first reason is his character. She esteems his name. He is a king to her. She respects him, and so do her friends. His good reputation has spread like perfume. Both verses 3 and 4 say that the virgins “love” him. In other words, they highly approve. They aren’t saying to themselves, “What does she see in him?” No, they see the same character traits she sees.
The second reason she loves him is their chemistry. He loves her (Song of Solomon 1:2), and she likes that he loves her. This is the first time this persistent theme in the Song is made. Throughout the Song, their touches and talks (and teases!) are filled with chemistry.
Both character and chemistry matter in the matters of love. Know that. Apply that. To marry someone who lacks character—“but she’s so stunningly beautiful,” or “he’s so filthy rich”—is just stupid. Don’t be stupid. Young ladies, you are to look for a man who now emulates the characteristics of the godly husband in Scripture: a man who is “understanding” (1 Peter 3:7), “not . . . harsh” (Colossians 3:19), sacrificially loving like Christ (Ephesians 5:25-28), and able to lead and nourish you in your faith (Ephesians 5:23-29).27 Young men, you are to look for a woman who now emulates the characteristics of the godly wife: a woman who has a submissive spirit (Colossians 3:18; Ephesians 5:22-24; 1 Peter 3:1-6), is pure in conduct (1 Peter 3:2), and values the internal “beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” more than external beauty (1 Peter 3:3-4).
So, character counts, but so also does chemistry. When looking for the right person to marry we should ask: “Is his/her character commendable?” But we should also ask, “How do I feel about him/her?” When William Smith, a pastor in Alabama, interviews couples wishing to marry, before he addresses their readiness to sustain a lifelong commitment, he first asks, “Do you love each other with Song of Solomon love?”28 That is, are there “hot emotions, physical desire and rich romance” in your relationship?29 That’s what the Bible is asking here in an indirect way. You see, Jane Austen wasn’t the first to bring to the world’s attention that one shouldn’t marry for convenience, economic security, or social advancement. The Bible teaches that same truth here, and even as early as Genesis it depicts a love-struck Jacob who will work fourteen years for beautiful-eyed Rachel. The Bible is not against chemistry, as we call it: two people marry because they romantically love each other. Although it might be true that covenant loyalty and godly character are listed above chemistry, chemistry is listed nevertheless. It’s listed, in my reading of the broad Scriptural witness of what it means to love another person, a close third. So don’t dismiss it in the matters of love.
That First Flame Need Not Fizzle
The third application is that that first flame of desire (which is depicted colorfully here) need not (ought not!) die out after the honeymoon. Put more succinctly: that first flame need not fizzle.
Often when I meet one-on-one with the men of my church—“Mondays with a Man,” is what I call it—I will ask the married men, “Do you love your wife?” I have yet to have a man fold his arms and say, “No.” Thus far everyone has said, “Yes.” And that “yes” is simply the “yes” of commitment. Yes, I love her enough not to divorce her and to stay faithful to her. Now, the man can mean more than that, but he certainly (and thankfully so) at least means that. He loves her. Love equals commitment.
But then sometimes I will follow up with a second question: “Do you like her?” Those who have a healthy and enjoyable marriage will often laugh and say, “Of course. Yes, I like my wife very much.” But those who are struggling in their marriage—whether they have been struggling for a long or short time, over a major or minor issue—won’t laugh. Instead they’ll open up. They’ll share—“Recently things haven’t been that great”—and on they go.
I have yet to add a third question (one I think is based on this text): “Do you desire your wife?” The American Puritan poet Edward Taylor described his desire for his wife as “a golden ball of pure fire.”30 (Oh, so puritanical!) Husband, does your love for your wife burn like a golden ball of pure fire? That’s my new question.
Do you desire your spouse? If so, thank God for that gift. If not, I’ll give you three steps to renew your marital intimacy. The first step is to pray. Ask God, who is in the business of changing hard hearts, to soften yours and your spouse’s.
I came across a wonderful poem by Steve Scafidi called “Prayer for a Marriage,” in which the poet talks about him and his wife kissing on their wedding day, and he prays that the desire they shared then will not fade—“from the wild first surprising [kisses] to the lower dizzy ten thousand infinitely slower ones.” He ends, “and I hope while we stand there in the kitchen [later in life] making tea and kissing, the whistle of the teapot wakes the neighbors.”31 Pray for your marriage. Pray for desire. Pray for prolonged kissing in the kitchen.
My second step is to remember. Remember what fueled that first flame.
The other night when my wife and I were lying in bed, I reached over and placed Emily’s hand in mine. I then shared with her how the first time I reached over and grabbed her hand (when we were dating) was the most wonderful physical sensation I have ever experienced. Honestly. And she said, “I know what you mean.” She then added, “You’re crushing my hand.” And I was, I was holding it so tightly.
That short recollection (and the laugh about me crushing her hand) brought us closer together. We desired each other more. After that, to continue the playful mood, I asked her, “So, am I the best kisser you’ve ever known?” (She has never kissed anyone but me—that’s why I asked.) She responded, “You are the best kisser I’ve known . . . and the worst.” (Another good laugh . . . for her, and maybe for you.)
Step one—pray (ask for God’s help); step two—remember (recall old times; ask your spouse today why he/she first loved you); and step three—understand (grasp that desire follows love). That’s what is in our text. She wants to be kissed (she desires him) because/“for” (Song of Solomon 1:2) he loves her. Start loving each other.
Men, especially, take the lead and start loving your wife. I tell Emily that when I desire her physically, “It’s my way of saying, ‘I love you.’” She will then say to me, “Hmm, no, when you discipline the kids, wash the dishes, or pick up after yourself—when you sacrifice for me—then I know you love me . . . and then I desire you.” Men require twenty-four seconds of foreplay, women twenty-four hours. But how healthy! If we men never had to learn to love, we would never be desirable to our wives.
In his book Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God, C. J. Mahaney gives a memorable word to men on this point. He writes, “Before you touch her body, touch her heart and mind.”32 Isn’t that great? (The wives reading this are nodding.) Before you touch her body, touch her heart and mind. Husbands, do you ever study your wife the way you did when you were trying to win her? Do you know what pleases her, excites her, honors her, encourages her, refreshes her, and helps her?33 Do you spend any time during the week thinking about what she might like—a weekly date (that you plan), a daily phone call, a spontaneous love letter, a gift of clothing, jewelry, a book, a vacation, or two hours free from the kids?34
Pray (step one), remember (step two), and understand (step three)—these three steps will keep that first flame aflame.
Our final application is an application to all Christians, and it has to do with our desire for Christ: Just as your desire for intimacy with your spouse is a reliable indicator of your marital health, so too your desire for intimacy with Christ is a reliable indicator of your spiritual health.
Here I’m not making a connection with Christ by means of allegory—that when the bride sings of kissing, it is the Church singing of its spiritual union with the King of kings or whatever. I’m merely making a thematic connection, which is done throughout Scripture when the topic of marriage is addressed. In Ephesians 5, for example, when Paul is talking about husbands and wives, he naturally moves from that theme to the theme of the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32). And he doesn’t even explain the shift. He just shifts, assuming his readers are saturated enough with the Bible to grasp the shift. The same happens in Hebrews 1:8-9, where the author quotes Psalms 45:6-7—a wedding poem—drawing reference to Jesus as the divine representation of the Davidic king. So, within the canon of Scripture, one should not think of marriage without thinking of Christ, and this is because marriage was always intended to point to him.
Our desire for Christ is a good indication of the health of our relationship. We are saved by faith alone in Christ alone. But genuine faith has its effects on our affections. Those who are in Christ, not always (all the time) but often (most of the time), desire him. It’s our overall disposition. I’ll put it this way, the way Jesus puts it: there is a greater love for Christ than anyone or anything else (see Matthew 10:37; 1 Corinthians 16:22). So, if you can pant as Paul does in Philippians 1:23 as he speaks of his “desire . . . to depart and be with Christ,” or as Bernard of Clairvaux phrased it, “Jesus, the very thought of thee with sweetness fills the breast; but sweeter far thy face to see, and in thy presence rest,” then thank God. Thank God for those God-given affections. That’s what we all want and need. But if you are struggling to desire the divine Bridegroom, then I offer some free marital counseling: the same three steps in reverse order.
Step one: Understand. Understand that desire follows love. Here, of course, the roles are reversed. As his bride we lose our desire for Christ, but not because he’s a bad husband. There is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend, and Jesus has laid down his life for friends and enemies alike. The bride is to blame here. We are to blame.
The barrier to intimacy with Christ is sin. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Since we sin and don’t obey his commandments perfectly, this is evidence that we don’t love and desire him the way we should. If a husband comes to me and says, “My wife and I are having difficulties lately; oh, by the way, I’m having an affair.” What! I will counsel him, “Stop the affair!” Yes, Christians, stop having affairs with the world. You don’t desire Christ because you’re not living for Christ. You’re cheating on him spiritually. You’re denying him as Lord. Each time you indulge in this or that sinful activity, you are saying, “I do not love Christ. I do not desire intimacy.”
Step two: Remember. This is what we do when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. We remember what Jesus has done for us. It is important to remember both the benefits of Christ’s death and how God has worked in the past so we can love, trust, and desire him in the present. Psalms 73 is a wonderful example of this. In that Psalm, the psalmist is at first envious of the arrogant. Why do the bad guys get off scot-free? And why do they prosper? But then he remembers God’s justice in the past, which leads him to trust God in the present for future vindication. Once he grasps this, he ends by saying,
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
If you want to desire Christ more, remember his person and his works.
Step three: Pray. Fittingly, John Piper begins his book When I Don’t Desire God with these words: “I hope you will not be offended if I open this book by praying for you. There is a reason. When all is said and done, only God can create joy in God.”35 Yes, only God can create desire for God. So, if you have lost your first love (see Revelation 2:4), pray for it. Pray 1 Peter 1:8, that “though you have not seen him, you [would] love him.” Or pray Psalms 51:12: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” Or pray one of the great hymns of the faith, such as Augustus Toplady’s “Compared with Christ, in All Besides”:
The sense of thy expiring love
Into my soul convey;
Thyself bestow, for thee alone,
My all in all, I pray.36
Or pray the words of that old Keith Green chorus, lyrics linguistically and thematically fitting to end on:
My eyes are dry
My faith is old
My heart is hard
My prayers are cold
And I know how I ought to be
Alive to You and dead to me.
But what can be done
For an old heart like mine
Soften it up
With oil and wine
The oil is You, Your Spirit of love
Please wash me anew
With the wine of Your Blood.37
1. Richard S. Hess, Song of Songs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), p. 52.
2. Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1995).
3. Hess, Song of Songs, p. 50.
4. Gary Brady, Heavenly Love: The Song of Songs Simply Explained, Welwyn Commentary Series (Darlington, UK: Evangelical, 2006), p. 28.
5. Richard A. Norris Jr., trans. and ed., The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, gen. ed. Robert Louis Wilken (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 24.
6. Charles Simeon, “Canticles,” Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible, 21 vols. (repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1956), 7:421.
7. Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments: The text printed from the most correct copies of the present authorized translation, including the marginal readings and parallel texts with a commentary and critical notes, Vol. 3 (New York: Azor Hoyt, Printer, 1828), p. 610.
8. Bernard, quoted in Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 89.
9. Milton, quoted in T. J. Meek, H. T. Kerr, and H. T. Kerr Jr., The Song of Songs, The Interpreter’s Bible (New York and Nashville: Abingdon, 1956), p. 99.
10. As Longman notes, “The characters of the Song are not specific. That is, the woman is not a particular woman but stands for all women. The same may be said for the man. These characters are developed intentionally in a nonspecific way since they are not reporting about a particular couple. These poems invite later readers to place themselves in the position of the woman and the man. In this way, the Song is similar to the book of Psalms, where the reader is implicitly encouraged to put him or herself in the place of the first person speaker” (Song of Songs, p. 91).
11. Athalya Brenner shows that the woman’s voice constitutes 53 percent of the text, the man’s 34 percent, the chorus 6 percent, and headings and dubious cases 7 percent. The Israelite Woman: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative (Sheffield, UK: JSOT, 1985), pp. 46–50.
12. David A. Hubbard, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, The Communicator’s Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1991), p. 275.
13. Tom Gledhill, The Message of the Song of Songs, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), p. 94.
14. Duane Garrett says, “Of course, the man’s kisses may reach other parts of the woman’s body as well, and the language suggests that Song of Songs will explore their sexual relationship” (“Song of Songs,” in Duane Garrett and Paul R. House, Song of Songs/Lamentations, Word Biblical Commentary [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004], p. 129).
15. Michael V. Fox states that a kiss with the mouth was “the most intimate and sensual kiss” (The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Song [Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985], p. 97).
16. Unlike Proverbs, in which we have warnings about wine (Proverbs 23:29-35; Proverbs 31:4-5), here in the Song wine is always viewed positively (Song of Solomon 1:2-4; Song of Solomon 2:4 [margin]; Song of Solomon 4:10; Song of Solomon 5:1; Song of Solomon 7:9; Song of Solomon 8:2).
17. Cairo Love Songs, group A, no. 20G. W. K. Simpson, trans., The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry, ed. W. K. Simpson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973), p. 311.
18. Pablo Neruda, “Drunk as Drunk,” in Love Poems, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, ed. Peter Washington (New York: Knopf, 1995), p. 109.
19. See also the Jewish sage Ben Sira of Jerusalem (early second century b.c.): “What is life to one who is without wine?” (Sirach 31:27); “Wine and music gladden the heart, but the love of [lovers] is better than either” (40:20).
20. Many commentators, even those who are not purely allegorists, see Yahweh’s drawing power in verse 4. While it is true that the same verb is used of the drawing/dragging strength of divine love in the Old Testament (see Hosea 11:4; Jeremiah 31:2), note that the subject of this verse is the bride, not the groom. She asks to be drawn away, which is slightly different from God, who without provocation tenderly beckons his people to follow.
22. While “shepherd” is used as a metaphor for “king” in the Bible, only two of the sixteen uses of the word “shepherd” from Genesis through Ecclesiastes reference royalty. In 2 Samuel 5:2 (which is the same as 1 Chronicles 11:2) “shepherd” is paralleled with “prince.”
23. Gledhill, The Message of the Song of Songs, p. 96.
24. Othmar Keel, Song of Songs, trans. Frederick J. Gaiser, A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), p. 45.
25. I agree with Longman when he writes, “It is verses like these that render attempts to build a narrative out of the Song, climaxing (poetically and sexually) at the end of the fourth chapter, so wrong-minded” (Song of Songs, p. 93).
26. For an excellent treatment on this theme, see Barry Danylak, Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).
27. For a good illustration of what to look for in a future husband, see Elisabeth Elliot’s description of Jim Elliot in Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life under Christ’s Control (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 1984), pp. 32–34.
28. Brady, Heavenly Love, p. 33.
31. Steve Scafidi, “Prayer for a Marriage,” Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), p. 55.
32. C. J. Mahaney, Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God: What Every Christian Husband Needs to Know (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), p. 27.
33. Ibid., p. 28.
34. See especially ibid., pp. 37–46.
35. John Piper, When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), p. 9.
36. The lyrics to this hymn are worth quoting in full:
Compared with Christ, in all beside
No comeliness I see;
The one thing needful, dearest Lord,
Is to be one with thee.
The sense of thy expiring love
Into my soul convey;
Thyself bestow, for thee alone,
My all in all, I pray.
Loved of God, for him again
With love intense I’d burn;
Chosen of thee ere time began,
I choose thee in return.
37. Keith Gordon Green, “My Eyes Are Dry,” The Ministry Years, Vol. 1 (Sparrow Records, 1998), emphasis mine.
Taken from The Song of Solomon: An Invitation to Intimacy by Douglas Sean O'Donnell. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
While this biblical text has been subject to a broader range of interpretation probably than any other book in the Bible, Wisdom Literature expert Doug O’Donnell offers this comprehensible guide to help uncoil its complexities and solve its riddles. He explores the poetry, themes, and wisdom of this song from a Christocentric perspective, and gives us a profound, rich, and witty reflection that encourages right thinking and behavior.