‘Continuing well when married’,
Song of Songs, 6:11 – end of Song of Songs chapter 8. August 23rd 2020.
Lord, before your eyes, everything is uncovered and laid bare: speak your word – living and active – let it penetrate our souls and spirits: Examine our thoughts, and by your Holy Spirit renew the attitudes of our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Your Marriage is in a mess, Pete Greig. Pete Greig, July 8th, facebook update on him and Sammy
“Look, you might as well face it: your marriage is a mess by now.” An elder statesman of the American church had fixed me with his piercing blue eyes and I was trying my best not to look offended.
“There’s no doubt about it,” he was staring deep into my soul, “You guys will have more problems with miscommunication and misunderstanding than you can possibly know right now.”
Today Sammy and I take off on a marriage retreat as a direct result of this conversation. We’ll be off simply investing into the most important relationship of our lives.
We’ve been married for 26 years which is longer than either of us had been alive when first we met. Two sons. Three dogs. Three church plants. Seven homes. More than our fair share of laughter and tears. And it’s not that we have a bad marriage. In fact, I think we’ve got a pretty good one. Not perfect. But hey, we’re still married, still serving the Lord, and still in love.
The conversation with the blue eyed American took place last year, just before our 25th wedding anniversary. He’s been married for almost fifty years so I was asking his advice on celebrating our silver jubilee and preparing for empty-nesting.
Gently but forcefully he explained that after a quarter century we will inevitably have fallen into bad habits. “And then there’s child-raising,” he laughed. “I mean, it’s constant firefighting right? There’s simply no perfect way of parenting and no pain-free way too. It starts with sleep-deprivation. You worry about things you never worried about before. You get good at adapting to constant change. Inevitably you resort to short-cuts. You develop certain ways of acting and reacting. They start as mere coping mechanisms but because they work you keep doing them and so they become habits. Your neural pathways re-route. They become part of you. Part of your marriage.”
I was nodding a little too enthusiastically as he said all of this. Fighting a desire to change the subject or crack a joke. Wanting someone to point out to the American stranger what a magnificent, world-class couple Sammy and I actually are, what Olympian role-models, what exceptional parents, what titans of domestic bliss. Wanting those piercing blue eyes to stop sweeping my soul.
“Thing is,” he continued, “eventually your kids leave home and you’re left staring at your spouse through two decades of filter. That’s a lot of excess baggage. Thinking this is just the way we are. This is the best we can ever be. Your dysfunctions have been internalized and normalized and accommodated.”
I knew it was true. We’d resigned ourselves to bickering. Got a bit too good at coping, making do, merely muddling through. “So what do we do?” I asked a little helplessly.
“You have to reboot,” he said, smiling kindly. “Get off-grid. Detox and rediscover one another. Relearn some old habits. Otherwise you will just kinda slide into this next season of life without resetting the dial after the shock and awe of holding down a job and raising a young family.”
He described how he had done this with his wife. They went to a log cabin in the middle of nowhere. No work. No screens. No one else. After about two weeks his wife turned to him with a funny expression and said “Oh, I remember you!” She’d got him back. He was getting himself back. They were getting their marriage back, ready for the next leg of the journey.
There’s a moment in that lovely old movie ‘Hook’ which haunts me as we begin our marriage retreat (a week this year, and our first full sabbatical in 2021). One of the Lost Boys from Neverland approaches Peter Pan, played by Robin Williams, who has become old. Gently the boy pulls back the creases on Peter’s face, until his eyes become soft and the corners of his mouth seem to smile. Suddenly the Lost Boy lets out a little yelp of delight: “Oh there you are, Peter!”
The Song of Songs ends with a duet. He says – ‘You who dwell in the gardens and with friends in attendance, let me hear your voice.’ She says: Come away my lover, and be like a gazelle, or like a young stag.’ Strange ending. For some writers on this book, they don’t like it. It feels open ended. It is. But consider this. If you accept the flow of the book – the couple meet, fall in love, the decision to become engaged, then the wedding, the wedding night / honeymoon, then the final verses are about later in their marriage. These closing words are their attitudes as married folk. What the direction or intention will be for the coming 10, 25 years… We can say – it all feels familiar, especially what she says about him being like a gazelle and stag. Yes, she said these words in chapter 2 when they were going out. Why end with it? Perhaps simply. The romance is still there. It is open ended, suggesting the marriage isn’t about romance, then marriage, and then maintenance, but romance is to be, can be an experience throughout the majority of marriage. The last chapters of Song of Song are asking – what is our next step as a married couple, what direction do we want to go in, aware more fully of God’s vision for marriage,
Before focusing more on the passage, until now, in these sermons, we have not shared about how this love poem has been interpreted. Song of Songs has traditionally been interpreted in two main ways. One is literal. It is a clear, forthright, Holy Spirit inspired set of words disclosing God’s delight in a married couple’s delight in one another, both in their romantic feelings, and in their physical sexual relationship. This one we have followed.
It has also been interpreted – as many of you know – as figurative, an allegory – of the love which God has for his people Israel. Christian writers, from the early centuries, often saw the Song of Songs, as an illustration of the relationship between Jesus – the bride groom – and his people, the Bride. In the Middle Ages, the Song of Songs was a favourite text of the Christian mystics – these men and women interpreted the entire Book as a call for greater passion for Jesus. Bernard of Clairveux for example of the c12th, preached 86 sermons on this book. In the c18th and c19th centuries, this book was used in teaching about revival. Revd John Bonar – ‘when revival comes the church hears the voice of the Lord, the winters are past, the summer has come…’ Jonathan Edwards compared the new sudden conversions of revival to faith in Jesus, as being like spring – the sudden appearance of flowers after the rains. ‘Arise my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me’, Christ, comes to his church, in the power and person of the Spirit, with an invitation of revival, for the Church to come alive again after a time of winter, of barrenness.
What approach to reading of Song of Songs resonates with you?
We focus upon our verses.
The husband gives a list of beautiful compliments to his beloved. It is similar to the wedding night in chapter 4. The description this time is from her feet upwards – as if he is saying to his wife: ‘From the soles of your feet to the top of your head you are wonderful.’ In fact, this description is even more intimate than on their wedding night. Perhaps the reason for his description is more than spontaneous, he wants to remind her, of that first night they came together in intimate embrace; he emphasizes that nothing has changed since the hurt / the wound / disappointment of chapter 5. He says: ‘’How beautiful you are and how pleasing my love, with your delights!.’’
He finishes by saying: May ‘’the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine.’’ These descriptions invoke the senses of smell, taste; he earlier compares her to a tree and says he will climb and take hold of the fruit – touch… he describes what he sees, and in other places, he describes what he hears, saying ‘Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet’.
All five senses are used. In times of intimacy – what are the place of the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch), in the expression of verbal loving making?
‘I belong to my beloved and his desire is for me.’ They have security in each other. In his passionate desire for her, she finds also security. She is the One. She knows it. His eyes are fixed firmly on her, and on no one else – past or present.
The word ‘desire’ is only used in two other places. Genesis 3 – ‘your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you.’ Genesis 4 – where God speaks saying sin desires to control Cain. These references point to our fallen nature , how it seeks to dominate for selfish ends. Here the lady welcomes the desire. She knows he does not seek to dominate her, that he is giving, not selfish. What can male desire look like? What does the love of a husband look like: ‘’love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy…’’ A little later, ‘to feed and care just as Christ does the Church’. As men we consider, how did Christ love the Church – is my desire, the way I express myself physically in the relationship, as well as how I act in general as a husband, does I reflect increasingly the model of Christ?
‘If only you were like a brother to me! Then if I found you outside I would kiss you and no one would despise me’ It was not done, in ancient Israel, for women to express their love in public, not even between husband and wife. That’s why she wishes she was his sister, so she could kiss him publically every time she wanted and wherever.
But she knows it is not the done thing. She knows the importance of self control. She’s not forgotten her good wise upbringing from her parents esp her mother, who taught her. This phrase ‘she who has taught me’ reminds us of our responsibility as parents to teach, to help our children in relationships and courtship / engagement. To pass on the wisdom, share the mistakes – if possible – to be willing to chat about stuff, including sex, and not leave it to everyone else or hoping school, university or friends do it. ‘’Remember, sexual purity and sexual innocence is not the same thing. Our role isn’t to keep our children in a state of innocence (innocence which could quickly become ignorance), but to equip them to make positive, responsible and godly decisions.’’ (Rachael Gardner).
8:6-7. True Love.
One of the most famous passages in the poem. It is often included in weddings, merged with verses from chapter 2. It is very appropriate to have read at a wedding. However, consider our setting. In the light of marriage, with the past of hurts, of knowing each other much more than when engaged, these words are said. As if she and he says: now knowing all that I do… let our love be like this!
Set me as a seal on your heart – the place of his affections. Seal on your arm – the symbol of his strength. A seal was a sign of ownership that can be seen by anyone. It could be a ring or on a cord hanging around the neck. She wants it to be obvious that she is totally ‘owned’ by him, that she in no way, belongs to any other. This is about an exclusive relationship between the man and woman. She belongs to her alone, he will love her – heart – he will protect her – arm.
True love is as strong as death, death which overpowers all, jealous as the grave – the grave calls all. Love will not let go. True love is unquenchable as a blazing fire. This may be translated as ‘like the very flame of the Lord’, so it may be the only place where God is mentioned. Fire is associated with God – the fire on Mount Sinai, the pillar of fire that led the Israelites at night as they left Egypt. The pillar of fire was always there, it gave light in times of darkness, it moved to protect the people when the Egyptians approached. True love – is ever present, casting light when the beloved is in darkness, protecting when threatened. Many waters cannot quench love, rivers cannot sweep it away. Stronger than the floods of Israel after the rains. And more costly than anything in the world. Like Paul would later say: love never ends.
8:8-10 The right time.
It is not just love and sex that go together. Sex also goes together with long term commitment in marriage. We keep our expression of physical love for the right time. We may be asked the question, how far is too far? But that can assume sex is the destination for two people, not about a union between two people. Sex, in the eyes of the bible, is a life uniting act, with a life uniting intention. The life uniting intention is shown by marriage alone. Two becoming one flesh. It is possible to see sex as a commodity we can use , than a gift we receive. Yet we all are sexual beings, we have urges and desires and need help or advice how to live with well in a God honouring way. Wise people we can talk to are important. In this case, our lady remembers her family.
A loving caring family guided their young sister from a misuse of sex. Her brothers encouraged her to keep her body only for the one she was to marry. Until that time, she had two choices. To be a wall. Resisting all approaches of fast or false love; to wait; or to be a door, to allow any person to go through her defences and lose her virginity before God’s timing. She remained a wall. She looks back, glad she remained so…
These words – towers, enclose her, protection. It brings to our mind, tragically where the young are not protected and have been caught in human trafficking and sex slavery. Many prostitutes – not all – but many in Western Europe, are trafficked women, forced into sexual slavery by gangs, often far from their home countries. (Youthwork Magazine, February 2009) They dreamed of a life like Song of Songs. Yet it has been taken from them. To know more about the work to free men and women in sex slavery, check out the work of IJM. We enjoy this song, but.we pray for those who were not able and have had it taken away from them.
What is Song of Songs about? It creates awareness, shows God’s direction and intentions, shows us, our next steps as couples going forward – or going back perhaps, as Pete describes. Marriage was part of God’s intention in the Garden of Eden, marriage, sex, children, all part of that original plan. The Song of Songs casts vision – how your marriage, my marriage, how marriage can be full of life… Jesus says he came to bring ‘fullness of life’, he does not mean, life only within Christian ministry, holiness and spiritual knowledge, but across the entirety of life. Song of Songs casts for me, a vision, of what a relationship, then a marriage, to the full looks like. It is like Jesus ministry – the kingdom is here – we see him demonstrate it, show it – and it is not yet. We may focus on how our marriage is, yet the Song of Songs I believe lifts our eyes to how it can be.
Shall we pray:
Lord, we thank you for this piece of Scripture. It stirs in us your vision for marriages, for relationships.
We ask, that where we, as couples, have settled for something lower, help us to lift our eyes to the vision you have for marriage when you created it. Pour your Spirit afresh into our lives our marriages.
Where we know friends, relatives, work colleagues struggle in their relationships, help us, to help them become all you would love their marriages to be.
Thank you for the gift of sex, of marriage, of companionship. Amen.