Friday, January 5, 2001

GET WISDOM: Lesson 11: Lessons of Love: A Tale of Two Beds (Song of Sol 3)

Address 11: Lessons of Love: A Tale of Two Beds (Song of Solomon 3)


So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

It would be strange indeed if God’s Wisdom did not have any lessons to teach on one of the central realities of life, lessons of Love. Indeed we saw in an earlier address that Wisdom herself is cast as a woman summoning young men into her school so that they might avoid the wiles of the Sex Worker. Is it not reasonable that She would teach these young men – and women, I might add – how to be good lovers?

One book in the Bible insures that we do not forget love. It is the Song of Solomon, also called the Song of Songs because it is a collection of love songs. Many Jews and Christians over the centuries have not figured out where to place this book in the canon of Scripture. Some Christians have allegorized its message to refer to Christ’s love for his people, as if it were a prophecy. They sometimes say that Christian love, agape love, is something totally different from the common sense of sex or desire.

It is true that the modern Western notion of love has been narrowed often to mean merely sex, but it is a mistake to divorce the biblical view of love from its physical and psychological base in the desire of a man for a woman and a woman for a man. Equally, it is a mistake to interpret the Song of Songs outside its plain sense, as a song of two lovers who are about to consummate their love in marriage.

I have subtitled this address on chapter 3 “A Tale of Two Beds” because the image of the bed occurs throughout the passage (in verses 1, 7, and 9). The chapter is divided into two tales or verbal portraits (verses 1-5 and 6-11), each with its own lesson. The first tale portrays a young woman who is love-sick and longing for union with her lover. We’ll call this the picture of longing love. The second portrait is of this same woman’s wedding day as bride of King Solomon. We’ll call this the picture of luxuriating love. Let’s take a closer look at each of these portraits.

Scholars do not know the exact customs of Hebrew courtship and marriage, but it seems likely that the young woman who speaks in this passage is engaged. The kwanjula is already past. She already knows who her future life partner will be. They are not yet married. They are still courting. Courtship, finding your future husband or wife, is an exciting time of life. All of the senses are aroused to the new and strange world of love and sexual power. But it is also a profoundly anxious time as well. Just as the body goes through major hormonal changes we call puberty, so the soul goes through the adjustment from being a child to being an adult, from being a single individual to becoming one flesh as husband and wife.

So we must picture this bride-to-be tossing and turning on her bed.

Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer. (verse 1)

One of the things lovers need to learn to do is to say over and over again, “I love you” (at least that is true in my culture). It is not enough to assume “I said it once, why do I need to say it again?” This young woman’s suitor has already said some very nice things to her, but she is still unsure of him: I sought him, but found him not. This diffidence continues into marriage, I might add, because elements of courtship remain even after the marriage is consummated. When St. Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives,” one of the ways you do this, husbands, is simply to speak words of love to your wife. We know God loves us, but what if we did not read it day after day in Scripture. Our hearts would grow doubtful or forgetful. So whatever your cultural way of saying “I love you” is, don’t neglect to do so.

The woman’s anxiety leads her into the city late at night.

"I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves."
I sought him, but found him not.
The watchmen found me, as they went about in the city.
"Have you seen him whom my soul loves?" (verses 2-3)

Now if one imagines this city as a place like Kampala, this is “high-risk” behaviour. The woman could be robbed or raped or killed. Indeed even the “policemen” she meets are not necessarily friendly. In a later passage, these same watchmen beat the lady up (5:7). Nevertheless it is a fact that love takes risks. How does a woman really know the man she marries? How does she know whether he will be kind or brutish? Generous or stingy? Sober or a drunkard? How can she really foresee her future as a wife and mother? Yet for all the risks involved, her natural instinct to love compels her out into the world, seeking the one whom she will set her heart upon.

Another element of longing love is that it is subject to violent mood swings. In verse 4, the woman swings from fear and danger to joyful discovery and possessive passion.

Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
until I had brought him into my mother's house,
and into the chamber of her that conceived me. (verse 4)

Love, we learn from this passage, is a matter of “find and seek.” I realize cultures vary on how they experience this truth. In some societies, this phase of courtship occurs within an arranged marriage. In the West, it has preceded marriage. I can remember vividly my feelings when I first focused on my beloved, who is now my wife. I was quite young, some years away from marriage, but I said to myself: “This is the one. There will be no other. I want her and her alone. There is no turning back.” It was a kind of “born-again” experience, and I have never been the same since. So also the woman here says: I held him and would not let him go

until I had brought him into my mother's house. This verse is difficult to interpret. It may refer to some formality of the engagement process to be concluded at the mother’s house. On the other hand, the language may involve a euphemism for the woman’s womb – her “mothering chamber.” The Song of Songs has been a controversial book because, among all the books of the Bible, it speaks most openly about sexuality and erotic love. The woman is expressing in this passage a strong desire to be physically united to her lover.

At the same time, she is expressing the physical urge to become a mother. This too is a lesson of love which men have to learn: that women’s sexuality in particular is bound up with the context of childbearing and childrearing. Women are not naturally sex workers, I am convinced; it is men – or society – that thrust them into that role. The present attractiveness of a young woman, in my view, is intimately connected with a future image of her as Madonna, as mother with child.

If the woman is drawing the man to herself in sexual fulfillment, she is aware also that this act awaits the right time. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes, looking back over his career, reflects on the fact that “there is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” (Ecclesiastes 3:5). The lovers are right at that transition point from sexual chastity to sexual activity, and the woman recognizes how powerful and dangerous such a moment can be when she tells her friends:

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the hinds of the field,
that you stir not up nor awaken love until it please. (verse 5b)

One of the truly sad and sick “lessons” of Western media culture is the idea that when boy meets girl and they are zapped by passion, it follows naturally that they will jump into bed together. This is a degenerate idea of love, the product of an “instant gratification” culture. In my opinion, when the maiden bed is collapsed upon the marriage bed, couples end up wallowing on the floor. We need both the allurements of the Song of Songs and the warnings of the Law. If the Ten Commandments teach that sex outside marriage is immoral and thus true love must wait, the Song of Songs teaches us that sex inside marriage is wonderful and that true love is worth waiting for.

So we pass now from the maiden bed to the marriage bed, from longing love to what I am calling luxuriating love. The following verses describe the wedding day of the woman and her lover.

Who is that coming up from the wilderness,
like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,
with all the fragrant powders of the merchant?
Behold, the bed of Solomon!
About it are sixty mighty men of the mighty men of Israel,
all girt with swords and expert in war,
each with his sword at his thigh, against alarms by night.
King Solomon made himself a royal couch from the wood of Lebanon.
He made its posts of silver, its back of gold, its seat of purple;
it was lovingly wrought within by the daughters of Jerusalem. (verses 6-10)

While it is possible that the husband in this passage is the historical King Solomon, I think it better to understand the verse as referring to an ordinary couple on a royal occasion – their Wedding. On this one day the Bride is the Queen of Sheba, emerging from the mirages of the desert with a caravan of attendants bearing all manner of spices and perfumes. The Bridegroom is King for a day, accompanied by his stalwart worthies, festooned in their spit-and-polish finery. When the man and the woman for the first time enter the bridal chamber, they have no less to enjoy than King Solomon and any one of his seven hundred wives. In fact, they have more to celebrate, for theirs is the beginning of an exclusive love that will only end at death. They may now luxuriate in each other’s total presence – body and soul united for the first time.

The transition from singleness to marriage is, God willing, a once-for-all event in the life of the couple, and they invite the entire community to luxuriate with them. The wine of gladness must not run out. So the woman boasts to her bridesmaids:

Go forth, O daughters of Zion, and behold King Solomon,
with the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding,
on the day of the gladness of his heart. (verse 11)

What a wonderful gift God has given in love and marriage! According to the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Every wedding must be an occasion of joy that human beings can do such great things, that they have been given such an immense freedom and power to take the helm in their life’s journey.” The wizened king of the book of Ecclesiastes notes that enjoying life with one’s wife is the earthly way God has provided to deal with death (Ecclesiastes 9:9), and the Song of Songs affirms this truth when it says that “love is stronger than death” (8:6). In this life, love and marriage and family are God’s antidote to loneliness and sickness and poverty.

But human love alone cannot fulfill our need and our longing for eternity. This is why, perhaps, our Lord Jesus Christ took marriage and elevated it to be the sign of His enduring love for His own people, for His Church. After death, marriage will cease but love will continue to be the medicine of immortality when we find ourselves invited to luxuriate in the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9). This, I believe, is the final lesson which we are prepared for in Lady Wisdom’s school, the lesson that God is Love.

This address is dedicated to my dear daughter Abigail Grace Noll on the occasion of her wedding to Mark Bartels on 7 July 2001.


Song of Solomon 3


1 Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
2 "I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves."
I sought him, but found him not.
3 The watchmen found me, as they went about in the city.
"Have you seen him whom my soul loves?"
4 Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
until I had brought him into my mother's house,
and into the chamber of her that conceived me.

5 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the hinds of the field,
that you stir not up nor awaken love until it please.

*****

6 Who is that coming up from the wilderness,
like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,
with all the fragrant powders of the merchant?
7 Behold, the bed of Solomon!
About it are sixty mighty men of the mighty men of Israel,
8 all girt with swords and expert in war,
each with his sword at his thigh, against alarms by night.
9 King Solomon made himself a royal couch from the wood of Lebanon.
10 He made its posts of silver, its back of gold, its seat of purple;
it was lovingly wrought within by the daughters of Jerusalem.

11 Go forth, O daughters of Zion, and behold King Solomon,
with the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding,

on the day of the gladness of his heart.

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