Q&A with J: Why Doesn’t the Church Talk about Song of Songs?

Today’s question is a rather theological one. But it definitely impacts how the Church has viewed sexuality and thus how we in marriage have viewed sexuality. Here’s what the reader asks:

I am really curious to read your thoughts on the Church’s often, if not total, blatant omission of Song of Solomon from any kind of preaching and teaching. Even on the level of targeted group studies, I find it gets ignored.

Part of me believes that it’s just a stubborn belief that we should hang on to the guilt and discomfort that twisted beliefs and ideology about sex over millennia have brought us, but at the same time, I have heard my own pastor proclaim the joy and blessing of sexual union within marriage, usually with reference to Paul’s NT writings, and yet he has never to my knowledge even come close to using a Song of Solomon text to preach on, even from the allegorical/metaphorical standpoint.

I don’t know about you, but I feel the Church has done a lot of damage in this regard, and I really have a bone to pick. Why a gap, and why this particular one? Because Solomon dares to get frisky and then write about it? Keeping our mouths shut about sex (particularly in a godly, Biblical context) is one of my personal grievances with Christianity today, and I suppose I just want to understand why leaders persist in encouraging it.

Why Doesn't the Church Talk about Song of Songs?I believe there are several reasons why churches have ignored the Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon, in the past. Now since I’ll be talking some about the Church’s historical position, I’m going to use the King James Version of the Bible quite often — since it was the primary English translation used from 1611.

Romans 8:1,5-9 says the following:

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit…. For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.

Got it: Spirit, good, Flesh, bad.

But here’s the thing — you can’t make love without using your flesh. I mean, the whole point is flesh pressed against flesh, right?

And doesn’t sex seem a bit “carnal”? Especially since Oxford Dictionaries defines carnal as “Relating to physical, especially sexual, needs and activities.”

So when a book in the Bible seems rather dedicated to fun, fleshly stuff, some Christians dismissed it. Indeed, they treated the book like it was either (1) an allegory, or (2) in the Old Testament so not nearly as important as the enlightened viewpoint we received after Christ’s coming — that is, the New Testament.

I don’t have an issue reconciling the Spirit and flesh when it comes to sex. Because Galatians 5 clarifies what’s really meant by the flesh:

For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law (v. 17-23).

Clearly, the flesh about which the apostle Paul speaks is sin. Sexual sins like adultery and fornication are mentioned, but sexual intimacy in marriage isn’t on that list. Of course not! Godly sex is in line with the fruit of the Spirit, with such traits as lovegentleness, and goodness.

Sex as God designed is a lot like charity: to help the hungry, you use your hands to prepare and serve food; to help the poor, you work with your body to earn money and deliver resources into their hands; to help the sick, you tend their wounds and tenderly care for their bodies. Our God-given bodies are used in service of our spiritual goals.

But this misunderstanding of flesh caused some in our Church history to reject nearly everything focused on your body. Ascetism, the practice of avoiding of all forms of physical indulgence, took hold among some — and sex landed on that list of physical indulgences to avoid.

It led to the insistence of celibacy among priests and monks, which was not practiced from the beginning. And some church leaders preached that sex was only necessary for reproduction and should be avoided in marriage at other times, because it seemed to be enjoying this body too much and the spirit not quite enough.

Now I’m not trying to argue with my Catholic followers and friends whether celibacy should be practiced among priests — you can certainly make a case for it given what the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7:6-9; nor am I wanting to attack the Catholic perspective of every sexual act having the potential for human life (a noble goal in many respects). But this history illuminates how sex and religion were sometimes viewed as natural enemies.

And in this context, the view of Song of Songs as an allegory of Christ and the Church was particularly appealing. After all, Jesus called Himself the bridegroom, so this isn’t really a stretch, is it? Even non-Christian Jews viewed this book as allegory of the relationship of God’s people to Jehovah Himself.

All the way back to the 3rd Century, the allegorical interpretation of Song of Songs is mentioned in a Jewish religious text. And that view is covered several times over in the Middle Ages. So I guess we weren’t the only ones having issues reconciling a book about the ecstasy of physical love with the salvation-based message of the Bible itself.

Look, the question scholars and religious folk have to ask is: “What’s erotic poetry doing in a theology book?”

What's erotic poetry doing in a theology book? Click To Tweet

It almost seems like there should be a warning at the beginning of Song of Songs. Something like Monty Python’s famous line: “And now for something completely different…”

But here’s where scholarship has actually improved. Because of our modern-day resources, we can share information like never before; we can compare texts and commentaries throughout history; we can look into the culture of the times to determine context. And if we use these tools wisely, without confirmation bias, we can do an even better job now of figuring out what an author intended as he wrote the biblical book.

In the case of Song of Songs, scholars now largely agree it’s a book celebrating marital love.

Yes, there’s an analogy we can draw about Christ and His church, just as the analogy of God as our groom and His people as His bride is drawn many times over in Scripture. But the primary theme of Song of Songs is “here’s what it looks like to be intimately connected to your spouse.”

The good news is more and more Christians are willing to speak up about godly sexuality, study Song of Songs in churches, and write about how this beautiful book from our generous Father impacts marriages. I’ve used Song of Songs many times on my blog, and it appears often in my devotional book for wives, Intimacy Revealed: 52 Devotions to Enhance Sex in Marriage. It plays a key role in a new video study for wives from Awaken Love. Song of Solomon features prominently in the title or subtitle of several Christian books on marriage and intimacy. And if you do an internet search for “Song of Solomon sermon series,” you’ll see some pastors are preaching on this subject.

For me, the question has become not only Why don’t we apply the Song of Solomon to our marriage beds, but Why don’t we apply all of Scripture to our marriage beds? This division between spirit and body is a false one. Jesus came to us in a human body and showed what it is to live through that flesh as a God-focused, Spirit-filled person.

And I, for one, want to be Christ-like in every aspect of my life, including the bedroom. I’m grateful that God outlined what that looks like, in many passages of the Bible and by dedicating one particular book just to us married people. Like a love letter to our marriages.

23 thoughts on “Q&A with J: Why Doesn’t the Church Talk about Song of Songs?

  1. Christian Husband of 39 Years

    The allegorical approach to the Song of Solomon has a very long history in the Christian tradition as well, starting all the way back with Origin. There is something to be said for seeing the relationship between Christ and His Bride in this book. There is also something to be said for thinking that this approach was just an attempt to render safe something that was otherwise too hot to handle. Our modern Evangelical churches have tended to ditch the allegory, but it is still too hot to handle, so they thus tend to just ignore the book – out of sight, out of mind. This does raise the awkward question, however: If you believe that “all scripture is inspired and valuable for instruction”, and if you believe that the Song of Solomon is canonical, then why ignore it?

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I took a quick “Look Inside,” and your book seems intriguing! I’d like to hear more here what you think about the topic, so I have a better sense of where you’re coming from.

      Reply
  2. Scott

    I have another theory to add to your very well-stated one.

    I think many in the church are uncomfortable with a God whose passion and desire for us mirrors so closely the kind of intimate love you find in marriage. Many would rather keep him as a rule-maker and taskmaster instead of the passionate lover of our souls that he longs to be, a God who is “too hot to handle.”

    Reply
      1. Philip D Cole

        My position in ‘Love Redeemed’ is that the Song of Songs is God’s message to us of how he intended marriage relationships to be, including sexual lust, which He created for husbands and wives to enjoy. God’s intention for marriage is given to us in Genesis, but sadly not followed. SofS is God’s message of how he intended love, which releases us from many of the cultural restraints that we may have grown up with as well as providing us with boundaries that we need to protect us. Therefore SofS shows us some very radical differences between the Biblical culture and God’s will. For example, in chapter 1 the woman takes the initiative to invite her husband to bed – compare this with queen Esther who could not enter the king’s court without permission or she might experience loss of life.
        In my book I break the SofS into 20 different poems, which I believe is how the book is meant to be read. I give a cultural explanation for each poem, followed by marriage applications and since we are the bride of Christ I also provide Spiritual formation exercise which I call Allegorical thoughts.
        I wrote this book for my small group at church who found it to be very beneficial and enlightening.

        Reply
  3. Brent

    Context is everything, and you touched on that!

    “In the flesh”, when contrasted with “In the Spirit”, to the thinking Christian, represents your thoughts and actions done outside, or independent of, Gods design or intent. I have found that using the term “In the world” or “in sin” or just throw Not operator at it by using “Not in the Spirit” will often help a discussion I am in steer clear of “flesh” being used out of context.

    In our day, and likely previous days, “Flesh” is one of those words that often evoke an immediate thought towards sexual sinfulness — likely due to the sexualization of everything and the revealing of flesh. That is an unfortunate consequence of a world that is “Not is the Spirit”. When God joined Adam and Eve they became one *flesh* … a perfect representation of marriage unity — completely transparent, no hidden thoughts or agendas, naked, unashamed, un-inhibited — completely “in the Spirit” — and I guarantee they were all “fleshy” … :), but they did not live “in the flesh” — until they fell to sin, but even after that, their marital bond and “one *flesh*” was still pure, but they exposed a new realm that was “not in the Spirit” (aka: “in the flesh” — the sin nature of humanity).

    For as to why churches do not preach on the Song of Songs: I can only believe that the pastor has not reconciled it to truth — or they simply don’t know how to preach on it because we are too sensitive to here truth on such a personal topic that has been wildly twisted by Satan’s influences. It is an incredible short coming, but then again, there are some preachers that I would NOT want preaching on the Song of Songs because of their gross misunderstanding of mutuality, unity, and oneness in marriage — you know the type: “Boys will be boys”, “A husband *owns* his wife’s body”, and the ones that think harass is two words, etc, etc.

    I, fortunately, attend a church that will preach on Song of Songs. And during one sermon, the pastor closed with something like this (paraphrased because my memory is not THAT good):
    God put sexual intimacy in the *middle* of marriage to bind the two together like no other human bond can, that is likely why he put the genitals there to … right in the middle. So there you have it folks — sexual intimacy of central concern to our of our body (meaning our one marital body) and it needs to be nurtured, strengthened and enjoyed! … So go home you married couples and meet each other in the middle and nurture your marital body! — your dismissed! 🙂

    The next Sunday, a friend and I remarked on how quickly the sanctuary emptied that day 🙂

    Reply
  4. Mike Steele

    I am only 34, so I don’t have a complete lifetime of experience, but with what little I do have, I have found it more beneficial to practice complete abstinence. Maybe it is must my generation, or the women I have known, but there are just too many games going on for me to participate. I don’t know why people just can’t be honest, open and communicate with each other. Until the games stop, I am sitting this out.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      All I can tell you is that many married couples have built fulfilling sexual intimacy that honors God. THAT’s what we should be aiming for.

      Reply
  5. a. nony

    My church has preached through Song of Solomon… twice in the ten years I’ve been there, I think. Also Numbers, and Obadiah, and all the other books! 🙂 I know it’s common to skip it, but any church that claims to faithfully teach scripture needs to deal with it at some point.

    Reply
  6. Dianne

    Our church (all the way down under in NZ) has just finished a series “SOS – Sex on Sundays”. I’m sure there were a lot of uncomfortable people…it was certainly very quiet. But as was rightly pointed out, it’s an important part of life and if we are to grow as mature Christians then we need to grow in our understanding in this area to. I take my hat off to you and all those in leadership that body declare all parts of the Bible and not just those that sit comfortably.

    Reply
  7. Lynn

    Religion writer Terry Mattingly has written a two-part series focusing on a book called “The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity” and I have been just incensed reading it. He quotes the book:

    Consider, for example, this prose by English Puritan leader John Winthrop, in which he tells Jesus: “O my Lord, my love, how wholly delectable are thou! Lett him kisse me with the kisses of his mouthe, for his love is sweeter than wine: how lovely is thy countenance! How pleasant are thy embracings.”

    Podles was blunt: “One does not have to have read Freud to find such language suspicious. Many men have found it objectionable. But some women still respond to it and make dates with Jesus.”

    I read this and IMMEDIATELY recognized the Song of Songs. The idea of the Church as Bride of Christ originates with that effeminate guy, St. Paul.

    Just an example of what a screwed-up concept we have of what it is to be male/female and trying to box God into our sinful human ideas.

    Sorry, had to vent.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I disagree. Yes, I think there’s been some feminization of Christianity, which I thought the book WHY MEN HATE GOING TO CHURCH? did a pretty good job of discussing. One of the things mentioned, with which I agree, is our affinity for “love songs to Jesus.” I’ve often wondered how my all male family (hubby, two sons) feel singing lyrics like “You’re so beautiful, Jesus” or “I long for your embrace.”

      At the same time, the notion of the Church being God’s bride did not at all originate with St. Paul (and I have no idea why you would think he’s effeminate). Isaiah 62:5 says, “Then God will rejoice over you as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride”; Hosea 2:15 says, “‘When that day comes,” says the Lord, ‘you will call me “my husband” instead of “my master.”‘”; and Jeremiah 3:31 says, “‘This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,’ says the Lord.” You can see even more examples here: http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/revelation/related-topics/israel-married-to-jehovah.html. It’s throughout Scripture; as such, it’s a valid way of viewing our relationship with God. Indeed, I believe that marital intimacy reflects the level of intimacy God wants us to have with Him someday.

      Yet I do agree that the language in Song of Songs seems far more husband-wife than Christ-people. Which is why I think you can draw some allegorical inferences, but it’s not really the point of the book. It’s about married love.

      Reply
      1. Bobthemusicguy

        J, I’m interested in your wondering how the guys feel about songs like that. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking the past several months about human marriage as an analogy for the relationship between Christ and His church. As a man, I can readily connect with Jesus as my master, lord, warrior, father, brother, friend. But I got stopped at “bride”. That got me rethinking Ephesians 5. When men are told to love their wives as Christ loves the church, it’s usually watered down to a simple “love your wife sacrificially” injunction. But what does that look like in my life and my marriage?

        I found inspiration in Song of Solomon, and other scriptures. By analyzing the role of the bride, I began to make a list of what “submit” consists of. Even the physical act of intercourse has analogies that are worth considering. I think the Song of Solomon shows ecstasy in making love, with the kind of abandon that we should experience with Christ.

        And this exploration convinced me that when a husband and wife relate to each other, even in the throes of sexual abandon, we are, if you will, enacting a sacred drama that shows the depth of God’s love for us, and the love we should have for Him in return. And it makes me takes my role as the “christ” in this drama much more seriously and spurs me on to be a more Christ-like husband to my wife.

        Reply
    2. a. nony

      “The idea of the Church as Bride of Christ originates with that effeminate guy, St. Paul.” First off, you need to watch how you refer to an apostle of Christ, friend. Secondly, God uses feminine language to describe HIMSELF throughout the bible. While he is our Father, he is also referred to as someone who conceives, gives birth to, and nurses Israel at his breast (Numbers 11), as a mother eagle teaching her young to fly (Deuteronomy 32), as the “God who gave you birth” (also Deuteronomy 32), as a woman crying out while giving birth (Isaiah 42), a mother comforting her child (Isaiah 66), as the one whose womb gives birth to ice and frost (Job 38), etc.

      The idea that it’s some kind of weakening or destruction of the strength of the message of the gospel to be associated with women or femininity is an insult and an affront to the God who said, “Let us make man in our image,” and then made them MALE AND FEMALE in order to fulfill that intention.

      Reply
  8. Lynn

    Sorry, J., I was being sarcastic about ‘effeminate’ Paul. I meant to express that I disliked what Mattingly said.

    Reply
  9. Eric Wiggin

    J,
    This was the BEST post I’ve seen from you yet; many of the best answers, too. Most of your respondents to this were male! I guess maybe you were talking from your head, more than your heart! Good for you–you gave us something solid to chew on.

    The BEST book I’ve seen on the Song of Solomon is SONG OF SONGS, a Reformed Expository Commentary, by Iaian Duguid. He sees the SONG as both an allegory of Christ and His church, and as a love manual. Published in 2016, hardbound only, just 182 pages, it’s an engaging read, and my copy is heavily marked up and highlighted.

    A couple of observations re your very accurate historical comments: The philosophy that for nearly two millennia destroyed the Song for most readers is called Gnosticism. Its origin is Greek philosophy (Plato et al), and it teaches that spirit is good and flesh is evil–as you observed. Augustine, Jerome (contemporaries from c. A. D. 400), along with Thomas Aquinas introduced these into Christianity, perverting God’s gift of married sex. Many evangelical Protestant writers (besides a myriad of Catholics) have followed their lead in writing their own deadening commentaries on the SONG, including the well-known “Prince of Preachers” Charles Spurgeon. I was taught in Bible College in the 1950s that it was only an allegory; famous commentator Matthew Henry said that when you read the Song of Solomon forget that you have a body. And so it goes.

    The SONG is both.

    So I’ll wrap up with an extrapolation on Paul. He wrote that Christ washes his bride “with the washing of water of the Word (of God). It’s only a short step to the human husband inviting his bride naked into the shower, then getting frisky with the soap and wash cloth!

    Eric

    Reply
  10. alchemist

    I always thought that it would be very excluding to preach on Song of Solomon in church. You immediately exclude the children, the unmarried students, the single adults the divorcees and the widdows/ widowers. This list is 2/3 of our church. It’s not that our church shies away from teaching all of scripture faithfully, it’s just that they tend to preach on the New testament during the school year and an old testament book in summer. There are 66 books. It took my pastor almost 3 years to get through Relevations . Its not suprising that they haven’t got to SoS. It’s not some kind of mysterious conspiracy if the pastor chooses the psalms of repentance, judges, the life of David or the life of Joseph over SoS for the summer series.

    Reply

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