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.
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 love, gentleness, 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.