Let me not to the marriage of true mindsWilliam Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! It is an ever fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But it bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d.
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
Like the world changing destruction of the atom bomb, when we split the atom of sex and love we unleashed a catastrophic cultural fallout. As an antidote, we would do well to revisit the often neglected book of the bible, Song of Songs. Perhaps, like me, you have rushed through Song of Songs in your bible reading plans–if you’ve read it at all. We might giggle at teeth likened to shorn sheep, and blush at such a forthright description of passionate sexual desire being placed smack dab in the middle of our holy bibles. This may be partly due to past interpretations that lost sight of the holiness of married sex in and of itself, and tried to stretch strange and ill-fitting allegories. However, a greater hinderance may be how our thinking has been influenced by a culture that doesn’t know how to engage with sexuality without edging–or wholeheartedly jumping–into the perverse. We don’t know how to think about sex as something good enough to warrant an entire song dedicated to it in God’s Word. But it’s there, and it may be the greatest help to our world that is so fractured in its sexuality.
Human sexuality is complex, and describing it even more so. It’s a bit like trying to explain a joke, the more you describe and dissect it, the further you are from humor; so too with sex, too much description is pornagraphic, or too much scientific and soulless explanation and we’ve loss the beauty. This is perhaps why the Song of Songs is the masterpiece that it is. It uses the only medium in which we can describe human sexuality properly: poetry. What we love we sing about, and sexuality properly expressed is not a mere biological event, it is love. Song of Songs sings of chaste, holy, passionate sex. This is a topic our modern age knows nothing about. Our cultural moment looks upon sexuality as a biological need, or fun to be had, trapped in our imminent frame with no eternal or sacred significance.
In his commentary on the Song of Songs, Iain M. Duguid pinpoints our problem,
“We disconnect sex from commitment, and commitment from relationships, which turns us into consumers of relationships. We are constantly searching for people we can use to serve our interests and meet our needs, rather than looking for a single, lifelong intimate relationship in which we become the committed servant of another with whom our life is utterly and eternally intertwined.”
Or more simply, modern thought on sex is like John Updike’s satirical Spanish Sonnets
‘Love a secretion
People are meat.
You say you love me;
As the answer to your thirst.”
We see sex–and the people with whom we have it–as a means to satisfying our biological needs. The sexual revolution saw to it that as we revolted from traditional morals of purity, fidelity, and the biblical definition of marriage, we would trap ourselves within the tyranny of lust. With love disconnected from our sexuality, we cannot look upon the other as anything more than a means to our ends. Instead of mutually giving in marital sex, we have a mutual taking in fornication. As much as the cultural collective has tried to deny the casualties of the sexual revolution and unhinged sexual urges, every single person is touched by this culture built on a chaotic and fractured sexual ethic. Our hearts feel the fracture, our broken families leave us aching; and reels of pornographic film, victims of abuse, and the ghostly echo of millions of children extinguished through abortion, all testify to the fallout that results when we do not view sex rightly.
It is in marriage alone that sex is rightly, beautifully, and wholly expressed. This is because sex is no mere biological function. It is not just something we do, it is a giving away of ourselves. Through sex we commit our whole selves, body and soul, to another. As Philip Ryken writes in his commentary, “Don’t miss the deepest longing of the Song of Songs: not a sexual partner but a soulmate” (The Love of Loves in the Song of Songs). Sex intertwines bodies, yes, but bodies hold our souls. Sex intertwines two bodies, two lives, two persons. When we pretend to disconnect these things we open ourselves to the chaos, confusion and pain that comes with denying the reality that our sexuality cannot be severed from our desire, and design, for covenantal love. Perhaps this is why the author of the Songs highlights Solomon and his harem of wives. Solomon, despite all his wisdom, is the fool here. His vast harem cannot compare with the sacredness and delight of the love of two simple people, fully belonging to one another (and only one another) until death.
Carl Trueman writes of why marriage alone is the proper context for our sexual expression in his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self,
“The sexual encounters between husband and wife find their deeper meaning not in the personal pleasure of the moment but in the way those encounters are intended to strengthen and reinforce the unique relationship that exists between the two partners, one shaped by a shared past and present and open to a shared future.”
You cannot give yourself wholeheartedly to another without trust, the kind of trust that exists in a covenantal relationship that says, “til death do us part.” And when we try, when we give pieces of ourselves away through sexual trysts, instead of joining two lives into one flesh, we cleave our own selves in two.
This is why we need the Song of Songs. We need to see the right expression of sexuality. We need to see that sex outside of marriage, without the promise of covenantal love, is a great catastrophe. Likewise we need to see that sex is necessary within marriage because it is the completion of two becoming one, the necessary bodily component that echos the joining of two hearts– thus a sexless marriage is a contradiction of terms. This greatest of all love songs can only be sung about sex that is expressed within the lasting framework of marriage, and it must be sung.
But what does one do when one faces the Songs, and you find you have not heeded the woman’s voice when she warns us again and again, “do not awaken love before its time”? What do you do when you have embraced the counterfeit and found yourself torn apart by its empty promises?
The answer is found in what the Song of Songs ultimately points to. Anytime we talk of marital love, of the joining of one flesh, we are speaking of that which is much greater than just a husband and wife.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”. This mystery is profound, and I am saying it refers to Christ and the church”Ephesians 5:31-32
The mysterious beauty of husband and wife is not a mystery anymore. It is the shadow of something far greater.
“The Bible tells us that true love is not that we love one another, nor even that we love God. Rather it is that God loved us and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10). So the finest of songs surely has to point us in some profound way to God’s love for us in Christ, the love that entered our fallen world, lived the perfect life in our place, and suffered and died for our sins”Iain M. Duguid, Song of Songs
That’s the real beauty of the Songs, even as we read of the fire that is human sexuality–that can either warm us or burn us–when interpreted within the great framework of all of God’s Word, we see something even brighter than our sexuality burning. It is the reality that Christ is the ultimate home for our soul, that marital love paves the way for a greater understanding of the love that Christ has for his Bride: the church. As we realize this we find the greatest comfort: our sins are forgiven and we are whole in Him. Our broken sexual past is washed pure with his blood, scars we carry from sexual abuse are shared with the one who has scars on his hands and side, our body and soul that feel disjointed and corrupted by our sin, they are made whole by the One who knows all of who we are, and presents us as his perfected Bride, purchased by his death and healed through his resurrection.
When we know this, when we see reflected in the pool of married love the ultimate love that Christ gives us, we can submit sex to the glory of God. Whether that means sexual restraint in our singleness, or sexual expression in our marriages. We can repent of our sexual immorality and find forgiveness. We can pursue holiness and chastity, and the freedom that comes in seeing sexuality within an eternal framework. We too can sing, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” because we wholly belong to Christ.