In 34 years I have never preached on the Song of Songs before. So it might seem strange to do so to mark the start of Advent, where we begin our countdown to remembering the birth of our Saviour at Christmas. Some people ask whether this book actually belongs in the Bible at all. It is a collection of love poems, some of which are quite explicit and others use descriptions which sound very strange to us reading almost 3000 years after they were written. But these poems speak of the excitement of lovers as they look forward to marriage, and I think that is actually very appropriate for this season as we are anticipating our celebrations of Christmas.
The Hebrew title of the book is just Songs, but the first verse reads, “Solomon’s Song of Songs.” The very best of all songs. Many people think that Solomon wrote this book even though his thousand wives lead other people to wonder whether Solomon actually knew anything at all about relationships. Maybe somebody else wrote these poems and dedicated them to Solomon in the hope that the wisest of kings would actually learn something about true love and marriage.
As you go through the poems most modern Bible translations see them as a dialogue between a bride and her groom, with occasional comments by their friends. That helps give a structure to the collection, but don’t be put off when sometimes opinions differ about who is actually saying which bits. The original texts don’t always say who is saying what, and it’s sometimes a matter of interpretation.
There are different ways to understand this unusual book. If you take it at face value, it is a collection of often erotic love poems which follow the story of a young bride-to-be. It begins with her early days in the king’s palace, followed by a scene in the country leading to the wedding day and the wedding night. The pair have an argument but then make up, leading to a scene in the king’s bedroom and then back into to the countryside.
If we read the Song of Songs literally then it is a great collection of poems about love in marriage. It reminds us that God is concerned about physical love. God invented sex and intended it as the ultimate expression of love in marriage. The poems show us that it is not wrong to talk about the human body and about ways of making love. But they also show that the right place for sex is within marriage, not outside marriage. True love is unquenchable and priceless. And saving sex for marriage is worth the wait. We learn all these things when we read this book literally as a collection of love poems and I will preach a different sermon about this another time.
But the Jews also understood the Song of Songs in a different way, as an allegory of the relationship between God and his chosen people Israel. In a number of places the Old Testament describes God as a husband and the nation of Israel as his Bride. So the Jews read these poems in that way, as describing the love God has for Israel and the response of love which she should have for God. God’s love for Israel is tender and passionate, and even jealous for her. Israel is called to be a faithful bride to her husband.
You won’t be surprised to hear that Christians followed the Jews in then interpreting these poems as illustrating the love which Christ the Bridegroom has for the Church, his Bride. Jesus described himself as Israel’s Bridegroom and Paul wrote this to the Ephesians.
Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
Following the Jewish understandings, the Song of Songs speaks to us of Christ’s tender yet passionate love for the church and the faithfulness that evokes from us. The poems also speak to us of the love between Jesus and each of us as individual believers. This is how God loves us, and how we should love God in response. In a spiritual sense all believers are married to our Saviour Jesus Christ.
As in marriage, the love between Christ and his bride is completely faithful and exclusive.
Song 2 16 My beloved is mine and I am his;
You might remember a song we used to sing a very long time ago which picks up that phrase. The Lord is mine and I am His and His banner over me is love. He brought me to His banqueting table and His banner over me is love.
You can see these words in
Song 2 3 Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my beloved among the young men.
I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste.
4 Let him lead me to the banquet hall, and let his banner over me be love.
5 Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love.
As we saw in our reading, the Song of Songs speaks symbolically in poetry of the loving way Christ calls to his disciples to follow him.
Song 2 10 My beloved spoke and said to me, ‘Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me. 11 See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone.
12 Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land.
13 The fig-tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.’
Jesus sees the church as “my darling, my beautiful one.” This is the love God has for us. The delight which the bridegroom has for his bride is the delight Jesus has for his church and for each one of us. The delight a bride finds in her husband should be the delight we find in Jesus. There is a lovely description of the husband by the bride which can represent for us the beauty of our Saviour.
5 10 My beloved is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand.
11 His head is purest gold; his hair is wavy and black as a raven.
12 His eyes are like doves by the water streams, washed in milk, mounted like jewels.
13 His cheeks are like beds of spice yielding perfume. His lips are like lilies dripping with myrrh.
14 His arms are rods of gold set with topaz. His body is like polished ivory decorated with lapis lazuli.
15 His legs are pillars of marble set on bases of pure gold. His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as its cedars.
16 His mouth is sweetness itself; he is altogether lovely.
This is my beloved, this is my friend, daughters of Jerusalem.
“My beloved is mine and I am his” (song 2:16)
And the Song of Songs shows us just how strong Jesus’s love is for us.
Song 8:6 Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
7 Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love, it would be utterly scorned.
Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away. That is what God’s kind of love is like. Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8) Love never gives up!
“My beloved is mine and I am his” (song 2:16)
In response the church as the Bride of Christ longs to be in his presence. But one poem is a grim warning of the consequences of failing to respond to God when he calls us.
Song 5 2 I slept but my heart was awake.
Listen! My beloved is knocking: ‘Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my flawless one.
Sadly in this song the bride is reluctant to open the door.
My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.’
3 I have taken off my robe— must I put it on again?
I have washed my feet— must I soil them again?
Perhaps the bride was taking her husband for granted. We should never do that with God. We should be ready at all times to hear his voice and respond to his call.
When the bride does see sense, the opportunity is lost.
4 My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him.
5 I arose to open for my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with flowing myrrh, on the handles of the bolt.
6 I opened for my beloved, but my beloved had left; he was gone.
My heart sank at his departure. I looked for him but did not find him. I called him but he did not answer.
The bride was too late. She kept her husband waiting and he went away again. There is a solemn warning for the church, the bride of Christ. If believers reject God’s love when he calls to us, then we are the losers.
8 Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you— if you find my beloved, what will you tell him?
Tell him I am faint with love.
Don’t worry. Happily they then make up and everything is alright again.
Not surprisingly, the high point of the whole book is the wedding and the consummation of the wedding night. Through all the centuries the Jews were looking forward to God sending their Messiah, they held to this picture of a wedding when God and his Bride would be reunited. And Christians have that same expectation for the Return of Christ.
Revelation 19 6 Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:
“Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.
8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)
9 Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’ ” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”
So the Song of Songs celebrates the love of husband and wife, which is a picture for us of the love between Christ and his Bride, the Church. And this season of Advent has two sides. We are counting down to celebrating the Birth of Christ. But we are also looking forward to an even more exciting event. The wedding of Christ and the Church on that wonderful Day when Jesus will return in glory.
Rev 21:1 Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’
We look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus, and we long for his return.
“My beloved is mine and I am his” (song 2:16)
4 Let him lead me to the banquet hall, and let his banner over me be love. (Song 2:4)